Archive for the ‘Night’ Category

You would think that after eight years in Japan surprises and weird situations should become rather rare, yet Hachijojima was full of them – good and bad…

In early 2014 a bunch of interesting looking abandoned hotels popped up on Japanese urbex blogs, with one thing in common: they all were located on an island I hadn’t even heard of before, Hachijojima. Turns out that it is right next to Aogashima, a hard to reach volcanic island that is often part of those “the most remote places in the world” lists that are so popular on Facebook and other social media sites. When you are living in Kansai, basically one big city of 22 million people (plus 0.7 million spread across the countryside), “the most remote place in the world” sounds wonderful, at least to me – so I decided to do a combined Hachijojima / Aogashima trip during the first half of Golden Week. Long story short: I was able to locate three gigantic abandoned hotels on Hachijojima, but I failed to organize the side trip to Aogashima due to unpredictable weather, high risk of boats getting cancelled and the season I was travelling in; *Golden Week can be a real pain* as even the biggest Japanese couch potatoes think that they should travel, because everybody else is. So I stayed on Hachijojima for 3.5 days – part relaxing vacation, part urbex trip.

For the first night I booked a small minshuku on the east coast, just five minutes away from one of the abandoned hotels. Sadly the place turned out to be in a very remote area with hardly anything around… and even worse, it was terribly overpriced due to Golden Week. So instead of extending my stay, I took a taxi to the local tourist information the next morning – and the super friendly staff managed to get me a cute little hut at a local lodge with breakfast, bathroom and internet for the same price as the basic tatami room with shared bath / toilet and without food or internet, a.k.a. the night before. They even drove to my new accommodation to introduce me to the owners of the family business as they barely spoke any English – a pleasant surprise after the cold reception at a local sushi restaurant the previous night; upon entering the chef, smoking outside, was asking his wife who just came in… and she answered “a foreigner”, using the slightly derogative term “gaijin”. Thanks a lot for the warm welcome! Luckily my new hosts were the exact opposite, some of the friendliest and nicest people I ever had the pleasure to meet. Should you ever go to Hachijojima and don’t mind a little bit of a language barrier, try the *pension Daikichimaru*!

I continued Day 2 by exploring the second big hotel on the island before climbing the most famous local mountain, Mount Nishi (literally “West Mountain” – guess where it is located…), better known as Hachijo-Fuji, thanks to its resemblance to Japan’s most famous mountain. 854 meters tall and of volcanic origin, Hachijo-Fuji turned out to be quite an exhausting and steep climb, especially on the last few hundred meters – but the view up there was amazing; one of the most rewarding hikes I ever did. (You can actually see the hiking trail on the first photo I took from the plane during landing approach.) If you are free from giddiness you can even walk along a sometimes just foot-wide path along the crater, but from where I started it looked like a rather risky walk, so I opted to descent to the green hell of Mount Nishi’s caldera; 400 meters wide and 50 meters deep it is home to lavish vegetation and even a shrine!
On the way down from Hachijo-Fuji I made a quick stop at the Hachijo-Fuji Fureai-Farm, a dairy products selling petting farm, which offers a great view at the plain between Hachijojima’s two mountain ranges. Upon arrival at the base of the mountain, near the airport, I came across a local guy and his dog. Despite being on a leash, the pooch ran towards me at full speed, barking like a mad dog (not a spaniel!) without any Englishmen; stopped by the slightly mental grinning owner maybe 20 centimeters from my ankles. Luckily it was one of those field goal dogs and not a German Shepherd or a British Bulldog, so I wasn’t too worried, but still… what a weirdo!
Almost as weird as my visit to a local supermarket the night before. After the sushi snack I had (made from local varieties like flying fish), I thought it would be nice to get some local products, so I entered a mom-and-pop store, the owner at the cash register talking to a customer. I grabbed a couple of things and when I was about to pay I saw the other customer leaving – and the owner told me that the shop was closed. So I asked if I could pay for the items I already grabbed. No! So I put the stuff back, which probably took longer than paying for it, and left empty handed… literally. Really strange 24 hours!

Day 3 was a lot more unspectacular. I took a bus to the southern part of Hachijojima and explored the third gigantic abandoned hotel after passing a police car basically in sight of it. Then I continued by bus to the Nankoku Onsen Hotel – which turned out to be a vandalized, boarded up piece of garbage with a neighboring house just 10 meters across the street. So instead of wasting any time I enjoyed a soak at a really, really nice onsen (without a hotel).

