Archive for the ‘Amusement Park’ Category

Arima Wanda Garden is a place of many names: Japanese people know it as Arima Wanwan Land – and Abandoned Kansai readers as *Doggy Land*. Let’s have a new look at a canine theme park that has gone to the dogs quickly…

When I picked up urban exploration as a hobby eight years ago it was still kind of an underground thing to do. Now you find articles with photo sets on pretty much every mainstream site, but back then it was tough to find any information at all about it (especially in Japan(ese)) as only a few people were familiar with the term… and rather tight-lipped about it. I never had the urge to break into those secret societies as I always had the feeling that the total freedom of exploring abandoned places strongly contradicts those groups, where a few or even a single person often dictates the behavior and knowledge of many – yet I happily followed two basic rules: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints!” and “Do your own research – and if you find a place, don’t reveal its exact location!”
To this very day people send me message like “I envy you that you can explore that many abandoned places. Where I live there aren’t any!” – and I thought the same about Japan in general and especially the area that I live in, Kansai. For three long years I envied people in Kanto and Hokkaido, where the few famous abandoned places in Japan were. And then I started to do research myself. Not only was I able to locate the few already known places (like the incredible *Maya Hotel* and the mostly demolished *Koga Family Land*), I also found several places yet unknown to the internet – like the now super famous *Nara Dreamland*, the demolition in progress *Expoland* and a still underrated theme park named Arima Wanda Garden; all of which I explored in December of 2009 for the first time. By the time I wrote about Expoland it was completely gone – and by the time I wrote about Nara Dreamland I knew that it would be impossible to hide its location and real name; it was too big, the rides were too iconic, it was even visible from one of the most famous tourist attractions in all of Japan, the Todai Temple in Nara. Arima Wanda Garden on the other hand… Arima Wanda Garden was small enough to keep a secret, but interesting enough to present on Abandoned Kansai – so I gave it fake name (*Doggy Land*) and refrained from publishing revealing photos, like those of the entrance (showing the name) or of certain buildings, showing the logo of the park. And of course I withheld certain information, like the Arima part of the name, as it refers to Arima Onsen, where Doggy Land was and is located.
Much to my joy those efforts were rewarded – it took me until 2014 or 2015 till I first saw Doggy Land on other urbex blogs. And apparently it also contributed positively to my reputation within that urbex community I never considered myself part of. It wasn’t until 2016 that I started to have direct contact with Japanese explorers on a regular basis, but I’ve been told by common friends that I enjoy much respect amongst both foreign and Japanese explorers for the way that I treated Doggy Land and many places afterwards, for example the *Abandoned Dynamite Mine*, the *Japanese Sex Museum*, and the *Kyoto Dam*; just to name a few.

Sadly most visitors after me didn’t treat the Doggy Land with the same respect as I did and wrote about it mentioning either the official English or the official Japanese name – with the expected consequences, but that’s a story for another time. Now that the cat is out of the bag I can finally revisit my first two explorations of the Arima Wanda Garden from late December 2009 and early January 2010.
While the Japanese name Arima Wanwan Land makes kind of sense (wan is a Japanese onomatopoeia meaning woof, the barking sound of a dog), I always disliked the English name Arima Wanda Garden. Wanda… woof + is? Wonder? Wander? Probably a mix of all of those, resulting in a horrible, horrible play of words. (Oh, and if you ever expressed gratitude by writing 39: Shoot yourself in the head with a large caliber bullet!)

