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…

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Canadian World (current full name: Canadian World Park) was the third location I visited with my haikyo buddy Michael Gakuran on the first day of our *haikyo trip to Hokkaido*. It was an unsual exploration for many reasons… One could even say it’s a zombie park!

First of all: Unlike most of the locations I visit Canadian World wasn’t really abandoned. Not because it was guarded by security, but because it was more like on a winter hiatus. Located in a beautiful mountain landscape in the center of Hokkaido the Canadian themed park was snowed in completely in late November already, hence the rather short season from early April to mid October and the equally short opening hours from 10 a.m. till 5.30 p.m. – not much time to make some money. And not the best location either since bigger cities are about an hour away and even the closest train station requires a 20 minute long car ride… To make things even worse: Unlike the already closed or abandoned *Tenkaen*, *Hiroshima New Zealand Farm* and *Yamaguchi New Zealand Village* Canadian World actually doesn’t charge an entrance fee!
So how does the Canadian zombie park survive? And why do I keep calling it a zombie park? Well, because Canadian World Park originally was a privately run themed park called Canadian World. It was (and still is…) based on the book Anne of Green Gables by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery and in private hand until its bankruptcy in 1997, including typical themed park attractions like restaurants, an art museum, BBQ areas and a mini train; there even is a “Anne in Canadian World” logo… When Canadian World went bust the city of Ashibetsu took over and gave new life to the dead park, basically making it a zombie park. Or a Frankenstein park. Just without zombies or Frankenstein monsters. Still kind of spooky though, especially in winter. But this explains the lack of an entrance fee and the rather short service time – Canadian World Park is publicly funded and run! (With the co-operation of locals, supporting the park on volunteer days once or twice a year…) Luckily the staff there is really polite, even when you show up at a time when you shouldn’t be there…

Michael and I arrived at Canadian World Park rather late in the day. The sun was already going down, so we stopped for a quick couple of shots at the parking lot and entrance area before we followed a mostly snow free road down the valley and deep into the park – most likely not for public use, but the gate was open and Michael was in an adventurous mood… so down the hill we went. Just to find two park employees at some kind of green house at the end of the road. Michael talked to them for a while and they seemed to be fine with us taking a couple of photos, so we drove back up halfway to get as close to the central plaza as possible. We parked the car in a small lay-by and waded through the shin-deep snow deep into the Canadian World Park, only to find all the buildings boarded up. We didn’t intend to enter any of them anyway, but we wondered if it was a winter closing security measure or if it was permanently, because let’s be honest – it’s only a matter of time till Canadian World will be closed again and this time there will be nobody in line to step in! For the time being the atmosphere there is magical though, especially when covered by snow and no chatterboxes there. The sunset was beautiful and the air was ice cold and crisp. After dark it was the coldest I have ever been in Japan and I don’t feel cold easily. First Michael mentioned that his fingers felt tingly, then my ears felt like popsicles – which reduced the usual old “just one more photo” banter from about 30 minutes to an estimated 5 minutes; plus another 5 for the way back cross country to the car. Not all shortcuts are a good idea, but in the end we made it back to warmth without suffering permanent damage, though a change of our soaked socks was in order…

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Abandoned Kansai in Hokkaido… Who would have thought that? Up till now I never made it further east than the center of Japan’s main island Honshu. I limited myself to the western half of Japan, because that was the reason I started this blog. Heck, initially I wanted to limit myself to the Kansai region; hence “Abandoned Kansai”, not “Abandoned Japan” or “Abandoned West Japan”. But then the “once in a while” hobby urban exploration turned into a regular thing and only weeks later I went to different regions, then to different islands – and in spring of 2012 I did a *haikyo trip to Okinawa* together with my urbex buddy *Michael Gakuran*. “What’s next?” was the big question, and the answer was found quickly – we already explored Japan’s most western prefecture, so we kind of had to explore Japan’s most eastern prefecture, Hokkaido!

Usually I plan my urbex trips on short notice. One time I brought my urbex equipment to work on Friday to see how I feel during the day, booked a hotel in the afternoon and left for a weekend trip right after work. Flexibility like that is impossible when partnering up for a long distance trip, so Michael and I booked plane tickets weeks ahead – and according to the weather forecast we ended up with a rainy weekend; a long weekend even, to which we added some days. Luckily the forecast was as reliable as always in Japan and so 4 out of my 5 days in Hokkaido were sunny and slightly snowy, only the last one came with 8° Celsius and rain.

