Archive for the ‘Mine’ Category

The Sumitomo Ponbetsu Coal Mine in Hokkaido is one of the most famous abandoned industrial sites in Japan – and kind of a tourist attraction, too…
I’ve been traveling to Hokkaido since 2012… the first few trips for urbex only, with a couple of touristy exceptions to kill time, like a tram tour of Sapporo to visit Mount Moiwa. It wasn’t until 2019 that I did my first real mini vacation there during Golden Week – wonderful because of places like the Shakotan Peninsula and Kushiro, annoying as heck because of… well… the insane amount of constantly yapping tourists that completely ruined the atmosphere of places like Otaru. A year later that problem had solved itself and in autumn of 2020 I did my first pandemic trip… to see the autumn leaves in Hokkaido – and I totally fell in love with Japan’s most northern prefecture. It was the perfect trip… food, atmosphere, weather, urbex, touristy places. There’s so much to see and do in Hokkaido, especially if you are a history buff with a strong interest in social history and the age of industry, as the prefecture is basically what the Ruhr area is for Germany or the Rust Belt is for the United States – and unlike Osucka the seasons actually feel really different. So I came back four more times since then, another trip is planned, raising the count to six in something like one and a half years – more than in my first 14 years of living in Japan…
Unfortunately more and more train lines in Hokkaido get shut down, making navigating the island much more complicated when relying on public transportation – which has nothing to do with Covid, no matter how much certain overseas tourists like to see themselves as the saviors of the Japanese economy; the partial closure of the Hidaka Main Line was decided in the late 2010s (at the height of tourism to Japan!), the closure of the Yubari Branch Line was announced on August 17th 2016 for March 31st 2019; not to mention the 25 individual stations on various lines closed between March 2021 and March 22 alone! At the same time, Hokkaido seems to remember and hold on to its industrial past – you can find hundreds of sites big and small all over the prefecture. From recently abandoned train stations to whole mining towns deserted decades ago. Some places are completely abandoned, others have been turned into museums… so many museums! Not just in cities like Sapporo and Otaru, but even in small towns hardly anybody ever visits anymore – more about two of those in the future!
Today I’d like to talk about a place in-between… a large complex that looks completely abandoned, but is roped off and features large bilingual signs in Japanese and English, illustrated with photos and maps – so they want visitors there… but not really. 🙂

The Sumitomo Ponbetsu Coal Mine (or Old Pombetsu Coal Mine as it is called on the sign) opened as the Nara Coal Mine in 1900, though Wikipedia lists 1902 as start of mining – if you are really interested in the mine’s history I recommend reading the information on the last photo and doing your own research – long story short: The still visible tower was built in 1959 and operated till the mine’s closure in 1971. When they tried to dismantle the mine and the headframe an explosion resulted in the death of five people, stopping the demolition of the mine. Decades later the perception of the mine remains changed from eyesore to asset, so the area was cleaned up a bit to make it save for visitors. It’s still technically off limits, but there seem to be guided tours (in Japanese) that even allow access to the headframe structure since something like 2007.
In 2017, during an urbex road trip to Hokkaido, I was lucky enough to spend two and a half hours on the premises, including in the hopper building in the background, which dates back to before the spectacular headframe. Since neither guards nor guides showed up it was a very relaxed exploration – mostly outdoors, rust, steel, concrete, natural decay, a rather dramatic sky… my kind of exploration! You could almost feel the history, despite the fact that 90% or so of the mine had been demolished decades ago. And while there are several similar places all over *Hokkaido*, the Sumitomo Ponbetsu Coal Mine is probably the most famous one, thanks to the gorgeous shaft turret.

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Whenever I explore a new location I try to expect the worst and hope for the best, especially when it’s an original find – but the Animal Scat Mine blew me away!

A rusty roof in a forest halfway up a mountain, just a few kilometers away from known mine remains caught my attention a while ago on GoogleMaps’ Satellite View – and I didn’t do much about it since it was probably nothing. Maybe a larger hut or the last visible remains of some boring stuff like a private house or a farm. Also, halfway up a mountain meant a long ascending hike through more or less overgrown terrain, which is something I am getting to fat, old and lazy for – especially since I had to walk back again after the exploration, too, of course. But over time my curiosity grew and one day early last year I decided to add the rusty roof to an exploration schedule.
Parking was easy to find in the remote area, so was the not usable dirt road leading up the mountain – even next to the gravel “main” road it was already slightly overgrown, about 50 meters later the first trees followed. Over time the road became narrower and much more overgrown, at one point is was barely visible anymore before miraculously opening up again, though not much. And there it was… The rusty roof turned out to be a large mining building I had never seen or heard of before! (And I think I have a pretty close eye on what’s going on in the Japanese urbex scene, where only a handful of people post about truly new locations – the rest are just following the worn-out paths others walked on before them.) Fortunately the overgrown and partly landslide ridden “road” (it really was more like a trail at that point…) kept going up the hill in serpentines, so I kept following it until I reached the lower end of the building made of a solid concrete base and a superstructure made from corrugated iron and wood. No signs of vandalism whatsoever, but nature left its marks in more than one way. First of all there were piles of animal scat everywhere! Different kinds, different sizes – similar colors though. I probably should have taken pictures to look it up and learn some shit (literally!), but I didn’t, because I was too busy photographing more interesting stuff. Another of nature’s marks was a certain amount of natural decay, which enabled me to climb inside the building through a window. I took some pictures inside and then headed out again for two reasons: The path continued uphill, so I assumed (correctly) that it would lead to the top of the building – and it was already late in the day, so I was running out of time quickly. Another 10 minutes later (for a total of about an hour) I was finally at the top end of the mining building, which was complemented by several huts featuring a metal workshop, an office, a kitchen / rest room and a large control room for the electronic system. In front of the narrow building: All kinds of scrap metal and a chain conveyor system to move mine wagons. Unfortunately I was running out of time at that point and had to return downhill, but I hope I’ll be able to come back one day… despite the strenuous hike with tons of photo equipment.

