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Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Don’t judge a book by its cover – or an abandoned building by its front. It’s all about the content…

My last exploration of 2017 was a chance discovery. After successfully exploring an abandoned onsen hotel and an abandoned pachinko parlor we, a group of experienced urbexers with a total experience of about 40 years, were on our way to check out one or two places for future explorations, when we spotted from the car what looked like an abandoned factory and some kind of administrative or apartment building. After a quick discussion we decided against writing down the coordinates and for checking out the places right away – after all we were basically there already, short on time, but also 2.5 hours away from home.
We chose to not approach from the busy highway, but from a small residential area behind the two potentially abandoned buildings… and ran straight into a local taking care of some fruit trees. In a combined group effort we ignored the guy as much as he did us (luckily!), and a few minutes later we confirmed that there was no way to get inside the factory, that it might actually still be used.
The other building on the other hand… we had more luck there. What looked like a typical 1950s/60s apartment building in Japan actually turned out to be one. The setup we all knew from countless similar explorations before – staircase on one end of the building, balconies facing the sun, a hallway on each floor with windows to the north and apartment doors to the south. But the inside was in much better condition than any of us could have ever imagined… and held more than one surprise for us. Hands down my favorite part was the communal bath on the second or third floor. 60 years ago most Japanese apartments didn’t have private baths or private bathrooms. You had your small one or two room apartment with a tiny kitchen – and shared installation somewhere on your floor… or the building! (Other than rich people it was actually *miners* who were among the first to “enjoy” a private (squat) toilet in their apartments, a benefit to lure people to the remote snowy areas where back breaking jobs were waiting for them…) By the time I got to the bath, the sun was already setting, flooding the whole area with beautiful orange afternoon light; the atmosphere was kinda magical there. But even before and after it was an exploration full of surprises. For example the two pianos in the hallway of the ground floor. The vintage coke machine in one of the rooms. The mostly still furnished rooms. The many items left behind – from cutlery to posters to toys and charms.

While intense and very rewarding, exploring the Factory Dormitory was also a rushed job (hence no video!) done in 45 minutes instead of the 2 or 3 hours it deserved – but the last location of the day almost always doesn’t get enough time… and this was the last location of the year. Nevertheless is was a successful conclusion of a tremendously successful year of explorations, most of which have yet to be published; especially the unique and hard to find locations.

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The Sand Dune Palace is one of the few well-known urbex locations in Tottori – although it shouldn’t be…

I first visited the Tottori Sand Dune Palace during Golden Week of 2012 and *wrote about it half a year later*. Built in 1965 right across the street from the famous sand dunes, Tottori’s #1 tourist attraction, the Sand Dune Palace was used as a restaurant and souvenir shop for a few decades before falling into disrepair and out of business – giving it the abandoned look both urban explorers and readers of urbex blogs like so much. But looks are deceiving… and the dune palace has actually never been really abandoned.
When I first explored the palace solo in spring of 2012 it was quite a famous urbex location, yet nobody had ever posted inside photos – which is usually a bad sign. But the building looked somewhat interesting with its round lookout on the top floor, so I gave it a chance. There were plenty of potential entry points – large windows, several doors on different floors, but they were all locked… and the outdoor staircases were blocked by rusting barbed wire. Yesterday I went back to the Sand Dune Palace with two great explorer friends on the way back to Osaka. The whole area, including the sand dunes, was covered by a thick layer of snow, so my second visit was a completely different experience, though not much less disappointing. People had cut through the barbed wire and made the higher floors accessible, but only on the outside. All the upper doors were locked, too, and nobody dares to smash a window; which is quite unusual for a building that sees some traffic passing by, but is not really in busy area. On the ground floor one of the doors apparently had been fixed… and the formerly empty main room was now filled with boxes, so clearly somebody is / was using the Sand Dune Palace as a storage facility. The question is… for how much longer? On the parking lot I saw tons of ready to use scaffolding, which gave me a serious flashback to May 2016, when I first saw scaffolding in front of *Nara Dreamland* – a few months later the greatest abandoned theme park of all time was gone…
As on my first visit, the photos of the Sand Dune Palace look much more interesting than the place actually was, so if you like the picture set below, *please click here to get to the previous exploration* for more photos!

