Archive for the ‘Depot’ Category

Life is friggin weird sometimes: Not only is there a rather small city on Kyushu called Usa – it’s also home to several Japanese military ruins from World War 2!

At first sight there was nothing special about this old airplane bunker in the middle of rice fields somewhere in the Japanese countryside on Kyushu. It’s pretty much as rural as it can get and train stations were rather rare in this beautiful area, just a few hundred meters away from the coast.
I got off the train at a station called Buzenzenkoji on a gorgeous spring afternoon and got on again several hours later after dark at another one called Yanagigaura. Stories that the area was bustling with military 70 years prior intrigued me, but reports on the internet said that barely anything was left to see. The stories were about bases and bunkers, often kilometers apart, not visible on GoogleMaps, most of them even destroyed. Information about locations was vague, but what did I have to lose? Walking through the Japanese countryside on a sunny, warm spring afternoon was a treat by itself; always has been, always will be.
When I reached what I hoped would be the quarters of a naval aviation unit… I saw nothing. Nothing but some concrete foundations as well as gardens and fields at the edge of a small town. The Moriyama Emplacement and its moat probably had been levelled decades ago to help growing food for the hungry Japanese post-WW2 population.
So I continued along the road in hope to find the Shiroi Combat Group of the Usa Naval Aviation. I am actually not sure if I really found it, but I definitely found said airplane bunker. It was located right next to a house and it seemed like the owners were still using it – not to protect an airplane, but as a storage. I took a couple of quick photos and a short video before continuing my way as the sun started to set.
This time I was looking for Usa Naval Aviation’s motor workshop a few kilometers northeast on the way to the train station… and I found it after looking for a while in a rather new residential area, surrounded and broken up by fields. The workshop was in miserable condition, nevertheless it looked like it was still used by locals as storage space. I quickly took a handful of photos (most of them against the light…) and barely reached the Yanagigaura train station before it got dark – but not before stopping at a fourth location, a small wooden and completely boarded-up house that looked like it was from the late 19th, early 20th century.

To me this little stroll was barely more than enjoying a relaxing Friday afternoon on my way to some serious explorations (including *Shidaka Utopia*, but if you are into World War 2 history and do some research in advance, I am sure you can find some pretty interesting stuff in the area. To me even the airplane bunker was just an airplane bunker and the main reason this afternoon walk turned into a full article was… because after I returned home I realized that those World War 2 ruins were located in a town called Usa – exactly my kind of humor, I find that extremely funny… 🙂

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My summer vacation to Germany in 2013 felt a little bit like the weirdest USO tour ever as I was basically heading from one abandoned military base to the next – in the end I went to about a dozen of them, ranging from “demolished” to “dangerously decaying” to “in almost perfect condition”. And of course some of them turned out to be just closed and heavily guarded… but since urbex is one big grey area I’ll write about all of them sooner or later.
The Babenhausen Kaserne I remember vividly from back in the late 1990s, when I saw it every couple of weeks on my way from my hometown to my place of study – I was always impressed by the massive red stone wall and the surprisingly beautiful buildings, but I had no idea that its history dated back to the turn of the century (between the 19th and 20th century that is…).

After the necessary negotiations with the Reichstag and the war ministry in 1899 (pre-Orwell and therefore pre euphemisms like Ministry of Defense!), the construction of the Babenhausen Kaserne began in the following year, with a groundbreaking ceremony on July 3rd. 15 months later the construction of 21 buildings and a water tower were finished and the 2nd battalion of the 61st field artillery regiment of the Grand Duke of Hesse was the first unit to move in. Almost 13 years down the road, on August 7th 1914, the regiment was transferred to fight in World War I. Now empty, the Kaserne soon was used as a hospital during the war. Upon Imperial Germany’s defeat in November 1918 the regiment briefly returned and then was deactivated in December; three months later the hospital was closed. In the following 15 years the Kaserne had many tenants: a French infantry battalion, a Reichswehr regiment, the Hessian security police, the Hessian police school, a section of the University of Darmstadt, the SA, the 36th Field Artillery Regiment, a horse riding and driving school for the German cavalry, a flying school and development detachment, a maintenance company, a Flak unit and several other smaller groups – and for some time it was even completely empty.
On March 25th 1945 the 3rd infantry division of the US Army liberated Babenhausen, confiscated private houses and used the Kaserne as a camp for displaced persons and as a POW camp for up to 30.000 German soldiers – PWTE-A-20 was disbanded in October 1946…
In May 1947 the US Army officially took over the Kaserne for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), organizing refugee camps for Russians and Poles as well as shelter for displaced people from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
From February 1951 on the Kaserne became a military purpose again. The US Army expanded the base and in August the 36th field artillery group moved in – followed by the 36th FA GP; 18th, 519th and 593rd field artillery battalions, the 41st field artillery group (later becoming the 41st field artillery brigade). In the early 1990s the HHB 41 Brigade, 1/27 FA, 4/77 FA, 77 Maintenance Co and the 72nd Ordnance Battalion supported Operation Desert Storm from Babenhausen.
The deactivation of the Babenhausen Kaserne began in 2005 and on July 9th 2007 more of 100 years of military history ended with a closing ceremony.