The Animal Scat Mine is easily one of my favorite explorations ever, despite the hikes through somewhat difficult terrain, the worries about a bear or a boar showing up, and the lack of time at the end. But stumbling across an unknown mine when expecting a barely standing stable in the middle of nowhere is nothing short of an explorer’s dream! It was a great reward for a great effort, exploration at its purest – all of that in nature, without vandalism, but some great views. Usually I don’t do revisits, but I’m really looking forward to going back to the Animal Scat Mine… then hopefully with more than 80 minutes to explore!

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You like the aesthetics of abandoned places, but are afraid of the risks involved? Now that *Nara Dreamland is completely demolished*, how about a trip to Kyushu? The former mining island Ikeshima is happy about every visitor and welcomes them with open arms!

When *I first visited Ikeshima* in 2011 I arrived as a sceptic and fell in love with the island over the course of my eight hour long stay. It was a windy, humid, late spring day, but the amazing variety of abandoned places on the island was completely satisfying, yet it kept me yearning for more as I simply ran out of time at the end of the day without having seen most of Ikeshima. Nevertheless it took me five years to come back! Ikeshima is a bit off the beaten tracks, and there was always a new place that seemed to me more interesting… until the spring of 2016! (If you are interested in the fascinating history of this mining island that once was the home to up to 20000 people, I strongly recommend reading the *original three part series* I wrote six years ago. This is just a mere update / add-on for people who want to know how the island has changed over the years.)
Ever since the mine on Ikeshima closed and everybody but 300 people left the island, Ikeshima wanted to be a tourist attraction. Right at the harbour visitors can find the first tourist map, as sign that has seen better days. But with only one restaurant and no accommodation, Ikeshima wasn’t exactly a tourist magnet and only attracted a handful of fishermen and one or two photographer per weekend. That as changed quite a bit. First of all – you can stay over night on Ikeshima now! The former city hall is now a museum / ryokan for up to something like two dozen guests, there is a small supermarket now, and two or three eateries. And though the number of guests per day must have at least quadrupled over the last five years, you still see barely anybody on the Ikeshima, unless you are at the harbour or near the ryokan. Another thing that changed in comparison to five years prior is the amount of barbed wire. Even in 2011 large parts of the island were off limits, but that area grew quite a bit over the last half decade. Remember how I was invited by those two workers to see the entrance of the mine? Well, that building is off limits now – the back secured by a large gate, the front by a barbed wire gate. Since I had great memories of that building and wanted to have another look at it, I was like “Screw it!” and about to make it past the barbed wired gate, when I saw a couple of people in the distance – luckily I was able to retreat before I was seen – as it turned out that you can book guided tours on the island, but you have to give a few days notice. Most apartment buildings are off limit now, too, with extra layers of barbed wire. For good reasons. Especially the large apartment blocks on a slope that once were accessible from above and below are deathtraps now. And by that I not only mean the rusty bridges with holes in them which connect several block with each other… even standing in front of the buildings in the strong spring wind gave me a bad feeling, as if an AC or part of the roof could break loose and kill somebody below just minding their own business.

Despite the new limitations I tremendously enjoyed my sunny early spring day on Ikeshima. The atmosphere on the island is just fantastic, and the tons of books and old photos in the (free of charge) museum are super interesting. Since it still takes quite a bit of effort to get to Ikeshima, it will probably never become a popular tourist destination – which is fine by me as I still haven’t seen about half of the island. Maybe I should go back there… and stay over night. I’m sure it would be quite an experience…
And if you still haven’t read the old articles, *I recommend having a look now* – tons of information, photos, and videos are waiting for you!

(Since the inhabitants of Ikeshima consider their island a tourist attraction I added it to the *Map Of Demolished Places And Tourist Spots* and created *a new map just for Ikeshima*. If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Fossil fuels have been on the decline for quite some time now in industrialized countries, with coal leading the way – and so it’s not a surprise that North America and Europe, but also Japan, are littered with closed / abandoned mines. The Mikobata Mine in central Hyogo is one of them…

Deserted mines are very close to my heart as it was one of them that re-ignited my slumbering interest in abandoned places – though this very specific one was everything but deserted. In the winter of 2004 I attended a bi-weekly seminar at the Zeche Zollverein (*Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex on Wikipedia*) in Essen, Germany. Unlike many other mines that were closed since the 1950s, this gigantic conglomerate was saved by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia – when the coal mine close in 1986 it bought the land and declared Shaft 12 a heritage site. Cleaning up and renovation began instantly and continued till 1999, from the mid-90s on also involving the massive cokery closed in 1993 (after selling it to China fell through). In 2001 the Zeche Zollverein became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and now houses a visitor center for the Industrial Heritage Trail (part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage), the Ruhr Museum, the Red Dot Design Museum, a performing arts center (PACT Zollverein), as well as several other spaces for artists and lecturer – and of course some eateries. Initially hardly anybody liked the idea, because the mining industry was associated with dirty, hard labour and many hazards… who needed to be reminded? Now the Zeche Zollverein and its unique mix of architecture (based on the 1932 Bauhaus style Shaft 12) and culture is a popular destination for all kinds of activities and hopefully the model for similar projects all over the world.
Japan is still lacking this kind of foresight for the most part. There are tourist mines here and there all over the country (for example the *Osarizawa Mine*), but little is done to effectively preserve large structures – probably because most of them will be extremely expensive and difficult to preserve, like the concrete jungle on *Gunkanjima*. Most other closed / abandoned Japanese mines are made of wood and corrugated iron, destined to slowly fade away. To make preservation financially feasible, most of those mines get stripped of all those costly, dangerous areas – some machines are salvaged, former administrative buildings are turned into mini-museums; done! Even on location you can only guesstimate the former glory of those places… unless you enter areas not supposed to be accessible for the general public.

