The old park that's young at heart
At the Hanayashiki amusement park in Asakusa, most attractions feel as if they’re about to break down mid-ride. And the park likes it that way.
Hanayashiki, which is advertised as being Japan’s oldest amusement park, boasts over 30 rides, attractions, shops and restaurants within the less than one square mile plot of land it occupies.
From the white duck boats that spin around a little windmill to the floating pirate ships that circle over the park, each ride looks like a children’s toy you’d find in the lost-and-found bin.
Taking pride in its 150 years of history, the front of the park’s info pamphlets for visitors all read: “‘Hanayashiki’ – the old park with a smile.”
The park is tucked away behind Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple.
The only way I was able to find Hanayashiki amongst the multilevel storefronts and apartments by the temple was by looking up for its lofty Space Shot ride, a rusty yellow tower that shoots passengers up towards the top and continues to drop and launch them.
The day I went was a Friday. I saw numerous class field trips, a few young couples, children with grandparents and even some businessmen dressed in suits around the park that afternoon.
I was admitted into Hanayashiki for 1,000 yen (a little less than $10). I paid another 1,000 yen for 11 tickets so I could go on some rides.
The two most noteworthy ones were the red rollercoaster and the bicycle helicopter.
In the park’s info pamphlet, the rollercoaster’s description reads: “It is now the oldest rollercoaster in Japan… You will be overwhelmed by the feeling that it is sure to fall apart at any time!”
The rollercoaster, first installed in 1953, wraps around the entire park.
When I hopped in, I was the only person on it.
At the highest point, I could see surrounding apartment complexes and a distant view of the Tokyo Skytree, a 2,000-foot tall observation tower that opened to the public in 2012.
After the first big drop, I closed my eyes for the rest of the ride, leaving the loud rattling noises of the 64-year-old rollercoaster to the best of my imagination.
Nearby was Hanayashiki’s toy-like helicopters, which operate by having up to two people sit inside using bike pedals to move it forward. The helicopters are attached to a track that suspends at least 15 feet above the ground.
After I made it through the line and sat inside the helicopter, the ride operator explained the important warnings to me in Japanese.
When he saw that I didn’t speak the language, he began to use various hand signals. I was able to decipher his charades when he explained that the helicopter only moved forward, never backward, and to keep my arms and hands inside the ride.
He said a few other things too but without the hand gestures, so I couldn’t comprehend. But I nodded and smiled. He could’ve said, “Don’t go fast on the sharp turns or you’ll fall over and die” and I wouldn’t have understood.
As I pedaled forward, I began to hear a cranking noise. I decided to move slower.
When the first turn came, I felt the helicopter tip over a little towards the right. I stopped. My hands got sweaty. I decided to move EVEN slower. The helicopter continued to crank on. I made it through the ride alive.
Before evolving into an amusement park, Hanayashiki first opened as a flower garden in 1853.
As the park survived some significant chapters in Japan’s history – including the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 – its identity also transformed throughout the years.
Between 1904 and 1935, Hanayashiki was a zoo, according to a tour I took on the grounds. Penguins from Chile arrived in 1915. Tiger quintuplets were born there in 1923.
According to the tour, the zoo became an amusement park after a devastating earthquake.
Today, a leisurely stroll around the entire park takes maybe about 10 minutes. In that time, you’re sure to see some off-the-wall features that would only exist in an old Japanese amusement park that’s still young at heart. Features such as an arcade game that’s like DDR but with Taiko drums and panda cars you can pay 200 yen to ride in a small pavilion area.
As the afternoon wore on, more people showed up. I began to see how the kitsch and charm of a place like Hanayashiki could serve a variety of purposes – a destination for students in uniform to celebrate the end of a school week; a kid-friendly zone for families to make memories; a spot for a first date.
That evening, I took the train back to a friend’s place I was staying in. I regaled her and her brother of the daytime adventure I had riding the rusted, rattling amusement park attractions at Hanayashiki. They were familiar with the park and commented the quirky qualities that make it unique among other conventional entertainment venues.
“It’s the complete opposite of being Instagram-able,” said my friend’s brother.
I’ll remember to tell people that’s part of the fun.