Archive for the ‘Hiroshima’ Category

A lot of abandoned places leave an impression because of what they have been, not what they are now. The Hiroshima Hospital is one of those places…

Japanese urban explorers are quick labeling as haikyo, ruins, their common term for abandoned places – but very often they are just closed, or even worse: they just look abandoned and are actually still in use; especially “abandoned” schools. So whenever I see an “abandoned” place popping up on a Japanese site and it doesn’t feature inside photos, I become worried / skeptical. Was the location really abandoned or did the explorer not bother to have a closer look? Did they have a closer, but couldn’t get inside? Did they try to, but cause an alarm? Were they maybe even caught? (It happens to the best of us…) Did they get inside, but decided against publishing photos, because the interior was too spectacular or not interesting enough? There are a million different possibilities, and they all run through my head whenever I see outdoor shots only of a potentially abandoned place.
The Hiroshima Hospital was one of those places – all I knew about it was its location in a residential suburb of Hiroshima City, all I’ve seen about of it were a couple of outdoor shots, showing massive barricades. It’s quite a drive from Osaka to Hiroshima (between four and five hours, depending on the route and the traffic circumstances), so Dan, Kyoko & I made the hospital the first location of the second day, exploring along the way the day before.
At first all the things I worried about came true: The main entrance of the hospital was barricaded, people were walking their dogs, and even from the outside the places looked kinda vandalized. But coming a long way kinda makes you persistent, so we kept looking for a way in and found a weak spot after a while. Sadly our second impression of the Hiroshima Hospital wasn’t much better than the first one. Except for a couple if items here and there the clinic had been cleaned out when it was closed – as it should be. I still can’t believe the kind of equipment, tools and drugs I found in various other abandoned hospitals over the years, so it’s hard to complain that somebody did the right thing for a change. Unfortunately that person didn’t think things fully through. As confirmed by StreetView, the Hiroshima Hospital wasn’t boarded up at first, which explains the serious amount of vandalism – broken windows, graffiti, airsoft pellets… the whole shebang.

Long story short: I’ve been to three, four, five abandoned hospitals in Hiroshima prefecture, but the Hiroshima Hospital is actually my least favorite one. It didn’t taint a great exploration weekend at all, but to be honest: I was kinda hoping for another *Wakayama Hospital*, and by that standard it was definitely a disappointment.

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Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but puddles of sweat – urbex in July and August comes with its own set of challenges in Japan…

I think I’ve mentioned before that I usually take a break from exploring in Japan during the summer months, especially in July in August. In June the humidity in Kansai and the surrounding areas skyrockets due to the rainy season, in July the heat kicks in, and in August temperatures tend to be between 34°C (day time) and 30°C (at night) in the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto megalopolis. You probably don’t mind if you are used to that kind of weather, but I’m from west-central Germany, where temperatures are 5°C lower in average – and humid days are rather rare… and never for up to four months in a row. In addition to that bugs are much smaller and other animals are less poisonous than in Central Japan, because… well, you know… nature likes Central Europe. But exploring is like celebrating – you have to when you have the opportunity… even if the circumstances are borderline crazy!
2017, late July, Friday evening – after a long week of work two friends of mine picked me up at home at half past 10. The goal? A 24/7 super sento (large public bath with places to sleep – on the floor in special rooms, on benches, or special chairs, …) in a suburb or Hiroshima, a “nice and easy” 4+ hour drive away from Osaka. We arrived at around 2 a.m., took a bath, and crashed on some benches at around 3 a.m. for two and a half cool hours of sleep. The sun rises early in Japan in July, we had places to go to, and time was of the essence! After a kombini breakfast, the *Horseshoe Hospital*, and a quick snack for lunch in the car we arrived at the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic pretty much exactly at high noon – and walking the 100 meters from a nearby parking lot to the hospital mansion felt like being an ant under a magnifying glass. While the partly overgrown (and partly collapsed!) mansion, roped-off by city officials to prohibit people from entering, offered protection from the sun, it did little to nothing regarding heat, humidity and gnats.
While it is hard to say how much of the damage to the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic was natural decay and how much was vandalism (some rooms were nearly untouched, others looked like some people vented their frustrations), it’s easy to say that this was a fascinating exploration. I just love those old countryside clinics, mansions with doctors’ offices. There was so much to see, so many unusual items to take pictures of – like the creepy dolls in the living room, the German medical books, or the labels for medicine bottles.