The story of the Wanwan Land is quickly told: Built as an additional tourist attraction in the outskirts of the traditional hot spring town Arima Onsen, the Wanda Garden opened in August of 2001, saw a drop in visitors from 2006 on, and closed in August of 2008. The concept of the park was a bit strange, even by Japanese standards – it was dog themed. You could ride a little dog themed train, you could rent dogs and take them for a walk (up to 15 bucks for 30 minutes!), you could mingle with other dog walkers, you could pet dogs, watch dog races – or get an education there: the Kobe Pet Academy offered a 2 year specialty course and a 3 year course for high school graduates from 2004 on. Oh, and there was the Wanda Theatre, an indoor stage for trained dog shows – not sure if it was related to the school… Aaaaaand that’s pretty much it. If you don’t count the two or three eateries, but who does? Why people would consider that eclectic collection of… things… a tourist attraction worth spending time and money on is beyond me… and probably beyond a lot of other people, given the place’s (lack of) success.
As horrible of a theme park Arima Wanda Garden must have been, as great was it to explore this original find with my Spanish buddy Enric – darn, it was actually fantastic. Just over a year into the abandonment we actually had to climb tall fences / gates to get inside, and the only signs of vandalism were some plastic balls from a few airsoft matches. Other than that the Wanda Garden was in almost pristine condition – which also meant that none of the buildings were accessible, including the large escalator bringing guests from the main area back to the entrance / parking lots at the top of the slope. Nevertheless a great experience – and with 2.5 hours we probably spent more time there than the average paying visitor.
When I first wrote about the Woofwoof Land back in early 2010 I had to hold back some photos for reasons already explained, so please enjoy the following mix of old and new pictures plus a never before seen walkthrough of the whole park…

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It’s been almost five years that I explored the abandoned and partly demolished Kawatana Onsen Land. Since then I haven’t seen it pop-up anywhere on the internet, so I guess it’s time to write about it myself…
Kawatana Onsen Land was a pay as you go amusement park in the outskirts of a small onsen town. No “pay once, enjoy everything” – you had to pay for each ride individually. Either cash on location or with “tickets”; which was the cheaper solution as a ticket was worth 100 Yen at the rides, but you got a dozen of them for 1000 Yen (Q1: How much money did you save when you paid with tickets and used all you had? – Just kidding, you are not supposed to learn anything here… ever!) Attraction included pedal boats, a cycle coaster (those are almost as much fun as real coasters… you know, the ones your mum asks you to put under your glass?), a go-kart track, an artificial bobsleigh track and minigolf. In case you still wonder why Kawatana Onsen Land shut down, please read the list of attractions again…
By the time of my exploration the go-karts had already been removed, the cycle coaster (wheee!) had been demolished, so the visually more interesting parts were the artificial bobsleigh slope, basically a hill covered in green plastic mats, the minigolf area (with a tree growing at one of the Par 4 courses) and the pedal boats… most of which were sinking. By now I have visited more abandoned theme parks than active ones, and I had much more fun at abandoned theme parks than at active ones. Sadly I have to say that Kawatana Onsen Land isn’t one of the reasons for that statements. While it was easy to access and take pictures of, it wasn’t exactly an exciting location. I kinda liked the miniature golf area. That one was cool. The rest was rather meh. No *Nara Dreamland* for sure!
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The demolition of Nara Dreamland has always been something I’ve been worried about ever since I first visited this wonderful place back in 2009 – and now it has begun…

The abandoned Dreamland, an originally barely touched and most recently quite vandalized deserted amusement park in Japan’s former capital Nara, had been a lost place too good to be true for most of its existence – well, except for security, which most likely was in fact the previous owner and his son, who had their offices in the blue City Hall building right next to the entrance and did occasional rides through the park to catch them some trespassers to hand them over to the police. Nobody seems to know exactly the line of ownership, but before the current owner SK Housing and the last operator, the supermarket chain Daiei, there was at least that father and son duo… and probably somebody else as over the years I saw variously labelled signs trying to scare urban explorers away, including LA Investment (エルエーインベストメント) and KK Dreamland (株式会社ドリームランド) – the latter being rather ridiculous as a kabushiki kaisha is a stock company, and I doubt that Nara Dreamland ever had been one.
But this is about the downfall of the abandoned Nara Dreamland and in my estimation that part began about two years ago, when the park was foreclosed and first put up for public auction – since then “security” sightings went down (guess why…), vandalism skyrocketed (guess why…) and everybody and their cousin went there to take selfies with phones smarter than themselves (though I have to admit that I met some nice people, too, especially recently). About a year ago Osaka based real estate company SK Housing bought the lot for 730 million Yen (I reported) and things went from bad to worse – whole groups of people strayed through the park and neither they themselves nor SK Housing apparently gave a damn about anything; young parents with their barely walking toddlers, teens screaming like little children while playing tag, twens grinding stunt bikes on benches and rails, barely walking senior citizens… In spring and summer of 2016 you could actually literally walk into the park without jumping a rope or a fence, or even passing a sign. Seriously, just watch the first video at the end of this article! And then the dormant SK Housing, claiming that they have no plans with Nara Dreamland upon being asked by Japanese friends of mine in late 2015, woke up!