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Japanese men have a thing for chicks! They love young firm breasts and meaty thighs, preferably while getting drunk. And while some of those school girl fantasies could be considered borderline child pornography outside of Japan, restaurants serving chicken dishes are also quite popular…

Yakitori restaurants are amongst the most popular eateries in Japan, especially for groups and couples. As the name yakitori implies (焼き – grilled / 鳥 – chicken), those places focus on grilled chicken dishes, usually on skewers. Chicken meatballs, pieces of chicken breast, chicken hearts, chicken livers, chicken skin, chicken cartilage – the latter gives you an impression of what it is like to bite somebody’s nose or ear off, but some people seem to like it. In addition to meat there are usually some side dishes available. French fries, salads, kimchi, pickles, … Prices vary dramatically from affordable to “I didn’t want to buy the whole friggin’ farm!” and depend on several factors, like most restaurants. Since Japanese people tend to prefer fatty thigh meat over the perceived dry breast meat, rather cheap chicken chain places often serve breast meat – much to the joy of most foreigners, who tend to prefer breast meat. In any case, yakitori restaurants are awesome places to hang out with colleagues or friends for a quick dinner or to have food and alcohol all night long… and unlike at *yakiniku restaurants* you get your food properly cooked and don’t have to do it yourself. (BTW: While not considered a yakitori restaurant, KFC is widely popular in Japan. So popular that they managed to establish buckets of KFC chicken as a common Christmas dinner!)

Growing up in a rather small town in German I was always aware that meat comes from animals and doesn’t grow pre-packed on trees, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of Japanese people have never seen a chicken farm – mainly because they are much better hidden than in Germany, where you can often see them from highways or in the outskirts of small towns. In Japan they tend to be in small side-valleys or halfway up a mountain; out of sight, out of mind, out of smelling distance.
As urbex locations chicken farms are not super interesting, but ‘better than nothing’. Being unusual places only a few people have regular contact with they have the potential to feature some unusual items – like the debeaker I found at the *Poultry Farm* six years ago. The Japanese Chicken Farm was the last location of spring exploration day and got more and more interesting the further I got, which means that I ran out of light and therefore out of time after 45 minutes. At first the farm looked quite unimpressive, an agglomeration of long and narrow metal sheds, most of them more or less empty – but then there was this extremely rusted, yet still almost complete one that featured a ton of machinery and other interesting items. No word on when and why it was abandoned though…

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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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Common cuisine and uncommon architecture – this now abandoned BBQ restaurant once offered food… and food for thought!

Yakiniku is the Japanese term for “grilled meat” and a widely popular dish from Okinawa to Hokkaido. The nowadays often romanticized samurai days of Japan’s history (which include neither Okinawa nor Hokkaido…) were actually rather miserable for pretty much everybody involved – a poor agrarian state under autocratic rule, where even the 1% weren’t rich and the poorer explored the poorest. For centuries rice wasn’t food for the average people, but a way to pay taxes… and beef consumption was forbidden before the Meiji Restoration in 1871; yep, no Kobe Beef 150 years ago! But the Meiji Restoration changed Japan fundamentally in many ways, including the way people ate. All of a sudden beef consumption was not only permitted, it was actively promoted as one of many ways to introduce western culture. Over the years yakiniku changed from western style steaks and roasts via Jingisukan (“Genghis Khan”, grilled lamb / mutton, named after the famous Mongol leader) in the 1930s to a Korean style BBQ from WW2 on; consisting of beef, pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables, and so called horumon (“discarded items”), cuts like heart, liver, stomach, intestines and even uterus. Usually up to four people share a shichirin (round charcoal grill) which is located in the center of a table. You choose from a menu what you want (for example: three portions of vegetables, two portions of beef loin, two portions of pork belly, 3 portions of chicken thighs, and three portions of squid) – the raw food is delivered on plates and you put it on the shichirin yourself; everybody at the table then picks pieces when they are done to their liking. Some places offer all you can eat from about 2000 Yen on (about 18 USD), but yakiniku can also quickly set you back the equivalent of several hundred USD if you go to a good restaurant – if you order à la carte at an average yakinikuya you’ll probably end up paying about 4000 Yen including drinks.

