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Archive for the ‘Hiking’ Category

Two abandoned ski resorts halfway up one of Japan’s most popular mountains – one at about 500 meters, the other at about 750 meters… and no working lift anymore to get up there! The Ruins of Mount Ibuki.

When I first picked up urbex as a hobby, I was an avid hiker and actually bought my first DSLR to take better pictures of scenic landscapes and waterfalls – I received it the day before I climbed Mount Atago in the outskirts of Kyoto. Not the normal route, but along the *abandoned cable car*, my first real abandoned place I visited on purpose. I started to go to abandoned places more often, quite a few of them in combination with hiking, like the *Taga Mine* or the *Mount Hiei Artificial Ski Slope*. In summer of 2010 I decided to climb Mount Ibuki and brought my big camera just in case there would be some spectacular views, because I didn’t expect to see any ruins along a popular hiking trail like that – I was wrong…
Mount Ibuki is one of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains, a list compiled by mountaineer Kyuya Fukada in 1964 and made popular when Crown Prince Naruhito took note of it and decided to climb them all. It’s the highest peak of the Ibuki Mountains along the border between Shiga and Gifu prefectures and offers a great view at Lake Biwa on clear days.
With an early start, the 1377-metre-high peak can be climbed even by occasional hikers like myself in a day trip from Kobe / Osaka / Nara / Kyoto – usually by taking a train to Omi-Nagaoka and a bus to the trailhead near Sannomiya Shrine (bus stop: Ibuki-Tozanguchi). As fate willed, the regular bus wasn’t running that day without a reason given, so I shared a taxi with three ladies in their 60s, as the 5 kilometer walk would have totally messed up my schedule. The first 200 metres in altitude you gain by walking up what is basically a long staircase through the woods (the trail starts at about 220 meters above sea level). Steps, steps, steps – hardly any even stretches, but protected from the sun. Then you step out in the open right next to an abandoned lift on the right and a large abandoned ryokan to the left. Upon further exploration I found a still partly stocked abandoned ski rental shop, another accommodation, a restaurant / ski rental called Dorian, and some ski lifts right next to a beautiful slope. At one point this area must have been quite popular, now only the Mount Ibuki Plateau Hut and the Mount Ibuki Paragliding School are open for business – accessible for employees (and maybe customers) by a road closed to the general public. Already feeling the climb in my legs, surprised by the photo opportunity and only half a year into writing Abandoned Kansai I took a couple of photo, but I’d have to lie if I’d claim that I would be proud of them; now, six years later. Anyway, I continued to follow the track up Mount Ibuki for about 150 meters (height, not length!), past another abandoned restaurant, to the top of this lower skiing area, which included a still active accommodation, a temple (I didn’t visit) as well as another large abandoned rest house / ryokan with a beautiful UCC vending machine in front of it. At this point the hiking trail disappeared between some trees for another 200 meters of height gain – the lift leading straight up to connect the lower skiing area with the upper skiing area left abandoned.
The upper skiing area, basically another plateau, was riddled with about half a dozen lifts in all directions – and it also featured an abandoned hotel (Mount Ibuki Highland / Plateau Hotel) as well as an inaccessible gondola station connecting a parking lot next to Sannomiya Shrine directly with the upper skiing area. Even more exhausted thanks to the gruesome June summer heat and humidity I took some more pictures, but again… I was in hiking mode. And that was necessary, because at the upper skiing area the hike up Mount Ibuki becomes exhausting. For the final stretch of about 550 meters of height difference you see barely any tree, instead you have to hike up a rather narrow trail in serpentines without any natural protection from the sun – back and forth, back and forth, between 5 and 50 meters each. Like I said, I did quite a bit of hiking the previous year, but nothing like that! Upon reaching the top of Mount Ibuki I was surprised to find a small hut village, selling everything from food to crappy souvenirs. I wasn’t aware of it beforehand, but as it turned out that there is a pay road leading up the back of Mount Ibuki, called Ibuki Driveway. In summer, you can even take a public bus from Sekigahara Station! It kind of ruined the atmosphere up there, but at the same I was really, really, really happy to have some kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) to cool down! According to the hiking maps, it takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes to climb Mount Ibuki – 1157 meters of height difference stretched across exactly six kilometers.
On the way down, flooded by a motivating feeling of accomplishment, I continued to take photos… and I actually think that they are the better ones. I was more relaxed, more focused on framing – and to be honest, the warm afternoon light was much better than the rather harsh morning light. After a total of about six hours I was back at the bus stop – and this time it actually came!