And so it began…

First SK Housing placed a ton of scaffolding on the parking lot at the main entrance, probably in May 2016… and they protected them with two new solid construction fences. Then barely anything happened for another four months, they didn’t even care to close the open gate. How do I know? Because I was alarmed and curious, so I went to Nara Dreamland more often than ever before. Much more often. At first about once a month from May on, from September 3rd till October 23rd every weekend, except for that one in early October, when I caught up with my old friend and occasional co-explorer Hamish – and it was during those two months that things got interesting! VERY interesting…
During my first couple of visits I realized that the amount of stored scaffolding was changing, yet none of it appeared in the park. (What happened to it? I have no idea, they probably took it to another construction site.) So I used the time to document areas of Nara Dreamland I hadn’t been to before, some of them I haven’t even seen anywhere else on the internet. I climbed water slides, had a closer look at the castle, went inside fake Mount Matterhorn, and even found a whole new building nobody seems to know about.
On September 9th SK Housing started to become really active by putting up office containers and porter potties at the lower end of the parking lot, the large construction fence with the main gate. A week later I saw heavy machinery inside the park, yet it was still possible to walk right in – so I took the already mentioned last chance video. When I came back on September 24th, I realized that prep work had begun in the week of September 19th. The previously mentioned office in the City Hall was cleaned out, so were several other buildings of the fake Main Street USA. And while I was taking photos, I got yelled at and shooed away by an older Japanese dude wearing a pink shirt, who was showing the entrance area to a business woman in her early 30s. So I left as they were most likely there on official business… and got right back in after I watched them leaving – staying till it got dark, shooting a video on the way out. A week later I saw that the removal of the plants along the main road had begun and that the gutting of Main Street USA was almost completed. What really shocked me was the fact that they destroyed the iconic Dreamland entrance sign there, without removing the arch-like building though. It turned out that this was my last relaxed exploration of Nara Dreamland as I spent the next weekend catching up with said old friend.
Upon my return on October 15th I was stopped by a French guy just out of sight of Nara Dreamland – he told me that demolition had begun and that he already talked to security and a construction worker; no way inside! It turned out that demolition indeed had begun on the previous Monday, October 10th, a national holiday. And while the prep work was limited to regular work days (Monday to Friday), a crew with heavy machinery was really active on that Saturday, demolishing the Main Street USA (probably because of the national holiday that week?) – most of the vegetation along the road had been completely removed during my absence, too, so everybody could have a good look from the outside at what was happening… At the same time gates were fortified and holes in the fence were fixed. Even old ones that had been there for years! According to large new signs in Japanese AND English, SK Housing had finally taken full control over Nara Dreamland, threatening to sue every unauthorized person caught on the premises. A Japanese only sign also stated that the construction site would be there till December 2017, which sounded like a reasonable schedule to demolish a large amusement park the size of Nara Dreamland. Boy, was I wrong – in more than one way!
So the next weekend I returned on a Sunday, in hope of finding the demolition site unstaffed. I wasn’t that fortunate. Instead pretty much all of Main Street USA was gone – security on scooters guarding both gates, the one on the upper street and the one at the main entrance. In the background you could hear machines smashing the merry-go-rounds to pieces. Not only did the crew work seven days a week, it turned out that they moved much faster than I anticipated. Much, much faster. In the two weeks since October 23rd the demolition crew not only got rid of the massive metal Screw Coaster, they literally tore through the wooden Aska roller coaster. I was expecting that they would dismantle it, probably scaffolding it first. But no, they just ripped through and tore it apart. (In German we fittingly say “Kleinholz machen”, turning it into small pieces of wood / firewood.) Same with the monorail station – and before you ask: No, I have no idea what happened to the monorail train. Probably “Final destination: junkyard!”. If the crew keeps up that speed, there will be little to nothing left of Nara Dreamland by the end of the year – which means that I either misread the sign at the main gate, or SK Housing will finish construction of whatever they are planning to build on the former site of Nara Dreamland. What that will be? I have no idea. When my buddy Hamish made a call just before SK Housing started prep work (in early September), their answer was that they are not talking to anybody about anything. Not photographers, not urban explorers, not the media – not future plans, not schedules, not people involved; not to anybody, not about anything. (Later I heard stories that even NHK was so desperate that they ran up to people and tried to interview them on the street, when they were just leaving the park; before the demolition phase, when it was still possible to explore Nara Dreamland in late September / early October – the NHK people obviously couldn’t enter themselves for legal reasons…)

