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If you are a regular reader of Abandoned Kansai, then you know that sometimes it takes me years to write articles about locations I explored – and I apologize for that! Today I’ll try to change it up again and write about my trip to Tohoku before it even ends; “Instant Article”, so to say.

Currently I am sitting on a Nozomi Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka, and what better way to use those quiet moments than to reflect a little bit on the past five days? (Sleep! But who needs that?) I also realized that I haven’t written yet an article for this week’s update, and since the photos of this trip are basically all I have with me currently… here we go! 🙂

It’s been a while that my old *haikyo* buddy Michael and I went urbexing in *Hokkaido* together, 1.5 years to be specific, and we were talking about going on the road again for quite some time now. Since we are both living busy lifes in Japan, it was a matter of coordinating and allocating days – and the period of choice became the second half of Golden Week, the most miserable travel period in Japan as even the laziest couch potatoe decides to help clogging up trains and highways, if for no other reason than because everybody else is doing it. As for where were to go: Michael suggested Tohoku, to which I hesitantly agreed – since Tohoku is a pain to get to from Kansai, I basically only knew the most famous urbex locations there, and I was aware that there was a lot of driving involved. Michael was, too – one of many reasons to bring his friend Ben on board, another interesting fella from the UK, who was a great addition to our former team of two!

The plan was to visit Kejonuma Leisure Land and the Wagakawa Water Power Plant on the way north, where we wanted to explore the three big Tohoku mines Matsuo, Osarizawa and Taro – plus some minor places along the way. While the Leisure Land was nothing but amazing, the water power plant turned out to be a colossal waste of time; to get inside you have to cross one of two nearby rivers on foot, which can be done rather easily in late summer… but not in spring, when the melting waters of the surrounding mountains rush through. The three mines on the other hand were extremely interesting and quite different from each other. Each one of them deserves at least an own article, maybe even more. Sadly most of the additional side locations were cut for different reasons, except for the Naganeyama Ski Jump, for which my fellow explorers didn’t even want to leave the car, and a locked up school in Fukushima prefecture. What made this trip real special though, was the fact that we were able to visit one of the few remaining open sex museums in Japan, which was quite an interesting experience after exploring two abandoned ones in the *south* and in the *north* of Japan.

Living in Osaka and being spoiled by the incredibly high level of food quality there (Osaka is usually referred to as Japan’s kitchen, while Kansai in general is considered Japan’s birthplace) I was surprised to experience that the Tohoku area doesn’t even come close to that. While I only had less than five bad meals in more than seven years living in Kansai, I don’t think I had a really good one during the whole trip; except maybe lunch near the sex museum, which is in Tochigi prefecture and threrfore not Tohoku anymore. At the Osarizawa Mine, mostly a tourist attraction now, I had a tonkatsu burger (deep fried pork chop burger) with gold leaves… and even that was barely eatable despite the allmighty „even a bad burger is still good food“ rule. Most restaurants on the way though were serious disappointments.

Overall it was an exhausting trip with up to 7 hours of driving per day (altogether Mike and Ben drove 1946 kilometers, most of it on days 1 and 4, when we were getting to and from Tohoku) and less than 6 hours of sleep per night in average; which isn’t that bad, but not enough when doing a dangerous hobby like urban exploration. Although we were very careful, all three of us had more or less minor accidents – luckily we all got away again without any serious damage. (Except the one to the wallet, as everything gets super expensive in Japan during Golden Week…)

Sadly I won’t be able to publish these lines from the Shinkansen, so there will be a gap of at least about an hour between me writing and you reading this article, but I hope you’ll enjoy this quick write-up nevertheless. In the upcoming weeks I’ll publish half a dozen more detailed articles about this road trip – and I am sure some of them will blow your mind! I saw only a handful locations in the past five days, but almost all of them were spectacular must sees. Here’s an alphabetical list, followed by some photos:
Abandoned Japanese Cinema
Kejonuma Leisure Land
Kinugawa Onsen Sex Museum
Kuimaru Elementary School
Matsuo Mine
Naganeyama Ski Jump
Osarizawa Mine
Taro Mine
Wagakawa Water Power Plant

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Uji is famous for green tea. And of course for the Byodo-in, the Buddhist temple on the 10 Yen coin, as well as for the final chapters of “The Tale of Genji”, one of the most popular pieces of classic Japanese literature. But overall the city is most famous for green tea.

