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Archive for the ‘Niigata’ Category

When I first came to Japan in 1998 the country had only 4.1 million foreign visitors. I was in my second year at university, traveled alone and barely ever saw another tourist (despite being there during cherry blossom season!), neither the internet nor cell phones were common, and Japan had a reputation for being kind of “inaccessible” – and expensive. The good old days…

By the time I moved to Japan in 2006 the number of tourists had almost doubled to 7.3 million, but that didn’t really matter to me, especially since they kept going up and down. Being a tourist and being an expat (i.e. being a tax payer with a job!) are two completely different things, two completely different experiences; especially in Japan. It’s like visiting an amusement park and working in an amusement park! And as a new hire at a Japanese company I neither had the time nor the financial resources, so for the first two or three years all I saw of Japan was Kansai in day trips. Now, there is a lot to see and do in this area, so I didn’t feel restricted – I was just living my daily life and my vacation time I spent visiting family and friends back home.
In late 2009 I picked up urban exploration as a hobby and a few months later started this blog, Abandoned Kansai. Kansai, because that was my home, the area I was familiar with, the area I traveled well. Not Abandoned Japan, because I never expected that I would travel much outside of Kansai – I hadn’t for three years, so why start now?
Well, because I wanted to document certain abandoned places in other prefectures, as I realized rather quickly… Two months after the *Mount Atago Cable Car* I did my first exploration in another region (Chubu), three months later I went to another main island (Kyushu) – and eight years later I traveled so much that I covered all nine regions of Japan (Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa) within one calendar year! Though it wasn’t until 2020 that I had visited and explored abandoned places in all of Japan’s 47 prefectures… (Ehime was last ؘ– by something like two years!)
For the first few years those urbex trips were more or less strictly urbex trips. I did them to explore certain abandoned places, *a lot of which don’t exist anymore as described in this article*, with little time for other things to do, except enjoying local food after sunset. And I didn’t think much about it, because I lived in Japan. I could go sightseeing at any time anyway! Meanwhile Abe and his monkey bunch decided that Japan should be a vacation destination (under his reign the number of tourists exploded from 6.2 million to 31.9 million visitors!) and aggressively pushed for overseas tourists by devaluating the Yen, propaganda campaigns and tax exemptions for shoppers from overseas while raising taxes on his own people, including doubling the consumption tax in two steps. Anyway, Japan became more and more popular worldwide, including among urban explorers, some of which came for hardcore trips with half a dozen locations per day, hardly any sleep, and definitely no sightseeing – which changed my attitude towards my own trips within Japan significantly around 2015/2016, because I felt so sorry for those poor souls who came all this way and experienced little more than moldy buildings similar to others in the rest of the world. Unfortunately for me around that time Japan had already passed the 20 million mass market mark, 5 times as many tourists as I was used to in 1998. Nearby places like Kyoto and Nara had already become unbearable as I found out on occasion when friends and family visited me in my new home country, but even in places like Otaru I heard more Chinese than Japanese in the streets as tourists from China went from 267k in 1998 to 9.6 million in 2019, the last full year of worldwide tourism before the coronavirus. To me overtourism is one of the ultimate turnoffs in life. And that’s a general thing. When I’m in Otaru I don’t want to hear Chinese everywhere, when I’m at the Great Wall I don’t want to hear Italian everywhere, when I’m at the Coliseum I don’t want to hear German everywhere, when I’m at the Berlin Wall I don’t want to hear Russian everywhere, when I’m at the Red Square I don’t want to hear French everywhere – and when I’m at the Eiffel Tower I don’t want Japanese to be the dominant language. So as much as I tried to implement touristic places into my urbex trips I mainly limited them to rather off the beaten track locations like Hirosaki or Lake Ikeda, because even places like Hakodate, Kanazawa, or Nagasaki had been overrun by the Eurasian hordes. (And it’s not just the amount of people and their constant yapping, it’s also the (misbehaving) type of people that visited Japan in recent years. When the country was still special interest, in the 20th century, people went to Japan for specific reasons; to see or do something, to educate themselves about a certain topic – nowadays it seems to be a cool Instagram location for dumb phonies with selfish sticks that book flights to Japan and then go through the Top 5 lists on Instagram, Tripadvisor, or some “True soul of Japan!!!” blogger to find out what they can actually brag about on social media with. The amount of signs EVERYWHERE about “How to use a toilet!” / “How to not misbehave!” in four languages has become ridiculous and should be embarrassing to every person visiting Japan. Unfortunately most tourists don’t seem to be bothered by those signs as they are too self-absorbed and busy taking selfies, but as somebody who lives here I feel bad that locals need to state the obvious so often as visitors have become a serious nuisance.)