It ain’t over till the fat gentleman sings…

Believe me, nobody is more devastated about this demolition news than yours truly! I started exploring Nara Dreamland before I began writing this blog; actually before I even considered writing it. Nara Dreamland is amongst the first dozen locations I’ve ever explored, it had been with me my whole urbex career – it’s in the background of my avatar (in the form of Aska). I’ve been one of the first urban explorers to go there… and I’ve been one of the last ones to go there. But just because the world’s most famous abandoned  (closed? 😉 ) theme park is currently under demolition doesn’t mean that you’ve seen the last of it! As I mentioned previously in this article: I have tons of material for more blog entries. Material you haven’t seen anywhere else before and now for sure won’t see anywhere else… Even this rather long article feels kind of rushed and contains only a fraction of the photos and videos I took in September and October. So there will be more in-depth updates about the last weeks of Nara Dreamland, about the demolition preperations, about the demolition progress… and about whatever is going to happen on the premises in the future. Abandoned Kansai always has been and always will be your #1 source for all things Nara Dreamland!
(Speaking of which – if you use information from this or any other article on Abandoned Kansai for your own work, please have the decency to link back; thanks a lot!)
Last but not least I would like to use the opportunity to draw attention to a location that did get much less than its share when I first wrote about it a few months ago, so if you have another couple of minutes, please have a look at the ultra rare *Shodoshima Peacock Garden* – you won’t regret it!

(For all your *Nara Dreamland* needs please have a look at the *Nara Dreamland Special*. *Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Truly unique abandoned places are really rare – Japan is no exception from that rule. And sometimes the only way to protect those locations is to keep quiet about them… until they got demolished. Welcome to the Shodoshima Peacock Garden!

The Shodoshima Peacock Garden (SPG) was a 30000 square meter park on Shodoshima, the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea, famous for its vast olive groves. Opened in 1970 on a small elevation in sight of the harbor in Ikeda it was closed on November 30th 2008 according to the Japanese Wikipedia; strangely enough I found a calendar from October 2009, but who knows who put it there… The SPG featured 3500 peafowls in its heyday during the early 70s, when up to half a million visitors per year were welcomed – a massive achievement, considering that Shodoshima is not connected to any other island by bridge; but due to its size, a motorized vehicle is kind of necessary, so you either need a rental or arrive by a car ferry with your own set of wheels. (Or you bite the bullet, like yours truly, and depend on the few public busses that make it around the island… but not all the way.)
Anyway, the years of plenty didn’t even reach the count of seven as visitor numbers plummeted quickly – by the mid-70s they were already as low as 150000 per year. The hatch rate of the peacocks also took a dive, which was the main reason why the number of peafowls in the park went down to 500 by 2002, when the park closed for one year for maintenance. In 2003 the Shodoshima Peacock Garden opened from April to November, but got rid of a main attraction that was quite popular before the break: 40 peacocks walked up a ramp inside Mount Peacock and then flew the 10 meters down into the park to the excited visitors – but despite 5 meter high nets and peacocks not being good flyers, every once in a while one them escaped, which was probably the main reason why the so-called Flight Show was cancelled; it turned out that the flight show was too much of a flight risk. By 2007 the number of peacocks went up again to 1000, but the number of visitors went down to a mere 50000 for the whole season; not nearly enough to cover the costs, and so the Shodoshima Bus Company, who owned the SPG, decided to close the park for good – especially since the aging facilities would have required additional investments soon. When the park finally closed in 2008, the remaining 200 peacocks were sold to other animal parks, including Shodoshima’s own Choshikei Monkey Park.

