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Dragon’s Maze: Japan’s built-by-hand giant labyrinth that gets bigger and harder every year

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By Casey Baseel, SoraNews24

Unnan isn’t a big town. Located in the mountains of Shimane Prefecture, the rural community only has a population of about 35,000 people. And yet, there’s a place in Unnan that attracts roughly 40,000 people a year.

That place is Dragon Maze, a gigantic labyrinth that’s continually changing and grows bigger year by year.

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Dragon Maze is the singular vision of its owner, Takashi Tanaka. The 81-year-old Tanaka is a self-taught maze designer/constructor who regularly sees new ideas for the facility in his dreams, then wakes up, grabs a hammer and nails, and turns those dreams into reality, building new parts of Dragon Maze by hand.

▼ Tanaka, at work in the Dragon Maze

Dragon Maze is located inside a local amusement park called Hidamari no Oka, where it opened in 2007. At that time, the maze had an area of 1,000 square meters. Year by year, though, Tanaka has added on to it, and the maze is now 7,000 square meters with more than two kilometers of corridors to explore and get lost in.

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On his recent trip back to his home prefecture of Shimane, our reporter Mr Sato decided to challenge the twists and turns of Dragon Maze. Technically, though, this wasn’t his first time to do so. Before opening at Hidamari no Oka, Dragon Maze was located in a different part of Unnan, called Fureai no Sato Okuizumo Park, which Mr Sato visited back when he was in elementary school. Dragon Maze’s original opening there was in 1987, during a time when there was a boom in regional amusement parks and outdoor mazes in Japan. However, once the boom quieted down many of these mazes closed down, and Dragon Maze’s last day at Fureai no Sato Okuizumo Park was in 1999. Eight years later, though it reopened at Hidamari no Oka, and it’s been there ever since.

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Mr Sato hadn’t even been aware of Dragon Maze’s comeback until he saw an ad for it during his recent trip, but as soon as he knew about it, he had to check it out for himself. Hidamari no Oka also has other attractions, like go kart-like rideable cars and one of the largest camellia gardens in west Japan, but Mr Sato headed straight to the maze’s entrance.

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Right away, he spotted the fearsome dragon’s head glaring down at him. This was added to the maze last year, and reaching it is one of the objectives for those entering the maze.

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Yes, that’s right, objectives. The goal isn’t just to find your way back out of the maze, but to complete a series of tasks, depending on which of the four challenging courses you’re taking on.

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Prices range from 600 to 1,000 yen for adults, and slightly less for kids. The different courses involve finding different towers or other designated spots inside the maze and marking your play card with their respective stamps.

▼ One of the stamp stations

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Because of its family-friendly atmosphere, Mr Sato figured Dragon Maze couldn’t be that hard, so he opted for the most ambitious course, the 1,000-yen Super Course, with a total of seven towers to find before reaching the dragon’s head for the eighth and final stamp. According to the staff, it takes most visitors between 60 and 90 minutes to complete the Super Course, but as a full-grown adult, Mr Sato figured he’d be done in no time.

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He became much less confident, though, shortly after entering the maze. The place isn’t just massive, the layout is tricky too, even incorporating hidden doors that he had to detect and pass through. Even when trying to retrace his steps, there were enough branches to the path that he quickly became thoroughly, and happily lost, recapturing the joy and excitement he’d felt the last time he was in Dragon’s Maze as a kid.

Mr Sato entered the maze at 12:26 in the afternoon, and it wasn’t until 1:17 that he’d finished all of his objectives and found his way out. Finishing in less than an hour puts him in the faster-than-average category, but not by much with a total time of 51 minutes.

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In fact, Mr Sato had such a great time that he later got Takashi Tanaka on the phone for an interview about Dragon Park.

Sato: Mr Tanaka, Dragon Maze used to be in Okuizumo Park, right? I grew up in Shimane, and I went there as a kid.

Tanaka: Yes, it did. We ran it there for 12 years, starting in 1987. That was on a consignment basis from the prefectural government. After that ended we had a gap of almost 10 years, but in 2007 Dragon Maze reopened at its current location.

Sato: Is the new location also on a consignment basis?

Tanaka: No. We opened here after talks with some of the local farmers. Some of the farm fields were going vacant and unplanted, so they said they’d like us to make use of the land.

Sato: I hear that sort of thing is happening a lot nowadays, farmers not having anyone to take over the land after they retire.

Tanaka: Yes. So after talking with them we opened Hidamari no Oka here in 2000, and in 2007 Dragon’s Maze made its return.

Sato: Do a lot of people who visit remember the old location? I still remember going as a kid.

Tanaka: Yeah, and now people who remember going to Dragon’s Maze as kids are bringing their own children. Thanks to them remembering the old place, we now have visitors coming from all over the country.

Sato: Oh, right, I guess there are other people like me who moved away from Shimane after they grew up, but can come to the maze when they come back to visit friends and family. It’s really cool to be able to do that. So many of the other giant mazes there used to be have closed down.

Tanaka: I want people to be able to come back again and again without getting bored of the maze, so every year I add some new attractions to it.

It’s not just a yearly basis that Tanaka makes changes to the maze on, either. In order to keep people from memorizing the maze, he alters the layout three or four times a year, so that as long as you haven’t been for a few months, there’s a fresh challenge waiting for you. The difficulty even changes by the season. In the late spring and summer, when the weather is hotter and crowds are bigger because of vacation seasons, Dragon Maze gets an easier layout, so that you won’t be standing around for too long in the hot, humid weather. Once fall comes with cooler temperatures and sparser crowds, though, Tanaka goes back in and ratchets up the difficulty again.

But there’s more than just entertainment on Tanaka’s mind in running Dragon’s Maze. Recently, he’s been donating about 20 percent of the maze’s ticket sales revenue to relief efforts for the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, which was struck by a powerful earthquake at the start of the year, forcing many to evacuate their homes. “In 1968 [when there was a powerful storm in Shimane], our house got washed away in the flooding,” Tanaka says. “So if there’s something I can do [to help the earthquake victims], even if it’s just some small thing, I want to do it.”

“I built Dragon’s Maze to be a source of comfort to people,” he explains. “Rural communities are shrinking and old farmland is sitting vacant, so I want this to be a place that will draw people back, from all over the country. A place where the kids who grew up around here can come back to with their own kids, a ‘hometown for the heart.’”

When Mr Sato asks Tanaka what other hopes he has for the future of Dragon’s Maze, the octogenarian is bursting with positive energy. “My dream is for us to have 100,000 visitors a year. I want foreign travelers who are visiting Japan to come too…I want them to see how challenging Dragon’s Maze is!”

Being far from Japan’s major tourist hubs of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, Shimane doesn’t get all that many visitors from abroad. It is a beautiful part of the country, though, and one with great cultural sites like Izumo Shrine, so if you’re headed that way, maybe on the cool Tokyo-to-Shimane overnight sleeper train, a visit to Dragon Maze is something you won’t likely forget.

Related: Hidamari no Oka official website

Reference: YouTube/TBS NEWS DIG Powered by JNN

Photos ©SoraNews24

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

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© SoraNews24

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

2 Comments
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This is fantastic. And great to see an amusement park far from urban centers thriving like this!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

This looks fun! If I'm in Shimane, I'll try and make it there. See, this is what should be advertised on the front and top of every travel website or brochure. Who needs Kiyomizu-dera when you have Dragon Maze?!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

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