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Archive for the ‘Chūbu’ Category

Small, but spooky… Hardly any abandoned place gave me the creeps as much as the Sanyo Securities Vault, a massive semi-underground construction inhabited by bats and gigantic bugs.

Sanyo Securities (not to be confused with the world renowned Sanyo Electric!) was a mid-size Japanese brokerage firm. Founded in 1910 it got into serious financial trouble after the Japanese price asset bubble burst in the early 1990s. In March of 1998 the financial situation was so dire that there were talks about Mitsui Sumitomo taking over, but that option fell through. Even a restructuring of the company in June of the same year couldn’t save it, and so all employees were sacked on August 31st.

Like many successful companies of the 1980s, Sanyo Securities owned a scenic countryside retreat and training center for employees, in this case with a massive semi-underground safe. The first thing my explorer buddy *Hamish* and I found upon reaching the premises were some tennis courts in really bad condition – it was more than obvious that the area had been abandoned for quite a while.
On the way back to the training center buildings I spotted a low dome like construction in the vegetation to our left. It took us no time to find the entrance, though I can’t remember seeing any sign of the metal door, except for its left-behind solid frame. The hallway behind was lit from above through the glass dome we spotted from the outside, the walls probably quite massive ferroconcrete – the thing looked like from a 1960s SciFi movie! And there it was, behind a corner, the biggest metal door I’ve ever seen in my life, open – as if a watching mastermind was just waiting for somebody to enter, so it could be slammed shut via a remote control. Some bored people with too much strength actually removed a panel on the back, so the locking mechanism was exposed; quite interesting! Behind that door was a narrow square hallway, surrounding the inner sanctum: a room about four by four meters, guarded by another set of inside concrete walls at least 30 centimeters thick and another massive metal door with a complicated lock. This must have been the safe for most prized possessions owned by the customers of Sanyo Securities; now inhabited by a few bats in the inner hallway and some huge bugs (giant grasshoppers, if I remember correctly) in the center room. Fascinating place, but creepy as hell!
The company retreat part was quite interesting in its own way. Built from various materials and partly in line with its surroundings, I especially liked the fire place and the huge windows in what must have been some kind of cafeteria / conference room. Sadly the upper floor suffered from arson – and whoever took care of that problem probably cleared / cleaned some of the building, as parts of it looked a lot more cluttered on older photos I’ve seen before my visit. The burned-out room offered a gorgeous few at the other building below and especially at the lake across the street. The other rooms were either tatami rooms that looked like regular hotel rooms – or carpeted dormitory style rooms with bunk beds. I guess not all Sanyo Securities employees were treated the same…
The training center below was quite unspectacular though; mainly conference rooms, from the looks of it. The upper floors were mostly moldy and rotten, the lower floor showed signs of severe vandalism – broken windows and graffiti. Usually I try to avoid showing graffiti to not motivate those “artists” vandalizing abandoned places, but the One Piece one kinda looked nice and almost suited the wall it was sprayed on.

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The Fuji 5 Lakes area consists of Lake Yamanaka, Lake Kawaguchi, Lake Sai, Lake Shoji, and Lake Motosu – forming an arch around the northern part of Mount Fuji in Yamanashi prefecture. Famous for hiking, mountain climbing, sailing, fishing, the Aokigahara Suicide Forest, Fujikyu Highland and local udon noodles, this recreational area two hours outside of Tokyo attracts about nine million visitors per year… and many of them enjoy a soak at an onsen in the evening. Of course not all of those public baths can be successful – bad for the owners, good for explorers like me and readers like you…
The Fuji Five Lakes Onsen is a surprisingly rare location and apparently virtually unknown to the Japanese urbex scene. It’s actually easier to find information about the time when it was open for business than about its current abandoned state; hence the rather vague fake name for it. The place was actually not just a day trip spa (charging 300 Yen for the time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.), it was also a ryokan, a Japanese inn for overnight guests. Located next to a river in a tiny mountain town, the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen turned out to be a hidden wooden gem, a glimpse at Japan’s simple past that is disappearing quickly.