Green tea (ryokucha, 緑茶) has been served and sold in Uji at least since 1160 when the cities’ (and probably the world’s) oldest tea shop opened, Tsuen. About 200 years later the famous shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu promoted the cultivation of green tea in Uji, resulting in what is now known as ujicha (宇治茶) – Uji tea. Located in the most southern part of Kyoto prefecture right next to Nara and Shiga prefectures, Uji still influences tea production across borders – and while most people think that Kyoto city is famous for green tea (thanks to its political significance for centuries and the perfection of tea ceremonies involving powdered green tea, matcha, 抹茶), it is actually the town of Uji that perfected its cultivation. So when you visit the city to have a look at the Byodo-in, you’ll see dozens of tea shops, selling several varieties of green tea and products like castella (a cake of Portuguese origin), manju (Japanese sweets made of flour, rice powder, buckwheat) as well as all kinds of cakes, cookies, puddings, chocolates and ice cream – if you like the taste of green tea, then come to Uji and you’ll feel like being in heaven!
There is hardly a dish in that town that they don’t flavor with matcha… (Even the vending machines in Uji sell 80 – 100% green tea!)

The Spring Tea Shop in Uji is the first and so far only abandoned tea store I found in Japan. Sadly there is little to nothing known about this beautiful straw-thatched little building, which is slowly falling into disrepair after it was vandalized probably for years. I’m not even sure about its name, since zenmai, which I translated as spring, can also be a name or the name of a plant, so maybe a more correct transcription would have been Zenmai Tea Shop or Japanese Royal Fern Tea Shop.
According to a calendar left behind the place was closed in 1999, but who knows who left that calendar behind? And there was not much else there… A couple of plates and cups, some cans… and that’s pretty much it (although trash and a dozen porn DVDs were dumped there probably long after the tea shop was closed and abandoned). The kitchen interior was gone, and so was most of the furniture. It was a small rest house for day-trippers and hikers, enough space for maybe 20 to 30 guests at the same time, with a little pond as a center piece and a rather big garden in the back.

Although there was not much left to see and to take photos of, the place strangely intrigued me. The building itself, despite its bad condition, was still gorgeous and I guess it must have been at least 50 years old, probably much, much older. Sadly my fellow explorer *Rory* and I were running out of time quickly, so the rather blurry photos I took don’t live up to the experience I had at this lovely place, that a lot of you might remind of a Miyazaki anime.

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After a long day of exploring, my buddy Dan and I wanted to spend a few relaxing minutes on a shore enjoying the sunset before heading back to Osaka, when we came across the abandoned Japanese Flower Park – and grabbed our cameras one more time…

I actually don’t remember what was drawing us to this location, as neither Dan nor I had heard about it before. I guess it was just coincidence, like it’s the case with most original finds. While driving around we saw a huge empty parking lot and decided to check it out. It was already late in the day, so empty parking lots were nothing unusual, but I somehow had a hunch that there was something special about this one.
Pretty much from the parked car we saw a wooden pay booth in really good condition, a big greenhouse towering in the background. The combination of both gave us a general idea about the purpose of the place, but was it closed for the day or closed for good?
Well, it quickly turned out that it was closed for good. While all buildings were in really good condition, the park itself suffered quite a bit of damage. There were basically two areas – indoors (greenhouses) and outdoors (the park). The flower park was about 50 meter by 50 meters big and consisted of a (once) beautiful garden with several wooden rest areas. The lack of maintenance and regular typhoons though did quite some damage to the outdoor area. The greenhouses on the other hand were spared, much to my surprise. Not only were they spared, they were also locked, like the pay booth at the entrance. Except for one door of the main greenhouse, as Dan told me when I was about to wrap taking photos of the park.
Despite being just early summer with still moderate temperatures outside, the greenhouse was blazing hot. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but I started dripping almost instantly. Turns out that the greenhouse was not only another flower exhibition area for the more delicate genera, but it was also host to a snack shop – still stocked with Tetra Paks full of soft serve ice cream mix; I’m sure that stuff was an easy sell back in the days… Heck, I guess it wasn’t a surprise that most plants inside the greenhouse were dead as a dodo. And I was so happy when I finally got out of the main greenhouse!
Based on some pamphlets I found there and a little internet research afterwards, I was able to reconstruct at least a little bit of the place’s history. The Japanese Flower Park obviously had a different name, but it was opened halfway through 2006 with the goal to attract between 200.000 and 400.000 tourists per year. When only 30.000 showed up in 2007, the park sadly was closed just a year later after being in business for less than 2.5 years – which isn’t really a surprise considering the steep admission charge of 1500 Yen for adults and 700 Yen for kids!
You should think that an abandoned flower park must be extremely boring to explore, but like the abandoned cactus paradise *Himeyuri Park* in Okinawa it was everything but. It was actually one of the most pleasant explorations I ever did, just for the facts that I could just walk in without jumping fences and then was surrounded by plants – some beautiful, some not, but all of them were interesting to look at. More than an hour later I left with a heavy heart, hoping to come back one day…

