Amusement Parks

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Takashi Sasaki

    Main guest

    For over 25 years, Takashi Sasaki has been visiting amusement parks all across Japan. Gathering data for his job as a writer, he focuses on how anyone can enjoy the outdoors through theme parks. In addition to writing content for the web and magazines, Sasaki also shares the exciting appeal of all kinds of amusement parks through radio broadcasts and television appearances.

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September 12, 2017

Amusement Parks

*You will leave the NHK website.

As in other countries around the world, the local amusement park is an essential part of childhood for many in Japan. But Japan’s local parks currently face multiple challenges, such as competition from international mega-parks, other forms of entertainment, and Japan’s declining birthrate. How are local parks responding to these challenges, and what do they mean to people around Japan? These questions are the focus of this amusing edition of Japanology Plus.

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Traditional parks like this are facing tough times, but innovative ideas may help keep them afloat.

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was opened to the outside world via the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853—and Japan’s first amusement park followed that very year. Located in Asakusa, Tokyo, that park is still open today, and now features attractions like a tongue-in-cheek ninja training course and an augmented reality walking tour that explains the history of the park.

According to expert guest Takashi Sasaki, it’s exactly this combination of nostalgic fun and fresh new ideas that’s helping keep Japan’s local amusement parks alive.

That includes the classic park Sasaki and host Peter Barakan visit on the program. Located in Beppu, a city in southern Japan known for its hot springs, the park, founded in 1929, recently made a splash on social media with a video that showed its roller coasters and other rides filled with hot springs water. The video was a promotional stunt, but one that came with a promise: if the video got 1,000,000 views, the park would actually create the hot springs rides. The result, which can be seen near the finale of the program, was an impressive feat of waterproofing, to say the least.

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A few bubbles were involved.

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Some of the many volunteers who helped make it a wet and wild three days.

Also impressive: the large number of volunteers who came out to support the three-day hot spring retrofit of the park. Strange as it may seem to see hundreds of people freely give their time and energy to an amusement park, the people of Beppu clearly feel a deep connection to the nearly 90-year-old facility. Bigger theme parks may feature more advanced and immersive experiences, but they don’t engender that same spirit of community.

Speaking of advanced and immersive experiences, this edition’s Plus One takes reporter Matt Alt to a virtual reality amusement park in the heart of Tokyo. Matt straps on a VR headset and tries out several attractions, the most harrowing of which makes users walk a virtual plank.

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For Matt, who’s afraid of heights, this was no easy task.

As Matt points out, virtual reality has existed since at least the 1990s, but it’s only recently that technology has improved enough to make it truly “fool your brain,” as VR development team manager Yukiharu Tamiya puts it.

VR is one of the more recent challenges facing traditional amusement parks. But while we’re on the subject of challenges, we can’t afford to ignore the elephant in the room—or, rather, the mouse.

Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983 as the first Disney park outside the U.S., and was an immediate success, thanks partially to the booming Japanese economy of the '80s and the park's proximity to the Tokyo metropolitan area. Attendance has remained impressive in the 30-plus years since, despite the trials and tribulations of the Japanese economy.

As a new arrival to Japan, this author was shocked to discover just how popular Disney is here, especially considering the country has its own home-grown, internationally-renowned animation industry. Full-grown Japanese adults sport Disney merchandise and make frequent trips to the park—and reportedly spend more than their American or European counterparts once they get there. This may have something to do with Japan’s culture of giving souvenirs—omiyage—when returning from a trip, or it could simply mean there’s something to the Disney brand that reverberates with Japan’s passion for all things kawaii.

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This park embraces the summer season with water-based attractions.

One thing both major and local amusement parks have in common is their emphasis on seasonal events. In the program, we see one park bathed in the vivid pink of the cherry blossom season—that’s just one example of parks using Japan’s seasonality as a way to change things up several times a year, offering new experiences each season to draw repeat visitors. From this author’s viewpoint, that’s one major point separating Japanese amusement parks from Western ones, which tend to keep with the same theme all year.

But aside from seasonal events, what can traditional local amusement parks do to compete with the big guys—not to mention immersive entertainment like VR and other video games, many of which don’t even require you to leave your home?

For guest Sasaki, it comes down to the hands-on experiences that (for now, at least) are still exclusive to real life. For children, especially, getting the chance to run around, see, touch and feed animals and interact with tactile playsets are still an essential part of growing up, even in our modern age.

As virtual realities become the norm, it’s possible to imagine a future where actual physical experiences like amusement parks become a luxury product for those with the status and money to afford them (interestingly, this theme was covered from the angle of virtual vs. real-life love in the recent “2D Characters” edition of the program). For modern examples, one might think of the recent resurgence of vinyl records or film cameras at premium prices.

For now, though, Japan’s local amusement parks seem to be resistant to this premium model, staying with prices that keep them connected to the whole community.

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Okay, it’s not just kids who appreciate a bit of animal fun. 

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VR may be impressive, but it’s hard to beat real-life views like this.

*You will leave the NHK website.