Phew – researching and writing about the history of the Kaserne in Babenhausen actually took a lot longer than exploring it as the whole area was fenced off and guarded very well. Heck, when I got close to the main gate a watchdog started to bark and didn’t stop until I was very, very far away. Heading for the back of the area, now home to a small airfield, didn’t do much either – barbed wire metal fences, concrete blockades and massive gate made it impossible to infiltrate the base without getting hurt or caught by security.

Sadly the future of the Babenhausen Kaserne is still uncertain. Right after the barracks were closed several interest groups developed the Brundtland-Park concept, but a dedicated homepage in German hasn’t been updated since 2009. More recent news articles show that there has been lots of talking in the past years, but no decision making – and so the area is slowly decaying, heavily guarded…

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The Pioneer Kaserne in Hanau is one of those countless former American military bases that currently are in kind of a limbo – the US Army gave it back to Germany (under the management of the BImA), but the local government hasn’t decided what to do with it. During the Cold War Hanau was one of the biggest US garrisons in the area, in case the Red Army would try to break through the Fulda Gap and attack Frankfurt. Back then up to 30.000 soldiers and civilians were working at the Pioneer Kaserne and other locations like the Francois Kaserne (returned to Germany in 1992), Coleman Barracks (1992) Hessen-Homburg Kaserne (1992), Grossauheim Kaserne (1993), Hutier Kaserne (1994/2007), Fliegerhorst Langendiebach (2007) Hanau AAF, Wolfgang Kaserne (2008), York Hof (2008) and the Argonner Kaserne (2008) – one third of Hanau’s total population. While most of the other locations already found new purposes and are currently converted (or have been in the past), the destiny of the Pioneer Kaserne and its two housing areas is still up in the air. With a total size of more than 600.000 square meters the Pioneer area is gigantic, nevertheless it’s only about a quarter of all the military estate Hanau has / had to integrate into its city planning concept…

Like pretty much all closed military bases rather close to city centers (like the *Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne* in Darmstadt), the Pioneer Kaserne is kind of fortified – of course it is, it’s a huge former military base! But unlike most others, this one didn’t have any “Trespassing is strictly forbidden!” signs. No, the local security company is more subtle. They only put up signs stating “Das Betreten des Geländes erfolgt auf eigene Gefahr” (“Entering the premises happens at your own risk”) – right next to a sign warning about watchdogs… including a drawing of a German shepherd. I guess the message is clear!
Despite those threa–… announcements… I did my best to avoid the usual “fence from the outside” photos you can usually find on the internet, resulting in quite a few scratches and bruises… Oh, and if you ever worked at the Kaserne or nearby: the KFC is gone now, but the Café del Sol still is really popular. Thanks to the watchdogs and the security guards pretty much all the buildings are in fantastic condition, so let’s hope that the city of Hanau will find a new purpose for the Pioneer Kaserne soon!

