TOCHIGI WONDERLAND / YOKOSUKA

Escape from Tokyo Part II

by Mark Schreiber

I’ve been to Nikko countless times, but really could kick myself for putting off a trip to Edo Wonderland for so long. I finally visited on June 23, and fortunately the delayed onset of the rainy season got me there on a day with perfect weather.

From the Ginza subway line terminus at Asakusa, I hopped on operator Tobu’s comfortable, reserved-seat “Kinugawa” Limited Express (2,900 yen) at 8:00 a.m. It pulled into Kinugawa Onsen station less than two hours later. I then took a bus (400 yen) for the 15-minute ride to this Edo Period (1600-1868) historical theme park, where the entrance fee is 4,500 yen for adults and 2,300 yen for children under 12. Tobu also offers a variety of discount package deals. (More on this later).

Opened in 1986, Edo Wonderland (Nikko Edo Mura in Japanese) encompasses nearly half a million sq. meters, but you’ll be spending most of your visit in a fairly limited section, either in the plebian shitamachi (old downtown), or across the bridge in the “official” buildings of the Shogun . . . laid out, as was Edo itself, in accordance with a clear social hierarchy.

“Educational” and “fun” are the words that best sum up the experience. Various live performances are held regularly, with scheduling staggered, so as soon as the Yoshiwara courtesan’s procession moves past, you can take in an exciting ninja drama. The audience is even passed out small slips of paper upon entry, into which they may, if they enjoy the show, wrap a coin to throw to the performers.

In addition to the live shows and several small museums, Edo Wonderland also offers hands-on activities, such as flinging shuriken (pointed darts used by ninja) or traditional games. Park staff also endeavor to make the experience spontaneous: I saw a couple of “doshin (kimono-clad police constables)” playfully roust a good-natured visitor and threaten to slap on the cuffs.

Speaking of which . . . those into history or merely morbidly curious will no doubt be impressed by the authentic reproduction of the old jail — although the sight of life-size wax figures undergoing torture and criminals’ decapitated heads on display might prove a little too gruesome for the faint at heart.

There’s enough at Edo Wonderland to make a full day of it, with numerous restaurants that, while not entirely faithful to the cuisine of yore (which I understand was actually pretty tough and stringy back then), was tasty and affordable.

Time permitting, you can also stroll through the separate studio section (if it’s not in use) where TV and film companies produce jidai-geki (period dramas).

Starting with the friendly smiles and clean air, I’d grade the Edo Wonderland experience an A+ from beginning to end. My one regret was that I didn’t plan for an overnight stay at one of Kinugawa’s local spas. Next time, I’ll plan for an extra day and include a visit to Tobu World Square just a few minutes away, another huge park with scale-model reproductions of 102 relics, including an eerily authentic 1/25-size model of the now-gone Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center. Also nearby is the famed Nikko Saru Gundan troupe of trained monkey performers (2,100 yen), plus the chance to raft ride down the Kinugawa River (2,400 yen).

City by the bay

From Tokyo’s Shinagawa, an outlay of 620 yen for a ticket gets you aboard Keihin Kyuko’s Kaitoku Limited Express for the 41-minute ride to Yokosuka Chuo Station in Kanagawa Prefecture. From there, it’s roughly 10 minutes on foot (maps available at the station) to Mikasa Koen, where you can board the Mikasa, the rather unimposing 15,000-ton battleship that served as Admiral Heihachiro Togo’s flagship during the victorious naval engagement at Tsushima off Kyushu in May 1905. Old salts won’t want to miss the gift shop full of naval paraphernalia.

Another contribution the Japanese Imperial Navy made was the popularization of curry, which, because of its high nutritional value, was officially added to the Imperial Navy fare in 1908, and Yokosuka is home to some 20 restaurants that boast navy-style “Kaigun Curry” on their menus.

The pier immediately adjacent to Mikasa Park is the departure point (every hour on the half hour) for the ferry (1,280 yen/640 yen for children) to Sarushima, five minutes away.

This uninhabited island, only recently opened to the public, boasts a shop selling cold drinks, picnic tables, a swimming beach, showers, dressing rooms and a chance to glimpse some more Japanese naval history, as the island once swarmed with gun emplacements to defend the naval base. A bit of hiking and climbing is involved to see the island, but nothing too strenuous.

Instead of returning directly, I checked the ferry schedule and sailed to its next destination, Kannonzaki Park, where a steep climb takes you to Japan’s first western-style lighthouse (summer hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., admission 150 yen).

There’s a small museum to explain the lighthouse’s history since 1869, but the real fun is climbing the spiral staircase and walking out to the narrow circular deck, where a spectacular, panoramic view of the entrance to Tokyo Bay awaits.

About 10 minutes’ walk from the ferry landing is the brand-new Yokosuka Art Museum (admission 300 yen).

Despite this somewhat out-of-the-way location, it boasts 12,000 sq. meters of displays as well as a gift shop and restaurant. (Closed on the first Monday of every month.) The museum had several special exhibits, including a display of the works of Rokuro Taniuchi, a beloved illustrator who produced more than 1,300 covers for Weekly Shincho magazine before passing away in 1981.

Taking a public bus to Shioiri Station, my last stop before heading back to Tokyo was a nostalgic stroll down Dobuita-dori. Located one street behind the road that fronts the U.S. Navy base, this former row of sailors’ dives has become somewhat more upscale since the last time I saw it, now combining touches of American nostalgia and exotic ethnic eateries.

Points to note: Edo Wonderland’s (Nikko Edo Mura; www.edowonderland.net) summer hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tobu Railways offers special packaged discounts to foreign visitors, including foreign residents of Japan. Please refer to Tobu’s easy-to-follow English-language Web site, www.tobuland.com/foreign/