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Archive for the ‘House’ Category

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

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

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

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

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The *Mount Maya Tourist Hotel* is one of the most famous and most popular abandoned places in all of Japan – and it features one of the most gorgeous exteriors ever. What most visitors are not aware of is the little known fact that the hotel wasn’t the only accommodation on that seaside slope with the gorgeous view. On the other side of the cable car tracks was a small bungalow village! Unlike the massive art deco hotel, the little huts were not able to withstand the ravages of time – but if you look closely, you will find some interesting remains and a network of paths, now mostly covered by half a century of foliage…

While the history of Mount Maya and the tourist hotel is documented quite well (*click here* if you missed it the first time), there is little known about the bungalow village. I’ve seen it on a handful of maps / leaflets from the 1960s – one of them featuring a small print ad for a Isuzu Florian, a 4 door sedan introduced in the late 60s. I kid you not! Is life friggin weird sometimes or what? (Until yesterday, when I did some research about the bungalow village specifically, I didn’t even know that there was a Isuzu Florian! There even is an English Wikipedia entry…) According to a Japanese source, the bungalow village was built in 1957, at a time when the Maya Hotel was closed due to damages from World War II – and according to a leaflet about the Maya area, the 14 bungalows cost between 600 and 2500 Yen per night, housed between 2 and 12 people, and were available between July 1st and August 31st. That’s it for historical facts. Nothing about when it closed, nothing about the one remaining house you’ll see on the photos… Nevertheless this is infinitely more information in English than was available before this article.
The Mount Maya Bungalow Village I visited in early 2012 with a nice young fella from Nigeria living in New York, Bukola. We took the cable car half way up the mountain and descended a bit along a hiking trail to reach the bungalow village behind a partly collapsed house along a rather steep slope. It was early January and rather cold. Cold enough to snow every once in a while – not heavily, not strong enough to stay on the ground… but every flake is sacred along Osaka Bay, where half of the people dress like Reinhold Messner during his Himalayan adventures as soon as temperatures hit 10°C (50°F). Sadly there wasn’t that much to see. I am quite familiar with the history of Mount Maya and the layout of its elements, so I loved the flattened, leaves covered huts, the concrete foundations and the occasional leftover item – especially the large Bireley’s cooler! (Bireley’s is a soft drink brand and belongs to the Asahi Beer Company via Asahi Soft Drinks.) 50 years ago this part of Mount Maya must have looked quite different – I assume one had a gorgeous view at Kobe and the coastline, but in half a century trees grew so big and thick that there was little to see even in the midst of winter.
The one remaining house was definitely not a bungalow, it rather looked like a rich / important man’s home. Sadly it was also a dilapidated, vandalized death trap, probably thanks to the hiking trail leading right past by. From the back we were able to enter both floors separately, but of course there was also an internal wooden staircase in less than trustworthy condition. At the time of its construction, the house must have offered some of the best views in all of Kobe, at the time of my visit most of the living room had already crashed down to what I assume was a study / library. With a little bit of imagination you could still see the former glory – and that another major earthquake might send the whole construction down the slope, so we spent as little time inside as necessary to take a few quick shots.

If the Mount Maya Bungalow Village would have been on the slope of any other mountain, it would have been 90% less interesting to explore – but the location made it part of the fascinating and somewhat tragic Maya history. Of course afterwards we continued to have another look at the *Maya hotel*, but that… you probably already guess it… is a story for another time…

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There are all kinds of abandoned places you can find in the middle of nowhere in Japan – hotels, mines, farms, factories, spas / water parks, restaurants, theme parks, even schools. A single apartment building on a slope below a countryside road? That’s rather unusual…

