Archive for the ‘Mie’ Category

In Japan “skylines” often describe scenic toll roads on top of beautiful mountain ridges – a lot of them feature rest stops with restaurants and souvenir shops, some even have a funicular line for people without cars… or had, like in this case.

When you are used to German highways, the world famous Autobahn, Japanese highways are a disgrace and barely tolerable. First of all: They are not even real highways – the majorities of Japanese highways, the National Routes, are country roads at best; most of them even are regular (inner city) streets with no by-pass function whatsoever. If you want to go fast and past inner cities, you have to use the so-called expressways – a nationwide network of roads that look the like Autobahn at first sight, but is not nearly as good; initially built and financed by the State, but later split into three main areas and privatized in 2005. First of all: Unlike the German Autobahn, Japanese expressways are not free. They are toll roads that currently cost 24.6 Yen per kilometer / 39.36 Yen per mile for a regular passenger car! You take a ticket when you drive on and pay, rounded to the nearest 50 Yen, when you get off. It doesn’t sound like that much at first sight, but it adds up – a day trip can easily include 400 to 500 kilometers of driving, which means more than 100 bucks just for highway fees! But that’s not all! While more than half of the Autobahn network only has an advisory speed limit (i.e. you can drive as fast as your car and common sense allows), the speedlimit on Japanese expressways is… 100 km/h. If you are lucky. Even without road works it’s often lowered to 80 km/h. And while an Autobahn has at least two lanes (in each direction, sometimes up to four!), two is the standard in Japan. Sometimes three, but more often one.
Long story short: Japanese highways are not bad, but they are expensive and often mind-numbingly slow – especially when you are trying to return to a big city like Osaka or Tokyo at the end of a long weekend. Bumper to bumper to bumper to…
In addition to “fast” toll roads, you also have “beautiful” toll roads – sometimes they can be used as a short cut (like the Arima Driveway between Kobe and the old onsen town of Arima), sometimes they are their own tourist destination; for example the Ibuki Driveway up Mount Ibuki in northern Shiga prefecture.

The Skyline in Mie was a little bit of both. Kind of a shortcut, though you probably lost quite some time driving up and down the curvy road instead of staying on a flat one, and at the same it offered quite a few viewing points with gorgeous lookouts at both the mountains and the sea. The reason I wanted to have a look up there were a deserted rest stop and an abandoned cable car…
The Mount Asama Cable Car (not related to the also abandoned *Asama Volcano Museum* in Nagano prefecture!) was opened in 1925, but closed in 1944 as a non-essential line, because the Japanese military needed every piece of metal it could get. While the power lines remained, the cable car wasn’t restored / reopened after World War 2 and officially abandoned in 1962. Due to natural decay in the following decades, the upper terminus turned more and more into a deathtrap and therefore was secured with barbed wire (!) and fenced off with a regular black metal fence in 2006. (What’s with Japan and “securing” stuff with barbed wire? I’ve been hiking a lot a few years ago and came across trails that were “secured” with barbed wire, so if you slipped, your fall were at least temporarily stopped… before you bled to death three days later…) Luckily they didn’t combine the fence and the barbed wire, so it was rather easy to have a look at the upper terminus, which was little more than a concrete shell with holes 70 years after it closed for good. But the roof offered a nice view at the area below with the beautiful Mie coast line. A coast line I mistook for another one about 300 kilometers away, when I first tried to locate the cable car four years prior – interestingly enough I found an abandoned gondola station thanks to this mix-up, but that’s a story for another time… What I will remember the most about the Mount Asama Cable Car is the fact how cold it was up there. Since there is no real winter in Osaka (it snows only every other year and never strong enough to stick on the ground for longer than a few hours – in addition to that most buildings are overheated) I am not used to low temperatures anymore – and in combination with the hard wind I was freezing like hardly ever before anywhere in Japan.

The sun was already setting, so we moved on to what once was a rest stop along the skyline – large parking lot, large concrete complex with large windows. While the toilet area and a couple of separate souvenir were still open for business, the main building once housing a large restaurant had been closed, but in decent condition. The combination of toll road, remote location and regular visitors prevented 99% of the possible vandalism the place could have suffered if it wouldn’t have been for those protective factors. And while the view at the cable car was limited in northeastern direction, the rest stop area offered an almost 360° view – absolutely gorgeous!

