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Archive for August, 2011

There’s nothing like abandoned theme parks. Everybody seems to love them, including yours truly. No matter if just recently closed (*Doggy Land*), closed a while ago (*Nara Dreamland*), mostly demolished (*Koga Family Land*), completely demolished (*Sekigahara Menard Land*), under deconstruction (*Expoland*) or left behind after a nuclear catastrophe (*Pripyat Amusement Park*) – each and every one of them has a unique, absolutely stunning atmosphere; even if they were just waterparks (*Tokushima Countryside Healthspa* / *Kyoto Waterland*). “New” abandoned amusement parks barely every show up – it’s more likely that well-known ones get demolished. Here’s an exception to the rule: Navelland. (ネイブルランド)
You would think that Navelland (or Navel Land), a science themed amusement park with an aquarium and a greenhouse that welcomes its guests with a huge half-”diving” whale in front of the entrance, most likely should have been called Navalland (or Naval Land) – but you would think wrong. The Japanese investors and creators chose the name on purpose, at least to some degree. Initially it was supposed to be called GeoBio World in the “BioCity” (or “Bio-City”) Omuta – but the name of the executing company was called Navel Land for three reasons, all related to its location in Omuta, Kyushu: GeoBio World was considered the “belly button project” (heso jigyo, 臍事業) of Omuta’s revitalization efforts with several other projects being based on it, Omuta’s history is strongly connected to coal (mined from the “belly” of the earth…) and Omuta is located in the center of Kyushu (or so the makers thought – to me it looks more like the “nipple of Kyushu”). At which stage of developement did GeoBio World become Navelland? I don’t know. But I guess a lot of things wrent wrong planning and executing the project, so the naming issue was just one of many, considering that Navelland was open to the public for less than two years…
Omuta’s economy was intertwined with coal for more than five centuries, for the longest time it was actually based on it. In 1467 a local farmer named Denzaemon found coal when making a bonfire in the hills of his home – like many Japanese cities Omuta is spread from the sea to the mountains. Mining on a larger scale didn’t begin until 1721 when Ono Harunobu (most likely not related to the producer of the series of “Street Fighter” games) was granted coal mining rights. When the age of industrialization finally reached Japan after the Meiji restauration the number of mines in the area was increased. In 1872 the Meiji nationalized the mines, most of them in the township of Miike (三池), nowadays part of Omuta. Towards the end of the 19th century the Japanese state privatized a lot of their model companies und sold them way under value. Mitsui, for centuries successful in finance and trade, got into heavy industries just a couple of decades prior when they aquired a mine as collateral for a loan they gave, bought the mine cheaply and turned it into the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine (三井三池炭鉱) in 1899.
The mine’s history is similar to most coal mines – a huge success in the early 20th century it became less and less profitable thanks to the fact that coal was replaced by oil as the most important natural resource in highly industrialized countries. So when the local politicians realized that the industry that provided the area with both jobs and wealth for centuries would be gone soon they looked for alternatives and came up with several ideas – one of them being Navelland, which ironically closed in 1998, only one year after the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine. (A rather interesting fact that shouldn’t be swept under the rug: The Mitsui Miike Coal Mine was also home of Fukuoka 17, a Japanese prisoner of war camp, mostly for Americans, Australians, British and Dutch – soldiers of the latter three nationalities survived the construction of the Burma Railway in Thailand; nowadays still famous thanks to a movie based on a book by the French author Pierre Boulle, The Bridge over the River Kwai. The camp was opened on August 7th 1943 and help up to 1735 prisoners. It was liberated on September 2nd 1945, almost a month after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The camp’s commandant, Asao Fukuhara, was later executed for war crimes.)
In 1988 it was more than obvious that coal wouldn’t be Omuta’s future. Mining it just wasn’t profitable enough anymore. At that time amusement parks were the current money makers, biotechnology the future ones. So why not combine both? Throw in some history and you’d get GeoBio World – split up into Geo Zone to remember Omuta’s coal history and Bio Zone to celebrate Omuta’s biotechnological future at the Ariake Sea. An amusement park with affiliated research labs and a mining museum. Turning Omuta from a dirty coal city into “BioCity”. In Kitakyushu, another former center of heavy industries only 1.5 hours away by car, a similar concept called “Spaceworld” was about to open, so the planners in Omuta spared neither trouble nor expense with about 82 million dollars to spend and about four years to plan and execute.