Climbing Mount Ibuki is quite an experience, whether you are into urban exploration or not – and I can only imagine how nice it must have been before all the lifts, huts, roads, and the big mine that is carving a gigantic open sore into the western part of the mountain. I actually liked it so much that I came back with a friend a year later, in 2011, only to find that most of the lifts had been demolished and the hotel was in use again – not by tourists, but probably by the workers who removed the lifts. What else was different? Well, that’s a story for another time…

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Japanese love their onsen hotels, accommodations with natural hot springs – they are popular all over the country and of course Hachijojima was no exception… until this hotel had to close for a quite bizarre reason!

I’ve written about Japanese bathing culture on Abandoned Kansai several times before, for example in my article about the *Meihan Spa Land* – usually not in a very flattering way as my first and for years last visit wasn’t a very pleasant one. The day that changed everything was April 28th 2014, when I first visited the abandoned Hachijo Spa Hotel… and then Mirahashi No Yu in the tiny village of Sueyoshi. Both visits I enjoyed surprisingly much in hindsight, despite or maybe because of my low expectations in both cases.

I wasn’t off to a good start when I got off the bus pretty much right next to a *koban*, one of those small neighborhood police stations you can find everywhere in Japan. It wasn’t so much that the first thing I saw was a koban – it was the sign in the window stating “on patrol” that worried me a little bit. But hey, what can you do? The show must go on… and it did. Walking up and down several different roads on Hachijojima’s steep slopes in search of the Hachijo Spa Hotel I got lost several times (GoogleMaps being rather useless in that specific area due to many additional roads big and small) – and when I finally found my way… I got passed by that friggin police car maybe 200 meters away from the hotel! Despite being a big tall foreigner far away from anything even remotely touristy, the cops ignored me, but of course my confidence was ruined when I finally arrived at the wooden fence that separated me from the abandoned hotel; even more so when I realized that said fence featured a brand-new chain and lock, which meant that someone checked on the place at least every once in a while and was invested enough to invest in basic security equipment like that.
Obviously I finally made it in somehow, otherwise there wouldn’t be any photos at the end of the article, but my first impressions of the Hachijo Spa Hotel confirmed the concerns I had before my visit – that it would be another rotten, rotting piece of moldy trash that was really boring and exhausting to explore. Even the gorgeous view from the lobby and the small arcade right next to it couldn’t cheer me up; not really a surprise after I explored the amazing *Arcade Machine Hotel* the day before. I tried to lighten up a bit, so I used the big mirror pillars in the lobby for some more creative photos before I headed outside and down the slope, where I found another part of the hotel as well as several tiny apartment buildings. While the latter were locked up, the hotel building hosted a big dining room, but everything was moldy and rotting, so I left after a few quick shots – the whole building was one big decaying health risk. Outside most of the roads and trails leading to more small buildings were overgrown, everything made of metal was rusting at a mind-blowing speed. I almost had given up when I saw steps leading underground somewhere, so I grabbed my flashlight to make up for the rather cowardly start.
To my surprise this rather short tunnel was the access point to one of the hotel’s pools / spa areas – and it was gorgeous! Back in the days it was an indoor area, but like I said, metal was rusting quickly and anything made of glass had been broken a long time ago, so this area surrounded by thick vegetation was its own little rundown paradise and definitely the highlight of the Hachijo Spa Hotel!
Which reminds me, I never mentioned why this hot spring hotel had to close its doors. Guess! Okay, you don’t have to guess. You would have been wrong anyway if you would have said “lack of customers”. The main reason this hot spring hotel had to close was… because the hot spring dried out!
No hot spring, no hot spring hotel…

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You would think that after eight years in Japan surprises and weird situations should become rather rare, yet Hachijojima was full of them – good and bad…

