Aaaahhh. On some days, there is nothing like a good soak after endless hours of hiking and / or photography. One of the few things that Japan is known for worldwide and that really lives up to the expectations, even long-term, is the bathing culture – but you gotta do it right: Not every onsen (hot spring) or sento (public bath house, which can be fed by an onsen) is a memorable experience! Especially sento can be rather dull places in suburbs or along highways… like the Health Land Yutopi.

The Health Land Yutopi was clearly missing quite a few things. Most of all financial success, obviously. But also an “a” at the end of its name, making it not only a failed business, but also a failed play on words… interestingly enough one of the most common ones in the Japanese language, as yu means water – I guess you get it now: yu, yutopi, yutopia, utopia. Well, the Yutopi turned into a dystopia…
Built in 1996, this public bath charged a 2000 Yen entrance fee, which is quite steep for a sento, given that even well-known onsen with nice views and gorgeous wooden tubs are more in 1000 Yen range. Optional food courses raised the price up to 5800 Yen… which wouldn’t be much of a surprise in an established onsen town, but in a rather generic looking building in the Ibarari inaka? (Inaka means “countryside”!)
Abandoned for at least five years, this location was dead as a dodo. Getting in an out was easy, not just for us, but for the metal thieves who stole all valuables a long time ago, too. While the tiled baths were quite dirty, but in decent condition, the changing rooms both suffered from mold, especially the one for women. Both areas featured a small outdoor area each, quite overgrown now, as well as a sauna and a beauty corner for further upsells; like an oil massage for 4500 Yen. On the upper floor was a bar, a rest room to relax, a “karaoke salon” and the restaurant area – all pretty much emptied out and of little interest.

Overall the Health Land Yutopi was just another abandoned run-of-the-mill sento. In fact, I have been to abandoned hotels with much more interesting baths… and of course to abandoned sento that were bigger and more interesting, for example the *Meihan Health Land*; in that article you can also read more about Japanese bathing culture, if you are interested…

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There are all kinds of abandoned places you can find in the middle of nowhere in Japan – hotels, mines, farms, factories, spas / water parks, restaurants, theme parks, even schools. A single apartment building on a slope below a countryside road? That’s rather unusual…

It was pretty much a year ago when I was heading to the mountains of the Kii Peninsula with a couple of friends. We were looking for a small abandoned church I will write about in two weeks, just in time for Christmas as it will be a perfect opportunity to write a couple of lines about Japan and Christianity. Walking along a mountain road soon afterwards I saw a rooftop down below while enjoying the beautiful landscape. My expectations were to see something like another rusty shack with a couple of gardening tools, so I was surprised to find a multi-storey apartment building that apparently hadn’t been used in a couple of years. It wasn’t in great condition, but good enough to risk a closer look.
The first few windows / doors were locked tightly, but we quickly found some open doors and broken windows. The apartments varied quite a bit in size and interior – some were very tiny, others big enough to house a family. Some were still fully furnished and ready to live in, others were more or less empty. Some felt quite homely, almost cozy, others were spooky as hell! In one of them I went from “almost heart attack” to “bursting laughter” in the fraction of a second. When I opened the door to the main room in one of the apartments, I saw a king-size bed with two… bodies… almost completely covered by the sheets. Luckily not dead bodies, but stuffed bodies – those of a big white teddy bear and a plush duck. Phew!
Most of the apartments were filled with rather random stuff, pretty much everything you can imagine – furniture, clothes, lamps, audio cassettes, mirrors, shoes, dolls. Just random everyday stuff from the 1980s and 1990s, I guess; too new to get me excited. Especially since I am not a big fan in general of abandoned private homes. The external staircase was pretty much a rusty mess, the brittle wood and questionable concrete slabs not exactly confidence-inducing – and the lack of an internal staircase made the whole building basically a hopeless case; I am sure nobody will ever move in there again. Since there also was a rundown abandoned hotel in walking distance, I assume that this countryside apartment building was home to some of the staff that didn’t want to drive up and down a rather steep mountain for half an hour to the next town, especially in winter.

Considering that it was an original find and a quick exploration taking less than an hour, the Remote Apartment Building was a pleasant surprise overall. The external staircase was actually kind of interesting, the plushy love couple quite memorable… and at least the building wasn’t mold infested (yet). Nothing I would rent a car for, but a nice, barely touched surprise between other explorations on the way.