When we left after just 1.5 hours it was a bittersweet departure. On the one hand I would have loved to stay at least another 1.5 hours to finish taking pictures, on the other hand I was happy to get back to an air-conditioned area. At that point I was literally dripping of sweat, my T-shirt wasn’t able to hold an additional drop. To accelerate the drying process in the car I actually took it off and wrung it out – much to the entertainment of my fellow explorers. Apparently one of my many useless ‘skills’ in life is ‘sweating’… Sadly I’ll never get a chance to return to the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic, one of the little known abandoned hospitals in Japan – last week I found out that it has been demolished shortly after my visit; again bittersweet… On the one hand I would have loved to have another look, on the other hand I am forever grateful to my friends who took me there… and for my decision to join them, because when you have the opportunity to explore, you better take it – there might not be a next time!

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“There is no vandalism in Japan!”
Oh yes, there is, plenty of it! Just have a look here…

On the last two weekends I went exploring on 3 out of 4 days – 5 of the 7 places I actually explored on those 3 days were abandoned hotels… and only 1 of them was exciting, the other 4 were vandalized pieces of garbage; virtually every window broken, every vending machine cracked open, half of the rooms destroyed (and the other half looking like the ones I’ve seen at dozens other hotels before…), all places smelling like mold… Sometimes I wonder if exploring those places is a waste of time. My time, your time, everybody’s time. But then again, you never know what you find. Even some of the most rotten places offer surprises like unusual items or spectacular views. Not the Hiroshima Sports Hotel, a large accommodation for active people featuring a 25 meter pool, half a dozen tennis court and access to the 18 hole golf course right across the street. Rumors had it that the hotel was inaccessible and under constant supervision of the golf course staff, so I was a bit worried not to get inside, but at the same time had high expectations in case I did. Sadly it was pretty apparent upon arrival that I was a victim of outdated information – countless open and broken windows indicated that the hotel had been severely vandalized over the last few years, despite the fact that the golf course and the road leading there were as busy as ever. Luckily access was rather easy, so it was only a matter of timing to get into the hotel without being seen / being seen by as few people as possible.
Sadly the Hiroshima Sports Hotel turned out to be a vandalized piece of garbage, as I mentioned before, sorely afflicted by both metal thieves and your average vandals. The entrance floor (technically 2F) with the lobby, the kitchen, some conference rooms and an office were pretty chaotic, but at least featured a nice graffito at one wall and bird’s nest inside a partly emptied switch box (which I only saw because my fellow explorers Dan and Kyoko told me about it). The promising ground floor (1F) lead outside to the pool and the tennis courts, which I couldn’t take proper photos of because I would have been spotted from the outside within 30 seconds. It also featured two underwhelming public baths, some wet and moldy party rooms as well as a pitch-black and smelly bar – and tons of broken glass, machines, furniture, … Nothing I haven’t published many, many times before on this blog. And the rest of the hotel? Well, 3F to 7F were just average hotel rooms. In surprisingly good condition, given the vandalized two lowest floors, but still nothing you and I haven’t seen many, many times before.
And that’s why I am a little bit conflicted about the Hiroshima Sports Hotel and similar places – on the one hand it sometimes feels a little bit like a chore to take enough photos for a full set at places like that (especially knowing that they attract a lot fewer viewers than the spectacular places that will follow in the upcoming weeks, starting on Tuesday!), on the other it still beats sitting at home watching TV… What do you think? Are you tired of abandoned hotels and maybe even skip them when they appear on Abandoned Kansai? Or do you agree that it still beats watching TV? 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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„The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.“

Well, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sir, Mr. President. That’s not entirely accurate. But you’ve most likely never been into urban exploration… As an urban explorer there is one other thing you have to fear and most urbexers do fear: watchdogs. It took me more than 150 explorations to finally run into one, but that one proved to be an insurmountable hurdle. Not only for myself, but also for my haikyo buddy *Michael*.
On the way up to the Noga Hotel we stopped to take a couple of photos from the foot of the mountain as it was already early afternoon and we most likely wouldn’t have the chance to take some on the way down. Little did we know that those would be the only photos of the Noga Hotel we’d take that day…

