Some of the Japanese teenagers tried to flee in panic, others froze like deer in headlight when the beam of my flashlight hit them without a warning – but they all screamed like little girls, proving that a real scare doesn’t need sound or gore, just the right atmosphere and a decent torch with enough lumen. :)
10 days ago I spent another night at Nara Dreamland, for the first time since I was one of the pioneers to do so five years prior. Back in 2010 Nara Dreamland was a rather unknown abandoned amusement park in top condition, with a reputation for tight security – spending the night there meant avoiding security, but also taking photos in darkness and during daylight… a win-win-win situation for the few insiders, barely a handful of people.
A lot has changed since then. Nara Dreamland rose from obscurity to one of the most famous abandoned theme parks in the world, leading websites like GoogleMaps and Wikipedia revealed its exact location thanks to careless users adding the information… and I continued exploring other places. My personal relationship with Nara Dreamland was a bit difficult right from the start anyway, as it gave me a serious headache twice when I was an inexperienced explorer back in late 2009 and early 2010. During my first visit I had to hide while a security guard checked the hotel / administrative building I was in on the main parking lot. Not a pleasant experience. Even worse: two months later I had a very unfortunate run-in with security in the actual park. Ever since I was reluctant to revisit Nara Dreamland, turning down to accompany quite a few friends and fellow explorers. In autumn of 2010 I stayed overnight for said first time, 15 months later I did a day time exploration / engagement shoot with a British couple. And that’s it! The more famous Nara Dreamland became, the less interesting it was to me – but it was easy for me to say as I took pictures and videos long before most people even found out about Dreamland’s existence. After 2011 I checked up on Nara Dreamland about once a year from public roads, but I never entered any building or the premises of the main park again – especially after Japanese explorer friends advised me not to go anymore, mentioning some court case.
Nevertheless there always was a strong connection between Abandoned Kansai and Nara Dreamland – if for nothing else than internet search engines. For years now hardly a week passed by without people asking me about Nara Dreamland via e-mail or in the comments sections on Abandoned Kansai, *Facebook* or *Youtube* – since I have little time and don’t answer questions about access / security in general, most of those contact attempts remained unanswered, nevertheless some people contacted me again after their visit, a few even sent photos. I also talked to Japanese and Western explorer friends, and they all told me the same thing – tons of graffiti, tons of vandalism… still good, but not nearly as good as on the photos I published so far. At the same time Abandoned Kansai readers kept dropping lines like: „I am surprised that there is no vandalism at Nara Dreamland!“ – definitely a misperception based on the fact that I explored Dreamland in 2009, 2010 and 2011… and never again since then. After 3.5 years of exploring abandoned theme parks all over Japan, it was about time to revisit the one in my backyard, the one that keeps attracting new readers to Abandoned Kansai on a daily basis, the one that got me my first hate mails after I wrote an *April’s Fool* article about it, the one I am most conflicted about as I REALLY love and REALLY hate it – the one, the only… Nara Dreamland.
Early June was probably the perfect time to spend a night at Nara Dreamland. The temperatures were moderate and the sun rose early – less than two weeks later the weather already feels a lot more humid, and soon countless mosquitos will turn Dreamland into Nightmareland, thanks to do dozens of puddles and ponds all over the park.
When, how and where Yuko, Takanobu and I entered Nara Dreamland is something I won’t discuss, but less than ten minutes onto the premises (and before we were even able to take a single photo!) we saw some flickering lights and heard people talking over at the water park. To avoid a night long game of cat and mouse I decided to approach the group for a friendly chat, but as soon as they realized that they were not alone, they scattered into the darkness like a bunch of roaches. Well, at least it wasn’t security!
To get an idea of what had changed in the 3.5 years since my last visit and to show Yuko and Takanobu what to expect in the upcoming couple of hours, we did a quick walkthrough of Nara Dreamland before heading to its main attraction, the wooden Aska rollercoaster. The partly overgrown beast was already barely accessible, but I found a way through the green hell that once was the line up area, up the stairs to the coaster’s track / main platform. Yuko is a professional photographer and quickly set up her first camera for a nightly time-lapse sequence – the moon rising over the main part of Aska. The first time I went to Nara Dreamland at night was the first time I ever took pictures at night, a steep learning experience back then. Since then I occasionally shot in dark rooms, but outdoor night photography was still a challenge. While the three of us took pictures, the clicking sounds of our cameras were the loudest sounds we made. Soon we saw two or three groups of visitors passing by below us – smecking away, and not caring about the wicked world one bit. One of those groups tried to get to higher ground (i.e. our hideout), but they failed miserably in the green hell, allowing us to ignore all of them completely.