At 7,000 to 10,000 Yen per person and night the FFLO wasn’t exactly a cheap place to stay at, especially considering that it closed about 10 years ago. I am sure back then it was easily possible to get a more luxurious accommodation for a lower price – but probably with a lot less character. The main building of the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen was a narrow, but rather long wooden construction – followed by small apartments in the backyard along the river. After ten years of abandonment rather wobbly and squeaky, the main hallway wasn’t for the faint of heart, especially with road construction going on right outside. If we were able to hear them scavenge the street, they were able to hear almost any noise we made. Luckily they weren’t aware of *Hamish* and I being there, so they didn’t pay attention; a huge advantage on our side and a late reward for us approaching the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen carefully, avoiding any noises getting in.
The tricky part was the upper floor with its tatami party room. Regular readers know what kind of place I mean – the big one with the stage and the karaoke machine and stuff like that. What was so tricky about it? Well, the upper part was actually on road level, so the construction workers were able to look inside through some of the windows… if they would have paid attention, which they didn’t. Good for me, as the party room held some interesting items to take pictures of, including some 60s or 70s music devices and a Konami Hyper Shot controller for use with the smash hit Hyper Sports.
Down on the main floor again I took some photos of the pretty run down onsen part, the gender-separated shared bath. Surprisingly small, it must have offered a nice view on the river a few decades prior. Now the huge windows were mostly overgrown from the outside and vandalized by penis graffiti from the inside – the whole room felt rather cold and inhospitable on this beautiful autumn day.
The half a dozen guest “houses” in the back looked a bit like an afterthought and some were already in quite questionable condition. The eclectic conglomerate was big enough for about 30 people, with each hut hosting a family or a carload full of friends. Been there, done that… and the light was disappearing quickly.
What made the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen such a memorable exploration was the simplicity of the place. No shiny modern kitchen, no ten-storey concrete building, no spa area the size of a football field, no arcade, no elevators – just plain wooden buildings, a handful of guest apartments and an almost underwhelming shared bath. The most modern item probably was that controller for said Konami game, every other item there most likely was from the 70s, 60s or even 50s.
The last couple of places I presented on *Abandoned Kansai* were not very Japanese at first sight, especially locations like the *Western Village* or the *Hachijo Royal Hotel*… but the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen is as Japanese as it gets!

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The abandoned Love Hotel London was one of the most pitiful places I have ever explored and borderline worthy to become a part of the soon to come “Worst of Japan 2014” article (scheduled for December 30th!) – but it’s one of the most famous rotting places in all of central Japan; probably because of the name…

Despite being called London, this deserted and dilapidated love hotel apparently had nothing to do with Great Britain’s capital. It looked like a cheap, fake castle and the rooms had the usual array of themed rooms from all over the world. Like most love hotels in Japan, the London was actually more of a motel. You parked your car in some kind of garage on the ground floor and then went upstairs to… well, do what people usually do at no-tell motels.
In its heyday the London, conveniently located next to the Hamamatsu Air Base in central Japan, must have been quite a site – now there is not much left to see. Some furniture pieces outside, some vandalized, rotting rooms inside. Pretty much everything was busted open, all windows smashed, everything beyond repair.
If you ever wanted to know more about the love hotel industry in Japan I recommend *this old article*… and I also wrote about *my two cents on relationships in Japan* – both articles come with photos from other abandoned love hotels in better condition…

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Spring is the perfect time for hanami haikyo – exploring abandoned places while the plum and cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The window of opportunity every year is small, especially during cold and rainy springs, but this year I was luckily to hit one of those perfect days early in the year…