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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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“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

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The first full day in Rason was packed with tons of program. After breakfast in a separate building (once an exclusive retreat for party members, on some maps marked as “DPRK Leadership Complex”) we headed down the bouncy mountain road to downtown Rajin and paid respect to the Kims. Despite being part of the Rason Special Economic Zone since 1991, Rajin still doesn’t have its own set of statues, so we had to make do with portraits right across from Rajin Stadium. (The statues are currently being built on top of a hill overlooking the city and will most likely be revealed later this year.)
On that hill already is a music hall and a museum, the latter we visited for a couple of minutes. Here I found out that our second set of guardguides were not as funny and relaxed as we all thought the night before. After listening to the local museum guide and Mr. Kim’s translation I was about to choke since I caught a cold after four days of low temperatures and no hot water in North Hamgyong. I live in Asia long enough to know that blowing your nose is considered impolite in some areas, but snuffling wasn’t an option – the space was already occupied. So I waited for the guides to finish their speeches, until we got time to explore the room by ourselves. And then I dared to blow my nose, as quietly as possible of course – and if look could kill, I would have dropped dead.
Mr. Pak, soon be known as Robocop amongst our group, shooshed me with an evil stare only somebody with ten years in the North Korean military can develop. Our “lovely” third “guide” got his nickname because of his amazing range of facial expressions, which was somewhere between Keanu Reeves and… well… Robocop. Since he was the least experienced minder, being with the team for just two months, Robocop had the task of keeping an eye on us to make sure that we follow ALL the rules; especially the ones nobody mentioned. Before his new career as a tourist guide, Robocop actually was a career soldier who spent the past decade with the Korean People’s Army – and given his general demeanor I don’t think he was a chef there, though I am convinced he was very good at deboning…
Anyway, I survived both the snot attack and Mr. Pak’s evil stare (his shooshing being louder than my nose blowing), but I would have a run in with Robocop at least once a day – and so did a lot of people.

Next we visited an art gallery in the city. Half a year prior I bought two hand-painted propaganda posters in Pyongyang and I was hoping to get more here; especially after 5 days of only being able to buy nothing but alcohol and a couple of books. Finally some real souvenirs! Or so I thought as the art gallery turned out to be the first of many disappointments in Rason (not counting Mr. Pak’s shooshing, which actually was kind of a disappointment, too). Despite the fact that they had a dozen propaganda posters on the wall, the gallery staff refused to sell them to us. We could buy anything else, but not the propaganda posters. What the heck? Sadly they didn’t make any effort to sell us anything at all, so we left after a couple of minutes, slightly confused. (And when we drove by the gallery a few minutes later it was closed already, at around 11 a.m.!)
Next on the itinerary was “something very special” – we were allowed to go to the Golden Triangle Bank, one of several financial institutes in Rason, to change EUR, USD, RUB, JPY or CNY into North Korean won at the current, actual exchange rate. (When we did “something very special” in Pyongyang, they allowed us to change money, too, but at a horrible rate, worth a fraction of the actual value. Advantage in Pyongyang though – we received brand-new bills and coins…) All four of our guides warned us not to change too much money as we were not allowed to take it back to China – if we were caught, terrible things could happen to our Korean guides! Spoiler alert: Two days later at the border crossing nobody checked our wallets or what we could have potentially have hidden in clothing or underwear. Since we were a good group, nobody or hardly anybody tried, but it was one more bullshit story we wouldn’t have bought anywhere else in the world. Dozens, probably hundreds of Chinese cross the border every day and on a regular basis at Wonchong – you can’t tell me that they too are forced to cross without any Korean money on them!