Overall the The Ruins Of The Skyline were a nice way to end a day trip to the countryside. It took me a while to find the cable car station… and even longer to get there – and there’s always something special to cross an old entry off the list… 🙂

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

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

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

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All of the photos I publish with articles on Abandoned Kansai are without any form of enhancing post-production – I don’t even crop them; they either look good or they don’t. Every once in a while I like to play with an HDR tool or two. I wouldn’t call those photos enhanced or improved, I would barely call them photos anymore. That’s why I created a sub-page for them in the background. Today I added ten more of those little artworks to that page. *Please click here to have a look!*

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More than once I asked myself that question when getting up way too early on a Saturday morning to head out to an abandoned place I have barely information on, once in a while not even the exact location. On some days it’s even a “WHY?!” – especially when it’s cold outside and I have to go all by myself. But then I grab my equipment packed the evening before and head out to the middle of nowhere, using up to four railway companies on a trip that takes up to four hours… each way.
The Old Higashi-Aoyama Station was my goal on one of those “WHY?!” days. A 2.5 hour long trip on three different lines to the Mie countryside, plus a 5 km hike in the mountains to the final destination. None of my friends wanted to come along, but at least the weather forecast was decent – sunny 12 degrees in the middle of December, not too bad while Europe was covered in snow. GoogleMaps, back in 2010 my most reliable haikyo partner, was rather useless in this case since my place of interest was really off the beaten tracks…

Opened on December 20th 1930 the Old Higashi-Aoyama Station was already in the middle of nowhere in 1971, when it hit the news big time. Located in a beautiful valley between two pretty long one track tunnels, it must have been extremely popular amongst day-trip hikers. Probably only with hikers, as there is or was no bigger town or even village in reasonable walking distance; and there are no hints of parking lots close to the station.
One track tunnels always involve the danger of train accidents and one of those sealed the destiny of the Old Higashi-Aoyama Station: On October 25th 1971 at around 4 p.m. an express train to Nagoya collided with a limited express going to Namba / Kyoto (I guess it was supposed to be separated later along the track…). 25 fatalities, 218 wounded, cause: human error.
To avoid an accident like that could ever happen again, Kintetsu, the company owning the line and its stations, planned a huge new two-track tunnel, avoiding the Old Higashi-Aoyama Station and the valley it was located in, building the current Higashi-Aoyama Station a few kilometers away. On November 22nd 1975 the new station was opened, while in the following months the railroad tracks of the old line were stripped down and all buildings except the platforms as well as the tunnels were demolished.

At first sight, after huffing and puffing up a steep forgotten road that once must have been used to transport supplies to (build) the station, the Old Higashi-Aoyama Station was a big disappointment. Although I hadn’t seen anything but seven years old photos of two abandoned train station platforms on a hiking blog, I was kind of hoping for something more. I took a couple of quick pictures of what I had already seen on the internet, looking for more signs of the past.
Luckily the disappointment disappeared in no time as I quickly found a side-track and then something that must have been a kiosk four decades ago – including a fridge and several empty glass bottles of “Morinaga Twist”, a soda I’ve never heard of before, and other drinks. That’s when the mental cinema screen started to work again. Left of the kiosk I found a shrine, so overgrown that I wasn’t able to see it from the platforms. To the right was a concrete flight of stairs leading up the mountain – I guess that was the starting point for the hikers once buying Morinaga Twist. What could it have been like to follow that trail 40 years ago? I tried to get a taste by climbing the stairs, only to find a reminder of how dangerous even the most harmless *haikyo* can be when having bad luck – a huge rock, at least 60 cm in diameter was “blocking” the stairs; some things can just hit you without a warning… I went around the boulder and climbed the mountain for about 15 minutes, concrete step after concrete step. Up there I found the typical leftovers of what must have been another kiosk when the train station was still down in the valley – lots of corrugated iron, some broken bottles and dented pots as well as a rusty gas canister.
This discovery just fueled my imagination, so I followed what I assumed once was the hiking trail, now covered by leaves. After about another 10 minutes I reached the top of the mountain and there I found more leftovers from hikers passing by decades ago – bottles and cans once holding tea, juice and sodas. A couple of meters along the ridge I startled up a bigger specimen of the local wildlife (I guess it was a deer), so I decided to turn around and go back down to the station for a couple of more photos, still wondering what it would have been like to be an autumn hiker 60, 70 years ago. At that point I was actually happy being alone on that exploration, because I didn’t have to talk to anybody and could fully enjoy the atmosphere of this wonderful location on that amazing late autumn day. Eight hours prior I asked myself “WHY?!” – leaving the Old Higashi-Aoyama Station behind, I knew why…