Since I arrived almost a day earlier than Michael the original plan for me was to do some sightseeing in Sapporo. To my surprise the weather was sunny to cloudy, no rain at all, so instead of visiting indoor classics like the Sapporo Clock Tower, the Ishiya Chocolate Factory or the Sapporo Beer Museum I opted for a little hike to Mount Teine, once home to some of the sports events at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo. One day of good weather? I had to take advantage of that! Then it turned out that the next three days were pretty nice, too – which is a big advantage when doing urban exploration as you spend a lot of time outdoors…
On the last day Michael and I split – while he drove for hours to infiltrate a location he asked me to keep secret for now, I went on to do some really touristy stuff, like visiting the old harbor town of Otaru and taking a glass blowing lesson. My favorite touristic place though was the Sapporo night view from the freshly renovated observation platform on top of Mount Moiwa – stunningly beautiful! It was soooooo cold up there, but the view was absolutely amazing! I went there on the first day before visiting the Sapporo White Illumination and I strongly recommend to pay Mt. Moiwa a visit – I would love to shoot a time-lapse video from up there…
Overall the trip to Hokkaido was a great mix of urbex and tourist stuff. Five days I really enjoyed, probably more than any five consecutive days I spent in Osaka this year… So this is a list of the abandoned places I ended up visiting:
Advantest Research Institute
Bibai Bio Center
Canadian World Park
Hokkaido House Of Hidden Treasures
Horonai Coal Mine Substation
Mt. Teine Ski Lift
National Sanatorium Sapporo
Olympic Ruins Of Sapporo 1972
Sankei Hospital
Sapporo Art Village
Showa-Shinzan Tropical Plant Garden
Tenkaen – Japan’s Lost China Theme Park

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# What is Nara Dreamland?
– Nara Dreamland is an abandoned amusement park in Nara, Japan. It was closed in 2006 and abandoned without getting demolished – which makes it quite a unique urbex location since all the roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, souvenir shops, arcades and other attractions are still there. (Although it’s up for discussion if the place is really abandoned. It’s closed, that’s for sure, but the owner of the park obviously still cares about it to some degree…)

# Where is Nara Dreamland?
– That’s the kind of questions I usually don’t answer. But since NDL has entries in four language versions of Wikipedia, three of them giving away the exact location of Nara Dreamland, I can as well link to *my own map at GoogleMaps*. The address was / is:
Nara Dreamland
1900 Horen-cho
630-8113 Nara
But just because you know where it is I wouldn’t recommend going there. You might wanna read the next question(s) before rushing out…

# Does Nara Dreamland have security?
– YES! Some people got lucky and didn’t run into security at Nara Dreamland, I got away with plugged feathers – others got roasted and served to the police. The whole park is surrounded by fences, most parts with spikes and / or barbed wire. Warning signs once asked people to call the police if they see somebody suspicious, now the latest signs I saw announced a fine of 100.000 Yen, about 950 Euros / 1300 Dollars! Furthermore there were reports that the guy patrolling there tries to blame caught trespassers for vandalism to get more money out of them. And vandalism becomes more and more of a problem…

# Is there any vandalism at Nara Dreamland?
– Sadly yes. Lots of it. When I explored Nara Dreamland for the first time in December of 2009 there were barely any signs of vandalism. Almost two years later there are graffiti at the former pachinko parlor at the Eastern Parking Lot. The Parking Garage’s staircase is completely sealed now and the Hotel is boarded up again. Inside the park you can see how people smashed the control station of a merry-go-round – the fire extinguisher still on top of broken glass. The Main Street USA clone with all the souvenir shops has barely any undamaged windows and several doors were kicked in, even of buildings that were clearly just a false front. It’s actually pretty sad how fast the place goes down the drain – especially since the graffiti people took over; and not the good ones…

# I’ve heard Nara Dreamland is a rip-off of Disneyland in Anaheim. Is that true?
– Definitely. Disneyland was opened in 1955, Nara Dreamland followed in 1961. You have copies of the Sleeping Beauty Castle, Adventureland, Main Street USA, Autopia, Skyway, Tea Party Cup Ride, Submarine Voyage, Flying Saucers, the monorail, the fire station, a pirate ship, double decker omnibusses, vintage cars, and a train station (called DreamStation). Even the entrance looked the same! Of course the layout of the park was very similar – aerial shots make them look like twins. And of course there is the story of Kunizo Matsuo, the man behind Nara Dreamland.