My last day on the island I spent mostly walking – to the Kurosuna sand hill and then along the coast back to the second abandoned hotel and then to the pension, from where I got a free ride to the airport.

Spending a couple of days on Hachijojima was one of the best things I did in all of 2014 – it’s just such a surreal and yet neat place! The main roads on the island for example look brand-new and very expensive. Given the massive drop in tourist numbers one wonders how a place like that can survive financially. Sure, three planes and a ferry per day bring quite a few tourists, but at the same time the three biggest hotels on the island and a few smaller ones are abandoned. Back in the 1950s and 60s Hachijojima was known as “Japan’s Hawaii” as it is much closer to Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka than Okinawa, but those days are long gone and I doubt that fishing and some local farm products can pay to keep the island as neat as it is today.
Some of the islanders were just plain weird… and others were quite the opposite, the most helpful and welcoming people you could dream up. While mainland Japan became somewhat predictable to me over the years, Hachijojima gave me that “first visit feeling” back, where you just roll with the punches and expect the unexpected at all times. The nature on Hachijojima was absolutely stunning, the food was amazing (especially at the *izakaya Daikichimaru*, same owners as the pension; the best sushi I ever had!) and I even enjoyed the onsen visit… though usually I don’t like onsen at all – but the entrance fee was part of the bus ticket, so I gave it another try and liked it tremendously.
*Facebook followers of Abandoned Kansai* might remember two photos I posted to the “Brand-new and Facebook exclusive!” album in late April this year – those will show up in future articles as I will start the Hachijojima series with the most unspectacular of the three hotels on Thursday, two days from now; though unspectacular is relative, especially if you are into abandoned arcade machines…

(*Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Although I am living in Japan for almost seven years by now I had never been to any other Asian country before this trip – mainly because you don’t get many paid vacation days and no sick days in Japan (i.e. if you get sick, you have to take paid vacation days), so I always went back home to Germany to visit family and friends. When I planned the trip to the DPRK I had to go through Beijing both ways – and when I saw that Koryo Tours offered a layover in Dandong I sacrificed another paid vacation day (sorry, family and friends!) that will shorten my summer trip this year even further. But 23 hours on a train didn’t sound too tempting and I guess I will never have another chance to go to Dandong, so I jumped on the opportunity… and it was a good decision!

While I basically hated every second in Beijing, my 24 hours in Dandong were really enjoyable. We were seven people from Koryo Tours staying there, Patrick and Juliette from my group, four from the other group. Fresh blood, new stories – and a culture shock!
Dandong and North Korea have pretty much nothing in common, that was clear upon arrival. We met our local guide and checked in at the hotel – free WiFi, yay! After more than a week without internet I quickly scanned through almost 200 e-mails (most of them blog related!) and sent a quick one to my sister to let her know that I was okay and had a great time in the DPRK. We only had 1.5 hours till dinner, so I hurried a bit and went across the street to the waterfront as our hotel was right next to the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and the tourist attraction “Broken Bridge”. The Broken Bridge was already closed and the waterfront looked too big for the 30 minutes I had left, so I went back to the hotel to sort and read more e-mails.
When I met my fellow travelers in the lobby it turned out that I was the only one who had left the hotel so far – the others said they didn’t dare to do so without permission; and I am pretty sure hardly any of them was joking…
Dinner at the nearby restaurant was a feast. The food in the DPRK was really good, but even after a week it started to become a bit repetitive (no complaint, especially given the situation, I am just saying as it is!) – having Chinese for dinner was… surreal. The flavors were so different, so much more intense. (The Snickers I had for dessert must have been the sweetest food item I ever ate after being mostly off sugar for 8 days…) Also surreal was the amount of food they brought to the table. We were eight people in total, but I think you could have fed 30 with what was brought to us. A shame considering that people are malnourished just half a kilometer away!
It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to situations, which is another reason why I was happy to get off the train immediately after leaving the DPRK – because China hits you like a hammer after a week in North Korea. Not just the food and the freedom of movement. Everything! While in Korea everything seemed normal. The lack of cars, the low noise level, that it is mostly dark once the sun was gone, that we were told to stay in the hotel… friggin everything, you just adapt to embrace the culture you want to experience. 500 meters down the road – BOOM! A buzzing megacity; gluttony and profligacy everywhere! The strange part was: Dandong is pretty similar to big Japanese cities regarding traffic, noise, lights, food, consumerism, so I should have been used to that. But it really hit me like a hammer, an unexpected culture shock.
After dinner we had a walk along the waterfront, huge apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees. I didn’t have a tripod and still was able to take decent pictures. Candy town. And on the other side of the Yalu river? Not a single sound, barely any lights, low buildings in the dark. The next day I took a photo from the middle of the river while on a boat tour – left China, right DPRK. The countries could have hardly looked more different.