In early 2014 a bunch of interesting looking abandoned hotels popped up on Japanese urbex blogs, with one thing in common: they all were located on an island I hadn’t even heard of before, Hachijojima. Turns out that it is right next to Aogashima, a hard to reach volcanic island that is often part of those “the most remote places in the world” lists that are so popular on Facebook and other social media sites. When you are living in Kansai, basically one big city of 22 million people (plus 0.7 million spread across the countryside), “the most remote place in the world” sounds wonderful, at least to me – so I decided to do a combined Hachijojima / Aogashima trip during the first half of Golden Week. Long story short: I was able to locate three gigantic abandoned hotels on Hachijojima, but I failed to organize the side trip to Aogashima due to unpredictable weather, high risk of boats getting cancelled and the season I was travelling in; *Golden Week can be a real pain* as even the biggest Japanese couch potatoes think that they should travel, because everybody else is. So I stayed on Hachijojima for 3.5 days – part relaxing vacation, part urbex trip.

For the first night I booked a small minshuku on the east coast, just five minutes away from one of the abandoned hotels. Sadly the place turned out to be in a very remote area with hardly anything around… and even worse, it was terribly overpriced due to Golden Week. So instead of extending my stay, I took a taxi to the local tourist information the next morning – and the super friendly staff managed to get me a cute little hut at a local lodge with breakfast, bathroom and internet for the same price as the basic tatami room with shared bath / toilet and without food or internet, a.k.a. the night before. They even drove to my new accommodation to introduce me to the owners of the family business as they barely spoke any English – a pleasant surprise after the cold reception at a local sushi restaurant the previous night; upon entering the chef, smoking outside, was asking his wife who just came in… and she answered “a foreigner”, using the slightly derogative term “gaijin”. Thanks a lot for the warm welcome! Luckily my new hosts were the exact opposite, some of the friendliest and nicest people I ever had the pleasure to meet. Should you ever go to Hachijojima and don’t mind a little bit of a language barrier, try the *pension Daikichimaru*!

I continued Day 2 by exploring the second big hotel on the island before climbing the most famous local mountain, Mount Nishi (literally “West Mountain” – guess where it is located…), better known as Hachijo-Fuji, thanks to its resemblance to Japan’s most famous mountain. 854 meters tall and of volcanic origin, Hachijo-Fuji turned out to be quite an exhausting and steep climb, especially on the last few hundred meters – but the view up there was amazing; one of the most rewarding hikes I ever did. (You can actually see the hiking trail on the first photo I took from the plane during landing approach.) If you are free from giddiness you can even walk along a sometimes just foot-wide path along the crater, but from where I started it looked like a rather risky walk, so I opted to descent to the green hell of Mount Nishi’s caldera; 400 meters wide and 50 meters deep it is home to lavish vegetation and even a shrine!
On the way down from Hachijo-Fuji I made a quick stop at the Hachijo-Fuji Fureai-Farm, a dairy products selling petting farm, which offers a great view at the plain between Hachijojima’s two mountain ranges. Upon arrival at the base of the mountain, near the airport, I came across a local guy and his dog. Despite being on a leash, the pooch ran towards me at full speed, barking like a mad dog (not a spaniel!) without any Englishmen; stopped by the slightly mental grinning owner maybe 20 centimeters from my ankles. Luckily it was one of those field goal dogs and not a German Shepherd or a British Bulldog, so I wasn’t too worried, but still… what a weirdo!
Almost as weird as my visit to a local supermarket the night before. After the sushi snack I had (made from local varieties like flying fish), I thought it would be nice to get some local products, so I entered a mom-and-pop store, the owner at the cash register talking to a customer. I grabbed a couple of things and when I was about to pay I saw the other customer leaving – and the owner told me that the shop was closed. So I asked if I could pay for the items I already grabbed. No! So I put the stuff back, which probably took longer than paying for it, and left empty handed… literally. Really strange 24 hours!

Day 3 was a lot more unspectacular. I took a bus to the southern part of Hachijojima and explored the third gigantic abandoned hotel after passing a police car basically in sight of it. Then I continued by bus to the Nankoku Onsen Hotel – which turned out to be a vandalized, boarded up piece of garbage with a neighboring house just 10 meters across the street. So instead of wasting any time I enjoyed a soak at a really, really nice onsen (without a hotel).

My last day on the island I spent mostly walking – to the Kurosuna sand hill and then along the coast back to the second abandoned hotel and then to the pension, from where I got a free ride to the airport.

