Tokyo's Tiny Surprise, Hanayashiki - the Oldest Amusement Park in Japan

An Oddball Gem in Asakusa

The author rides a tuneful mechanical panda. see the video for yourself at the end of this hub!
The author rides a tuneful mechanical panda. see the video for yourself at the end of this hub!

More than one theme park claims to be the first or oldest. Disneyland is generally regarded as the first true theme park, though it's near neighbor Knott's Berry Farm begs to differ. (Knott's was there first with its elaborate ghost town and famous restaurant, but it didn't really become a theme park until after Walt's little enterpriser took the world by storm.) The few remaining amusements at Coney Island can make some claim, as can a handful of others. But in the heart of Tokyo's old city lies Hanayashiki, a micro-park that opened its gates way back in 1853. At that time, Asakusa was Tokyo's licentious and vice-happy entertainment district, and Hanayashiki positioned itself as a place of culture and refinement amid the gambling, prostitution and drunken revels of the area. Designed as a scenic flower garden, its very name, Hanayashiki, means “flower viewing place.”

During the late Edo era, Hanayashiki kept its elegant and formal nature, but once the Meiji era opened Japan up to the world, the little park grew into a showplace for novelties and exhibitions. The park offered a curious public animal exhibits, acrobats, and the earliest motion pictures exhibited in Tokyo. Its identity as a fun fair may have begun with the addition of a merry-go-round. Throughout the Meiji era, it continued to amuse and amaze, tucked away between a couple of alleys adjacent to the Senso-ji temple and the Asakusa shrine.

In the post-WWII years, Hanayashiki has established itself as a popular (but small) amusement park, catering mostly to local families, especially those with young children. Its proximity to the famous Senso-ji temple, however, has made it a visible curiosity to shrine visitors and tourists. The park's footprint has grown smaller, but new attractions have steadily been added, creating an unusual multi-layered effect, in which the park has had to grow vertically in order to expand.Many other regional and neighborhood amusement parks in Japan were shut down by the late nineties, but Hanayashiki has managed to carry on, however humbly, in its tiny corner of Tokyo.

A Densely Packed Micro-Park

A view of Hanayashiki from the rooftop garden
A view of Hanayashiki from the rooftop garden

I noticed brief mentions of the park as I was studying various travel guides prior to my own Tokyo visit. When it is mentioned at all, Hanayashiki is usually dismissed as not worth a tourist's time, even derided as being outdated, hokey and run down. It is true that the park is neither glamorous nor high tech. It has a decidedly home-made and unpolished feel, with décor and theming giving off an improvised, haphazard vibe. This, of course, is the source of much of its charm for certain theme park fans. Sitting on a plot of land smaller than the average American grocery store parking lot, this place packs over 22 rides and attractions into its cramped acreage. The Bee Tower and Space Shot rise high in the sky, and a tangle of overhead tracks and rails carry hanging pirate ships and quaint foot-powered helicopters above the crowd. A roller-coaster track defines the inner perimeter of the park, and multi-story exhibit and show buildings ring the central plaza. There's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Cheesy? You bet. Fun? Absolutely.

I spent about two hours (and less than 20 dollars) at Hanayashiki, but I have found it one of the most amusing places to tell others about. I can't really recommend it to the serious traveler seeking Japan's cultural treasures, but there are many people drawn to the kitschy, the campy and the silly. For these kindred spirits, I say give this little park a small portion of your time. Chances are, you'll be charmed and bemused in just about equal measure.

Because this modest venue attracts so little attention, I offer here a listing of its attractions along with my own observations about those attractions I personally experienced.(Followed by VIDEO!)

The central garden, with its miniature shrine, is a nod to the park's earliest days as a show garden.
The central garden, with its miniature shrine, is a nod to the park's earliest days as a show garden.

Bee Tower

This is Hanayashiki's signature ride, the most recognizable, and the most easily visible from the nearby temple complex. Six small candy-house shaped gondolas are suspended from a circular frame that spins as it climbs the tower. This is a slow, scenic ride, offering a nice overhead view of Asakusa, and the low-grade thrill of hanging 200 feet in the air from a structure that looks just rusty and unkempt enough to cause mild alarm. If you go on only one ride, this is the one to take. It offers a view you won't find elsewhere, and the cartoony little house vehicles make for priceless pictures. (Check out the video at the end of this hub!)

Space Shot

This is a common enough amusement park ride, in which harnassed passengers are shot up very quickly to the top of a narrow yellow tower before descending much more slowly than they rose. (Think Dr. Doom at Universal's Islands of Adventure, without the thematic overlay.)