When the coronavirus spread across the world in late 2019 / early 2020 Japan was one of the last countries to close its borders, desperately clinging to its Frankenstein’s monster tourism industry and the Tokyo Olympics. Despite that, the country was hit much less hard than most others due to cultural coincidences – Japanese people are not exactly affectionate in public / outside of the family, and wearing masks is a long-standing flu season tradition, so what prevented spreading the coronavirus (avoiding close contact and wearing masks) was common practice in Japan anyway. If kisses on the cheeks and drinking red wine would have prevented the disease, France would have done much better and Japan would have been screwed… Anyway, Japan did comparatively well (though it is currently hitting record high numbers!), so the overall terribly phlegmatic Japanese government imposed only few restrictions, most of them in form of “recommendations”. Since recommendations usually are considered orders due to preemptive obedience, I spent most of the summer 2020 working from home, a liberating and deeply frustrating experience at the same time as I didn’t meet any friends for months and left my hamster cage maybe three times a week for grocery shopping to avoid the second wave, that’s it; work, eat, sleep, repeat. The same for a few weeks around New Year’s Day – while Japanese people were visiting their families (recommendations are only followed unless people really don’t want to…) I sat alone at home and skyped with mine to get past the third wave.

February: Matsumoto, Nagano, Obuse, Gero, Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Kanazawa
In early 2020 things went “back to normal” in Japan with as few as 698 new cases per day nationwide (Kanto and Kansai being responsible for the vast majority of cases and some prefectures going down to 0 active cases and no new infections for weeks!), so I decided to jump on the opportunity and visit some places that had been unbearably crowed in the last five to eight years – especially since some of my regular co-explorers had become increasingly busy with fur and other babies. My first main destination on February 12th, after nights in Matsumoto and Nagano (where I had been years prior on the way to the abandoned *Asama Volcano Museum*), were the famous onsen snow macaques in the Jigokudani Monkey Park; a place so touristy and swamped that my buddy Hamish discouraged me from going there many, many years ago. Upon my arrival towards noon I shared the park with hardly more than a dozen people, and that number barely doubled during my hour long stay there – now that turned out even much better than I had hoped for in my wildest dreams! 🙂 So for the next weekend I made even bolder plans, for a place usually so overrun by busloads of foreign and domestic tourists that you could have offered me serious money to go there and I would have declined without hesitating – Shirakawa-go in winter! And to make it the ultimate challenge I added Takayama the day before and Kanazawa the day after, with a quick stop in Gero on the way to Takayama. What can I say? Gero was lovely, Takayama absolutely gorgeous, Kanazawa virtually empty (I was able to take photos in the old samurai district without people ruining them!), and Shirakawa-go… Shirakawa-go was still busy, but bearable. Already borderline too busy for my taste, but knowing that there usually were five or ten times as many people made me enjoy my visit much more than expected. (The car parking lots were rather busy, the bus parking spots basically empty – the lack of mass tourism saved my day!)

