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Archive for the ‘Haikyo’ Category

Abandoned houses are a dime a dozen in the Japanese countryside and I pass by 99 percent without even remembering them a minute later – the one I stopped at last weekend though was very well worth the effort!

According to the latest estimates, there are about 8 million empty houses in Japan, 3 million of them abandoned. Some of them form ghost villages like *Mukainokura*, others are hidden gems in little town, like the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic* – but most of them are just small partly collapsed houses or even huts; rotting structures made of wood, clay, straw, and corrugated iron, long beyond repair and not even worth a second look.

On Sunday, while enjoying a cherry blossom viewing and exploring abandoned buildings trip to the countryside, my fellow travelers and I spotted a rather tall wooden house with a thatched roof located a below street level. It was still in sight of the next settlement, but a couple of hundred meters away from it. The front of the house was already collapsed, probably when a load-bearing pillar or wall finally gave in under the weight of tons of snow in yet another beautiful, but devastating countryside winter.
Approaching the house I didn’t expect much, except for a nice snapshot of the front for a possible collective article about abandoned Japanese houses in the countryside. Sadly it was drizzling at the time, the sky a greyish mess, so the photos of the front turned out to be quite bad actually. When my fellow explorers Ruth and Chelsey had a closer look I took the opportunity to circle the house and had a look at the back, where an outhouse and a storage were added to the structure – seconds later I fell in love with the tiny bathroom next to the two toilets, featuring a traditional wood-fired metal bathtub that looked more like something you should prepare large amounts of soup in. The crammed space and the sparse light coming through the tainted frosted glass was just… fascinating.
When the girls popped their heads in I told them how I usually don’t stop at random houses and that I would be done in a few minutes as this was an excellent place to take two or three great photos, but not a location for a whole set – and then I moved on to take pictures of the small urinal next door, of the can of insecticide, of the brush hanging at the wooden wall. So many small interesting details caught my eyes, and the more photos I took, the more details I found! Soon later we upgraded the planned 5 minute stop to a full exploration that took almost 2 hours in total. While I was busy taking photos, my fellow explorers actually explored. First they confirmed what I already assumed – that the building was not safe to enter and a potential deathtrap; which wasn’t too much of a loss as the inside of the building didn’t look that interesting and would have been a nightmare to shoot on a difficult light day light that anyway. Luckily they also found half a dozen large old signs leaning against one of the exterior walls – and those explained both the size of the building as well as the outhouse area. What we found once had been a rest stop, a countryside cafè for hungry and tired travelers; an abandoned cigarette machine still visible in the background.

For the past seven years I ignored pretty much every abandoned house I saw in the countryside, always in a hurry to get to the next location I knew was abandoned, I knew was promising. On Sunday I realized that it’s not only time to slow down, but to stop every once in a while. The Japanese Countryside Rest Stop wasn’t a loud spectacular location like *Nara Dreamland*… it was a quiet spectacular location. Very Japanese in every aspect. A place that took us back in time by decades. No signs of vandalism, because people don’t stop when they pass by. Their loss, our win – and that’s why I love this photo set so much more than most of the others I published so far…

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In 2015 there were about 134000 karaoke rooms in Japan, shared by a total of 475 million guests – and yet it is very difficult to find an abandoned karaoke establishment in decent condition… but I finally succeeded!