When I first saw the Japanese Yakiniku Restaurant on a Japanese website I had no idea what it was. The page only showed outside photos of this partly overgrown, massive square concrete building and the round pods surrounding it – and I fell instantly in love with the unusual construction as I clearly have a thing for brutalist architecture. (BTW: If you are in Frankfurt, Germany, before April 3rd consider visiting the “Deutsches Architekturmuseum” – they currently host an amazing exhibition about brutalism, bilingual, of course; *please click here for more information*) And so I kept looking for that mysterious place until I found it about a year later, this time with the information that it was an abandoned restaurant.
Unfortunately the weather and I weren’t on good terms last autumn. The forecast predicted rain for the evening, but if course it started to drizzle just minutes after we arrived at the deserted place mid-morning shortly after 10. I did some quick outdoor shots from a distance, but by the time I got closer to the building the drizzle had turned into regular rain. Luckily one of the concrete pods was open – it wasn’t exactly spacious inside, but it offered a really nice photo opportunity. The other ones were all still locked and due to the weather and the glass doors it was pretty much impossible to take decent photos of the pods with the untouched interior. Exploring the main building it became pretty apparent that the Japanese Yakiniku Restaurant wasn’t closed for good from one day to the next. The main dining area was pretty much empty and even in the private black dining room the table including the shichirin had been removed; the kitchen was gone completely, except for a hot water heater. Back outside the rain had become heavier and prevented me from finishing the exploration the way I wanted it to finish – I grew quickly tired of becoming soaking wet and having to dry my lens every two shots, so I called it a day and looked for a still open place to have lunch… which turned out to be a local delicacy – deer curry; delicious!
Interesting abandoned restaurants are not very common even in Japan, so if you enjoyed the Japanese Yakiniku Restaurant, I recommend having a look at the *Tottori Countryside Restaurant*

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Japanese hot spring spas are some of the most relaxing places on earth and offer from barely more than a wooden tub full of hot water to everything from massages to chill-out rooms to meals. This exploration though started rather stressful… and almost didn’t happen.

Before arriving at the Tohoku Spa with my friends Dan, Kyoko and Heather I knew little to nothing about it – which is always a two-edged affair. On the one hand it’s exciting as everything is new and unknown, on the other hand those places are risky in many ways. Is the place still there? Is it accessible? If it’s accessible, does it have alarms or security? If not, is it any good?
From a distance the Tohoku Spa seemed to be in decent condition. Sure, the parking lot was a little bit overgrown, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as almost a decade has passed since it was closed according to several sources… and there was a bit of trash outside, though that could have been dumped there by strangers. But other than that the building and the massive walls of the outdoor baths weren’t rundown or damaged. The first few doors we tried were tightly locked, the massive glass front didn’t even have a crack, including the glass doors, which is quite unusual given the rather rural location of the spa… and the four table arcade machines in the lobby – all of them in excellent condition, given their age and that they were used in a public space. Other than that the lobby looked like as if there were some renovations going on, but it was impossible to say whether 9 minutes, 9 days, 9 weeks, 9 months, or 9 years passed since somebody entered the building. And so we kept circling the building, looking for open / broken doors or windows – and failed! Well, I knew that the spa was closed, but I had never seen photos from the inside, so it was indeed possible that this exploration could have ended before it began… And just as we were about to give up we found a way in. Not a pretty or easy one, but at least it didn’t qualify as B&E…

