Fate of 113-year-old carousel in Tokyo unknown as amusement park makes way for Harry Potter theme park

Visitors riding the El Dorado carousel in Toshimaen Amusement Park in Tokyo on Aug 27, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES
An employee of Toshimaen amusement park disinfects a seat on the El Dorado carousel. PHOTO: REUTERS
The 113-year-old carousel was designed in Germany and once featured as an attraction in Coney Island. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TOKYO - From the shrines of Nikko and the temples of Kyoto to the castles of Matsumoto and Himeji, the Japanese are fiercely proud of the country's centuries-old monuments of cultural heritage.

Not so for a 113-year-old carousel in the nation's capital. Despite a celebrated history that includes roots in Germany, a visit by US President Theodore Roosevelt, a stint in Coney Island in Brooklyn, and nearly a half-century entertaining visitors to the Toshimaen Amusement Park in Tokyo, the El Dorado now sits in storage, its fate unknown.

The merry-go-round, and the faded time capsule of a park that housed it, are making way for a Harry Potter theme park - a familiar tale in a very old country that tends to discard the merely somewhat old for the new.

With the carousel's last whirls came a final flicker of nostalgia as hundreds rushed to ride its hand-carved horses and ornate wood chariots before the park shut down in late August.

Four days before the closing, Ms Keiko Aizawa, 42, stood in line in the wilting heat with her two-year-old son. "It is one of the most cherished memories from when I was young," Ms Aizawa said. "We would always come in the summer."

Yet those visits ended some 30 years ago. It was only the news that the art nouveau carousel would be carted away that had her feeling sentimental. "I really want them to find a place for it," she said.

Nostalgia, though, is fleeting. Historic preservationists fear that the Japanese public will not rally to save the merry-go-round as groups in the United States and Europe have done for other carousels and amusement park rides.

After World War II, the Japanese government passed a law under which structures built after the 17th century could be designated as cultural heritage properties. "Prior to that, people thought, 'Oh, it's too new; it's not an important cultural property'," said Ms Michiru Kanade, an architectural historian and conservationist who lectures at the Tokyo University of the Arts.

But even now, she said, public understanding of how to mount historic preservation campaigns "is something that is not so widely known".

A popular attraction at Toshimaen amusement park in Tokyo. PHOTO: REUTERS

Japan's view of what makes a cultural treasure may in part be a function of necessity. After the air raids that flattened many cities during World War II, continuous urban renewal has become a feature of the country. And with the ever-present threat of earthquakes, structures are often razed and rebuilt to upgrade safety standards.

More fundamentally, the mountainous island country has only so much space for its 126 million inhabitants.

"People say the land is so precious that we can't keep old buildings the way they are," said humanities senior lecturer Natsuko Akagawa from the University of Queensland in Australia, who specialises in cultural heritage and museum studies.

But if the carousel is "going to deteriorate in a storeroom, that's the saddest ending", she said.

Mr Patrick Wentzel, president of the National Carousel Association, a US conservation group, said the El Dorado was probably one of just a dozen such set pieces in the world. Leaving a jewel like it locked up and out of use poses risks of its own, he said.

"In several cases, things sat in storage, and things seemed to disappear," Mr Wentzel said.

Even if the El Dorado is not yet regarded as old enough to warrant a historic designation in Japan, he added, "this will be 500 years old in 400 years".

For now, the Seibu Railway, the owner of the land where the carousel stood, has not said where it is stored or whether it will reopen in a new spot. At a closing ceremony for the park, the head of Toshimaen, Mr Tatsuya Yoda, proclaimed that the El Dorado would "continue shining forever", but it was not clear whether he meant merely in memory or in another location.

The El Dorado took a circuitous route to Tokyo. Designed in 1907 by German mechanical engineer Hugo Haase, it could seat 154 riders and featured 4,200 mirrored pieces and paintings of goddesses and Cupids on the underside of the canopy.

After Emperor Wilhelm II invited Mr Roosevelt to Germany to see the carousel in 1910, Mr Haase proposed that it be moved to the US. A year later, the owners of the Steeplechase Amusement Park in Coney Island imported the carousel to Brooklyn.

Local lore has it that Al Capone and Marilyn Monroe were among visitors who rode the El Dorado before the Steeplechase Park closed in 1964 and the merry-go-round was moved to storage for the first time. One of three stone lions that had pulled a chariot on top of a pavilion that housed the carousel is displayed in the Brooklyn Museum.

Visitors gathering around the El Dorado carousel in Toshimaen Amusement Park on Aug 27, 2020, just before the park closed. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The owners of Toshimaen, which featured Japan's first lazy river pool and several other German-made rides, heard of the El Dorado and bid for it, sight unseen. The disassembled carousel travelled by sea to Tokyo in 1969, where the parts arrived in serious disrepair, layers of garish paint peeling from the wooden horses and pigs. Refurbishment took two years.

More than 20 years later, when Japan's go-go property-based bubble burst, people thrown out of work could no longer afford visits to an amusement park, and Toshimaen's visitorship plunged. Then, as the economy slowly recovered, other amusement parks such as Disneyland Tokyo, Hello Kitty World, and Universal Studios Japan opened, siphoning off Toshimaen's customers.

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