Halfway up the mountain we were stopped by a gate blocking the street – decorated with four huge signs telling us why we shall not pass. A seemingly endless list starting at private property up ahead (so what, this was a public road…) and ending with the local cities authorities trying to prevent illegal waste disposal and forest fires; well, who could argue with environmental reasons that are pleaded to keep people away from an abandoned hotel that is falling apart? Right, we could, so we opened the gate and continued driving, but soon we decided that it might not be a good idea, since an unlocked gate means that whoever decided to put it there actually wants people to pass – which meant that we would most likely run into somebody at one point or the other. So we went back down the mountain and walked up again. A very good decision, because just a couple of 100 meters after the point where we turned around the car we found a second gate. Not just a gate, more like a checkpoint. I was walking a couple of meters ahead of Michael when I saw the control point and it took just a few seconds for a watchdog to bark as if there was no tomorrow. So I ran. Although going to the gym 4 times a week I haven’t been running that fast since I was caught by the security guard at *Nara Dreamland*. Luckily just down the road was a fenced off deadlock; a fence to prevent cars, not humans. So we ran down that road to hide from whatever might have followed us and waited. And waited. And waited. Until Michael decided to have a look at the checkpoint himself – I preferred to wait at the hideout. While Michael was away I heard another big dog barking, probably from where the hotel was – Michael on the other hand only heard some animal scratching as he told me when he came back. Which was at the exact same moment when a van on the way down passed the fence of the dead end road, causing us keep our heads down for another couple of minutes. While I was willing to admit defeat and move on to another location Michael really wanted to get to the hotel, although it was getting late afternoon already; either passing the checkpoint or straight ahead up the mountain through the forest, path or not. Having been lost in the mountain before I strongly objected to the latter idea, so we agreed that Michael would first check if somebody from the van was waiting at our car and then come up again to have a really close look at the checkpoint. Maybe the dog was gone?
About two minutes after I received a text message that the car was clear 4 more vans passed my position on the way down – I tried to call Michael, but it was already too late. When he reached me out of breath several minutes later he told me that the guys in the vans ignored him completely. Neither for the first time nor for the last time on our *road trip to southern Honshu* I asked myself the question when you can consider a place really abandoned. Or if abandonment is the basis for urban exploration. The grey area between exploration and infiltration – and that a place somebody hires security for is not really abandoned by the word’s true meaning. But I guess that’s part of the beauty of that hobby, too. Everybody defines those lines for themselves. The same applies for graffiti. To me they are a form of vandalism when put onto abandoned buildings (I like them as art on designated areas or canvas!), and I guess I’m also more conservative (or cautious – or cowardly?) when it comes to explorations as I’m trying to avoid trouble; except for *Nara Dreamland*: I visited that place against better judgement way too often!

Against better judgement I also agreed to walk up to the checkpoint again as Michael was eager to try his luck as a dog whisperer – or preferably talking to a security guard, if there was one. We were about to get back to the main road when the sound of motors made us hide again. Four more cars went down the mountain and we finally agreed that we won’t make it to the Noga Hotel that way that day. But maybe on another day or sneaking up a different way…

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Expectations are one of the worst things in life. Especially when they are as high as mine were driving up to the top of Mount Noro in Hiroshima prefecture. What did I expect? A speedway abandoned in 1974 and a shuttered amusement park, also left behind in 1974. I didn’t see any photos in advance, but I read a slightly cryptical Japanese description and the satellite view on GoogleMaps was very promising. Sadly the location didn’t live up to the expectations, so *Michael* and I were about to face the first disappointment of our *road trip to southern Honshu*… which wasn’t as bad in retrospect.

Mount Noro (insert stupid joke about the Noro virus in Japan here) near Hiroshima is one of the city’s most popular recreational areas for hikers, mountain climbers, campers and flower lovers. It’s said that it offers a stunning view at both sunrise and sunset. Aside from the fact that Michael and I were way to too late for the first and way too early for the second we wouldn’t have been able to see either anyways – the 839 meters high mountain was covered by low hanging clouds from about its second half. Occasionally the visibility was only a couple of meters and it looked more like rain than clearing up. When we reached the entrance of what I hoped would be the abandoned Mount Noro Speed Park (a.k.a. Mount Noro Circuit) at an elevation of 830 meters (Japanese people like their race tracks high above sea level as we know from the *Hiroshima Kart Pista*) we realized that the place was reused at least once since we were welcomed by signs telling us that we found the Moriyama Auto Camp. Close, but no cigar…

It turned out that this location has quite a history. A history I only found out about after we visited the place – like I mentioned earlier: Before our visit I had only vague information about a racetrack and an amusement park. The Mount Noro Amusement Park was a typical mid-size theme park of the 60s with a couple of merry-go-rounds and a rollercoaster, and it opened in April of 1968. In close proximity the Mount Noro Speed Park followed with an opening ceremony in October 1969. The intent was to make Mount Noro more attractive for tourists. As we all know: Those hiking eco freaks that headed for the mountain until then weren’t spending much money while amusement parks were THE cash cows of 1960s Japan, where the tired workers of the East Asian Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) were looking to spend their hard earned bucks. Sadly the business people behind the big tourist plans didn’t expect two things to happen: The traditional nature lovers complained about the dramatically increased noise level on Mount Noro – and in 1973 / 1974 an oil crisis hit the world. The combination of those events forced both the amusement park as well as the speedway to close their doors for good in 1974. Which was incredibly sad in the case of the 932 meters long and technically quite demanding Mount Noro Speed Park as it was quickly used for races of national fame, including the “All Japan 200km Stock Car Race” which was held annually from May 1970 on.

