Choo-choo! The Japanese tourism hype train was abruptly stopped in its tracks and is about to gain traction again soon, probably from spring on. But let’s be honest: Japanese trains are overhyped!

The amount of glorified bullshit that is thrown out about and cultivated by Japan is mind-blowing – always popular: trains. According to weebs and other enthusiasts there is no doubt that Japanese trains are perfect! And while I have to admit that the Japanese railway system is really good overall and especially in comparison to other countries, it’s far from being perfect – and hyped by people who either haven’t been to Japan or rode four Shinkansen between Tokyo and Hiroshima.
First of all: Shinkansen are for Japanese trains what Tokyo is for Japan – technically part of the whole, but in reality its own fast-paced, overpriced microcosm that’s far from being representative. I’ve spent thousands of hours on all kinds of trains in Japan: commuter trains, Shinkansen, every shade of regional train (from local to Special Rapid Express), and even a couple of tourist trains that run only seasonal a few times a week on special days. And let me tell you something: The further you get away from the Shinkansen, the more dire the situation becomes. Sometimes it takes only one change to go from “on time and announcements in four languages” to “delayed by XX minutes and Japanese only”, to go from one connection every five minutes to five connections a day. And no, despite of what you might have heard or read, delays are not announced in increments of seconds, but minutes. (I had that moronic discussion with a fellow German back in 2012 on a business trip to Cologne when I made the mistake of admitting to speaking the local language while guiding a bunch of Japanese suits through the depths of the German public transportation system. “I’ve read that…!” “It’s not true!” “But the article said…” “I’m living in Japan and been there for six years, it’s minutes, not seconds.” “But I’ve read somewhere…!”)
Unlike the vast majority of Shinkansen, trains in the countryside are often delayed, and it’s not unusual to miss a connection, which is especially annoying in rural areas where there can be hours between trains. But most tourists don’t make that experience, because they are too busy hunting down the soul of the true Japan in their two week long stay between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima. They don’t get the desperate adrenaline rush of missing their countryside stop on a two car wanman (“one man” – trains that are actually quite common these days and just have a driver, no conductor; so only the door at the very front opens, and if you are not aware of that, you’ll be stuck confused in the back until it’s too late and get dragged along for another 5 to 10k) – it’s an experience you won’t forget and probably only have once, but it’s like a rite of passenger… uhm… passage. Why are wanman more and more common? Because more and more train stations in the sticks are not manned anymore, because fewer and fewer people are using those lines – and apparently overtourism doesn’t affect the problem in a positive way, because Japan’s main Instagram and “brag on social media” spots are along the Shinkansen lines. Which is probably also the reason why it’s not really newsworthy that Japan’s rail network is getting shorter and shorter – a trend that started decades ago with the closure of industrial lines of heavy manufacturing still threatens about half of the track network in Hokkaido alone! Sure, repairing the bridge to Kansai Airport and its railroad part within six days after it was damaged by Typhoon Jebi on September 4th 2018 made news worldwide – but nobody is talking about all those regional lines… The important Sekisho and Nemuro Lines between Sapporo and Obihiro were partly closed for months in 2016 after torrential rain. In January 2015 the Hidaka Main Line was shortened by 116 km to just 30.5 km after it got severely damaged by a winter storm – it closed for good officially on April 1st 2021 as JR decided not to repair it. On October 8th 2009 Typhoon Melor took out 17.7 km of the Meisho Line in Mie prefecture – repairs took six and a half years (not six days!) and the line fully opened in March 2016 again. And those are just a few examples off the top of my head, disruptions I know about because I was affected by them. And don’t get me started about those tiny lines with half a dozen connections per day, sometimes 4, 5, 6 hours between connections… Or the ticket prices! Sure, if you are a tourist and eligible to use the dirt cheap countrywide JR Pass you don’t have a reason to complain, but for most people (and overseas tourists are still not most people!) pay a ton of money for trains that require surcharges, which includes all Shinkansen and most express trains. Fun fact: For me, based in Osaka, it’s cheaper to fly mid-distance within Japan roundtrip than it is to go to Tokyo by Shinkansen one way. Which is why I explore so much more in Kyushu, Tohoku, and Hokkaido than I do in Kanto…
Sure, overall the train system in Japan is good – and much better than in most other countries, but please spare me the glorified weeaboo bullshit unless you’ve always paid full price, rode thousands of terribly crowded rush hour trains and got stuck in the countryside for hours due to delays!