It was pretty much a year ago when I was heading to the mountains of the Kii Peninsula with a couple of friends. We were looking for a small abandoned church I will write about in two weeks, just in time for Christmas as it will be a perfect opportunity to write a couple of lines about Japan and Christianity. Walking along a mountain road soon afterwards I saw a rooftop down below while enjoying the beautiful landscape. My expectations were to see something like another rusty shack with a couple of gardening tools, so I was surprised to find a multi-storey apartment building that apparently hadn’t been used in a couple of years. It wasn’t in great condition, but good enough to risk a closer look.
The first few windows / doors were locked tightly, but we quickly found some open doors and broken windows. The apartments varied quite a bit in size and interior – some were very tiny, others big enough to house a family. Some were still fully furnished and ready to live in, others were more or less empty. Some felt quite homely, almost cozy, others were spooky as hell! In one of them I went from “almost heart attack” to “bursting laughter” in the fraction of a second. When I opened the door to the main room in one of the apartments, I saw a king-size bed with two… bodies… almost completely covered by the sheets. Luckily not dead bodies, but stuffed bodies – those of a big white teddy bear and a plush duck. Phew!
Most of the apartments were filled with rather random stuff, pretty much everything you can imagine – furniture, clothes, lamps, audio cassettes, mirrors, shoes, dolls. Just random everyday stuff from the 1980s and 1990s, I guess; too new to get me excited. Especially since I am not a big fan in general of abandoned private homes. The external staircase was pretty much a rusty mess, the brittle wood and questionable concrete slabs not exactly confidence-inducing – and the lack of an internal staircase made the whole building basically a hopeless case; I am sure nobody will ever move in there again. Since there also was a rundown abandoned hotel in walking distance, I assume that this countryside apartment building was home to some of the staff that didn’t want to drive up and down a rather steep mountain for half an hour to the next town, especially in winter.

Considering that it was an original find and a quick exploration taking less than an hour, the Remote Apartment Building was a pleasant surprise overall. The external staircase was actually kind of interesting, the plushy love couple quite memorable… and at least the building wasn’t mold infested (yet). Nothing I would rent a car for, but a nice, barely touched surprise between other explorations on the way.

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Small, but spooky… Hardly any abandoned place gave me the creeps as much as the Sanyo Securities Vault, a massive semi-underground construction inhabited by bats and gigantic bugs.

Sanyo Securities (not to be confused with the world renowned Sanyo Electric!) was a mid-size Japanese brokerage firm. Founded in 1910 it got into serious financial trouble after the Japanese price asset bubble burst in the early 1990s. In March of 1998 the financial situation was so dire that there were talks about Mitsui Sumitomo taking over, but that option fell through. Even a restructuring of the company in June of the same year couldn’t save it, and so all employees were sacked on August 31st.

Like many successful companies of the 1980s, Sanyo Securities owned a scenic countryside retreat and training center for employees, in this case with a massive semi-underground safe. The first thing my explorer buddy *Hamish* and I found upon reaching the premises were some tennis courts in really bad condition – it was more than obvious that the area had been abandoned for quite a while.
On the way back to the training center buildings I spotted a low dome like construction in the vegetation to our left. It took us no time to find the entrance, though I can’t remember seeing any sign of the metal door, except for its left-behind solid frame. The hallway behind was lit from above through the glass dome we spotted from the outside, the walls probably quite massive ferroconcrete – the thing looked like from a 1960s SciFi movie! And there it was, behind a corner, the biggest metal door I’ve ever seen in my life, open – as if a watching mastermind was just waiting for somebody to enter, so it could be slammed shut via a remote control. Some bored people with too much strength actually removed a panel on the back, so the locking mechanism was exposed; quite interesting! Behind that door was a narrow square hallway, surrounding the inner sanctum: a room about four by four meters, guarded by another set of inside concrete walls at least 30 centimeters thick and another massive metal door with a complicated lock. This must have been the safe for most prized possessions owned by the customers of Sanyo Securities; now inhabited by a few bats in the inner hallway and some huge bugs (giant grasshoppers, if I remember correctly) in the center room. Fascinating place, but creepy as hell!
The company retreat part was quite interesting in its own way. Built from various materials and partly in line with its surroundings, I especially liked the fire place and the huge windows in what must have been some kind of cafeteria / conference room. Sadly the upper floor suffered from arson – and whoever took care of that problem probably cleared / cleaned some of the building, as parts of it looked a lot more cluttered on older photos I’ve seen before my visit. The burned-out room offered a gorgeous few at the other building below and especially at the lake across the street. The other rooms were either tatami rooms that looked like regular hotel rooms – or carpeted dormitory style rooms with bunk beds. I guess not all Sanyo Securities employees were treated the same…
The training center below was quite unspectacular though; mainly conference rooms, from the looks of it. The upper floors were mostly moldy and rotten, the lower floor showed signs of severe vandalism – broken windows and graffiti. Usually I try to avoid showing graffiti to not motivate those “artists” vandalizing abandoned places, but the One Piece one kinda looked nice and almost suited the wall it was sprayed on.

