Archive for the ‘Non-Urbex’ Category

A colorful seashell museum with a nondescript name – mostly artistic, but also scientific… and not even abandoned!

Ever since I moved to Japan 13 years ago I’ve been traveling the country when time allows. At first day trips to touristy spots (now hard to enjoy due to the suffocating amount of tourists from overseas – visiting the bamboo forest in Kyoto’s Arashiyama or the temples and shrines in Nara, for example, is a completely different experience in 2009 and 2019!), then weekend trips to explore abandoned places. During those early exploration trips me and my various co-explorers didn’t actively avoid other places (and included even spots like the very famous and recently burnt down Shuri Castle in Okinawa), but we were quite focused on our ruins, especially during daylight hours. Exploring can be quite exhausting and after a while I realized that extended lunch breaks at mom and pop restaurants and occasional sightseeing spots can really break up an otherwise quite tense day. Sooner or later sightseeing spot lead to roadside attractions and here we are now, at the Takeshima Fantasy Museum. (After visiting the infamous *Zao Fox Village* last year…)
The Takeshima Fantasy Museum, located in Gamagori, Achi (about an hour southeast of Nagoya), has quite a bit of history. Opened in 1983 as Gamagori Fantasy House it featured colorful exhibits made from 5 million (!) pieces of corals and seashells, collected in 110 countries. During the economic boom of the 1980s even the strangest places did well, but after some years of decline it closed in 2010 – apparently without any plans of ever being opened again. I remember actually being there around late 2013 / early 2014, but wasn’t able to find a way in… and there was some construction going on. Turns out that the Gamagori Fantasy House was in the state of renewal and expansion. Part of the parking lot was turned into a (casual) seafood restaurant and the exhibits were overhauled, bringing the shell count up to 5.5 million upon reopening in August 2014 as the Takeshima Fantasy Museum.
When the recent exploration attempt of the *Gamagori City Pool* (actually within sight of the Takeshima Fantasy Museum) failed miserably it was a good opportunity to come back later and finally have a look inside. Fortunately photography without flash was allowed in the whole museum, so I took the opportunity to snap some high ISO shots for another roadside attraction article. While the *homepage of the museum* is in Japanese only, the museum hands out a nice, large pamphlet in English, which is included in the entrance fee – at 1000 Yen for adults, 800 Yen for senior citizens and 500 Yen for children not cheap, but still affordable, considering that it takes about an hour to enjoy the colorful fantasy world, the museum, and the gift. It’s a unique location worth supporting, especially if you have a soft spot for whimsical places and unusual art. While passing by the exhibits I was wondering what the people creating them were doing now. And I guess I got the answer in the gift shop, where I saw a guy making chickens using different kinds of seashells – to be sold in the shop. If you ever are in the Nagoya area: Have a look! I’m sure you won’t regret it. To me it was a strangely and surprisingly entertaining experience! And who knows, maybe I’ll be back one day after they close it again…

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Last weekend ten years ago I went on a short hike along an abandoned railroad track – I would not call it urban exploration, but it surely got things into motion…

People often ask me when I first got interested in urban exploration, and the more often I get asked, the further back in my life I tend to go. In the beginning I mentioned my first real exploration in Japan, the abandoned Mount Atago Cable Car, which I first hiked up on November 7th 2009. But in spring of 2009 I actually hiked along the nowadays quite popular old and now abandoned Fukuchiyama train line between Takedao and Namaze along the Mukogawa – even back then it was a known hiking trail and I met all kinds of people on it, from senior citizens to kindergarten (!) groups. Since then the trail was further developed, and a yearly art festival was established in the tunnels. (But my interest in abandonment actually reaches further back – as a university student I participated in a seminar that was held at the UNESCO World Heritage site Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, as an older child I spent several summers at the Lake Garda in Italy, where we found an old ship that was aground – somebody tied a rope to it, so we could climb up and explore it / use it as a platform to jump into the water. I also remember exploring an old abandoned farm house or two with my dad, eating ripe persimmons fresh from the tree. And I vividly remember exploring an old blown up shooting range dating back to WW2 in the forest I grew up next to as an elementary school student – the bullet trap allowing very, very short sled ride to both the main forest road and the dark remains of the blown up bunker area…)