The second day in Dandong was full of touristy stuff. First we went to a reconstructed part of the Chinese Wall, once upon a time continuing on the now Korean side of the Yalu river. Since I didn’t have time to visit the wall near Beijing this was actually a very nice treat – and a very surreal one, since that part of the wall was right next to the border. Not only were there tons of bilingual warning signs (Chinese and English, obviously), but I was also able to take pictures of the Chinese Wall and North Korea at the same time! I had no idea that it was possible…
Why were there no signs in Korean, you ask? Because, and this is a dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about, Koreans don’t dare to cross the border here; at least not permanently. The reason for that is the fact they would be easily spotted by Chinese doing so – and the Chinese government not only sends defectors back to the DPRK, they also pay their own people to rat out fugitives! Yes, while every North Korean who made it to South Korea or the States is celebrated, the same people are everything but welcome in China. To a point that average Chinese people have them deported for money, very aware that caught defectors won’t have an easy life back in the DPRK… Morality is luxury.

Next stop of the tour was the „Museum of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea“ or just simply the Korean War Museum, one of the most interesting places I have ever been to. As you know, history is written by the victors – in this case you had two victors (or none…), and we all know what the Americans are telling us. So it was extremely interesting to hear the Chinese side, a side that was presented with a surprisingly high amount of signs in English; given that Dandong only has a small airport, it’s not exactly a destination for Western tourists. Most of the texts were biased obviously, resulting in sentences stating that the Chinese and Koreans “overcame all the difficulties with incomparable heroism and inexhaustible wisdom and smashed the “strangling warfare” by the U.S. Army”. Stuff like that sounds hilarious to western socialized people, often not realizing that lies can be easily hidden with the help of pretended objectivity. To me the most interesting aspect brought up by the communist side was the aspect of biological warfare. A small section of the museum is dedicated to those allegations brought up by China, the Soviet Union and the DPRK, while the whole topic is denounced by the US government and its allies. The shocking thing about those accusations is that they make sense! When I wrote about the *Rabbit Island Okunoshima* a while ago I mentioned one of the most despicable human beings that ever lived, a Japanese military surgeon named Shiro Ishii. Ishii was the head of Unit 731, a Japanese research group that developed biological weapons in top secret Chinese facilities during World War 2 – by testing them on humans, including vivisections of infected victims! (I mentioned them, because Unit 731 related people also tested poison gas produced on Okunoshima.) Instead of executing Ishii as a war criminal, the Americans granted him immunity in exchange for the data he gained during the human experimentation – MacArthur knew about that plan in 1947 and it was concluded in 1948. In addition to their own biological weapons program in Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Americans now had the Japanese material. But that’s not all! While Ishii’s daughter says that her father spent the rest of his natural life in Japan, Richard Drayton, a senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University, claims that Ishii actually „came to Maryland to advise on bio-weapons”. Just for your information: The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953, the allegations are from the year 1952… Ishii died a converted Christian in 1959.
(Another surprising realization I had at the museum is DPRK related. You know how Western media are making fun of Kim Jong-un being a bit chubby and having a terrible haircut? Well, I was walking around, looking at things, when I saw that really old photo on the wall – of a guy that looked like Kim Jong-un; slightly chubby, unconventional haircut. It was Kim Il-sung, his grandfather. Kim Jong-un looks like Kim Il-sung around the time of the Korean War! Now it all makes sense, because given the personal cult in the DPRK of course that’s not a coincidence…)