Navel Land (not the park, the company behind it) was finally established in September 1989 with the sole purpose of constructing and managing GeoBio World – to get the idea off the ground they even sponsored a large bio symposium in Omuta in November 1989. But four rejected concepts, one of them being presented by Futurist Light and Show who worked on Tokyo Disneyland, and more than two years later, Navel Land decided to come up with a concept by themselves, since none of the previous ones could convince the Japan Development Bank – the main backer of the project.
At this point information about GeoBio World and Navel Land becomes vague. While it’s a fact that the park finally opened under the name “Navelland” it seems like everybody agrees that it was closed down on December 25th 1998. What happened to GeoBio World and the biotechnology concept between the early 90s and 1998? I have no idea. All I know is that by the time Navelland closed its costs went way over budget (between 100 million and 200 million US-$ - or up to 160$ od debt for each Omuta resident) and that the visitor numbers never came close to the projected 600,000 per year. One of my sources said Navelland was opened in July of 1995, another one stated that it closed after less than two years – all three agreed it closed in late 1998. Maybe we will all find out more about Navelland soon since it is becoming more and more popular as a haikyo, a Japanese ruin, recently. Until then I’ll leave you with some photos and a quick video walking tour. The “House of Coal” exists as well as an aquarium and a greenhouse, so I guess the main concept was realized and not yet demolished. The amusement part of Navelland is mostly gone by now – both rollercoasters can only be seen on maps and the one thing that’s left of Kiddie Land is the entrance…
Addendum 2012-1-30: Navelland was demolished in late 2011 / early 2012. Now you can find its exact location on my *map of touristy and demolished ruins in Japan*.
(If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Sometimes I wish urban exploration was as simple as googling “awesome abandoned location nearby”, hopping on the train for ten minutes, taking two dozen nice photos and then spending the rest of the day at the beach sipping icecold beverages. Sadly it’s not. It’s never that simple and sometimes things go completely wrong.
Like me visiting the Sakito Mine in northern Kyushu. I was a bit nervous about the place right from the beginning since it’s in the highly unreliable “Nippon No Haikyo” book (by now at least half of the places in the damn thing must be gone…) and GoogleMaps, my trustworthy friend to confirm locations with high resolution satellite images, delivered rather blurry results until a couple of weeks ago. I found some homepages about the place on the internet, but most of the photos were rather old, like 2003-ish. The Sakito Mine was actually the location I skipped on *my first trip to Kyushu* to give *Gunkanjima* another try, so it was kind of a given thing I had to include it to my itinerary; the mine being rather close to Sasebo didn’t hurt either…
After my long and exhausting trip to *Ikeshima* I was eager to finally see the remains of the Sakito Mine, but things went from bad to worse by the hour. When I started my trip on a nice Thursday morning the weather forecast promised four days of hot and scorching Japanese sun, but Friday was already overcast. When I woke up early again the next morning the situation didn’t change, but I wasn’t worried a lot. Ikeshima was way too exciting to be worried again so soon!
I got to the ferry terminal on time only to find out that the boat to the island the Sakito Mine was on would leave with a delay of ten minutes. Usually that doesn’t really matter, but of course it made me miss my bus to the mine, so I had the choice of either waiting 80 minutes for the next bus or walking the eight kilometers. I kind of remembered the bus route, so I decided to walk – still not worried about the overcast weather. Big mistake. About halfways down the road, not a single person (or shop) in sight, it started to drizzle. Not very strongly, but in combination with the high humidity and a rather cold breeze not exactly comfortable. After a while it stopped and when I was finally dry it started again. Not real rain (which would have made me look for shelter), but drizzle. So I continued to walk along the coast, following the road up and down – getting wet and drying.
After about two hours I finally reached the area where I expected to find the leftovers of the Sakito Mine. I saw some of the remnants in the distance, overgrown and clearly blocked by (active) private property – so I looked for other remains, especially the apartment buildings I saw on Japanese photos and maps. When I found a chimney I remembered seeing on photos my spirits were finally lifted again. I saw more overgrown, out of reach concrete stuff (I wasn’t even able to identify it…), and then some apartment buildings appeared, reminding me of the ones I saw the day before on Ikeshima. I got closer and realized that they were once part of the mine, but that they have been fully renovated a couple of years ago – nevertheless they were almost completely abandoned, but still in good shape. Maybe one out of ten apartments still housed residents and the nearby playground wasn’t in good shape either – it wasn’t overgrown yet, but it didn’t look like a lot of children played there recently.
