On 26 June 2015, a mass shooting took place at a tourist resort in Tunisia. Thirty-eight people were killed, and the Irish government subsequently issued a formal travel warning advising against unnecessary trips to the country. The two weekly charter flights from Dublin were abruptly discontinued, and my travel insurance company issued a circular advising that cover for that area had been suspended indefinitely. This meant that my exhaustively planned week long trip to the area set for October, a careful blend of amusement parks and general sightseeing (the Bardo Museum, Carthage, El Djem, Mos Espa, and Hotel Sidi Driss) was off the table.
Staying at home wasn't an option for a variety of reasons, and thus I began to look at what alternatives might be possible at relatively short notice. Peru was top of my list, but a little bit of research indicated that October was the start of the rainy season and thus not a particularly good time to visit. China was a close second, but had to be dropped after it became apparent that the requirement to list destinations on the visa paperwork left insufficient time to come up with a proper plan. That left Japan, and the relatively low value of the yen, reduced by over a third from my last trip, made the decision an easy one. On the evening of July 4th I booked a pair of round-trip tickets to Tokyo and began working on a trip plan in earnest.
The preparation began with me assembling a list of all the parks in Japan with roller coasters that I'd yet to ride. There were a surprising number of these left, despite three previous trips, with almost fifty in total. I considered adding in some of the major parks without new credits for the benefit of Megan, such as Tokyo Disneyland and Fuji-Q Highland, but took the decision to leave them for a future trip as they would almost certainly be adding new attractions sooner or later. I then grouped the parks into areas that could be hit in one day, based on opening hours, distances, and an educated guess at how long we'd want in each location. The result came out at twenty-two days, and I sorted them into priority order.
With my possible days in hand I was able to come up with a workable itinerary requiring four hotel bookings at Shinagawa, Okayama, Nagoya, and then back to Shinagawa. A fifth hotel was subsequently added in Himeji due to train schedules. The base locations all worked fine, though if I were doing something similar again I'd put an additional hotel in Omiya as the launching point for the Hokuriku, Joetsu, Tohoku, and Yamagata Shinkansen lines, all of which were used at different points during the trip. That said, it was a rare treat indeed to spend eight consecutive nights in one hotel, something that I've never had before (and probably will never have again) on a trip with non-stop parks and coasters!
I'd originally intended to tell Megan about our shared trip plans on her birthday, but before we reached that point her naturally curious mind had homed in on Japan as a likely target. I decided on a little misdirection, and thus I presented her with some fictitious visa paperwork that ended up being far funnier than either of us would have realised at the time. On the day of our trip, she asked if the boarding pass would have a big "NRT" on it, and was a bit taken aback when I said no. There wasn't much point in holding things further, though, and thus I handed over a copy of the thirty-five page itinerary and a copy of the boarding pass for "HND".
A suboptimal beginning
12th October 2015
Travellers heading to Japan from western Europe have a range of flight options, split evenly between those arriving in the early morning and those arriving in the early evening. I'd deliberately selected a choice from the latter category in the hope of being able to get a good night of sleep ahead of the first park day, and that would have worked beautifully were it not for a frustratingly recalcitrant body clock that rendered me wide awake at 3:15am. That gave me almost four hours to stare at the ceiling and contemplate just how tired I'd be later in the day.
Our first task for the day was to process our Japan Rail Passes at Shinagawa Station, and it was here that we encountered an unexpected problem. The staff member on duty looked at our exchange orders before advising us that they could not be honoured due to them having the words "Four Six Nine Three One" instead of "Four Six Nine Three Zero" in the price field. She advised us to go to the JR Head Office at Tokyo Station for further assistance, but that we'd have to wait until the next day to do that because it was closed for the Health and Sports Day holiday.
We were about to start a two week routing involving twenty different journeys on bullet trains, all of which would need to be paid for if we couldn't get our passes processed. The one yen difference in our favour represented a potential financial hit in excess of one thousand euro apiece for something that was completely out of our hands, and the resulting worries permeated the entire first day of our trip. There was nothing that could be done, however; we sent the pass supplier an email about the problem and resolved to continue our day as planned.
Hanayashiki Amusement Park
12th October 2015
The main entrance to Hanayashiki Amusement Park is behind an ordinary shopfront located a few minutes walk from Asakusa Station. Today it was visible from some distance away thanks to a queue of at least two hundred people stretching half way down the block, a pertinent reminder that we were visiting on a holiday. Just about all those waiting were buying unlimited wristbands but we decided against following the herd given that we were intending to stay no more than two hours. Admission-only tickets were available for ¥1000 (~€7.50) per person.
Hanayashiki (or Flower Mansion) first opened in 1853 as a botanical garden set right in the heart of urban Tokyo. In the late part of the nineteenth century its manager, Yamamoto Kinzo, decided to expand the business with the addition of a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and a variety of animal exhibits. The result was quite successful, but it wasn't to last; the entire facility was flattened by the Great Kanto earthquake in September 1923.