I first found out about the Shodoshima Peacock Garden from my German friend Chris a little more than four years ago. He was visiting Japan and traveled around a bit with his girlfriend, before we met at a Torikizoku in Osaka. We talked about this and that, when he mentioned that strange abandoned park he found on Shodoshima… with some taxidermy peacocks in a souvenir shop. I had never heard of that place before and was terribly intrigued… So I went there in September of 2012 with my friend Chris from New Zealand. First we (re)visited the *Shikoku New Zealand Village* and an abandoned transformer station, the next morning we took the ferry from Takamatsu to Ikeda. Approaching the harbor, we could already see the Shodoshima Peacock Garden on an elevation right at the coast. 20 minutes later we stood at the park’s entrance – filled with pure excitement upon entering a place we knew hardly anything about and had never seen pictures of before. This was exploration in its purest form. Don’t tell me that people going to *Nara Dreamland* these days are exploring it! At best they are looking for spots to recreate well-known photos they’ve seen countless times on the internet. But Chris and I, standing there, ready to go in, that was pure exploration spirit!
The entrance building featured a small shop and a ticket booth to the left as well as restrooms to the right – a net stretching above the building in an attempt to prohibit peafowls from fleeing the premises. The net actually surrounded the whole park, followed by a line or two of thick vegetation, predominantly massive palm trees. The former garden was mostly overgrown, but after about 100 meters there was the souvenir shop German Chris mentioned… and to the left was the entrance to Birdpia, basically the main attraction of the park, featuring huge outdoor bird cages as well as a building with a panoramic round aquarium and an egg exhibition. The exit of the building was locked, but it once lead to the monument near the coast line, the area Kiwi Chris and I saw from the ferry – from there you got to the gift shop and then to the exit. The outdoor area mostly overgrown and the indoor area mostly dark, this turned out to be one of the creepiest explorations ever – mostly because I had no idea what to expect. Once you’ve seen photos of a location somewhere, it gives you a certain amount of confidence and reassurance, because every once in a while you recognize things and places you’ve seen before; it’s comforting. Never knowing what’s behind the next corner is friggin nerve-wrecking, especially at an eerie place like that! At the same time it’s super exciting, because you are not walking on beaten paths and you don’t take the same pictures as dozens or hundreds of people before you.
The souvenir shop / restaurant was built above a slope and therefor a bit scary in its own way, despite being really well-lit for most of it. The restaurant featured a great view at the Seto Inland Sea, while the souvenir shop offered a wide variety of olive chocolate products. No kidding! Olive chocolate products! As I mentioned before, Shodoshima is famous for olives. But instead of selling canned olives and olive oil, people decided it would be a good idea to sell olive chocolate, olive chocolate cake and olive chocolate cookies. Since the shop was in overall good condition I kept taking pictures of the fake sample boxes… and since these sweets were so original, I think those photos deserve to be published. At least half of them or so… The rest of the building was far less interesting – a kitchen, some dirty toilets and a storage room on the lower floor. Outside again I took some pictures of Mount Peacock, the monument at the waterfront and of the park in general. It was then when I found a cage construction leading down a slope in the back. I followed it and finally reached the empty and cleaned out peacock stable – and from there I got to the internal ramp leading up Mount Peacock, after passing some really spooky concrete areas. Maybe the last photo of the set gives you a general idea…
When I originally planned the day on Shodoshima, I slated about two hours to explore the Shodoshima Peacock Garden. Because, let’s be honest: How exciting can an abandoned bird park be? Well, apparently very exciting, because Chris and I finally got out of there after about five hours! Which left me pretty much enough time to take a bus to Tonosho, say goodbye to Chris (who was continuing to Okayama), take another bus to Fukuda, and catch a ferry to Himeji – beautiful sunset on the water, a perfect ending for an amazing day.