I knew that I was in the right area, and I also knew that most of the mine had been demolished right after it was shut down - but I was looking for some apartment buildings close to a huge park and restaurant. North of it actually, just down the road. When I reached the park the drizzle became rain and the light breeze became wind – it was raining almost horizontally. I fould shelter under some kind of resting stop, but I felt miserable: wet, tired, frustrated, unsure if there even were some remains left. The rain turned into drizzle again and I continued to follow the road. I found the fork to the north and of course it started to rain strongly again. This time I found shelter under a tree and after ten minutes I continued to follow the road down the mountain, only to find out that the blurry shadows on GoogleMaps were… blurry shadows – they surely weren’t the apartment buildings I was hoping for. Okay, wrong crossing… I followed the road to a different direction and to a street blocked by a massive metal blockade. That must have been it! I broke through the thick bushes next to it and followed the road for some dozen meters – only to find a flat area, big enough for some apartment blocks, but completely flattened; a wonderland for weeds. So I got back to the side road, saw another “Don’t trespass” sign and went down a rather steep road to a bay – again no signs of apartment buildings, although there should have been some of them visible according to the layout map I saw of the mine. I returned to the main road and followed it a bit more, not willing to give up. When I spotted the tip of another chimney I disappeared through the bushes again, this time to the south. I was able to take photos of some overgrown chimneys, but I couldn’t get closer as I didn’t trust the ground there – and the photos didn’t turn out well in front of the greyish sky. By now the weather was a draining mix of rain and… non-rain, leaving me contantly wet to some degree. Back to the main street I saw another possible location to the north, so I added some more scratches to my arms – again without getting the chance to take some photos.
At this point I gave up. I was tired, I was wet, I was dirty – and I’m sure I smelled pretty badly. At least the street I was walking along had some bus stops, so I didn’t have to walk all the way back to the harbor – but the next bus was coming in 30 minutes and the rain was getting worse again. I decided to go back to the shelter near the park down the road when a car passed me by, turned around and then again behind me. A few seconds later it stopped right next to me and an elderly couple asked me (in English!) where I wanted to go and if I needed a lift. Not that it happens very often, but usually I decline offers like that – not out of fear (it’s Japan…), but because I don’t wanna be a hassle for anybody. This time I gladly accepted. I was too tired and too disencouraged to worry about being a hassle. I just wanted to get out of the rain.
Being a foreigner in Japan you surprisingly often come across xenophobic people. Not at the typical tourist spots, but at shopping malls, off the beaten track roads and way too often in subway trains when they think you don’t understand Japanese at all. But the senior citizen couple I met in Kyushu were by far the nicest people I ever met in Japan, topping even the guy who helped Jordy and me at the *F# Elementary School* a couple of months earlier. They were from Beppu, but on vacation for Golden Week. Super nice people, and it was lovely to see them interact – they were exactly how you imagine kind older Japanese people to be; including the man talking (he did business internationally and therefore was used to speak English a bit) while his wife clearly understood more of what I said and translated for him what I said. They drove me all the way back to the harbor, a fact I’m still amazed about. I wasn’t trying to hitchhike and I must have looked miserably after walking in drizzle and rain without an umbrella for hours – but they turned around to offer me a ride, a male foreigner of all people. Not a lot of people would do that in Japan. Or anywhere else in the world. I doubt the two will ever read this article, but just in case: Thank you very much again, you lifted my spirits a lot and made my day a lot less miserable!
Back in Sasebo I was ready to go home one day earlier, but the staff at the little inn I stayed told me that the weather would be fine the next day. No more rain, so I stuck with my original plan. I took a shower and went to Base Street for a third time – and finally I got my “Special Size” burger, 15 cm in diameter, the best burger I ever had. Still as good as it was 14 months earlier and the perfect ending of a day full of ups and downs… (Well, lots of downs, but two insanely huge ups!)

