Japan's Tobu World Square: Model citizens in a model city

From where I'm standing, I can see the Empire State Building looming over the Statue of Liberty. On the other side of the harbour rises the unmistakeable red form of the Tokyo Tower, and in the distance I can see Taiwan's lofty Taipei 101 building.

I'm not having delusions, and I'm not dreaming, though Tobu World Square does have dreamlike qualities. This theme park in the Nikko region north of Tokyo is a fine example of the Japanese obsession with detail. In my week in Japan I've noticed how restaurants often specialise in a particular dish, honing it to perfection, and here the same attention is lavished on famous structures.

It's quite a collection. Spread across the property are more than 100 replicas built to a precise 1:25 scale. This makes them quite sizeable – at over 25 metres tall, the model of Tokyo's Skytree Tower looms over me as I pass.

From a replica of Narita Airport, complete with planes standing at gates, to the Great Pyramids with tiny camels and robed Egyptians, each structure has been given an enormous amount of care in its crafting. As I pass the Colosseum, St Peter's Basilica, the Eiffel Tower, Tower Bridge, Neuschwanstein Castle, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China, among others, I'm very impressed.

I'm similarly taken with Edo Wonderland, a nearby sister attraction. Taking a similar approach to history as does Ballarat's Sovereign Hill, it's a period village full of working businesses, demonstrations, and people in costume.

The focus here is the Edo period of Japan's history, from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Tokyo and its surrounds experienced a cultural blossoming during this era, and the village recreates its highpoints.

During my afternoon visit I dip in and out of historically precise buildings, enjoy tea at a traditional cafe, watch an action-packed stage show featuring ninjas, and observe an elaborate street parade of oiran, lavishly dressed entertainers.

Aside from its entertainments, Edo Wonderland is a pleasant place to wander. Flanked by green hills, its timber buildings hung with cloth banners form a harmonious ensemble. Populated with both locals and visitors, many of whom have hired traditional costume, the village is a calming counterpoint to the bustle of Tokyo.

My final Nikko activity is similarly restful: a ride aboard the SL Taiju, a restored steam train which recently began running between spa town Kinugawa Onsen and Shimo-Imaichi, stopping at Tobu World Square on the way.

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The Taiju does not disappoint this rail fan. Having been built in 1941 to pull carriages in northern Hokkaido, its locomotive is a hefty black machine with funnel, domes, and its name written in large Japanese characters on a disk at the front. The railway company makes a show of it each morning at Kinugawa Onsen Station, rotating the loco on a turntable for onlookers, adding commentary as it hisses steam.

On the platform I pass photographers dressed in retro uniforms, and board a restored 1960s blue carriage. Then we're off, heading past low green mountains, houses and forests, with the blue-green Kinu River occasionally visible below us. As the buildings thin out we see rice fields, and pass beneath canopies formed by the branches of Japanese cedars.

There's plenty more to see in Nikko, including a brace of World Heritage buildings centred on the Toshogu Shrine. For the moment though, I'm happy to be on the move, powered by steam.

TRIP NOTES

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organisation and Tobu Railway.

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

www.tobujapantrip.com

jnto.org.au

FLY

Qantas flies to Tokyo from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, see qantas.com.au

STAY

Kinugawa Onsen Hotel is a comfortable place to stay, with onsite thermal baths. From ¥20,000 a night, including breakfast and dinner. See kinugawaonsenhotel.com

VISIT

Tobu Railway's two-day Nikko Pass (World Heritage Area) costs ¥2000, and covers a return train trip from Tokyo, unlimited local transport, and discounted entry for Tobu World Square, Edo Wonderland and the SL Taiju. See tobujapantrip.com

Tobu World Square entry is ¥2800. See tobuws.co.jp

A day pass to Edo Wonderland costs ¥4700. See edowonderland.net

RIDE

The SL Taiju steam train runs on weekends and public holidays. A one-way ticket is ¥1000. See tobujapantrip.com

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