And that finally brings us to the Peninsula Train & Station, which combines an abandoned train on open track and an abandoned station of the same line a few kilometers away. Japan has lots of peninsulas and a lot of them with train lines suffered from cuts – either partly or completely, because hardly anybody wanted to go past that scenic onsen town halfway down the coast, for example. There must be hundreds of small abandoned train stations all over Japan, lots of them demolished or collapsed; the remaining one turned into cafés or shops at best, or are decaying and hard to find at worst. The Peninsula Train & Station were part of a larger network and opened for business in the late 1950s. In the mid-90s most stations were unmanned, the trains “wanman” – 10 years later a section of more than 60 km length was closed for good, including more than two dozen stations. The Peninsula Train Station was probably the ugliest station building I’ve ever seen, fortunately it could be easily circumvented and ignored. The trackless platform on the other hand was quite lovely, especially on that late summer day I came there to have a look around. Perfect for a photo shooting, with or without a model. The abandoned train a few dozen kilometers away was still sitting on its track on an earth mount between some fields and a forest – easy to take pictures of from a distance, but quite a pain to get to as the mound was overgrown and the vegetation was slowly swallowing the train. It was a beauty though, slowly fading away being exposed to the elements. Unfortunately a couple of suzumebachi cut that session short, but other than the hassle it was a great experience – especially in hindsight… 🙂

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Abandoned playgrounds usually are a part of deserted towns or theme parks – this one was different…

If there is one thing that Japanese people truly seem to love, it’s viewpoints. There are thousands of them all across the country. Along the coastline, next to bridges, on mountaintops, on mountainsides, next to waterfalls, towers in the middle of plains – if it’s even remotely worth taking a photo you bet somebody built a platform and marked it as a viewpoint on GoogleMaps.

The now abandoned Viewpoint Playground was built in the 1980s and is still in remarkable condition, considering that it has been abandoned for almost a decade now. It consists of playground equipment, a restroom hut, several benches and tables as well as rest house a little bit down the slope. Most elements are made of fake wood – a wire construction covered by concrete, shaped and painted like branches, boards, and logs. You have that stuff all over Japan, but barely ever in almost pristine condition, barely touched. Of course the viewing platform with the free tower viewer (not working anymore) has two small slides of the same material, which really made me wonder: What’s with Japan and concrete slides? Sure, they are cheap, but they are basically not usable, because most of them have a surface that is reminiscent of sandpaper. Even if you’d want to, you just can’t really go down those slides… and yet they are at playgrounds everywhere in Japan.

Abandoned playgrounds are rather rare in Japan, despite the fact that the people here have fewer and fewer children – and the Viewpoint Playground was a beautiful one. It was mostly overgrown, yet you could still navigate between the elements, some of which required some exploration to find, all of which were in good condition, so with a day or two of serious landscaping you could probably revive the place – a perfect location to roam and take photos of on a sunny late spring day!

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Surprise, surprise – this was not your typical wooden abandoned Japanese countryside school…
Old Japanese schools are amazing structures! While most contemporary schools are made from modern materials and pretty much all look the same, the old ones were made from wood and come in all shapes and sizes. The biggest problem of those classics is obviously that they were not made for eternity and maintenance can be very costly (no insulation, damage prone material, …), which is why they are among the first to be closed. Once there is no maintenance it’s only a matter of time until they are damaged beyond repair and either have to be torn down or even collapse on their own. Only a few dozens of them are preserved as museums, restaurants, or art spaces – mainly because they tend to be in the countryside, which makes them even more of a financial risk.
The abandoned Clothing School dates back to the year 1875 and was an elementary school until it’s closure in the early 1980s. During its more than 100 year long history the building was expanded and remodeled several times, making it kind of a hybrid between a wood only and a modern school. After the school was closed it had a second life as an apparel company, which made this exploration so exciting – especially since I explored this place many moons ago and didn’t know much about it at the time. Entering through the back the building looked like a regular abandoned school at first. Then some cardboard boxes with fabric and plastic wrapped shirts caught my eyes. The next room was filled with industrial ironing machines by Naomoto – and down the hallway were several rooms that you usually don’t find in an abandoned school, including a bed room, a living room, a conference room or maybe a room for sales people, a head office for the boss and break room for staff featuring a female mannequin looking out of the window, scaring the living hell out of people not expecting to see it / her there…