A few years ago I saw the remains of what appeared to be a playground on some random Japanese blog. Another source called it an abandoned amusement park. And then some photos of a golden Buddha statue appeared. It took me a while to piece all those pieces together – and afterwards I knew as much about that mysterious place as before… plus its exact location on a small mountain in Gifu prefecture; very countryside, and so I explored in Gifu and passed through Gifu several times before I was finally able to visit the Golden Buddha Park myself – most likely not its original name, but the fake names Japanese blogs used make even less sense, so mine is as good as theirs.
In the Japanese countryside GoogleMaps often is little more than a general hint, especially when construction is going on, so Dan, Kyoto, Spencer and I (big group this time!) knew where we had to go, but didn’t exactly know how to get there. After several twists and turns we reached a strange area where about a dozen regular cars were parked on what appeared to be an abandoned road with small abandoned houses – and one active apartment building at the end, much too small to house everybody parking there. We turned back again and parked at pretty much the last available spot, next to a partly collapsed house and an overgrown and dried-out pond. The paved street had turned into a cobblestone road, the condition getting worse and worse, so we decided to walk. Soon even the cobblestones were missing and we hiked up what appeared to be a dirt road getting narrower and narrower, becoming more and more overgrown. But we were on the right track as I remember a mushroom shaped resting area I saw on photos years prior. At that point there was a rift about half a meter deep splitting the road / wide path we were on. A strange place and probably creepy as hell on a foggy day. After a couple of minutes we reached some kind of plateau with a metal beam cage – probably for bird or maybe a small feline predator. There was trash all over the nearby slope and a vandalized bus was rusting away, offering the first good photo opportunity of the day. Opposite of the bus and mostly overgrown were several flights of stairs, some handrails and other concrete leftovers – it seems like there had been a now mostly demolished solid building once, but what it was… your guess is as good as mine. Next to the construction ruin we found a massive flight of stairs leading up the mountain, one huge concrete elephant statue on each side, with the weirdest plastic eyes I have ever seen; also worth mentioning: since the trunk was crumbling away we could see that there was a hose inside, so those statues were probably able to spray water…
On top of the mountain / hill we finally saw the golden Buddha in its white dome, lined with cherry trees. What a sight! But it was also guarded by two statues that probably were supposed to be dogs or lions, but looked more aliens – or alions… The statues with their weird eyes formed an unnerving contrast to the tranquil atmosphere of the Buddha and the countryside beauty. Such a strange place!
Upon closer look the base of the interesting looking concrete construction must have been hollow as we found a door on the back. Since it was locked we rather climbed the socket and had a closer look at the statue. Most of it was actually undamaged, but the gold leaves of lowest part, even in reach of small people, needed some refoiling.
Sadly there we no sign or other hints what this could have been, so after a while we hiked back down the mountain to our car. There we had a closer look at the dried out pond and the neighboring building, probably a conference center or something like that. The front was already collapsed and the interior had seen much better days, too. With that, our motivation to go through another half a dozen abandoned houses dwindled and we decided to call it a day – if Japanese explorers were not able to figure out what this strange setup was, we figured it would be rather unlikely that we will. And it was a good decision, because later that day we found the most amazing *abandoned ski resort* ever. But that’s the story of another time…

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I love maps! I always loved *maps*. When I was a little kid, my grandma taught me the names of every capital in Europe, and my desk pad was a world map. To me, GoogleMaps is the best thing since sliced bread. Whether I need a quick two-minute break or have to kill a rainy day on the weekends, GM is one of my favorite websites of all time, especially since I picked up urban exploration as a hobby. Sometimes I just browse through Japan via the satellite view… and actually find abandoned places, like an abandoned ropeway station I yet have to write about, or the *Abandoned Poultry Farm* I mistook for the *Red Factory*. About two years ago I saw a red roofed building in almost Y shape that caught my eyes – and on Street View the entrance looked abandoned, yet in decent condition…

Well, it turned out that my first exploration in Yamanashi prefecture was a total dud and that the entrance was pretty much the only thing about the Sun Park Hotel Naito that was in decent condition. When my buddy Dan opened the door to the hotel’s bar (the front entrance consisted of massive automatic glass doors that wouldn’t move a millimeter…), I instantly knew that we were up for a disappointment – the smell of rotting carpets, wallpapers and all kinds of other materials was heavy in the air. While the abandoned bar still had a certain 1980s TV show retro charme, the rest of the hotel kept me wondering what the heck I was doing there.
We reached the reception area through a small hallway and went on a short walkthrough of the ground floor (or first floor, as it is called in Japan) – restaurant, kitchen, employee rooms / toilets, offices. The smell was bad and the air probably wasn’t healthy, but it got worse after climbing the sketchy main staircase to the second and third floors. The hallways were completely trashed, everything was rotting, except for the ripped-out yellow insulation that smelled like urine. What a disgusting, miserable place; and the rain outside didn’t help to lighten up the atmosphere. Since the third floor was less vandalized at least some of the rooms were accessible, though none of them contained anything out of the ordinary. The really kitschy telephones were kind of interesting, but that’s pretty much it. My favorite item though was a pillow in the hallway, rotting, partly overgrown by moss. It reminded me of the fading stack of tatami mats at the *Bio Center* in Hokkaido, still one of my favorite photos.
Well, not all abandoned places can be surprise super hits – and the Sun Park Hotel Naito definitely wasn’t a hit. It was just another abandoned countryside hotel, and those are a dime a dozen all over Japan. Luckily every once in a while a few of those mystery hotels turn out to be great finds, so you can look forward to some amazingly unique abandoned hotels on Abandoned Kansai in the future; and… well… some crappy ones, too…