Karaoke and Japan are inextricably linked with each other. The word karaoke is a Japanese portmanteau, consisting of kara (= empty) and oke (= an abbreviation of the English word orchestra a.k.a. okesutora). It was most likely invented in 1971 by a musician Daisuke Inoue, who worked as a drummer at an utagoe coffeehouse, where the gathered customers sang songs together; those establishments were popular in the 1950s to 70s in Japan and are all gone now, but a handful. (Inoue apparently got tired of playing the same song requests all the time, so he recorded and sold them – the rest is history.) For the last five years, the Japanese karaoke industry has been recovering from a ditch in popularity (from 585 million customers a year in 1995 to 465 million in 2010) with slowly but steadily rising numbers in both boxes and guests. Personally I couldn’t care less about this aspect of Japanese pop-culture. My dad’s a retired musician, I was always surround by excellent albums and live music – hearing amateurs sing is one of the most painful things I can imagine, no matter how drunk I am; more than 10 years in Japan, not a single karaoke night for me! If you are into karaoke… good for you, I wish you all the fun in the world with it! Luckily they sound-proof those karaoke boxes… 🙂 (When I went to *North Korea* in 2013 the guides tried to peer pressure us into singing our national anthems – I claimed that it’s illegal to sing the German national anthem without the written permission of the German government and strangely enough not only the North Koreans believed me…)
Like I said, currently there are about 134k karaoke rooms in Japan. Let’s say each establishment features 20 rooms in average, that makes 6700 karaoke locations… And yet it was very hard to find an abandoned one in decent condition. Took me almost eight years! It’s not like I haven’t seen any abandoned karaoke parlors in the past, but they were pretty much all partly collapsed and overgrown. And the large places in the cities are not really abandoned when they close – they get locked properly and wait for a different use / demolition. Unlike hotels, hot springs, temples, theme parks, … karaoke joints have to be in walking distance and therefore in sight and / or hearing range of civilization, because let’s be honest: More often than not doing karaoke is just a thinly veiled excuse for getting s#!tfaced… 🙂
The Abandoned Japanese Karaoke Box was actually a shipping container construction near a more or less popular tourism spot. Each container was transformed into a karaoke room or a bathroom, the VIP room consisted of two containers, the kitchen probably of three; an additional one or two for the hallway / staircase, some plywood for the roof – done. Considering the location, the rather cheap construction and that the place must have been abandoned for something like five to ten years, it was overall in decent condition. Sure, some windows were smashed, some items were thrown around, but at least nobody started a fire or stole every single piece of equipment. The various lights and the half disco ball I found especially fascinating – when I first saw the Abandoned Japanese Karaoke Box from the outside I thought I’d be in and out in 30 minutes; it took me almost three hours to document this unusual 2-storey 4 by 20 meters construction… Since the place was an original find, I don’t know anything about its history, but to honest, I don’t really care. I finally had fun at a karaoke box!

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You like the aesthetics of abandoned places, but are afraid of the risks involved? Now that *Nara Dreamland is completely demolished*, how about a trip to Kyushu? The former mining island Ikeshima is happy about every visitor and welcomes them with open arms!

When *I first visited Ikeshima* in 2011 I arrived as a sceptic and fell in love with the island over the course of my eight hour long stay. It was a windy, humid, late spring day, but the amazing variety of abandoned places on the island was completely satisfying, yet it kept me yearning for more as I simply ran out of time at the end of the day without having seen most of Ikeshima. Nevertheless it took me five years to come back! Ikeshima is a bit off the beaten tracks, and there was always a new place that seemed to me more interesting… until the spring of 2016! (If you are interested in the fascinating history of this mining island that once was the home to up to 20000 people, I strongly recommend reading the *original three part series* I wrote six years ago. This is just a mere update / add-on for people who want to know how the island has changed over the years.)
Ever since the mine on Ikeshima closed and everybody but 300 people left the island, Ikeshima wanted to be a tourist attraction. Right at the harbour visitors can find the first tourist map, as sign that has seen better days. But with only one restaurant and no accommodation, Ikeshima wasn’t exactly a tourist magnet and only attracted a handful of fishermen and one or two photographer per weekend. That as changed quite a bit. First of all – you can stay over night on Ikeshima now! The former city hall is now a museum / ryokan for up to something like two dozen guests, there is a small supermarket now, and two or three eateries. And though the number of guests per day must have at least quadrupled over the last five years, you still see barely anybody on the Ikeshima, unless you are at the harbour or near the ryokan. Another thing that changed in comparison to five years prior is the amount of barbed wire. Even in 2011 large parts of the island were off limits, but that area grew quite a bit over the last half decade. Remember how I was invited by those two workers to see the entrance of the mine? Well, that building is off limits now – the back secured by a large gate, the front by a barbed wire gate. Since I had great memories of that building and wanted to have another look at it, I was like “Screw it!” and about to make it past the barbed wired gate, when I saw a couple of people in the distance – luckily I was able to retreat before I was seen – as it turned out that you can book guided tours on the island, but you have to give a few days notice. Most apartment buildings are off limit now, too, with extra layers of barbed wire. For good reasons. Especially the large apartment blocks on a slope that once were accessible from above and below are deathtraps now. And by that I not only mean the rusty bridges with holes in them which connect several block with each other… even standing in front of the buildings in the strong spring wind gave me a bad feeling, as if an AC or part of the roof could break loose and kill somebody below just minding their own business.

Despite the new limitations I tremendously enjoyed my sunny early spring day on Ikeshima. The atmosphere on the island is just fantastic, and the tons of books and old photos in the (free of charge) museum are super interesting. Since it still takes quite a bit of effort to get to Ikeshima, it will probably never become a popular tourist destination – which is fine by me as I still haven’t seen about half of the island. Maybe I should go back there… and stay over night. I’m sure it would be quite an experience…
And if you still haven’t read the old articles, *I recommend having a look now* – tons of information, photos, and videos are waiting for you!

