In one of the underground passageways of Tokyo's Mitsukoshi-mae subway station, just outside the basement entrance to the Mitsukoshi Department store, is a glorious mural (well, a scroll, really) depicting the everyday street life of old Edo in the early 19th century. The detail of the mural is incredible: It is teeming with buildings, animals, people from all walks of life -- so much and such varied activity. One almost wants to step into the picture.
At Nikko's Edo Wonderland, just a couple of hours north of Tokyo, one can literally step into this picture.
Edo Wonderland (known in Japanese as "Nikko Edomura") is a theme park showing off that same late 18th/early 19th century Edo life, with chances to participate. It's fun and interesting for adults, but has plenty that's child-friendly, too. Most of the park is also readily wheel-chair accessible.
One enters through a "sekisho" gate. Sekisho were travellers' checkpoints placed along major roads nationwide during the Edo period that allowed the shogunate to control the passage of people and goods. This one just checks your ticket.
Having passed through the sekisho, the visitor is on a tree-lined road, redolent of the five great national roads that led to Edo. There are stone roadside markers and small statues of guardian gods. Rounding a bend, various Edo-style buildings come into view. First a lone tea house where travellers can find refreshment. Then a banya (the forerunner of today's koban police boxes) and a waterwheel operating to polish rice.
The visitor has reached the outskirts of Edo; on the left, just past the waterwheel is the Henshin Costume House, where one can be transformed into a true Edo-ite by donning an Edo-period costume for the day. Costumes include: ordinary villager (2,500 yen, samurai (3,500 yen), kabuki player (6,800 yen), farmer (6,800 yen), merchant (6,800 yen), lord/lady (9,800 yen), and oiran courtesan (30,000 yen --only one per day). There are special costumes for children, including a ninja costume. Wigs or hair styling are optional extras. While not required, of course, the cosplay adds to the atmosphere and fun of the day.
Most of the park is laid out like several Edo streets. A canal runs along three sides of the main "shita-machi" area, so that most visitors must pass over a traditional arched bridge (Ryogoku-bashi) to reach it. Before crossing, consider taking a short ride in a traditional palanquin; watch a street performer doing magic tricks near the canal, too.
After crossing the bridge, stroll down the central road, crowded with shops and restaurants built cheek-by-jowl. The restaurant fare as well as the items for sale contribute to the atmosphere of Edo, as do various "villagers" engaged in traditional activities. At the center of the town is a fire watchtower at the base of which costumed staff entertain children with participatory fake sword play, referred to as the "Samurai Swordsmen Experience."
At the end of the street is Nihonbashi, that great bridge from which all distances out of Edo were measured. Cross this and you are leaving "shita-machi" for "yamate", the upper city inhabited by the shogun and daimyos. In this area the road is wider and the buildings are situated in large complexes surrounded by high walls. Particular attractions are the residence of the daimyo of the Choshu Domain and the Kita-Machi Magistrate's office. Curiously, on the other side of the street is the Kodenma-cho Prison, where visitors can see the brutality of criminal justice during the Edo period (not recommended for small children).
The park boasts a number of theaters with various performances throughout the day. Predictably, the Grand Ninja Theatre has performances by ninja stuntmen who fly, disappear and reappear in puffs of smoke and engage in swordplay and other fighting. A smaller theater, Ninja Karasu Yashiki, offers even more intense ninja experiences. Ryogoku-za hosts a short play about a ronin with a wife, a mistress and an uncle to avenge. More swordplay, this time "samurai-style." Mizugei-za offers a performance of water magic using techniques that supposedly date back 1,000 years. While all of these contain dialogue in Japanese, there is sufficient action that even visitors who don't understand Japanese are well-entertained.
The village temple, known as Jigoku Temple, is said to be haunted -- enter at your peril. In the open area outside the temple are children's games, masks and geta, all available to try out.
In addition to the Samurai Swordsmen Experience, other hands-on experiences for children include the historically accurate "Edo work experience for children" (only on weekends and public holiday), the chance to be an Edo-period "okappiki" (beat cop), or learning ninja skills like throwing a "shuriken." Shooting arrows, "kazaguruma" darts (with pinwheels on the end), and rifles at targets to win prizes are activities for both children and adults. You can also enjoy slow-roasting rice crackers on a charcoal brazier.
Ninja are a recurring theme in this Edo reconstruction, with two more ninja experiences not to be missed: the Karakuri Ninja Maze and the Kai Kai Ninja House. The maze, constructed of black palings, is larger than one would expect with lots of "give up" exits for those who cannot find their way through. There are also trick moving walls that must be detected and manipulated to find the way through...and back out again. A true ninja experience! The ninja house is a crooked house built on a hillside. Everything is at an angle, making visitors dizzy. Here, too, there are "surrender" exits for those who can't cope.
Late in the afternoon is the "Oiran Parade", a procession featuring a several courtesans and their retinue, all in spectacular traditional garb, who stroll from the fire watchtower to Nihonbashi. The central oiran wears the classic 15 cm-high geta, requiring her to keep a hand on her "bodyguard" to keep from toppling over.
In a nod to our modern times, Edo Wonderland has a free app called Nyanmageye, that visitors can download to scan QRCs outside the park's various buildings and facilities for information in 8 languages. Create a profile and share the information with others using the app, or on Facebook. Unfortunately, some of the QRCs have faded from the sun and could not be scanned. Now there's a technical glitch that would never have happened during the Edo Period.
Edo Wonderland is relatively compact, yet it has enough shows and entertainment that one can easily spend an entire day. In any event, plan to spend at least four hours to take in the full effect.
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (April through November) 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (December through March) Closed Wednesdays (unless it's a public holiday)
Day Pass: 4,700 yen for adults, 2,400 yen for children (6-12 years old), 3,290 yen for seniors (over 65) Afternoon Pass (sold after 2 p.m.): 4,100 yen for adults, 2,100 yen for children (6-12 years old), 2,870 yen for seniors (over 65) There is also a special discount for disabled visitors and their carers. Get a 10% discount coupon here: http://edowonderland.net/en/access/discount.html
The nearest train station is Kinugawa Onsen, serviced by trains originating from Shinjuku. From Kinugawa Onsen station, catch a bus at Stop 3. There are three buses per hour for most of the day. If you're already in Nikko, Nikko Edomura operates a free bus from JR Nikko Station at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:25 p.m.© Japan Today