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A lot of Japanese people are very proud of their country’s distinctive four seasons – summer, autumn, winter and spring. Yet a lot of them mention a fifth season, which explains why they are not very proud of their math skills… rainy season. Rainy season is a period that lasts for about two to four weeks, usually starting in early or mid-June, turning most of Japan (especially Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu) into a humid hellhole for about three months. Personally I don’t think Japan has four seasons as it stretches too much for a general statement like that. Okinawa definitely doesn’t have a winter, and in my personal experience, Osaka has only two seasons: “Kind of nice” and “unbearably hot and humid”.
The period of rather intense rain began early this year, in the first week of June, starting to turn Osaka into a sticky place where you don’t want to wear any long clothes or do anything that requires even the slightest effort. Luckily my friends Dan and Kyoko weren’t eager to stay in Osaka either, so I planned a nice little weekend trip to Shikoku… which I had to re-plan after the weather forecast changed – Chubu instead! (Chubu is one of eight major regions in Japan, basically the central part of the main island Honshu between Nagoya and Mount Fuji)

Three days later I found myself sweating like pig hiking up a mountain in Shizuoka prefecture. A couple of minutes prior we passed through a small village on the slope, located in the middle of nowhere, where only one old lady was living, at least part time – she and her husband were tea farmers, but he passed away a few years ago, so she takes care of what is left; everybody else had died or moved away many years before…
We escaped Osaka’s rain and humidity, but central Japan’s countryside was surprisingly warm for early July. The hiking trail us three were on connected the hamlet with its school, closed in the late 70s and officially abandoned in the early 90s. Why it wasn’t built directly next to the settlement is beyond me, but farm land was probably more valuable than the place for an elementary school; and so the kids had to hike up that mountain every day, an elevation gain of almost 100 meters! Even after 30 years the path was clearly visible, yet partly overgrown and covered by several layers of foliage, making it a rather slippery climb these days. I was taking another break enjoying the beautiful surrounding and silence, when I heard Dan from above: “The school is up here!”

A few minutes later I saw the school near the top of the mountain myself – a surprisingly big wooden building with a living quarter annex; probably for a teacher or two to live in. The main building consisted of two classrooms and an office (all wooden floors), plus a tatami room right next to the office. Outside was a small playground with a slide and leftovers of some swings and a soccer goal. And there was a shrine with a wooden building, empty according to the old lady…
What made the Shizuoka Countryside School quite special was its authenticity. While a lot of “abandoned” schools in Japan are still maintained by the local community (like the *Kyoto Countryside School*), it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the case here – yet there were barely any signs of vandalism, with small exceptions like the pink painted nipples of the female gypsum bust or the smashed wooden metronome. There were signs of visitors though – not only did I find a Sony lens cap in the grass, you could see that certain items were staged for photos and that some explorers crashed through the wooden floors when they were not cautious enough. Most of the rooms had plenty of interesting items left behind, like a chair and table combination, a table tennis plate, books, posters, chalk, and whatever you think should be at an abandoned countryside school – considering that it was basically a two room school I think it was rather well equipped and I really loved some of the tacky items, like the National manufactured red record player. The icing on cake, of course, was the location itself. Near the top of a mountain, with a shrine next to it, on a lovely late spring / early summer day… quite magical. Sadly I had to share one of the rooms with a suzumebachi a.k.a. Giant Asian Hornet. There are a lot of them at abandoned places these days and usually I avoid them, but in this case that would have meant not taking pictures of one third of the school. Half the time it was trying to leave through a window and failed, half the time it was flying around the room, causing me to hastily leave. After a few rounds of hide and seek I got most of the shots I wanted to take and called it a day.