(Since the inhabitants of Ikeshima consider their island a tourist attraction I added it to the *Map Of Demolished Places And Tourist Spots* and created *a new map just for Ikeshima*. If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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It’s been more than five years since I last presented an abandoned driving school – those things are pretty hard to find…

In Germany a driving school more often than not is little more than a two room rental, consisting of a tiny office and a bigger seminar room, where a driving instructor is teaching a couple of theory lessons several times a week. Not much more space needed, because German driving schools tend to be small, at least when I got my driver’s license more than 20 years ago. The owner then tends to hire one or two driving instructors, who are usually are out on the road, because that’s where the real money is as you need a certain amount of practical experience to take the final test, including a few hours on the Autobahn (Germany’s infamous highways) and at night. Pretty much all driving school cars in Germany are manual / stick-shift cars – probably because there is only one license (no separate automatic-only license like in Japan). Most cars in Germany, except for taxis, have manual transmission anyway. A lot of Japanese people are surprised when I tell them about it, even more so when they find out that you don’t have to renew your driver’s license in Germany. It’s lifelong, of course unless you mess up by violating traffic rules too often.
In Japan (and probably your country) the situation is a bit different. First of all: Most cars in Japan have automatic transmission, which kind of makes sense since traffic here can be nerve- and ankle-wrecking. So when you enter a driving school you have the choice between a “general” manual license and a “limited” automatic-only license. And a surprisingly high number of Japanese people only have an automatic-only license – which feels totally wrong from my German point of view since I would never give up that kind of control over my car; to me shifting gears manually is part of the fun and it (usually…) reduces fuel consumption. Even worse: In Japan you have to renew you license every 3 years, which costs time and money – if you managed to not violate any traffic laws for 5 years you get gold status and have to renew your license only every 5 years. But it gets worse! New drivers have to put a yellow and green sticker to their car denouncing them as beginners. If you are a senior citizen age 75 or above you need a orange-yellow sticker – guess why… (None of that bullshit in the land of the Autobahn!)
The biggest difference between a driving school in Germany and a driving school in Japan is what we would call a “Verkehrsübungsplatz” in German. It seems like there is neither an English nor a Japanese term, but the literal translation would be something like “traffic training location” – a place that has roads, traffic lights and crosswalks, but is on private property, separated from normal traffic; and therefore you are allowed to practice driving there without having a license (if you at least 16 years old, have an experienced co-driver with a regular driver’s license and are able to pay an hourly fee). In Germany those place are separate from driving schools and usually run by automobile clubs. In Japan those traffic training locations are part of the driving school, which is kind of ironic given the fact that Japan has oh so little space… But it gives the students the great opportunity to practice safely in a driving school car. Worst case scenario in Germany: After a couple of theory lessons and a general instruction by the driving instructor you are pushed right into traffic…
Abandoned driving schools are pretty rare, especially in Japan. The reason is simple: Since driving schools serve customers without a driver’s license, they are usually located within a couple of hundred meters from a train or subway station for easy access. But since land near public transportation hotspots is rather expensive (and driving schools take up a lot of space since they have that huge training area…) they tend to be quite valuable and are rather turned into new real estate projects than being abandoned – especially in overcrowded areas like Kansai and Kanto.

The Japanese Driving School consisted of a lobby area and a couple of seminar rooms, all of them pretty much empty now… except for the remains of a DS-5000 Driving Simulator – apparently once upon a time a state of the art simulator with three main screens and two or three additional ones working as rearview mirrors. The pictures I saw kind of reminded me of a hydraulic simulator I played in Tokyo’s Odaiba district back in 2000 – pretty simple vector graphics, but as a simulator really impressive back then! The building wasn’t accessible at all, signs of intrusion on one side had been professionally patched up.
The training area featured all the usual obstacles, like a ramp, a fake train crossing, narrow tracks, crosswalks (in Japan usually ignored…), traffic lights, and so on… Somewhat in the middle a small tower for observation and car traffic control.
Overall the Japanese Driving School was a lovely outdoor exploration,  more memorable for its rarity and the fun company I had than its spectacular looks. Nevertheless a great experience – and I absolutely loved the abandoned traffic school bus on the last picture!