Sad for Michael and I was the fact that the weather was bad and that the race track was in such horrible state we weren’t even sure we found the right place – especially with those Moriyama Auto Camp signs at the entrance. We entered the place (adults 500 Yen, children 200 Yen, cars 3500 Yen…) and were quite a bit confused about the routing along the slope, which seemed rather unusual for a speedway. And the empty pond with the garbage cans also didn’t really fit in. Down the road we reached a bifurcation – left: Moriyama Auto Camp; right: Moriyama Auto Camp. Well, that didn’t help much…

We continued to the left only to find a huge abandoned trailer advertising Fukutome Ham, the inside filled with some seats (no meats…), garbage and a seriously damaged suzumebachi nest. For those not aware of this danger for all urban explorers and hikers: suzumebachi are also know as Asian Giant Hornets (Vespa mandarinia), aggressive nasty beasts with a body length of 5 cm and a sting that injects large amounts of potent poison, potentially deadly for both other animals and humans.

We continued up the mountain along the seriously damaged asphalt road only to find half demolished bath rooms at what once was the pit lane of the speedway. The surrounding building was gone, making all the faucets, toilets and showers open air installations. 300 Yen for 5 minutes was written on the shower doors, the curtains behind moldy and nasty.

Further down the pit lane, a bit above the race track, we found a two-storey building. The lower floor once housed a restaurant and I guess it dated back to the speedway days. The upper floor once was the home of somebody. Quite an unspectacular house with the usual remains of an abandoned building.

On the way back to our car we saw a camping trailer next to the former race track. It looked way more modern than anything else on the premises, so I kept a safe distance while Michael had a closer look. Through the window he saw a calendar from 2012 and a working clock, so we wondered why somebody would rather live in a trailer than in the furnished room in the building three minutes away – and decided to leave as none of us were eager to ask the person who made this choice.

Right at the entrance we had a closer look at the attendant’s hut with the charming painting. I guess the previously mentioned empty pond once was an attraction of the Moriyama Auto Camp – rainbow trout fishing. The hut also revealed that the now abandoned area had a size of 71000 m2 and once offered 40 campfire places – just not right before it closed as this information was blacked out on the flyer. Reason for the leaflet was the opening of the place on July 1st of an undisclosed year. Leaving the hut my eyes caught one final item, the flyer of a Bihoku Auto Village, announcing its grand opening on June 26th 1999. I was confused. Same place, again a different name? Luckily not as it turned out later – just the flyer of a similar place elsewhere in Hiroshima prefecture… (And still in business!)

I never went camping in Japan and obviously I was disappointed that the expected abandoned race track turned out to be a converted one, but the rainy / foggy weather was a blessing in disguise. Walking along the seriously damaged speedway with that kind of weather created quite an eerie atmosphere I actually enjoyed more in retrospect than I was aware of at the time. But it took quite some effort to find out about and get to the Mount Noro Speed Park / Moriyama Auto Camp as to my knowledge it hasn’t appeared on any other urbex / haikyo blog yet… Would I spend that much time on it again? Probably not. Do I regret having it done? Definitely not! I especially enjoy exploring new kinds of abandoned locations, especially if they are in the middle of nowhere. And in that regard this haikyo was a great success – I’d always prefer my first abandoned auto camp over the 20th abandoned hotel!

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Usually I don’t explore military ruins that were turned into tourist attractions. I went to Tomogashima off the coast of Wakayama about two years ago and deemed it so unspectacular that I haven’t even written about it yet. In Kanto a lot of urban explorers visit Sarushima (Monkey Island, like the game) in Tokyo Bay and write about it on their blogs. To me it doesn’t feel right. Those places are 100, 150 year old tourist attractions. Gutted and polished. With gardeners. Maybe it’s because I grew up in an area of Germany where you can hardly throw a stone without hitting a castle ruin. And no Greek would call the acropolis an abandoned place. Because those places aren’t. They are old buildings attracting tourists. Historical ruins, not modern ruins.