March 2021: Hokkaido, Yamaguchi, Kamakura / Hakone
March started with another touristy trip to Hokkaido. If you are a regular of Abandoned Kansai and paid attention reading my article about the *Toya-Usu Geopark* you already know that I had been up north in early November – too early for the drift ice of the Okhotsk Sea, so I went back just four months and a coronavirus wave later. Despite the unusually warm weather in Abashiri (10°C!) I was able to experience the drift ice by pure luck before moving on to Kitami and the peppermint museum, Onneyu Onsen and the fox farm, as well as the mostly closed Sounkyo Onsen and its ice festival (-9°C and strong wind!). Also worth mentioning was my stop in Asahikawa and its cross country ski track right behind the main train station in the city center. Gotta love Japan! Two weeks later I took advantage of the early cherry blossom season and went south – Iwakuni, Tsuwano, Hagi, and Akiyoshido / Akiyoshidai. All four places rather off the beaten tracks, but even more so in the spring of 2021. On both of those trips I didn’t see a single non-Asian person after my first stop (New Chitose Airport and Iwakuni respectively), which gave me serious flashbacks to 1998 – not only did I enjoy both of those trips tremendously, I felt young again! 🙂
Next a trip to Kanto (Kamakura, Odawara, Hakone) with a quick stop in Omihachiman on the way back – as expected full of ups and downs, both literally and figuratively… and with significantly more people than on the trips before. Overall worth the time and effort, but especially Hakone seemed terribly overrated to me (the Museum Of Photography is a joke, but the pizza at 808 Monsmare made up for that disappointment).

April: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Tsumago / Magome
Which brings us to April and one more cliché destination for Instagram victims: the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route with the Tateyama Snow Wall and the Kurobe Dam. The latter is impressive, but in the end just a dam with little to see and do in spring, whereas the snow wall is only accessible / existing in spring as that part is closed in winter. Summer and autumn promises tons of nature, a boat cruise on Lake Kurobe, and heaps of hiking trails, but when you do the route in spring you basically only get the snow wall and lots of waiting in line without proper social distancing / climbing stairs. Really disappointing! Fortunately I was able to visit two gorgeous post towns called Tsumago and Magome on my way back to Osucka, which was absolutely lovely – I’d call them hidden gems, but Magome was already surprisingly busy, I can only imagine how insanely crowded the town has been and probably will be again soon.

May: Oga, Akita, Tsuruoka, Niigata, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Ouchi
Golden Week was my final opportunity to travel before most of Japan will turn into a hot and humid hellhole for about four months, so I went to Tohoku for the first time in three years, mainly for those locations: The Namahage Museum in Oga, Dewa Sanzan and the five-storey pagoda of Mount Haguro as well as Aizu-Wakamatsu for the Sazaedo (a 225 year old wooden temple with a double-helix staircase) and the Ouchi post town – and my really high expectations were fulfilled and partly surpassed. All of those places were absolutely gorgeous, especially the pagoda and the temple; both of which I had to myself for a couple of minutes between small groups of people supporting domestic tourism like I did. To get to Ouchi I took a tourist train to Yunokami Onsen that featured animations in dark tunnels and made special stops at Ashinomaki Onsen Station (as it “employs” cats as the station master and the rail manager…) as well as at scenic spots along the route. I was the only passenger that day, so the train driver consulted with the conductor that I had taken all the photos I needed before continuing, while the train’s shop lady (on special trains exclusive merchandising is often sold) was visibly amused by the situation; of course there were limits to that, bit apparently we had two or three minutes of wiggle room and weirdly enough they let me take advantage of that!

Final thoughts
Attached you’ll find a rather large gallery… the largest in Abandoned Kansai history. All photos are freehand snapshots as I didn’t bring my tripod or much time to any of those late winter / early spring trips, on some of which I struggled with the weather and lighting (wind, rain, snow, rather extreme temperatures, (lack of) clouds, darkness). Despite having done a lot less urbex than usual this year, this was definitely my most active and probably my favorite spring I’ve spent in Japan. Overtourism has become a problem for many countries and maybe this health crisis will initiate some change – domestic tourists should be more appreciated instead of alienated… and quality instead of quantity be attracted!
I don’t think anybody who experienced 31.9 million tourists to Japan in 2019 really wants to live through 60 million tourists in 2030… Not even the many of my friends who actually work(ed) in the tourism industry!

Oh, and if you are interested in specific locations or trips let me know – I might expand some of those quick sneak peaks into full articles. But first I will publish a spectacular abandoned place next week, one of my all-time favorites. Easily Top 10! 🙂

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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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