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I love the Toyoko Inn hotel chain in Japan. Their prices are fair, they are located right next to bigger train and subway stations, they offer free breakfast from 7 till 9.30 and free WiFi / internet 24/7, their staff usually speaks at least a little bit of English, they have a discount and point system for members – and you can make online reservations via their English homepage.

One reason I was hesitating to go on a trip *as mention in the previous blog post* was the fact that I was in-between credit cards for a couple of weeks. (In my experience it’s close to impossible for foreigners to get a credit card in Japan – but I am looking forward to the comments of every expat who got one… I know people who were rejected more than half a dozen times, I tried it once or twice and then got one in Germany…) But you need a credit card to make an online reservation at a Toyoko Inn – or so I thought.
When it was clear that I would spend the first night of my trip in Nagoya I stopped worrying. Last weekend wasn’t a typical time to travel in Japan (unlike *Golden Week*) and Toyoko Inn has six hotels in Nagoya, eight if you count the ones close to the airport – I was sure I would get a room somewhere. So the plan was to show up at one of them and ask the staff to make a reservation for me for the second night, which I planned to spend in Matsusaka – a town famous for its high quality beef, which turned out to be more dead then the cows it is famous for.

Luckily my plan was a good one, so I checked in at the hotel of my choice in Nagoya and asked the staff to call their sister hotel in Matsusaka to get me a reservation for the following night since I didn’t have a credit card. The friendly lady at the counter pointed to the opposite wall across the lobby and asked me to use the internet to make the reservation myself. I repeated that I didn’t have a credit card and therefore couldn’t make the online reservation. The answer was “You don’t need a credit card to make an online reservation.” – so I told her that I needed one when I tried to make one the night before. Since the hotel receptionist insisted that I wouldn’t need a card and was eager to show me that she was right we started the procedure on their English homepage – as usual. Another guest arrived so I filled out the form, scrolled down and… there it was, the section for the credit card information. I left it blank, tried to continue and of course it didn’t work and I got an error message. When the receptionist showed up again she seemed to be very surprised, switched the language settings of the homepage to Japanese and… finished the reservation without having to enter credit card information! She didn’t even have to log out / start the procedure from the beginning, she just switched the language settings and pressed a button to finalize the reservation.

I totally understand that hotels need some kind of security when people make online reservations and that’s the reason I never had a problem entering my credit card information when making an online reservation at a Toyoko Inn, 15 times for trips in 2012 alone. In fact they don’t charge your credit card and you can pay cash upon arrival, it’s just a security measure for no-shows, which I completely understand. Nevertheless I am kind of irritated by the fact that you have to put in your credit card information when you make the reservation in English, but not when you make it in Japanese – to me it implies that Toyoko Inn considers people who prefer to make reservations in Japanese more reliable than people who make reservations in English; which could be considered borderline racist. Again, I understand that (most) online hotel reservations require credit card information. But either it’s a general requirement for Toyoko Inn or not – doing it on the basis of the language chosen on the homepage feels wrong to me, as it means that not all customers are treated equally.

What do you think? „WTF?“ or “WTF!”?

(To end this posting on a lighter note I’ll add some non-urbex photos and videos I took during my three day trip. Inuyama Castle, Tagata Shrine Festival, Mount Gozaisho, Yunoyama Onsen, Toba, Iruka Island, Ise Shrine, … If anybody is familiar with dolphins please have a look at the video and let me know what you think – to me it looks like the poor creature was desperate to get away as it repeated the same motion at the “prison gates” to the ocean over and over again; I didn’t watch any shows on the island and didn’t spend any money there – Iruka Island (iruka = dolphin) was an optional stop on a harbor cruise I took in Toba.)