The Ganne Fortress on the other hand WAS a historical ruin that attracted tourists. After it was left behind by the Japanese military it was abandoned again as a tourist attraction and became a modern ruin. The peninsula housing the Ganne Fortress was of strategic importance for centuries to guard the sea route to Hiroshima. The current fortification was built in 1898 and retired in 1919 without having seen any action. It was equipped with four 270 millimeter canons as well as four 50 millimeter light artillery guns, supplied by four powder storages. In 1997 the Ganne Fortress was fixed up along with a couple of similar installations to create the Fortress Forest Park, teaching tourists and locals about the military history of that area. In 2004 the area experienced a major reorganization with cities merged and stuff like that, so I guess the new people in charge lost interest. Especially since they were now taking care of a real naval history museum, too. A small fortress on top of a mountain really off the beaten track with a rather steep narrow road that can become dangerously slippery leading to it? Nobody wants to be responsible for that!

While nature generally seems to do a pretty good job reclaiming territory given up by mankind it is especially fast in Japan. Just a couple of years after the Ganne Fortress was abandoned the whole thing is pretty much overgrown. The asphalt road leading to the installations is covered by needles and broken branches, trees are starting to reach over. Concrete handrails looking like wood are losing their color and cracking up, revealing their stone and metal innards. Smaller stairs, once used as shortcuts to the top and to reach one of the already mentioned former powder storages, are pretty much completely overgrown now, making it tough even in very early spring to pass through. The stainless steel chains, a decade ago preventing tourists from falling to their deaths, lost their purpose, but they are still flashing in the sunlight. Halfway up the mountain, in anonther one of the old powder storages, was a little museum – now completely smashed to pieces and hard to reach due to two other sets of overgrown stairs. The mountain top still offers a gorgeous view, although the uncontrolled growth of nature sometimes makes it hard to get a good look. Or to take interesting photos. The two short videos I took turned out to be so dull that I won’t even publish them.

My fellow explorer *Michael* didn’t seem to be impressed either so we called it a day pretty quickly and got *back on the road* again…

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Exploring new haikyo locations in Japan can be quite tricky as you hardly ever know which place is really abandoned and which is not. I’ve seen so many run-down houses and factories I could have sworn were abandoned… but they were not. That’s the main reason why I usually stay away from places that look like abandoned barns or left-behind residences. If a place is a little bit out of the ordinary and is located in the middle of nowhere I usually take a closer look though. And that’s what we did when *Michael* and I found the Kart Pista Hiroshima (カートピスタ広島). We spent about 45 minutes exploring this inoperative looking go-kart race track near the top of a mountain in Hiroshima prefecture, though some things didn’t add up. Nevertheless we both came to the conclusion that the Kart Pista Hiroshima was a haikyo. I even listed it in the *overview article two weeks ago*. Now that I’ve done some research on the allegedly abandoned speedway I have to admit that Michael and I were wrong: Kart Pista Hiroshima is still open for business!

The Kart Pista Hiroshima adventure started when we were looking for a way to get to another location we knew was abandoned for sure. Haikyo on top of mountains can be very difficult to reach, especially when public transportation up there is discontinued and roads are blocked. Our car navigational system was kind enough to indicate another way up the mountain, so we gave it a chance. I was in good spirits until we reached the base of the mountain road. There we found several warning signs that the road ahead wasn’t in good condition and that it is strongly recommended not to use that road. Something I totally agreed with. Michael and I rented a rather small car, but the one lane road in front of us indeed was very narrow and in horrible, horrible shape. Due to other prior experiences I wasn’t exactly in the mood going up a tiny mountain road with more potholes than asphalt. Or concrete. Or gravel. Or dirt. Or whatever the surface was, because it changed every couple meters anyways! But since I wasn’t the driver and Michael was very eager to go up this nightmarish road during his first hours without a driving instructor I suffered through 20 to 25 minutes of a nerve-wrecking ascent – passing several steep, potentially deadly slopes. Oh, by the way, did I mention that it was already getting dark? I must have aged about three years on my way to the Kart Pista Hiroshima without maturing a single second… Luckily the road didn’t end at a deadlock (or with our deaths!), but at a small parking lot about 600 meters up the mountain (yay, a way to turn around, so we wouldn’t have to go back in reverse gear!). The road continued, but it was blocked by an abandoned blue truck – no license plate is generally a reliable sign that a vehicle is abandoned. A slightly rusty and overgrown sign with missing pieces just before the parking lot indicated that the Kart Pista Hiroshima must have been close. So we got out of the car and were surprised to see a mini-van parked there. One with license plates. Michael’s reaction to that was in the line of “Mini-vans are usually driven by older people. Why would a mini-van with valid license plates be parked up here at this time of the day and the year? Because Japanese elderly drive to the top of mountains to commit suicide!” After the friggin nerve-wrecking ride up this specific mountain my respond was something like “Dude, you are not helping here!”, so I passed the blue truck and headed up the mountain while Michael had a look at the car to make sure that there was no dead senior citizen in there…

