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Archive for the ‘Non-Urbex’ Category

It was pretty much exactly five years ago when I booked a group tour to North Korea – a rather spontaneous decision after talking to a new colleague from Norway for a while, who had been to the DPRK several times. As a history buff from Germany living in Japan I guess I was destined to visit the country sooner or later… and I was so fascinated that I came back after just half a year. In spring of 2013 I spent 8 days, 7 nights in Pyongyang and the southern part of North Korea, in autumn an additional 8 days, 7 nights in the rarely visited northern part of North Korea along the Chinese and Russian borders.

*After each trip I posted a series of articles here on Abandoned Kansai* – and the resulting special is still quite popular, depending on how much attention North Korea gets in the news. Next week the 2018 Winter Olympics will begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and much to the surprise of the rest of the world North Korea will actually participate – which is kinda great news for *Abandoned Kansai*, *AIDA Gallery* and our long planned photo exhibition “North Korea – Surprising Insights”!

The exhibition features 48 photos taken between April 27th and October 21st 2013 – from Pyongyang’s skyscrapers to little huts in the countryside, from impressive monuments to unwanted glimpses, from high-ranking military personnel at the Korean Wall to unsupervised contact with regular people in a park.
We’ll have an opening party on Saturday (February 3rd) at AIDA Gallery in Osaka from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. – then the exhibition will be open to the public on February 4th, 10th, 11th, 17th, and 18th from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; free of charge, of course… (Please *click here* for a link to GoogleMaps.) Please stop by for a look and a chat if you are in the area!

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Dear Japan,

So… squat toilets – what’s that all about?
I know, I know: Squat toilets are widely used all over the planet and not a Japan exclusive thing – but they are common in the country I currently live in and not in the country I grew up in (or the States, where most of my readers are from), so I will take the liberty to rant about them. I am aware that squat toilets are cheaper and easier to maintain, which is probably the reason why they became popular in Japanese apartments when private lavatories became less unusual after World War 2 – as can be seen in many old abandoned apartment buildings like the *Landslide Mining Apartments*. Furthermore there is no direct contact between the skin and some potentially dirty surface… and the last part of the colon gets stretched for an easier and more relaxed dump – unless you suffer from arthrosis, a vestibular disorder, or any form of movement disorder; then the pressure in your lower back can quickly become the proverbial pain in the ass. (Pardon my French… who strangely enough apparently also use squat toilets, at least as public toilets.)
So on the one hand you have those rather primitive squat toilets everywhere in high-tech Japan – not just in public toilets in the middle of nowhere (most times without alternatives), but in train stations, accommodations, highway rest stops, private homes, even airports! On the other hand Japan is equally famous for its luxurious Western style toilets with heated seats and a whole variety of sprinklers, controlled by up to 38 buttons and an LCD (those are also known as washlets).
Now, why this rant?
Because they are not equally used – not even close! At least not in my experience / by my observation. Whether it’s at large highway rest stops, where you have 5 squat toilets, 15 Western style toilets, and 30 urinals – or it’s at Kobe Airport (opened in 2006!), where you have 4 or 5 urinals, 2 washlets and 1 squat toilet per restroom for men. EVERYBODY avoids the squat toilets. During my 11 years in Japan I saw maybe 5 times that somebody used a squat toilet when there were alternatives available – and in those cases one of the alternatives probably opened up while the poor person bent their knees… Instead I’ve seen lines in front of sit toilets time and again, because people rather waited in the stench of a public restroom than used a squat toilet. And as somebody who isn’t used to them I totally understand that, I avoid squat toilets whenever I can. I dislike them with a passion – they are extremely uncomfortable to use and you always worry that you might lose your keys / wallet or soil your clothes / immediate surroundings. But Japanese people grow up with squat toilets, and still hardly anybody wants to use them! I get why they are still in old places and that often there is no money to replace them – but why include them to new buildings like Kobe Airport or during renovations? When literally and figuratively nobody gives a shit…
So… how? How, Japan? How are squat toilets still a thing?

(A few months ago I wrote a spontaneous rant about bakeries in Japan on the *Facebook page of Abandoned Kansai* – much to my surprise it sparked quite an active discussion for much longer than the usual 12 hour lifespan of an average FB post, so this time I publish the rant here on Abandoned Kansai, too. Please feel free to let me know what you think about the topic or rants like that in general!)

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Exactly three years ago I left *North Korea* for a second time – a good opportunity to share some information you probably didn’t know about Abandoned Kansai…

I don’t think I ever mentioned it on the blog, but on *Facebook* I earned quite a few interesting reactions when I revealed that Abandoned Kansai had some visitors from North Korea in 2013 – not many, for a total of 12 views, but still! In 2014 that number when up to 14… and in 2015 Abandoned Kansai was popular as never before in the DPRK: 24 views! This total of 50 views is not a lot, but still more than from 74 other countries and territories all over the world, including Bermuda, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Samoa. (In case you wonder: About 50% of my traffic is from the United States – only one view each since 2012-02-25 from the British Indian Ocean Territory, Comoros, Gambia, Kiribati, Lesotho, Netherland Antilles, Sao Tome & Principe, Sint Maarten, Solomon Islands, South Sudan and Turkmenistan.)
(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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Urbex is a dangerous hobby – even more so in Japan, where wildlife can be nasty and deadly earthquakes are a constant threat that can strike anywhere at any time (most recently last weekend in Kumamoto). How to up the ante? By exploring near one of the country’s many active volcanoes…