I’ve always enjoyed exploring abandoned schools, but this one was truly unique and kind of reminded me of the *Japanese Art School*, which also was home of a business before it was closed for good and eventually got demolished after parts of the building collapsed. A fantastic location I’d revisit in a heartbeat if it wasn’t basically a day trip away from where I live.

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Love stinks… sometimes. So does lovemaking. Especially when you did it at the Love Hotel Manure!

Abandoned love hotels can be hit or miss – exactly 10 years ago I published my first one, the *Love Hotel Gion*. Some of my favorite locations have been examples of those seedy accommodations, but most of them have been vandalized rundown pieces of s#it… Speaking of s#it: The thing that made this deserted countryside hotel so “special” was the pile of manure on the other side of the street. And by that I mean a literal pile of manure, about two storeys high, which really ruined the atmosphere exploring the damn thing – and I’m sure it didn’t help when trying to be “romantic” either. At best the stench was bearable, but when the wind changed… phew, then you needed a real unusual kink to enjoy what you came for to do!

Unfortunately the inside wasn’t really worth dealing with the stinking cloud. I appreciated Miffy in the hallway, the indoor garden swing and the tiny sauna I’d only fit in when used as a torture device, but overall the place was just a vandalized mess, thanks to some metal thieves ripping the interior apart and leaving piles of insulation behind. In and out in a little over an hour, which means that we probably lasted longer than most guests when the place was still open for business! Overall a rather disappointing exploration, nothing in comparison to the *Japanese Castle Love Hotel* or the *Fashion Hotel Love*.

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Stunning views from the side of a mountain at the endless sea… not the worst location for an abandoned bridge!

Abandoned places come in all shapes and sizes – and at pretty much all price points. And while I’m not an expert on construction of any kind, this bridge looked kinda expensive: It was slightly curved, ended on lower elevation than it originated, it was wide enough for one lane in each direction and it was on the side of a mountain leading across a large abyss, so it was resting on several ferroconcrete pillar, including a massive one in the middle, at least 15 to 10 meters high. Unlike Japanese houses this bridge was built to last!

Unfortunately there is little known about the Bridge To Nowhere, except that it connects to a regular road on one side and isn’t even finished on the other. All the concrete foundations are there, but nobody bothered to finish filling the gap with dirt, let alone construct a road on the far side. Therefore the purpose of the bridge is unknown as it literally is leading to nowhere – there is no other road nearby, neither is there some kind of plateau that would be suitable to build a resort, a hotel or even just a few company retreats. The views from the abandoned bridge were absolutely stunning, and of course the whole setup is very reminiscent of the famous *Partly Collapsed Red Bridge* on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka.

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Most abandoned quarries are rather dull since they are usually little more than gaping wounds in the side of a mountain – the Tohoku Quarry though still featured a facility to process the stone material… and it was an original find!

About three years ago I did a Tohoku trip with my buddy *Hamish* – lots of countryside roads off the beaten tracks, often without StreetView support; a blessing in disguise, because the only way to check out locations was to actually go there and check out the locations in person. Of course there was a high failure rate, places were still in use or already demolished, but we were also able to explore some great original finds, including this mid-size quarry in the middle of nowhere. Places that are almost impossible to find and only to be explored by the most dedicated urbexers, which is probably one of the reasons why I still haven’t seen this location anywhere else, neither on blogs nor on social media.

