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Archive for the ‘Niigata’ Category

Go big or go home! Over the last few weeks I’ve presented a couple of smaller locations on *Abandoned Kansai*, but now it’s time to come back with an impressive abandoned place – and it’s not going to get bigger than the Arai Mountain And Spa a.k.a. Lotte Arai Resort, a large ski resort north of Nagano.

2 million square meters (200 hectare). That’s how big the Arai Mountain And Spa resort was. Almost seven times as big as *Nara Dreamland*, the greatest abandoned theme park the world has ever seen. And as Nara Dreamland, the Arai Mountain And Spa was all about fun… at least for a while.
Developed by Hideo Morita, the eldest son of Sony co-founder Akio Morita, in the early 1990s for a whopping 50 billion Yen (about 440 million USD, both back then and today), the large ski and spa resort about 50 kilometers north of Nagano (but in Niigata prefecture) opened in 1993 with state of the art facilities around a huge center square, basically its own town with several restaurants, shops, accommodations, indoor and outdoor pools, entertainment facilities – and of course access to the 11 slopes for skiing and snowboarding via a gondola and four lifts, two of them starting at the center square. Located at a height of about 330 meters the total vertical descent of the slopes was 951 meters – the longest run possible was 5200 meters long. Sadly the Arai Mountain And Spa had management and therefore financial problems right from the start, despite more than 200000 visitors in the 1998-99 skiing season. Between the opening of the resort in 1993 and its closing in 2006 the Morita family reportedly invested another 23 billion Yen (200 million USD) to fix problems and keep the resort running – a disastrous investment, even if you are rich…
After the lights went out at the Arai Mountain And Spa, rumors about this gigantic closed / abandoned spread all over the internet, yet only a few urban explorers seemed to have the guts to have a look themselves – I found out about it via a Japanese skiing blog back in 2010 or 2011. Rumors included tight security and reports about barricades, two rather off-putting elements, especially in Japan, where most abandoned places are actually abandoned; except for schools, which are usually just closed… In addition to that, Myoko and its suburb Arai are not exactly accessible in a time- and cost-efficient way from Kansai, so it took me until November 2014 to get there as part of a road trip with my buddy *Hamish*.

Let’s go!

Very well aware of the security rumors and quite impressed by the good condition of the gigantic complex of buildings, Hamish and I decided to explore the outskirts first, so we drove up the mountain… until the snowy road prevented us to go any further in our small rental car with summer tires. But we made it past one of the ski lifts, so we stopped there, took some pictures inside and outside and enjoyed the breathtaking view. We also confirmed that there was no visible activity at the main plaza – no security, no maintenance, no other people. On the way down we also stopped at the Roppongidaira Station, which connected the Village Station with the Zendana Station and gave guests of the resort access to a ski lift that lead to another set of slopes. Everything was locked, but in overall good condition. Nobody was mowing the pampas grass anymore, so it was rather unclear if there was some maintenance going on or if the area was just lucky to be spared by vandals, despite minor signs of destruction were visible all across the resort – though nothing worth mentioning, considering how much money was invested into the business…
By the time Hamish and I arrived back at the building complex we were pretty confident not to run into anybody, especially after gaining access to the main square without having to jump and fences or getting past any barricades. It was a sunny November day, rather warm, overall gorgeous – and the plaza, measuring about 150 by 100 meters on three levels (connected by several staircases and roofed escalators), was absolutely awe-inspiring. At that point I had seen my share of abandoned places – but nothing of that size, nothing in that good condition; even with an ultra-wide angle lens I was able to capture only parts of the area at a time. This really was the *Nara Dreamland* equivalent of an abandoned ski resort!
At the same time the lack of vandalism also meant that 90% of the buildings were not accessible. Not the spa, not any of the hotels, neither of the two ski stations, … Nevertheless an amazing exploration with some stunning photos. Speaking of which: Usually I publish the photos in the same order they were taken to give you an idea of my progress through a location. Since the plaza photos are much more spectacular than the early morning pictures, I decided to put the main area photos first and then jump to the accessible ski lift station halfway up the mountain. To get a better idea of how big the Arai Mountain And Spa really was I strongly recommend to watch the walkthrough video at the end of this article. You can also have a look at GoogleMaps (or any other online map…) – here are the coordinates: 36.990680, 138.181261

There is more!

Now, before you get a heart attack over me posting coordinates – there is more to the story as you might have already figured out reading the title. At the time of my visit in November of 2014 the Arai Mountain And Spa was up for public auction after Myoko City seized the resort due to unpaid property tax. Hm, have I already mentioned parallels to *Nara Dreamland*? Yes? Okay, so let’s move on. The city set the minimum bid at 914 million Yen and some change for the property, including all of the 200 hectares of land and 22 buildings (that’s about 8 million USD – a fraction of the original costs and barely more than what Nara Dreamland sold for in late 2015). A golf course developer won the bid at 1.3 billion Yen, but apparently there were some problems, so Myoko City gave it another try in June of 2015, this time starting at 884 million Yen. The winning bid? More than double, 1.8 billion Yen – from Lotte, a multinational conglomerate with 5000 employees in Japan… and 180000 in South Korea. They quickly renamed their latest purchase Lotte Arai Resort and started renovations for a piece by piece reopening from late 2016 on. Realizing that those plans wouldn’t work very well, the restart of the former Arai Mountain And Spa was scheduled for the 2017 season – not only with all the fully renovated previous facilities, but also some proposed new ones, like a new half pipe near the top of the mountain, a luge run, and some zip lines. I’ve seen photos of the renovation works, taken in August and in November of 2016 – so now the property is actually fenced off and most likely guarded by security… much like *Nara Dreamland*, but with the opposite outcome.