Now, back home I was a bit of in a predicament. On the one hand I wanted to tell everyone about this amazing exploration I enjoyed so much, but that would have meant to reveal information about the location – and I was worried that the increasing vandalism hurting *Nara Dreamland* could also damage this nearly pristine location. Just the information that the SPG once was a peafowl park (without mentioning the real name or location) would have allowed people with minimal Google skills to get on its track, because there have not been many facilities similar to the Shodoshima Peacock Garden, let alone closed / abandoned ones. A fellow explorer once said that he has no problems revealing real names even of locations in fantastic condition as he is not in the business of protecting abandoned places – which I guess is true, but I am also not in the business of exposing abandoned places. And so I kept quiet, always hoping to come back one day – but I never made it, because new explorations always seemed to be more interesting. Last week Monday, when preparing the Nara Dreamland article, I was revisiting some abandoned places via the satellite view of GoogleMaps… and saw that the souvenir building has received some TLC while Mount Peacock and all other constructions (except for the monument) have been leveled. On the one hand I was terribly sad to see another abandoned place gone, especially a truly unique and amazing one like this, on the other hand I was as full of joy as I have been four years ago standing at the entrance of the Shodoshima Peacock Garden – because I knew I could finally write about it without holding back. And now I hope that you will enjoy looking at the photos and watching the videos as much as I enjoyed exploring this wonderful, wonderful place you’ll probably never see anywhere again…

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To the day 10 years ago Nara Dreamland closed forever without a single ride being removed. Since then it has become one of the most (in)famous abandoned amusement parks in the world, attracting both urban explorers and vandals from within Japan as well as overseas. Let’s have another look… 🙂

The first time I visited Nara Dreamland was back in 2009, when hardly anybody knew about this strange Disneyland clone – and of course *I almost got caught while exploring the ice skate rental / conference / accommodation building*. The next time I went there, in 2010, I actually got caught by “security”, in hindsight probably the then-owner or his son. While other people reportedly were slammed with a fine or even handed over to the police, I was lucky… because when I realized that I was facing the same fate, I was able to run away.
Since then I’ve been to Nara Dreamland at least once a year – sometimes inside, sometimes just at the rather safe entrance with the huge parking lot and the two mystery buildings. Sunshine, rain, even *snow*. Morning, afternoon, night – pretty much every hour of the day, except maybe 9 p.m. till midnight. I went there alone, with friends, with friends of friends, with strangers. At Nara Dreamland I had some of the best urbex times, but also some of the worst urbex times.
Sadly Nara Dreamland turned out to be the place where I was able to witness how vandalism literally and figuratively ruined a once amazing location… and that process is actually still continuing, probably faster than ever. “Boys go to Disneyland, Men go to Dreamland” – with ridiculous, snappy phrases like that some people publish their Nara Dreamland photos. But the sad truth is: tourists and vandals go to Dreamland, men have been there 5, 6, 7 years ago.
When I first arrived at Nara Dreamland, the entrance was completely unharmed, the pay booth locked. Now the sign is smashed, the kiosk broken open and in shambles.
When I first arrived at Nara Dreamland, there were no graffiti anywhere – at least I don’t remember seeing any. Now half of the park is tagged – including one of the parking lot buildings, the entrance to the Main Street USA clone… and of course the castle. Yes, even the castle!
When I first took a video of the monorail in 2011, it showed some early signs of vandalism – now it is completely covered in spray paint, with a sticker on top: FC St. Pauli, 7. Herren. Soccer fans and vandalism? What a shocking combination… Although that badge doesn’t really make any difference considering the insane amount of damage in total, it kind of hit close to my heart as those vandalizing mofos were not only foreigners, they were (most likely) Germans – so let me address them in a way they hopefully will understand, despite having underdeveloped birdbrains: Ich hoffe, dass euer beschissener Drecksverein auf Nimmerwiedersehen in der Versenkung verschwindet!

What else is there to say? To be honest, I feel a bit tired now. Being reminded of how much Nara Dreamland suffered in the past couple of years really makes me sad (and I am not used to curse in German anymore…). NDL was such a wonderful place in 2009/2010, now it’s just a shadow of its old glory. Unfortunately there is no way to keep a place like that a secret. It’s too big, it’s too well-known amongst the Japanese population and theme park fans worldwide. 95% of the photos taken there are very recognizable; because of the wooden rollercoaster Aska, because of the Screw Coaster, because of the general cheap Disney clone atmosphere. Luckily that doesn’t apply for all abandoned places in Japan – so next week I will present you a truly unique location you’ve most likely never seen anywhere else before, even if you are into Japanese urbex as much as I am! Until then I hope you’ll enjoy some more photos I’ve taken at *Nara Dreamland* over the course of almost seven years (if you have an eye for details, you’ll find the same motorbike on several photos; needless to say that I never even touched it…) – most of them unpublished before, the rest to illustrate the soaring amount of vandalism at this once pristine abandoned theme park…