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One of the trends during the Japanese Asset Price Bubble of 1986 to 1991 was building company retreats – on top of mountains with stunning views, in old onsen towns, along the coast. Regular trips for team building in addition to the weekly drinking nights were a given anyway, so why not go all in and build a weekend house with the company logo on it? It surely was a lot more prestigious than sending the staff off to a ryokan or a hotel. As soon as a company had a couple of hundred employees it also had a more or less big and luxurious house somewhere; and not only companies – universities and private high schools, too. Some of those buildings were small wooden huts for 6 to 8 people, others were kind of company hotels with (part-time) staff, taking care of chores like cooking, cleaning and gardening. Most of them were for class trips, department vacations and team building events – others could be booked like a hotel with internal company credit.
As we all know the real estate bubble burst and the Japanese economy began to struggle. It actually still does, probably more than ever since World War 2. Over the past 10 to 15 years a lot of those relaxation retreats became too expensive and were just abandoned; because the company went bankrupt or because it couldn’t afford the running expenses anymore and wasn’t able to sell the property.

In 2012 I visited about 100 abandoned places in Japan and Germany and I had quite a slow start into 2013 – the weather wasn’t exactly great and I felt a bit exhausted. Last Thursday I had to make a decision whether to go on a (non-urbex) trip for three days as I wanted to see a shrine festival near Nagoya, but I still felt tired and worn out by one of those colds that get you in Japan every couple of weeks in winter, since most companies don’t have sick days and therefore people drag themselves to the office instead of taking a paid day off. It was on that Thursday morning when I found two extremely motivating comments by Nikki praising the last two photo sets I published – and while I appreciate every comment (especially the positive ones! :)) it was the timing of those two that gave me the final push to see Inuyama Castle, attend the Tagata Shrine Festival, take the gondola up Mount Gozaisho, do a boat trip from Toba to Iruka Island and finally pay a visit to the famous Ise Grand Shrine. Although I knew that there were abandoned places near all of those locations I didn’t do much preparation as I wanted to experience Japan again the same way I did when I fell in love with it – as a tourist, doing touristy things.

While I was walking along a countryside road on one of those three days, minding my own business, thinking about this and that, I saw a house with an open door from the corner of my eye, MISATO.TENNIS.CLUB written in neon green letters above it. If the door would have been closed I probably would have passed by as the building was in good condition and there was nothing unusual about it. But an open door and neon green letters… who knows?
So I turned around and had a closer look. While I was entering I was trying to remember simple phrases in Japanese, like “Excuse me, do you know where can I buy something to drink?”, just in case I would run into somebody – but nobody was there. From the outside the building looked like a normal single-family house, but the entrance area and the name above the door made it pretty clear that it was one of those company vacation facilities.
Since I have never seen the Misato Tennis Club Lodge anywhere on the internet I tried to be as careful as possible. Original finds are always especially exciting to explore, but this one was in exceptional condition – no graffiti, no vandalism, barely any signs that the place was really abandoned. The saddest thing about this lodge was a dead bird I found in the hallway of the upper floor. Other than that it was a clean place with lots of stuff left behind – like the model of a boat on the counter at the entrance, lots of plates near the kitchen and plenty of furniture. With a couple of cleaning products you could make that place ready for occupancy within a day! (I guess that’s what the Misato Tennis Club is thinking, too, as I found a completely faded sign with a phone number outside…)