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The best way of getting in contact with the locals on Ikeshima seems to be leaving camera equipment on the side of a street. It worked in front of the apartment complex and it worked again about an hour later just down the road next to the school. I left my belongings behind to take a video of the apartment buildings next to the abandoned baseball field. When I came back I saw a guy in his mid-30s and of course I said “Hi!”. His English was actually pretty good, so we started talking about the school and he told me that it still has 9 students – and as many teachers (although this number might include other staff like secretaries). I asked him if he was born on Ikeshima, but he wasn’t. A Kyushu native he studied in Nagasaki and then was sent to Ikeshima by his company – and he didn’t seem to be very happy about it.
For all of you not familiar with big Japanese corporations: In Japan you usually don’t apply for a specific position within a company after graduation (from senior high school or college), you apply at a company in general and then the company decides what to do with you. Commonly this includes intense training from several months to several years, depending on the company you got into. Of course your classes at university kind of give that education a direction, but it’s not unusual that somebody with a degree in mathematics or French literature ends up in marketing or HR – getting into a university in Japan tends to be a lot tougher than actually graduating, so companies tend to start from scratch after 3 years of drinking, sports and art clubs. And just because you are fluent in a second (or third!) language doesn’t mean the company makes proper use of that. (But if you are female and good looking chances are great you won’t have to clean ashtrays for two years – instead you most likely will become some supremo’s secretary.) The same applies for your place of work. Just because your company has its HQ in Tokyo doesn’t mean you won’t end up in a subsidiary somewhere remote. Like on an island off the coast of Nagasaki prefecture…
After the guy told me that he worked for a recycling company on Ikeshima we split since he had to get back to work – and I was eager to continue my exploration.
I was actually starting to run out of time, so I went back to the apartment building area I shot in the morning, this time more to the east. Some of the buildings had new plumbing outside and people were actually living there. At this point everybody I saw gave me a short nod, which I interpreted as a sign of “Yeah, you are welcome here.” – it felt really good. At an abandoned house the window next to the entrance door was broken, so I took a few pictures of the bike, cleaning tools and mailboxes that were still there. When I got back to the main street, route 216, I actually found a house that was open for visitors (I guess… it was unlocked, clean and had a sign in Japanese outside saying something about a room on the 4th floor). All the doors were locked and the staircase kinda smelled funny, but on the 4th floor I was indeed able to look inside an apartment that was arranged like a museum room.
Outside again I followed route 216 to finish my circumnavigation of Ikeshima. I passed by the noisy Ikeshima Urban Mine Co., Ltd. and several apartment buildings before reaching the old loading plant. On the southern side of the harbor entrance was a scrapyard where a single worker was moving rusty stuff around. In continued following route 216, taking some pictures here and there, before I reached the apartments at the harbor again, where my explorations started about seven and a half hours earlier, making my visit to Ikeshima one of the longest photo shoots I ever did. But it wasn’t over yet…
Figuring out the ferry / boat schedule when planning the trip wasn’t exactly easy since all the information was in Japanese and not really clear. I got some help from friends who are Japanese natives and confirmed the schedule with the hotel staff in Sasebo – everybody told me the boat (it actually was a boat, not a ferry, also in the morning – sorry for that!) would leave at 4.09 p.m., so when my ride entered the harbor at around 3.55 p.m. I continued to take some photos and videos. But something felt wrong watching the activities on the boat, so I decided to hurry to the terminal – and of course the boat left right when I arrived, shortly after 4 p.m.; thank you very much, guys! The people arriving on Ikeshima of course saw what happened and told me that there was another boat leaving for Sasebo today, but they couldn’t tell me when. So I waited and thought about the day – my rocky start and how I didn’t even enter any of the huge industrial ruins at the harbor. 10 minutes passed, 20 minutes… Then some senior citizens arrived at the terminal and I felt a bit of relief – I wasn’t the only one wanting to leave Ikeshima. At around 4.35 p.m. the boat to Sasebo arrived. As I took a seat while the ship left the harbor I had a last look at the huge characters in the sand of the breakwater and I couldn’t have agreed more: „絆 池しま 大スキ“ – „Kizuna Ikeshima daisuki“ – „I / We like Ikeshima a lot“
(Since the inhabitants of Ikeshima consider their island a tourist attraction I added it to the *Map Of Demolished Places And Tourist Spots* and created *a new map just for Ikeshima*. If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* - and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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