The Tohoku Quarry was a beautiful exploration, but not a very eventful one – we drove up to the place and there were no fences or security, just a rope to prevent vehicles from entering (and dumping large amounts of trash, which is a real problem in the Japanese countryside!). The power supply equipment was protected by a large metal cage, nearby were a couple of huts used for storage and as an office / large break room. A large stone processing plant that was able to load trucks was built into the slope; the quarry itself was at the upper end, of course. It was a beautiful sunny autumn day, and we were exploring mostly outdoors, out of sight and out of sound of civilization – exactly my kind of location. Nothing to worry about, just exploring a naturally decaying industrial site. The place kind of reminded me of the *Takarazuka Macadam Industrial Plant* from almost 10 years ago – a classic site that is not accessible anymore, unfortunately.

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About a year ago I saw a suspicious looking building on GoogleMaps. A few weeks later I had the opportunity to check it out – and it was abandoned indeed. Not only that! It was a place I’ve never seen anywhere before (or since!) and it turned out to be a deserted senior citizen home, which are quite rare in this country due to Japan’s aging population.

I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll (hopefully) never get tired saying it again: There is nothing like spotting a strange building online, confirming in person that it’s abandoned, finding a way in, and exploring it! As fun and comparatively easy as it is to go and see established locations, it’s this true and pure form of exploration that gets me really excited – when I do it myself, but also when it’s documented by others. Sure, *Kejonuma Leisure Land* for example is a fantastic abandoned theme park, but do I really want to see the same shots for the 123456th time on *Facebook* or *Twitter*? No! Show me new places! Show me that you are an explorer, not somebody who can use a search engine – or even worse, who asked somebody for coordinates! Of course it’s impossible to be always first, or even among the first 10, 20, 30 people to explore a location – but Japan is a large country with tons of abandoned places, so everybody with at least a little bit of exploration experience should be able to come up with an original find every once in a while, or at least a somewhat rare place that makes me want to see more instead of thinking “Oh, XYZ again, next please!”…

The Countryside Retirement Home was a rather tough nut to crack. It was a somewhat random find that could have been almost anything, with quite a few active buildings nearby, which made approaching it even harder. From the outside the small complex actually looked still pretty good, only the rather unkept driveway and surrounding greenery were good indications that the building wasn’t used anymore. Unfortunately most of the doors were locked and it was literally the last one that allowed access – and the first thing I saw upon entering was a security camera pointed at me. Daaaaaaamn! Really? After all that sneaking around and rattling at doors I had to look at a friggin security camera? Well, after the first shock was gone I quickly started to smile – not because that’s what you do when caught on camera, but because I realized it wasn’t plugged in. The rest was a surprisingly relaxed exploration of an unknown building that turned out to be an abandoned senior citizens’ home – most likely not a care home though. The rooms looked more or less like regular mini-apartments, the elevators were regular sized and definitely not able to transport nursing beds. The highlight of the building was the breakfast / lunch / dining area with a small library / TV / board game section on the upper floor. While the upper floors were still in surprisingly good condition, it was hard to breathe on the ground floor as it was unbearably moldy, especially in the humid late summer heat. (Whoever broke into the building also emptied a fire extinguisher or two though – friggin’ vandals, boon and bane…)

Overall the Countryside Retirement Home was a great exploration and an overall fantastic experience; an original find, explored with only one friend (who actually deserves credit for finding the unlocked door – or as he put it: “You find places, I get us in!”). While the photo set might not be the most spectacular one, it was still an exciting location, because there are not many opportunities in Japan to explore abandoned senior citizens’ homes…

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Doing urban exploration in the Democratic Republic of Korea is almost impossible – both in the sense of exploring urban spaces as well as documenting deserted places. When in North Korea your hosts keep you busy, and with about 2.5 to 3 tourists per guide there is always somebody having an eye on. Thanks to hard work and a little bit of luck I was able to do both though… kind of.

If you haven’t yet read my reports about *the May 1st charity run* and *my visit to the Taesongsan Park & Fun Fair, where I had an unsupervised picnic with locals*, I strongly recommend doing so. They are fun stories with some really unique photos – and they kind of cover the exploring urban spaces meaning of urbex.