Last but not least we went back to the waterfront and did a little cruise on the Yalu river that separates China and the DPRK. A few western tourists are claiming that they’ve visited North Korea after taking that 45 minute long boat tour – according to our guide they haven’t as the river is actually considered no man’s land…
The boat tour started just south of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (constructed when the whole area was occupied by Japan) and the Broken Bridge (built between 1909 and 1911) and first gave a good look at the bridges while heading north. Both bridges were repeatedly attacked and damaged by the United States during the Korean War and at first both of them were repaired, but then the communist side focused on repairing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, leaving the Broken Bridge first a ruin and now a historical tourist attraction. Today the Friendship Bridge is one of the few ways to enter the DPRK by automobile or train. After passing the bridges it was bizarre to see gigantic apartment buildings on the Chinese side… and basically nothing on the other. Then we turned around, passed the two bridges again and got closer to the Korean side; pretty close actually… There we could see how the low tide left some old, rusty Korean ships on the shore and how workers loaded coal via small cranes. While the people around us were all excited about getting a glimpse at North Korea I wasn’t able to share that excitement. I actually felt bad, knowing how much Pyongyang needed that coal, wondering if the appointed train would actually make it there to keep one of the two coal power stations running. None of us had goose-bumps looking at “the Evil Empire” as if it was a tiger at a zoo more than a century ago. We had seen more than the waterfront, we had talked to the people; it was surreal looking back, while the Chinese tourists probably were judging the whole country by what they saw there and then, talking about each other instead of with each other. I think all of us Westerners felt a bit desperate and frustrated while on that boat – having enjoyed eight days in the DPRK we finally realized how far away from the global community the country really is; not only ideologically, but also economically…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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It takes almost a whole day to go by train from Pyongyang to Beijing – and it’s quite an experience…

One of the few limitations Americans have when visiting the DPRK is the fact that they are not allowed to ride trains as the railway system is considered a military installation; so if you are American and you want to travel to North Korea you have to enter and exit by plane. All other nationalities usually take the plane in and the train out (or vice versa) – not because it is cheaper (it actually isn’t, at least not for the customer, probably for the travel agency though…), but because it is part of the fun. 23 hours on the train, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! Well, to some people. Not to me necessarily. So I decided to split the train ride in half and have a 24 hour layover in Dandong, right at the border between China and the DPRK.

My last hours in North Korea began with the usual morning routine, but instead of going sightseeing after entering the bus, we went to Pyongyang Station – and I wish I had taken some photos outside instead of rushing inside with the flock as the square in front of the huge station looked quite modern, including some advertising and huge screens. Instead I spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the waiting room for international travelers, featuring the last gift shop before leaving the DPRK.

Pyongyang Station actually isn’t that busy and it seems to have only one platform – a gigantic platform where you can park buses crosswise. Nevertheless it serves four lines: One to Nampo, one to Rajin in the far North, one to Kaesong (theoretically to Busan via Seoul, but you know the problem there…) and one to Sinuiju; the one our group took.
The standard procedure is the following: The train leaves at around 10.30 in the morning for Sinuiju with several stops at stations along the way. At around 15.30 you arrive in Sinuiju, where you have to go through customs on the Korean side, which takes about two hours – sometimes more, sometimes less. Then the train crosses the river Yalu to Dandong, China. There you have to go through Chinese customs, which takes about 30 minutes. (Don’t forget to adjust you watch as China is in a different time zone!) Then you have about half an hour before the train continues at 18.30 to Beijing, where it arrives at 8.30 in the morning. At no time you have to leave the train – customs on both sides take care of everything on board. People going to Beijing directly are located in nice 4 bed compartments, travelers getting off at Dandong enjoy the 5 hour ride plus 2 hour long customs process in a smelly wagon with open 6 bed compartments. Since I opted for the layover in Dandong I was with the latter group…
We had seen lots of settlements and fields on the way to Kaesong and Nampo, but the northern part seemed to be a bit greener – and the train wasn’t nearly as shaky as that bus, so I was able to take some nicer photos and a really decent video.