So, yeah, the Old Fukuchiyama Line, a nice stroll in spring of 2009 – in early April it is supposed to be one of the best spots for hanami in all of Kansai, unfortunately I was a few weeks too early, so the area was still quite barren. I also was more than half a year away from getting my first DSLR – which I actually didn’t buy until a second visit in early October of 2009, a month before my first real exploration and a hike I had totally forgotten about until I looked for photos yesterday evening. So at both hike of the Old Fukuchiyama Line I only took a couple of quick photos with my old Fuji FinePix F30, which I bought upon my arrival in Japan, because I felt like I had to take some pictures of the one year I planned to spend here… Aside from a Polaroid camera as a child I never had anything to do with photography, neither before or behind the camera – and even the pictures I took with the F30 I took more for family and friends back home than for myself, because, you know, I’ve been here and daily life often seems so trivial and not photography worthy. An attitude still very present in *North Korea* for example, where photos are only taken on special occasions – which is one of the reasons why people there are suspicious of those “trigger happy” visitors. 99% of the photos I took made the local guides shake they heads in disbelief. And to some degree I can understand, because I had a similar attitude until the end of 2009, when I first hiked up the *Mount Atago Cable Car* track with my first DSLR (not knowing at all what I was doing as I received it the evening before!) to explore my first real abandoned place…

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Cat cafés, dog cafès, owl cafés, a rabbit island, several cat islands, the deers of Nara and Itsukushima – not to mention several snake stations, monkey parks and bear villages as well as countless regular zoos and aquariums. Japan is (almost) every animal lover’s dream… and the more adventurous ones are heading for the mountains of Miyagi prefecture to visit the Zao Fox Village!

The Miyagi Zao Fox Village (a.k.a. Kitsune Mura, which is Japanese for… well… fox village) is located on the foot of Mount Zao, a large and absolutely gorgeous onsen / skiing / hiking area on the border of Yamanashi and Miyagi prefectures, just an hour outside of Sendai. According to the surprisingly informative and well-made English homepage it features “rare 6 types and over 100 fluffy cute foxes”. Unfortunately public transportation in this area is not running as often as in central Tokyo, so you either go there on a Tuesday or Friday by bus from Shiroishi Station (not Shiro Ishii Station!) at 7:58 a.m. and return to said station with the second bus of the day that leaves nearby Kawarago Dam at 2:32 (which means that you are stuck there for about five and a half hours!) – or you don’t. There are no other connections, except for private means of transportation (a taxi ride takes about 20, 25 minutes according to GoogleMaps and should cost about 4000 Yen), so… welcome to the Japanese countryside!
After paying 1000 Yen and agreeing to a couple of rules (not leaving the concrete paths, not squatting down, …) you first reach a tree-housy area on a slope where some of the foxes, the beautiful and especially tame ones, are resting in rather large cages. There’s also a mini (petting) zoo with other animals, and the veterinarian’s office. From there you can reach the main area (where the foxes roam freely and the large breeding cages are) or either exit through the gift shop. This main part is basically an open forest area with concrete paths and some benches as well as installations for the foxes to hide and play – and a big sign reminding you not to squat down or the foxes might bite or pee on you. You are also advised not to pet those foxes… and after being there for a couple of minutes and seeing them (play?) fight, you sure don’t want to anyway – though there is an optional petting experience at certain times with the caged foxes.