Spending a couple of days on Hachijojima was one of the best things I did in all of 2014 – it’s just such a surreal and yet neat place! The main roads on the island for example look brand-new and very expensive. Given the massive drop in tourist numbers one wonders how a place like that can survive financially. Sure, three planes and a ferry per day bring quite a few tourists, but at the same time the three biggest hotels on the island and a few smaller ones are abandoned. Back in the 1950s and 60s Hachijojima was known as “Japan’s Hawaii” as it is much closer to Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka than Okinawa, but those days are long gone and I doubt that fishing and some local farm products can pay to keep the island as neat as it is today.
Some of the islanders were just plain weird… and others were quite the opposite, the most helpful and welcoming people you could dream up. While mainland Japan became somewhat predictable to me over the years, Hachijojima gave me that “first visit feeling” back, where you just roll with the punches and expect the unexpected at all times. The nature on Hachijojima was absolutely stunning, the food was amazing (especially at the *izakaya Daikichimaru*, same owners as the pension; the best sushi I ever had!) and I even enjoyed the onsen visit… though usually I don’t like onsen at all – but the entrance fee was part of the bus ticket, so I gave it another try and liked it tremendously.
*Facebook followers of Abandoned Kansai* might remember two photos I posted to the “Brand-new and Facebook exclusive!” album in late April this year – those will show up in future articles as I will start the Hachijojima series with the most unspectacular of the three hotels on Thursday, two days from now; though unspectacular is relative, especially if you are into abandoned arcade machines…

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Like many other countries, Japan struggled with religion and its negative attending ills many times. In 794 the capital was moved from Nara to Heian-kyo, modern day Kyoto, when Buddhist clergy became too powerful and the Imperial household decided to break free from its influence. In the early 17th century Tokugawa Hidetada and Tokugawa Iemitsu struggled with Christian merchants and missionaries so much, that the Sakoku Edict of 1639 turned pre-modern Japan into North Korea 0.9 – more than 200 years later, religious freedom was restored, the total power of an absolute leader was abolished and the country opened again for modernization, trade and travelling. Since World War 2 a more moderate country in many ways, Japan had to dispel only two religious groups for criminal activities in the past 70 years: Aum Shinrikyu after their sarin gas attack at the Tokyo subway in 1995… and Ibaraki’s Myokaku temple for financial fraud – welcome to the Japanese Gold Cult!

The whole story started back in 1984, at the same time when Aum Shinrikyu was founded. The superintendent priest of the Myokaku Temple in Chiba prefecture established a company that sold aborted fetus bodhisattva. In 1987 he established a religious enterprise called Hongaku Temple and started to sell all over Kanto, before becoming an independent temple in 1988. Soon after, the Consumer Affairs Agency started to receive complaints and temporarily shut down business. Unimpressed, the gold cult bought the Myokaku Temple on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture to expand its business to Kansai – which at that point included spiritual consultations for 3000 Yen and performing memorial services for 1 million Yen (back then and currently more than 9000 USD!) as well as selling overpriced item like marble vases and items made from gold. Center of the scam were the ihai, spirit tablets believed to hold the souls of deceased people – the cult took care of thousands of them and placed them in two special buildings at the Myokaku temple; but obviously they didn’t take of them in a proper way, hence the fraud accusations. In December 1999 a Wakayama district court finally followed the Agency for Cultural Affairs request to dissolve Myokaku / Hongaku Temple – the organization subsequently lost a legal battle for survival in front of the Supreme Court.
Sadly and surprisingly I couldn’t find anything about the case in English or German, so I had to piece together above information from various very complicated Japanese sources; please feel free to correct me if I misunderstood something! (My knowledge about Buddhism is limited, so I tried to avoid specialized terminology when possible… and I still don’t know what happened to Mount Koya’s Myokaku temple.)