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I think I’ve mentioned it before – abandoned schools are a dime a dozen in Japan, but at least the old wooden ones were locally designed and built to the needs of the people who used them, while modern Japanese schools from the 1970s or 80s on look pretty much the same all over the country; they come in different sizes, but not even in different colors. Those old schools though are usually one of a kind, regarding both design and equipment – if you are into abandoned Japanese schools it barely ever takes more than two or three photos to know which one a picture set is about. To me the big ticket item in this countryside school was an abandoned grand piano – hence the name, Grand Piano School. (Since then I saw grand pianos at several other abandoned schools, so pictures of the table tennis plate, the globes or the kitchen help to identify it; no matter what name the photographer uses…)

At first the Grand Piano School was a bit of a disappointment. With neighbors in sight we ran the risk of getting spotted even before entering – and afterwards every noise we made could have ended our exploration… which didn’t start very promising, judged by the first couple of rooms we saw. The hallway floor wasn’t in good shape anymore and most of the classrooms were in even worse condition. Some parts of the roof caved in, causing damage to the walls and the floor – and once a wooden building starts to decay due to moisture, it’s only a matter of time till it is compost. Luckily there were plenty of items left behind, including some agriculture tools, metal models of machinery and a microscope.
Things got even better when I realized that other parts of the school were built more solid – and once past the school’s own kitchen, the upper area offered some really nice additional photography opportunities… like the name-giving grand piano or the already mentioned globes on the way to the also mentioned ping-pong table.

Sadly I wasn’t able to find out anything about the history of this school, but a sunny, warm day and plenty of fresh air made it a rather pleasant exploration. Nothing that will stay with me forever (like the *Landslide School*), but overall a positive experience well worth the time and effort.

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An abandoned TV factory and electronic devices repair center with hundreds of displays still sitting around in their original boxes – sounds too crazy to be true? Well, you better believe your eyes…
While last week’s article about the *Yakuza Love Hotel* was definitely story driven, this one is all about the photos and videos as there is little to nothing known about the factory and its history. It just sits there abandoned. Probably since 2008, according to the calendars. While the assembly lines have been removed, leaving rather large floor spaces behind, some of the repair stations were still more or less intact – spare parts sitting on shelves at the walls. (It seems like one of their customers was Sega, most likely with their arcade machine business.) The really mind-blowing part though were the stacks of brand-new merchandise all over the place – large TV screens, no-name 12 inch green displays (!), 15 inch color monitors by iiyama! It seems like the company was focusing 100% on CRT technology and was wiped out when the world quickly moved on to flat-screen LED displays and TFT-LCDs.
Exploring the Japanese TV Factory And Monitor Repair Center was an absolutely amazing experience. While it’s always great to explore famous locations like *Nara Dreamland* or the *Nakagusuku Hotel Ruin*, it’s the unique hidden gems I am really after – and this factory is as unique and hidden as it gets; much like the now demolished *Japanese Sex Museum* and the still Abandoned Kansai exclusive *Wakayama Beach Hotel*.

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How does a quite dull hotel exploration turn into a pretty memorable story? Add some yakuza!

I often forget where or how I found a location as I do a lot of internet research, basically almost every day, but this one I remember vividly. It was on a regular Japanese blog about everyday life, not one specifically dedicated to urbex. The guy who wrote it did some other explorations, but this apparently abandoned love hotel piqued my interest as I had never seen it before anywhere else before. And he did a lousy job disguising the location as he called the article by the place’s real name, only replacing one syllable with a placeholder – and in the article he mentioned the prefecture it was in. Since the hotel looked recently abandoned I just googled it and within 5 seconds had the exact address, because of course it was still listed on dedicated Japanese websites about (active) love hotels. (I might or might not have labelled one of the photos with the real name… but I won’t mention the prefecture!)