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Gulliver’s Kingdom, based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, has been the most famous deserted theme park in Japan… once upon a time, before *Nara Dreamland* was even abandoned. Closed in 2001 after only four years of business and two years after the financing Niigata Chuo Bank collapsed (which also ran the *Niigata Russian Village*), it was mostly demolished in 2007 – ten years ago and two years before I started exploring. And yet I receive e-mails asking about Gulliver’s Kingdom on a regular basis; where it is / was, if it is still there, whether or not I’ve been there. Time to answer all those questions publicly: Sadly I’ve never been to Gulliver’s Kingdom as it has been demolished two years before I started exploring myself – so it’s not there anymore, but it has been located at the NW foot of Mount Fuji, only 14 kilometers away from Fuji-Q Highland and in sight of the Fujiten Ski Resort.
Another famous abandoned place in sight of Mount Fuji? The Kurodake Drive-In a.k.a. Global Environment and Energy Museum!

An abandoned environment and energy museum in Japan? What a friggin surprise! Man, I would have loved to write a rant about how fake eco Japan is, but I am running out of time and I haven’t written yet a single line about the history and exploration of this strangely wonderful location. Just don’t buy into the eco bullshit, Japan is everything but; with a few exceptions of course. Whether it’s winter illuminations, individually wrapped cookies, electronic waste along countryside roads, sun-blinds to block daylight all year long yet at the same time lights inside on, the insane amount of plastic bags / bottles / containers handed out every day, apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees – and don’t get me started rambling about the lack of insulation and ACs set to 28°C in winter… (In summer you can’t go below 28°C during the humid 33°C heat that is punishing everybody all day and all night, because we all have to work together and save electricity. But in winter it’s absolutely no problem to go from 0° to 28° because… heating apparently doesn’t require electricity and the warmth comes from the positive energy we created when saving electricity in summer!)
Please don’t buy the fairy tale of eco Japan, just because some garden in Kyoto has put up a crotch so a tree can grow a branch the way it wants instead of pruning it. (I’m not saying Japan is worse than most countries, but if you promote a certain image you better live up to it… or deal with the criticism.)
Construction of the Kurodake Drive-In started in 1965 as part of the Atami Highland project on a mountain ridge above the famous onsen town Atami, in the 1950s by far the most popular spa town in all of Japan with more than 11 million visitors per year – the new attraction featured a gorgeous, unobstructed view at Mount Fuji along the Izu Skyline, some hiking trails, a nearby pond with a boat rental, and the Kurodake Drive-In, which opened as a miso shop, restaurant for up to 300 guests at the same time (up to 1000 cars and 300 high-capacity busses stopped there per day!), and upper terminus of the Atami Highland Ropeway (or Atami Cactus Park Ropeway), connected by said ropeway to Atami and the Atami Cactus Park – with the largest gondolas in the world at the time, for up to 121 people (!). The grand-opening of this 1.3 billion Yen investment was on October 1st 1967. Less than three years later, in summer of 1970, the owner of the miso shop went bankrupt and caused a financial earthquake in the area, which lead to the suspension of the ropeway for about three weeks in June 1970. In July the Atami Highland Ropeway resumed operation, only to be shut down for good in December, barely three years after it was built.
Strangely enough there is not much information about what happened after that. It seems like the ropeway remained idle but intact and somewhat operational until 1983, when it was finally dismantled. The cactus park? I’m not sure… I think it closed for good in 1973. The Kurodake Drive-In definitely survived the longest, but I don’t know in detail what happened exactly after the miso shop went bankrupt. It probably was turned into a general souvenir shop, before somebody shoved the Global Environment and Energy Museum into the crown-shaped building. The last account of somebody being there I found was from April 2002 – strangely enough their photo didn’t feature the museum signage on the roof nor did the (Japanese) article mention it. Since I also read that the State seized the property in 2002 (much like *Nara Dreamland* and the *Arai Mountain And Spa*) I guess it’s safe to assume that the museum was installed after that – but before the building was finally closed and abandoned in November 2008. (Last second addition: Apparently the museum was run by an NPO called “Forever Green”; if I ever revisit the place, I’ll try to find out more, but that’s it for now as time is up…)

I absolutely loved exploring the Kurodake Drive-In, despite the fact that it was little more than a vandalized restaurant. I loved the scenery upon arrival, I loved the exterior of the building, I loved the lighting in some areas (especially the lamps in the office), I loved the items left behind (like the Lotte Chewing Gum vending machine or the three animal shaped bottles), I loved the interior staircases – I just loved being there. It could have been an empty building, instead in revealed itself little by little, step by step. I instantly connected with the Kurodake Drive-In and the feeling held on till I was yanked out of there by my impatient co-explorers. Other places I explored in the past might have been more interesting objectively, but I never really felt them; like the *Japanese Strip Club*. The Kurodake Drive-In on the other hand I really enjoyed – to me it’s one of the most underrated abandoned places in Japan…