Just getting out of Osaka for another two days was a blessing, exploring an abandoned countryside school in good condition and being able to share that with friends… priceless!

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Sex sells. Especially in Japan. Well, sex and quirkiness sell in Japan – and the latter one actually a lot more, at least in advertising. But despite having one of the lowest birth rates in the world (220 out of 224 according to the CIA World Factbook), Japan is obsessed with sex. Not at first sight though. At first sight the country is all about temples, shrines, concrete buildings and neon lights. But if you dig deeper and have an eye for details, you’ll understand why Japan is famous all around the globe for bondage, tentacle sex, bukkake, (the not existing) worn underwear vending machines, *love hotels* (that alone is a 50 billion USD business!) and the borderline child pornographic lolicon – not to forget the *quirky sex museums*!
Mostly untouched by puritan Christian morals for centuries (until Japan sucked up to the West during the Meiji Restoration and succumbed to the Allied Forces in 1945) today’s Japan is widely oversexed and underfucked, a prime example being the co-called herbivores; young men with “a non-assertive, indifferent attitude towards desire of flesh” according to freelance writer Maki Fukasawa, who coined the term in 2006. Yet there is this 50 billion dollar love hotel industry… Which makes Japan the North Korea of sex lives – mysterious, full of contradictions and with some serious amount of covered-up pain!

Anyway, let’s focus on the century old traditions for now – one of them being the Hōnen Matsuri (or hounen matsuri, 豊年祭), literally the „prosperous year festival“, celebrating the blessings of a rich harvest and all kinds of prosperity and fertility in general; and for promotional reasons often called penis festival, because… well, sex sells better than harvest and fertility. Who cares that it is actually not the phalli that are worshipped, but the power of the earth to regenerate? Symbolized by penises, because… well, probably nobody would travel for hours to look at a pile of dirt being carried through a small town.
Like the number of sex museums in onsen towns, the number of those fertility festivals is declining, the most famous one being celebrated at the Tagata Shrine in Komaki, a suburb of Nagoya, just a short walk away from Tagata-jinja-mae Station. (There are also similar festivals in Kawasaki on every first Sunday in April (Kanamara Matsuri at the Kanayama Shrine) as well as the slightly less phallic Bonden Matsuri in mid-February in Yokoteand and the Kawatari Bonden Matsuri in mid-May in Tagawa.)
The exact history of the Tagata Shrine and the Honen Matsuri lie in the dark, but it is assumed that shrine is more than 1500, the festival at least 650 years old.

Last year the Honen Matsuri started at around 10 a.m. at the Tagata Shrine with some preparations and celebrations, including the usual array of festival food stands. While chocolate bananas are popular at public festivals all over Japan, you can imagine that they sell especially well at a penis festival – especially at those stands going the extra mile by carving the tip of the banana and adding two marshmallows to the bottom. Sex sells, especially at a phallus festival! And of course 95% of those bananas were used as accessories for photos before being eaten… and so were tons of other penis shaped items for sale, like candy dicks and phalli carved out of wood.
At 1 p.m. celebrations began at the Kumanosha with the blessings of the procession participants as well as the portable shrines (mikoshi, 神輿 or 御輿) and the gigantic wooden penis (280 kg heavy and 2.5 meters long) carved out of a cypress. At 2 p.m. the parade to the Tagata Shrine started there, lead by chanting priests carrying banners and followed by a demon called Tengu; musicians playing traditional gagaku music also join the procession. And if a gigantic wooden penis carried by chanting and dancing men wouldn’t be enough to go nuts, the centerpiece was accompanied by countless helpers handing out free snacks and sake to everybody who wanted a cup… or two! Traditionally clothed women carrying 60 cm long wooden phalluses proved to be extremely popular amongst the watching crowd, altogether thousands of people. All of those women were 36 years old, which is considered an unlucky age that requires spiritual intervention. (The men carrying the giant phallus were all 42 for the same reason.)