# Can you tell me more about the history of Nara Dreamland?
– Sure. After World War II Japan’s industry was booming. People worked hard and needed some places to relax. The United States were not only occupiers, but also the helping hands for the reconstruction of the country – and the new role models. In the second half of the 1950s a Japanese businessman called Kunizu Matsuo, president of the Matsuo Entertainment Company, visited the States and the brand-new amusement park Disneyland in Anaheim near Los Angeles – and was quite impressed. Something like that would be perfect for Japan, he decided. He became a mediator for the Japanese Dream Sightseeing Company (JDSC) and had direct contact with Walt Disney. The plan was to bring Disneyland to Japan – not to Tokyo, but to the old capital Nara (710 – 794), the cradle of Japanese culture. Matsuo also was in direct contact with Disney’s engineers to create the Japanese version of Disneyland. But Nara Disneyland never came true. Towards the end of the construction phase JDSC and Disney couldn’t agree on license fees for all the famous Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Donald Duck and Goofy – so the Japanese side created their own mascots and abandoned the idea of Nara Disneyland. I have no idea how JDSC and Disney settled in the end (I’m sure JDSC had to pay quite a bit of money for Disney’s “help” even without getting the permission to use Cinderella & Co.), but while Nara Dreamland opened in 1961 it took Disney another 20 years to finally open Tokyo Disneyland on April 15th of 1983. Coincidentally (?) this year marked the beginning of the downfall for Nara Dreamland – the number of visitors began to decrease and JDSC including Nara Dreamland was bought by the supermarket chain Daiei in 1993. Eight years later, in 2001, Universal Studios Japan (USJ) opened in Osaka, just about 40 kilometers away. USJ annihilated Nara Dreamland and the once so glamorous place was forced to shut its doors on August 31st of 2006.

# What were the names of the mascots at Nara Dreamland? And are there famous non-Disney characters present at Nara Dreamland?
I’m sorry, but I have no idea about the mascots. All I know is that there are two of them, a male one and a female one. I don’t even know if they had names…
As for other characters: There are no specially themed rides, but Anpanman is pretty visible at Nara Dreamland. (In case you don’t know Anpanman: He’s the most popular fictional character amongst Japanese age 0 – 12 for 10 consecutive years. Anpanman was created by Takashi Yanase in 1968 as a manga character, but spread to other media quickly (including movies, animated shorts, a TV show and dozens of video games). Nowadays Anpanman is everywhere – imagine Hello Kitty, but popular with girls and boys…)

# Why was Nara Dreamland closed?
– A declining amount of visitors for many, many years – and most of all Universal Studios Japan. By the time USJ opened in 2001 Nara Dreamland already was a rundown theme park decades after its prime. Universal Studios Japan on the other hand was brand-new and high-tech, probably the most modern amusement park of its time. Tokyo Disneyland started the struggle (yes, even though 400km away TDL was direct competition for NDL!) and Universal Studios knocked it down – Nara Dreamland didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell… (Surprisingly enough *Expoland* in Osaka wasn’t affected that much by USJ and closed mainly because of bad press after a 19 year old university student from Shiga prefecture died on a roller coaster in 2007 – and Hirakata Park (also known as HiraPa – ひらかたパーク / ひらパー) between Osaka and Kyoto still doesn’t show any signs of giving up…)
At the height of its success Nara Dreamland welcomed 1.6 million visitors per year, when it closed the number was as low as 400k. Universal Studios Japan on the other hand had 11 million visitors (!) in its first year of operation…

# What was Nara Dreamland’s main attraction?
– Nara Dreamland’s main attraction was (and still is!) the Aska roller coaster (木製コースターASKA, Mokusei kōsutā ASKA), a wooden coaster built by Intamin and opened in 1998. The track was 1081 meters long and reached a height of 30 meters. The trains consisted of seven waggons for four guests each (two rows with two seats). They reached a speed of 80 km/h (almost 50 mp/h) and accelerated with up to 2.8g. Aska is named after Asuka, a city close to Nara – from 538 to 710 it was the capital of Yamato, one of the earliest states on Japanese ground, and the location of many imperial palaces as well as important temples and shrines, some of them still in existence today.
I took a video walking along parts of the abandoned Aska roller coaster – you can check it out on *Youtube*.

# Was it expensive to visit Nara Dreamland?
– The signs at the abandoned Nara Dreamland indicate that it was a pay-as-you-go amusement park (as was Disneyland when it opened in 1955!) – which means that you had to pay a low entrance fee, but then additionally for every single ride. So basically it was up to you how much you spent there. Sadly I never paid much attention to the prices, so let me have a look at some photos and see what I can come up with… Parking was 200 Yen for bikes, 1.200 Yen for cars and 2.000 Yen for busses. Bobsleigh (ボブスレー), the steel roller coaster modeled after Disney’s Matterhorn Bobsleds, was 600 Yen and a haunted witch cave put a hole of 300 Yen in your pocket. As for food: A beer was 500 Yen, chuhai was 400 Yen, takoyaki were 300 Yen, yakisoba was 400 Yen and the Family BBQ Set was 3.200 Yen. I don’t know how much the entrance fee was, but if you get caught by security now it costs you a whopping 100.000 Yen!