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Every once in a while I complain about all those rundown abandoned hotels in Japan, only to present yet another one that features an awesome pool, some arcade machines or spectacular brutalist architecture. But the Wakayama Mountain Hotel honestly was a real piece of shite! Well, except for the view and the unique saunas…

Mold, broken glass, mould, peeling paint and wallpapers, mold, rusty handrails, mould, dripping water, mold, endless staircases and hallways, mould, always the same looking rooms, mold, vandalism, mould, countless dark corners, mold – the list of reasons why to dislike abandoned hotels is seemingly endless. Luckily the Wakayama Mountain Hotel was located on a ridge and had seen more than its share of vandalism, so neither mold nor mould was a problem during this exploration thanks to generous ventilation. On the downside it meant that there was barely an intact window or door left at this rundown and severely vandalized accommodation and the next door onsen, probably run by the same people.
Exploring the Wakayama Mountain Hotel was rather unspectacular – especially after the Miffy plush with the cut throat in the lobby deeply rattled some of my one time co-explorers that day. Japanese women are so easily scared… Anyway. Lobby, bar, restaurant, banquet room, standard guest rooms – all a mix of vandalism and decay. The next door hot spring, most likely a combo deal for hotel guests, looked as unspectacular as the hotel at first. Luckily my all of a sudden utterly fearless friend Yoshiko followed me and made me aware of the cave or oven shaped saunas, that according to her were super special and the reason for a couple of newspaper articles on the walls of the dressing room. Unfortunately the lighting in there was far from perfect – inside the sauna it was almost as dark as a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night; okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit for the sake of weaving a movie quote into this article. But the sauna shots were definitely the most challenging that day! And that’s pretty much it… The view from the hotel’s roof was pretty nice, too. Sadly we couldn’t find any access to the part with the water tower on top. That looked pretty neat, too… But overall the Wakayama Mountain Hotel was just an average abandoned hotel in Japan as you can find them a dime a dozen all over the country.

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Urban exploration can be quite educational – especially when visiting an elementary school in a town where most families had the same job(s) for centuries…

A sunny Saturday morning in a small fishing village along the coast of Japan. Dan, Kyoko and I made our way through a labyrinth of narrow paths between rundown houses, up a few flights of stairs, avoiding locals when possible and greeting them with a cheerful “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning) when not – and then there it was, the local elementary. On the edge of town, yet still in sight of at least a dozen occupied houses. When you are trying to sneak into a location unseen, it’s always a good idea to try doors and windows out of sight first – on lower or higher floors, on the sides or the back of the building. With a total of more than 750 explorations under our belts we quickly found an unlocked door and soon deliberated what would be the best strategy: just entering, hoping not to be caught, despite the large, most uncovered windows – or talking to a local, sharing the risk and responsibility by asking them for permission. Both strategies have worked out for us, but in this case we decided to keep a low profile and just snuck in.
As we were contemplating our options on the back of the school, a senior citizen started to do laps in the yard in front of the school. Slowly, but steadily. As if he could do it for hours. To avoid being seen after just a few minutes, we decided to explore the upper floor first – which kind of exposed us to a small path leading up the mountain and a few neighboring houses.
The upper floor consisted mostly of regular classroom and the school’s rental library. I’ve not seen many abandoned schools with libraries, but what really set the Fishing Village Elementary School apart from every other school I’ve explored were the countless student made posters on the walls, teaching the basics of everything related to fishing and growing your own fruits and vegetables – for example explaining the different kinds of nets, how to repair nets, a year in fishing (when to fish and when to rest…), how to clean fish, information about different kinds of seafood, harvest times of local vegetables, and much, much more. Probably the most informative exploration I’ve ever made!
The lower floor of the Fishing Village Elementary School featured among others a gymnasium / auditorium, a nurses’ room, a teachers’ lounge, and a science room – like the upper floor still in very good condition as the school was closed in 2010 (though the last calendars inside the school were from 2008) and probably is maintained to some degree by locals. The most serious damage to the school was actually outside and counts as natural decay: Two rain water downpipes broke off and were not replaced. As a result, parts of the bright wooden exterior started to rot… and in a few years mold will start to cause serious damage. A shame, considering that this would be quite an easy fix. I can’t imagine that the problem has gone unnoticed, yet nobody took the initiative to take care of it. A real shame…

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