The parade was supposed to arrive at the Tagata Shrine at 3.30 p.m. in 2013, but with all those happy people it took a little bit longer, so the who schedule was delayed by about 20 minutes. At around 4 p.m. people came together at a central square of the shrine, where the mochi nage was about to begin; a rice cake throwing ceremony, in which the crowd was showered with special mochi. You might know table lychee sized mochi as small soft sweets, but those at the festival had the consistency of clay and looked more like a big dumpling with the diameter of a CD – nevertheless the crowd went crazy over catching one of them. Sadly I have to say that this was mainly the fault of the countless foreigners attending the festival. While most Japanese attendees kept standing in place just trying to catch one of the dangerously heavy sweets thrown by officials from elevated platforms, a lot of the foreigners kept pushing and shoving; some even starting arguments. It was quite embarrassing to watch, to be honest – just because you’re at a penis festival doesn’t mean you have to act like a dick! (Officials actually asked women, children and elderly several times to leave the area to avoid getting hurt by the impact of the rice cakes or the rest of the crowd!) In the end there were rice cakes for maybe one in four people, yet when the ceremony was over, I saw single foreigners with up to seven of them, some of them carrying them in plastic bags… (It was also very apparent that the amount of foreigners attending the festival was a lot higher than the nationwide average of three percent.)

When the mochi nage ended, so did the festival – most people hurried to the nearby train station, others (like myself) had a last minute snack… or got their injuries treated at one of the ambulances. Most people who were actually there for the serious aspect of the festival, not the spectacle, prayed for successful pregnancies and bought good luck charms in the morning, but the shrine continued to offer those services to the remaining guests, while about two dozen helpers stored the gigantic wooden penis in the main shrine…

But why in the world did I write this report now, after spending several weeks on writing about North Korea? Because the Honen Festival is held every year on March 15th, which means that the next one will be in less than two weeks from now – just in case you are in Japan and interested in joining. Going last year I actually had to take a day off to attend as the 15th was a Friday in 2013, but that also means that the Penis Festival will be held on a Saturday in 2014 and on a Sunday in 2015; which won’t hurt the numbers of people joining for sure!

Finally a word of warning – the following photos and videos will show quite a few phalli, but there is absolutely nothing pornographic about them. Traditional? Yes! Commercial? For sure! Artistic? Definitely! But not pornographic… Enjoy!

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All of the photos I publish with articles on Abandoned Kansai are without any form of enhancing post-production – I don’t even crop them; they either look good or they don’t. Every once in a while I like to play with an HDR tool or two. I wouldn’t call those photos enhanced or improved, I would barely call them photos anymore. That’s why I created a sub-page for them in the background. Today I added ten more of those little artworks to that page. *Please click here to have a look!*

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I love the Toyoko Inn hotel chain in Japan. Their prices are fair, they are located right next to bigger train and subway stations, they offer free breakfast from 7 till 9.30 and free WiFi / internet 24/7, their staff usually speaks at least a little bit of English, they have a discount and point system for members – and you can make online reservations via their English homepage.

One reason I was hesitating to go on a trip *as mention in the previous blog post* was the fact that I was in-between credit cards for a couple of weeks. (In my experience it’s close to impossible for foreigners to get a credit card in Japan – but I am looking forward to the comments of every expat who got one… I know people who were rejected more than half a dozen times, I tried it once or twice and then got one in Germany…) But you need a credit card to make an online reservation at a Toyoko Inn – or so I thought.
When it was clear that I would spend the first night of my trip in Nagoya I stopped worrying. Last weekend wasn’t a typical time to travel in Japan (unlike *Golden Week*) and Toyoko Inn has six hotels in Nagoya, eight if you count the ones close to the airport – I was sure I would get a room somewhere. So the plan was to show up at one of them and ask the staff to make a reservation for me for the second night, which I planned to spend in Matsusaka – a town famous for its high quality beef, which turned out to be more dead then the cows it is famous for.

Luckily my plan was a good one, so I checked in at the hotel of my choice in Nagoya and asked the staff to call their sister hotel in Matsusaka to get me a reservation for the following night since I didn’t have a credit card. The friendly lady at the counter pointed to the opposite wall across the lobby and asked me to use the internet to make the reservation myself. I repeated that I didn’t have a credit card and therefore couldn’t make the online reservation. The answer was “You don’t need a credit card to make an online reservation.” – so I told her that I needed one when I tried to make one the night before. Since the hotel receptionist insisted that I wouldn’t need a card and was eager to show me that she was right we started the procedure on their English homepage – as usual. Another guest arrived so I filled out the form, scrolled down and… there it was, the section for the credit card information. I left it blank, tried to continue and of course it didn’t work and I got an error message. When the receptionist showed up again she seemed to be very surprised, switched the language settings of the homepage to Japanese and… finished the reservation without having to enter credit card information! She didn’t even have to log out / start the procedure from the beginning, she just switched the language settings and pressed a button to finalize the reservation.