The train ride through the North Korea countryside was actually quite relaxed, despite the fact that the 160 km long trip took a whopping 5 hours. The reason for that is the fact that the railway system was in abysmal condition. Like I said, we were not allowed to take photos and although we said goodbye to our Korean guides back in Pyongyang I stuck with it – out of respect and out of fear to get in trouble at customs. Our train was by far the most modern one on the way as all the other ones looked like they were from back in the days when Japan was still in charge of the country. The stations were in decent condition, but the trains… it’s actually hard to describe. First of all I don’t remember seeing many of them being in working condition, we saw only a couple of them with passengers in them. The trains and wagons parked within stations… half of them looked like they were involved in fires or explosions, the other half looked like they were rusting away for decades. I guess shock and surprise was another reason why I didn’t take photos. People thought the East German railway system was in bad condition when the FRG “bought” the GDR – but damn, this was a whole different level! Another sign that there was no to barely any railroad modernization since the 1930s or 1940s were the electricity posts along the track you can see in the video and on one of the photos. I’ve seen similar ones in Japan. Along railway tracks. Abandoned tracks! The DPRK must have spent quite a chunk of money on maintenance, but I am sure the railroad system in the 1960s was in better condition than it is now… except for the rather luxurious overnight wagon to Beijing.
Customs in Sinuiju took indeed a little bit more than two hours, but they weren’t really thorough. We occupied 5 or 6 beds in the smelly wagon, but they didn’t look at any of our photos and even forgot to look inside one of our suitcases…
Customs in Dandong were even faster, basically a passport and visa check, they didn’t even open any of our luggage. After the Chinese custom officers were done we left the train, said goodbye to our fellow travelers continuing to Beijing and left the station, where our 24 hours in Dandong began; three people from my group, four people of the other group. More about that on Friday!

24 hours later we were back at the station – well, me and my other two group members Patrick and Juliette as the group A guys actually stayed for 48 hours in Dandong.
This time we checked into one of those luxurious sleeper cars with four beds and a door, shared with a young Chinese woman travelling from Dandong to… somewhere in China. The train stopped every couple of hours and she left maybe two hours outside of Beijing. When I woke up in the middle of the night we just had stopped at one of those stations and I took a photo over my head aiming outside of the window – it turned out to be a quite nice one, so I added it to the gallery.

Overall the train ride to Beijing wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be, probably because I was able to split it into two halves. Arriving in Beijing though my bad luck in the city continued: While at the *Mansudae Art Studio* I bought a lithography too big to put in my suitcase, so I was having an eye on it for almost a week. At Beijing Railway Station I left in a hurry and after about three minutes I realized that I didn’t have the lithography in my hand anymore. Despite the masses, the heat and the humidity I immediately ran back to the train compartment where the cleaning personnel already started their work, less than five minutes after I left in this huge, loud, summer smelly crowd – of course nobody understood me or had seen anything. I don’t think I’ve ever lost anything since I was five years old! But that was just the beginning of another horrible, horrible stay in China’s capital…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Kaeson Youth Park was the exciting final destination of my trip to North Korea. Visiting the most modern amusement park in Pyongyang’s city center was on our schedule almost every day, but every time it had to be pushed back; the first time it rained, the second time was “foreigners’ night” (which defeated the purpose of mingling with locals), the third time we were out of town overnight, …
After getting back from *Kaesong* and having dinner at the famous *duck restaurant in Pyongyang* we finally went to the Kaeson Youth Park on our last night – with the *Arch of Triumph* right across the street our tour basically ended where it began.

Originally opened in 1984, the 40 ha big park fell into disrepair quickly, giving all of North Korea’s theme parks a bad reputation. Being an avid urban explorer I was actually looking forward to seeing some quasi abandoned amusement parks, but it turned out that the ones we saw were all modernized recently. The Kaeson Youth Park for example received a whopping ten new attractions from Italy in April 2010, including a rollercoaster, bumper cars and a freefall tower. It wouldn’t be able to compete with elaborate theme parks like Universal Studios or Disneyland, but it’s attractions would be popular at any funfair in world – hence the place’s nickname Kaeson Funfair, because that’s what it basically is; a non-travelling funfair.
In an article by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun I’ve read that enjoying all ten rides costs locals 1600 won, more than half of what the average person in Pyongyang earns per month (3000 won) – two things about that:
1.) According to their article 1600 won were about 40 US cents in 2011, according to currency converters it was about 12 dollars back then! (A little less today… Maybe there is a different black market exchange rate?)
2.) What the article fails to mention is the fact that most people in Pyongyang don’t have to live off their 3000 won income, it’s kind of an allowance since the state provides accommodation and their place of work provides meals (though I am not sure if it’s just lunch or three meals a day).
So yes, visiting the Kaeson Youth Park is very expensive for locals (a ride on the subway costs 2 won…), but it is possible for them to enjoy an evening there. Not a whole day though, because the funfair opens at 7 p.m. and closes at midnight or 1 a.m., depending on which guide you asked… 😉