As you probably have guessed by now, the Miyagi Zao Fox Village isn’t abandoned – and probably won’t be anytime soon. But as I travel all across Japan I often run into roadside attractions, so-called B-spots, that look quite intriguing… and then we push on, because it’s not abandoned or we don’t have time. I always felt sorry for all the tourist explorers who came all the way to Japan and “explored” the already photographed to death *Western Village* as well as the moldy, rundown spa hotels of Kinugawa Onsen, but didn’t take the time to have a look at the spectacular Toshogu Shrine in nearby Nikko – and yet here I was doing a similar thing on a (much!) smaller scale… so I decided to add some B-spots to the Abandoned Kansai mix. It’s actually nothing new, I’ve done it in the past (for example with my article about *Hachijojima* or the one about the *Okinawan themed parks*. And don’t worry, the vast majority of articles on Abandoned Kansai will still be about abandoned places – throwing a B-spot into the mix every two or three months won’t hurt the flow… and half of them will probably look abandoned anyway… 😉
But to wrap up the Zao Fox Village: I’m not a fan of any kind of animal prisons, especially dolphinariums and circuses, but much to my surprise the Zao Fox Village didn’t make a bad impression to me. We arrived there shortly after 3 p.m., two hours before the place closed, but it was a late autumn day, so the sun was already setting in the mountains and we were losing daylight quickly. It also meant that the foxes had been entertaining guests for six hours, so about half of them were already tired and just trying to keep warm by making themselves small in one of the few preferably sunny spots. About three or four dozen foxes though were still roaming around freely. Some of them were fighting occasionally – but only away from the concrete paths humans were not supposed to leave anyway. And while it was a really strange feeling to have one or two getting so close that you could easily touch them (or they could bite you without a warning…), it was also quite exciting to get so close to an animal you usually only can see from afar. Some of the foxes were especially tame, for example the one with the gorgeous white and black fur – that one actually sat down on a bench and patiently had its photo taken. So patiently that it was borderline annoying, because in today’s selfie culture some people seem to have lost awareness of their own selfishness completely. It took three Japanese girls a couple of minutes to take some selfies and group photos, which is totally fine, but then a… tourist from another Asian country… took like 10 minutes to take selfies and have her picture taken by her parents, over and over and over again, while a dozen people lined up to take photos – which was completely ignored by that… BTW, are female foxes called bitches, too? No, I just looked it up, they are called vixens – which is probably what that girl thought of herself, though she wasn’t; she was just narcissistic. Long story short, her photo session ended when even the monochrome fox had enough, got up and left; leaving quite a few disappointed people behind, including yours truly. Luckily the furry model just went for a walk and was back two minutes later, giving me the opportunity to take a couple of quick shots, before yet another line formed.

So… overall visiting the Zao Fox Village wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. When you go to pages like Tripadvisor especially the English speaking reviews depict a nightmarish place that make South American prisons look like a spa vacation – and I kinda expected to see a rundown facility with a couple of visitors, but in reality they had a couple of parking lots and even close to closing something like 50, 60 visitors at any given time on the premises. In peak seasons like late spring and early autumn this place must be a money making machine. All the animals, not just the foxes, didn’t look like they were mistreated or malnourished. At least not to me, but then again – I’m not an experienced animal prison visitor and I went there in late autumn; what the situation is like at 35°C in summer I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure if those one star reviewers would see me in my small apartment in summer, they’d probably criticize the animal unworthy living situation I exist in, too… 😉 Of course *the rabbit island Okunoshima* is much more relaxed and all animals there are actually free, but if you take the Zao Fox Village for what it is (a commercial roadside attraction, not a wildlife haven for hand-tame predators) it’s a unusual, slightly quirky place to visit – and even some the haters couldn’t resist to take and publish selfies… Probably not worth traveling to, but definitely worth stopping at, if you are in the area anyway; I actually added it to my *map of demolished and touristy places*.

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2018 has been a strange year in many ways – and I’m still not sure what to make of it. A look back.

Let’s start this article on a positive note: A very big THANKS to all of you who support Abandoned Kansai by liking and sharing pictures and articles on social media, with friends via e-mail, via postings in forums! While the amount of comments on the blog directly is still dwindling, the social media accounts (*Facebook* and *Twitter*) are doing more than well (probably because I post quite a bit of time-exclusive material) – and it’s always nice to find some new links in the referrer list of the statistics. Abandoned Kansai is basically a one man, ad free side-project and I really appreciate all the support and most of the resulting conversations! (Please be aware that it might take me some time to reply to messages – and that I sometimes get distracted and don’t answer at all, which usually doesn’t happen on purpose.)
In the Chinese zodiac scheme 2018 was the year of the dog, though sometimes it felt like one year long dog day… which is very subjective, of course, and probably includes overthinking too many first world problems, especially after the grandiose 2017, which took me from one end of Japan to the other and allowed me to explore a record number of locations (70, checked out a total of 120!) with a record number of people (20) on a record number of days (45 – and those were just the exploration days, not including the time spent to create this blog or finding locations…). In 2018 those numbers dropped to 48 explored places (+ 2 roadside attractions) and 67 checked out places with 12 different people on 24 days – so with this article and maybe an “all locations of 2018 not worth their own blog entry” piece I barely get to the 52 posts I need per year to keep this blog running on a weekly basis. I know, I know, a ton of other explorers would be happy to get that many locations under their belts, especially since the explored places included some world class locations and more than a dozen originals finds (marked with OF in the gallery below, though I had to leave some out for obvious reasons), but cutting back involuntarily hardly ever feels good – and 2018 definitely was the year of empty phrases and insincere apologies in pretty much every aspect of my life. One more “I’m so sorry, but…” and I’ll go Duke Nukem on somebody’s head! Being stuck between fake American friendliness and even faker Japanese friendliness I sometimes miss some good old German “Look, the situation is like that…” straight talk, though the insane amount of dishonesty and unreliability in 2018 was mainly a non-urbex problem – and the explorations that actually happened in the end were almost all memorable.

