Travel and Lifestyle Journalist

Japan's Craziest Theme Parks

Originally published in SCMP, 23 May 2018


Japan's Craziest Theme Parks

Originally published in South China Morning Post, 23 May 2018.

World-record-breaking roller coasters and recreations of eras long past. Gargantuan video-game paradises and maze-like odes to anime. Mini versions of a quaint Dutch town and the long-demolished Kowloon Walled City.

Theme parks like these could only exist in Japan – a country that embraces niche interests and encourages strange tastes while others obsess over the mainstream.

Though eccentric parks exist in other countries – Hong Kong included, with Park Island’s Noah’s Ark – nowhere beats Japan for their sheer proliferation, with dozens scattered across the country. Here we look at six of the best, with backup options for each should you choose to dig even deeper into the country’s wealth of weirdness.

For death-wish thrill seekers: Fuji-Q Highland
Sitting in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Fuji-Q Highland is a gift from the roller-coaster gods. It is a place of pure thrills, with stomach-churning rides set against stunning mountain views.

It’s got a roller coaster with a 121-degree angle drop (the steepest in the world), a “4th Dimension” one with seats that spin riders independent of the track (it also holds the joint world record for most times it turns riders upside down), and another with the highest acceleration at launch (32.1 metres per second squared).

The park also has classic fairground attractions – merry-go-rounds, tower drops, Ferris wheels. And then there is the Fortress of Despair challenge – an all-but-impossible “break-in” game that has never been successfully completed by any visitor – the Super Scary Labyrinth of Fear (the longest haunted house in the world, which takes 50 minutes to finish), and a virtual flight simulator around Fuji.

Be warned, though – Fuji Q is one of Japan’s most popular theme parks, so it is worth investing in fast passes to beat the crowds.

If you like this: also check out Nagashima Spa Land, the Kansai region’s answer to Fuji-Q, which has over a dozen roller coasters.

For dreams of old Japan: Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Detailed recreations of Meiji-era buildings line the streets, from the city centre (where the courthouse stands) to the suburbs, with their period homes, and even an authentically recreated red-light district (minus the women of the night, of course).

Random sword fights break out in the streets between its costumed actor attendants, while 3D theatres and a haunted house allow you to relive some of the most famous films shot in the area.

If you like this: you’ll also like Meiji Mura in Inuyama, an open-air architectural museum and theme park. It was built in the mid-1960s with the sole purpose of preserving the area’s historic buildings at a time when Japan was in the throes of modernisation after the second world war. Over 65 structures are perfectly recreated.

For surreal button-mashing games: Namco Namja Town
Japan’s malls are unlike any you’ll find in the world, and Tokyo’s Sunshine City, a sprawling complex on the city’s outskirts, is no exception. It has standard shops, restaurants and hotels, but there is also a museum on ancient Greco-Buddhist artwork, a planetarium, an aquarium and – most bizarrely of all – Namco Namja Town.

On the surface, this theme park is dedicated to Namco video games – everything from the original Pac-Man through to TekkenTime Crisis and Soulcalibur. But alongside the chance to replay your favourite games are surreal asides that have nothing to do with them.

Here you’ll find an entire “museum” on gyoza (Japanese pork dumplings), single-malt-whisky ice cream, and a frightening haunted house made to look like an abandoned village that often isn’t in keeping with the otherwise family-friendly park.

Also in Sunshine City is J-World Tokyo, a park dedicated to Namco’s anime wing of Dragon BallOne Piece and Naruto, but it’s a more sedate affair.

If you like this: visit Joypolis, Sega’s answer to Namco Namja Town, which has parks scattered all across Japan and features interactive odes to SonicInitial D and other franchises.

For the anime-obsessed: Ghibli Museum
“Weebs”, as they are popularly known online, are non-Japanese folk obsessed with the land of the rising sun – and, in particular, anime. That makes the Ghibli Museum such a hot ticket in Tokyo, with fans having to book months in advance to secure entrance.

The name is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s more of a theme park about the famed Japanese film studio than an exhibition. Designed by Studio Ghibli co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki himself, the aim is to immerse visitors in the Ghibli films’ particular brand of dreamlike charm, with the park designed as a mazelike adventure that allows you to go your own way.

Sprinkled throughout are odes to My Neighbour TotoroSpirited Away and other famous studio productions. There’s also an exhibition detailing Miyazaki’s method which features journals, sketches and final works.

If you like this: check out Tokyo’s Sanrio Puroland, which is like the Ghibli Museum but for Hello Kitty, Little Twin Stars, Chococat and other staple characters from the Sanrio world.

For a whole new world: Huis Ten Bosch
There exists a mental affliction called “Paris syndrome”, a disorder that predominantly affects Japanese tourists when they realise that their fairy-tale visions of the French capital don’t conform to the warts-and-all reality of the city.

The disorder can manifest itself in symptoms as severe as hallucinations, feelings of persecution and even vomiting. There never will be a “Dutch syndrome”, however, thanks to Huis Ten Bosch, a dreamlike vision of a 17th-century Dutch town set just outside Nagasaki and named after one of The Hague’s royal residences.

Located on a seafront property the size of Monaco, the vast park is impeccably designed, with windmills, canals, narrow houses and steepled churches, forests and lakes like those the Netherlands is famed for.

The park has attempted to bring in more mainstream crowds through virtual reality experiences and surreal parades since its founding in 1992, but it is still its technicolour vision of Holland that is the main attraction.

If you like this: you should also see Shima Spain Village, a ride-heavy theme park in Mie prefecture modelled on the European country. It includes recreated castles highlighting Spanish history and symbolically appropriate rides such as the Iron Bull roller coaster.

For the slightly deranged: Kawasaki Warehouse
Some say the Kowloon Walled City was Hong Kong’s last beacon of nonconformity, a symbol of independence and a lawless place where anything was possible. Others thought it was just another slum.

To the founders of Kawasaki Warehouse, located on the outskirts of Tokyo, the famed Walled City is a place of such myth and wonderment that they have attempted to recreate it. Their effort features such obsessive attention to detail that they even imported trash straight from Hong Kong.

Recordings of people arguing in Cantonese are piped through speakers, neon lights illuminate decrepit signs and torn posters, red butcher’s lamps glow over barbecued meat stalls, and a peek inside a grimy window reveals a (plastic) prostitute laid waiting on her back.

Kawasaki Warehouse is actually a four-level video game arcade and pool hall, its interiors nothing more than a steampunk-like facade for its unbeknown neighbourhood players. But for Hongkongers making the pilgrimage, it could be all too familiar. 

If you like this: visit Abashiri Prison Museum in Hokkaido, a former prison turned into a park and museum complete with dioramas of tortured inmates.