At the *Taesongsan Park & Funfair* we didn’t go on any rides, so our group was set loose and we were able to explore on our own – at the Kaeson Youth Park we had to stick together, nevertheless I was able to take an almost foreigner free video since the group stretched quite a bit. We basically walked to the end of the park and made our way back to the entrance, people hopping on the rides in mini groups; with VIP treatment, i.e. skipping the queue – which came at a price: 1.5 to 3 Euros per ride, according to a guide more than 30 times of what locals pay, which means that the whole exchange rate thing is off completely…
Despite the fact that we arrived past 9 p.m. there were still quite few children around (usually in groups), but overall it was a good mix of locals again (youth groups, couples, families, soldiers), so it felt kind of natural being there, despite the fact that clothing usually was less individual than what you are used to from amusement parks in Europe or the States. We even witnessed a heated argument between two guys, most likely military – much to the embarrassment of our Korean guides. Personally I enjoyed seeing that, it gave the experience quite a human touch.
The Kaeson Youth Park was another hint that things in the DPRK are changing. Like I said, amusement parks in North Korea have a horrible reputation and most articles on the net make fun of them, but all three parks I saw had been renovated since Kim Jong-un became the leader of the country. The KYP looked like a modern funfair and it seems like that the powers that be intend to keep it that way. An estimated half of the park’s staff was busy cleaning and swiping, contributing to the image that I had during my whole trip to the DPRK – a struggling but upcoming country that is trying extremely hard to make the best of a bad situation.

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Yanggakdo International Hotel is North Korea’s biggest and most popular hotel. Well, until they finally open the Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang’s most famous unfinished building for more than two decades; named after an old name for Pyongyang itself, meaning “capital of willows”. The Yanggakdo Hotel on the other hand is named after the island it is on, Yanggak – located in Pyongyang’s main river, Taedong. Nicknamed “Alcatraz of Fun” due to the fact that foreign guests are not allowed to leave the Yanggak Island, the hotel features several restaurants and bars, a couple of shops (books, alcohol / imported food / local cigarettes, postcards / stamps, …), a tailor, a Chinese run casino basement and a Korean run basement with a three lane bowling alley, billiard tables, a pool, a karaoke bar, a massage parlor and much more.
Built from 1986 to 1992 by a French company called Campenon Bernard Contruction Company (now: Vinci) the Yanggakdo Hotel and its 1000 rooms (spread across 47 floors) opened in 1995; though you can imagine that half of the hotel is not used, given that there are less than 50000 tourists visiting all of North Korea per year – and there are several other hotels in Pyongyang, like the Koryo Hotel, the Sosan Hotel, the Ryanggang Hotel and the Chongnyon Hotel. Looking at the itineraries of several travel agencies it seems like the Yanggakdo Hotel is extremely popular to house the 3500 Western tourist per year. Probably due to the fact that it is located on an island – which means that they can prohibit random contact with locals without having to lock up people at the hotel.

