Rooftop Amusement Parks (Okujo Yuenchi 屋上遊園地)

There isn’t much space in Japan, and what space is available is used to fit in as much as possible, given the high value of each meter. This has lead to some creative uses of roofs in the country. For a while, putting amusement parks on the top of department store roofs was wildly popular, but recently, more and more of these titans of fun are being torn down and removed. What’s going on?

Wanpaku Land in Kawagoe: A Story from Locals

Wanpaku Land, before it was torn down (Image courtesy of the Urban Commercial Research Institute)

While dining on the 7th floor of a local building, my wife chatted with her students. They were mostly older, retired women who had a varying set of reasons why they were studying English, but all those reasons brought them together that day for a lunch conversation session. From this building, they could see a splendid view of Kawagoe: It hasn’t yet developed many towering sky scrapers, so the views carry far to the horizon. They could see the old town, Coedo, the main stations, and the local-loved Maruhiro Department Store. They began talking among themselves, pointing at the roof, letting out sighs of nostalgia at the now barren rooftop.

My wife asked them what they were looking at and they explained their memories of Wanpaku Land, the rooftop amusement park that crowned the Maruhiro building. They explained all sorts of details: the monorail that ran around the perimeter of the roof (known as the Wanpaku Bead) and its ladybug cars, the Ferris wheel (Wanpaku Wheel), and other attractions that lined the roof.

“We would go there as children. Everyone our age did,” said one student.

“You eventually grow out of it, but you have fond memories,” said another.

They talked about the closing on September 1, 2019, and how many older folks took one last trip back to Wanpaku Land to say goodbye. There were many who came and left messages, which Maruhiro displayed on the seventh floor of the building. They accumulated over 7000 messages of farewell, attesting to the impact the amusement park had on its visitors. 9000 people came to say farewell on its last day of operation.

Rooftop Amusement Parks: A Brief History

Rooftop amusement parks like Wanpaku Land started popping up during the turn of the century and beyond. The first amusement park ever in Japan came in the 1800s, but the first one to scale a building and plant itself on a roof was in 1931 (after a string of amusements put on roofs as early as 1903, which included gardens, observatories, music halls, and zoos) on top of the Matsuya Asakusa store. Kawagoe was a bit late to the game, with the Maruhiro Department Store opening in 1939 and Wanpaku Land opening in 1968. The timing, however, reveals a lot about the history.

Rooftop Amusement Parks - Two Second Street - www.twosecondstreet.com
This farewell photo is in the stairwell of Maruhiro that once lead to Wanpaku Land, complete with a thank you message.

After World War II, a lot of things began to change in Japan for obvious reasons. Rooftop amusement parks provided fun and entertainment and began to explode in popularity. I’ve read conflicting reports, but anytime between 1940 and 1970 was the golden age of rooftop amusement parks.

There were problems, of course. Fires in large department stores destroyed some, while game centers challenged the business of others. Then, the economy experienced a huge downturn when their asset price bubble burst in the 90s, giving the country the lost decade. After the recovery, interest in rooftop amusement parks didn’t seem to survive. Wikipedia has a list of closures of rooftop amusements since 2008.

Do Rooftop Amusement Parks still exist?

As noted above, buildings can have a Ferris wheel but not necessarily be considered a rooftop amusement park. I found a fantastic article in Japanese (you can Google Translate it and get the gist) about two personalities who visit a rooftop amusement park and talk with the caretakers. Their tally was eight as of February 2019, but with the closing of Wankpaku Land, that drops to seven. Wanpaku Land was said to to be the last large-scale rooftop amusement park left in Japan, and with its doors closed, it signals the end of an era.

Why are they closing? In the articles I’ve read, generally, it’s two main factors: Declining birth rates and difficulty in maintaining and operating. Tanaka-san, from the Jimocoro article, mentioned that his park is at the mercy of the elements, and there isn’t really enough time or resources to upgrade the facilities. Another issue that affected Wanpaku Land was environmental safety. The Maruhiro Building needed to be updated to install new earthquake protections, which didn’t allow for the amusement park to remain at the top, despite its profitability. This is purely speculative on my part, but kids might have shifting interests. They might not want to go to rooftop amusements anymore, preferring video and computer games over Ferris wheels and monorails.

The ladies sighed and laughed, remembering their times as children visiting Wanpaku Land, as they enjoyed their lunches. Time spent with their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and classmates and strangers, all together to enjoy the thrill and novelty of riding high on the rooftops of Kawagoe.

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