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Abandoned embassies are not exactly common finds in the urbex world, yet the deserted embassy of Iraq in Berlin has become kind of a tourist attraction, mentioned in several guides to Germany’s capital. For seasoned urban explorers like myself quite a weird experience…
The area around the Tschaikowskistraße (German for Tchaikovsky Street) in Niederschönhausen is dominated by mansions with large gardens, built about 100 years ago; the road itself leading up directly to Schönhausen Palace, a baroque palace dating back to a villa originally built more than 350 years ago. One exception is a small offspring of the Tschaikowskistraße, including the infamous number 51 – home to the former Iraqi Embassy in the German Democratic Republic a.k.a. East Germany. The area consists of half a dozen buildings constructed in 1974 by the Kombinat Ingenieurhochbau Berlin. The GDR was (in)famous for their huge plattenbau style architecture, simple designs built with prefabricated concrete slabs – and the new houses in the Tschaikowskistraße were no exception. Well, they were smaller and modified (inside walls were brick-built!) to suit the purposes of their new inhabitants: the ambassadors from France, Italy, Australia, Poland… and Iraq. After the collapse of East Germany those countries needed only one embassy in the now reunited Berlin, so they gave up the so called “Diplomatenviertel von Pankow” (Diplomats’ Neighborhood of Pankow), named after borough Niederschönhausen is located in. While the other nations packed their stuff, left and gave back the premises they were located on… the Iraqis just left. Background is a paralyzing mix of the complicated legal circumstance (there are different versions of who owns the land, the building and the usage rights) and a total lack of interest in resolving the situation; apparently neither Germany nor the Iraq are lifting a finger when it comes to Tschaikowskistraße 51. And so the building just stands there from early 1991 on – when the diplomats left due to the Gulf War and accusations that the embassy had been used as a weapons and explosives storage. As time went on more and more people had a look at the deserted embassy, then people started to take “souvenirs” – framed photos of Saddam Hussein, visas, documents, books, even parts of the interior furnishing. At the same time people started to vandalize the building; smashing windows, graffiti, arson. Then the press picked up the topic and in 2003 even the New York Times ran a piece about it. With no security, no police patrolling and nobody really caring about the building, dozens of regular Berlin tourist from all over the world show up there every day with a taken-for-grantedness bordering arrogance – something I wasn’t aware of when I finally reached the embassy; and a state of mind I am not used to as a seasoned urban explorer treating both the locations I visit as well as fellow explorers with all due respect.