My favorite thing to do, probably overall, is going on road trips in Japan. Spending four or more days in an area of Zipangu I don’t know very well yet is the greatest thing ever. Especially when combined with nice people, spectacular abandoned places, interesting touristy stuff, local food… and good weather (i.e. no rain – everything else is good weather!). Unfortunately the amount of road trips went down from 3 to 1, plus one solo trip per year – in 2017 I was able to visit all nine regions of Japan, in 2018 I never got off Honshu, except for when I left Japan to visit family and friends. (No urbex in Europe last year, half a dozen places the year before, including the still popular *Chateau Banana*…)
But enough of the whining, though the hot and humid summer with three typhoons, a heat wave and an earthquake, all costing precious lives, would deserve its own paragraph.
I guess overall it was still a good urbex year – I just wish there would have been more opportunities… So if you are living in areas like Kyushu, Tohoku or Hokkaido and want to give this urbex thing a try with one of the most experienced explorers in Japan, feel free to drop me a line. Most plans fall through for one reason or another, but hey, I also met some truly good people via urbex, so why not trying it this way? (After 9 years I have most of Kansai picked clean and I barely ever do revisits. So pretty much all day trips begin with at least two hours on trains / in cars. Another reason to love multiple day trips – we barely ever spend the night further than 30 minutes away from the first location of the day.)
On the positive side, I was able to spend some amazing days with fantastic people… exploring some spectacular old clinics and barely touched love hotels, checking out more than a dozen original finds (some of them successfully, though you won’t see all of them until later this year… or next year… or the one after that!), barely fleeing the scenes several times when triggering alarms or having nosy geezers checking out our parked cars, almost got snowed in at an abandoned golf hotel – I bought the most delicious apples I ever ate from a street vendor on a countryside road in Miyagi prefecture (they also have the best maguro don up there!), froze my butt off at the Tottori Snow Dunes, had pink ginger curry at an obscure museum that was basically about itself, forged a knife from a metal rod with little more than a hand-operated coal forge, an anvil and a hammer, climbed the 1000 steps up Yamadera, enjoyed Japanese beef in at least five prefectures, did the Geibikei river cruise, and presented some of my *North Korea photos* in a solo exhibition at a gallery in Osaka.
Having all of this written down, I guess 2018 wasn’t a bad year overall – it was just a bit disappointing considering what it could have been; and going from 45 to just 24 active days, that drop was just too much. Let’s see what 2019 will bring. Hopefully more explorations on more days with old friends and new ones. And of course more original finds, because the well-known stuff is for tourists… 🙂

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Some of you might have heard about Typhoon #21 a.k.a. Jebi – the fourth natural disaster to hit Kansai in little more than three months; not including the usual summer heat and humidity that tend to make this time of the year a real nuisance, also much worse than in the past few years. Jebi came with a paid day off for me as JR (Japan Railways) announced on Monday that they planned to shut down all services at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, which made it more than likely that other train companies / modes of transportation would follow. Unfortunately this day off also came with a more than ten hour long daytime blackout – no AC, no water, no internet. As a result I wasn’t able to write an article this week… and the work that didn’t get done I have to catch up with. Will there be an article this week? I can’t say for sure yet. Maybe tomorrow, maybe on Friday – maybe I’ll have to skip it and return to the regular schedule next Tuesday.
Other than being uncomfortable for eleven hours I luckily wasn’t affected very much by Jebi, but according to the latest media reports nine people lost their lives – my condolences to their families and friends.
Also: Hey, America! Stop sitting on your thumbs and finally put some real effort into getting Puerto Rico back on its feet! Japan is a filthy rich country and most of the damages done yesterday won’t last more than a couple of days, but come on guys… it’s been almost a year since Hurricane Maria!
(Oh, and whoever at The Economist thought that Osaka is the third most livable city in the world… think again!)

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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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