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Archive for the ‘Chugoku’ Category

The Japanese Art School in the mountains of Okayama was one of those mysterious and legendary places I wanted to visit for years, but wasn’t able to find… and in the end I barely made it!

In spring of 2014 I was exploring the *White School* with my urbex buddy Rory when… Darn, I actually forgot the details of the story. We finished exploring the school and somehow we talked about the art school, though it wasn’t even on our schedule for the day. I think Rory’s wife, who helped me out finding the *Japanese Gold Cult*, pinned down the general area of the Japanese Art School the day before and we had to decide whether wanted to head to a mediocre *haikyo* I located exactly… or if we wanted to roll the dice and go for the unknown. So we headed north, deeper into the mountains. We knew that the school was near a very countryside train station (5 connections per day in each direction!), but that almost turned out to be a dead end. Rory tried to call his wife for more details while we spent about an hour or two on foot and by car looking for the art school. Running out of time we dared a most desperate move: We just stopped at a house near the train station and asked the people living there if they knew about the school. Not only did they in fact do, the lady of the house was even willing to escort us there! A kilometer can be near, but it also can be very, very far… especially when you have to turn half a dozen times and don’t know where.

The sun already started to set when we arrived at the school and I knew that time was of the essence. Access was surprisingly easy, though navigating was rather tough due to serious damage to the wooden floors. While I am still not 100% sure what the Japanese Art School really was, it turned out that at the end of its use it had been a private company – originally it was a local elementary school, closed in 1975. Japanese urbex blogs always portrayed it as an art school, but upon arrival (and based on what our lady guide told us) it was pretty clear that there was more to it. We entered through a massive hole in the wall and stumbled into some kind of warehouse I was never aware of. 40 years prior it must have been the main auditorium of the school, but now it was filled with boxes and crates full with all kinds of art supplies: colored pencils, oil colors, engraving knives, watercolors, little bottles and flasks and even models of pagodas and horses. Dozends, hundreds, thousands – depending on the item and its size. A lot more stuff than an art school could make use of in decades! One of the former class rooms was equipped with a heavy machine to help casting busts and masks, bolted to the wooden ground; the room next to it was a storage of those busts. The second main building was stuffed with all kinds of art equipment, too, including a room focusing on sewing. And one thing was pretty clear: There wasn’t enough space to house a full-blown art school, even if you would limit it to painting and sewing. The whole thing looked more like an art supplies company that manufactured busts and masks (some of which I had seen before at the amazing *Shizuoka Countryside School* and other places!) and probably offered hobby arts and craft lessons to the locals.

For a little under two hours I felt like a kid in a candy store… or a nerdy kid in an art supply store. There was so much to see, so much to discover! The auditorium alone would have deserved two hours, but I had to rush to see everything – I wouldn’t have had time to open boxes or drawers even if I would have wanted to. Interestingly enough this forced me to be creative with angles, focal lengths and exposure times. Overwhelming and challenging, the Japanese Art School was all I hoped for. And it left me yearning for more, which is one of the best things in life; having a great experience that makes you desperately wanting more… like a fantastic first date!
Sadly my heart was broken just half a year later, in September, before I was able to see the Japanese Art School again – it was cleaned out and most likely demolished…

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The Jonan Junior High School a.k.a. the White School is one of those abandoned places that are spectacular in very subtle ways.
Japan’s countryside is full of old schools, ranging from barely open for business to closed and preserved to closed and locked up to just abandoned to collapsed. But one thing all of them have in common – they are brown wooden buildings, inside and outside; at best they have a protecting frontage to prevent or at least slow down decay. (*A prime example for such a school you can see here.*)

