At the university I worked at last semester, each student had to give a presentation in English on a topic of their choice at the end of the course. Some were great, some were awful, and most started with “Do you know (obvious topic)?” and ended with “Let’s enjoying together!”
One of my students decided to talk about Edo Wonderland, a theme park in a small city north of Tokyo called Nikko. A few days later in the staffroom, I found out that my colleague Irish Kevin was planning a trip in that direction after our contract ended. Me and my other colleague Cooper immediately invited ourselves along.
Nikko is most famous for the Toshogu Shrine - said to be one of the most beautiful in Japan - as well as a national park and general mountainous scenery. There are hot springs, hiking trails, wild monkeys, and in February, a lot of snow. As we found out getting off the train directly into a blizzard.
Although our first night was spent drinking umeshu (Japanese plum wine) in an effort to defrost, in the morning the icy landscape was quite beautiful.
For those not in the know, the Edo period in Japan was about 400 years ago and is the timeless version of Japan that comes to mind when you think of woodblock prints, ninja, samurai and geisha. Edo Wonderland promises to take you back to those days and seeing as I’d spent most of my first year in Japan in either classrooms or all-you-can-drink BBQ restaurants, this was definitely a part of the country that I needed to experience.
One of the draws of this park is apparently the opportunity to wear old fashioned clothes and ‘forget your everyday self’. Unfortunately it was too cold for us to dare swap our down jackets for any type of robe in case our fingers fell off, but a few brave Japanese wandered around in kimonos and snow boots, which was quite an impressive sight. Exploring the snowy streets, we also caught a glimpse of the park’s mascot, Nyan-mage.
("Nyan" is the Japanese equivalent of "meow.")
This rather sinister looking character is a cat with an Edo topknot haircut, the original samurai version of a manbun. According to the website he’s always surrounded by adoring children, who I can only assume follow him to the forested outskirts of the park, where their souls remain trapped forever.
It was probably quite warm inside the cat suit. From left: Cooper, Nyan-mage, Irish Kevin, Me
There are plenty of attractions at the park, including live ninja demonstrations, geisha shows and various interactive tents. We understood none of it, but enjoyed almost all of it.
Desperate for some warmth, we let a jovial Edo townsperson lure us inside one of the houses where he gave us some beans. Worried about frostbite but also hungry, we went to eat them but were instructed to throw them at a wooden demon while yelling something in Japanese instead. We since learned that this was to do with Setsubun, the celebration for the beginning of spring. People throw beans at the Devil to cleanse the evil of the previous year. Had I known, I would have grabbed a fistful of them.
The highlights of Edo Wonderland are all ninja related.
First, there was the ninja house - which was the Edo equivalent of a funhouse where the walls and floor are designed at an angle to disorientate you. We spent a considerable amount of time in there showing off our balance hoping some cute Japanese girls would enter and be impressed enough with our ninja skills to ignore the language barrier. We left empty handed and feeling nauseous.
Then there was the ninja maze. My friends decided we should split up for this, with the first to emerge being the winner and the last being humiliated. After a good while in there I started to worry I’d be last out. Then I noticed the snow wasn’t piled up against one of the walls. So I tried pushing it - it was a ninja maze after all, maybe there was a creative trick to escaping. The wall moved and soon I was sliding more doors and finding the secret passage to the exit. It turned out I was the only one of us to discover the way out, but sadly Cooper and Irish Kevin didn’t commit Seppuku like I expected them to.
After the maze, we investigated one of the Edo buildings and found a training dojo and a man in Edo garb giving sword lessons. I got the feeling that this was some special activity organised for groups or for children, but we looked confused and he lacked the English to tell us to get lost, so we went in and completed full ninja training. It was awesome.
Anyone can be a ninja at Edo Wonderland! Even the Irish.
There were plenty of other cool and slightly weird things to see around the park:
This is what happens if you spend too much time on a Japanese commuter train in the morning
'Samurai Cat Episode 1: The Darth Crow Attacking Edo' - Probably still better than The Phantom Menace
Note: I assume it was ninja training, but maybe we became samurai instead. As far as I know, the difference between samurai and ninja is: Samurai were noble warriors, similar to medieval knights. Ninja were the mercenaries and assassins from the lower classes of society.
And both presumably lived in fear of Nyan-mage:
“Patience. Soon this entire park will be ours.”
The day after Edo Wonderland, we went to investigate the famously ornate Toshogu shrine. Which was under maintenance and completely covered up. Although we didn't get to see it at its best, the entire complex and pagoda still looked really picturesque in the snow.
Plus, we got to see one of the original carvings of the three wise monkeys, which I thought was pretty cool:
From left: Irish Kevin, Me, Cooper
Nikko is definitely worth a visit. I only wish I’d given that student a higher grade for the recommendation.
Let's enjoying together!
Here’s what you need to know:
Price: 4,700 yen
Hours: 9:00 - 17:00 all year
Access: Shinjuku to Kinugawa-Onsen station
All the information is here.
Photo credit: Me, Edo Wonderland, Cooper