NARA DREAMLAND: A HAIKYOIST'S PARADISE
Exploring an abandoned amusement park.
I was first told about Nara’s abandoned amusement park, Dreamland, by a staff member at a hostel I was staying at in Tokyo. Like most of Japan’s best finds, the popularity of this haikyoist’s paradise (meaning urban explorer) was spread through word of mouth, eventually making its way to the travel blogs and Instagram feeds of backpackers and tourists alike.
Opened in 1961 and inspired by Disneyland, Dreamland was largely successful up until its permanent closure in 2006 due to declining visitor numbers.
Most of everything was left behind. Papers, folders, and keys can still be found scattered across desks, and ride equipment in the same spot they were left in following their last spin on the tracks.
Finding your way to Dreamland is easier than finding your way to a ramen eatery in the midst of Dotonbori. Once you arrive at Kintetsu-Nara Station, head north for about 20 minutes and you’ll easily spot the entrance. Alternatively, you can also type ‘Dreamland’ into Google Maps and the marker will come up instantly—yes, it really is that easy to engage in illegal activity as a foreigner.
Be warned that jumping the gate could make you a target for authorities, and if you are caught by a security guard or police officer, the fine is ¥100,000 (that's ~$1000 USD). There are, however, a number of holes in the fence from previous explorers that should keep you on the D.L.
That said, if you do choose to include Dreamland in your travel plans (which, I highly recommend you do), be aware that this is a decision made at your own discretion. It's imperative that you conduct your own due diligence to make sure you're aware of the risks and dangers of urban exploring.
Entering the park is eerie, even on a sunny day at 11 o’clock in the morning. There are old cars scattered throughout the park, coated in graffiti with broken windows. Exploring the buildings, you’ll find chairs knocked over and stacked to block entrances, staff costumes left behind, and masks conveniently placed around corners (for the added thrill factor, I'm assuming). I’m not saying a lovely souvenir these would make, but they are technically free?
Once the novelty of perusing worn-down buildings wears off, the real thrill, as with all amusement parks, is in the rides.
Dreamland has 5 rollercoasters and a monorail. The top 3 rollercoasters (for urban explorer purposes) are the 'Screw Coaster', 'Aska', and 'Bobsleigh'—more informally known in its abandoned state as ‘Mount Doom’.
The Screw Coaster is a now-faded sage green and is coated in floral vegetation. Its most attention-grabbing feature (as I'm sure it also was when it was active) is its double corkscrew, which also serves to make this coaster the most photogenic of the bunch.
Aska is a wooden coaster that was modelled after 'The Cyclone' at Coney Island. The top of this one also marks the highest point of elevation in the park, making it a great vantage point to take in the views of Dreamland.
Bobsleigh winds itself around and through a snowy ‘mountain’, and is likely the most run-down and derelict, hence the 'Mount Doom' honorific. Extreme caution should be practiced throughout the whole park, but especially when exploring this attraction. A friend I was with had his foot fall through a piece of the structure, which could have potentially ended much worse had the structure given way just a few more inches (crisis averted!).
To climb the coasters, there are stairs you can take along the side of the tracks. Word of warning, the higher you go, the windier it gets. Aska, the wooden coaster, tends to shake quite a bit with the wind. So much so, that if you’re anything like me, you will crouch down, wrap your arms around your knees, and shamelessly cower—just to create some false semblance of safety for yourself. That aside, the view, combined with an exhilarating sense of thrill and excitement, easily makes Aska worth the climb.
As my friends and I sat atop the highest point of Aska, one of us shared a story about a guy who camped out at the park overnight, waking up early enough to climb to the exact spot we were sitting in to watch the sunrise. 'Not a bad way to experience the park,' I remember thinking to myself.
After the wind cooled down a bit, we descended down Aska to continue our adventure; but the mystical ambience of our day was suddenly disrupted by a loud noise. Terrified and worried that a security guard had noticed us, my group and I ran into a nearby arcade to hide. It didn't take long for us to realize that the sound was actually coming from a group of motorcyclists who had decided to rip through the park—engines revving, tires screeching.
Which is all to say, there are so many different ways to experience Dreamland. It's entirely up to you and what you hope to get out of the experience. Nobody's stopping you from turning up with your own gang of motorcyclists to do donuts around the merry-go-round—although you will more than likely attract authorities this way. But if that's the thrill you wish to seek, who am I to dismiss your prerogative?
Personally, this was an experience I won't soon forget. It's hard to describe the feeling that washes over you when you enter an environment that was abandoned ten years ago, yet everything like keys, costumes, documents and papers were all so carelessly left behind. The sheer chaos of it all is a rare, unsettling, yet deeply intriguing sight. I won't be able to experience theme parks the same way again.
To those who plan to take on the escapades of Dreamland, I wish you a happy haikyo-ing!
Words by Victoria Kamila