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Archive for the ‘Kyoto’ Category

An abandoned school in the mountains of Kyoto hardly anybody of the usual suspects has ever visited before? Count me in!

So far I’ve explored eight abandoned / closed / repurposed schools just in Japan this year, which means that I have to write about a deserted Japanese school about every two months to avoid that they pile up – more often actually, especially since the urbex year is far from being over. The last time I presented a closed school in the land of the Rising Sun was in August. So… ready or not, here comes another one!
The Kyoto Elementary School was located along a tiny road somewhere in the mountains of Kyoto prefecture – not in a town, but between several now abandoned hamlets, similar to the amazing *Shizuoka Countryside School*, which was located on top of a mountain and accessible from at least two valleys. It was closed 25 years ago, 23 years before my visit, and little to nothing is known about it, except for its real name and the fact that it was an elementary school. Walking up to the school I saw an open area and some markings on the wall of the remaining building – signs that at least parts of the school have been demolished. Whether those parts were another building or just a shed with toilets I don’t know, but it seems like the other structure was either just one storey tall or connected by a lower hallway.
A lot of the abandoned schools I’ve visited recently either impressed with tons of items left behind, from musical instruments to taxidermy animals, or they stood out thanks to their unusual looks – decaying wooden structures / swallowed by fog / … The Kyoto Elementary School offered hardly any of that. An announcement speaker here, a record player there. Tatami mats in some of the rooms (which is rather unusual for a school), a couple of organ or pianos. Nothing I hadn’t seen better several times at other places. Even the building itself was rather unspectacular. Maybe 1950s or 60s? At least it was still in good condition, so we didn’t have to worry about crashing through a floor, which is often the case at old wooden schools that haven’t had any maintenance in years. Overall an unspectacular exploration saved by the fact that this was a rather rare school – and that we found an abandoned factory on the way there. But that’s a story for another time… 🙂

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When I wrote about *my first visit to the Kyoto Dam* two years ago, it turned out to be one of the most popular articles on *Abandoned Kansai* – let’s have a look what the place looks like in winter!

In spring of 2010 I found this cute little abandoned dam / power plant nestled in the mountains of Kyoto prefecture on a Japanese hiking blog – and in summer of 2010, just weeks after the series finale of Lost, I finally had the chance to have a look myself. Except from the heat and the insane humidity it was an awesome experience, because this location looked like a lost Lost set with its massive concrete constructions, the fragile little hut… and some instruments inside still working, getting power from who knew where. My timing was just awesome, everything came together perfectly… 🙂
About half a year later I went back to this amazing abandoned place – again with “awesome” timing: Saturday, March 12 2011. Less than 24 hours prior a devastating earthquake had hit the Japanese Tohoku region, the following tsunami seriously damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing only the second Level 7 incident on the International Nuclear Event Scale – thought at that time most likely nobody knew how serious the disaster really was.

To be honest, more than five and a half years later I don’t remember many details of this visit, except that I had a great time and experienced a completely different atmosphere. During my first visit nature was buzzing, water was both on the ground and in the air, the dam was half overgrown and only partly accessible – during my second visit nature was dormant, there was hardly any water on the ground and even less in the air, the atmosphere was extremely peaceful. The Lost atmosphere of the first visit was a bit unnerving, this time I enjoyed more freedom of movement, a better sight, and overall felt more comfortable; though the significantly lower humidity was probably the most important factor. I also took more time to take everything in: The first time I stay about 1.5 hours, this time I stayed 2.5 hours. I actually liked it so much that I came back a week later with a flyjin friend of mine, who had left Kanto to get some distance between himself and the unstable reactor, but only a handful photos of that set made it to this article.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than six years since my first visit to the Kyoto Dam – and that it is still a location that barely ever pops up on urbex blogs; because I really love the location. It’s a bit off the beaten tracks, which is why I don’t go there very often, but so far it has always been worth taking the trip…
Now the question is: *summer* or winter? Which one did you like better?

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

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

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

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

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An old GPS system can be a blessing in disguise. For the longest time my buddy Dan’s car was equipped with a navigational system that must have been about ten years old, maybe 15 – you know, from an era when Japan was a magical place with color screen mobile phones, by far the best video games in the world and… well… the first navi systems in regular cars. But what was so great about an ancient GPS device in 2013? Well, pretty much all the abandoned places we visited together were still in the system as active locations, making it very easy to find them. But one day last summer it got even better! Dan and I were cruising through the countryside, when I saw the name of a ski resort appearing on the screen – a ski resort I had never heard of, neither as active nor as abandoned. So we went on a little detour…

… and the resort turned out to be abandoned. By the looks of it pretty much around the same time Dan’s GPS was installed, maybe even before that. Located at a half-overgrown side-road in the middle of nowhere and covered by the most blurry satellite shot on online maps you can imagine, this rather small ski slope is close to impossible to find; unless you know where it is or you have a GPS system so old that it’s still marked there. (It isn’t on GoogleMaps…)

Sadly this also means that I know nothing about the Kyoto Ski Resort, which is obviously a shortened name to protect its exact location. Absolutely nothing. Not when it was opened, not when it was closed, and of course I can only assume the reasons why it was shut down, which are probably the same everywhere. Not enough snow, not enough customers, outdated equipment, short piste.

