Abandoned Avonlea: Anne theme park in Japan now like a ghost town

In its heyday in the 1990s, Canadian World in Ashibetsu, Japan, attracted tens of thousands of visitors on a summer day. 

The theme park includes an almost perfect replica of Green Gables house in Cavendish and other P.E.I. landmarks.

Actors at the park played the roles of Anne and Diana, the main characters from Anne of Green Gables, the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

"The theme park also represented for a lot of Japanese people a less-expensive alternative compared to going to Prince Edward Island," said Terry Dawes, who grew up in Charlottetown but now lives in Montreal.

His documentary Anne of Japan focuses on the Japanese fascination with the story.

But now the park has fallen on hard times.

"It's kind of eerie because the theme park is abandoned," said Dawes.

'Like a ghost Anne of Green Gables' house'

Dawes took a video tour walking through Canadian World in the summer of 2014, shortly before the park was taken over by the municipal government. 

"In the course of three or four days being there, the only people I saw was a gardener who was wrapping up his work and four tourists that I saw."

"It's like a ghost Anne of Green Gables' house."

According to Dawes, Ashibetsu, a former coal mining town, was looking for a way to revitalize its economy in the early 1990s, and the answer was tourism.

"It was just like this manifestation during the 1990s when Japanese people were building theme parks on a mass scale," said Dawes.

'Pretty surreal'

Jennifer Long auditioned for the part of Anne at Canadian World in 1993 and landed the part at the age of 13. She spent a year in Japan, playing Anne and working as a cultural ambassador. 

"It was pretty surreal," said Long, who grew up in Charlottetown but now lives in Vancouver.

"What was absolutely fascinating to me was the detail," recalled Long.

"They crushed up red brick to mimic the red roads of P.E.I. and brought in teams to make it a near replica of the Green Gables house in Cavendish, everything down to the wallpaper."

While there were other parts of Canada represented, Prince Edward Island, and specifically the village of Avonlea, were the crown jewel of the theme park.

There was a replica of the Kensington train station, the Orwell school house, and a lake with canoes named the Lake of Shining Waters.

"I loved the train ride, because on the really crazy days that was one way we could be still be in the public eye and interact with people, but just a little bit of a reprieve," said Long, who recalled days with 40,000 visitors to the theme park.

There were live performances and concerts as well as traditional mascot appearances.

Anne fans

Long recalled it was an intense experience for a 13-year-old from P.E.I., and her 16-year-old sidekick, also from Canada, who played Diana.

"So we had this kind of crazy shared experience of almost having a taste of celebrity, but not really knowing how to deal with it, people following you into the bathroom, or you can't eat in public because people are so anxious to get photographs," said Long. 

"I find it very funny thinking of people with vacation photo albums and knowing that I'm in thousands of peoples' vacation photos."

"It's a fond memory for sure."

Hard times

Long said the park was starting to struggle while she was there.

"The winters in Hokkaido are harsh, they are very much like East Coast winters, where you get a ton of snow, and there were days, especially during the winter, where we'd see maybe a dozen people."

Ashibetsu is a small town, comparable in size to Charlottetown, and it's relatively remote — a two-hour train ride from Sapporo, the next major centre, and more than a thousand kilometres from Tokyo.

Filmmaker Dawes agreed that geography played a part in the park's decline, as did the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

"When I was there, I saw almost no one, but it is very beautiful, it's amazingly well kept," he said.

P.E.I. connection

The municipal park with the Green Gables house is now open in the summer season with free admission, but there are no longer staff or interpreters on the site. 

There is another P.E.I. connection to Ashibetsu — it has been twinned with Charlottetown since 1993. 

Every second year, junior high school students from Ashibetsu come to P.E.I. on a cultural exchange. Four students will visit again in September 2017.

Meanwhile, Dawes hopes to complete his documentary by the fall and to find a place to screen it on P.E.I., as well as in Japan.