A couple of weeks later the opportunity arose to finally visit this abandoned love hotel in excellent condition. My expectations were pretty high – my source didn’t show many photos, but they were extremely promising. Arriving at the hotel finding access was surprisingly easy as a back door underneath the hotel, right next to the parking lot, was unlocked… which was quite unusual for a love hotel. Not that the door was unlocked, but that there was a rather big shared parking lot. Usually those hotels have individual parking booths, so guests can enter and exit without being seen by others. Anyway, we entered and started to have a look around… and were soon quite disappointed. Not only the parking lot looked like those at regular hotel, so did the rooms. No exotic interior design elements, not even outdated 70s or 80s porn atmosphere. Just regular rooms with pamphlets insisting that the hotel was indeed a love hotel – by presenting the typical room rates (making the usual difference between “rest” and “stay”) and advertising the sale of cheap sexy outfits. When we finally made it to the front desk, it looked a bit converted, like everything else there. Yep, this most likely had been a regular hotel originally, converted into a love hotel years ago. At the time of our visit the original bar and restaurant were used as one big storage room… It was then when one of my friends left the hotel to have a look outside and the other two (American guy, Japanese girl) went back upstairs to check something out. I stayed behind and took photos at the bar area. After a while I started to hear voices, which is quite unusual as we usually explore rather quietly. I couldn’t understand what was said and I remember thinking that I would have to ask my friends to speak English at abandoned places, so it would be clear instantly if they were talking – or some other visitors. (Running into other people at abandoned places in Japan is rather unlikely, running into other English speakers is virtually impossible.) As the voices came closer I realized that only male voices were speaking… only Japanese. So those people were definitely not my friends. Darn! Since they were coming from the part of the building where we entered, they basically cut off my way out. As the voices came closer I saw the first lights from their flashlights, so I hid in an alcove next to a door frame. But they came closer and closer and at one point I had no choice but to leave my improvised hiding place, still hoping that they would be fellow explorers. I turned right and… saw a group of about half a dozen Japanese guys in suits, definitely not urban explorers. My camera still mounted on the tripod I mumbled a quick “konnichwa”, one of the younger guys replied with a surprised “konnichwa” and I headed with quick steps past the group through the door into the rather dark hallway that lead to the other side of the building and towards the exit through a semi-basement. I heard footsteps of one or two people following me into the hallway, but they stayed behind and didn’t say anything while I accelerated my steps, my heart beating like crazy up to my throat.
Right outside the door I met my friends. They had been able to leave without being seen, but also without being able to warn me. I think it was my Japanese female friend who instantly said “They looked like yakuza!” – and my impression was the same, just by the way they looked and the way they talked. We left the premises as quickly as possible, and when we reached the road again, we saw a HUGE black Japanese limousine with tainted windows. The kind of car that costs more than a small house in the countryside, definitely nothing like the tiny ones usually used by real estate agents. The license plate had the number 88-00, which apparently symbolized luck if you are a supersticious kind of person. The car basically screamed “If you mess with me or one of my passengers, WE will MESS YOU UP!!!” – whatever was going on there, it definitely wasn’t a normal sales pitch by a regular realtor. They didn’t even use the friggin main entrance, but came through an unlocked back door in the semi-basement!
All four of us were pretty rattled by those events. Like I said, usually you don’t run into people at abandoned places in Japan, especially not half a dozen guys wearing black suits entering through a back door after arriving in a car that cost something like six-figures USD. For the first time in a very long time we took a real lunch break on an exploration day (instead of the usual sandwich / onigiri in the car), just so we could sit down and relax for like an hour. And then we did what you have to do after being thrown off a horse – we got right back in saddle and continued to explore.
Oh, before I forget: No video tour this week for obvious reasons… :)

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Japan is a mountainous country and therefore abandoned ropeways and cable cars are not that unusual – abandoned chairlifts are surprisingly rare though. One of the few examples is the Utopia Lift that once connected a mountain ridge accessible by the *Beppu Ropeway* with the *Shidaka Utopia* amusement park – both of them abandoned, too. (Judging by the latest satellite photos, the Utopia took a few demolition hits since my visit, but it’s hard to say for sure how much of it is left these days without going there…)

After my exploration of the *Shidaka Utopia* on a bright, hot, sunny spring day I hesitantly left the abandoned theme park to head for the mountains in search of the Beppu Ropeway and the upper terminus of the Utopia Lift. Back in 2012 the satellite photos of that area were rather outdated and blurry, so I had a tough time figuring out in advance how to climb the mountains of Oita to get to where I hoped to go. All I knew for sure was that it wouldn’t be easy as nature was already in full swing – both flora and fauna. It turned out that my chosen path was way too long as I unknowingly added about an hour of walking up and down a mountain slope to my route; a shortcut I only found on my way back. But hey, at least I didn’t have to go to the gym that night… or the following one. But sooner or later my hike finally ended when I saw a rusty tower and a single lift chair of the abandoned chairlift in front of me – I guess this rather strenuous hike is one of the reasons why the Utopia Lift isn’t exactly a favorite amongst urban explorers. Another one is the fact that there is not that much to see. A couple of towers, a handful of chairlifts, the massive return bullwheel overgrown in the forest closing in as well as a small office and an even smaller plastic lavatory. But I genuinely enjoyed the vandalism free decay of the chairlift as well as the atmosphere on the mountain ridge on this wonderful spring day. It would have been a lot easier to get up there and to take photos in winter, but the green of the surrounding flora against the clear blue of the sky was almost intoxicatingly beautiful. Probably not a place you should go to all by yourself, but I very much enjoyed being up there alone. I know the photos are a bit repetitive, but I often get e-mails asking to publish more photos with each article – in this case there are not more photos, but probably the most per square meter of explored location, so I hope you’ll enjoy the set…

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If you want to learn about the history of modern day Okinawa and the old kingdom of Ryukyu (as the group of islands were called before Japan renamed them in 1879 after annexing them in 1872), you have many opportunities to do so while visiting Japan’s most southern prefecture – museums, historical sites, special exhibitions… and two themed parks called Ryukyu Mura (mura = village) and Okinawa World. Active themed parks still open for business, though both of them seemed to be struggling a bit during my visit in January 2015; a non-urbex trip and a good opportunity to take some photos of potential future abandoned places… Like many visitors of Okinawa I was wondering which of the both to visit – and since even the tourist information near the famous Kokusai Street in Naha wasn’t able or willing to give me clear advice, I checked out both myself.