At first sight the Jonan Junior High School was just one more of those schools somewhere in the Japanese mountains. From the distance it didn’t even look abandoned. Closed at best / worst. But upon closer look it became quickly evident that *Rory* and I found the right place. Fenced off by a rusty barbed wire metal construction, the back of the school revealed a partly collapsed wooden restroom building. After we found a way on the premises we were lucky to find a way in – a couple of boarded-up window were proof that somebody had taken care of the school for a while, and that vandalism is a problem even in countryside towns.
At first the White School is amazing – a large wooden hallway, almost looking endless through an ultra wide-angle lens. Whoever closed the school decided to take out the interior walls that made up the classrooms, so the wooden two-storey building basically consisted of two long hallways, two gigantic rooms with support logs and two staircases, plus smaller rooms on the upper floor. All painted white! But after about 15 minutes of excitement one quickly realizes that there is not much else. A photo on the wall on the lower floor, some rather random items left behind in one of the small rooms on the upper floor, that’s i t. And that’s usually all you get to see when the White School appears on the internet.
Luckily there was more to see. Several more buildings actually, but none of them were painted white, so I guess nobody gives them much attention. First there was the apartment of the caretaker. The kitchen was still in decent condition, but the floor of the living room collapsed and it was rather dark inside. And then there were three smaller school buildings, looking similar from the outside, but brown inside. And indeed, after being flashed by the white empty main building the common brown areas looked rather boring, almost dull.

Nevertheless it was a great experience to finally explore the White School. It came to my attention quite a while ago and due to circumstances out of my control it took me a while to finally have a look myself – and I enjoyed it as it is such a unique place to see. Not worth to spend a day trip on, but perfect when on the way to an even better location, borderline mind-blowing, to be honest… But that’s a story for another time! 🙂

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Merry XXX-Mas everyone!

The Love Hotel tinna is one of those locations that are giving me a headache. On the one hand I am happy about every exploration, on the other hand… this was barely an exploration and I have hardly enough material for an article. About 20 months ago I was walking along a countryside road on the way to an abandoned place I was looking forward to explore, when I came across the tinna Love Hotel by chance. Not sure how the rest of the day would turn out I passed without a closer look, but considered having one on the way back. If it wouldn’t have been for the ropes blocking off the car entrance I probably wouldn’t have even realized that the place was abandoned or at least closed.

Two hours later I was on my way back to the train station – and since I wasn’t in a hurry I indeed had a closer look. Entering the premises and getting out of sight was quick and easy, the ropes were more or less symbolic. Luckily the sensors at the entrance must have been for triggering lights back in the days, because they surely didn’t cause an alarm to go off.
The back of the love hotel looked a little more abandoned, but just barely. Each room came with a separate garage – you drove in and shut the plastic curtain to get your car some privacy. The room rates (rest / stay) were written at signs next to the doors – which were all locked. That fact makes this article even duller, especially since I don’t know anything about the history of the Love Hotel tinna. I guess it was abandoned just weeks or a few months prior to my visit, but it’s hard to tell for sure. On the other hand: a lot of westerners don’t know much about love hotel, so here you can finally see some exterior shots. For interior shots you might want to have a look at the two articles about love hotels I published in 2011 and 2012. The one about the *Love Hotel Gion* is all about love hotels in general and how big the business is (a whopping 50 billion $-US!), the one about the *Furuichi Love Hotel* is more about dating in Japan and why some Japanese women were once called “Leftover Christmas Cake”…

And that’s it for this week – Merry XXX-Mas!

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Tottori is famous for its sand dunes, vast natural parks and pear omiyage – not for urban exploration. Located in the Chugoku region at the Sea of Japan (a.k.a. Korea East Sea and Japanese Sea) and therefore at the northern coast of Japan, Tottori is a little bit off the beaten tracks – most tourists travelling south of Tokyo continue via Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe to Himeji, Hiroshima and Kyushu along the Seto Inland Sea. Only a handful of Western tourists switch to one of the express trains from Kansai to Tottori (city), the capital of Tottori (prefecture) – there is no Shinkansen service as a northern line connecting Osaka and Shimonoseki via Tottori and Matsue was proposed in 1973 and then shelved indefinitely. The least populous of Japan’s prefectures (3.5 million inhabitants, less than the city Yokohama) is generally rather rural and agriculture is the most important economical factor – pears, scallions, yams and watermelons from Tottori are famous in all of Japan.