The park was rebuilt in the aftermath of World War II, reopening in 1947 with a small section of landscaped garden at its center. Since then it has morphed into a delightfully chaotic hodgepodge of over thirty rides and shops bordered by a custom-designed Roller Coaster built by Togo in 1953. The ride in question is the oldest in Japan and also one of the oldest steel coasters in operation today, with only a handfulofkiddiecoasters that predate it. The train has been replaced several times over the years, with the current rocket-themed one in operation since 2013.
There was a ticket machine at the queue entrance equipped with an array of choices that looked alarmingly complicated at first glance. Closer inspection however revealed thirty-six identical buttons, and we selected one at random, feeding in a ¥10000 (~€75) note in exchange for a booklet of ride tickets. The change provided was an intelligent mix of descending denominations, a definite step up from the pocket-bursting quantity of coins that one would get from a similar machine in Europe. (It's worth noting in passing that there are very few things in Japan that cannot be bought from vending machines; some of the more obscure offerings include used panties and lettuce. Ride tickets seem ridiculously mundane in comparison).
Some years ago a new building was constructed to the right of the solitary lift hill, and part of the track appears to have been reprofiled slightly at that time in order to maintain clearance. The alterations slowed the overall layout significantly, with the time from top of lift back to station being stretched almost twenty percent, reducing the already limited forces yet further. That said, the park is clearly targeted at all ages, and given that, it's hard to fault the decision to make the signature ride more family friendly. The train was also an upgrade over the original with ample legroom, in sharp contrast to a few years ago. The only real negative for us was the loading speed, best described as unhurried; the operator on duty was managing to dispatch the single train every six to eight minutes at best, resulting in an hour long wait that could have been halved with a little hustle.
We spent a bit of time walking around the park before deciding to try Thrilling Car, an undistinguished haunted house style dark ride that I'd somehow managed to miss on my last visit. The ride began with a semi-open tunnel under a green awning before proceeding into a mostly black indoor area with occasional illuminated animatronics. The highlight was a room full of mannequins swinging in time to English language pop music; one wonders if western music is as terrifying to Japanese ears as horrible J-Pop is to ours?
Tokyo Dome City
12th October 2015
Tokyo Dome City is a massive entertainment complex located right in the centre of Tokyo, featuring an amusement park, a bowling alley, a hot spring spa, a shopping mall, a stadium, and over fifty restaurants. The ride area has downsized somewhat over the last few years, shedding three of its four coasters and its freefall tower, but the place remains an essential stop for enthusiasts due to the presence of Thunder Dolphin, an eighty metre high Intamin-built coaster that as of 2015 is the tenth tallest in the world. The easiest access route for visitors is from Suidobashi Station, located roughly three minutes walk from the main entrance.
Individual coaster tickets cost ¥1030 (~€7.60), and those with more money than sense can skip about half of the line for an additional ¥520 (~€3.80) per ride. I've come to support paid line jumping as a necessary evil in crowded parks, but I find it highly objectionable (and frankly unethical) for parks to heavily promote passes for attractions that are being run at a tiny fraction of their theoretical capacity. Thunder Dolphin was running one of of its two trains today and dispatching every eight minutes on average, and given that I decided against paying the supplement on principle.
Our first encounter with the ride rules (1) was as we entered the queue, when a member of staff insisted that we should review them from a laminated card provided in English. Having done so we were let into a section of cattle grid with a safety video with subtitles covering the same material on five minute loop (2). At the midpoint, our tickets were collected by another staff member who handed us the same card for further review (3) before allowing us to proceed. Once at the front, we were led into assigned air gates with no preferred seating allowed, only to be given the same rules again (4) over the PA system. The experience felt like the coaster equivalent of an Aer Lingus flight, where the same announcements are made so many times that the induced low-level rage has time to develop into an intense visceral fury.
The air gate loading did at least take place while the train was on course (an improvement over a few years ago) but the time saved was negated by the requirement to place all objects into a locker on the far side of the station platform, including glasses. My watch had to be left behind too, but it was entirely acceptable (and in fact required) for me to wear the loosely fitting locker key strap on my wrist. As I closed the locker, the operators started pointing at individual pockets again, making me wonder briefly whether I was back in preschool. In an astonishing turn of events we were permitted to sit down without assistance and buckle our own seat belts, but we were strictly forbidden to touch the lap bars which would be closed for us.
The ridiculous procedures were soon forgotten as the train climbed the lift hill, however, as the benevolent coaster gods had seen fit to assign us a front seat. From that location the ride was still absolutely fantastic, with a superb first drop and turnaround made even better by the spectacular setting. The second pass over the roof still seemed a bit pointless, but that was the only dead spot in a truly top class coaster. It would have been nice to try the back row for our second lap, but it wasn't to be; we ended up in row three, which suffered from a little vibration though nothing unmanageable.