Well, anyway, the usual spiel of “something they want to do, something we want to do” continued, so next on our schedule was a visit to a greenhouse where they were growing North Korea’s two most famous flowers, Kimilsungia (an orchid) and Kimjongilia (a begonia) – guess why we went there! While the Kimilsungia was named after Kim Il-sung when he saw the then unnamed flower during a visit to Indonesia, the Kimjongilia was cultivated by Japanese (!) botanist Kamo Mototeru in the dictator’s honor. There wasn’t really much to see other than a couple of dozen potted flowers (plus the usual array of info signs in Korea), so the whole group was back out and ready to go in no time.

Which was good, because now we were in a hurry to make it to the American run shoe factory in Rajin as the workers there were about to have a break; which would have prohibited us from seeing how shoes are made. Maybe it was because of lunch time or because it was Saturday, but the assembly line we saw wasn’t exactly super busy. Half a dozen workers were gluing sports shoes together and all of a sudden they were gone – so we had lunch, too. Interestingly enough the workers didn’t look like they were about to have lunch when we left – we saw them getting together in the yard to work on the construction of another building. I guess nobody cared or dared to ask, but some things didn’t fit. Either it was one big misunderstanding from my side or those guys weren’t really working in that factory on Saturdays…

Lunch was interesting in that regard as the restaurant we ate at was next to a souvenir shop – the next shopping disappointment. The store, targeted at foreign tourists, was stuffed with all kinds of low-price crap and high-price art (fine-art paintings, wood carvings, …) for Chinese and Russian tourists. No books, no sweets, no posters. Just a couple of national flag pins I loved during the first trip. In Kaesong near the DMZ those pins were 50 cent a piece, in Rajin they wanted 3.50 EUR! Congratulations, guys – I guess Juche and capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive after all, especially when supply and demand are involved; and rich Russian tourists!
Luckily the tides turned just minutes later and the money we got our greedy little hands on came into play, when we were taken to a local store to buy some sweets and notebooks for the kindergarten kids we were about to visit. A local store, with local money, in North Korea! (Okay, in Rason, the Candyland version of North Korea, not the real North Korea – but real enough to realize that this was a very special moment and something only a handful of Westerners have ever done!) I was finally able to satisfy my souvenir urge by buying some really interesting looking pins I’ve never seen anywhere else before – and then I was just fascinated by the fact that I had access to local prices. Again, in the probably overpriced and definitely Candyland version of North Korea, nevertheless in a store that had everything from gigantic sacks of rice to Chinese razors (30,000 won and up), from Hello Kitty sweaters (62,000 won) to cigarettes (1,300 won to 47,000 won per pack!), from local sweets (1,000 won and up) to plastic guns. Given that 10,000 won were about 1 euro, everything there was dirt cheap from our point of view – at the same time you have to consider that the biggest bill in North Korea is a 5,000 won note and a ride on the *Pyongyang Metro* costs 5 won… and that most people only get some kind of pocket money as the state provides housing and most of the food. This realization hits you so much harder when you are there on location! (It also explains why I paid 2 EUR for Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of Cinema” in Chongjin while a fellow traveler paid 20 EUR for about 30 pages of legal text in Rason; Chonjin / Rason, supply / demand. North Koreans officially hate capitalism now, but Rason is proof that they are learning at the speed of light.)

From the shop we walked to the city center of Rajin to have a rest at some street stalls (selling beer, snacks and cigarettes). On the way there we met Czech brewer Tomas, who was temporarily living in Rason to supervise the construction of a microbrewery. By nature a kind person and admittedly bored, he invited us over to his place of work, but we had more urgent things to do at the street stalls; namely waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for 45 minutes.