Exploring an abandoned ski resort in summer is a bit strange as a location like that looks out of place at that time of the year, but if you are (un)lucky like I was, it still can make a good story.
At the bottom of the slope were two wooden buildings, a restaurant and what looked like a gear rental / general shop. From there we walked up the mountain to a smaller restaurant / snack bar in questionable condition; the wooden beams outside were crumbling away and we had to be very careful where we stepped. After passing some shacks in extremely poor condition, used as restrooms and storages, I reached the now rusty ski lift.
I took some photos up there, minding my own business, when I was hit in the head what felt like a golf ball or a tennis ball, right after I heard something buzzing. This surprising event caused me to make a noise that can be described as “less than manly”, but hey, despite my explorations in the middle of nowhere I actually like nature tamed or grilled, not kamikaze attack me. Anyway, my less than manly outcry caused Dan to laugh his ass off, which was kind of good as we actually had lost sight of each other. Minutes later Dan’s head popped up behind one of the shacks, still laughing. And while he came closer, all of a sudden I heard that buzzing noise again, followed by Dan yelling “SUZUMEBACHI!!!” – and him running down the slope as if the devil himself was after him! Not so funny all of a sudden, if they are after you… (Just in case you don’t know: suzumebachi, also known as Japanese Giant Hornets or just Killer Hornets, are gigantic hornets with a body length of about 50 millimeters, a stinger of 6 millimeters and a wingspan of about 75 millimeters; they kill 40 people in average every year in Japan, especially in the countryside.)
I followed my fellow explorer down the hill for a while, but I hadn’t taken a video yet – so I went back up to the abandoned ski lift, where the suzumebachi probably had their nest. Aware of the dangerous situation I started the video right away and did the usual tour…
Urban exploration is not a fun thing to do in Japan during summer – not only are there giant killer hornets, there are also huge spiders and pretty big snakes as well as all kinds of non-venomous critters. From June till September the whole country‘s wildlife is buzzing and it seems like all of those buzzers are eager to have a look at you when you visit their habitats; and some like to have a bite! So after the suzumebachi incident we had a quick look at the restaurant at the lower end of the slope; a wooden building in dilapidated state, the floor arching and a HUGE old suzumebachi nest right under the ceiling. And then we left. There was not much to see anyway – and everything was in rather bad condition.

Overall the Kyoto Ski Resort was a neat original find. Nothing you would rent a car for and spend a day on finding / exploring, but it did a good job as a bonus between two locations we were eager to see.

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Schools are probably the most common abandoned places in Japan. Rare in populated areas, they can be found by the dozen in the countryside. In all of Japan there must be hundreds, nevertheless I only wrote about two of them so far (the *F# Elementary School* and the *North Korean School in Gifu*). The main reason for that is that until last year I did almost all of my explorations by using public transportation – and the vast majority of those abandoned schools are in the middle of nowhere, often part of (almost) deserted villages. By now I’ve been to about eight or ten *haikyo* schools (a.k.a. haikou), though most of them were either boarded up, under security supervision or in really bad condition.
The Kyoto Countryside School on the other hand turned out to be a hidden gem – and to keep it that way I gave it this rather generic name…

When my buddy Dan and I drove up to the Kyoto Countryside School in a stunningly beautiful picture book village in the middle of the mountains I kind of had a bad feeling. The school itself was in rather good condition and the grass in front of it was about 10 to 15 centimeters high – higher than usual, but not “abandoned for 20 years” high; implying that somebody was still taking care of the school and its side-buildings. But we were lucky… While the front entrance and all the windows were locked, the back entrance was open; and so was the kitchen building.
Sadly I don’t know much about the history of the school, only that it was closed 22 years prior to our visit – which was hard to believe as pretty much all rooms, despite being almost empty, looked like they were just closed for the summer. I am actually pretty sure that the school building is still used every once in a while, probably for some village celebrations or stuff like that.
Visiting the Kyoto Countryside School was part of a one day urbex trip in July; something I tend to avoid, because Japanese summers are nasty – hot, humid and full of insects as well as other animals you don’t want to run into. Luckily the school was in almost pristine condition, one of the cleanest places I have ever explored; bug free! But it was a typical summer day, just past high noon, and being in the mountains helped surprisingly little.
A sweaty, yet interesting exploration – opening that door was like stepping into the past, and in that regard it reminded me of the *Old Higashi-Aoyama Station* I wrote about last week. Most rooms were empty, except for the secretariat… and things on the walls. Photos, relics of art classes, info posters, mirrors. One room has a handwritten banner, showing Japanese number units. 10.000 = man, 100.000.000 = oku, and so on. The longest number was a 1 with 88 zeros, 4 kanji reading muryoutaisuu – I’m pretty sure 99.999% of the Japanese population haven’t heard of that number. But finds like that made this exploration so much fun. If you just looked through the windows you probably would have thought “Boooooring!”, but once inside the place revealed dozens of little things that caught me eye; my favorite part being the gorgeous wooden hallway, perfectly lit at that time of the day.
Surprisingly interesting was the most western part of the building, separated by a now locked door, but accessible from the outside: a small storage room full of left behind school books and the school’s toilet – with song sheets above the tiny pissoirs and old electric wiring along the wooden ceiling, probably added years after the school was built…