One thing Tottori is not famous for is urban exploration. Nevertheless I had plans to go to Tottori for almost a year, but for some reason I never followed through. The places I wanted to visit there were not that spectacular, the weather wasn’t consistent for a whole weekend, the season wasn’t right or I simply had other plans. In spring of 2012 everything came together finally, so I hopped on the first of eight special direct trains to Tottori and enjoyed the 2.5 hour long ride through the stunning Chugoku Mountains. After finding and checking into a hotel I did some haikyo hiking to another location and finally arrived at the gorgeous Tottori Sand Dunes in the late afternoon – running out of time, as so often.
The Sand Dune Palace turned out to be quite a rundown building secured by rusty barbed wire, only worth taking pictures of thanks to its relative fame and the round viewing platform which gave this old rest house (built in 1965) a little bit of an edge by making it more round… The salty sea air was gnawing through anything metal, especially lamp posts and handrails. All the bells and whistles, like door handles and lamps looked so 60s that it almost hurt the eyes. Really nothing special, so I headed over to the dunes to find my way to the beach in order to take some sunset photos. On the way back, late into dusk, I made another quick stop to take a couple of night shots, but then I had to leave to catch the last bus back to the city – it was an exhausting day and sadly not everything lived up to my expectations; for example the Sand Dune Palace – the pear sweets on the other hand were divine and if you ever go to Tottori, make sure to try the “nashi usagi” (literally “pear rabbits”, mochi filled with pear jam).

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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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June is probably the worst month to spend in Japan. While the temperatures are still at a bearable level (25 to 30 degrees Celsius / about 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit) the humidity goes crazy thanks to the rainy season. Six weeks of rain, probably on five days a week. Not fun when you like to spend your time outdoors.
Four weeks into the 2012 rainy season the weather forecast announced a whole weekend without rain and I got excited. Finally some urbex again, even an overnight trip for two days. Of course on Friday the forecast changed from two days of sun to sunny on Saturday and rainy on Sunday, but one day of exploration is better than none, so decided to finally visit the “Red Factory”, a favorite of Japanese blogs in the first half of 2012. It was in day trip range, but nevertheless a pain in the ass to get to due to its remote location. The closest train station was about 11 kilometers away, with buses running twice a day on weekends, at 12.30 p.m. and 5 p.m., going back to the station at 7.30 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. – which meant a pretty long walk on the way back…

At least I was able to sleep in on Saturday, only to find the weather wasn’t sunny at all. Not even cloudy. It was overcast, pretty much the worst weather for photography. June in Japan…

3 hours later (2 hours on several trains, then half an hour waiting for another 30 minutes on a bus) I finally reached the Red Factory on this hot and humid, but not sunny, Saturday – and I was a bit disappointed, to say the least. The place was not nearly as big and not nearly as red as I imagined it to be (I picked the “most red” photos for this article…). And the road there was impassable for cars due to a retractable road block I hadn’t seen on any photo before. The first factory building, empty on old Japanese blog entries, usually not to be seen on newer ones (a fact I didn’t realize during my research, of course) was filled with all kinds of canisters, tools and cars with white and yellow license plates – which means privately, not commercially, used vehicles. It looked like somebody started to use the factory as storage buildings. Great… infiltration, not exploration.
Cautiously I continued to walk up the mountain. Next building – a brand-new midget tractor. All the other buildings were pretty much broom-clean. Not exactly what I expected. And what about the partly overgrown house on the other side of the small river running through the factory area? Hastily I quickened my pace to reach the top of the factory area, not sure anymore if it was still abandoned. 50 meters of elevation gain later I reached the end of the factory area. Nobody there, so at least I was sure no human surprises were waiting for me in the back. An animal surprise was there though. A dead animal. Well, more than dead – the skeleton of a deer, most likely a Sika Deer or Japanese Deer, cervus nippon nippon. At least a dozen Japanese urban explorers went to the Red Factory that year and none did care to mention that the place was in use and that parts of a deer skeleton were lying in front of one of the buildings. What the heck…?!