I totally understand that hotels need some kind of security when people make online reservations and that’s the reason I never had a problem entering my credit card information when making an online reservation at a Toyoko Inn, 15 times for trips in 2012 alone. In fact they don’t charge your credit card and you can pay cash upon arrival, it’s just a security measure for no-shows, which I completely understand. Nevertheless I am kind of irritated by the fact that you have to put in your credit card information when you make the reservation in English, but not when you make it in Japanese – to me it implies that Toyoko Inn considers people who prefer to make reservations in Japanese more reliable than people who make reservations in English; which could be considered borderline racist. Again, I understand that (most) online hotel reservations require credit card information. But either it’s a general requirement for Toyoko Inn or not – doing it on the basis of the language chosen on the homepage feels wrong to me, as it means that not all customers are treated equally.

What do you think? „WTF?“ or “WTF!”?

(To end this posting on a lighter note I’ll add some non-urbex photos and videos I took during my three day trip. Inuyama Castle, Tagata Shrine Festival, Mount Gozaisho, Yunoyama Onsen, Toba, Iruka Island, Ise Shrine, … If anybody is familiar with dolphins please have a look at the video and let me know what you think – to me it looks like the poor creature was desperate to get away as it repeated the same motion at the “prison gates” to the ocean over and over again; I didn’t watch any shows on the island and didn’t spend any money there – Iruka Island (iruka = dolphin) was an optional stop on a harbor cruise I took in Toba.)

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One thing Japan is famous for all over the world is its bathing culture – which is hard to believe if you ever had to spend some time on a rush hour train…

While surprisingly little of Japan’s vast coastline is used for swimming (due to pollution, rocky shores or cement tetrapods) there are three different main terms to describe Japanese baths:
furo (風呂): usually the polite form “ofuro” is used for this traditional wooden bathtub
onsen (温泉): hot spring, sometimes translated as spa, especially when part of a hotel, ryokan (Japanese inn) or minshuku (Japanese bed and breakfast)
sento (銭湯): communal bath house – onsen and ofuro can be part of a sento

The use of those three terms can be confusing at times. While (o)furo technically describes a bathtub (traditional ones made of wood, modern ones made of plastic) with steep sides of about 60 cm height used for a relaxing soak at 38°C to 42°C after (!) you cleaned yourself, it can also be used for the public bath at a gym – although those baths fit more what is describes by the term sento.
A sento is a communal bath with a locker room and a bathing area – gender separated! You get undressed and lock your clothes before you enter the tiles bathing area with a hand towel. Near the entrance you usually find small stools, buckets and faucets. There you sit down and clean yourself before you enter the bathtub, which can be tiled or wooden – and therefore resemble ofuro. (To see what not to do, watch the movie Mr. Baseball…) Modern sento also include small saunas similar to the ones you know from your home country.
Onsen are hot springs and the most famous part of the Japanese bathing culture. Indoor onsen look much like sento and their number is quite low – the vast majority and well-known to everybody even slightly interested in Japan are outdoor onsen, also known as roten-buro (露天風呂). The behavioral code at an onsen is pretty identical to the one at a sento – the main difference is that onsen are fed by natural hot springs, not by heated tap water; and that they are usually more luxurious and beautiful – dozens of countryside towns all over Japan are famous for their onsen resorts and a lot of places to stay charge several hundred bucks per person and night (including breakfast and dinner).