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A trout farm / fairground about three hours away from the next really big city, along a small river deep in the mountains of Japan? I think I’d rather invest in a video rental store…

I’ve seen my share of unusual abandoned places over the years, but the virtually unknown Amusement Park In The Woods was probably the strangest of all – even beating *Doggy Land*, a dog themed park all about man’s best friend. Imagine a beautiful little river in the mountains, a small road about three meters above it leading to a remote countryside shrine; picture perfect Japanese countryside, kilometers away from the next village, dozens of kilometers away from the next town – hours away from the next big city. And then there probably was a rich, but lonely farmer wading through his nearby rice paddy, hearing a voice saying: “If you build it, they will come!” It… it was the weirdest amusement park of all time. At least it said at the entrance that it was an amusement park, but to be honest, I have no idea what exactly this conglomeration of structures was, let alone who “they” could have been. Probably dads who couldn’t shake off their wives and kids when they wanted to go fishing at a pond in the suburbs – so they took the whole family to the mountains; I can’t imagine any other target audience.
After almost being scared away by a leery local (“Did you get lost? Down the road is only the house where I live!”) me and my exploration buddies Dan and Kyoko walked down the slope from the small parking lot to the little river. On the way I spotted a partly overgrown cage to the left, maybe an aviary? We continued and quickly reached the main area of this “amusement park” (yes, it really said amusement park at the entrance!). Wow, this was one messed up eclectic accumulation of buildings! Probably the most eye-catching objects were two white Suzuki Carry, rusting away and sinking deeper into the muddy ground of what once probably was the outdoor sitting area of the park’s café / bar; dozens of chairs fading to nothing in front of the bar. To the right were the toilets and a glass green house, up the hill were two lookouts / rest areas – one shaped like a mushroom, the other was kind of reminiscent of a pagoda. To the left I found the remains of what probably has been a sheltered tiki bar, followed by the outdoor trout fishing area, including the concrete pond(s) and benches, now overgrown by moss. In the back towards the slope were (now dried-out) shallow ponds with bridges – I guess one of the park’s staff members was a gardener… On the other side of the river, sadly almost completely overgrown at the time of our visit in June, was the playground / fairground / amusement part of the park; cages, swings and other metal objects were barely visible from the main side, but not accessible. And I was running out of time, so I quickly took two videos and a photo of the bathhouse where guests could change into swimwear – apparently the river had some deep, calm areas, so people could cool down during the hot summer months.
Nevertheless I wonder who those people were and when they visited the Amusement Park In The Woods. I am not a car expert by any means, but judging by a quick internet research I’d say those Suzuki Carry were fifth generation (L50/L60), built between 1972 and 1976, so this strange abandoned park was probably built in the 60s and used till the 80s – but this really is just speculation, sadly I found no information about this place at all. Too bad we ran into that suspicious neighbor before our exploration, not afterwards…

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The relationship between Japan and Russia has pretty much always been either non-existent or full of conflicts – so whoever thought that building a Russian themed park in Japan would be a good idea… probably was a moron with too much money.

When the Empire of Japan acted like the prototype version of current day *North Korea* from the early 1600s till the 1850/60s, it tried to keep out pretty much all foreigners, with the exception of a few Chinese and Dutch, who were strongly restricted in where they were allowed to go and what they were allowed to do (sounds familiar?). Back then most Russian settlements were too far away from Japan to make contact easily as cities like Khabarovsk (1858), Vladivostok (1860) and Magadan (1930) had yet to be founded – and so it was Yakutsk merchant Pavel Lebedev-Lastoschkin who first tried to establish a Russian-Japanese contact 1778 in Hokkaido. He was told to come back one year, only to be turned away again (sounds familiar?). In the early 19th century the Russians tried again several times without success – this time reacting with brute force when the shogunate stalled again; of course without much success. In 1860 Vladivostok was founded, but since it was not an ice-free port, the Russians were looking for a more convenient location and decided to seize Tsushima, an island under Japanese control, located between Korea and Kyushu. At this point the relationship turned really sour, and after being ignored by the consul Goshkevitch, the Japanese asked the British for help, finally forcing the Russians to leave Tsushima. Over the next few decades, Japan gave up its isolation policy and turned from an agrarian state to an industrialized nation; with the massive help of countries like Prussia, the United States, France, Great Britain and many more, of course. The Japanese-Russian relationships on the other hand didn’t develop for the better though, culminating in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05; the first time an Asian country significantly and surprisingly defeated a Western superpower. In World War 2 Japan fought less successful overall – and more than 70 years later, both countries are still arguing over the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kuril chain of islands. According to a 2012 survey, 72% of Japanese people view Russia unfavorably, a number that most likely rose since then, making Japan the country with the biggest anti-Russian sentiments of all participating countries.
So why a Russian themed park in Niigata? Because a banker said so! (Oh… so it was indeed a moron with too much money…)

