There’s nothing like abandoned theme parks. Everybody seems to love them, including yours truly. No matter if just recently closed (*Doggy Land*), closed a while ago (*Nara Dreamland*), mostly demolished (*Koga Family Land*), completely demolished (*Sekigahara Menard Land*), under deconstruction (*Expoland*) or left behind after a nuclear catastrophe (*Pripyat Amusement Park*) – each and every one of them has a unique, absolutely stunning atmosphere; even if they were just waterparks (*Tokushima Countryside Healthspa* / *Kyoto Waterland*). “New” abandoned amusement parks barely every show up – it’s more likely that well-known ones get demolished. Here’s an exception to the rule: Navelland. (ネイブルランド)
You would think that Navelland (or Navel Land), a science themed amusement park with an aquarium and a greenhouse that welcomes its guests with a huge half-”diving” whale in front of the entrance, most likely should have been called Navalland (or Naval Land) – but you would think wrong. The Japanese investors and creators chose the name on purpose, at least to some degree. Initially it was supposed to be called GeoBio World in the ”BioCity” (or “Bio-City”) Omuta – but the name of the executing company was called Navel Land for three reasons, all related to its location in Omuta, Kyushu: GeoBio World was considered the “belly button project” (heso jigyo, 臍事業) of Omuta’s revitalization efforts with several other projects being based on it, Omuta’s history is strongly connected to coal (mined from the “belly” of the earth…) and Omuta is located in the center of Kyushu (or so the makers thought – to me it looks more like the “nipple of Kyushu”). At which stage of developement did GeoBio World become Navelland? I don’t know. But I guess a lot of things wrent wrong planning and executing the project, so the naming issue was just one of many, considering that Navelland was open to the public for less than two years…
Omuta’s economy was intertwined with coal for more than five centuries, for the longest time it was actually based on it. In 1467 a local farmer named Denzaemon found coal when making a bonfire in the hills of his home – like many Japanese cities Omuta is spread from the sea to the mountains. Mining on a larger scale didn’t begin until 1721 when Ono Harunobu (most likely not related to the producer of the series of “Street Fighter” games) was granted coal mining rights. When the age of industrialization finally reached Japan after the Meiji restauration the number of mines in the area was increased. In 1872 the Meiji nationalized the mines, most of them in the township of Miike (三池), nowadays part of Omuta. Towards the end of the 19th century the Japanese state privatized a lot of their model companies und sold them way under value. Mitsui, for centuries successful in finance and trade, got into heavy industries just a couple of decades prior when they aquired a mine as collateral for a loan they gave, bought the mine cheaply and turned it into the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine (三井三池炭鉱) in 1899.
The mine’s history is similar to most coal mines – a huge success in the early 20th century it became less and less profitable thanks to the fact that coal was replaced by oil as the most important natural resource in highly industrialized countries. So when the local politicians realized that the industry that provided the area with both jobs and wealth for centuries would be gone soon they looked for alternatives and came up with several ideas – one of them being Navelland, which ironically closed in 1998, only one year after the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine. (A rather interesting fact that shouldn’t be swept under the rug: The Mitsui Miike Coal Mine was also home of Fukuoka 17, a Japanese prisoner of war camp, mostly for Americans, Australians, British and Dutch – soldiers of the latter three nationalities survived the construction of the Burma Railway in Thailand; nowadays still famous thanks to a movie based on a book by the French author Pierre Boulle, The Bridge over the River Kwai. The camp was opened on August 7th 1943 and help up to 1735 prisoners. It was liberated on September 2nd 1945, almost a month after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The camp’s commandant, Asao Fukuhara, was later executed for war crimes.)
In 1988 it was more than obvious that coal wouldn’t be Omuta’s future. Mining it just wasn’t profitable enough anymore. At that time amusement parks were the current money makers, biotechnology the future ones. So why not combine both? Throw in some history and you’d get GeoBio World – split up into Geo Zone to remember Omuta’s coal history and Bio Zone to celebrate Omuta’s biotechnological future at the Ariake Sea. An amusement park with affiliated research labs and a mining museum. Turning Omuta from a dirty coal city into “BioCity”. In Kitakyushu, another former center of heavy industries only 1.5 hours away by car, a similar concept called “Spaceworld” was about to open, so the planners in Omuta spared neither trouble nor expense with about 82 million dollars to spend and about four years to plan and execute.
Navel Land (not the park, the company behind it) was finally established in September 1989 with the sole purpose of constructing and managing GeoBio World – to get the idea off the ground they even sponsored a large bio symposium in Omuta in November 1989. But four rejected concepts, one of them being presented by Futurist Light and Show who worked on Tokyo Disneyland, and more than two years later, Navel Land decided to come up with a concept by themselves, since none of the previous ones could convince the Japan Development Bank – the main backer of the project.
At this point information about GeoBio World and Navel Land becomes vague. While it’s a fact that the park finally opened under the name “Navelland” it seems like everybody agrees that it was closed down on December 25th 1998. What happened to GeoBio World and the biotechnology concept between the early 90s and 1998? I have no idea. All I know is that by the time Navelland closed its costs went way over budget (between 100 million and 200 million US-$ - or up to 160$ od debt for each Omuta resident) and that the visitor numbers never came close to the projected 600,000 per year. One of my sources said Navelland was opened in July of 1995, another one stated that it closed after less than two years – all three agreed it closed in late 1998. Maybe we will all find out more about Navelland soon since it is becoming more and more popular as a haikyo, a Japanese ruin, recently. Until then I’ll leave you with some photos and a quick video walking tour. The “House of Coal” exists as well as an aquarium and a greenhouse, so I guess the main concept was realized and not yet demolished. The amusement part of Navelland is mostly gone by now – both rollercoasters can only be seen on maps and the one thing that’s left of Kiddie Land is the entrance…
Addendum 2012-1-30: Navelland was demolished in late 2011 / early 2012. Now you can find its exact location on my *map of touristy and demolished ruins in Japan*.
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