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Archive for the ‘Okayama’ Category

An old wooden abandoned school well hidden deep in the mountains of Okayama – and the burning question: Where did the children come from who once visited this now deserted building?

It’s no secret that Japan’s countryside is dying, especially the traditionally sparsely populated mountainous areas. Along tiny, barely maintained roads you can find countless abandoned houses and small settlements often kilometers away from each other – no shops, no public buildings, no nothing anywhere close. Over the years I’ve explored abandoned schools in the most remote areas… in tiny villages and on mountain ridges. On the way I always passed at least a dozen houses, so even the smallest schools made kind of sense, but the Okayama Elementary School appeared out of nowhere on the left side of the road, almost swallowed by the surrounding forest… Not a single house in sight or sound, and I couldn’t remember the last time I saw one. Where did the children come from that visited this school? Did they live in hamlet that are completely gone now? I don’t know and I’ll probably never find out…
Since I was exploring with Japanese friends, my time at the Okayama Elementary School was limited to less than an hour – and though the school was rather small even by abandoned countryside school standards, there were quite a few items left behind, which made this an interesting exploration. In addition to the fact that this is one terribly hard to find school. I didn’t even know about it before that day and only recognized it once since then on another post that was published before my visit in 2016. The typical “Oh, they took that picture THERE…” realization that puts a knowing smile on your face. Unfortunately I don’t know much else about this school. A calendar sheet with tropical fish pinned to one wall was from March / April 1973, which makes sense as the new school year in Japan starts in early April. That would mean that the school was closed years before I was even born – and from the looks of it, that’s not an unreasonable conclusion…

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One way to find abandoned places is to keep your eyes open and to check out locations that look suspicious – so when my friend Rory saw a dodgy looking sign from the highway, we took the next exit to check out the area behind the rusty metal construction…

Ten years ago we probably wouldn’t have found a way to the place Rory saw, but thanks to modern technology it was rather easy to navigate some small back roads to what turned out to be an abandoned love hotel under demolition. The entrance of property was blocked by heavy machinery, probably to prevent metal thieves from driving right in and loading their trucks. To the right was a regular countryside house, western style – further down the road we saw the actual hotel, already ripped half apart.
Exploring the Japanese home felt kinda strange – the (previous?) owners took most of their belongings, but there were some pieces of furniture and some electronics left behind, plus a couple of random items, like omamori; Japanese charms usually sold at shrines during hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year (which is also used to dispose of old omamori to avoid bad luck – you see the genius business model!). Overall the house wasn’t in bad condition, so it was kind of a waste to get rid of it, but I guess that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes…
The far more interesting part was the hotel down the driveway. It had the typical love motel layout with garages on the ground floor and small staircases leading up to the rooms, but a box of matches labelled it as a “car hotel inn” named Regent Hotel – obviously not part of the famous Regent International Hotels chain of luxury accommodations. Although the place once had been a solid ferroconcrete structure, the ongoing demolition made parts of it rather sketchy. Nevertheless we had a closer look to find out what it really was. Thanks to a calendar in the family home we knew that it was most likely abandoned in 2008, six years prior to our visit, and a look at some of the remaining doors proved that it had been a love hotel indeed – the room rates were still written on them. Other than that not much left behind. A gutted and rather disgusting kitchen, a bed frame here and there, one bathtub in a bathroom and trash in the yard; both piled and scattered. There we found more indicators for our love hotel theory, but you gotta see for yourself in the gallery.

Exploring this half-demolished love hotel surely wasn’t a highlight in my urbex career, but it was nevertheless an interesting experience as it literally and figuratively gave us some insight into this strangely fascinating world – and it was a neat addition to regular love hotel explorations, like the one in *Furuichi*. It also was a good start into this urbex day as later on we explored the famous *White School* and the amazing *Japanese Art School*; two legendary locations and true classics in the Japanese urbex world.