After hiking through the mountainous Japanese countryside for about an hour on a hot, sunny spring day I finally reached the headquarters of the former Japanese Gold Cult:  a cluster of about half a dozen buildings – and after climbing a rather long and steep flight of stairs I reached a regular looking building that probably was used for meetings and as living quarters. To the right, past a pond and a collapsed gate, there was a comparatively small storage house – nothing of interest. Up another small flight of stairs I found the main hall, which was hard to miss at it was by far the biggest building. Almost as good as new, with lots of dark corners and significantly colder than the outside, it felt kind of strange being there. Solo explorations are always a lot more nerve-wrecking than group explorations… but this location had a spiritual / religious component to it, obviously. I don’t believe in ghosts and I am not religious at all, nevertheless there is some awe-inspiring element to a lot of those institutions – graveyards like the Okunoin, cathedrals like the Kölner Dom… and abandoned fake temples like this one.
The main reason though why explorers from all over Japan travel to the middle of nowhere are two small buildings behind the main hall, in which the Japanese Cold Cult stored all the ihai – and the bling-bling of gold and black lacquer was indeed quite impressive and worth the long trip from Kansai!
I just had entered an official looking, administrative building, probably the one where visitors were welcomed, when I saw somebody outside through a window – so I left through the back without taking any video material or interesting photos. The parts I saw were small offices and a main room full of boxes and random items, not of interest.
The last building looked like a big, chaotic family home and was probably used for meditation. Since it was pretty much busted open, nature was taking over again and parts of the floor were rather soft and brittle. Again, items were scattered all over the place, as if somebody was looking for valuables without finding anything.

Three hours after my arrival I left with a heavy heart as I had an afternoon flight to catch. Exploring the headquarters of the Japanese Gold Cult was a weird and unique experience. On the one hand I felt a bit uneasy as I was exploring a crime scene solo, and the garden there wasn’t out of control (which means that somebody still had an eye on it), on the other hand it was such a tranquil and beautiful place, the peaceful atmosphere disrupted only once in a while by farmers tilling their nearby fields. The Japanese Gold Cult had been kept a secret for about a year or two – now that Japanese explorers gave away too many hints and its exact location kind of became common knowledge, I really hope that people will keep respecting it. Not because it’s a (fake) sacred site, but because it’s a beautiful and unique abandoned place that deserves respect!

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After hiking for well more than an hour through the Japanese countryside, past fields and hamlets, up and down the winding streets… roads… paths… the Abandoned Transformer Station appeared out of nowhere at the other side of a small mountain river two meters below me – and once again I had to ask myself the eternal urbex question: Do I really want to cross that bridge?

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t; obviously depending on the bridge. It this case it didn’t look too bad. If I was riding a heavy truck I probably would have said “Nah!”, but the times that heavy trucks reached this remote area had been long gone anyway, so I hastily rushed across the rather dilapidated wood and metal construction… to explore a massive concrete facility that looked completely out of place.
It was late autumn, the perfect hiking time in Japan, just weeks before snow would reach out for heights below 1000 meters. Nature had loosened its tight grip it has on most of Japan from late May till early October and made areas accessible again that were hard to reach and sometimes even dangerous from mid-spring to mid-autumn. (And then again in winter, of course…) The transformer station laid there in perfect silence and I first had a closer look at the outdoor area with its big metal towers before entering the building itself. And that’s when I painfully missed my tripod and a flashlight. Some parts of the building were terribly dark and I had to crank up the ISO drastically to avoid blurry photos, but I guess that was the price I had to pay for travelling light. Sadly both parts of the building were stripped of all machinery and almost all furnishings, leaving empty whitewashed rooms. Not exactly a spectacular location, but a nice and welcomed diversion from the usual rundown abandoned onsen / hotels I visited so often in my first years of urban exploration.

Since this transformer station isn’t exactly popular amongst urbexers, it was close to impossible for me to find out much about its history. It most likely was built in the late 1920s and abandoned in the 1970s, but I can’t say for sure. There were a couple of documents still lying around, but none of them gave any clarity…

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I felt Lost. It was a hot and humid early summer day in Japan, about six weeks after the controversial finale of the infamous TV show – and I was hiking up a rocky path. Down the slope next to me the concrete leftovers of turbine mountings, in front of me the buzzing green hell of a Japanese July. Seconds later the rather low concrete dam appeared in front of me and I climbed a flight of stairs to get to the top of it. I knew that this solid construction that once supplied electricity for a small amount of people would be there, yet it felt very mysterious in its slightly surreal environment and state. Right next to the dam, on the other side of the narrow valley, stood a small wooden building, little more than a shack, that looked like it was straight out of the 70s. I got closer and had a peek through an opening – an electronic device with a glowing display was slightly brightening the darkness, showing numbers in bright red… and all I could think of was 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42!