The ground floor of the Tohoku Spa consisted of two large indoor baths with several pools, a sauna and the usual “get yourself clean first” stations as well as two decently sized outdoor baths, so-called rotenburo – one for men, one for women. While one changing room was cluttered with all kind of items, including more table arcade machines, the other one was empty. The baths also looked like as if there was some (de)construction going on, and the back of the gigantic kitchen even showed an area definitely used by people for (smoking) breaks. Yes, at one point there was definitely some heavy work going one… hopefully 9 years ago, not 9 minutes ago!
The upper floor featured two large rest rooms, as in “resting after a long hot bath”, a movie room, an outdoor area and a restaurant with several rooms for cozy dinners as well as large karaoke parties. Much like on the ground floor there had been quite a bit of renovation work / demolition prep been done – furniture to certain rooms, carpets and wallpapers removed, … There was still quite a bit to see, but luckily the upper floor was less interesting than the lower one, otherwise this exploration would have taken me much longer than the two hour it already took me – especially as my friends were ready to leave after an hour or so; which they actually did to look for a kombini since we arrived at the spa without having breakfast first. Exploring in the countryside… you never know when you’ll get your next meal – and all the spa had to offer was fake food and a dead bird…

Nevertheless a good exploration overall. I liked the narrow maintenance hallway between the two bath areas, the rotenburo for men was rather nice, obviously I can’t get enough of abandoned arcade machines, and I really loved some of the remaining ornaments in the baths, one of which became my new wallpaper – on location it reminded me of a shisa, but I guess it was more of a shachihoko. (Any experts out there?) So I finally left after about two hours to reunite with my friends, who patiently waited in the car after their return – on the way there I took one last photo, of an underwear vending machine. Fresh, clean underwear. Not used one… at least I hope it wasn’t used!

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Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but puddles of sweat – urbex in July and August comes with its own set of challenges in Japan…

I think I’ve mentioned before that I usually take a break from exploring in Japan during the summer months, especially in July in August. In June the humidity in Kansai and the surrounding areas skyrockets due to the rainy season, in July the heat kicks in, and in August temperatures tend to be between 34°C (day time) and 30°C (at night) in the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto megalopolis. You probably don’t mind if you are used to that kind of weather, but I’m from west-central Germany, where temperatures are 5°C lower in average – and humid days are rather rare… and never for up to four months in a row. In addition to that bugs are much smaller and other animals are less poisonous than in Central Japan, because… well, you know… nature likes Central Europe. But exploring is like celebrating – you have to when you have the opportunity… even if the circumstances are borderline crazy!
2017, late July, Friday evening – after a long week of work two friends of mine picked me up at home at half past 10. The goal? A 24/7 super sento (large public bath with places to sleep – on the floor in special rooms, on benches, or special chairs, …) in a suburb or Hiroshima, a “nice and easy” 4+ hour drive away from Osaka. We arrived at around 2 a.m., took a bath, and crashed on some benches at around 3 a.m. for two and a half cool hours of sleep. The sun rises early in Japan in July, we had places to go to, and time was of the essence! After a kombini breakfast, the *Horseshoe Hospital*, and a quick snack for lunch in the car we arrived at the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic pretty much exactly at high noon – and walking the 100 meters from a nearby parking lot to the hospital mansion felt like being an ant under a magnifying glass. While the partly overgrown (and partly collapsed!) mansion, roped-off by city officials to prohibit people from entering, offered protection from the sun, it did little to nothing regarding heat, humidity and gnats.
While it is hard to say how much of the damage to the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic was natural decay and how much was vandalism (some rooms were nearly untouched, others looked like some people vented their frustrations), it’s easy to say that this was a fascinating exploration. I just love those old countryside clinics, mansions with doctors’ offices. There was so much to see, so many unusual items to take pictures of – like the creepy dolls in the living room, the German medical books, or the labels for medicine bottles.

When we left after just 1.5 hours it was a bittersweet departure. On the one hand I would have loved to stay at least another 1.5 hours to finish taking pictures, on the other hand I was happy to get back to an air-conditioned area. At that point I was literally dripping of sweat, my T-shirt wasn’t able to hold an additional drop. To accelerate the drying process in the car I actually took it off and wrung it out – much to the entertainment of my fellow explorers. Apparently one of my many useless ‘skills’ in life is ‘sweating’… Sadly I’ll never get a chance to return to the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic, one of the little known abandoned hospitals in Japan – last week I found out that it has been demolished shortly after my visit; again bittersweet… On the one hand I would have loved to have another look, on the other hand I am forever grateful to my friends who took me there… and for my decision to join them, because when you have the opportunity to explore, you better take it – there might not be a next time!

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