Next on the schedule was the rather underwhelming Suchaebong Seafood Processing Factory, where we saw a couple of clams in water basins. Wow!

Luckily the kids at the kindergarten totally made up for it. As you know, I am still not a fan of these singing and dancing performances, but those kids were ADORABLE. Yes, all caps; THAT adorable! First they had to deal with a blackout halfway through their show and none of them even blinked. When the whole thing was over, of course we were encouraged to take photos with the kids, who were all giddy with excitement as most of their audiences have been Asian so far. Back then I was sporting a full beard and it was just hilarious to observe some of the kids talking to each other, pointing at their own faces with a circular motion and then pointing at my face. But it were fellow travelers Kent and David who put them in a previously unknown state of mirth when they started to take photos of the kids with their Polaroid camera – the room was buzzing with kid-sized humming birds, shaking countless pictures; absolutely unbelievable!
Sadly the kindergarten itself, while rather modern and without a spot, was one of those propaganda pieces of crap. I mentioned it in another article that *the chariot in front of the kindergarten was quite different from the one in Pyongyang*, but that’s not all. One of my fellow told me that she found what she described as “a war museum” when she was opening doors in the hallway while nobody was looking – and the militaristic sculpture next to the soccer field (labelled “strong and prosperous nation”) surely wasn’t put up there to build a bridge between the DPRK and the USA…

More adorable kids followed just minutes later, this time teenagers at the Foreign Language School. I fell victim to three 14 year old girls who bombarded me with questions in English, some of which I was able to ask back. Of course all questions were prepared and most of them were trivial, standard stuff like future jobs (2 out of 3 wanted to become soldiers!) and favorite hobbies (2 out of 3 liked to rollerblade in the park)… but when they asked me about “October 10th” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, the founding day of the Workers’ Party of Korea, stupid! D’oh! Luckily they didn’t hold it against me and so we continued with less political topics – for example food. They were very eager to find out what pizza is and how they can make it at home; halfway through the description I realized that three female teachers in their 20s/30s were listening closely, too, more or less obvious. One of them was brave enough to ask afterwards what pasta is exactly and how to prepare it. When I mentioned that you can get it in every supermarket where I am from I felt a bit embarrassed, but I didn’t see any negativity in their eyes – her attitude was more like “I can’t wait for Rason to develop enough, so I can buy pasta, too!”. Probably the deepest insight got one fellow traveler who started talking about cars and who was asked by his students if he was military or a taxi driver – because even in the rather rich Rason Special Economic Zone hardly any Korean has a private car, so people being able to drive must be taxi drivers or members of the military, one of the few places in North Korea where you have the opportunity to learn how to drive. Those students obviously weren’t aware that in industrialized countries cars are as common as bikes are in North Korea.

The final stop of a really long day was at a textile factory where a few dozen women were sewing winter jackets – incredibly unspectacular. It kind of reminded me of the local company my grandma worked at when I was a child, and therefore nothing like the sweatshop images we all know and ignore from Southeast Asian countries. Of course we didn’t get any deeper insights (payment, treatment of the workers, …), but I didn’t get the point of visiting the factory anyway – we were a bunch of tourists, not investors. After we left though, one of my fellow travelers described how they saw that the labels sewn into the jackets said “Made in China”. Damn, I missed that little detail! I would have loved to seen it with my own eyes… and camera.

Anyway, Day 6 turned out to be a veeery long day – and this article turned out to be a veeery long one, too. I hope you enjoyed it… and I’ll see you in a few days!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Why staying at Kyongsong? Because if the town was good enough for Kim Il-sung, his wife and his son, it is damn good enough for any western tourist! And of course there were more things to see, like the house the most famous Kims stayed at while giving guidance on location, now part of the Kyongsong Revolutionary Museum. There we listened to some “fascinating” stories about the Kim family, for example about how Kim Jong-il was really smart at a very young age. When he asked his mother Kim Jong-suk why most animals drink with the help of their tongues, but not chickens, his mother told him to observe the feathered fellas and come to a conclusion by himself. So he watched the chickens for seven days straight and then told his mom the correct answer at age 5!