After a couple of minutes we indeed reached the Kart Pista Hiroshima – and the first building we saw was clearly abandoned, so we starting taking pictures right away since the sun was already extremely low and it was getting darker by the minute. We found rusty karts, rubber tyres, video tapes, toys and even a couple of trophies and medals dating back to the very early 90s; amongst them a medal with the logo of the Japanese Automobile Federation (日本自動車連盟), Japan’s biggest automobile club and member of the FIA, and a really cheap looking plastic trophy commemorating the third place in a Christmas race held on December 16th 1990.

After a while I started taking a video and walked along the surprisingly clean race track, which didn’t look very abandoned to me. But who can tell for sure? I guess asphalt go-kart tracks take a while to look abandoned. When I got closer to the other buildings that were part of the pit lane I hesitated again – that area looked extremely run-down, but not necessarily abandoned. Especially the jacked up karts looked like somebody was still taking care of stuff up here. And I was able to see a rather modern computer in one of the buildings, whereas the first area looked like it was abandoned in the 80s or 90s with all the old stuff crammed in a seriously damaged and overgrown building. Things just didn’t add up. Like another car in good condition with license plates. How could it get up here with the only road blocked by that blue truck? I continued taking photos and my heart stopped for a second when I took a picture of the clock at the start / finish line. Not only did the clock show the correct time (that could have been a coincidence…), but the minute hand was moving!

After about 45 minutes and just before the sun disappeared over the horizon we moved on to find a way to that abandoned place we drove up the mountain for – we found some more abandoned cars (Michael checked them for dead people…) and an abandoned boat, but not the street, road or even path to the place we came for.

By the time we got back to our car it was pitch black outside – and I lost another two years on the bumpy way down that horrible, horrible mountain road…

Back home I did some research on the Kart Pista Hiroshima and was surprised to see that the place really wasn’t abandoned. The latest photos I found were taken on February 18th 2012 showing how somebody gets rid of snow covering the track; the last victory ceremony was taking place on December 11th 2011. There actually is an official homepage that lists opening hours (workdays from 10 a.m., weekends and holidays from 9 a.m. – till sunset), prices (5 minutes for 1500 Yen, which seems quite expensive to me), and a race schedule (7 events from March till December in three classes – Avanti, SSO and Junior…). At age 15 Japanese kart driver Yuko Segawa (瀬川侑子) actually won the Kart Pista Hiroshima series, so I guess it has at least some reputation since it’s mentioned on her (Japanese) Wikipedia page. The “paved sprint” race track is 630 meters long and 7 to 11 meters wide at an elevation of 650 meters with the longest straight being 130 meters – just to get all the facts in here.

Nevertheless there are a few things I don’t understand at all. Why would you build a race track on top of a mountain? At the end of a road that is falling apart? With no signs that there is a race circuit up there? With buildings that look like they were abandoned decades ago? What were those cars with license plates doing up the mountain?

And why on earth would anybody drive up that friggin mountain on a suicidal road to race some karts?

(If you don’t want to miss the latest article 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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Abandoned or not abandoned? That was the question when my haikyo buddy *Michael* and I arrived at the New Zealand Farm in Hiroshima (a.k.a. the Rainbow Farm). It clearly wasn’t demolished, which is always a big relief when finally reaching a location to explore, but getting close to the place it was clear that we would be in for a ride at this supposedly abandoned theme park…

Entering the meticulously clean parking lot by getting around a knee-high road block things didn’t look very abandoned. Nevertheless a sign there confirmed what I knew from my long hours of research on the internet: The New Zealand Farm was closed more than three years ago on 2008-08-31. But to our surprise the entrance area looked very preppy. The hedges and trees were well-trimmed, with freshly cut branches waiting to be removed at some parts. Things just didn’t add up – causing a bad feeling in my stomach. Michael was all excited and ready to jump a fence or disappear into the bushes, but I was very hesitant. So we agreed on having a look from the outside first before doing something that might get us into trouble. Which was good thing in this case, because a couple of minutes later, still on the huge parking lot, we ran into a security guard and several maintenance workers. (On the other hand: Later during the *road trip* Michael’s great gallantry would get us to a place we didn’t even expect to reach.) Since Michael’s Japanese is way better than mine and since he’s the more voluble person anyway I stayed in the background while he was talking to the main guy. From where I stood I wasn’t able to hear their conversation, so I’m still not sure which language they were talking in (Japanese, English or a more universal one…), but after a couple of minutes a smiling Michael came up to me and pointed ahead – we had one hour to explore the Hiroshima New Zealand Farm! (We were probably the first people ever to do so since this location never appeared on any Japanese or any other haikyo blogs – and most likely never will given the circumstances.)