Personally I am not a big fan of ofuro, sento and onsen – mainly because the water is just way too hot for my taste. I’m sweating enough as it is in Japan thanks to the rather high humidity here. I really don’t need to soak myself in water that is higher than my body temperature. The other reason, to be honest with you, is the fact that you stick out there as a foreigner – and I am really tired of being stared at. It’s bad enough at the subway sometimes, even in a city like Osaka. Imagine you being the only foreigner in a countryside bath then… If I’d be the last man on earth and would show up in my birthday suit at the “World Congress of Nudist Nymphomaniacs” near a naturist beach of your choice – I couldn’t earn more stares that way! I get it, most Japanese men don’t have the opportunity to see a naked foreigner and they have an urge to find out if the cliché is true and everything is smaller in Japan, but come on! It’s really impolite…
(Fun fact: Most Japanese people don’t know that public bathes in Japan were mixed until the Meiji era (1868-1912) when the nation started to open to the west. Germany, especially the eastern part, has a long naturist tradition and when I tell Japanese friends that we have mixed nudist beaches and bathes in Germany they are totally shocked and claim that they would never go there since people must stare at each other all the time, which isn’t the case at all. Fact of the matter is that I get way more stares fully clothed on a train in Japan than naked at a beach in Germany…)

 Exploration

The Meihan Health Land technically was an onsen since it was fed by a natural hot spring, but it lacked most of the idyllic countryside aesthetics that come to mind when hearing the term – it looked more like a western spa trying to copy some Japanese flair. Located right next to one of the few free of charge highways in Japan and at least 30 minutes away by foot from the next train station it was clearly targeting the masses – families and busses full of tourists; a gigantic parking lot of more than 20.000 square meters supports that claim. The building itself, constructed in 1987 during the Japanese asset price bubble, was about 5.700 square meters big – it seems like it was the first “super sento” in Japan (or at least one of the first) and quite a lot followed. The Health Land closed 2 decades later with a renewal open planned for July of 2008 or 2009, but now it is on sale for 430 million Yen (currently about 3.5 million Euros / 4.6 million Dollars) – a sum it might have been worth right after it was closed, but a mere 2 years later, during my visit in November of 2011, it was already in abysmal condition.
The regular entrance fee for adults was 1300 Yen with an additional surcharge of 1050 Yen for guests staying overnight – yes, the Health Land was a 24/7 facility, offering loungers for tired guests. And of course the usual services like restaurants, shops, karaoke, …
Located in the mountains of Mie prefecture the running expenses must have been insanely high (considering that there is much isolation, but hardly any insulation in Japan…) and I am not surprised at all that the Health Land went bankrupt. I am surprised though how fast it fell into disrepair. The few photos I saw before exploring the place myself made me expect a super sento in good condition. What I found when I arrived with my buddy Hamish was a shock. From the outside the building still looked amazing, easy to see from far away thanks to two gigantic Chinese dragons on the top of the roof. The huge red lantern in front of the Health Land had seen better days, but the full amount of damage the place had suffered was only visible after entering.
The yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant in the same building was smashed to pieces and so was the lobby of the former spa. There the ceiling was high, maybe 5 or 6 meters – nevertheless it looked like it saw an outburst of violence with damage far beyond anything natural decay could do within a year or two. I have no idea what happened there. Some of the damage, especially the water on both 1F and 2F, could have been explained by the holes in the roof – but how did those holes get into the roof in the first place? The place really looked like as if a supernatural force ripped it apart…
Next to the lobby we found a snack bar and deeper into the darkness of the building was a staircase to 2F as well as the separated bathing areas for men and women, both severely vandalized. The steam room of the men’s area featured some neat female nude drawings – drawings that attracted some homeless people, or at least one person. We found some belongings there, including a newspaper barely 2 weeks old..
Sadly the whole area, for both men and women, was smashed beyond recognition. Windows were kicked in, mirrors were broken, metal installations were ripped apart. Carpets and wallpapers were moldy and water was dripping everywhere.
The upper floor was in even worse condition. The restaurant area was only recognizable due to some signs, the former party room with a stage looked like it was vandalized and abandoned a decade ago. Pretty much all interior was either gone or smashed. Water and mold everywhere. Not really a pleasant exploration, but you never know in advance what you’ll find…
Like that taxidermy bull in some kind of concrete storage underneath the Health Land. We were already ready to leave when we found that half-overgrown door that lead into the building again… and there it was, a stuffed bull, covered by what looked from the distance like an Ostfriesennerz (“East Frisian Mink”, a yellow hooded heavy-duty medium-length PVC rain coat – and you thought German terms were long!). Of course it wasn’t the famous German clothing item, just a simple tarp. Nevertheless a neat find that put smiles on our faces, before we walked to the next train station; wondering how the Health Land could get into that kind of state so quickly.

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