Just out of town we visited the Jipsam Revolutionary Site, where three generals met during the Japanese occupation to defeat the invaders. Luckily our guides kept the story short; either because they were still hung over or because they slightly panicked when they saw planes practicing starting and landing at the nearby Kyongsong-Chuul Airport a.k.a. Kyongsong-Chuul Military Airfield. We got permission to take photos freely, except of the airplanes. Which was kind of hard to do, because the machines were coming down every other minute right over the scenic fishermen’s village. Luckily the planes were so tiny in the distance that nobody really cared – yet Mr. Li yelled another “No take photos!” at me when I took one of a boat on the shore. So we were allowed to take photos of everything – except for the unmentioned things they didn’t want us to take photos of. Sometimes I really had the impression that our guideguards had no clue what they were doing… So I paid even more attention to keep out of their sight without losing contact completely, because nothing is worse than an unaccounted tourist! And by chance it happened that I “accidentally” caught some of the planes on video when filming the coastline. I have no idea what kind of planes were starting and landing there, but the whole thing felt like a WW2 airshow. If that was a representative example of the DPRK’s airforce, those poor pilots better stay on the ground and hide somewhere in case of another war!

Next on the itinerary was a stop at a kindergarten in Chongjin – and we all know what that means, right? Singing and dancing children! Yay!
Luckily this kindergarten had so much more to offer, involuntarily!
For example the playground in the yard. Sure, it was a bit rundown, but it had a new layer of paint recently. And the rides were awesome, amongst them a rough merry-go-round with rockets and even a small Ferris wheel. I think children all over the world would have loved those playground attractions. The problem was: I am sure none of them had been used in the past couple of months, since branches of nearby trees blocked their movement! At first I was like “Hey, cool, those are awesome!” before the “Wait a minute…” moment kicked in. Kind of sad to maintain those rides and then make no use of them.
But that’s not all, because we also got a tour of the building. Well, part of the building. We witnessed an art class, saw the room for the kids’ afternoon nap, even had a look at the indoctrination rooms where the little ones were taught about the lives of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The hallways and staircases were decorated with Hello Kitty and nature motifs (like a partly sculptured tree), all beautifully executed. The children’s performance was on the third floor, so when we went from the first to the third through a staircase, we were kind of rushed as the kids were waiting. Nevertheless I was able to walk down a hallway on the second floor for a few of meters, where I took a picture of a painting I am sure we were not supposed to see. It showed some armed children attacking a couple of snowmen. Even without being able to read what was written on them I knew that I struck gold – later I found out that the snowmen were labelled “American Bastard” and “Jui Myung Bak”, a play on words meaning “rat-like Lee Myung Bak”; Lee being the 10th President of South Korea. Lovely, just lovely!
But to be honest with you, it’s actually this kind of photos I was hoping for before the tour started – you can see quite a few pictures of Chongjin and Mount Chilbo on the internet; little gems like the snowman propaganda painting I’ve never seen anywhere before. At the same time experiences like that are the main reason why this series of articles is so much more negative than the first one – they make it so much harder to believe the show you get presented in Pyongyang. Everything in North Korea is full of contradictions all the time!

Well, lunch was at the Chongjin Seamen’s Club and I mainly mention it for the “hot se(a)men” jokes somebody has to make sooner or later; and now let us continue to pretend that the fourth season of Arrested Development doesn’t exist. The Seamen‘s Club is actually one of the few places in North Korea where foreigners and locals can mingle, though it seems like in the end everybody sticks with their own kind – and of course we were seated in a separate room, though we were allowed to roam the gated area freely. It was there that I bought my first souvenir of the trip, a hardcover copy of Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of cinema” for 2 EUR! I almost felt bad getting it for that price, but in the end it probably was a good deal for both sides; and one of the few things I was able to buy overall. (More on prices and overpricing in the article about Day 7!)

