When I share a new photographer’s (or anyone’s) work on this blog, I guess the ultimate hope is that they might get in contact one day with the news that they just had a sold out show or scored a publishing deal for their own book. Well recently, that hope finally became a reality when my favourite urbex photographer dropped me a note to tell me that not only had he released a book, but he’d included me in his credits for the early exposure which helped cascade his work into other media. I connected with Shane Thoms’ work because he’s a storyteller above all, whether it’s through his lens or with words. His collection of rare adventures are the result of true research and careful curation and I tip my hat to him. In celebration of his new book, I wanted to share another of his adventures, featured in his new book. And so now, I’ll hand the mic over to Shane…
Welcome to Dreamland….
Built in 1961, this once popular Disney like theme park drew an abundance of people from all over Japan, but visitor numbers decreased substantially throughout its later years (most likely due to competition from Tokyo Disney Sea and Osaka’s Universal Studios) which resulted in its permanent closure in August 2006. Now it sits derelict, forgotten and left to decay on the edge of Nara city, Japan’s former capital.
A walk around the outside of the park can give you the false impression that it is easily accessible, but this is far from the truth. It gets patrolled several times a day by security officers as well as police. Unlucky perpetrators risk a hefty fine of 10,000,000 Yen (approximately $10,000.00 AUD) and a possible charge if caught. I’ve known of people who’ve been sprung wandering around its grounds and their experiences haven’t been pleasant.
I attempted to access Dreamland a year before this particular visit, arriving early in the afternoon, but encountered difficulties after spotting two security officers on motor scooters circling the park (both looking over the fencing at different locations with binoculars).
The large no entry signs also deterred me with their threats of the harsh consequences I’d incur if caught inside. I was spotted loitering around the outside by one of the officers – he slowed down to take a closer look at me. I had my camera bag on my back and my tripod in my hand – it was obvious that I intended to jump the fence (and he knew it), so I decided to get back in my car and drive back to Osaka (sad and unhappy). But on my second visit, I struck success.
I met my mate at a nearby convenience store in the very early hours of a weekday morning. Accessing Dreamland when it is still dark (especially mid week) is the best chance you’ll have of not getting busted. So we covered our hands and face with mosquito repellant (the mosquitos are totally rife in this place!) and walked for about half an hour to the park. It was around 4:00 am with not a car or person in site and the chorus of night time crickets surrounded us. We took a lefty into a small side road and found our entry point and climbed up a hill thick with vines and foliage. Once inside, my first sight was magical – a moonlit view of the huge wooden framed roller coaster with the fairytale castle looming in the distance – totally enchanting.
We went into some shops and restaurants with our torches and had a little fossick and found souvenir trinkets and park memorabilia (still sitting on the shelves) and found boxes of stock lying opened on the floors amongst broken glass.
We also checked out a fake 1950’s fire station which had an awesome pink cadillac sitting in its garage (what a waste – I really hope this car gets rescued and restored by someone).
As soon as the sky struck a dark blue morning tinge (around 5:20am), we started exploring.This counterfeit theme park contained replicas of well-known Disney trademarks such as an imitation Sleeping Beauty Castle, Main Street USA, Adventureland and Tomorrowland, as well as a monorail.
It’s worth noting here that Nara’s Dreamland did try to work with Walt Disney himself in creating an official Disney park, but there were disagreements over licensing and ultimately the deal fell apart.
We walked to the fake fairytale castle. It was small in comparison to the more well known Disney icon. Its pink walls had faded and cracked after a few years of disrepair. At its entrance sat a pram with a mannequin’s head sitting in its seat.
We then moved on to a section of the park which had random rides scattered around – a cute carousel and a dilapidated haunted house (fully equipped with a huge fibreglass witch looming over its doorway). We then decided to check out the main draw card of this place– the roller coasters.
We climbed the Screw coaster and got an amazing 360 view of the park as the sun rose on the horizon and then checked out the second coaster: the ‘Aska’. This is a huge magical looking wooden structure which looks spectacular as it sits in a state of ruin covered in green vines. We climbed some wooden steps, climbing its track all the way to the top.
This is the largest structure in the park and the view from its highest point is amazing, providing an awesome view of not only Dreamland, but also Nara city in the distance (but spending too much time up here can be risky as a passer by in the distance might spot you), so we took a few snaps before heading back down. We moved on to Safari Land and checked out some dilapidated adventure boats– surprisingly still afloat in a slimy lake full of reeds.
When the morning kicked in we decided to take our final snaps and made our way back out (security were about to begin their first shift). So we found our initial entry point, climbed down the hill, waited for a few trucks to drive past, and quickly bolted out. We made our way back to the convenience store and hung for a bit, covered in green grass seeds. I’m sure passers by knew what we’d been doing and where we’d been.
Since closure, Nara Dreamland always had an anxious sense of impending demolition. In 2016, its final card was dealt when a purchaser commenced the huge dismantling process, slowly reducing it piece by piece to a heart-breaking pile of rubble and dust’.