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I fell in love with this abandoned restaurant (and onsen) instantly when I first saw a photo of the building about two years ago. Sadly the interior didn’t live up to the expectations when I finally got there…

There is always a lot of construction going on in Japan. Most buildings are having a life expectancy of just 30 years, a lot of river beds are embattled with concrete, and mountain roads once following the natural formations of small streams and hills are rectified by tunnel shortcuts. The Japanese Restaurant & Onsen, apparently a luxury product of the 1980s bubble economy, was located on one of those river bends that were cut off by a new road with a tunnel. It looks like once all the traffic from and to the mountains had to pass by the gorgeous little complex – and then all of a sudden people were able to speed by a sign on a much bigger road; most likely the kiss of death for this beautiful relaxation oasis.
Sadly I wasn’t able to find much reliable information on this location – when it was built exactly, when it was abandoned, if it was just a rest house or if they had rooms to rent. The main complex with the restaurant was actually so overgrown that we were lucky to get there in winter; in summer it’s probably inaccessible without a machete. While the small complex looked amazing from the outside, the inside wasn’t able to match. A lot of rooms were empty or just had a few objects lying around – and it was moldy like hardly any place I’ve been to before. I’m sure the area gets quite a bit a snow in February / March, and being located directly next to a mountain river probably didn’t help either. The onsen building across the street was in much better condition, but neither a place I would want to stay for a whole. The interior was rather simplistic, but not without beauty – stone, bright wood, nice carpets. I definitely can imagine people having a luxury meal and then enjoying a good soak there, probably the best way to break up a long drive for one or one and a half hours!

Years of abandonment obviously didn’t do any good to this interesting, somewhat contorted complex – while it was a bit disappointing to explore, it still offered some great angles and objects, for example the huge stone lantern outside at the dried-out pond.

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about exploring the abandoned *Lower Terminus of the Yubara Onsen Ropeway* (if you are interested in the history of the place, please read that article first as I don’t plan to reiterate it). It was quite easy to find, quite easy to access, quite easy to explore.
The upper terminus was a little less known and a little harder to find (or at least it was three years ago, when GoogleMaps wasn’t nearly as detailled in the countryside as it is now), but obviously a worthwile destination to be combined with the lower terminus, if for nothing else but convenience – like most people we got to Yubara Onsen by car, so the difference in elevation wasn’t much of a problem. Finding the half-overgrown building though was a bit of a challenge as it was behind a corner after several left or right decisions walking up a slope from the road below.
Arriving at the upper terminus, we were rewarded by a stunning view of the surrounding mountains, including a massive storage reservoir. Half a dozen coin-operated binocular were once lined up here, but only the Nikon labelled poles were still there. The building itself was much more vandalized and delapidated than the valley station, which didn’t give us a boost of confidence, given that it was forming a platform over the slope – when that thing goes down the mountain, you don’t want to be on there for the ride! It looked like a typical ropeway building, with a small restaurant at the entrance and the platform and machinery room at the far end of the construction. Sadly there wasn’t much left, except for a rusty cash register, a broken wooden chair and some machinery on the ground floor. The metal stairs leading up to the control room were very rusty, a couple of footholds actually missing; and I really hope that nobody got hurt when that happened. Being a rather big guy myself I took it as a warning and refrained from climbing up there, hoping that one day I would be able to explore a less risky ropeway control room. (My patience was rewarded just a couple of weeks later during a solo exploration trip to Tottori prefecture at a virtually unknown station there. Stay tuned, it’s one of many great stories yet to come!)
Overall the upper terminus of the Yubara Onsen Ropeway was an easy, rather unspectacular exploration on a sunny spring day – nothing too exciting, rather relaxed actually; a pleasant, yet not very memorable experience, but one I’d repeat at any time, if for nothing else than spending an hour with friends in the countryside.

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The Japanese Art School in the mountains of Okayama was one of those mysterious and legendary places I wanted to visit for years, but wasn’t able to find… and in the end I barely made it!

In spring of 2014 I was exploring the *White School* with my urbex buddy Rory when… Darn, I actually forgot the details of the story. We finished exploring the school and somehow we talked about the art school, though it wasn’t even on our schedule for the day. I think Rory’s wife, who helped me out finding the *Japanese Gold Cult*, pinned down the general area of the Japanese Art School the day before and we had to decide whether wanted to head to a mediocre *haikyo* I located exactly… or if we wanted to roll the dice and go for the unknown. So we headed north, deeper into the mountains. We knew that the school was near a very countryside train station (5 connections per day in each direction!), but that almost turned out to be a dead end. Rory tried to call his wife for more details while we spent about an hour or two on foot and by car looking for the art school. Running out of time we dared a most desperate move: We just stopped at a house near the train station and asked the people living there if they knew about the school. Not only did they in fact do, the lady of the house was even willing to escort us there! A kilometer can be near, but it also can be very, very far… especially when you have to turn half a dozen times and don’t know where.