From that point on the exploration was pretty much easy going. Of course I was still worried that somebody would show up, but I was way too busy to avoid spiders, snakes and other animals in the buzzing summer season.

Sadly there is not much I can tell you about the history of the Red Factory. In Japanese it is usually called the Red Ochre Factory, so given the looks of the factory it’s safe to say that the facility was used to produce red ochre from yellow ochre. Captain Obvious strikes again!

Aaaand… that’s pretty much it. Unspectacular exploration, getting there and back took much longer and was much more of an effort than actually exploring the Red Factory. A bit disappointing since I had great expectations, but after sitting at home for several weeks due to the weather it was a welcome change… (The walk back though wasn’t fun at all. Jeans, hiking boots, full camera equipment on an extremely humid day along a river – 11 kilometers in under two hours or I would have missed the train, running every 60 to 90 minutes.)

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I planned to publish a video with this article, but Youtube seems to be a bit bitchy again on this computer – I will upload it most likely on August 26th.

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The abandoned Okayama Hospital is a place of many names. Okayama Countryside Clinic (like the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic*) would have been an appropriate name, too, but Japanese blogs usually call it the Setouchi Clinic – which I think is a rather risky name as, in my humble opinion, it gives away too much about its location…

I was trying really hard to write an entertaining text about the Okayama Hospital Haikyo, but sadly there is little to nothing known about the clinic – and the current humid heat here in Osaka (up to 37°C and up to 84% humidity) didn’t exactly help either. Judging by the mansion-like looks of the estate it must have been built during the Meiji or Taisho era – a traditional Japanese style complex with massive boundary walls. I don’t know when the clinic was abandoned, but I guess it was about 20 years ago. Overall it was in good condition, but nature was claiming back the living room and I saw a decently sized hole in the floor of the reception – probably a previous explorer crashing through the wooden planks.
The owner definitely moved out, but left behind quite a bit of both medical as well as everyday life items. Since I visited the clinic, well hidden by a completely overgrown garden, on a rainy summer day, it was quite uncomfortable to explore – not nearly as bad as the mosquito ridden hellhole known as *Doctor’s Shack*, but still bad enough. It obviously also affected the lighting in the clinic, so I decided to publish this set in monochrome. For some reason monochrome works well with abandoned countryside clinics. (If you watch the video and think “But the sun is shining outside!” – yeah, for about ten minutes while I was there… and then for the rest of the day right after I left the clinic!)
Since the weather is killing me and there is not much to say about the clinic anyway, I will keep it short this week – overall it was a good location with some neat little details (I love the clock, the two phones and the katakana eye test!), but the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic* is still unrivaled when it comes to abandoned village doctor houses…

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I visited the *Japanese Sex Museum* for the first time in March of 2012 – it was not only a very unique exploration, it was also a very long one, me spending about 4 hours in the pitch-black exhibition rooms.
About 2 months later *I went to Kyushu and failed miserably* when I was unable to find a hotel room due to Japan’s wanderlust during Golden Week. I can be quite persistent, so I went back down south a week or two later to explore the northern Kyushu locations I was eager to visit for quite a while. This time everything went according to plan, so my tour ended in Yamaguchi prefecture with half a day to spare. So I jumped on a train and went back to the Japanese Sex Museum.
A ton of people watched the walking tour video I shot there, but while the feedback was generally positive, some viewers thought that it was way too short, being only 6 minutes long. Open for constructive criticism my idea was to go back to the museum, shoot a longer video and maybe take some additional photos. In and out in an hour, two tops – I had been there just recently, how much could have changed in less than 2 months? Well… I left after four hours to catch my last train back to Osaka!

Interestingly enough not a lot changed. The place looked almost the same, except for one minor difference – somebody opened two doors, emergency exits, allowing not only some foliage to enter, but also a few rays of light. Not much, but enough to use natural light with the help of a tripod and long exposure times for almost every single photo. During my first visit I had to illuminate about 80% of the photos manually and individually with a flashlight since it was completely dark in most of the rooms. On my second visit the process was almost as time-consuming as before, but the photos looked completely different, even when I took pictures of the same objects. And so one hour turned into two turned into three turned into four…

This is actually more or less a photo and video update since I already wrote about the sex museum’s history in my previous article – and since nothing happened while I revisited the place, here is the new material for your viewing pleasure without further ado. Enjoy!

