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For your amusement — Ferris wheels everywhere, but why not?

by Amy Chavez

Japan can be a confusing place for tourists, so I would like to take this opportunity to explain some things about Japan that no one has ever attempted to explain before, such as “Why are there so many Ferris wheels in Japan?”

Indeed, Ferris wheels seem to pop up everywhere: on top of lone mountains in the countryside, at ski areas, at boat marinas, and even on the tops of department stores. While most tourists are befuddled by this, I urge them to ask not “Why?” but, “Why not?”

Japan is an amusement park culture. Amusement rides have been around for a long time, starting with the fairground-type movable ones set up along railway lines in the 1920s, to big concrete amusement parks in the ’80s, and the theme parks of the ’90s. In addition, the bubble economy helped to transform Japan’s mere hobbies into full time obsessions.

For those of you too young to remember the “baburu keiki,” it was not a new type of cake, unfortunately. It was an era of unfettered spending. From 1986 to 1990, Japan was busy buying up American icons like the Rockefeller Center and much of Australia’s Gold Coast. And these were just the purchases by Japan’s elementary school children!

Their parents were growing and expanding Japan’s companies at home and overseas and buying original Monet paintings to hang in the lobbies of their corporate offices.

Japan had big goals: all dogs in the world would be hanging their heads out of Toyota car windows, all paparazzi would use Nikon cameras and even grandparents would be grooving to tunes on Sony Walkmans. In the meantime, the Japanese citizens at home were fulfilling their moral responsibilities by spending as much as money as possible in a phenomenon called yen appreciation.

People needed places to unload their money. With amusement parks, the concept was similar to a shopping mall — that while everyone has a certain amount of disposable income, to take advantage of it, you have to get them to dispose of it within the same 200,000 sq. meters. Thinking of how to accomplish this, someone came up with the idea of using a combination of centrifugal force and dizzying speeds to develop rides which would help people part with their money. It worked.

Japan’s modern geishas, these sexy amusement parks with their lights and enticing popcorn smells sell a fantasy world and an addiction to fun and games. It caters to that basic Japanese desire: entertain me! And it has all the elements to prepare children to be able to move smoothly into pachinko when they get older — flashing lights, noise, games and victory.

That’s why you always have a few vendors hanging out selling ice cream and popcorn at the gates to an amusement park. They’re there to entice you into this alternative world.

The other day I stumbled upon one of these places by accident while sailing through the Seto Inland Sea. It is not so unusual to find amusement parks hiding underneath vines and weeds in Japan’s countryside, reminders of a prosperous past and ominous future.

We had no idea the park was there when we tied up the boat at the dock of one of Hiroshima’s “sea stations.” But upon taking a walk, we were confronted with a large clam shell fountain. Why the giant clam? Why not?!

This small countryside amusement park was in a dilapidated state, the grass needed cutting, and many features were out of use, yet a dozen or so people were still using the park. They were risking their lives on old rickety rides that looked like they would fall apart at any moment. No wonder the kids were screaming on the roller coaster.

In these uncertain economic times, most people have adopted a wait and see attitude. Perhaps this was the same: wait and see if it derails or not.

But clearly, these rides were still a thrill for these people. They were a reminder that amusement parks were once cash cows and Japan was their pasture.

And for this reason I believe the Ferris wheel continues to be popular. It has long been a symbol of prosperity, representing a churning economy reaching ever greater heights. The Ferris wheel, like the world, keeps going round, and round. It is also a circle that brings you back to where you began.