The first thing I realized upon arrival at the former Iraqi Embassy In The German Democratic Republic was the fact that the surrounding buildings were occupied by a company called AiF Projekt GmbH, with no hint what this company was doing. The partly boarded-up embassy was located maybe 5 meters away from the street on the 5000 square meters big property – the only apparent way in and out a slightly opened lattice gate. Unaware of the complex ownership situation and the touristy reputation of this clearly rundown building, I tried to evaluate whether or not it was worth taking the risk of entering straight away in broad daylight, when a retiree walking his dog came up to me. We were having quite a nice conversation in which he was telling me all about the history of the embassy and the similar buildings right across the street, about his life in the GDR and how the powers that be couldn’t care less about the condition of the embassy, when all of a sudden a woman in her late 40s, early 50s interrupted. With an obnoxious voice and an even more obnoxious arrogant attitude she questioned basically everything the man said, because she read about the place in a tourist guide and did some research of her own – basically calling the poor old man a liar and storyteller. The poor fella really took it to heart, getting red in the face, starting to shake involuntarily… and then he left, but not after voicing that he wished the place was gone and that he would love to call the police 20 times a day. Which I totally understood, because I have to admit that I hardly ever met an argumentative person like that in my whole life, especially not since I moved to Japan where a dis(s)cussion like that is completely unheard-of.
Slightly worried whether or not that nice old man would call the police from pure spite and hatred for that strange woman, I entered the embassy through an open door – only to realize that the place was a mess, one of the most rundown and vandalized locations I have ever explored, a real piece of trash. The architecture and the style of the building was like nothing I would ever be able to see while exploring in Japan, so I got my camera ready and started to take some photos, when I ran into that middle-aged woman from before again, outside on a balcony. I cut the conversation short as she was desperate to get my confirmation about how she was right, not just with the arguments she had, but with the way she presented them. So I basically fled to the upper floor… where I ran into three guys of questionable looks – halfway between squatters and drug addicts. What the heck was going on here? They approached me in English and we had two minutes of meaningless small talk. Luckily they weren’t squatting druggies, just British tourists; though one of them way clearly drunk and most likely high! Down at the ground floor again, I stepped into main hallway, when I saw a teenage girl coming down the staircase while another middle aged woman (wearing a too tight skirt and flip-flops!) was blaring “See, now they are creeping from their holes!” at us in German as if we were a bunch of cockroaches, before leaving with her Cartman looking son. Seriously, WTF? There was an endless coming and going of random people, something I’ve never seen before – I easily met more people at the former Iraqi Embassy In The German Democratic Republic in the hour I spent there than in five years of serious urban exploration in Japan! I wasn’t even able to shoot a decent video without anybody yelling or walking through background; Christian Bale most likely would have gone nuts! After an attempt or two I approached the latest group of urbex tourists, a handful of French twens, and told them that I intended to shoot a video that could end up on Youtube… and they were like “Yeah, we don’t mind being seen or heard in it, just go ahead!” – I still tried to avoid people, but you will see / hear some of them in the clip at the end of this article.

“Interesting” is the kindest word I was able come up with to describe my experiences in Berlin… in general. Back in the early / mid-90s the Iraqi Embassy must have been one of the most exciting abandoned places in the whole world – untouched, full of items left behind, 20 years of intense history. Now it’s an involuntary tourist attraction, vandalized and overrun, from urban exploration as far away as infiltration. What a shame…

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Abandoned looking houses are everywhere in the Japanese countryside – but just because they look abandoned, doesn’t mean that they are abandoned. Better safe than sorry, so if deserted private homes are your thing, I recommend visiting one of hundreds derelict villages in Japan… like the Yamanashi Ghost Town!
Some of my urbex friends love abandoned houses. I usually don’t. Exploring them, there is a certain amount of voyeurism involved, far beyond the usual level, as those places are a lot more personal than shared spaces like hotels, amusement parks or hospitals. Most of the time interesting items are in drawers, behind closed doors… and I don’t like to go through other people’s things, that’s when urbex becomes borderline burglarizing to me, even if you don’t break something getting in and don’t take something on the way out. There also is an uncomfortable sadness to them – the people there left their houses, probably family homes for generations, and they often left personal things behind; letters, photos, diaries, …

My buddy *Hamish* and I were actually looking for an abandoned school when we found this little ghost town in the mountains of Yamanashi prefecture, off the beaten tracks and barely connected to Japan’s regular road system, given the condition of some stretches. At the same time we were very sure that the area was really abandoned, which made it easier to enter some buildings without knocking first. Most houses / huts were in rather bad condition, but two or three of them looked like there still might have been living somebody; but just from the outside. All buildings seemed to have many visitors before, including some who enjoyed going through stuff, which was scattered all over the floors. An abandoned hairdryer here, some old soda / juice cans there. The biggest surprise probably was a wooden box in a barn, once containing rindless cheddar cheese from Australia, a country not exactly famous for dairy exports. I also loved the last building we explored – the pink main door lead to a stinky hallway full of garbage, but when we entered through the living room, we gained access to an amazingly lit part of the house with lots of decay and animal feces; very challenging to shoot due the difficult natural light though.