12th October 2015
Our third stop of the day was some distance out of Tokyo, but opportunity to sit down for half an hour in a comfortable train seat was far too good to pass up. We thus took the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line to Sakuragicho Station, located close to the children's section of Yokohama Cosmoworld. From there it was a five minute walk across a bridge to the adult rides.
We began our visit by climbing all the way up to the fifth floor for the Reverchon-built Spinning Coaster, one of three installations in Japan that premiered in 1998. On my first visit to the park ten years ago we were able to unbalance our car and enjoyed a fantastic ride with ridiculously intense spinning. Unfortunately this is no longer possible; in a bizarre move the park has chosen to neuter their ride by moving the unlocking mechanism to the final hairpin before the brakes, thereby reducing spinning to an absolute minimum. This positioning was slightly better than removing it entirely, as seen at Hirakata Park, but only marginally given that the turns on the lower level were never designed to be hit head on. It's worth calling out also that the ride has recently been retrofitted with individual ratcheting seat belts to supplement the standard lap bar mechanism, a thoroughly unnecessary addition that slows the loading speed significantly.
The signature attraction at the park remains Diving Coaster Vanish, a ride that appears in Facebook photographs almost monthly, usually accompanied by a caption that says something like would you ride this. The answer I'm going to give from this point forward is going to be fairly blunt: only if they change the restraint design. The shoulder harness locked for me today, but only with its main section sitting at a 45° angle to my body thanks to shoulder pads that could go no lower. I'm inclined to offer a little latitude to Japanese ride manufacturers who produce coasters that are not friendly for tall people, given that the local average heights are somewhat lower than in western countries, but there is no excuse for a restraint design that doesn't work well for smaller riders. Megan fit without problems, only to discover mid-ride that the forces had tightened her harness to the point that it was restricting her breathing, and she was far from the only one.
It's a pity, really, because Diving Coaster Vanish has a huge amount of potential. The lift hill runs parallel to one of the main roads through the Yokohama area, before turning into a steep drop, two airtime hills, and a dive into the middle of a man-made lake complete with a fountain effect as the train disappears underground. The tunnel is longer than it appears, comprising several seconds of brightly coloured lights that lead into another airtime hill, a helix, and the final brake run. The slightly bumpy track would have been fine with lap bars, but the ill-fitting overheads turned the experience into a gruelling ordeal as every single knock was transferred with unerring accuracy directly to my clavicles. I'd have chosen to forego a second ride even if we'd had more time available.
We crossed back to the children's area and found no queue for the Family Banana Coaster, but despite that were told that we would need to ride together, a particular challenge given that ten years ago it was hard enough to fit into a car on my own. We did actually manage it, but only by exploiting some previously unsuspected flexibility to shoehorn ourselves in place. The ride was pleasant enough and made a nice change from the ubiquitous Wacky Worm design.
Tokyo Joypolis is located at one end of Odaiba Decks, a large facility built on an artificial island in central Tokyo that features a large number of restaurants, two shopping malls, a water park, a LEGO® Discovery Center, and a variety of shows. The best access route is via Odaiba-Kaihinkoen Station on the Yurikamome, a fully automatic privately owned railway line on elevated tracks that opened in 1995.
During the short walk from the station we debated the merits of buying unlimited ride wristbands. On one hand, the reduced evening price (¥2900 per person) meant that we'd hit the break-even point with just three rides, and there were other things to do besides the roller coaster. On the other hand, we were extremely tired and visiting against our better judgment for the Gerstlauer Launched Spinning Thing With Overhead Restraints And Inversion credit, and our recentexperiences with other Gerstlauer products didn't exactly inspire enthusiasm. My reaction at the time said it all; with that kind of pedigree, what could possibly go right? Pragmatism won out, and thus we handed over ¥3200 (~€24) for two admission tickets and two ride tickets.
The enthusiast community is normally very good at keeping up to date with the installation of major new attractions, often to the consternation of marketing teams around the world. It was therefore quite a surprise to learn of the existence of a new coaster for the first time almost a fortnight after it had opened the public. The story appeared in my news feed not from somewhere like Screamscape, as I might have expected, but from Kotaku, a blog dedicated to video games that covered the story mainly because Sega was involved.
Veil of Dark (#2163) operates with spacious cars with two rows of two seats. All seats face forward, unlike the manyotherGerstlauerspinners, as fully half the layout comprises a target-shooting game played on moving video screens using a tiny controller embedded in the overhead restraint. At the mid-point a spinning mechanism is unlocked and a tyre drive accelerates the cars to 38km/h for an inversion that works surprisingly well given that it is entered sideways. From there, an enclosed descending helix with only one minor "ouch" moment brings passengers back to the station.
The ride is as of this writing the only spinning coaster to go upside down, and has novelty value for that if nothing else. The onboard experience today wasn't outstanding, but it was far better than I'd anticipated and in any case a substantial upgrade from the awful credit it replaced. I'm not convinced that combining a target shooter with a coaster is a good idea, given that the two attractions would typically be aimed at different audiences, but it's not without precedent in Japan; it'll be interesting to see if other versions spring up in the future.