We had planned our first full day in Japan to have both relatively simple transport requirements and a relatively relaxed schedule. In this case, we took the Tsubame Limited Express train from Hakata to Omuta, followed by a bus to the park. Locating the correct bus stop was somewhat challenging, as all the signage was in Kanji, but a print out of the park web page meant that we knew which set of pretty pictures was correct.
The problem was simplified further by the large group of children and teenagers congregated around the stop. Their general level of excited chatter served as an additional confirmation that we were in the right place. Though they did form an orderly queue for the bus, the number of people involved meant that it was every man for himself when it eventually arrived. George got a seat; I was not so lucky.
The Japanese have a wonderful system for paying bus journey fares. Passengers take a numbered ticket on boarding that shows which stop they got in at. They can then see the current fare for their ticket from a display screen at the front of the vehicle, similar to what you might see in a Taxi, though with individual numbered fares for the different tickets. When the time comes to disembark, it is simply a matter of placing your ticket and the right amount of change into the machine beside the driver. Should you not have correct change there is no problem, as a change machine is fitted nearby. Why can't all bus systems work this way?
28th August 2005
On arrival at the park we were immediately identified as foreigners, and by extension English speaking people. Our height was a dead giveaway in addition to the caucasian appearance; we were the only people over 5'4" in sight anywhere. This proved to be a blessing; the helpful cashier handed us English versions of the park map and a laminated card with all the available ticket prices in a language we could actually read. The unlimited ride wristbands set us back the princely sum of ¥4700 apiece.
As the ninth longest coaster in the world, Gao (#551) seemed like the best choice for my first Japanese coaster. The queue line began by passing through what I assume to be a dinosaur head, and moments later led straight into the station. The ride was operating just one train, hardly ideal with a four minute ride length, but there wasn't a queue today so it wasn't too much of a problem. The big challenge proved to be shoehorning ourselves into seats which were designed with Japanese people in mind; the only way George or I could fit in the car was to sit sideways across two seats. The ride could best be summarised Japan's answer to the Pepsi Max Big One. In short, it features a great length of track, one good drop, and gentle sloping hills for the rest of the course. The tracking is somewhat smoother than that on the Big One, corners excluded anyway, but there is no question that this ride could have been so much more than it actually turned out to be.
We ended up having to take the Chair Lift over to the next coaster. This ride operated with single seat cars featuring no restraints whatsoever. Needless to say there was webbing underneath to prevent unfortunate accidents should anyone fall out. I am somewhat curious to know how many people have had to be rescued from this over the years. Given the general efficiency and behaviour observed in this country so far I would not be altogether surprised if the answer was zero.
The second coaster of the day, Atomic Coaster (#552), was my first encounter with a Meisho-built shuttle loop; hardly surprising really given that all of them are in Asia. Rather than use a launching system, Meisho elected to use the slowest chain lift mechanism in the known universe, which takes a full two minutes to raise the train to the top. From there gravity takes over, with riders being dropped backwards through the station and into the loop.
The Spin Mouse (#553) had a somewhat different loading procedure compared to every other Reverchon mouse I have seen before. The operators would load all seven operational cars in the station, dispatch them at the minimum interval for the ride, then wait for the last one to return before starting the loading process afresh. This of course halved the maximum throughput of the ride, although with the queue we waited in it wasn't a huge problem. The ride, which had Senyo stickers on the cars, was one of the better such rides I've done, as the spinning was working well (if not quite as crazy as the model at Brighton Pier).
Our next ride was a dark ride attraction described on our map as The Shrine of Satan's Forest, though labelled (in English) as Adventure Ride on the building itself. No dark ride scenery was in evidence here. Instead, the fully enclosed vehicles featured projection screens, and the enclosed status allowed the vehicles to change elevation and angle in ways that would not be possible on a traditional dark ride.
The building was themed with Egyptian style carvings on the outside, though this bore no resemblance to what we found within. Instead, we were treated to the Garaxy Grand Prix video (not my typo!), which was completely impossible to follow. Things were not helped by a badly tuned video projector which was both out of focus and defective (in that there was a distinct sag in the image on the lower half of the screen). There had been no wait whatsoever for the ride when we got to the building. In hindsight I think I can see why.
The Dragon River rapids were no different to what you would find in a western park other than one addition; the seats were fitted with brightly coloured cushions. It is perhaps to protect these that the operators were ensuring every boat was filled to capacity; George and I were told to skip about a third of the queue to occupy two empty seats.
The Sphinx (#554) appeared to have been designed in a similar fashion to Gao, in that it consisted almost entirely of gently sloping hills. It never really picked up any speed in its journey, which made the brakes at the end of the ride seem almost pointless.
