Theme park giving South Koreans a Japan fix despite pandemic

In a city about 60 kilometers north of Seoul is a theme park that makes visitors feel like they have time-traveled to 17th century Japan, despite the fact that even normal trips are impossible for most people due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nijimori Studio, located in Dongducheon, South Korea, and not far from the border with the North, features a set of buildings that bring visitors back to Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) and has become a popular tourist spot since opening in September.

“I’ve always wanted to travel to Japan, and after realizing that this place is nearby, I decided to make a visit,” said 30-year-old Hong Song-hyun, who was at a cafe at the park with a friend.

“The only way I had experienced Japan was through photos, and I like it here because the country has been portrayed in the image I had.”

The nearly 4-hectare theme park originally served as a film set for several domestic period dramas that included scenes in Japan. Kim Song-mo, general manager for Nijimori Studio, said the set was turned into a theme park to make better use of the space and with the hope that it could also serve as a cultural bridge between the two countries.

The 48-year-old also said he has worked to make the place one where “ordinary people can come anytime and enjoy the entertainment industry and be part of it.” To that end, he tried to recreate a Japanese atmosphere as much as possible so visitors can feel as if they are really on the other side of the Sea of Japan.

Inside the theme park, there are sushi and ramen restaurants as well as a luxurious ryokan-style inn where visitors can stay for 500,000 to 800,000 won (¥48,000-¥77,000) per night. Visitors can rent kimono and stroll around the park wearing traditional clothes.

There is also a Japanese-style bakery and cafe. More than 90% of the furniture and dishware at the theme park was shipped from Japan. The entrance fee is 20,000 won.

Nijimori Studio, a nearly 4-hectare theme park, originally served as a film set for several South Korean period dramas that included scenes in Japan. | KYODO
Nijimori Studio, a nearly 4-hectare theme park, originally served as a film set for several South Korean period dramas that included scenes in Japan. | KYODO

The theme park draws about 2,000 visitors a day on weekends and about 700 on a weekday.

Before the theme park opened, however, Kim had to weather harsh criticism, especially from lawmakers, given the frosty ties between South Korea and Japan over historical and diplomatic disputes.

The relationship has become particularly tense since 2018 when South Korea’s top court ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans for forced labor during World War II.

The following year, Japan imposed stricter export controls against South Korea over key materials that are used to produce display panels and semiconductors. That was soon followed by a boycott of Japanese products among South Korean consumers.

“I actually did not care what others said or worried about this project as it was not at all political,” Kim said, adding he just feels happy to see people enjoy themselves at the theme park.

Kim Un-hye, 38, said she decided to visit Nijimori Studio when looking for activities that she would be able to enjoy instead of making an actual trip to Japan. For her, too, the cultural experience is something separate from the political disputes between the two countries.

“(Politics is politics) and culture is culture,” she said while taking pictures of her mother dressed in a kimono.

Kim, the general manager, said he plans to construct more buildings to give visitors more activities to choose from.

He also hopes that the popularity of the theme park will help the whole Dongducheon area economically after U.S. troops mostly withdrew from bases in the city.

“I expect (Nijimori Studio) to be of great help in revitalizing the local economy, enhancing the city’s overall image and creating jobs.”

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