Contrary to many other travel reports you are actually allowed to leave the Yanggakdo Hotel. Most people prefer getting drunk or getting some sleep after doing sightseeing for 12 to 14 hours a day, but on two evenings I decided to stroll around a bit – which admittedly requires some balls as the area doesn’t have any signs and potentially interesting places, like the tip of the island, are not easy to find; and at night you need a flashlight, too…
The first time I went for a walk I was the only member of my tour group at the Yanggakdo Hotel as the rest of them decided to have dinner at a pizza restaurant at Pyongyang – so I decided to go back to the hotel and have Korean food for dinner with the other May Day Long Tour group. I like pizza as much as the next guy, but I didn’t come to North Korea to eat pizza… (And although the restaurant was generally praised before the group went, my fellow travelers seemed to be a bit disappointed afterwards.) Poor Mr. Kim had to come with me to the hotel, too. You know, just in case… (One of those situations you can interpret both ways. Depending on your attitude you can claim had he had to go with me to keep an eye on me – or you can say it was a form of service, just in case I needed something. We actually parted in the lobby right after the arrival, even before dinner, where Mr. Kim did something tourist guides never do – he gave me his room number in case I had a question.) Since the pizza restaurant took more time than my Korean dinner at the hotel I told Mr. Kim that I wanted to go to the tip of the island to take some night shots of Pyongyang while waiting for the rest of my group to arrive – no problem.
Getting to the tip of Yanggak Island wasn’t that easy, especially at night, since entrance of the hotel is on a much higher level and there are no hints on how to get there. Luckily I met two of my dinner companions on my way there, so somehow we made it after a couple of minutes and several concrete staircases, narrow paths and dark corners. The view from the tip of Yanggak Island is absolutely gorgeous and totally worth the hassle of getting there, so I took a couple of photos and left when the wind got too cold to being outside with just jeans and a T-shirt.
The next night I went there again. This time prepared, i.e. wearing a jacket. I took the exact same route as the night before (*and marked it on the GoogleMap I created*), but this time I didn’t mention it to anybody and I was without company – to my surprise I triggered an alarm on the eastern side of the Yanggakdo Hotel. Sound, light, guard with a flashlight coming outside through a door. Since I didn’t do anything wrong I kept walking and the guy didn’t even try to make contact, but it felt kinda weird. On my way back I kept as far away from the building as possible without stepping on the grass – nevertheless I triggered the alarm again, with the exact same result. It was an interesting experience, because until then I didn’t feel surveillance at all. Especially after the two days in Beijing, where they have security checks at every train and subway station plus countless cameras everywhere. I don’t think I ever saw “security cameras” anywhere in the DPRK except for a couple of days later at the DMZ. But this little episode proofed that just because you don’t see surveillance it doesn’t mean that there is none – and it made me wonder if and how the system would kick in if I would have gone in the other direction, towards the Yanggak Bridge, which marks the southern limit of freedom on Yanggak Island…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Japanese doctors are the worst in the world! Well, probably not in the world, but most likely in the industrialized world. If you think that Japan is all about lasers and robots and modern technology… then think again! Sometimes it’s shocking how far behind the rest of the (industrialized…) world Japan already is – and it’s rather getting worse than better.
It’s a complex topic, so where do I start? Probably with the fact that I have never heard of a single doctor who just calls himself a doctor – every doctor in Japan seems to have a clinic or even a hospital, even if it’s just a general practitioner working all by himself. They work long hours (usually closing Wednesday afternoons and Sundays), but one of the reasons for that is the fact that they love to make patients come back as often as possible. Constant check-ups, even on rather long-term treatments like high blood pressure. The standard health insurance here covers 70% of the costs, 30% have to be paid by the patient right after each treatment – so when you get charged 15 bucks, the health insurance pays another 35. For minor things it beats the high insurance rates in my (almost) all-inclusive home country of Germany, but if you get seriously sick it can ruin you financially like in the States, especially since there are no sick days in Japan. If you spend a day in a hospital or at a clinic (or at home with a cold for that matter) you have to use a paid vacation day – and if you are running out, the missed day comes right out of your paycheck. But that’s an insurance thing and has little to nothing to do with the medical staff. So why was I bashing Japanese doctors right at the beginning? Oh, because they are terrible and have a bad reputation even amongst the obedient Japanese populace.
I am lucky for having a good constitution in general, but about 4.5 years ago I injured my ankle playing airsoft with a couple of colleagues. I was jumping into a ditch and heard a loud noise when hitting the ground, instantly feeling serious pain. My American colleagues were all like “Don’t worry, just a sprained ankle!” and continued to play instead of bringing me to a hospital while the Japanese colleagues couldn’t care less. I never had a sprained ankle, so I believed them. Two days later when getting ready for work I almost blacked out, but I though that’s normal. When the “sprained ankle” was still a bit swollen and hurting after two months (yeah, I’ve been naive…) I finally asked a Japanese colleague to accompany me to see a doctor – a “clinic” where they took X-rays. They confirmed that it wasn’t a sprained ankle (really?!), but were unable to say what it was and how to treat it. So they transferred me to a hospital, specialized on fractured bones and stuff. When we went there a couple of days later the doc in charge was really eager to talk me into surgery as quickly as possible after he told me that I fractured my ankle and had torn a ligament. (Yes, I walked to the office with a torn ligament for 2 months! I always knew that I was a tough cookie, but that was suffering through a lot of pain, even for a foreigner in Japan…) His way to solve the problem: A one week stay at the hospital, transferring bone material from my hip to my ankle! (The reaction of my Japanese colleague when I said that I didn’t like that idea very much: “Don’t worry, I can bring you work to the hospital!”) And if it would have been for the Japanese Dr. Frankenstein I would have started treatment right the next day. I asked for a couple of days respite and then the guy admitted that after 2 months it was not that urgent anyway. And that he couldn’t guarantee that I will ever walk without pain even with that operation. What the heck? Was that the island of Japan or the island of Doctor Moreau? My school education started a deafening alarm and all I was able to think of was Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet On The Western Front”… That doc would never ruin my foot! Later that day an American ex-colleague told me how a woman at his new company did the same operation, except that they took bone material from her wrist. One year later she still wasn’t able to walk without pain – neither could she fully move her hand! And with that the surgery wasn’t even an option anymore and I relied on the natural healing power of my body. Half a year later I did 25km hiking day trips to the mountains (which I had never done before, because I was couch potato for most of my life…) and another six months later I started urban exploration. So if you ever need medical treatment while in Japan, ask your embassy for advice and get a second or third opinion. But even that might not be the solution in some cases – look forward to a future article where I will describe how a business trip to Germany probably saved my life when I contracted Lyme Disease, which seems to be undetectable and not treatable in Osaka, although it is native to the northern parts of Japan…