The Mikobata Mine in Central Japan was actually one of those closed mines that were rotting for more than a decade, before some local historians and technicians turned them into a safe tourist attraction. Founded in 1878 as an offspring of the nearby Ikuno Mine, the whole mining conglomerate (Ikuno, Mikobata and the recently presented *Akenobe Mine*) was sold to Mitsubishi in 1898 (or 1896, according to other sources). All three of them were closed 1987 and in 2001 restoration began; resulting in the demolition of the Mikobata Processing Site in 2004. The bright grey concrete stumps were fenced off, nearby houses were restored, a mini train and several bilingual info signs put up, machines hidden under tarps, …
Due to my somewhat sloppy research ahead of time, Dan and I were not aware of all of this, and kind of expected a fully abandoned mine, *Taro* style. But it was a beautiful spring day in the mountains, so of course we made the best of it. First we headed over to the gigantic concrete UFOs and slipped through the fence to have a closer look – plenty of salvaged equipment, just waiting to be placed into more old restored wooden buildings. Nice!
Then we headed to the other direction, the part of the slope that still had plenty of trees. There we found all kinds of semi-overgrown concrete and metal remains, including an outdoor lamp in pieces… and tiny paths leading up the mountain. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade – and when urbex gives you a slope, you climb it. Even when the tiny paths disappear and you only think that there might be something up there… you go anyway. Basic rules of life, you know.
Half an hour and me fully out of breath later, we indeed found a road – and it lead us back to the mine! Of course there was a gate, but again… If urbex gives you gates, you climb them or find a way around them – I’m not making the rules, I am just following them! The view from up there down the valley was absolutely gorgeous, but we were very well away that this wasn’t abandoned anymore; rather part of a museum – so we headed across the open space and followed the road down the mountain, hoping that it would lead us back to the big street at the foot. On the way we found an old mining railway, partly covered by rock fall. Fantastic! As much as I love barely touched abandoned place like the *Wakayama Hospital*… there is something very special about a sunny day outside in the mountains, about massive concrete construction, about brittle wood and rusty metal – about a couple of dozen meters of bend old railroad tracks.
When we finally got back to the car I had gone from disappointment to pleasant surprise – the Mikobata Mine wasn’t really one of those classic abandoned mines, but nevertheless we were able to do some real exploration, seeing some things and getting to some areas that probably not a lot of eyes had seen in previous years. We didn’t know it at the time, but we should end our day at the *Akenobe Mine* a little bit deeper down into the mountains – two mines that not only belonged to the same company, Mitsubishi, but that were actually connected by endless kilometers of tunnels…

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When I arrived at the Akenobe Mine and saw it demolished, I was devastated. Three years ago, this was supposed to be my first big exploration of an abandoned mine… They are rare in Kansai, and while the *Tatsuyama Mine* the year before was a good start, it couldn’t compete with the country’s greatest. But upon my arrival, the Akenobe Mine was mostly gone and the surrounding area brushed clean. A blessing in disguise, because three years and half a dozen barely touched abandoned mines later, it was very exciting to have a look at those “old” photos again, being able to see what a stripped mine looks like underneath all the rusty metal and brittle wood.

It was a sunny spring day when my buddy Dan and I headed deep into the mountains of Hyogo; an area that can be cold, but was unlikely to have snow that time of the year. After exploring another place or two, we finally arrived at the Akenobe Mine at around two o’clock. Just in time for a proper exploration as the sun is setting early in Japan; especially in the mountains, especially that time of the year. We easily found the road leading up the slope, blocked by a massive barbed wire gate. Getting by was a bit of a challenge, especially for me, but in the end it wasn’t much of an obstacle. So we followed the concrete street, littered with branches and small rocks, up the mountain, eager to find out what condition the Akenobe Mine was in. The hairpin curve leading into a dark tunnel must have been quite a thing when driving a loaded truck, but on foot it was rather enjoyable. Sadly our good mood turned into disappointment after the next turn – all the administrative buildings of the mine were gone, except for some concrete bases and stairs here and there on different levels of the mountain. The whole wooden superstructure above the massive concrete containers in the mountainside were gone; so, of course, was all the machinery. The former mine looked like it was prepared as some kind of development area, though nothing ever happened since then – no housing projects, no solar park. To get closer to the concrete leftovers, we had to get past a massive green fence, which turned out to be no obstacle at all. Sadly there wasn’t that much to see, despite us checking out several levels of the former construction. Some cables here, some canisters there… remains of a rail transportation system, of course… Not at all what we expected, but like I said, in hindsight a really good experience.