Ryukyu Mura

First I visited *Ryukyu Mura*, about 30 kilometers north of Naha, accessible by bus #120 every 30 minutes (get off at Ryukyu Mura-Mae / 琉球村前 – 1070 Yen for the 80 minutes long ride from Naha Bus Terminal). Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for an entrance fee of 1200 Yen, the Ryukyu Village is composed of several original Okinawan houses that were dismantled and rebuilt there, plus some original buildings. Despite being a commercial themed park with occasional signs, the place felt rather organic; like a mix of real village and outdoor museum, plus some shops / stalls here and there. While about half of the houses just sat there, the other half was filled with life – people in local / traditional clothes, some offering lessons in dance, arts & crafts or playing instruments. When I passed through the park’s pottery barn, I saw that you were able to make your own shisa there, the infamous lion-dog from Okinawan mythology – 3300 Yen plus shipping (a month later, no overseas shipping!), pretty much the same total amount you pay for pre-made ones in Naha or any other tourist shop. Having no pottery experience whatsoever, but a patient teacher, it took me about 2 hours to make the little fella that is now guarding my desk at work. On the way out I tried a serving of soki soba (the local noodle soup variation featuring spare ribs) at the usual array of restaurants and gift shops. I didn’t visit the on-location snake center (included in the entrance fee) and my timing was a bit off, so I missed the twice a day parades, but overall it was a great day trip that I finished stopping at the Mihama American Village, kind of the US version of Chinatown right across a huge military base, on the way back to Naha. EXTREMELY touristy, but interesting to see…

Okinawa World

The next day I visited *Okinawa World*, about 10 kilometers southeast of Naha, accessible by bus #83 every one to two hours (get off at the terminal stop Gyokusendo-Mae / 玉泉洞前 – 580 Yen for the 60 minutes long ride from Naha Bus Terminal). Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Okinawa World is quite a touristy, commercial place which becomes evident even before you enter as there are several combo tickets available, depending on whether you want to see the village, the cave and / or the snake center – from 620 Yen up to 1650 Yen. Still not interested in snakes, I chose the 1240 Yen option for the village and the cave. The Gyokusendo Cave is a five kilometer long… cave… of which 850 meters are fitted with a metal walkway and countless lights for tourists to enjoy (you can do a free StreetView tour *here*). A nice bonus to what quickly turned out to be a rather small and therefore disappointing Okinawan village. There, pretty much every building was made use of to sell goods or services, much more aggressively than at Ryukyu Mura, where some buildings just sat there, rusting / decaying tools and other exhibits slowly fading away – and yet it would have taken barely 5 minutes to pass through the whole Okinawan World village… which lead to a huge exit building featuring an underwhelming Okinawan buffet (for the very affordable price of 1260 Yen, I guess you get what you pay for…) and a GIGANTIC gift shop. I’ve been to quite a few gift shops in Japan, but this one was without the shadow of a doubt one of the biggest!
The bonus location at Okinawa World was the Valley of Gangala right across the street – a cave / forest walking tour for people who can plan in advance as reservations are needed according to pamphlets and their homepage. I arrived without one 5 minutes after a tour started; too late to catch up, but I was offered to wait 90 minutes for the next tour to get together – which I had to decline politely as I had a plane to catch…

The Verdict

Despite being very similar at their cores, featuring all kinds of hands on experiences, local food and tons of merchandising, my experiences at Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura were quite different. If you only have half a day to spend or want to go to the Valley of Gangala anyway, you are kind of stuck with the much more commercial Okinawa World, but if you can take your time, I would recommend Ryukyu Mura over Okinawa World at any time (*check out their locations on a GoogleMap*). Okinawa World felt like one of many fake tourist spots you can find all over Japan – while fake churches and fake castles are excusable to some degree, a fake Okinawan village on Okinawa Island is not. And even if some of the houses were not fake, they felt fake. Ryukyu Mura on the other hand had a much more relaxed atmosphere… not all constructions were event or sale spaces, everything there seemed to be a little bit more rustic and run-down, more authentic, less pushy. If you have to choose between Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura, definitely go to Ryukyu Mura! (And check out their homepage before visiting! Ryukyu Mura offers a similar amount of events and hands-on stuff as Okinawan World, but since they don’t push it on you, you will barely know just by walking through the park…)
If you are actually not that much into those regular tourist things to do, let me remind you of the abandoned places I visited on Okinawa during a previous trip, like the *Nakagusku Hotel Ruin* and the now demolished *Sunset View Inn Shah Bay*!

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