The sun already started to set when we arrived at the school and I knew that time was of the essence. Access was surprisingly easy, though navigating was rather tough due to serious damage to the wooden floors. While I am still not 100% sure what the Japanese Art School really was, it turned out that at the end of its use it had been a private company – originally it was a local elementary school, closed in 1975. Japanese urbex blogs always portrayed it as an art school, but upon arrival (and based on what our lady guide told us) it was pretty clear that there was more to it. We entered through a massive hole in the wall and stumbled into some kind of warehouse I was never aware of. 40 years prior it must have been the main auditorium of the school, but now it was filled with boxes and crates full with all kinds of art supplies: colored pencils, oil colors, engraving knives, watercolors, little bottles and flasks and even models of pagodas and horses. Dozends, hundreds, thousands – depending on the item and its size. A lot more stuff than an art school could make use of in decades! One of the former class rooms was equipped with a heavy machine to help casting busts and masks, bolted to the wooden ground; the room next to it was a storage of those busts. The second main building was stuffed with all kinds of art equipment, too, including a room focusing on sewing. And one thing was pretty clear: There wasn’t enough space to house a full-blown art school, even if you would limit it to painting and sewing. The whole thing looked more like an art supplies company that manufactured busts and masks (some of which I had seen before at the amazing *Shizuoka Countryside School* and other places!) and probably offered hobby arts and craft lessons to the locals.

For a little under two hours I felt like a kid in a candy store… or a nerdy kid in an art supply store. There was so much to see, so much to discover! The auditorium alone would have deserved two hours, but I had to rush to see everything – I wouldn’t have had time to open boxes or drawers even if I would have wanted to. Interestingly enough this forced me to be creative with angles, focal lengths and exposure times. Overwhelming and challenging, the Japanese Art School was all I hoped for. And it left me yearning for more, which is one of the best things in life; having a great experience that makes you desperately wanting more… like a fantastic first date!
Sadly my heart was broken just half a year later, in September, before I was able to see the Japanese Art School again – it was cleaned out and most likely demolished…

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The Jonan Junior High School a.k.a. the White School is one of those abandoned places that are spectacular in very subtle ways.
Japan’s countryside is full of old schools, ranging from barely open for business to closed and preserved to closed and locked up to just abandoned to collapsed. But one thing all of them have in common – they are brown wooden buildings, inside and outside; at best they have a protecting frontage to prevent or at least slow down decay. (*A prime example for such a school you can see here.*)

At first sight the Jonan Junior High School was just one more of those schools somewhere in the Japanese mountains. From the distance it didn’t even look abandoned. Closed at best / worst. But upon closer look it became quickly evident that *Rory* and I found the right place. Fenced off by a rusty barbed wire metal construction, the back of the school revealed a partly collapsed wooden restroom building. After we found a way on the premises we were lucky to find a way in – a couple of boarded-up window were proof that somebody had taken care of the school for a while, and that vandalism is a problem even in countryside towns.
At first the White School is amazing – a large wooden hallway, almost looking endless through an ultra wide-angle lens. Whoever closed the school decided to take out the interior walls that made up the classrooms, so the wooden two-storey building basically consisted of two long hallways, two gigantic rooms with support logs and two staircases, plus smaller rooms on the upper floor. All painted white! But after about 15 minutes of excitement one quickly realizes that there is not much else. A photo on the wall on the lower floor, some rather random items left behind in one of the small rooms on the upper floor, that’s i t. And that’s usually all you get to see when the White School appears on the internet.
Luckily there was more to see. Several more buildings actually, but none of them were painted white, so I guess nobody gives them much attention. First there was the apartment of the caretaker. The kitchen was still in decent condition, but the floor of the living room collapsed and it was rather dark inside. And then there were three smaller school buildings, looking similar from the outside, but brown inside. And indeed, after being flashed by the white empty main building the common brown areas looked rather boring, almost dull.

Nevertheless it was a great experience to finally explore the White School. It came to my attention quite a while ago and due to circumstances out of my control it took me a while to finally have a look myself – and I enjoyed it as it is such a unique place to see. Not worth to spend a day trip on, but perfect when on the way to an even better location, borderline mind-blowing, to be honest… But that’s a story for another time! 🙂

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All of the photos I publish with articles on Abandoned Kansai are without any form of enhancing post-production – I don’t even crop them; they either look good or they don’t. Every once in a while I like to play with an HDR tool or two. I wouldn’t call those photos enhanced or improved, I would barely call them photos anymore. That’s why I created a sub-page for them in the background. Today I added ten more of those little artworks to that page. *Please click here to have a look!*

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