TOKYO – From the shrines of Nikko and the temples of Kyoto to the castles of Matsumoto and Himeji, the Japanese are extremely proud of the country’s centuries-old monuments of cultural heritage.
Not so with a 113-year-old carousel in the capital. Despite a celebrated story that has roots in Germany, a visit by Theodore Roosevelt, a stay at Coney Island in Brooklyn, was For almost half a century, El Dorado entertained visitors to Tokyo’s Toshimaen amusement park. His fate is unknown.
The carousel and faded time capsule of a park it was housed in give way to a Harry Potter theme park – a familiar story in a very old country that tends to discard what’s old for the new.
With the last twirls of the carousel came one final flicker of nostalgia as hundreds rushed to ride their hand-carved horses and ornate wooden wagons before the park closed in late August.
Four days before the closure, Keiko Aizawa, 42, stood in line with her 2-year-old son in the withering heat. “It is one of the most precious memories from my youth,” said Ms. Aizawa. “We would always come in summer.”
However, these visits ended about 30 years ago. It was just the news that the Art Nouveau carousel was about to be carted away that made her sentimental. “I really want you to find a place for it,” she said.
The nostalgia is fleeting, however. Historical conservationists fear the Japanese public will not rally to save the carousel as groups in the US and Europe have done for other amusement park carousels and rides.
After the Second World War, the Japanese government passed a law that allowed buildings built after the 17th century to be classified as cultural heritage. “Before, people were like, ‘Oh, it’s too new; It’s not an important cultural asset, ”said Michiru Kanade, an architectural historian and conservationist who teaches at Tokyo University of the Arts.
But even now, she said, the public’s understanding of conducting historical conservation campaigns is “something that is not that widespread”.
Japan’s view of what constitutes a cultural treasure may in part be a function of necessity. Continuous urban renewal has become a feature of the country following the air strikes that flattened many cities during World War II. And given the ubiquitous earthquake threat, structures are often destroyed and rebuilt to improve safety standards.
Basically, the mountainous island country only has that much space for its 126 million inhabitants. “People say the land is so precious that we can’t keep old buildings as they are,” said Natsuko Akagawa, a humanities lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia who specializes in cultural heritage and museum studies.
But if the merry-go-round “gets worse in a storage room,” she said, “that is the saddest ending.”
Patrick Wentzel, president of the National Carousel Association, an American conservation group, said El Dorado is probably one of only a dozen such set pieces in the world. Leaving a gem locked and out of order takes your own risk, he said.
“In some cases things were in the warehouse and things seemed to be going away,” said Wentzel.
While El Dorado is not considered old enough to warrant a historical name in Japan, he added, “This will be 500 years in 400 years.”
At this time, the Seibu Railway Company, the owner of the property on which the carousel stood, has not specified where it will be stored or whether it will reopen in a new location. At a closing ceremony for the park, Toshimaen chief Tatsuya Yoda stated that El Dorado “would continue to shine forever,” but it was not clear whether he meant just in memory or in another place.
The El Dorado took a detour to Tokyo. It was designed in 1907 by Hugo Haase, a German mechanical engineer, and has space for 154 drivers. On the underside of the canopy there are 4,200 pieces of mirrors and paintings of goddesses and cupids.
After Kaiser Wilhelm II invited Roosevelt to Germany in 1910 to view the carousel, Mr. Haase suggested moving it to the USA. A year later, the owners of the Steeplechase amusement park in Coney Island imported the carousel to Brooklyn.
According to local lore, visitors like Al Capone and Marilyn Monroe rode El Dorado before the obstacle race closed in 1964 and the carousel was first put into storage. One of three stone lions that pulled a chariot onto a pavilion that housed the carousel is on display at the Brooklyn Museum.
The owners of Toshimaen, home to Japan’s first lazy river pool and several other Germany-made rides, heard about El Dorado and bid on it without seeing it. The dismantled carousel traveled by sea to Tokyo in 1969, where the parts arrived in serious disrepair and bright layers of paint peeled off from the wooden horses and pigs. The renovation took two years.
More than 20 years later, when Japan’s real estate bubble burst, the unemployed could no longer afford to visit an amusement park and Toshimaen’s attendance fell. Then, as the economy slowly recovered, other amusement parks such as Disneyland Tokyo, Hello Kitty World, and Universal Studios Japan opened up, tapping Toshimaen’s customers.
The park did little to bring its attractions up to date: when it was closed, a spinning car ride still showed similarities with Tina Turner to “Private Dancer” and Prince of “Purple Rain”.
In the days leading up to Toshimaen’s death, some who lined up for one last lap on the carousel said they were looking forward to the park’s replacement.
“It’s sad that it is going away because of the memories,” said Suzu Homi, 37, as she and her 4-year-old twin sons waited for their turn. “But when it becomes a new Harry Potter Park, people who haven’t come here can visit. People who come to Toshimaen just come out of nostalgia. “
For others, however, the carousel was more expensive. Late last month, Hiroshi Uchida, a 40-year veteran of the park and a carousel connoisseur, spoke to a group of nearly 100 visitors at a small museum that chronicles its history.
Mr. Uchida fervently hoped the carousel, which he estimated had ridden 56 million people in Tokyo over the years, would return to a fourth location.
“I think there is a lot of discussion about where to place it,” said Mr. Uchida, who worked as an engineer in the park and was so enthusiastic about El Dorado that he married a park colleague before that. “It could be three or four years before it opens again.”
As he spoke, a woman who filmed his conversation on her cell phone wiped away her tears. Hundreds of visitors had stuck colorful sticky notes with wistful messages on a wall in the museum. “I cried the last time I did a lap of El Dorado. Thank you ”, read one.
In an interview following his presentation, Mr. Uchida said that Seibu, the park’s owner, might be able to rebuild the carousel behind one of his hotels. Or maybe another park or even a village could take it up as it had seen other carousels in European city centers.
Ultimately, he hopes the carousel can stay in Tokyo.
“If the El Dorado has a ghost, it would feel very unsettling to move again,” said Uchida. “It thought it had a permanent home in Germany and was then moved to New York. And then Japan. It’s been here for 50 years now. “
“You can’t put a price on that,” he said.