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“Flash? I don’t use flash! Most photos look ugly when using flash!”
In February of 2010 I had no clue what my dear friend *Enric* was talking about. I had my first DSLR for 3 months and I had no clue about photography either. But when I was using the flash of my D90 in the darker corners of the Kasagi Sightseeing Hotel my now truly missed buddy got really upset. I didn’t think much about it, to be honest. I just picked up urban exploration and photography as a hobby, and I was happy about every decent shot I was able to take. Flash or not…
Who cares? Just let the crazy Spaniard talk! — Gosh, was I ignorant. But I really had no clue what I was doing. Couldn’t have known a good photo from a bad one even if Ansel Adams would have hit me in the face with a picture book! I continued the learning by doing process and half a year later I bought an ultra-wide angle lens and a tripod – and I guess my photos improved massively since then, probably because I barely ever used flash again. But whenever I do, I remember Enric’s words at the Kasagi Tourist Hotel…

I don’t know why it took me more than 3 years to write about the Kasagi Hotel; this is actually one of the oldest unpublished locations I had on my hard-drive – and the other ones are way less interesting! It’s probably because of the name… or its rather convenient location in walking distance of a train station… Guess which one! Although I have to admit “convenient” and “walking distance” is relative. It’s convenient and in walking distance for urban explorers. If you arrived as guests with suitcases you better took a taxi!
Although one of the most popular abandoned places in Japan for many, many years there is not much information floating around about the Kasagi Hotel. It’s widely known as a ghost spot, since rumors have it that the owner committed suicide by arson – half of the Japanese blogs writing about the place admit that they didn’t dare to enter. Or care to find out more about the hotel’s history. So here’s some information I got from reading a dented sign near the entrance and that is nowhere to be found on any Japanese blog: It seems like the Kasagi Hotel was famous for its onsen. The hot spring was fed by a spring 1200 meters below the hotel, rich in sodium and alkali. Staying at the hotel for one night including two meals was 6500 Yen, onsen only was 1000 Yen, onsen and one meal 2000 Yen.
Enric and I didn’t mind those suicide stories to scare away children and walked straight in, past the barricade that once prevented nosy people from entering; but of course it was ripped apart by some vandals by the time of our arrival. We mostly ignored the smaller storage buildings to the right and headed straight for the hotel, squeezing past another barricade made of conjugated iron, a lot more solid, but nevertheless wide open even for foreigners.
The ground floor was a pitiable sight. Half destroyed by arson and littered by bent and rusted iron it offered a sample of the general condition of the Kasagi Hotel. I guess that’s the downside of the hotel’s fame and location: It was vandalized like hardly any place I’ve been to before or after – graffiti, arson and ripped apart walls, floors, ceilings… you name it. Even two staircases were completely ripped apart, although it looked like that was done professionally and with heavy machinery; especially since there was barely any rubble left. The whole floor was dark and gloomy, with holes in the wooden floor spared by the fire. The hotel kitchen also became the victim of flames, underlining the spooky first impression.
A concrete and graffiti stained staircase in the back lead to the upper floors, but the door to the second one was blocked by a huge welded metal plate. Somebody built an improvised metal ladder from 1F to 2F, but I preferred not to climb it – especially since 2F suffered as much damage from vandals as all the other floors. Except for the ground floor and the top floor all the floors looked pretty much the same with different kinds of destructions: On one floor the toilets were completely intact, on other floors you could still see parts of the wallpaper, while on another floor the intact walls gave a good impression how big the rooms really were – the whole building was one big puzzle.

The Kasagi Hotel was one of the first 20 explorations I did and therefore everything was extremely exciting. Looking back years later it was one of the more unspectacular locations I visited; except for the view. The view was fantastic, especially from the terrace on the roof top and from the corner baths, which allowed free sight on the Kizu River ten meters below the ground floor of the hotel.
One word of warning though to all the people planning trips there to have a look themselves: I wouldn’t do it! About a year ago I went there again for a quick revisit. More about that trip later this week or early next week…

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