What I already knew about the Hiroshima New Zealand Farm was that it was opened in July of 1990 and closed on August 31st 2008. This agricultural theme park was run by a company called Farm Co., Ltd. that owns farm parks all over Japan. Four of them were New Zealand branded, but only the one in Tohoku (where the earthquake and the tsunami struck last year…) is still up and running – the other three were closed in the late 00s. The remaining dozen parks are served by about 700 employees and have all kinds of themes: Austrian, German, Japanese countryside, … The concept is basically always the same: Giving children and their families the opportunity to spend a day amidst tamed nature. The parks are usually pretty big and feature attractions like a petting zoo, an animal race track (sheep… yes, a sheep race track!), kid friendly rides like a hill slide, horse / pony riding, miniature golf, go-kart races or a kids train, paddleboats, exhibitions and different shops (like a bakery or a milk processing facility) where you can witness or even participate in making fresh bread, yoghurt and butter – and of course there is the usual array of restaurants, BBQ areas and snack shops. Buildings are named according to the theme, so in this case we saw the “Hamilton Restaurant” and the “Kiwi Museum”. Everything merges beautifully in hilly landscapes. High-tech attractions like at Universal Studios Japan (USJ) are nowhere to be seen – those kinds of amusement parks have a rather different target audience. Unlike USJ and its major competitors the farm themed parks are pay-as-you-go amusement parks – which means that you can enter for little money (in this case 600 Yen, children and senior citizens only 300 Yen), but then you have to pay additionally for every single attraction; usually between 400 and 600 Yen – which can add up quite a bit over the course of a whole day.

What I didn’t know about the Hiroshima New Zealand Farm was that it was just closed, but not abandoned – unlike its *sister parks in Yamaguchi* and Shikoku. About half a dozen maintenance workers make sure to keep vandals and other nosy good-for-nothings out and take care of the vast meadows and countless big and small buildings – it seems like the destiny of this New Zealand park is still uncertain and that Farm Co., Ltd. has yet to decide what to do with it. Until then some long-serving employees keep their jobs.

I’ve been to *several abandoned theme parks before (and after…)*, but never to one that was only closed. Which made this experience unique and eerie at the same time. With the slowly decaying buildings in the outskirts of the premises it felt like an abandoned theme park, but overall it was in way too good condition – it was actually kind of confusing to see no signs of vandalism whatsoever. Nothing. Not even a broken window. At the same time climbing frames were getting rusty, colors were losing their intensity and wooden panels were getting brittle. We were actually told to not cross a certain bridge as it wasn’t considered safe anymore.

Exploring the closed by not abandoned Hiroshima New Zealand Farm was an absolutely fantastic experience, though rushed in parts. There was so much to see, so many attractions to go to. So many little things to discover, like the small road between the buildings at the village square, or the bunny welcoming visitors big and small to the petting zoo halfway up the main hill – and even further up was a kart track of decent size. It was almost a little bit like Shigeru Miyamoto described his childhood neighborhood explorations in David Sheff’s book “Game Over” – you never knew what to expect behind the next corner, behind the next hummock…

(If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the*video channel on Youtube*…)

Addendum 2014-07-15: The Hiroshima New Zealand Farm has been turned into a solar park recently – R.I.P.!

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Spring time is long weekend trip time! While Kansai doesn’t have much of a winter it nevertheless can be quite cold, especially when having a hobby involving taking pictures in abandoned places, other places of Japan can be snowed in for months with meters of snow… So when the sun finally warms the hearts of Japan and causes the first sunburn of the young year it’s time to explore places beyond my beloved Kansai – whether it be *Kyushu with Enric* two years ago or Shikoku with Gianluigi last year (a series of articles yet to come…), it became kind of a tradition for me to go on an urbex spring trip with a friend of mine. This time *Michael Gakuran* and I teamed up for a road trip to the southern end of Honshu, Japan’s main island – Chugoku, to be exact, the area west of Kansai. A trip with such exciting places that I decided to start writing about it right away – the last pictures are barely 50 hours old…

At this point I don’t want to give away too much about the locations we visited or which order we visited them in. But there were 8 of them in 3 days. 3 long days I might add, with me getting up at 6.30 a.m. on a Sunday, at 6 a.m. on a vacation day and at 5 a.m. on a national holiday. As I mentioned before: I’m a morning grouch; and by “morning” I mean any point in time which is followed by “a.m.”…

But the trip wasn’t just exhausting, it was also exiting, fun, frustrating, satisfying, rich in variety, surprising, delicious (I finally ate Hiroshima Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima prefecture and bought the best local sweets outside of Kyoto – mikan dango) and insanely expensive.