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The relationship between Japan and Russia has pretty much always been either non-existent or full of conflicts – so whoever thought that building a Russian themed park in Japan would be a good idea… probably was a moron with too much money.

When the Empire of Japan acted like the prototype version of current day *North Korea* from the early 1600s till the 1850/60s, it tried to keep out pretty much all foreigners, with the exception of a few Chinese and Dutch, who were strongly restricted in where they were allowed to go and what they were allowed to do (sounds familiar?). Back then most Russian settlements were too far away from Japan to make contact easily as cities like Khabarovsk (1858), Vladivostok (1860) and Magadan (1930) had yet to be founded – and so it was Yakutsk merchant Pavel Lebedev-Lastoschkin who first tried to establish a Russian-Japanese contact 1778 in Hokkaido. He was told to come back one year, only to be turned away again (sounds familiar?). In the early 19th century the Russians tried again several times without success – this time reacting with brute force when the shogunate stalled again; of course without much success. In 1860 Vladivostok was founded, but since it was not an ice-free port, the Russians were looking for a more convenient location and decided to seize Tsushima, an island under Japanese control, located between Korea and Kyushu. At this point the relationship turned really sour, and after being ignored by the consul Goshkevitch, the Japanese asked the British for help, finally forcing the Russians to leave Tsushima. Over the next few decades, Japan gave up its isolation policy and turned from an agrarian state to an industrialized nation; with the massive help of countries like Prussia, the United States, France, Great Britain and many more, of course. The Japanese-Russian relationships on the other hand didn’t develop for the better though, culminating in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05; the first time an Asian country significantly and surprisingly defeated a Western superpower. In World War 2 Japan fought less successful overall – and more than 70 years later, both countries are still arguing over the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kuril chain of islands. According to a 2012 survey, 72% of Japanese people view Russia unfavorably, a number that most likely rose since then, making Japan the country with the biggest anti-Russian sentiments of all participating countries.
So why a Russian themed park in Niigata? Because a banker said so! (Oh… so it was indeed a moron with too much money…)

Niigata Russian Village (1993 – 2003/04) was pretty much the borscht version of the *Tenkaen – Japan’s Lost China Themed Park* (1992 – 1999). Cultural exchange, “exotic” weddings, demonstrations of folk dances, sale of artisan craftwork… and carft beer. Financed with the help of and heavily supported by Ryutaro Omori, then president of the Niigata Chuo Bank, the Niigata Russian Village opened on September 1st 1993 and was heavily expanded in 1994… and then again in 2000 – a year after the financing Niigata Chuo Bank collapsed. The park closed in December 2003 for a winter break and didn’t open again as originally scheduled in April 2004.
The rather remote location of the Niigata Russian Village (6 km away from the next train station, 30 km outside of Niigata, almost 400 km away from Tokyo and therefore out of day trip range) was its downfall twice – first it wasn’t able to attract enough visitors / customers… and then it attracted too many visitors / vandals. Photos from 2008 already showed significant signs of vandalism, in September 2009 the hotel was partly destroyed by fire, and since nobody ever used a fake name for it, the Niigata Russian Village went to hell in a handbasket in record time.

By the time I started exploring in 2009/10 people started rumors about tight security and demolition to prevent bigger masses from trampling through like Siberian mammoths, but at the time I never thought I would ever explore outside of Kansai (hence the blog name, *Abandoned Kansai*) – in addition to that, Niigata is probably the worst area to go to from Kansai as flights are insanely expensive (32500 Yen!) and trains take about 7 hours at a price of 22500 Yen… per direction! 700 bucks for one location? Hell no!
Speaking of hell: As satellite photos more and more confirmed the demolition of the Niigata Russian Village, I more and more regretted that I was never able to take a picture or two of that iconic church that was part of the park; apparently a copy of Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Suzdal. Years later, in 2015, I was compiling locations for a three day urbex road trip starting in Tokyo. Of course there are plenty of great abandoned places around Tokyo… but Niigata is in perfect range for a three day trip. Exploring stuff on the way north, heading to the coast after dark, exploring Niigata Russian Village and some stuff on the way south, spending the night in Fukushima or Tochigi, continue exploring on the third day on the way back to Tokyo… Since satellite photos can be rather old and outdated I confirmed that the cathedral was still standing via a quick photo search and added Niigata Russian Village to our schedule – as the first thing on the second day!
Arriving at the Russian Village was exciting and sobering at the same time. The road up to the park was blocked by a massive gate fortified with tons of tree trunks and branches, all held together by barbed wire; signs informing about the start of further demolition work just days prior and the existence of camera surveillance. I traveled 650 km to fail 650 meters away from the church? Hell no! So my buddy *Hamish* and I went on to find an alternative way in, successfully… after a while.
As so often, the reality about the Niigata Russian Village lied between the reports of total demolition and the dozen buildings visible on satellite photos. At the time of our visit the lower area with the village part was pretty much gone already, little more than large piles of rubble and a small monument left behind. The upper area was missing several buildings, too – but the two most famous structures were still there, the church and the hotel. Despite the fact that 80 to 90% of the Niigata Russian Village had been demolished, it was still fun taking pictures there – especially the church was everything I was hoping for… and I don’t think I ever had as much fun in a religious building before or after! Overall for sure not nearly as spectacular as the *Tenkaen* or any of the *New Zealand Villages*, but still worth the detour…

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