Image: Chris Luckhardt
Image: Chris Luckhardt
Standing at the top of the rotting roller coaster, Chris Luckhardt leans perilously out over the edge, almost 100 feet above the ground. Skeletal tracks and beams plunge away into the gloom, part of the bones of the abandoned theme park that stretches out below. Fog hangs in the air around the explorer, and the mouldering wood is treacherous beneath his feet. Still, undeterred and with camera in hand, Luckhardt inclines that little bit further, determined to capture the perfect shot.
Luckhardt has climbed to the summit of the Aska coaster, the centerpiece of a formerly elaborate theme park that at one time attracted millions of visitors. Now, though, Japan’s Nara Dreamland is still and all but silent. Where once excited cries and laughter filled the air, now practically the only sound to be heard within the wasteland is the haunting call of birds. And with Luckhardt’s footing having already been tested to the limit by the slick surfaces he faced on his way up, he fights to keep his intense fear of heights under control.
It wasn’t easy for Luckhardt to get into the abandoned park in the first place, either. Nara Dreamland has become something of a Mecca for fans of urban exploration – or haikyo, as it’s known in Japan. That said, the place is pretty well guarded against trespassers. Barb wire and spikes have been secured to the barriers that enclose the site, while anyone caught inside will, it’s said, face a fine of upward of $800.
As a result, entering the theme park requires plenty of cunning and stealth on the part of would-be explorers, and this was certainly the case when Luckhardt and his two Japanese companions attempted to venture inside its walls.
As Luckhardt tells Scribol, “Security is on site at 9:00 a.m., so we had to arrive before sunrise and leave after a few brief hours… We entered Nara Dreamland by carefully timing a quick climb and descent over the tall main gates in the middle of the night.” Then, upon gaining entry to the forsaken park, it was time for Luckhardt and his guides to explore – in spite of the threat of capture.
Nara Dreamland was originally conceived back in the 1950s, when Japanese business executive Kunizo Matsuo paid a visit to the then recently opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Apparently inspired by the American theme park’s colorful attractions and rides, Matsuo became convinced that something similar would be the perfect addition to prosperous post-war Japan. What’s more, in 1961 his dream turned into a reality, as Dreamland opened its doors outside the historic city of Nara.
From the pastel-hued copy of the Sleeping Beauty Castle to an imitation of the early-20th-century-evoking Main Street USA, various of Nara Dreamland’s attractions seem to have been built to directly mimic their American counterparts. As in Disneyland, visitors could even ride a monorail around the park. However, a licensing disagreement with Disney meant that the recognizable visages of the likes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were replaced with characters of Japanese design.
Perhaps, however, Nara Dreamland’s fate was sealed when an official Disney theme park came to Japan. Tokyo Disneyland was unveiled in 1983. Moreover, in 2001 Universal Studios Japan opened in Osaka, less than 25 miles away from Nara Dreamland. With people undoubtedly lured by the country’s flashier American-import attractions, visitors to Nara Dreamland dwindled, and the park finally closed its gates in August 2006.
In its prime, Nara Dreamland drew an impressive 1.6 million annual customers. Now, though, its wide boulevards and elaborate yet rusting rides sit empty and largely forgotten. Nature’s tendrils have begun to reclaim the site; vines smother the monorail, for example, while weeds grow through cracks in the paving.
However, not everything is still and quiet in Japan’s abandoned faux-Disneyland. Creeping in under cover of darkness, urban explorers – like Chris Luckhardt – come to conquer and photograph what is left of the once-grand attraction.
And it’s pretty easy to see Nara Dreamland’s appeal to people like Luckhardt. The combination of crumbling, ever-so-slightly recognizable features and the barren, almost otherworldly landscape in which they’re set is an evocative one, and shots of the park’s iconic castle are a common sight on websites dedicated to the world’s derelict and forsaken places.
So when he was offered the opportunity to get behind the barbed wire and take a look at the park, Luckhardt, in his own words, “jumped at” it. Accompanied by the pair of Japanese urban explorers, the Canadian set out to document the eerie atmosphere that pervades Nara Dreamland’s vacant boulevards – something that Luckhardt describes as “creepy and reminiscent of scenes from a horror film.”
And the explorer and his friends themselves cut something of a nightmarish figure in their photos. Kitted out in tactical gas masks designed to protect their identities, they can be seen posing on the back of a chipped fairground horse and atop a particularly perilous roller-coaster peak.
Luckhardt explains their rather unusual headgear, saying, “The penalty for trespassing in Japan is much more severe than it is in Canada or America, so urban explorers there always cover their faces. My guide – who is a well-known designer in the Japanese video games industry – also uses it as an opportunity to create a fun and unique character.”
The fear of discovery and arrest, though, may well have added to the considerable psychological thrill of exploring a spooky abandoned theme park. And yet some real and present danger also reared its head when Luckhardt dared to clamber to the top of Aska, the park’s looming wooden roller coaster.
Standing more than 98 feet high and measuring over 3,500 feet in length, Aska was modeled on Coney Island’s similarly timber-constructed coaster, The Cyclone. And despite their creaky present condition, the wooden tracks were built to withstand trains of 28 people at a time hurtling along at almost 50 mph.
Still, the coaster’s original durability likely proved little comfort to Luckhardt as he began to slowly make his ascent. Indeed, the urban explorer admits that creeping toward the highest point of the roller coaster in thick mist was actually “the diciest moment” of his Nara Dreamland adventure.
“The morning dew made the roller coaster extremely slippery,” he explains. “The maintenance platforms and catwalks were so slick that I had to pull myself up very carefully during some segments of the climb to the top.”
Although usually prone to a fear of heights, Luckhardt found that wielding a camera allowed him to temporarily override any panic and focus on the task in hand. “And at one point,” he says, “I hung over the peak’s edge to capture a vertigo-inducing photo.”
“After I finished taking that photo,” Luckhardt continues, “it dawned on me that I was standing on the peak of a fog-shrouded and decaying roller coaster in the most earthquake-prone country in the world.” In this light, maybe it’s understandable that those who currently oversee the Nara Dreamland site appear so keen to discourage haikyo enthusiasts from exploring it – and perhaps risking life and limb in the process.
Indeed, Nara Dreamland’s proprietors don’t seem to have given the park up for dead just yet. While the buildings stand empty and the rides abandoned, the presence of the security guards employed to patrol the site suggests that someone cares about what happens to the former attraction.
Whether or not there’s a future for Japan’s abandoned Disneyland remains to be seen. For now, though, this alternative magic kingdom will continue to offer thrills and excitement of a different kind to those brave enough to venture within its walls.