Why insanely expensive? It’s because at the end of the first day a serious mishap happened to me. We were on our way to a hotel to stay for a night when we saw this huge, blue and white flame at a gigantic industrial plant – probably coke oven gas burning at a cokery. (Addendum 2012-06-11: I guess I was wrong about the gas – Gert from South Africa wrote me: “This couldn’t be coke oven gas burning, because coke gas got a very very hot orange (impurities) or yellow (cleaner) flame. But the flame in the video is actually blast-furnace or corex, midrex, finex gas flame (more methane content in gas).” Thanks a lot for pointing that out! I really appreciate it and changed the title of the video below, too.)
We decided to make a stop to take picture or two and when I got out of the car to marshal Michael I grabbed my bag and I don’t know how or why, but my beloved D90 camera flew through the air and crashed hard to the concrete ground. The body cracked open a couple of millimetres so I could see the insides. Parts of the electronics were still working (e.g. I could use the screen to look at the photos on the memory card), but since the lens mount was part of what cracked it was impossible to take pictures anymore. Mad props to Tokina BTW! The mounted 11-16mm lens survived without a scratch or any other damages as I found out with relief the next day.
Sunday evening past 7 p.m. – of course I was in shock at first, because going on a photo trip without a camera is pretty pointless. So we headed towards the flame to take some picture which I couldn’t do since my photo camera broke and Mike couldn’t do because of the lighting, lenses and passing traffic. So I took the video you can find below the article – it doesn’t fully capture the beauty of the flame, but it will always remind me of the death of my favourite camera so far (I also included the last JPG I ever took with it, even though it wasn’t related to urbex). Back at the car we decided to look for an electronics store, although it was almost 8 p.m. on a Sunday evening. After a couple of minutes we found a shopping mall, but it didn’t have a camera store. The staff at the mall was very nice, telling us where to find an electronics store – but it closed at 8. Michael, who did all the talking since his Japanese is WAY better than mine, wasn’t discouraged by that and asked for the phone number of the store. Although the store was closed Michael called and somebody picked up. He told them my tricky situation and they agreed to let us into the store if we hurry – so I got into a taxi and went straight to the store. There a guy with pretty decent English helped me at the camera department. I was hoping to replace the D90 with another one, but they didn’t have them in stock. A lower model was out of the question, so the only option was a D7000. Which they didn’t have in stock either. Just the display model – which they couldn’t sell me without the kit lens since it was a display model. After some deliberation and the certainty that not buying that display model would mean losing at least 5 hours the next morning looking for another camera (electronic stores in Japan usually open at 10 a.m.) I half voluntarily upgraded from a Nikon D90 to a Nikon D7000. With a bad feeling since I not only spent a huge chunk of money, but I also had to learn by doing how to handle a new camera. While I’m very pleased with how the photos of all locations turned out it was quite unnerving at times to get the shots I wanted to take.

Now just a few quick words about the locations we visited. The undisputed highlight of the tour was the abandoned Japanese Sex Museum. Both Michael and I had high expectations and we were not the slightest disappointed, shooting in almost complete darkness for the majority of the 4 hours we spent there. Another glorious highlight to me was the Kart Pista Hiroshima race track – why it was a highlight you’ll find out soon. Since theme parks are one of my favourite types of abandoned place we visited two of them and I loved them both. 4 world class haikyo in 3 days – plus 2 good ones (a Meiji Era army fortress and a quite tricky hotel) as well as 2 more we took pictures of because we went there and it would have been a waste not to cover them… a strip bar in an onsen town (euphemistically called “theater”) and a car camp site. To my knowledge all of these places never appeared on English speaking blogs, some of them are even unknown to the Japanese urbex crowd. So please enjoy the preview pictures and come back for much more information, photos and about one hour of video material!

Here’s an alphabetical list of the upcoming locations:
Ganne Fortress
Hiroshima New Zealand Farm
Japanese Sex Museum
Kart Pista Hiroshima
Moriyama Auto Camp
Noga Hotel
Onsen Town Theater
Yamaguchi New Zealand Village

(If you don’t want to miss the latest article 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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