Sankei Hospital

Of course I don’t know if the doctors at the Sankei Hospital were as bad as the ones I had to deal with so far, but they definitely had to deal with some serious problems. And by that I don’t mean their own education or their patients’ quirks, kinks and serious illnesses (the Sankei Hospital was a mental hospital!), but Mother Nature. As beautiful as nature is in Japan (or everywhere else in the world for that matter…) one thing is pretty clear: Nature hates Japan! If you ever spent a summer in Kyoto, a winter in Hokkaido, or if you look at all the typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis… then it’s pretty clear that Japan isn’t God’s own country, nevertheless the Emperor still claims to be a descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess of the Shinto religion. (Although it’s more likely that he is of Korean descent…)
In 1910 the volcano Mount Usu erupted and lead to the establishment of an observatory under the leadership of Prof. Fusakichi Omori, a pioneer seismologist of his time. In 1945 the eruption of Mount Usu created Showa-shinzan, a volcanic lava dome next to Mount Usu – I took a photo of it and published it with the *haikyo trip to Hokkaido* article a while ago. When Mount Usu erupted a third time in the 20th century on August 7th 1977 the observation registered precursors up to 32 hours prior – luckily the hospital’s founder and director Kazuo Kato wasn’t mental at all. He came up with an emergency plan involving both his staff and officials of Sobetsu, where the hospital was located. When the eruption started at 9.12 a.m. the prearranged evacuation program kicked into gear and all 230 inpatients were taken to safety at a former school 12 kilometers away. At first the hospital suffered only minor damage (some small cracks here and there) when the northern flank of Mount Usu was severely deformed, being thrust 200 meters to the northeast. The process continued for months and due to magmatic intrusions the cracks widened further till the building finally collapsed almost a year later. (It goes without saying that the Sankei Hospital is famous amongst Japanese ghost hunters. Nobody was even injured during the evacuation, but a collapsed and abandoned mental hospital? That is as good as it gets if you are into that kind of stuff…)

Going Mental

By the time *Michael* and I arrived at the hospital, via a forest road since we had no clue that we were approaching a publicly known spot, the sun was already really low and behind a mountain range, so I took a quick and rather ugly video from the outside before it was too late to shoot any video at all. Michael was already entering through the back and by the time I jumped the fence and was ready to get in myself I received the advice to climb in through the front to avoid the vegetation in the back – nobody would show up at that time of the day anyway; and nobody did. Running out of light it was a quick exploration – the first part felt like walking in a picture by M. C. Escher as the floor was completely twisted; the fact that the Sankei Hospital was a mental hospital made the whole thing even more bizarre. Thanks to the level function of my camera all the floors on the daylight photos should be perfectly horizontal – but they aren’t, because they weren’t. When it got dark I left the collapsed eastern part and strolled through the (mostly) not collapsed western part. Not a pleasant exploration, especially when Michael was on the floor above me – it sounded like he could crash through the ceiling at any time, as if the whole building could come down at any time. The fences outside were there for a reason and I strongly recommend to respect them and to not enter the Sankei Hospital. That’s why I won’t add it to *my map of abandoned places*, although technically it was another tourist attraction, much like the *Horonai Mine* or the wonderful island of *Okunoshima* – fenced off and equipped with several large information signs in both Japanese and English, nevertheless way more dangerous than all the other locations on that map.
Given that we were running out of time the Sankei Hospital was a nice way to end the second day of explorations in Hokkaido. There wasn’t much to see, but it was a truly unique place and in the end way more interesting than the Xth abandoned hotel with the same moldy rooms and the same interior…

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

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