The Space Shot tower as seen from nearby Senso-ji temple gardens
The Space Shot tower as seen from nearby Senso-ji temple gardens

Disk 'O'

A spinning platform races in circles while simultaneously rolling along a curved section of coaster track. The combination of sensations creates some of the loudest screams and shrieks heard in the park.

Little Star

A small carnival ride in which individual star-shaped capsules travel in a circle while also spinning their riders “head over heels.”

Surprising House

This is the oldest operating attraction in the park, dating back to the turn of the 20th century, a throwback to a very old boardwalk and fairground sensation. Inside a “Three Little Pigs” themed house, several guests sit on a swing-like seat suspended from a bar running through the center of the room. They swing back and forth, in ever longer arcs, until apparently swinging 360 degrees up and over the central bar. This is a combination of actual motion and illusion. It wasn't in operation the day I visited, but I have heard from other visitors that the illusion is compromised somewhat by the utter tiny-ness of the inner chamber. Still, give it a try if you can. This used to be one of the biggest thrills of the late 19th century.

Surprising House, the park's oldest attraction, next to the Flower Stage.
Surprising House, the park's oldest attraction, next to the Flower Stage.

Carnival

An angled revolving platform, decorated with a large clown and a “Little Red Riding Hood' motif. It spins and spins to peppy carnival music.

Jet Coaster

Billed as Japan's oldest existing coaster, this steel tube ride opened in 1953, two years before Disneyland's Matterhorn, itself regarded as the world's first steel tube coaster. Aside from that apparent landmark, the coaster is simple and brief. It rises and falls along a track that marks the perimeter of the central plaza of the park. The dips do have more impact than I thought they would, and there are some mildly racy semi-naked figures in a Turkish bath motif glimpsed very briefly on the fly through a small tunnel. It's over with before you know it, but it's fun, and historically significant.

Japan's oldest roller coaster - small but surprisingly thrilling
Japan's oldest roller coaster - small but surprisingly thrilling

Merry Go Round

Peppy Japanese pop plays as this very basic ride goes round and round.

Sky Ship

It's like Peter Pan's Flight without the show building or storytelling. Pirate ships are suspended from a rail, and slowly fly in a loop over the park. These looked tiny enough that I didn't want to try to fit my paunchy Western frame into one. Still, they provide a delightful bit of kinetic visual flair to the park.

Helicopter

Similar to the Sky Ships, these vehicles take an aerial tour of the park, but in this case, they rest on top of a monorail-like beam, and get their power from the vigorous foot-pedaling of their young riders. These are definitely kid-size only vehicles.

Kiddy Taxi

Small electric-powered mini-cars run along a curving track through a truly bizarre landscape. It looks like an outsider art sculpture garden, with ladybugs, top-hatted dogs and the Statue of Liberty all putting in an appearance trackside. Comically haphazard theming makes this basic kiddy-car ride worth a peek.

The puzzling decor of the Kiddy Taxi track
The puzzling décor of the Kiddy Taxi track
That dog probably stars in the occasional Japanese child's nightmare.
That dog probably stars in the occasional Japanese child's nightmare.

Pyong Pyong

This could be described as the Space Shot for preschoolers. Very young riders are lifted to the top of a modest tower, and then clunkily bounce their way back down to the ground. The name of the ride is meant as an onomatopoeia for the bouncing of a frog. (Pyong pyong, ribbit, pyong pyong)

Swan

Small swan boats float in a small circle on top of a kiddy-pool sized moat, but they move surprisingly fast!

Kiddy Ferris Wheel

This is truly a tiny ferris wheel.

You'll look this way too, if you venture into Hanayashiki's line-up of spooky attractions!
You'll look this way too, if you venture into Hanayashiki's line-up of spooky attractions!

Thriller Car

This is a classic Western style dark ride, or “ghost train” attraction. The ride entrance is located beneath the platform on which the Kiddy Taxi operates. Beneath this underpass, a large, growling face occasionally emerges behind the loading area, rolling its eyes and flapping its mechanical lower jaw with a pre-recorded growl. The ride track meanders through a semi-circle tunnel of green tarp before entering the show building, located inside of the landscaped central garden. It's another example of how everything in this park is built on top of, around or inside everything else. The interior is the usual dark ride fare, as spooky gags flash and buzz while the vehicles slowly navigate the electrified track. Pretty good, as such things go.