I always wanted to travel to the mountains of central Japan – not just for urban exploration, but for sightseeing, too: Matsumoto, Nagano, Karuizawa. And while the area is easy to access from Kansai, it’s also a time-consuming endeavor of up to six hours each way (plus one for the bus to Mount Asama). With winter looming, I finally took last trains to Matsumoto on a Friday after work in early November of 2012, and from there I made my way through the valley of the Chikuma River to Karuizawa and Mount Asama, the most active volcano on Japan’s main island Honshu.
Luckily the weather played along on both days, so I had a really good time in the Chubu area, though I made a couple of mistakes that affected this article and some future ones: First of all, I forgot my trusty video camera, so I had to use the video mode of my D7000 – and I wasn’t familiar with it at all. The second, even worse mistake was that I thought it would be a good idea to shoot in NEF and only take some “safety shots” in JPG, despite me never doing any enhancing post-production – as a result it took me 3.5 years to write about this trip for the first time… and only because I took plenty of safety shots at Mount Asama. When will I write about the other half a dozen locations I visited during that weekend? It might take a while. Probably never, as I still have zero interest in photo editing! (Luckily I never repeated this lapse of judgment and from the following weekend on I started to shoot in NEF and JPG simultaneously, using the JPGs and archiving the NEFs just in case I ever need them…)

Arriving at Mount Asama I had a quick look at the new Asama Volcano Museum (opened in 1993 to replace the old Asama (Garden) Observatory and Volcano Museum), but only at the gift store and for a couple of minutes, because my time in the middle of nowhere was limited – I had to catch a certain bus back to Karuizawa to still be able to make it home the same day.
At first I was worried that it would take me a while to find the old, at that point abandoned museum as other people wrote they hiked for like an hour to get there… luckily the old museum was right next to the new one – and both of them were right next to the Onioshidashi Park. Oni-oshi-dashi means something like “demons pushing rocks” and is a huge area of Mount Asama’s northeastern slope covered by volcanic rocks as a result of the Tenmei Eruption in 1783, killing more than 1400 locals and intensifying a famine that lasted several years, causing nearby provinces to under-produce for half a decade. In 1958 a temple dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, was built – and in 1974 a wheelchair-friendly hiking trail with several routes was opened in the oni-oshi-dashi, creating Onioshidashi Park.
Between the temple and the hiking trail, an observatory and museum about the history of Mount Asama and volcanoes in general was built between 1965 and 1967 – and closed / abandoned in 1993, when the new museum opened in the shadow of the old one. Since Mount Asama is an active volcano (with most recent eruptions in 2004, 2008, and 2009) that causes up to +1000 earthquakes per month (!), you can imagine that the exposed concrete observatory / museum had a tough time being hit by rocks and standing on shaky ground. And though the abandoned old museum was easily accessible for many, many years, it wasn’t anymore upon my visit in November of 2012 – the whole damn thing was thoroughly boarded up on all possible levels of entry.
Given the extremely dilapidated condition of the building and its location right next to two (!) tourist attractions I couldn’t blame the people in charge, but I was nevertheless a little bit disappointed. Not for long though, because it was an incredibly beautiful autumn day and I was in a touristy mood anyway, so I enjoyed a wonderful stroll through the Onioshidashi Park… until I wanted to cross the suspension bridge at the end of the course, the one that would get me back to the parking lot / bus stop within 5 minutes. Unfortunately the thing was closed! Whether for maintenance or for good I wasn’t able to find out, but it didn’t matter, because either way I had to rush back to make it home on time…

Despite not being able to enter the old Asama Observatory & Volcano Museum I had a great time out there at Mount Asama. The weather was gorgeous and the area so stunningly beautiful in its very own way. And the old building… was just perfect the way it was, crumbling before my eyes. (It was actually demolished just months later, in June of 2013, and replaced by yet another observation platform.)
The Onioshidashi Park was a treat by itself and it’s definitely a stop you should include on your next off the beaten tracks tour of Japan. (Be aware though that the new museum and the hiking trails are closed between December and March, both included.) Having to pass concrete shelters every couple of dozen meters was a strange feeling! You know that the volcano can erupt at any time, but seeing those shelters makes it a lot more real than just having book knowledge. Having experienced time and again how unnerving earthquakes can be, I really don’t want to be near a volcano when it erupts…

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I am not much of a gimmick photographer, but I am quite loyal to the internet forum of a German PC games magazine that existed for a handful of issues back in 1996/97 – the mag was gone in no time, but the forum survived somehow. In late 2010 one of the guys there got a Sackboy doll, hero of Sony’s LitteBigPlanet games series. He started to send it to forum members all over the world, who showed the little fella around. In early 2012 Sackboy finally made it to Japan and I took him to Osaka, Wakayama prefecture (*Wakayama Beach Hotel*), Tottori prefecture (*Sand Dune Palace*), Okunoshima (*The Rabbit Island*) and all across Okinawa (*Nakagusuku Hotel*, *Himeyuri Park*, *Okinawa Seimeinooka Park*, *Sunset View Inn Shah Bay*); some of the places were abandoned, some were very touristy.
Since the PC Xtreme would have been 20 years old in 2016, I thought it would be a nice idea to finally publish the whole set of Sackboy photos I deemed worth preserving, as only half of them made it to the forum in the end. Four years ago it felt a bit like a chore, but in hindsight it’s actually a pretty nice bonus set – perfect to complement a rather weak Tuesday location.