I had been to similar places before (although I haven’t written about them yet), so I didn’t take a lot of photos – especially since I didn’t bring my tripod and the lighting conditions inside the building weren’t always great. But it turned out that the lodge was full of lines and fascinating details. Well, at least fascinating to me. If you want to see what the place looked like in general I recommend to watch the video – the photo set mostly shows those details I was strangely attracted to; in that regard the lodge reminded me of the *Takarazuka Macadam Industrial Plant*. All of the photos I took were taken freehand within 30 minutes. And while not all of them turned out the way I hoped others still put a smile on my face. So much that I had to write about the place right away, although it really wasn’t that spectacular. But it was an original find in great condition, a rare combination nowadays, where you have more urbex blogs than abandoned places…
The downside of an original find is that it’s close to impossible to find any information about it. The Misato Tennis Club Lodge could have been abandoned a year ago, maybe five; maybe it just wasn’t used during winter and somebody forgot to close the door when he had a look at what to fix for the new season? Some places in Japan go to shit in a heartbeat, others look barely touched after 30 years. In this case one to three years kind of sound reasonable, the remote location being the reason why it was spared by vandals. (There actually is a Misato Tennis Club in driving distance of the lodge – and like I said, their phone number can be found on a sign outside. They have locations in Yokkaichi and Suzuka, and about a dozen trainers; including head coach Robert “Bobie” Angelo, a Davis Cup player from the Philippines.)

I always try to be as respectful as possible when exploring an abandoned place, but I think this time I didn’t even leave footprints… I actually wiped off my shoes on the doormat before entering! Like all exceptional original finds the Misato Tennis Club Lodge will forever have a special place in my heart and I really hope it will find a new owner before it falls victims to vandals or the forces of nature.

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One thing Japan is famous for all over the world is its bathing culture – which is hard to believe if you ever had to spend some time on a rush hour train…

While surprisingly little of Japan’s vast coastline is used for swimming (due to pollution, rocky shores or cement tetrapods) there are three different main terms to describe Japanese baths:
furo (風呂): usually the polite form “ofuro” is used for this traditional wooden bathtub
onsen (温泉): hot spring, sometimes translated as spa, especially when part of a hotel, ryokan (Japanese inn) or minshuku (Japanese bed and breakfast)
sento (銭湯): communal bath house – onsen and ofuro can be part of a sento

The use of those three terms can be confusing at times. While (o)furo technically describes a bathtub (traditional ones made of wood, modern ones made of plastic) with steep sides of about 60 cm height used for a relaxing soak at 38°C to 42°C after (!) you cleaned yourself, it can also be used for the public bath at a gym – although those baths fit more what is describes by the term sento.
A sento is a communal bath with a locker room and a bathing area – gender separated! You get undressed and lock your clothes before you enter the tiles bathing area with a hand towel. Near the entrance you usually find small stools, buckets and faucets. There you sit down and clean yourself before you enter the bathtub, which can be tiled or wooden – and therefore resemble ofuro. (To see what not to do, watch the movie Mr. Baseball…) Modern sento also include small saunas similar to the ones you know from your home country.
Onsen are hot springs and the most famous part of the Japanese bathing culture. Indoor onsen look much like sento and their number is quite low – the vast majority and well-known to everybody even slightly interested in Japan are outdoor onsen, also known as roten-buro (露天風呂). The behavioral code at an onsen is pretty identical to the one at a sento – the main difference is that onsen are fed by natural hot springs, not by heated tap water; and that they are usually more luxurious and beautiful – dozens of countryside towns all over Japan are famous for their onsen resorts and a lot of places to stay charge several hundred bucks per person and night (including breakfast and dinner).

Personally I am not a big fan of ofuro, sento and onsen – mainly because the water is just way too hot for my taste. I’m sweating enough as it is in Japan thanks to the rather high humidity here. I really don’t need to soak myself in water that is higher than my body temperature. The other reason, to be honest with you, is the fact that you stick out there as a foreigner – and I am really tired of being stared at. It’s bad enough at the subway sometimes, even in a city like Osaka. Imagine you being the only foreigner in a countryside bath then… If I’d be the last man on earth and would show up in my birthday suit at the “World Congress of Nudist Nymphomaniacs” near a naturist beach of your choice – I couldn’t earn more stares that way! I get it, most Japanese men don’t have the opportunity to see a naked foreigner and they have an urge to find out if the cliché is true and everything is smaller in Japan, but come on! It’s really impolite…
(Fun fact: Most Japanese people don’t know that public bathes in Japan were mixed until the Meiji era (1868-1912) when the nation started to open to the west. Germany, especially the eastern part, has a long naturist tradition and when I tell Japanese friends that we have mixed nudist beaches and bathes in Germany they are totally shocked and claim that they would never go there since people must stare at each other all the time, which isn’t the case at all. Fact of the matter is that I get way more stares fully clothed on a train in Japan than naked at a beach in Germany…)