The more common meaning of exploring and documenting abandoned places is what this article is about. In a poor country pretty much abandoned by the world you have plenty of potentially abandoned places and especially vehicles, like boats and trains. But like everywhere in the world it’s a grey area, and like I’ve said, opportunities are rare… and risky. But more than anything else your mind is busy with not getting yourself and the group into trouble, so the stories and photos of this little piece are a lucky byproduct of my two trips and not the result of strategic planning.

The first location I’ll be talking about is a construction ruin (38.997410, 125.750262) right between two of the most famous places for non-Korean tourist, the *Yanggakdo Hotel* and the Pyongyang International Cinema Hall, home of the Pyongyang International Film Festival. At the time of my visit back in 2013 the place was actually still under construction, at least the heavy machine implied that, so I didn’t pay much attention to what looked like just another hotel – as a result it appears only on two of my photos by chance. You don’t want to get caught by yourself on an active construction site in Japan, let alone in North Korea…
The next couple of photos are of the Seungri Chemical Complex Refinery (승리화학연합기업소; 42.313073, 130.351401), an oil refinery, as you probably guessed correctly when reading the name. I don’t know much about the facility and I had to take the pictures while on a bumpy bus ride, but there are two things worth mentioning: First of all, nothing in North Korea is really abandoned, especially not a large industrial complex like that! (*And let’s not forget about the Komusan Concrete Factory*, built in 1936 during the Japanese occupation and still the biggest concrete factory in the country!) At best things look abandoned, at worst they are really not used anymore. Like the Seungri Refinery, which was definitely closed in 2013 and apparently didn’t open again, despite the fact that back then they had so much hope for the special economic zone Rason… So as soon as the regime vanishes or allows free travel in North Korea, this should be one of the first locations to visit for urban explorers, because even from a distance it looked spectacular in a post-apocalyptic way.
Which brings us to the third and last location, the smallest one, but one with a few close-ups thanks to some of my co-travelers. At our last evening of the trip we were taken to the Emperor Hotel, the DPRK’s only five star hotel with a huge casino. I was bored quickly and headed outside with permission from Mr. Kim, one of the guardguides, but soon was tracked down by Mr. Pak a.k.a. Robocop. *A few minutes later the rest of the group showed up and we headed down to the beach to enjoy the nice sunset – when all of a sudden and without talking to anybody two or three of my fellow travelers bolted down the beach along Changjin Bay towards Pipha Island.* Much to the confusion of all the guideguards, as you can imagine! Two decided to chase after them, one stayed behind – fortunately distracted by the events and the rest of the group, so I snuck away a few dozen meters to take some quick photos of the more or less truly abandoned hotel playground (42.300880, 130.390566), now outside the hotel fence. By no means spectacular photos, but probably the closest to real urban exploration anybody has ever done in North Korea…
*If you like to find out more about my two trips to North Korea please click here!*

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A lot of (Japanese) people stay away from abandoned places, because they believe in all kinds of supernatural beings – which I appreciate, because that means fewer folks trampling through. Personally I don’t believe in ghosts (anymore). The one in the library scared the living daylights out of me and for a while I was worried that Slimer would burst through a wall, but in my defense: I was seven years old when I watched Ghostbusters with some older friends of mine in the cinema, and the movie was rated FSK 12, meaning “12 years or older” – so I guess I have an excuse or at least an explanation why I was scared… 🙂

The Poltergeist Hotel is probably one of the saddest and quickest hotel explorations I’ve ever done – because I had to catch a bus, because it was mostly collapsed, because I was alone, because it was hot and humid, because I actually heard strange noises, both technical and animal. The access road was surprisingly tightly secured and rumors of “machine security” (cameras / motion detectors) didn’t instill confidence in me, especially since I was exploring solo that day. But I had a working camera, an abandoned place and about 20 minutes on location – so I was not going to waste that opportunity, as small as it was. Especially since the main party room was featuring a legendary chandelier.