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People seem to be fascinated by Japanese bathrooms. Not just the high-tech toilets (“Washlet”, a registered trademark by Toto) with heated seats, white noise speakers to drown out unpleasant sounds, and a water spray feature for genital and anal cleansing (don’t google “Washlet Syndrome”, I warned you!) – but the whole space station like plastic cabin unit bathrooms you find in pretty much every Japanese hotel and a lot of private homes. They tend to have the off-putting charm of a bad 1950s science fiction movie and come in 50 shades of beige, but they are also space-saving and easy to clean. Though it doesn’t really matter, because once you came to terms with your decision that your life will include a bathroom without a skylight or even a regular window, you died a little bit inside anyway… at least I did.
Since those bathrooms are EVERYWHERE in Japan and hard to avoid, I never thought much about them… until I explored that one deserted hotel a couple of years ago. The unique aspect of this one was, that it was abandoned during the completion of the interior. It was a huge tourist hotel, about 10 storeys tall, and almost every floor was in a different state of interior finish! The higher the floor I reached, the less finished it was – the lowest floor just needed some furniture and electronics, everything else was done: flooring, wallpapers, built-in wardrobes… and the bathroom. The floor above was missing parts of the wooden flooring and the bathroom door, the floor above that was missing the wallpapers and outside bathroom walls in addition, the floor above that the built-in shelves… and so on. The top floors of the hotel were still all concrete and used as storage for the interior fixings of the lower floors – dozens of brand-new toilets and bathtubs, countless wall and flooring elements… absolutely mind-blowing! Since installing such a space station bathroom is quite an endeavor, I was able to see various stages of assembly; from individual, still wrapped parts over finished plumbing to a fully integrated bathroom. And while I hated to climb ten flights of stairs, I consider this aspect of the hotel one of my favorite urbex experiences of all time – because it was so unexpected, because I learned something by looking at it in real life, because I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that somebody had to abandon a gigantic hotel mid-construction, leaving behind fixtures worth tens of thousands of USD… and it was still all there without any signs of theft or vandalism. (And unlike the regular plastic cabins you find in most hotels and a lot of homes, these ones were actually rather large tiled luxury versions with a separate room for the toilet – the standard design unites shower, mini-tub, sink and toilet on something like 5 to 8 cubic meters.)

A full exploration report of the whole hotel will follow in the future, but for now please enjoy this unique photo series about the different phases of assembling a Japanese unit bathroom – and ask yourself: Would you want to give up your bathroom for one of those units?

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When I first researched abandoned places in Japan back in 2009 the Bungo-Mori Railyard in Kyushu was one of THE locations. Everybody knew it, everybody went there, everybody got in and out with some interesting shots. I on the other hand never was much interested. Kyushu? That was way too far away! I was about to call my blog Abandoned Kansai anyway, because that was the area I planned to explore: Kansai. Well, half a year later I went to Kyushu to see locations like *Gunkanjima* and the *Katashima Training School* – and the term Abandoned Kansai became more of a name of origin. Some people actually address me in e-mails with “Dear Kansai”, which is kinda cute. But I still didn’t go to the Bungo-Mori Railyard, deep in the mountains of Oita prefecture. Even when I stayed a night in Oita city I had other places to explore. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally had the opportunity to have a look at the Bungo-Mori Railyard… only to find it halfway transformed into a tourist attraction!
Most of the surprisingly small railyard building (opened in 1934 and closed in 1971) close to the Bungo-Mori Station (opened in 1929) was cleaned out, new fences were put up, so were lights to illuminate the building at night. A dozen workers were swarming the area to remove remaining tracks and to build a new road leading up to the railyard that once serviced 21 steam trains. And to make things worse, the sun was standing high in the sky and behind the building. It turned out that in 2009, when I did my research, the railyard finally received some money to be preserved, and in 2012 it was added to some national register for cultural properties – the result of a campaign started by a single train enthusiast in 2001! The now developing memorial park already features photo spots indicated by signs and expects to receive some old steam trains soon.

On the one hand, a legendary location like that deserves its own article… though… there was not much left to see. Especially in comparison to the large Railyard Pankow-Heinersdorf I visited past summer in Berlin. I wanted to write about that last location I explored in the capital anyway, so here’s a short article about the tiny tourist railyard in Japan, followed by a longer article about the gigantic railyard in Germany on Tuesday; kind of an appetizer, a snack… another example that everything is smaller in Japan. (Except for the crowds on trains! Gosh, I am getting so tired of the big cities in Japan…)

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