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Addendum 2014-07-11: According to a friend of mine the museum has been demolished a while ago – R.I.P.!

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Timing is everything, at least in the world of urban exploration. If you come too early a place is still in use, if you come too late it’s demolished. If it has security you need a special kind of timing, but even regular explorations need some planning. Some locations are only good at certain seasons – a lot of mines in Hokkaido are inaccessible in winter due to snow, other mines in Kansai are inaccessible in summer since they are completely overgrown. And don’t even mention mosquitos, snakes and spiders!
The Tatsuyama Mine falls in the “inaccessible in summer” category. Luckily I, my buddy Dan and two of his friends went there in spring, when the green hell was nothing more than a brownish limbo. Nevertheless our timing wasn’t perfect – basically because we were running out of time. The Tatsuyama Mine (literally: Dragon Mountain Mine!) was the last stop on a looooong daytrip and we really had to rush to make it to the mountainous Okayama countryside after visiting the abandoned *Japanese Strip Club* and before the sun went down. The sun sets early in Japan, especially in spring, especially in the mountains, but Lady Fortune was on our side – the valley the mine was in opened to the west, allowing us to make the most of the little daylight that was left. On the long drive there I almost gave up hope that we would arrive on time, but in the end we had about an hour… little compared to what we could have used for a proper exploration (3 to 4 hours!), but still better than nothing.

The Tatsuyama Mine is one of those locations everybody seems to know about, but hardly anybody writes about. Photos pop up here and there, but little is known about this abandoned copper mine – except that it was closed in 1961. Yes, 1961. A solid 50 years before me and my friends had a look… Deserted before most other locations presented on Abandoned Kansai were even built!

Unsure what to expect we parked the car on the “main street” and rushed on foot down into the valley, passing shacks we probably would have ignored even if we would not have been in a rush. The mine was built on a slope right in front of us, and then I saw a rather big wooden house appear to the left. While my friends continued straight ahead I quickly entered the building for a short look. There was not much interior left and the staircase to the upper floor was falling apart, so I continued to the mine itself – after a bat let me know that it was its house, not mine. Realizing that soon it would be too dark for a decent video I went back and shot a walking tour for my memories and your viewing pleasure before climbing the slope, partly inside, partly outside of the concrete and wooden structure that once was probably was the sifting plant of the Tatsuyama copper mine. At that point I was really happy to be there in early spring, not in summer – no poisonous animals, no plants blocking progress and light.
The concrete parts still seemed to be in solid condition, but the wooden parts were fading away; not really a surprise after 50 years. With barely any time left I didn’t have to make tough decisions though if it was worth risking a broken leg (or neck…) entering certain parts – I just wanted to get to the top and down again before it was getting dark. With advice from my friends (“Go that way to reach a higher level!”) I actually accomplished that, even finding the entrance to the mine near the top of the plant – now blocked by a small dam (i.e. earth and stones…) and completely filled with water.

I am a huge fan of abandoned mines! The aesthetics of brittle wood, rusty metal and concrete structures just don’t get old to me (no pun intended…), so I enjoyed every second exploring the Tatsuyama Mine, although I wish there would have been more time. Well, maybe a revisit is in order, though it’s unlikely given that the mine is in the middle of nowhere, about 2.5 hours by car from where I live…

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Okunoshima is urban exploration for beginners. Actually it’s more like a vacation day than urbex – with an inglorious past, probably one of the darkest chapters in Japan’s history. And it’s an island with many names. In Japan Okunoshima (大久野島) is famous as usagi shima (ウサギ島), Rabbit Island. People with a more twisted look at life call it Poison Gas Island, though the Japanese term doku gas shima (毒ガス島) is way less common – but I doubt that this is the result of a more positive Japanese mindset…

