Archive for the ‘Non-Urbex’ 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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You like abandoned places, gorgeous views, and hikes on beginner level? Then Hokkaido’s Toya-Usu Geopark is perfect for you! Experience a post-apocalyptic scenario in walking distance of a relaxing spa town…

Less than two hours south of Sapporo and its New Chitose Airport is the often overlooked Toya-Usu UNESCO Global Geopark, an era with about 110000 years of activity. Back then an eruption caused a large depression to form, which filled with water over time and created what is now known as Lake Toya. Near its southern shore is Mount Usu, a rather active volcano that erupted at least nine times in the last 350 years, four times since 1910. The 1910 eruption is of importance as it created the foundation of Toyako Onsen, a rather new spa town in comparison to classics like Dogo, Hakone, or Arima. The 1977-78 eruption lead to quite a bit of destruction *as described in my 2013 article about the twisted and now abandoned Sankei Hospital*. But that didn’t keep people from building and living in the area – and some paid a price for that when Mount Usu erupted again in 2000, causing roads to twist and landslides to flood whole buildings. While the Sankei Hospital was just a single building with not much tourism prowess, the good people of Toyako turned lemons into lemonade. They cleaned up the area, constructed some landslide catching dams for safety and built some hiking trails through the destroyed area and past some craters.
The Kompirayama Walking Trail leads from the Toyako Visitor Center past the destroyed bath house and a severely damaged apartment building up the mountain past the Tama-chan crater and the Yu-kun crater as well as an abandoned factory to a sparsely populated area now predominantly catering to tourists – a little hotel, some shops, a bus stop, and a public toilet. It’s also one end of the Nishiyama Crater Walking Trail, which leads past the Nishiyamakakofuchi Park and its destroyed and sometimes flooded road up the mountain to several observation decks and then down again next to several destroyed buildings (one of them incorrectly labelled “Collapsed Kindergarten”) to the actual collapsed kindergarten. From there you can either walk to another bus stop, back to the bus stop between the trails or all the way back to Toyoko Onsen. It’s not a difficult hike by any means (hence probably the name walking trail), but there are some steep and slippery passages, especially after some precipitation – which is probably the main reason why at least the Kompirayama trail is closed from mid-November to mid-April; not sure about Nishiyama trail, which has much fewer muddy parts, but is secured by lockable gates.
I had the pleasure to walk along both trails in early November 2020, towards the end of autumn leaves season and just days before the Kompirayama trail was closed for the winter. At about 10°C the weather was comfortable, but rain on the days before made some part indeed dangerously slippery. It also didn’t help that the weather was constantly changing every 20 to 30 minutes: sunny, overcast, rainy, light snowstorm and back again, sometimes skipping one condition. (*Much like when I was exploring the nearby Chinese themed park Tenkaen eight years prior!*) So… yes, all the photos in the gallery below are from the same day and were taken with the same camera and settings, though they look quite different. It were the abandoned buildings at the foot of the Kompirayama trail that motivated to do those hikes, but there was so much more to it – especially the views at Lake Toya from the Yu-kun crater, the post-apocalyptic scenery of the destroyed and flooded road between the trails and the view at Uchiura Bay from the observation decks of the Nishiyama trail. Having done this on a mostly overcast day in late autumn during a pandemic just added to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere as I was mostly by myself with no other hikers around – I saw two or three other groups with less than a dozen people in total. Wonderful, just wonderful!

If you like Japan, abandoned buildings and easy hikes, this is a dream come true. And if you should ever plan on doing those hikes, stay a night or two in Toyako Onsen. It’s a really lovely area ignored by most tourists on their way to Hakodate, which is a real shame, because there is easily enough to see and do to keep you busy for two or three relaxed days – much longer even if relaxation is what you are looking for! (*BTW: If you are looking for more risk free urbex places for tourists, have a look at my special by clicking here!*)

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In Japan you have a museum for just about everything – even gingers! … Sorry, that’s not correct. There are no gingers in Japan, only artificial rustheads (and a few imported real ones…). So it’s a ginger museum. A pink ginger museum! The New Ginger Museum!

Tochigi Prefecture is most famous for Nikko and its Toshogu Shrine with the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, but its name-giving capital also has a tourist attraction or two to offer – probably the strangest one is the New Ginger Museum, just a quick 10 minute walk east of Tochigi Station (featuring both JR and Tobu trains!).
When I first heard about the New Ginger Museum I had no idea what to expect, but my buddy *Hamish* and I were on the way to Nikko for a road trip weekend anyway, so why not stop there and have a quick look around?
Apparently the museum is super busy on the weekends, which is why it has four designated parking lots, some of them suitable for buses, but we went on a weekday, so we were able to get of the few parking spots right in front of the building. Needless to say that there was hardly anybody there when we arrived at around 11:30 in the morning.
To both of our surprise the museum was free to enter, but if you want to spend some money, you have plenty of opportunitiws at the gift shop and the restaurant, both featuring a large variety of ginger themed / flavored options. A smart decision, because the museum turned out to be quite underwhelming. Probably 1/3 of the exhibition space was used for self-referencial things like old menus of the restaurant and posters of events held at the museum; basically a museum about the museum! Another 1/3 was used for all kinds of random pink things, from many units of the same plush animals to a pink shrine to printouts of caught pink Pokemon from Pokemon Go – I kid you not! The remaining 1/3 was actually somewhat ginger related as it depicted ginger and ginger products. Still not super interesting, but at least related to the topic. If they would have charged 500 Yen or 700 Yen at the door I would have felt slightly ripped off, but since it was free I was rather amused and more than willing to shell out several thousand Yen for lunch and presents for family and friends, like ginger scented candles and ginger salt. The food at the restaurant / cafe was actually pretty good – on one of the photos you can see pink ginger curry, pink ginger bits wrapped in bacon, ginger tea and ginger lemonade. (Speaking of which, sorry about the photo quality overall. The museum was rather dark and I didn’t bring a tripod inside, so shooting there freehand was quite challenging at times.)

The New Ginger Museum is literally and figuratively an acquired taste. I enjoyed the unhidden nonsense of it quite a bit since I was on vacation – and because it was on the way to our destination we didn’t waste much time to get there. Would it be worth a trip from Tokyo? Probably not, unless you really like (pink) ginger or really are into roadside attractions. Even as a stop to or from Nikko I would rather save the time and spend it in the mountains. But if it doesn’t take you much time and / or effort to go there I’d absolutely recommend it, just for the giggles and the gift shop.

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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!

(*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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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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