A far less good experience there had 296 prisoners of war a few decades earlier – a fact neither Dan nor I was aware of at the time. Mining for copper, zinc and tungsten (wolfram) in the Akenobe area dates back to the Heian era (794-1185), but was taken over by the new Meiji government in 1868 in an attempt to maximize the potential and progress with organized, documented mining. Like many of those highly profitable pilot projects, the Akenobe Mine was sold to Mitsubishi in 1898, together with the nearby Ikuno Silver Mine. In spring of 1945 the Akenobe Mine again received some state support in form of almost 300 POWs as forced workers – 28 Australians, 168 Brits; the rest Americans. According to Private First Class Claude R. Lewis of the U.S. Marine Corps the POWs had to work in the mines till August 13th, two days before Japan’s capitulation. Thanks to an affidavit by him, we know that he witnessed how countless boxes and cabinets with documents were transported into the mine and probably hidden in the undocumented early parts that date back hundreds of years – sadly I wasn’t able to find out if they were ever retrieved after the war. While it seems like none of the forced laborers died in Akenobe, many of them reported war crimes of staff and guards at previous camps… which probably explains an oppressive statement made by Japanese translator Kazuo Kobayashi, who worked mainly with the Ikuno prisoners: “Just the mention of Akenobe does strangely bring back tragic images of right after the end of the war when the prisoners were freed, when some of the camp military personnel and Japanese bosses working at the Akenobe mine site were beaten to a pulp.”
Mining continued after the war, but all the mines in the area became less and less profitable, so in 1987 the Akenobe Mine was closed. It seems like these days parts of the Akenobe Mine and some other remains (like a small closed station with a three car train) are actually considered “Heritage of Industrial Modernization” and therefore are open to the public for a fee of 1200 Yen, supported by an NPO. Sadly there is no English website, and the Japanese one is a text heavy read with 1990s web design… Well, not much of a tourist attraction for foreigners anyway – though now I am quite curious if they even mention the POWs there…

Darn, even writing about the Akenobe Mine was a constant up and down. Sunny day, place demolished, relaxed exploration, prisoners of war / guards getting killed in an act of revenge… I guess that’s life. And despite the fact that there was hardly anything left of the mine, it was strangely full of it. I still feel quite a bit conflicted about this place, nevertheless I hope you’ll enjoy the pictures and videos that follow. If you want to know what similar mines look like before demolition, please give my articles about the *Abandoned Dynamite Mine* (yes, it was that exciting!) or the *Taro Mine* a try.

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Nichitsu is a legend amongst Japanese urban explorers, a world-class ghost town that attracts visitors from all over the country and even overseas. In day trip range from Tokyo (but not from Osaka!), this mostly abandoned mining village in the mountains of Saitama prefecture is famous for its huge variety of abandoned structures crammed into a single valley – countless mining buildings (some still in use, even on the weekends!), several schools, a hospital, a gymnasium, a vast residential area and who knows what else.

After exploring a cute little regular ghost town on a sunny Sunday morning, my buddy *Hamish* and I arrived in Nichitsu to grey weather and low hanging clouds; at one o’clock, totally underestimating the vast amount of buildings to explore – though even a full day would barely be enough to see everything there, let alone document it properly. To make the best of the situation, we avoided the rather busy lower part of the valley (with company cars parked as well as a group of explorers arriving) and headed for a small parking area used by hikers. From there we wanted to find out what all the fuzz was all about… and it didn’t take us long!
Given the rather active area we passed through just minutes prior (feeding the rumors about security) as well as the fading light even rather early in the day, I decided to take a first video of what I thought was everything there was to see in that area – then we started to explore buildings on a sample basis as it was pretty clear that less than 4 hours of daylight remaining wouldn’t allow us to see everything anyway. From the very beginning it was close to impossible to take indoor photos without a tripod as exposure times quickly reached up to 30 seconds in darker areas of buildings.
A school, an office building, several private houses (ranging from completely empty to fully stocked and suitcases packed), a small fire station and some other structures later we reached the area at the end of the first video – only to realize that the really interesting buildings were still ahead of us and just seconds away; including a gymnasium and the now mostly collapsed hospital! Crazy…
With less than an hour of daylight left, we kept shooting and shooting and shooting, but even test shots to frame pictures properly took painfully long (as you might or might not know, I don’t even crop my photos). The last building we found was the hospital, of course, and despite the conditions we both managed to take a couple of decent shots – overall it was a bit disappointing though as it didn’t even come close to its reputation or similar places, like the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic*.
Overall the Nichitsu Ghost Town totally lived up to its reputation… and given that I didn’t even enter a mining related building means that another visit is in order – probably sometime in 2015 as I am pretty sure that Nichitsu will see some snow soon, rendering parts of the village inaccessible (then I will tell you more about Nichitsu’s complicated history, too…). The white stuff in some of the videos and pictures definitely wasn’t snow! Maybe some kind of gypsum? Solid when dry, it became viscous when in contact with water – I am sure during a typhoon you can watch it flowing down slopes and roads, slowly suffocating the lower parts of Nichitsu…

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The Taro Mine is supposed to be one of the most beautiful mines in all of Japan – it certainly is one of the most dangerous…

After Mike, Ben and I visited the *Matsuo Mine Apartment Buildings* for a second time, we headed for the pacific coast to stay the night for an early start to the Taro Mine. Despite being about 250 kilometers north of the infamous Fukushima Nuclear Power Planet we were still able to see and experience the struggles the area is going through after the tsunami hit in the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake 2011. The hotel we stayed at, one of the few in that part of Japan, just opened half a year prior – and when we reached the coastal town of Taro, we realized that barely anything happened to the disaster zone in the past 2.5 years. The local Lawson we stopped at after our exploration is still housed in a container building above sea level and the previously flooded area still has barely any new buildings… (By coincidence there is a German documentary called “Die Helden von Taro” (The Heroes of Taro) about the town and its inhabitants; you can watch it on Youtube if you are interested.)
The Taro Mine itself wasn’t damaged by the tsunami, but I assume the earthquake gave it a good shake, probably causing some of the heavy roof tiles at the sifting plant to come down – another reminder of how you don’t want to be in an abandoned building while a natural disaster strikes!