The Meihan Health Land technically was an onsen since it was fed by a natural hot spring, but it lacked most of the idyllic countryside aesthetics that come to mind when hearing the term – it looked more like a western spa trying to copy some Japanese flair. Located right next to one of the few free of charge highways in Japan and at least 30 minutes away by foot from the next train station it was clearly targeting the masses – families and busses full of tourists; a gigantic parking lot of more than 20.000 square meters supports that claim. The building itself, constructed in 1987 during the Japanese asset price bubble, was about 5.700 square meters big – it seems like it was the first “super sento” in Japan (or at least one of the first) and quite a lot followed. The Health Land closed 2 decades later with a renewal open planned for July of 2008 or 2009, but now it is on sale for 430 million Yen (currently about 3.5 million Euros / 4.6 million Dollars) – a sum it might have been worth right after it was closed, but a mere 2 years later, during my visit in November of 2011, it was already in abysmal condition.
The regular entrance fee for adults was 1300 Yen with an additional surcharge of 1050 Yen for guests staying overnight – yes, the Health Land was a 24/7 facility, offering loungers for tired guests. And of course the usual services like restaurants, shops, karaoke, …
Located in the mountains of Mie prefecture the running expenses must have been insanely high (considering that there is much isolation, but hardly any insulation in Japan…) and I am not surprised at all that the Health Land went bankrupt. I am surprised though how fast it fell into disrepair. The few photos I saw before exploring the place myself made me expect a super sento in good condition. What I found when I arrived with my buddy Hamish was a shock. From the outside the building still looked amazing, easy to see from far away thanks to two gigantic Chinese dragons on the top of the roof. The huge red lantern in front of the Health Land had seen better days, but the full amount of damage the place had suffered was only visible after entering.
The yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant in the same building was smashed to pieces and so was the lobby of the former spa. There the ceiling was high, maybe 5 or 6 meters – nevertheless it looked like it saw an outburst of violence with damage far beyond anything natural decay could do within a year or two. I have no idea what happened there. Some of the damage, especially the water on both 1F and 2F, could have been explained by the holes in the roof – but how did those holes get into the roof in the first place? The place really looked like as if a supernatural force ripped it apart…
Next to the lobby we found a snack bar and deeper into the darkness of the building was a staircase to 2F as well as the separated bathing areas for men and women, both severely vandalized. The steam room of the men’s area featured some neat female nude drawings – drawings that attracted some homeless people, or at least one person. We found some belongings there, including a newspaper barely 2 weeks old..
Sadly the whole area, for both men and women, was smashed beyond recognition. Windows were kicked in, mirrors were broken, metal installations were ripped apart. Carpets and wallpapers were moldy and water was dripping everywhere.
The upper floor was in even worse condition. The restaurant area was only recognizable due to some signs, the former party room with a stage looked like it was vandalized and abandoned a decade ago. Pretty much all interior was either gone or smashed. Water and mold everywhere. Not really a pleasant exploration, but you never know in advance what you’ll find…
Like that taxidermy bull in some kind of concrete storage underneath the Health Land. We were already ready to leave when we found that half-overgrown door that lead into the building again… and there it was, a stuffed bull, covered by what looked from the distance like an Ostfriesennerz (“East Frisian Mink”, a yellow hooded heavy-duty medium-length PVC rain coat – and you thought German terms were long!). Of course it wasn’t the famous German clothing item, just a simple tarp. Nevertheless a neat find that put smiles on our faces, before we walked to the next train station; wondering how the Health Land could get into that kind of state so quickly.

