It was, without a doubt, the scariest thing I’ve ever done for fun. And I won’t ever do it again.
Twenty minutes on a suburban train gets you from the futuristic bombast of Kyoto’s central railway station (imagine wrapping the Death Star from Star Wars around a very big train set) to the leafy quiet of Uzumasa. The Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (or Toei Kyoto Studio Park as their bilingual website calls it) is a 5 minute walk from Uzumasa station, though Japan Rail Pass users will need to get off 15 minutes away at JR Hanazono.
There’s been a movie studio in the area since 1926, and Toei has operated from here since the company’s foundation in 1951. The theme park opened in 1975, and although most filming is done on the separate studio lot, you can still see scenes being shot on the permanent exterior sets of the park.
If there’s anyone in your party who doesn’t care for theme parks, they can take a detour to Koryu-ji, Kyoto’s oldest temple, built during the lifetime of scholar-politician Prince Shotoku to house a glorious statue of the Buddha given to him by the Korean court. The temple complex has burned down twice, in 818 and 1150 CE, and been rebuilt twice, but the Buddha still smiles into the future, forever ageless, knowing all things pass, and hence entirely undisturbed by the horrors I endured a few hundred yards away.
The Eigamura is a wonderful place to spend a day, and there is more than enough to keep fans of Japanese pop culture happily occupied. If you’re not interested in the demos of how movies are shot or how fight scenes are choreographed, there are all the charming Showa-era and earlier artefacts and re-creations to admire. If it’s too wet to explore the streets and alleys of the lot, or stroll around in costume having your picture taken as a samurai or geisha, you can head indoors to the aircraft-hangar-sized display of costumes and props from tokusatsu – Japanese live-action SFX – shows. Most guidebooks say to allow at least two hours; this pair of geeks stayed until they threw us out at closing time, visiting and revisiting every part of the exhibitions and exterior sets. (Because, you know, there are places where 773 photos just aren’t enough.)
But we did not go back into the haunted house.
It wasn’t the modest extra admission charge that put me off repeating the experience. From the outside, it didn’t look like much, but it looked like fun. Despite the warning cones and taped-off renovations in the entrance, the exterior was slightly more tasteful than the average British or American funfair attraction. There was nothing to suggest the horror to come, although I wondered why there was a bilingual notice at the admission desk stating very firmly that guests must not punch or kick the staff. They seemed nice enough: the lady in the ticket booth was sweetness personified…
There are no fancy modern SFX here. All the shocks and thrills and screams and shivers are delivered by technology that’s been around since the Edo era and before – trapdoors, wind machines, moving floors and basic soundboxes. And actors. We mustn’t forget the actors. I won’t.
In the chilly semi-darkness, the bodies lying on the floor or chained to instruments of torture look like models. Then a cold hand grabs your ankle: a half-seen figure materialises from a wall and lurches moaning towards you, dripping blade in hand…
Five minutes in I was gripping my partner’s arm like the most shrinking violet that ever swooned in a gothic novel. Fifteen minutes later, when we emerged again into the safe commercialised theme-park daylight, I was shaking, my heart racing, my mouth dry. There was a point where I seriously considered going back the way I’d come. My embarrassment at having to tremble my way past the sweetly smiling lady in the ticket booth like a scared toddler was stronger than my abject terror – but only just.
It was nothing but smoke and mirrors, light and sound and timing, but it worked on me. My other half, manly to the core, wasn’t scared at all – or at least, not as scared as I was. He’s seen more gory movies.
The reason for that notice at the entrance, by the way, is that some visitors get so scared they hit out. The actors are extras or contract players from the studio, boosting their income when there’s no work on Toei’s films or TV dramas. Bruises mean more time in makeup; more serious injuries mean time off work.
I enjoyed every minute of the Eigamura. I even enjoyed the haunted house, in a way. But I don’t want to enjoy it again.