# I’ve heard there is a Yokohama Dreamland. Is it related?
– Well, there was a Yokohama Dreamland – it operated from October 1st 1964 to February 17th 2002 and closed, not really surprisingly, because of financial issues. It was located in the Totsuka ward of Yokohama. Unlike Nara Dreamland it was completely demolished – and replaced by a prison. And to finally answer the question: Yes, it was the sister park of Nara Dreamland with a similar layout, similar attractions and the same branding.

# Is there an official homepage?
– There was: http://www.nara-dreamland.co.jp/ (I didn’t make it clickable as it doesn’t work anymore anyways – save your time…)
You can find a copy *here*. (2003, Japanese only)

# How often have you been to Nara Dreamland?
– Never when it was still open and 5 times since it was closed.

# Do you have any plans to go back?
– Concrete, solid plans? No. Security there is the main reason for me not to go anymore. I know people visited the place without getting caught, but I made my own experiences and they were not all pleasant…

# Have you written more articles about Nara Dreamland than the one I’ve just read?
– Well, I summed up my experiences in the *Nara Dreamland Special*, but the articles I wrote about Nara Dreamland are in chronological order:
Getting Caught By Security
Nara Dreamland
Eastern Parking Lot And Parking Garage
Nara Dreamland Hotel
Nara Dreamland Revisited – Nighttime
Nara Dreamland Revisited – Daytime
Nara Dreamland – Nara Snowland
Nara Dreamland – Third Time Lucky
Nara Dreamland 2015
Nara Dreamland 2016
Nara Dreamland – 10th Anniversary
Nara Dreamland – Demolition

If you are less into facts about Nara Dreamland and you rather want to more about what it’s like to explore this abandoned theme park I recommend reading the articles I’ve just mentioned.

# Do you have material for more articles about Nara Dreamland?
– Yes! As of August 2014 I have material for about half a dozen articles, including some very unique photos…

# Is there a place even creepier than Nara Dreamland?
– Yes! It’s a half-abandoned amusement park called *People’s Park* – thanks to the constant music in the background and its nude statues it’s creepy as heck!

# What about that killer robot called Mascot 6-22? Is it really roaming Nara Dreamland?
– Killer robots at Nara Dreamland?! No, this is not another *April Fool’s joke*, this is the internet!
Nara Dreamland has been kind of my backyard for the past five years and I thought I’ve heard pretty much all stories about it… until one of Abandoned Kansai’s regular readers, Justin, asked me about the fully animatronic Mascot 6-22 in a private message via *Facebook* – and I had no idea what he was talking about. I did some research and there seems to be a theory out there in the depth of the internet, that Disney created Nara Dreamland to find out whether the fake park would be popular enough to justify the construction of an official Disneyland; which happened more than 20 years later. As if that wouldn’t be ridiculous enough, somebody claimed that the official new mascots were not poor students in poorly tailored costumes, but in fact robots – and that series 6, unit 22 was so special, that they didn’t turn it off, but let it roam freely in the park after it closed in 2006, defending a solar power station and giving everybody who tries to deactivate him an electric shock. But that’s not all! Some people actually seem to believe that the Japanese military asked Disney if they should take out “Mascot 6-22”, but they declined as the thing was showing interesting program adaptations.
Seriously, what the heck? The whole story is so ridiculous I won’t even spend the time to point out all the things that are wrong with it! Yes, I know, both the origin and the end of Nara Dreamland are somewhat in the dark, but come on, people… that’s a bit much, don’t ya think?

# I’ve heard that Nara Dreamland has been sold in late 2015. Is that true?
– Yes, that’s true. It seems like the previous owner owed the city of Nara 650 million Yen in ground tax, so the city foreclosed Dreamland and sold it to the only bidder for 730 million Yen – a real estate company called SK Housing. What plans they have is unclear though, because there are strict limitations on how the land Nara Dreamland is on can be used in the future…

# What are those strange noises I can hear at Nara Dreamland?
– If the noises are not coming from one of the nearby sports arenas, they are most likely caused by ushigaeru (ウシガエル) a.k.a. American bullfrogs. They freaked me out the first time I heard them in 2010, because they sounded like somebody opening a heavy metal door / gate…

If you have any unanswered questions about Nara Dreamland please let me know – I might update this posting every once in while. A lot of the information given here was only available in Japanese so far, some stuff I came up with by actually going to NDL – so if you use material for your own articles please be so kind and mention / link to this FAQ. Thanks a lot!

All of the following photos were taken in 2009 and 2010, most of them previously unpublished. The photos I took later will be published in two separate articles at some point in the future.
(If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* and *follow this blog on Twitter* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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