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The White Stone Mine (also known as the White Limestone Mine, the Fujiwara Mine, and the Shiraishi Mine – I guess it can be read Shiroishi Mine, too…) is one of the most famous abandoned places / haikyo in Japan. For years people seemed to be quite vague about its location, but ever since GoogleMaps offers high-res satellite photos of the area pretty much everyone can confirm the whereabouts after a bit of research – when I first heard about the White Stone Mine 2 years ago all I saw was a greenish brown mush 4 hours away by train, plus another 70 to 80 minutes by foot. Not worth the hassle, especially since I had many 100% confirmed places rather close-by back then. And I was still an urbex noob after all. In autumn of 2010, almost a year after my discovery, Michael Gakuran told me that he wanted to revisit the mine with some friends of his and asked me if I wanted to tag along (you can read all about his first trip *here*). Michael and I met twice before for some explorations and it was always great fun, so I didn’t hesitate a second to join the small group.
When I started me trip to the middle of nowhere the weather was great – sunny, 15 degrees Celsius, a nice autumn day. When I arrived at the train station to meet Michael and his friends, a couple of stations before the terminal stop, the weather was still nice. Then we drove towards the mountains and all of a sudden the weather turned. Cloudy… grey clouds… When we finally reached the mine at around 12.30 (traffic can be a trial of patience in Japan…) it started to drizzle – of course I didn’t bring an umbrella. But well, after almost 6 hours I was standing in front of the biggest mine I’ve ever been to and I was looking forward to finally take some photos.
The White Stone Mine is gigantic! Close to three dozen buildings spread across an area of about 500 x 100 meters. Despite its size there is not much known about the Shiraishi Mine. It was founded by two brothers in 1921 and mining ended in 1969, supposedly after severe damage from a typhoon; the last office on the premises shut down in 1974. But the White Stone Mine was not only a limestone mine, it was also a huge chemical plant with facilities to extract calcium carbonate – a very important base substance for the paper industry. I guess in Japan calcium carbonate is mostly used for construction materials (especially cement), but also for the purification of iron in a blast furnace (at least when the White Stone Mine was still in business). Japan’s cement industry is actually huge – Japan still is the #5 consumer, #4 producer and #3 exporter of cement in the world. Japan’s coast line is famous for its sheer endless amount of concrete tripods and when you go hiking you can see surprisingly many concrete roads in the middle of nowhere – it seems like politics and the cement industry are heavily intertwined…
Exploring the White Stone Mine was exciting, sadly we were running out of time quickly. The sun goes down early in Japan, especially on a late October day in the mountains, even more so when it’s raining. Michael was a great experienced guide who was able to point out some of the best and the worst spots of the gigantic area quickly. An area I saw maybe 30% of. Although the mine was abandoned about 40 years ago it seems like there’s still somebody taking care of the premises: Michael pointed out differences to what he saw half a year prior (tarps covering wooden buildings here, new “Keep out!” signs there…) Although we kind of rushed through the lower area of the mine it already got dark by the time we reached the big silos up the slope. When we got back to the car it was already pitch-black outside and raining heavily. Nevertheless it was a great trip and totally worth the long train ride. A train ride I have to do again one day to explore the other 70% of that gorgeous mine… To be honest, I think it will take at least a full day to explore the whole area, maybe two or three days to shoot the whole mine properly. I doubt I’ll have time for that, but the White Stone Mine is definitely one of the few places I would really like to revisit! Even for (half) a day…
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After I came back to Japan from my trip to Germany (meeting family and friends) and Ukraine (visiting Prypiat and Chernobyl) I kinda lost my drive a bit – living in Japan is way more wearing than you might think and which haikyo could really compete with an abandoned city in the middle of a radioactively contaminated zone? Going with Mike Grist to Nara Dreamland was exciting, but I’ve been to Dreamland before. Going to the Doctor’s Shack with the Gakuranman was interesting, but the place was already trashed pretty badly. Haikyo hiking alone was relaxing, but… well, it was haikyo hiking. Been there, done that many times. Eight weeks and tons of German sweets after I returned to Kansai I met Michael Gakuran again…
About 4 months ago Michael posted a location he called The Lost Subterranean Shrine, an original find he located in early summer. If he would have kept the location a secret and took it to his grave I don’t think anybody could have blamed him for that. You just don’t come across tunnels with religious artifacts – and vandalism as well as theft are common urbex problems, also in Japan. Nevertheless Michael guided me there and I’m even more grateful for that than I was when he showed me the Doctor’s Shack.