Like most mines, the Taro Mine has quite a long history. In this case it dates back to 1857 and it was a troubled one from the beginning, when convicted Yokohama smuggler Takashima Kaemon fled to the north and discovered sulfide ore in the mountains. Due to the financial uncertainty of the endeavor, he sold the mine to Iguchi Kenchi – who sold it due to financial difficulties in 1918 to what is now Rasa Industries, after actually closing it temporarily. The company started to invest and began massive examinations in 1919, which resulted in test operations that had to be suspended between 1923 and 1926 due to a depression, probably in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Construction of what is the present day abandoned Taro Mine began in 1933 and officially started operation in 1936 – fully operational for only 8 years, when a fire in the sifting plant rendered it inoperative in April 1944. A year later the Taro Mine started production again, only to be partly destroyed by U.S. air raids, resulting in another year of repairs. Between 1946 and 1971 the mine was fully operational, except for… one year between 1961 and 1962, when the mine was temporarily closed due to… you can guess it… a massive fire!
After being closed for good, Tokyo’s Meisei University took over some of the Taro Mine and the surrounding mining town to create their Taro campus. Today only their Cosmic Ray Laboratory is still in use, the rest of the area is abandoned. Or rather closed, as rumor has it that there is still security showing up once in a while…

What sets the Taro Mine apart from most other mines is the fact that the sifting plant wasn’t demolished – usually only massive concrete walls and pillars are left after a closed mine was stripped of any valuable machines and metals, but in this case the case was still there.
The first two floors were easily accessible and, thanks to the extremely high ceiling, quite impressive. The third floor required some climbing effort via a pile of bricks, which I wasn’t able to do due my minor *knee injury the afternoon before*. From there a rusty and party collapsed metal only staircase lead to the fourth and final floor, which I wasn’t willing to climb even if I would have been able to as it looked like a deathtrap to me.
Instead I found another way outside, where I hiked up a little slope to an exterior part of the third floor, disconnected from the rest of the sifting plant by collapsed metal constructions and intentional architectural decisions – you can see that *in the video*.
The rest of the Taro Mine actually wasn’t that interesting. One of the blue chemical pools the *Osarizawa Mine* is famous for was very active and welcomed us with a little fountain, other pools were more of brownish color and looked far less inviting. The already mentioned cosmic ray laboratory looked and sounded indeed quite active, while a huge four- or five-storey white building with a collapsed roof appeared to be so dilapidated, moldy and rotten that none of us felt the urge to get inside.
Even the 5 colorful two-storey apartment buildings down the road couldn’t get the attention of all three of us. Though there was one set of items in a wooden building we all were fascinated by – what appeared to be an old police helmet and a log with countless handwritten entries. Beautiful artifacts of modern archaeology, probably from an era when the Taro Mine was just a test operation…

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The abandoned Matsuo Mine Apartments – or: How I almost got myself seriously injured… twice!

Urban exploration is a dangerous hobby, I can’t stress it often enough. And I am a really careful explorer, sometimes to the annoyance of my fellow photographers, when I simply refuse to climb certain staircases or cross suspicious bridges. But you can be as cautious as you want to be, there is always a remaining risk that can’t be eliminated.

Upon arrival we had to figure out how to approach the Matsuo Mine Apartments best. Access in general was easy, but there were quite a few “from the road photographers” and the street lead directly to what is left of the mine itself – which is mainly a neutralization and treatment facility, operated by JOGMEC (Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation).

History of the Matsuo Mine

Okay, let me get the history part out of the way first: In the 1950/60s the Matsuo Mine was the biggest sulfur mine in the Far East, population in the area reached almost 15.000 people – which includes the families of the workers. But mining in the area dates back much longer. Sulfur resources were known as early as 1766 and the existence of a sulfur mine was documented in 1879. Around that time the Meiji government turned Japan from an agricultural state into an industrialized country by spending tons of money on the process and by hiring foreign experts – something I am sure North Korea will do as soon as the Kims are history; they already started in *Rason*. Anyway, after a local man discovered more sulfur in 1882, a small scale trial digging failed in 1888. In 1911 a private investor from Yokohama took over and lead the mine to temporary glory by being responsible for up to 30% of Japan’s sulfur production. Around that time the now iconic Matsuo Mine Apartment Buildings were constructed. 3 standalone blocks plus a conglomerate of 8 connected buildings, all facing west for beautiful sunsets. While none of the apartments had private baths or even showers (which isn’t uncommon in Japan, a lot of small accommodations like minshuku and ryokan are that way till this very day…), they were rather spacious by local standards and featured central heating and private water closets – the mining town was also provided with an elementary and junior high school, a hospital and plenty of space for entertainers to present their shows.
In the 1960s the success collapsed quickly when the oil industry was forced to desulfurize their products – imported sulfur became cheap, too, and there was basically no demand for domestic sulfur ores anymore. In a last effort to lower costs and avoid bankruptcy the Matsuo Mine was converted from underground mining to surface mining, but the plan and with it the mine failed in 1969; all miners were fired and the apartment buildings were (mostly?) abandoned. A new follow-up enterprise was founded right away to mine iron sulfide and to prevent that everybody would lose their jobs permanently, but that company failed, too – in 1972 the Matsuo Mine closed for good.
As you might (or might not) know, you can’t close a mine like a restaurant and just leave it behind. Mines and other industrial enterprises do massive damage to their surroundings, sometimes causing problems for generations to come (as we currently can see in Germany, where politics decided to get rid of all nuclear power plants) – and after the Matsuo Mine closed, it still leaked large volumes of acidic water that was polluting a nearby river. The first reaction was to drop a neutralizing agent directly into the waterway, turning it into a muddy brown mess. Several ministries studied the problem before it was decided in 1976 that a large neutralization and treatment facility would solve the problem. Iwate prefecture and the former MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) constructed the place and handed it over for operation to the MMAJ (Metal Mining Agency of Japan), a predecessor of the already mentioned JOGMEC. Most of the Matsue Mine itself was stripped down and renaturalized in the process – wooden buildings were burned to the ground, the ferro-concrete apartment buildings were left to rot.