Haunted House

Billed as a “pure Japanese style” haunted house, this walk-through experience is brief but effective, with lots of unsettling noises, and dangling bodies, reminiscent of the iconic, creepy long-black-haired ghosts common to J-horror. There is some narration, in Japanese only. Probably too disturbing for young kids.

Ghost Mansion

This attraction takes visitors into the creepy dining hall of a mysterious mansion. Everyone is seated around a long table, and asked to put on headphones for a 3D audio experience, including in-house effects and sensations. The audio program is in Japanese only, and this was not operating on the day of my visit, so I would love to hear from anyone who has visited this attraction.

The Solid Cinema Hall

This is a venue for 3D movies, which occasionally change out for new titles.


Looking down on the confounding, hilarious and just plain weird Treasure Fort
Looking down on the confounding, hilarious and just plain weird Treasure Fort

Treasure Fort – Miracle Stone

This is a mostly outdoor walk-through maze, featuring a fantasy theme, and small indoor chambers in which various, mostly very goofy, show scenes and effects await brave explorers. This was really showing its age when I visited, with lots of peeling paint and chipped concrete, but that only added to its oddball mystique. Also, for American audiences, the sense of humor on display here may be earthier and ruder than we might expect from an attraction for kids. There is a “Laughing Sally” type figure whose skirts billow from her flatulence, and the final scene is an aggressive display of potty humor that will probably delight young visitors, but will make others scowl. (You can see it in the 'Hanayashiki Horror" video below - but consider yourself warned!)

NOTE WELL – Guests who wish to get through this attraction must navigate a series of “jail cell” chambers, and the only way out is to squeeze through very narrow openings as you attempt to pull the bars apart. I had to crawl or do an awkward duck walk through several of these, much to the amusement of a group of teenage onlookers. This gets my vote for the most eccentric and bizarre attraction at the park.

Parody Museum

This little gallery is very silly indeed. It features fairy-tale themed “artifacts,” such as bricks from the house of the third little pig, and wood shavings from Pinocchio. All signs and text are in Japanese only, but accompanying pictures made most of the alleged jokes clear. Skippable.

Misemonogoya

This gallery, on an upper floor of the multi-story Shounkaku building, has a rotating collection of traditional Japanese art and crafts.

Atarumo

This is a fortune telling spot, where you might get a tarot or palm reading, but fluency in Japanese is a must.

Sky Plaza This rooftop garden is a good spot to bring your lunch and get away from the hubbub. It also provides a nifty overhead view of the park. Located here is a shrine to Burabo, patron god of good fortune for Hanayashiki.

Flower Stage

Located near the Surprising House, this outdoor stage features daily performances of music, dance and even action-packed ninja fights.

Hanayashiki Actor's Studio

I presume that this is a school venue for current or future performers at the park. I'd welcome information from anyone who knows more.

Riding Pandas

These large, mechanical vehicles are adorable, and are large enough to support even riders as large and bulky as myself. Drop a 100-yen coin into the slot near its neck, and the panda will begin to walk while it plays a real earworm of an electronic tune. You can steer the direction the creature walks, and you'll have about two minutes of travel time. Much of the merchandise in the gift shop features these super-kawaii pandas.

Much of the park merchandise centers around these cute little things
Much of the park merchandise centers around these cute little things

There are a number of food locations, providing everything from fried octopus dumplings to hot dogs and crepes. An arcade, gift shop and very tiny mini-golf course round out the offerings

Admission to Hanayashiki is 900 yen, and individual tickets are 100 yen apiece. (Most rides cost between two to four tickets.) An all-ride pass is available for 2200 yen (admission not included), but I managed to see everything I wanted to for less than that. In fact, my entire visit came to less than 20 dollars. As of this writing (in 2010) these prices have not changed since my visit two years ago.

Hanayashiki is currently owned and operated by Bandai, and advertises itself as “the old park with a smile.” I can't argue with that. If you decide to visit this quirky, tatty attraction, please share your thoughts and experiences. Meanwhile, enjoy Tokyo and its many wonders!

A Video Tribute!

Arigato, Hanayashiki!

Here is a video memento of my visit, which took place on a cold, quiet February morning.

Dark Rides, Spooky Walk-Throughs, and a Rude Ending!

Hanayashiki Horror!

This video collects sights and sounds from the various spooky rides and walk-through attractions at the park. WARNING – This video might be scary to impressionable young souls, and it also includes the shockingly rude finale to the Treasure Fort maze. Please approach with due caution.

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