After I found a way to get past the gate I found both the parking lot as the hotel itself in dreadful condition. The building with all the rooms was basically collapsed, even the entrance with the reception was barely standing – so the reception hall was kind of the only structure left that one could enter without risking to break an ankle or worse. A few quick shots outside and of the front desk – and off I went into the party building, in the 1980s and 90s used for weddings, funerals, reunions and other more or less joyful celebrations. My goal: A chandelier in the main hall. Why? Because it featured about a dozen chairs somebody or something somehow attached to it. Vandals and urbexers can be weird… Unfortunately the lighting situation was a bit iffy since the large window front was boarded up, but seconds after I entered the room I heard some kind of beeping and static noises, like from a walkie-talkie. The heck?! Other explorers? Because why on earth would a rundown piece of something like this have real security? Slightly unnerved I took a few shots as well as I could under the given circumstances, when I heard noises that sounded like a dog growling… Seriously? All in my mind? Other explorers with a dog? Security with a dog? What was I even doing in this hellhole? I could have sipped on a nice juice in an air-conditioned café instead, but nooooooooooooo – nosy me had to had a look at that abandoned, mostly collapsed hotel in the middle of summer… So I quickened my pace and took some snapshots of the stuffed animals on the way out. Abandoned taxidermy animal always make for unusual photos, especially when they look like they want to kiss you with their sewn-up mouths…

As much as I hate doing things to cross them off a list and as miserable as the circumstances were – I probably shouldn’t complain too much as I got exactly what I wanted, a somewhat decent photo of that increasingly popular chandelier. Everything else I consider a bonus, so in the end I don’t even mind that the set in total is rather small or that the exploration was rushed. Actually not bad for 20 minutes on location. At some places it took me longer to figure out how to get in…

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The Ruins of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 / 2021… will come soon, no doubt about it. Unless they cancel the event on very, very short notice. But for now we’ll deal with The Ruins of the Nagano Olympics 1998 – of which there are surprisingly few as most venues are still in use.
The first abandoned place connected to the Nagano Olympics that I am aware of is an abandoned hotel, used to accommodate the curling teams as their event was held at the Kazakoshi Park Arena in Karuizawa; about 80 kilometers southwest of Nagano and the first town to host events for both the Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics as the Tokyo Olympics 1964 outsourced the equestrian events to the popular resort area. Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of that fact back then, to me it was just a random abandoned hotel with high security (warning signs for both camera and personnel everywhere!). If I would have known I’d probably have pushed harder to get some better photos, especially since one side of the hotel apparently featured the Olympic Rings. And abandoned Olympic Rings always make for a good photo! Unfortunately I was inexperienced, exploring solo and running out of time… so I guess we’ll all have to live with the results. Still better than the original plan of heading back to the train station directly without making the little detour. 🙂

The other abandoned place connected to the Nagano Olympics was a rather small public gymnasium – apparently there were no events there, but it was rather close to two actual venues, so it was most likely used for athletes to exercise and warm up before their competitions. This location I found by chance when I was strolling around town. “Oh, an abandoned looking strange building, let me have a closer look!” The front was closed tightly, but like every good man I appreciate a nice back, so I sniffed around a little bit. One locked door and a couple of blocked ones by large, heavy pieces of furniture to the left – but on the right side I spotted some kind of side entrance. A bit nervous due to some cars coming and leaving at the lot in front of the building I tried to make my way to the most likely locked door across some elevated gravel area when all of a sudden my right leg sank into the ground almost up to my knee. The area I was passing wasn’t solid gravel – it was a pile of melting snow somebody put a thin layer of gravel on top, (almost?) like a friggin trap! As I suffered extremely painful ankle and knee injuries in the past and since there was no guarantee that the side door would allow entrance to the otherwise locked building, I called it a day and was about to leave when I saw a large sign next to some stairs. It featured the Nagano 1998 logo, including the Olympic Rings – not as good as on the building directly, but better than nothing…

Two vastly different locations, explored almost ten years apart. Not the most spectacular ones, but the timing is just right. 🙂 *If you crave more Olympic Ruins, please have a look at my article about the Olympics Ruins of Sapporo 1972.*

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