You can see Orion's belt hanging over the replica of Sleeping Beauty's Castle. To your left is the dark outline of the Screwcoaster, its twisted rails like long black vertebrae slashed across the starry sky. Somewhere in the distance is Aska, the immense wooden roller coaster. You wonder how it will feel to stand at its topmost peak and feel the warm night breeze on your face.
There's a sound nearby and you step quietly into the shadows. There is a ¥100,000 fine for being in this place now. There are rumors of night-vision security cameras, of hourly patrols, of silent alarms.
The sound ebbs away. It might have been a cicada. You are alone.
Nara Dreamland was the Disneyland in Japan, before Disney came to these shores. It imitated the overall theme and layout of Disney's California park directly, from the Sleeping Beauty Castle to the Matterhorn Mountain, the Main Street entranceway to the numerous similar rides. For 45 years between 1961 and early 2000, it was Kansai's premier theme park; anyone who was a kid growing up at the time in that area has surely been there.
Then Universal Studios opened in Osaka in 2001, with more modern rides and a more imaginative layout, and leeched away its fan base. Dreamland closed its doors permanently in 2006.
Now it's a haikyo, a ruin, visited only by the security guard who drives around by day and by trespassing explorers at night.
Abandoned theme parks are high on the list of most haikyo-ists. There's something fascinating about them, probably something to do with the magic they conjured up for us when we were kids; the mystery and terror of the ghost house, the thrilling excitement of the looping coaster, the lurching feeling as the Hellevator drops you 20 floors in two seconds. Disney understands well that theme parks are magical, places were dreams come to life.
Returning to a theme park after it has been abandoned is akin to wanting to see how the magic trick is done. The rides are still and silent, the car park is empty, the stalls shuttered and unmanned, but the potential for magic is still there. As an explorer, you have the VIP pass that lets you into all the backstage areas, lets you climb on the rides, lets you get up close to the mechanisms that ran the ghosts that used to terrify you so much.
In search of that backstage pass, I hunted down many abandoned theme parks around Japan, but at each site I was disappointed. Kappa Pia in Saitama was in the process of demolition. Namegawa Island had only concrete slabs where the rides had once been. Gulliver's Kingdom had been wiped off the map completely.
Then there was Nara Dreamland. I did preliminary research several years back and was quickly turned off by warnings of the heavy security. Though this hobby is often illegal (if victimless), I'm not in it for the rush of evading “the man.” I've no desire to break into protected places, to crawl through live storm drains, or to go where my presence might cause actual damage. I just want to see what abandoned places turn into, once they're out of our hands.
However, with Dreamland I had to make an exception. It was either go in, evading security, prepared to run, or not go at all. So I decided to go. To minimize the chance of being caught I decided to go at night.
I arrived in Nara by Shinkansen a little after midnight. The streets were quiet and calm as I walked the 30 minutes to the Dreamland site, feeling the usual thrill of excitement. There was always the possibility the security guard might do night sweeps. There was still the threat of fines, motion sensors, alarms.
Access was easy. It was a cloudless night, the moon nearly full, everything bathed in pale light. I ambled past the pirate ship and the merry-go-round, both of them half-stripped of their facades and bleeding rusted machinery onto the tarmac.
I passed through the grand fantasy castle and surveyed the Main Street USA entranceway, where all the bright pastel shops were shuttered and empty inside. I walked through the queuing lines for the huge wooden coaster Aska.
There's something very ethereal about an empty theme park by moonlight. It's not something you're ever likely to see for yourself, and it's difficult to capture in photographs. There's a stillness, an aloneness, that creeps into you. I wandered in a kind of daze, drinking it in.
Dreamland has only been closed for four years, so there isn't much overgrowth. Though in places weeds had shot up through the ubiquitous asphalt, trees had spread to enclose the tracks of metal coasters, and boats on the Jungle Cruise had sprung leaks and begun to capsize.
I drifted around for hours, occasionally pausing to snap long-exposure shots of the stars, rides and castle. I climbed up Aska, dropped my flashlight as I went over the fence, and spent 10 minutes scrabbling among the brambles to find it. Occasionally I'd hear a noise and wonder if it was a security guard, ready to pounce.
By around 5 a.m. I was tired, so I curled up in the bucket seat of a kids ride and napped for about 30 minutes. When I woke up everything was blue, and the sun was coming up.
I'm rarely awake for dawn-rises, always taking people's word for it when they said, “Dawn is the best time for photography.” It certainly wasn't true of the first 30 minutes of dawn at Dreamland. For all that time, as I rushed around in a tired whirl worrying about the security guard, the light was blue and cold. After that half hour, it began to warm up though, and some of the sunrise vistas through the rides were spectacular.
By around 7 a.m. I was feeling antsy and ready to leave. The colors of the place had come out; the pink of the castle, the raw brown of Aska, but with them came the more obvious signs of neglect, the sensation that the place was dead for good reason, and the magic slowly faded away. What had been a place of dreams by night was becoming a sad, lonely memory by day. I packed up my camera and headed out.