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The Hochspeyer Munitions Storage (HMS, a.k.a. Ammunition Storage Annex Hochspeyer) was one of the most fascinating and mysterious military installations I visited during my trip to Germany in the summer of 2013. I actually wanted to visit the place two years prior right after exploring of what was left of *Sembach Air Base*, but sadly we ran out of time back then after my buddy Gil and I were surprised by a cloudburst…

Just a couple of weeks ago I came back with my friend Catherine. The Palatine area is perfect to combine long walks with urban exploration, so I chose the forests around K-Town (commonly known as Kaiserslautern) for a little catch up trip. The first location we went to turned out to be proof of Germany’s interesting energy policy and a terrible disaster for fans of abandoned military bases as it was converted into a gigantic solar farm; the next one, Hochspeyer Munitions Storage, on the other hand was kind of a jackpot.
We entered the premises via a road blocked by two concrete barriers – no cars allowed, only bikes and pedestrians. We actually didn’t see a single “Don’t trespass!” or “Trespassers will be shot!” sign, so we felt very comfortable there, despite the fact that there was not much to see at first. Just a single green building, the interior smashed to pieces, and a big asphalted area with only basic foundations left – probably a motor pool half a century ago. Heck, even the fence was mostly gone, with only a couple of concrete posts left. Although I did quite a bit of research on the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage I am still not sure whether or not this area was officially part of it – if it was, it was mostly demolished and abandoned decades ago. But the HMS dates back to the 1960s, so it’s rather likely that both area saw activity at the same time back in the days. And while one part was left deserted, the other got modernized again and again…
Deeper into the forest Catherine and I found a locked gate, part of a really tall barbed-wire fence with a series of lamp posts every 25 meters set 5 meters behind the fence. Despite its location in the middle of the woods this area was carefully deforested and secured – trespassers could be seen easily from large distances. Abandoned or not, the people who planned this area knew what they were doing, eager to keep people out. Everything there was in great condition at first sight: the fence, the gate, the locks, the lamp posts, the security perimeter… only some open doors at a building in the distance indicated that the area really might have been abandoned. So we looked for a way in and indeed found one.
We quickly approached the green building, eager not to be seen from people on or off the premises – with Ramstein Air Base not being far away we saw plenty of stuff flying across our heads. The flat part consisted of a machinery room, restrooms and a couple of office / conference rooms, the rather high part seemed to have been a storage and / garage, probably to de/load vehicles. SIgns were either in English or bilingual, English and German. The most interesting one was just airbrushed onto the wall:
Explosive Limits
1.1  5,000  lbs
1.2  5,000  lbs
1.3  10,000  lbs
1.4  Physical Capacity
Personnel Limits
2 Supervisors
5 Workers
2 Casuals
Okay… this definitely wasn’t the average administrative building you see when entering abandoned military bases, this was serious stuff! And everything looked pretty new, aside from some vandalism. Was this area really abandoned?

Catherine and I continued to explore the area. Next we found the former main gate with the gatehouse. One window open, others smashed – raw violence, because those windows were made from bulletproof glass. Again, serious stuff. When I opened a small door on the back I could feel that it was really heavy, despite the fact that it opened smoothly. The interior of the building was mostly gone, but you could see that once it must have been stuffed with tons of electronic devices. Probably not too long ago, given that you could basically start to reuse the building after a couple of hours of repairs. Nothing too serious, but probably costly.

I have to admit that I felt a bit more more uneasy inside the fenced area than outside in the 60s foundation area, and that didn’t change when finally reached the bunker area, tire tracks still on the ground, low vegetation, filled water reservoirs after a hot summer, the pool liner still in great condition. This site was definitely closed, but was it really abandoned? That thought resounded my mind like spoken words in the open bunkers. The acoustics there were fantastic, especially since I am so used to shut bunkers, sitting there inaccessibly everywhere in forests all over German. Finally being able to enter some of them was amazing, one of those minor urbex highlights you stumble across every once in a while. As was a nearby tool shack, where the silhouettes of the equipment were painted onto the wall, so even Private Paula would know where to put things back. Another minor highlight was that one bunker that was built differently in many ways and had a gigantic safe built in, installed by Garny – founded 200 years ago in 1813. (This was a newer model, of course…)