We were not expecting a great deal from Fujin-Raijin (#555). This is a pair of racing coasters built by the TOGO company, which has earned the nickname of Try Once, Get Off! based on how their installations run in western parks. In this case, one track operates with sit down trains and the other using a stand up version. The former was a little problematic due to the lack of leg room in the cars, but the latter was a surprisingly good ride. It was certainly a better effort than Grampus Jet (#556), an ageing Vekoma suspended coaster with Arrow trains. As regulars will know, coasters that swing are among my favourite out there, but I found it impossible to enjoy this one. The cars shuddered badly as they traversed the boring track layout.
It was probably the biggest surprise of the day to discover that the powered coaster for children, Ladybird, had the most leg room of any of the sit down coasters in the entire park. This makes absolutely no sense to me. Why on earth would this be the case?
Both of us had hoped against hope that the fine engineering talent visible everywhere in Japan might have been put to some use on Nio (#557), a bog standard Vekoma SLC. Sadly, this proved not to be the case; it was just as rough as every other similar model I've been on. Worse yet, the restraints had been modified to provide a little extra vertical padding for the shoulders, meaning that taller people fit even less well than in normal models. As a little aside, this now means that I have ridden SLCs in nine countries, which is particularly sad given that I have yet to enjoy one.
Based on previous experience at Six Flags Astroworld it was hard to be enthusiastic about riding Megaton (#558). Fortunately, our misgivings appear to have been misplaced. The ultra twister model here was running quite well, and the restraints didn't present much of a problem for me. Having said that, the braking at each end of the track still felt like a simulated car crash; it strikes me that this cannot be good for either the ride or the riders.
We waited extra time for an air conditioned carriage in the Ferris Wheel, and this proved to be well worth doing. For the ten minutes or so it took the wheel to rotate we were restored to a temperate climate. All the carriages were fully enclosed, and as such I dread to think how hot it must have been in the ones without the cooling installed.
We took a second ride on Gao before stopping for lunch. This was something I had been a little concerned about. Japanese cuisine is one of my personal favourites, but I did not relish the idea of trying to negotiate a menu in Kanji. Fortunately I need not have worried; the menus consisted entirely of pictures of the various options, so it was simply a case of pointing at the required choice. A certain amount of luck was still required; I thought I was ordering chicken but ended up with what I think was fish of some kind, but whatever it was tasted fine. The entree also came with a portion of delicious Miso soup. The only real challenge presented by the meal was the necessity of consuming everything with chopsticks. My complete ineptitude at this was noted by the table staff, one of whom took pity on me and brought me over a fork. Most of the people around found this frightfully amusing; I was just grateful.
We had spotted an alpine slide on the way to lunch, and determined that a second Chair Lift would be required to get to the top of the mountain where it originated. Once again this did not have any restraints at all, opting instead for netting underneath the course. This ride left us beside the Horror House, although the name in this case is of dubious merit. The building was certainly interesting from an architectural point of view, but the contents could not be described as frightening even if one was being particularly generous. We had to walk all the way to the top through assorted scenes, before taking a lift down to the base again. It honestly wasn't worth it.
Also at the top of the mountain was a miniature ferris wheel with automobiles on it rather than the more traditional ferris wheel cars. The theming, if you can call it that, was labels on each car signifying different signs of the zodiac. Having seen this it was not surprising to discover that the ride was named Horoscope. It got me thinking about the job of telling peoples fortunes, and the whole idea of predicting the future. The ideal solution remains a DeLorean fitted with Flux Capacitor, but let us assume that this is not available. I am going to make a bold prediction for all the residents of Japan for August 29th. Tomorrow you are going to sweat like pigs in weather of at least 27° celsius, with humidity of not less than 60%. You saw it here first, folks.
At any rate, we finally made our way over to the Alpine Slide. The queue for this moved at the same painfully slow rate of every other such attraction around the world thanks to the inherently low capacity of one rider every thirty seconds at best. On reaching the front, we were presented with a laminated card showing an English translation of the ride rules, in somewhat broken language but comprehensible nevertheless. Moments later, I was slowly accelerating down the ride trough.
I have a confession to make here, which no doubt will horrify all the other coaster enthusiasts who know me. I utilised the brake just a little at corners. The ride had clearly been designed for cautious riders, as anyone attempting to take the trip at full pelt would have gone flying over the side. There had been a lengthy delay before my dispatch, but at my cautious speed I still caught up a convoy of locals about two thirds of the way down the course, and in all honesty I am not surprised; I was probably going too close to the limit for safety. A ride of this nature could never get insurance cover anywhere else in the world, as passengers could not be trusted to behave themselves!
Not surprisingly we were both getting pretty close to exhaustion point at this stage, so we decided to call it a day, although there was still time for a brief excursion on the Parachute Drop ride for some photography.
The return trip to our hotel was even easier than the outbound trip, with a bus to Omuta followed by the Ariake Limited Express train back to Hakata. While waiting on the train platform I noticed something positively startling based on my experience at home; all the trains were dispatching at the exact time in the timetable, down to the second. This precision is something that should be possible everywhere in the world, but requires serious investment, something that the Irish government seems unwilling to do. Hopefully some day...!