After lunch we headed north to Rason. Since there is no freedom to travel in North Korea, not even within North Korea, we had to cross an internal border and needed two different “visa” for North Hamgyong and Rason – and also two different sets of guardguides, since Mr. Li, Mr. So and Mr. Sin were not allowed in Rason unless they had special permission. (And none of us were allowed in Pyongyang! If we would have hurt ourselves seriously, they most likely would have taken us to China, not to the capital – because we didn’t have proper documents to enter…) About half an hour away from the internal border the unavoidable happened – our bus broke down with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and it took about an hour to fix it. Luckily we had a spare on board, so we left the forest just before the sun went down. Interestingly enough there were many locals strolling through the forest – probably the cause of the omnipresent plastic waste. Seriously, this was one of the dirtiest sections of forest I’ve ever been to! A real surprise, given that it was plastic trash and North Korea. Who knew they even had plastic there?! 😉

Finally arriving at the Rason border, Mr. Kim and his team took over (not the driver of the North Hamgyong bus, another one…) – and he turned out to be a jokester. First he apologized for the bad quality of the road, but hoped that we would enjoy the free massage for the next 10 minutes. When we asked him to turn off the internal lights of the bus, so we could have a better look outside (it was dark by then), Mr. Kim told us that one of the advantages of the DPRK (and the huge number of blackouts) was the fact that there was no light pollution in North Korea. Damn, if I ever do a comedy routine about NK I’ll definitely steal those two jokes!

Exactly 10 minutes later we left the bumpy dirt road and reached a normal one – and soon later we passed Rason Harbor on our way to the city center of Rajin. (Rason is a Special Economic Zone consisting of the cities Rajin and Sonbong – here the DPRK experiments with capitalism in cooperation with its ex-communist buddies China and Russia, plus a few others.) And by “normal” I mean that the road was not only smooth, it had street lamps! Light. In the darkness. 13 adult travelers excited like little kids. It’s interesting how fast you forget that you miss certain things you are used to – and how equally easily excited you can be to get them back. We all take electricity for granted and it’s truly amazing how much of it industrialized countries waste. While North Hamgyong is clearly lacking supply, Rason uses it reasonably; Yanji wastes quite a bit and Osaka… I’m sure Osaka uses more electricity than all of North Korea – and given that pretty much every apartment building and busy neighborhood is lit up like a Christmas tree, Osaka probably wastes more electricity than North Korea uses; which is amazing given the constant talk about being green and how the electricity price exploded in Japan after Fukushima!
After dinner at a well-lit (!) restaurant (in the same building as the local travel agency), we were supposed to check into our hotel just down the street, the Namsan Hotel – but Mr. Kim had a surprise for us: Instead of staying at the slightly run-down accommodation in Rajin’s city center, we drove up a mountain between Rajin and Sonbong to the newly built Pipha Hotel with a stunning view at the city’s (in)famous Emperor Hotel and the beautiful Changjin Bay. Upon arrival we found out that we were the first guests there – EVER. (And probably the last, as itineraries for future Northeastern Adventures still mention the Namsan Hotel…)
The Pipha Hotel turned out to be a slightly weird… installation. First of all, the hotel didn’t have a reception; it looked more or less like an annex building. We entered via an external staircase on the second floor, basically through a tiny lobby with a couple of seats in a hallway. There was a first floor / ground floor, but we never went there. As Mr. Kim said, the building was brand-new, so it was by far the most modern and overall best hotel I stayed at in North Korea across both trips. Hot water, running water and a (not working) AC, which was compensated by heating blankets. The first shower in three days felt wonderful! At the same time the Pipha Hotel showed how little experience North Korea still has with tourists. For example:
The bathroom had some toiletries, but those were sealed shut. While it’s worldwide standard that little packages of shampoo have a small cut so you can open them easily, the ones we were provided with had to be opened with a pair of scissors.
The room itself was quite nice, but when the architect planned the hotel, it seems like he didn’t think along… and put the main light switch of each room in the hallway instead of inside the room right next to the door. As a result it was impossible to switch the light on / off from within the room.

None of it affected our happiness about hot running water or the overall experience, those are just two more examples of things that we take for granted and that stand out when they are not the way we are used to. And despite looking strangely familiar, it turned out that Rason was full of things that were not the way we are used to…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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