Usually it takes me months, sometimes even years, to write about my explorations, but the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage was a truly exciting exploration, one that made me write this article while I was still in Germany, taking an afternoon of doing research about what the place really was.
Sadly not much is known about the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage. At first I thought it was related to the *Sembach Air Base* I mentioned earlier, which it probably was at one point, but since the airfield there was closed it seems like the HMS was part of the famous Ramstein Air Base; some guy in a German internet forum claimed at one point it was a sub-camp of the USAF Depot Morbach-Wenigerath, now known as Energiepark Morbach (energy park Morbach).
The few facts are that the HMS was 88 acres big (about 356000 square meters), had 30 bunkers, was part of the USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe), that the road there was built in 1957 thanks to a Captain Joseph T. Sampson – and that it was closed in 2007 as part of “Air Force Smart Operations for the 21 Century” (AFSO21) to save a couple of bucks. In early 2007 Ramstein’s 435th Munitions Squadron started transporting material from Hochspeyer to their main base, the last truck leaving on October 12th of the same year. Apparantly most of it were BLU-109 bombs, nasty buggers that are used against HDBTs (Hard and Deep Buried Targets) and can break through 1.8 meters of ferroconcrete before exploding. Which explains the setup of the facility – it’s the kind of technology you don’t want to have fallen into wrong hands… and the kind of technology local civilians shouldn’t know about.
The rest is vague. Some people claim that the area was returned to Germany, others say that it is still under the control of the USAFE. (Since there were no warning signs in German I assume the area still belongs to the US. In cases like that the Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben (BIMA, Institute for Federal Real Estate) usually takes over – and they are pretty good at putting up signs. Making good use of the area? Not so much. Putting up signs? Hell yeah!) Some people claim the premises are abandoned, others say that they are still used for emergency drills and patrolled by security – or in this case rather security police.

Whatever is true, I am happy that I was able to explore the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage without causing trouble for me and my companion. It was a very memorable experience and I did as much research as possible afterwards, but if you know more about the place, having worked there or being a (hobby) historian, please feel free to add facts and anecdotes in the comments section!

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Sometimes you just gotta be lucky. Like my friend Nina and I were when we were walking up to the former Ammunition Depot Achern in the southern part of Germany. We didn’t know anything about the location except that it was there – and when we tried the handle of the gate it opened to our surprise. Right next to the entrance we found a small building in excellent condition, locked, a bicycle inside, the logo of the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) on the side. In case you are not familiar with German institutions – the THW is a Federal Office, the official English name is Federal Agency for Technical Relief; the THW helps in cases of floods, earthquakes and other disasters. So the depot wasn’t part of the Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) anymore, but now belonged to the THW… interesting, from military to civil protection. Right next to the building the road split 3 ways and we walked down the most southern one, towards the 17 former ammunition bunkers of different sizes and an abandoned train used for training missions. We took a couple of photos and then we heard voices… Damn! When we reached the end of the road we headed north to the middle road and saw a couple of guys on a training mission. Since they didn’t see us and we didn’t want to cause any trouble we took the most northern road and headed back to the entrance, continuing to take photos as we made a strange discovery in that area: A huge aviary inhabited by dozens of exotic birds. The former ammunition depot really wasn’t that abandoned…

I forgot how we knew, but when we came back to the entrance we realized that somebody must have had entered or left since we got inside. Maybe the gate was not fully closed anymore or we left it open and it was closed now. Maybe there was another bike… I forgot, but I remember that we knew that people were still coming / going. Being back to safety I got gutsier again while Nina decided to wait at the entrance just in case somebody would show up and lock the gate without us knowing; which would have been bad, because the place once was a restricted military area and still is in the possession of the German state – if we would have gotten caught we most likely would have been in trouble; but if we would have gotten locked in, there most likely wouldn’t have been a way out due to lots of barbed wire everywhere… and probably motion detectors on the fences. Nevertheless I went back inside to take a quick video before we finally left after about half an hour altogether.

I mentioned it before and I’ll stick with it: I don’t like infiltration and this was (hopefully…) the last time I did it; mainly because I misjudged the situation – I actually wasn’t aware that the THW is a Federal Agency, I thought it was a private NGO / NPO like the Red Cross, probably because 99% of its members are volunteers… So I guess I dodged at bullet at the abandoned ammunition depot! 🙂