Of course I didn’t dare to enter the shack, worrying to set off an alarm (or a self-destruction device…), but I took a couple of photos. It turned out that the display was labelled “Pressure Indicator”, though I still don’t know where exactly and what kind of pressure was measured by the device. Instead I stumbled backwards a couple of steps, when less than a meter away from me a big branch crashed to the ground; I guess they are called “widow makers” in English, and now I understand why, though no widow would have cried over me.
A locked and not really confidence inspiring metal staircase was leading down to the now dry basin, so I continued further to the back, where mushrooms were growing on moist trees. Luckily I didn’t hear any voices whispering in the background, but the atmosphere was still quite spooky, despite the bright sunshine. From the back, the concrete and metal construction looked like a little bit like a submarine turned into stone, but since I was all alone, I didn’t want to take any risks – so I headed back to the part below the dam, the one with the giant turbine sockets.
This area was extremely humid as countless tiny rivulets were running through, making me feel like I was in a steam sauna, sweat dripping from every pore of my body. Moss was growing on the huge concrete blocks, trees and vines made exploration tougher than necessary. At the lowest end I found huge concrete pipes leading underground, blocked off carefully by solid metal grids, water rushing in the background – if removed most likely the end of countless uncareful animals and humans!
When I finally left after about 1.5 hours I felt strangely relieved and sad at the same time. As spooky as the remote Kyoto Dam was, as wonderfully fascinating was it in many regards. Long before I saw the first signs of modern civilization again I knew one thing for sure: I had to go back! And I did… *Please click here to find out more about my second visit!*

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

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

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Abandoned ropeway stations are creepy – and usually they are hard to reach. Now deserted *hotels*, *hospitals*, *amusement parks* or *museums* were originally built to attract or at least serve people conveniently. Ropeway stations, at least the upper termini, were constructed as bridge-heads to otherwise inaccessible or at least hard to reach places – like mountain tops.
The Shidaka Ropeway Upper Terminal was one of those stations in the middle of nowhere with no road access. Other than that, little to nothing is known about it. It seems like it was opened and closed along with the now also abandoned Shidaka Lift to connect Beppu with the *Shidaka Utopia* and Lake Shidaka – the ropeway covering the Beppu side, the lift covering the Shidaka side, but nobody seems to know for sure, though 1984 and 1998 are years I’ve heard for opening and closing respectively.

After exploring the already mentioned Shidaka Utopia on a wonderful yet hot spring day in 2012, I tightened my hiking boots and made my way up the mountain to have a look at the upper terminus of the Shidaka Ropeway (not to be confused with the still active Beppu Ropeway leading up Mount Tsurumi, which is still a popular tourist attraction). The unnecessarily long path I took lead me along a steep slope up and down the mountain for a few hundred meters in height difference, and finally reaching the upper terminus of the Shidaka Lift felt like heaven. Hiking on unpopulated routes all by yourself is always a risk, even more so in Japan with its nasty wildlife in late spring, summer and early autumn, so knowing that I was on the right track was a big relief. I took a break and some photos up there before looking for the old path that was connecting the lift with the ropeway station. Stones on the ground were a good indication, but after a couple of meters the way was completely overgrown, so I had to fight through thick vegetation… until I finally reached the ropeway station a few minutes later, all sweaty and scratched up.
The view from the station down at Beppu Bay was absolutely gorgeous and well worth the strenuous hike. To my surprise the cables connecting the upper and the lower terminus were still there, a gondola crashed into one of the two holding bays. At the same time the station was in rather bad condition after almost 15 years without any maintenance, a rusty metal and brittle concrete construction, built on a steep slope – me being all by myself I was very careful watching my steps.
After about 45 minutes it was already time to leave as I had to catch a bus back to the city and didn’t know exactly how long the lower terminus of the Shidaka Lift would keep me busy; a story for later this year. While the Shidaka Ropeway Upper Terminus wasn’t a huge and spectacular location, it was a very fulfilling one. Finding out about it and locating it wasn’t easy, getting up that mountain much less so. As much as I like explorations with friends by car, they are quite a different experience than going to the middle of nowhere all by yourself. So when I took a final look down at Beppu, it felt like an achievement, something that I really earned…

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

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

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

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

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“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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