Exploring the Matsuo Mine Apartment Buildings

Before Mike, Ben and I tackled the 11 apartment blocks, we wanted to get a good look at the complex and found a rather big abandoned building southwest of the main area. 3 floors, open basement, very *Gunkanjima* like style. The outdoor staircase was almost completely crumbled away and the inside saw massive amounts of damage, too – both natural and vandalism. It’s hard to say what the building was exactly, probably offices or more living space; maybe for senior employees, closer to the mine? Each floor consisted of about half a dozen rooms and a communal rest room. In the open basement I found some crates containing core samples from test drillings, so I assume the building wasn’t just another apartment block – the rest of the room was filled with snow BTW. Sadly the quick photos I took there didn’t turn out to be good, but you can see the area in the third video at the end of this article.

Soon after we headed over to the apartment buildings. While people in Osaka enjoyed the two weeks of spring between “winter” and the hot-humid hell they call summer here, parts of Iwate were still covered by snow in early May. The sky was overcast, but every now and then the sun broke through, so I decided to leave my jacket behind and explore in jeans and T-shirt. My standard wear all year long as a surprisingly large number of buildings in Japan are kept at 28 degrees Celsius all year long – in summer by pretending to be eco and only cautiously using AC; in winter by heating full power, completely ignoring the summer slogans about saving energy. Japan going green is just another lie, government PR, pure lip service. (And considering the amount of lip service here, the number of blow jobs is ridiculously low; figuratively speaking.) The advantage of this pre-spring atmosphere: vegetation was still low and only occasionally hindering.

After heading through the indoor hallway connecting four of the buildings and their staircases we found ourselves close to the former central heating plant; at least it looked like you would imagine one. To get there we had to go outside again and across some snow. Now, as I experienced at the *Fuji Foods Bio Center* 1.5 years prior, snow can be tricky if you don’t know what’s under it. Best case scenario: solid ground. Worst case scenario: abyss. Mike was fearlessly going ahead, so Ben and I followed a little bit more careful. We saw holes in the ground every now and then, but the snow-covered area seemed to be safe; except for rendering us borderline snow-blind. After about half an hour we headed back to the apartment buildings and started to explore those. Despite all staircases and adjunct apartments looking similar, there was so much to see, so many places to go to! I barely realized how cold it got when the sun disappeared and it started to rain…
And then it happened: When the three of us wanted to go from a lower apartment building to another one higher up on the slope, we found ourselves in a pretty overgrown area. Fighting through the vegetation would have been a pain thanks to the rain, so I suggested to go up a huge patch of snow that connected both areas. Mike headed first, then Ben, then me. I was kicking into the snow to create little footholds, when all of a sudden my left foot crashed through the snow and I sunk in up to my crotch, the right leg still outside. I felt my left leg dangling in the air when my friends hurried back to help me out of this miserable situation. It turned out that I was maybe 20 centimeters away from solid ground, even if I would have crashed through completely I probably wouldn’t have hurt myself thanks to hiking boots and solid trousers, but for the split second going down and a few seconds of uncertainty, I didn’t know that. In the end I got away with feeling terribly cold for the rest of the day, being partly covered in snow and rained on for about 2 minutes – and so I continued to explore the rest of the apartments. And not just the apartments. There were two kinds of staircases in those buildings – the centered ones with one apartment to the left and another one to the right, and the “stacked” ones, usually with four apartments on each floor; and the latter ones allowed access to the roofs! Some of the roofs were in really bad condition after 45 years of abandoned ones, but then there were those… that were basically deathtraps! The ground was all soft and the concrete was so withered, that the metal shone through; or formed bizarre exposed shapes. The views from the top of the buildings were breathtaking, that’s why the photo gallery isn’t in chronological order, but starts with one of those pictures, but it was also very, very dangerous up there. Especially since the wind picked up and some kind of thunderstorm began to brew around us…
Despite the little mishap this was an awesome exploration, but I am a sucker for that brittle metal and concrete look. I could have spent days there, but sadly the weather was getting worse and worse, so we decided to call it a day at around 5.30 when it was getting too dark inside of buildings to shoot without a tripod – and too nasty outside without weather-proof gear.