Located in the Seto Inland Sea about 50 kilometers east of Hiroshima Okunoshima disappeared before if became famous. Back in the 1920s Japan signed the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that banned the use of chemical and biological weapons – but it didn’t say anything about development, production, storage or transfer. At the time being up to no good and started making trouble in the neighborhood, Japan immediately began to take advantage of that loophole. And with that Japan became the only country to use chemical weapons  in World War II, killing an estimated 80.000 Chinese soldiers and civilians according to historian Chi Hsueh-jen! (Not only with the knowledge, but with the permission of Emperor Hirohito… which probably should have lead to his prosecution as a war criminal. Sadly, hard evidence was found only decades later by Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor of modern Japanese history at the prestigious Chuo University and a founding member of the “Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility”. My deep respect for the man, I’m sure his research made him more enemies than friends…)
The location of choice was the small and barely known island of Okunoshima, off the beaten tracks in case of a major accident, but still close enough to the important military city Hiroshima. From 1927 to 1929 an existing fish cannery on Okunoshima was “modernized” with a desalination plant, a refrigeration system and a power plant – and at the same time all foxes, martens, cats and rats were systematically eradicated. Okunoshima was erased from maps and Japan did everything to keep its existence a secret. Shipping routes were changed and trains along the coast had to close their window shutters, so did ferries passing the island. Plain-clothed members of the infamous Japanese military police kempeitai made sure everybody followed those rules and didn’t dare to sneak a peek. To avoid any activity on Okunoshima being seen from mainland Japan the old fish cannery was blown up, keeping the new installations intact – and the old pier in the west was replaced by a new one further south, closer to the research and production facilities. Huge storages for gigantic tanks were carved into the mountain and the soil was used to create ramparts as visual covers. In 1929 production began with high secrecy and under horrible conditions.

Since most of Japan’s leading scientists were under the supervision of western secret services they couldn’t be involved directly in the top secret base on Okunoshima. Production had to be executed by educated amateurs. Most of them were Korean forced laborers who worked in the production of medicine or soap before, locals looking for a good salary – and later on the military pressured more than 1000 local high school students into working on Okunoshima; at first only those with good grades in natural sciences, in the final years of WWII pretty much everybody available. The workers were given protective suits that weren’t really protective because the aggressive chemicals made the PVC brittle – thousands were injured because of that and during accidents, many died of their injuries because there were no doctors on the island and nobody was allowed to seek medical help on the Japanese mainland for the reason of secrecy. The production halls were cold in winter and smoldering in summer. Imagine wearing a plastic suit in a climate that sometimes makes it hard to breathe even when in shorts and T-shirt…

About 6.600 tons of mustard gas (Yperite), lewisite, phosgene and other poison gases were produced and stored temporarily on Okunoshima between 1929 and 1944 before being put to use by the Japanese military. While the gases were tested on rabbits on Okunoshima the scientists there worked together with the infamous *Unit 731* on at least two occasions in 1940 and 1943 – they tested mustard gas on Chinese prisoners. (In case you don’t know Unit 731: Have a look at Wikipedia and make sure you don’t wanna eat soon. Their initiator and commanding officer *Shiro Ishii* was one of the most despicable people to ever walk on this planet, the Japanese Josef Mengele, maybe even worse – but thanks to some Americans, especially from Fort Detrick, the weasel was never prosecuted, although he should have been executed for his war crimes. Ishii didn’t even have to flee Japan since he was able to negotiate immunity for himself and his closest allies. Instead he lived a peaceful life with his family until is death in 1959 at age 67.)

After World War II ended in 1945 the remaining poison gas was dumped in the ocean, buried or burned – the factories were blown up or used as housing or storage (e.g. for ammunition during the Korean War). This was done by Japanese contractors under the supervision of the Americans, but what happened to the rabbits used as laboratory animals is rather unclear. Some say they were released by workers after the Japanese military left the island – others claim that they were all killed by the American military and the current rabbits on Okunoshima are descendants of a dozen pets released by a Japanese school class in 1972. One thing is for sure: Since all natural enemies of the rodents were killed in the late 1920s they don’t have to fear any predators and so they breed like… well… rabbits.