Niigata Russian Village (1993 – 2003/04) was pretty much the borscht version of the *Tenkaen – Japan’s Lost China Themed Park* (1992 – 1999). Cultural exchange, “exotic” weddings, demonstrations of folk dances, sale of artisan craftwork… and carft beer. Financed with the help of and heavily supported by Ryutaro Omori, then president of the Niigata Chuo Bank, the Niigata Russian Village opened on September 1st 1993 and was heavily expanded in 1994… and then again in 2000 – a year after the financing Niigata Chuo Bank collapsed. The park closed in December 2003 for a winter break and didn’t open again as originally scheduled in April 2004.
The rather remote location of the Niigata Russian Village (6 km away from the next train station, 30 km outside of Niigata, almost 400 km away from Tokyo and therefore out of day trip range) was its downfall twice – first it wasn’t able to attract enough visitors / customers… and then it attracted too many visitors / vandals. Photos from 2008 already showed significant signs of vandalism, in September 2009 the hotel was partly destroyed by fire, and since nobody ever used a fake name for it, the Niigata Russian Village went to hell in a handbasket in record time.

By the time I started exploring in 2009/10 people started rumors about tight security and demolition to prevent bigger masses from trampling through like Siberian mammoths, but at the time I never thought I would ever explore outside of Kansai (hence the blog name, *Abandoned Kansai*) – in addition to that, Niigata is probably the worst area to go to from Kansai as flights are insanely expensive (32500 Yen!) and trains take about 7 hours at a price of 22500 Yen… per direction! 700 bucks for one location? Hell no!
Speaking of hell: As satellite photos more and more confirmed the demolition of the Niigata Russian Village, I more and more regretted that I was never able to take a picture or two of that iconic church that was part of the park; apparently a copy of Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Suzdal. Years later, in 2015, I was compiling locations for a three day urbex road trip starting in Tokyo. Of course there are plenty of great abandoned places around Tokyo… but Niigata is in perfect range for a three day trip. Exploring stuff on the way north, heading to the coast after dark, exploring Niigata Russian Village and some stuff on the way south, spending the night in Fukushima or Tochigi, continue exploring on the third day on the way back to Tokyo… Since satellite photos can be rather old and outdated I confirmed that the cathedral was still standing via a quick photo search and added Niigata Russian Village to our schedule – as the first thing on the second day!
Arriving at the Russian Village was exciting and sobering at the same time. The road up to the park was blocked by a massive gate fortified with tons of tree trunks and branches, all held together by barbed wire; signs informing about the start of further demolition work just days prior and the existence of camera surveillance. I traveled 650 km to fail 650 meters away from the church? Hell no! So my buddy *Hamish* and I went on to find an alternative way in, successfully… after a while.
As so often, the reality about the Niigata Russian Village lied between the reports of total demolition and the dozen buildings visible on satellite photos. At the time of our visit the lower area with the village part was pretty much gone already, little more than large piles of rubble and a small monument left behind. The upper area was missing several buildings, too – but the two most famous structures were still there, the church and the hotel. Despite the fact that 80 to 90% of the Niigata Russian Village had been demolished, it was still fun taking pictures there – especially the church was everything I was hoping for… and I don’t think I ever had as much fun in a religious building before or after! Overall for sure not nearly as spectacular as the *Tenkaen* or any of the *New Zealand Villages*, but still worth the detour…

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