Revisiting the Matsuo Mine

Usually it takes me months or even years to revisit locations, but in this case it was less than 24 hours. We were on our way back from the *Osarizawa Mine*, when Ben and Mike realized on the highway that we could be at the Matsuo Mine again for sunset, if we would really hurry – and that’s what Ben did! When we left 23 hours and 45 minutes prior the sky was preparing for the apocalypse, but when we arrived the second time, the sun was just setting; flooding the whole area with beautiful soft light. We took a couple of overview shots from the first building and then headed over to the main complex. Ben and Mike wanted take photos again at the central heating plant, so I decided to explore some apartments I hadn’t seen before. On the way up one of the staircases I realized that one of the flights of stairs had a step missing. A whole friggin concrete step! Usually that would be a sign for me not to continue, but it was one of the staircases leading to a roof, so I made a big step, skipping some stair treads. (It’s not all bad being a big guy!) The further I went up, the worse the condition of the staircase became – basically rubble everywhere! I looked up the last flight of stairs and into the open when I realized that this one had three steps missing in a row. Like I said, I am not much of a risk taker, so this was the end for me – not knowing whether or not the steps before or after were safe, I decided to turn around and regretfully leave the roof behind and face the missing step below again.
And then it happened: It was on the second to last flight of stairs of this staircase, the one above the missing step one, when both my feet lost their grip at the same time due to the rubble and debris everywhere. I fell on my ass and started to slide down, but luckily the concrete below was solid and I stopped after two or three steps – one flight later, at the one with the missing step, the situation might have been different. Learning from the rather bad clothing decision a day prior, I was wearing my leather jacket, which prevented serious excoriations and maybe even worse. In the end I must have twisted my knee a little bit as it started to hurt later that day at certain angles, but overall I was very luckily again. My two fellow explorers heard my accident over at another building and started to worry when I apparently didn’t answer for a minute or so (I actually didn’t hear them right away being surround by concrete), but of course I made sure to let them know right away that I was a little bit shaken, but physically fine.
When I left the building I realized that the memory card of my camera was full – and since I left my backpack with the spare cards in the car (traded it for the jacket…) the afternoon was over for me… until I realized that I could delete some old photos! But the sun was setting quickly anyway and I had enough of rushing things, so I basically called it a day and made my way back outside, watching the sun setting behind the open-face mine.
The 45 minutes of the second day obviously were a lot less successful than what I did on day 1, nevertheless it was a good experience overall. On the way out I took a photo of the only chair I remember seeing in the building, probably the most famous abandoned wooden chair in all of Japan – and I saw another example of Japanese insulation. Insulation is a very big problem in Japan till this very day as even modern buildings barely use it, because Japanese construction is about price, not about being lasting long… or energy efficient (lip service!). If you heat or cool your apartment here it takes about 30 seconds to go back to outside temperature after you turn off the AC. On the first day I took a picture of straw ropes wrapped around the piping, then covered by plastic to insulate, this time it was a mix of bamboo sticks and plaster covered by plastic. Those are the little things I really love about urban exploration. I never thought about piping insulation at Japanese mining apartments, yet I found out about it just by paying attention to details. It actually makes me want to research the topic on the internet now. I wonder if I will be able to find out more – or if crumbling giants like the Matsuo Mine Apartment Buildings are the only way to gather (admittedly rather useless) knowledge like that…
Oh, and in case you wonder why I wrote so much about my two small accidents: Because they happened – and because urban exploration is friggin dangerous, even when you don’t expect it to be!

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Abandoned or not abandoned, that’s the question more often than not in Japan – and sometimes the answer is “both”, like in the case of the Osarizawa Mine…

Now famous for its abandoned ice blue chemical pools, the Osarizawa Mine’s history spans more than 1300 years, dating back to the year 708, when mining began as a family business. Back then mining for gold began in small tunnels with children as young as five years old. Over the years the mine became bigger and bigger, especially after copper ore was found. The business began to explode, literally and figuratively, when the use of Gunpowder was introduced in 1865. In 1893 Mitsubishi took over and massively modernized the Osarizawa Mine, introducing a telephone system in 1894 and a hydroelectric power station in 1896. At the beginning of the 20th century the mine became essential for Japan’s expansion and war efforts – up to 4500 employees worked around the clock in shifts and carved up to 100.000 tons of copper ore per month from the mountain; the total tunnel length reached 700 kilometers around that time. Soon after the war the Osarizawa Mine became unprofitable; refinement stopped in 1966 and in 1978 the mine was closed altogether. But only temporarily!
Only four years later, in 1982, Osarizawa reopened as a tourist mine called “Mine Land Osarizawa” – complete with a museum, eateries and a gift shop. In 2008, the 1300th anniversary of the mine, the complex was renamed “Historic Site Osarizawa Mine” and continued to be a successful tourist attraction in the northern part of Akita prefecture.

When Ben, Mike and I first arrived there, we had a quick look at the lowest level of the mine, past a Japanese only “Do not enter” sign, where we found some buildings still in use, but also some massive abandoned concrete structures – a few of them already collapsed. 15 minutes later we were back in the car, looking for the already mentioned ice blue chemical pools… and instead found the also mentioned tourist attraction Historic Site Osarizawa Mine. Thinking that we could learn something about the mine and its layout we put down 1000 Yen and joined the (Japanese only) tour – which was quite interesting, but didn’t reveal anything about the layout. Hungry afterwards we enjoyed a tonkatsu burger with edible gold flakes at a reasonable 580 Yen; luckily even a bad burger is still good food…
Minutes later I spotted the pools and a passing group of people from the parking lot, so we jumped into the car and headed there. If a regular tourist group could ignore the “Do not enter” signs, so could we! Nevertheless worried that we could be stopped by one of the many employees of the historic site at any second, we quickly headed over to the pools and started shooting, but nobody cared about what we were doing. Every once in a while some random tourist at the parking lot had an eye on us, but that was it – so we headed further up the mountain. Sadly most of the interesting buildings in that area were demolished, so there was actually not that much to see and in the end the Osarizawa Mine turned out to be the least interesting one of the three big *Tohoku* mines. At least for us three sneaking people. Because since none of us had a look at the *official website* before the trip, I only found out minutes ago that there was not only a mining tunnel tour, but also a guided outdoor tour – we probably wouldn’t have gotten as close to the pools as we did, but we most likely would have seen more of the mine’s remains in other areas. Like the tourist group I saw leaving the premises. Instead we headed off after seeing the pools from above.