Overall the Yamanashi Ghost Town wasn’t a terribly exciting location with spectacular views or items, but much like it’s rather famous counterpart *Mukainokura* it offered another glimpse into the past – items of daily use, how houses were built in Japan 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago… the hardships of making a living in the mountains. One impressive proof of that I found when I made a last attempt finding the previously mentioned school – instead I came across a series of hand-built levelled fields on a slope next to a river, probably the main source of fruits and vegetables for a whole village most likely abandoned in the 1970s…

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The Fuji 5 Lakes area consists of Lake Yamanaka, Lake Kawaguchi, Lake Sai, Lake Shoji, and Lake Motosu – forming an arch around the northern part of Mount Fuji in Yamanashi prefecture. Famous for hiking, mountain climbing, sailing, fishing, the Aokigahara Suicide Forest, Fujikyu Highland and local udon noodles, this recreational area two hours outside of Tokyo attracts about nine million visitors per year… and many of them enjoy a soak at an onsen in the evening. Of course not all of those public baths can be successful – bad for the owners, good for explorers like me and readers like you…
The Fuji Five Lakes Onsen is a surprisingly rare location and apparently virtually unknown to the Japanese urbex scene. It’s actually easier to find information about the time when it was open for business than about its current abandoned state; hence the rather vague fake name for it. The place was actually not just a day trip spa (charging 300 Yen for the time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.), it was also a ryokan, a Japanese inn for overnight guests. Located next to a river in a tiny mountain town, the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen turned out to be a hidden wooden gem, a glimpse at Japan’s simple past that is disappearing quickly.

At 7,000 to 10,000 Yen per person and night the FFLO wasn’t exactly a cheap place to stay at, especially considering that it closed about 10 years ago. I am sure back then it was easily possible to get a more luxurious accommodation for a lower price – but probably with a lot less character. The main building of the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen was a narrow, but rather long wooden construction – followed by small apartments in the backyard along the river. After ten years of abandonment rather wobbly and squeaky, the main hallway wasn’t for the faint of heart, especially with road construction going on right outside. If we were able to hear them scavenge the street, they were able to hear almost any noise we made. Luckily they weren’t aware of *Hamish* and I being there, so they didn’t pay attention; a huge advantage on our side and a late reward for us approaching the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen carefully, avoiding any noises getting in.
The tricky part was the upper floor with its tatami party room. Regular readers know what kind of place I mean – the big one with the stage and the karaoke machine and stuff like that. What was so tricky about it? Well, the upper part was actually on road level, so the construction workers were able to look inside through some of the windows… if they would have paid attention, which they didn’t. Good for me, as the party room held some interesting items to take pictures of, including some 60s or 70s music devices and a Konami Hyper Shot controller for use with the smash hit Hyper Sports.
Down on the main floor again I took some photos of the pretty run down onsen part, the gender-separated shared bath. Surprisingly small, it must have offered a nice view on the river a few decades prior. Now the huge windows were mostly overgrown from the outside and vandalized by penis graffiti from the inside – the whole room felt rather cold and inhospitable on this beautiful autumn day.
The half a dozen guest “houses” in the back looked a bit like an afterthought and some were already in quite questionable condition. The eclectic conglomerate was big enough for about 30 people, with each hut hosting a family or a carload full of friends. Been there, done that… and the light was disappearing quickly.
What made the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen such a memorable exploration was the simplicity of the place. No shiny modern kitchen, no ten-storey concrete building, no spa area the size of a football field, no arcade, no elevators – just plain wooden buildings, a handful of guest apartments and an almost underwhelming shared bath. The most modern item probably was that controller for said Konami game, every other item there most likely was from the 70s, 60s or even 50s.
The last couple of places I presented on *Abandoned Kansai* were not very Japanese at first sight, especially locations like the *Western Village* or the *Hachijo Royal Hotel*… but the Fuji Five Lakes Onsen is as Japanese as it gets!

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