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Every once in a while you come across words in English that are actually German. Some of them you might know, like kindergarten or rucksack, others are not that well-known, like schadenfreude (malicious joy). Given that Great Britain is the home of modern rail transportation I didn’t expect to find a German term that doesn’t have an equivalent in English, but here we are: Ausbesserungswerk (composed of Ausbesserung = repair / correction and Werk = plant / facory). I never found a spelling with a lower case A, so I guess unlike the previous examples Ausbesserungswerk never became officially an English term, but there is an English Wikipedia entry, so that’s good enough for me…
So, what’s an Ausbesserungswerk? Well, an Ausbesserungswerk is a repair and upgrade shop for railway vehicles and their components. While the so-called Bahnbetriebswerke (train yard / depot / engine terminal – you get the idea…) take care of maintenance, small repairs and cleaning, the Ausbesserungswerke are responsible for bigger repairs, general inspections and modernization. Originally there were 84 Ausbesserungswerke all over Germany, but today there are only 18 left.

One of the closed, abandoned and partly demolished one is / was in the lovely town of Schwetzingen, famous for its palace Schloss Schwetzingen.
On October 14th 1912 the citizen’s committee of Schwetzingen unanimously decided to build an Ausbesserungswerk northeast of the train station. Construction began in 1913 and was finished in 1917 to be opened in 1918. Perfect timing, because due to World War I there was a huge demand for the repair of railroad vehicles and from its opening on the Ausbesserungswerk was the biggest employer in the Schwetzingen area for decades to come, with about 1100 people in 1920.
During World War II the Ausbesserungswerk was fortified with bunkers, some of them are still in existence today. Armored observation towers against air raids were installed on the top of some buildings and in late 1943 a shooting range was built on the business premises – resulting in air raids by the Royal Air Force on March 19th 1945, damaging the buildings and killing 22 employees.
From the 1960s on the Ausbesserungswerk Schwetzingen was in decline. The German post-war economic miracle was in full bloom and a lot of employees switched to more lucrative jobs. At first they were replaced by guest workers, but when there was less and less work the amount of employees was continuously reduced from 1974 with the objective to close the Ausbesserungswerk; against the will of the staff council and the works management. But resistance was futile and on October 11th 1983 the Federal Minister of Transportation signed a document to close the Ausbesserungswerk Schwetzingen. In April of 1987 some employees were relocated to the Ausbesserungswerk in Karlsruhe (closed in 1997, mostly demolished by now) and on December 31st 1989 more than 70 years of railroad history ended in Schwetzingen…
In the following years some of the buildings were used as a half-way house for ethnic German immigrants and applicants for asylum, but most of them were just left to decay and rot – kind of insane, since a couple of buildings of the Ausbesserungswerk were put under monumental protection, which means that they can’t be torn down just like that. That came into effect when in Mai of 2011 all the other buildings were demolished, to make room for a logistics center of the manufacturer of sports equipment, Decathlon, scheduled to be opened in April of 2013. The protected buildings were handed over to the city of Schwetzingen for free, shifting the responsibility (and cost…) to the general public. The federal state of Baden-Württemberg granted 1.5 million Euros in 2010 to redevelop the protected area in the southern part of the Ausbesserungswerk and the city of Schwetzingen is deciding these days what to do with the money and the buildings – most likely a mixed use for both residential and commercial purposes. Those plans might have been affected by a case of arson committed by an 18 year old homeless guy on March 21st 2012, causing damages to the amount of 100.000 Euros, but I’m not sure how or if at all.

The Ausbesserungswerk Schwetzingen was the first urbex location in Germany I ever visited. My trip back home in 2011 was rather rainy and disappointing in general, so when there finally was a sunny day I took my chance and had a look. It was a weird feeling though, since everything felt a bit “more real”. In Japan I can always pretend to not being able to read signs, that I got lost, that I don’t understand a word. In Germany those excuses are a lot harder to make, especially since I am not a good bullshitter in the first place. (On the other hand some things are a lot easier – on later explorations I was able to ask people passing by about the history of places and even ask for permission to take photos, both rather impossible for me to do in Japan…)
Sadly there wasn’t much to see anymore. Most buildings were either in really bad condition or completely bolted up with metal plates. There was an abandoned TV, some instructions signs on walls and a rule book regarding laundry and other aspects of daily life living in the half-way house, but that’s pretty much it. A nice stroll, 1.5 to 2 hours, the most interesting part probably the small playground for children in the back of the half-way house – nothing spectacular, but far from being a disappointment…

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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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