Overall visiting the Osarizawa Mine was an interesting experience, but also an unfulfilling and kind of rushed one. The chemical pools definitely were a highlight, the gold flake burger was a curiosity (so was the “Do not enter” sign in a pile of snow at the parking lot!), and the fact that all three of us bought Osarizawa Mine branded souvenirs was downright bizarre! If you are ever in the area, I recommend to have a look and spend 2000 Yen on both guided tours – it might spare you the feeling of slight disappointment I have right now…

And finally a fun fact at the end: There is actually a secondary mineral called Osarizawaite, IMA approved in 1961! It has rhombohedral crystals, a greenish yellow color and the chemical formula PbCuAl2(SO4)2(OH)6.

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If you are a regular reader of Abandoned Kansai, then you know that sometimes it takes me years to write articles about locations I explored – and I apologize for that! Today I’ll try to change it up again and write about my trip to Tohoku before it even ends; “Instant Article”, so to say.

Currently I am sitting on a Nozomi Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka, and what better way to use those quiet moments than to reflect a little bit on the past five days? (Sleep! But who needs that?) I also realized that I haven’t written yet an article for this week’s update, and since the photos of this trip are basically all I have with me currently… here we go! 🙂

It’s been a while that my old *haikyo* buddy Michael and I went urbexing in *Hokkaido* together, 1.5 years to be specific, and we were talking about going on the road again for quite some time now. Since we are both living busy lifes in Japan, it was a matter of coordinating and allocating days – and the period of choice became the second half of Golden Week, the most miserable travel period in Japan as even the laziest couch potatoe decides to help clogging up trains and highways, if for no other reason than because everybody else is doing it. As for where were to go: Michael suggested Tohoku, to which I hesitantly agreed – since Tohoku is a pain to get to from Kansai, I basically only knew the most famous urbex locations there, and I was aware that there was a lot of driving involved. Michael was, too – one of many reasons to bring his friend Ben on board, another interesting fella from the UK, who was a great addition to our former team of two!

The plan was to visit Kejonuma Leisure Land and the Wagakawa Water Power Plant on the way north, where we wanted to explore the three big Tohoku mines Matsuo, Osarizawa and Taro – plus some minor places along the way. While the Leisure Land was nothing but amazing, the water power plant turned out to be a colossal waste of time; to get inside you have to cross one of two nearby rivers on foot, which can be done rather easily in late summer… but not in spring, when the melting waters of the surrounding mountains rush through. The three mines on the other hand were extremely interesting and quite different from each other. Each one of them deserves at least an own article, maybe even more. Sadly most of the additional side locations were cut for different reasons, except for the Naganeyama Ski Jump, for which my fellow explorers didn’t even want to leave the car, and a locked up school in Fukushima prefecture. What made this trip real special though, was the fact that we were able to visit one of the few remaining open sex museums in Japan, which was quite an interesting experience after exploring two abandoned ones in the *south* and in the *north* of Japan.

Living in Osaka and being spoiled by the incredibly high level of food quality there (Osaka is usually referred to as Japan’s kitchen, while Kansai in general is considered Japan’s birthplace) I was surprised to experience that the Tohoku area doesn’t even come close to that. While I only had less than five bad meals in more than seven years living in Kansai, I don’t think I had a really good one during the whole trip; except maybe lunch near the sex museum, which is in Tochigi prefecture and threrfore not Tohoku anymore. At the Osarizawa Mine, mostly a tourist attraction now, I had a tonkatsu burger (deep fried pork chop burger) with gold leaves… and even that was barely eatable despite the allmighty „even a bad burger is still good food“ rule. Most restaurants on the way though were serious disappointments.

Overall it was an exhausting trip with up to 7 hours of driving per day (altogether Mike and Ben drove 1946 kilometers, most of it on days 1 and 4, when we were getting to and from Tohoku) and less than 6 hours of sleep per night in average; which isn’t that bad, but not enough when doing a dangerous hobby like urban exploration. Although we were very careful, all three of us had more or less minor accidents – luckily we all got away again without any serious damage. (Except the one to the wallet, as everything gets super expensive in Japan during Golden Week…)

Sadly I won’t be able to publish these lines from the Shinkansen, so there will be a gap of at least about an hour between me writing and you reading this article, but I hope you’ll enjoy this quick write-up nevertheless. In the upcoming weeks I’ll publish half a dozen more detailed articles about this road trip – and I am sure some of them will blow your mind! I saw only a handful locations in the past five days, but almost all of them were spectacular must sees. Here’s an alphabetical list, followed by some photos:
Abandoned Japanese Cinema
Kejonuma Leisure Land
Kinugawa Onsen Sex Museum
Kuimaru Elementary School
Matsuo Mine
Naganeyama Ski Jump
Osarizawa Mine
Taro Mine
Wagakawa Water Power Plant

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