Reaching the entrance of the Lost Subterranean Shrine I was exhausted: Half up a mountain and lunch skipped the pouring rain was killing me – especially since I didn’t bring an umbrella. Michael removed the gate at the entrance to the tunnel and we both let out a little scream looking at the hand size creatures on the walls – Michael of joy (he loves critters of all kinds), me of disgust as I like my nature tamed – or grilled… I decided to keep the soaking wet towel on my head, just in case one of those chitin bastards decided to fall on me, and entered the tunnel, which at about 1.70 meters was 20 cm too low for me. This posture of humility was kind of appropriate considering what I was about to see, but it was nevertheless far from being comfortable. Neither was the insanely high humidity you could actually see in the beams of the flashlights we were carrying. After about 40 meters into the tunnel I saw a statue standing at a bifurcation, brightened by the beam of my flashlight – left: dead end, right: continue. After another 40 meters we reached a cave of maybe 15 by 15 meters with two rather small stone tables and a couple of stone stools around. The head end of the room had kind of an altar with several statues, vases and busts, flanked by a beautiful but damaged vase to the left and a simple brown one to the right – judging by their style the items must be from the south; Okinawa, maybe even Taiwan or China. On the main end of the altar were two openings right at the ground, leading to a secret room as Michael found out previously. Being 1.92m tall and blessed with a broad back I passed on crawling through the tight openings and started shooting. Or at least I tried. I never shot in complete darkness before and since I had my wide-angle lens mounted I couldn’t even use the flash since it creates nasty shadows on the pictures – switching the lens was not an option either as the humidity was crazy inside the cave and it was raining outside. Luckily I had some experience shooting manual thanks to my visit to Nara Dreamland at night and so I grabbed my tripod and two flashlights and started improvising. Playing around with different settings and ways to direct the lights was fun, but extremely exhausting, especially at the altar part because there the ceiling was way lower than in the rest of the comfortably sized cave room. Since it was getting dark outside our time was limited and after about half an hour we had to leave, although I wasn’t nearly pleased with what I had seen on the LCD of my D90 – we had quite a walk in front of us through pouring rain, making me worried if my camera would survive.
Well, the camera survived and I was even spared the week long cold I expected to get. What I got instead was a couple of surprisingly good shots of the vases and busts – never trust a camera monitor, especially when feeling tired and worn out.
Looking back at the exploration of the Lost Subterranean Shrine from the comfort of my apartment actually re-ignited my haikyo fire. When I came home that day I was just exhausted: It took me almost 16 hours and 9000 Yen to get to the place and back, I got caught by a rainstorm, had to drag myself up half a mountain, it was cold and humid, the walls were covered with really nasty beasts, I had to shoot under the most difficult conditions so far and on the way home I was soaking wet, smelling so bad I couldn’t stand it myself. But it’s not the average abandoned hotel on a sunny day that’ll stay in my mind. It’s an adventure like this with a friend like Michael and pictures like those…

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Addendum 2010-12-01: As I mentioned in the comments I wrote e-mails to my former professors for Japanese History and I’m very grateful they answered quickly although they had barely any information about the place.
One assumed that the busts might depict the former owner / founder of another haikyo in walking distance, the rest being typical items of a butsudan plus some items the man might have liked when he was still alive. Another professor had a closer look at the vases and thinks that they are not that old, rather from “modern” industrial production, since their colors are very strong and not faded at all – maybe pre-WWII, especially since the busts include suits, not kimonos; going along with what sumi said. She guesses that the items were put there during WWII to protect them from American bombardments during the war. It’s possible that the owner(s) didn’t survive the war and therefore the place was forgotten. Then I asked an archaeologist for advice and she wrote me that the items by themselves are of no monetary value whatsoever. Stuff like that would be available in local “antique” junk shops, even the busts have more personal / sentimental value than actual monetary value.
Since we can’t be sure that the place is really abandoned (just because it looks like it doesn’t mean that nobody goes there anymore or claims it as their possession) and the things don’t seem to be of real value I decided not to take any actions. Maybe the place will be left alone for another 30 or 40 years and then the cave and its items might be interesting to some local historians…

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