Okunoshima stayed a forgotten island for a few decades until in 1988 something unusual happened, at least by Japanese standards: A poison gas museum opened on the Poison Gas Island. Of course emphasizing the harsh conditions for the workers in the factory, because as everybody knows, at least everybody educated by the Japanese school system: Japan was the victim of WWII. Well, sadly that is the common self-awareness, which explains South Park episodes like Whale Whores (and Chinpokomon…) – episodes that show an understanding of Japan most people, including Japanese, don’t have. And so all the photos of poison gas inflicted wounds in the 2 room museum are not from WWII, but from the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. And while most ruins on Okunoshima have signs in Japanese and English (which is quite commendable since it’s unusual for any location that far off the beaten tracks!) the ones at the museum are mostly in Japanese only. (Which reminds me of the Peace Center in Osaka, where most of the surprisingly critical exhibits are labeled in Japanese only while all the others are bilingual, Japanese and English – shamed be he who thinks evil of it…)

Nowadays Okunoshima is a popular tourist spot, visited by about 100.000 people a year, many of them staying overnight at the hotel or the camping ground on the island. Not so much because of the poison gas factory ruins or the museum, but because of the rabbits. Like I said, no predators, so 100s of them are roaming freely, probably making Okunoshima the world’s largest petting zoo. Usually when I am on my way to an abandoned place and there is some noise in the bushes close-by it’s a snake. Or a boar. Or a monkey. Maybe even a bear. On Okunoshima it’s a rabbit. Or a bunch of them. Charging at any person that is passing by, hoping for some food. And they are so adorable! I came for the ruins, but I stayed for the rabbits. Seriously, I spent much more time taking photos of rabbits than taking photos of ruins – when I found out that there were remains of a Meiji era fort from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05 I almost considered it a burden, not another photo opportunity…

Pretty much all rabbits on Okunoshima are hand-tame. The ones near the ferry terminals and the hotel are by far the biggest ones. I’m sure they get fed 24/7! If you like your rabbits smaller and a little bit more shy I recommend going off the beaten tracks – to the tennis courts (de-facto abandoned, at least some of them), to the former gunpowder storage or any trail up the mountain. Don’t worry, even there you don’t have to look for rabbits… they will find you! (And you don’t have to worry about snakes, boars, monkeys or bears – you are not even allowed to bring cats or dogs to the island.)

As for my day on Okunoshima: I did a full circle, starting at ferry terminal 2 and ending at ferry terminal 1, since I left on the second to last boat departing from the island; you can *have a look at GoogleMaps* as Okunoshima is a tourist attraction. And I refrained from renting a bike, because I wanted to take my time and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere on the island. The weather started out sunny and ended overcast, poison for photography, but surprisingly I didn’t mind. All of a sudden I didn’t care that much for the gas factory ruins. Many of them were fenced off by ridiculously low bars, but for once I did respect those barriers that were more symbolic than effective. After learning about the place’s history all those chunks of concrete blackened with soot weren’t that important anymore. Okunoshima’s history was just overwhelming. Why disrespect a place that saw and caused so much pain and suffering? When at the same time you can spend a relaxing day at the beach and play with cute little bunnies!

Going to Okunoshima was a wonderful experience and I kind of left with a heavy heart – I visited in spring on a warm day, probably still a little bit too cold to go swimming, and I had plans for the next day. But if you ever have the chance to go to Okunoshima from late spring to early autumn make sure to bring a loved one (as well as your kids, if you have some) and stay overnight at the hotel – just make sure to make a reservation months ahead as the hotel is very busy. Unless you are afraid of ghosts and fear that hordes of Chinese war victims, Japanese workers and laboratory rabbits will haunt you…

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Oh, before I forget: A shortened German version of this article, “Die Insel der Versuchskaninchen / Okunoshima – Zwischen Giftgas und Kaninchen” (The Island of Guinea Pigs / Okunoshima – Between Poison Gas and Rabbits), was published on Spiegel Online / einestages on Monday – you can *read it here*.

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