From Aska we moved over to the monorail station, only to find the train completely in graffiti. Sadly it was too dark to take a decent picture of it, so we used the elevated level of the platform for more shots of the surroundings.
On our way to the moonlit Sleeping Beauty Castle we heard yet another group of noisy teenagers strolling through the park. Their voices came closer quickly and soon we saw the beams of their flashlights, maybe 30 meters away. They had no idea we were there, because we behaved appropriately in a situation like that – low voices and relying on the light of the waning moon. All of a sudden I felt mischievous, so as soon as group came around the corner I pushed a single button. Some of the Japanese teenagers tried to flee in panic, others froze like deer in headlight when the beam of my flashlight hit them without a warning – but they all screamed like little girls. We quickly made sure to let them know that we were not security and after a few seconds most of them were smiling again, so we had a little chat about us being photographers and them doing… whatever.
Like pretty much every other building in Nara Dreamland, the Sleeping Beauty Castle now had an extra layer of (spray) paint, which was quite disappointing to see. It’s one thing to vandalize Main Street U.S.A., but it’s another to scribble all over the castle – a fugly piece of architectural art in its own way as it was. Well, not all over the castle, but enough to turn it from unintentionally ugly to just nasty ugly. Around the same time we finished shooting the castle, the group of teenagers we just met minutes before returned, proving once again that they were a bunch of immature morons, basically yelling at the top of their lungs while playing hide and seek with a second group. I asked my fellow photographers to tell the buggers to be quiet as the neighbors of Nara Dreamland have a reputation for calling the police when they see or hear people on the premises. The warning helped a little bit, but not really…
Minutes later dawn was breaking, at around 4 a.m. (!), so we moved on to the water park. By the time the sun was rising (before a quarter to 5!) I stood in the water fountain in front of the castle. Surreal. Such a surreal experience. The amazing light, the colors of the castle, the statues, the drained fountain, the total silence… except for yet another group of kids breaking glass and smashing wood in the background somewhere. Bunch of friggin savages in this town! In moments like that one wishes for regular raids and severe punishment of those little bastards! Altogether we saw about 20 people during our visit – all of them Asian (the ones we talked or listened to were all Japanese!), all of them most likely between 16 and 25, 80% guys… not one of them visibly carrying a camera. No vandalism in Japan? Yeah, right! Of course we all have the same right to be at Nara Dreamland (none!), but in my humble opinion it makes a huge difference how you behave. I can guarantee you that Yuko, Takanobu and I took nothing but photos and left nothing but footprints – a lot of other people though seem to vent their frustrations there, giving ALL visitors a bad name. Before I really start to rant, let me give you the Japanese answer to that problem: shoganai, “it can’t be helped” / “there is nothing one can do”. While it’s usually an excuse to avoid a problem by not talking about it any longer, in this case it’s actually the right attitude – Nara Dreamland has reached a point of no return and there is nothing a regular person can do to stop it.
And so our little group of three continued its tour through the park, stopping here and there to take a photo before finally calling it a day… or a night… or a new day. After all, Nara Dreamland still has security. Not only did we saw patched spots of fence, new barbed wire obstacles and warning signs from outside of the park – even inside somebody left “strong worded” notes (as Takanobu worded it), mentioning the police… and if you know anything about Japanese culture and language, you know that you have to be very careful when somebody stops to be extremely polite and threatens you with the authorities…
I have to admit that I went back to Nara Dreamland hesitantly and with mixed emotions… but I am glad that I did, because it gave me a much better grasp of the current situation. A lot has changed there in the past couple of years, but it is one thing to hear about those changes and another thing to see / experience them myself. I go to an average of about 70 locations a year, big and small; exploring some of hours, leaving others after seconds. And in the past almost six years I met about as many people overall at abandoned places in Japan as I did that one night 10 days ago. I wasn’t aware that Nara Dreamland was that popular / well-known. During my first visit most of the damage there was very selective – rather small holes in windows and doors to get access to buildings, panels removed with a screwdriver. Now some buildings look like they were busted open by an explosion, despite the fact that they had already been accessible. In 2009 / 2010 there were hardly any graffiti at Nara Dreamland. Now they are everywhere. Not nice graffiti by aspiring artists, like at the *La Rainbow Hotel*. No, just smearings every vandalizing moron with a spray can do. Thankfully there still is security… and it seems like every once in a while some people get caught. I just hope those people are vandalizing teenagers, not harmless photographers / urban explorers trying to take a few interesting photos. So maybe this is one of the few instances in which a Japanese person in charge actually takes actions and isn’t hiding behind shoganai…
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