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As of a week ago, one of my biggest urbex regrets had been not exploring the abandoned Western Village before its demolition. I found out about this Wild West amusement park many years ago, long before it was picked up by Japanese urbex blogs, but it was far away from Osaka, nestled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, giving it a Rocky Mountains-ish vibe. A trip rather time and money consuming, I kept postponing my visit, until I heard in autumn of 2014 that Western Village had joined the long list of famous places demolished last year. Apparently that news was rather exaggerated, as I read by chance last week – heavy machinery had been put into position and a locomotive was removed, but the main park was still there… at least during the Japanese winter break, ending on January 4th 2015. So I did what every upstanding person with regrets would have done: I tossed all concerns about money and time out of the window and headed up to Tochigi to explore Western Village before it was gone for good! (Which is probably, but not necessarily, happening as you read these lines…)

Western Village emerged from a family owned guest ranch with a few horses and a fishing pond called Kinugawa Family Ranch, started in the early 1970s as an additional attraction for visitors of a nearby hot spring – there were metal cups labelled that way all over the premises, most likely around 40 years old and once sold in gift shops. Kenichi and Masayuki Ominami’s uniquely themed leisure park was divided into several zones, the last one added in 1995 for about 25 million USD, featuring a three-floor building with a 1/3 scale replica of Mount Rushmore; the latter earned Western Village a few awards, from the Mount Rushmore Society and Northwest Airlines, making the park’s then-president Kenichi Ominami a honorary governor of South Dakota. Main attractions included said Mount Rushmore, several (now removed) locomotives and cars imported from the United States, and a live Wild West show – minor attractions were an arcade, two haunted houses, and lots of smaller buildings with western content. In addition to that, Western Village was often used as a film set for promotional videos and movies.
From 2003 to 2006 visitors were able to rent Segways, and in its later years of existence the entrance fee was lowered from 2400 to 1500 Yen, but all of that didn’t stop the demise of Western Village. In 2006 the official website announced that the park would be closed from December 6th till late March 2007 (the end of the business year) for maintenance, but the park never opened again as announced in February of 2007. In April 2007 the Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s biggest newspapers, reported that the creditor NIS Group filed for foreclosure of land and buildings in the Tokyo District Court in September 2006, deciding that it would be financially impossible to re-open the park. Since then Western Village has fallen into disrepair, suffering from metal thieves and vandalism, despite reports of security on patrol and the Tochigi police training on the premises. In the second half of 2014 Japanese explorers reported that the demolition of Western Village had begun. Usually something like that takes only a few days in Japan, a couple of weeks max, if the crew is small or if ferroconcrete buildings are involved. So everybody believed Western Village was no more and none of the visitors since then cared to debunk the rumors… until last week.

Every year around New Year’s Day Japan shuts down for about a week, coming to a near standstill on January 1st. On that day only basic services like trains, taxis and 24/7 supermarkets are running, even most bank ATMs are shut down – the perfect time to get out of the country or to welcome visitors without having to take sparse paid days off. In my case, my sister was visiting, so I was super busy planning and executing day trips, dinner with friends and stuff. By coincidence I saw a friend posting on Facebook that he just came back from Western Village and that heavy machinery was still in place, idle during winter break. Without time to plan anything, I packed a small bag with some clothes and my camera equipment, actually forgetting my ultra-wide angle lens. On Friday morning I accompanied my sister to the airport for a proper farewell, headed back to Osaka (without stopping at home) and took several trains north – continuing to Western Village on Saturday, spending more than six hours till sunset on the premises.

While a good portion of *Nara Dreamland* was just false front, Western Village was actually a full-blown Wild West town. All buildings were accessible, all of them had a purpose. The fully stocked arcade was surprisingly big and featured a custom made animatronic shooting game as well as classic video games like Space Harrier, Alpine Racer and Crazy Taxi. Two gigantic restaurants were able to feed hundreds of customers at the same time, not to mention the saloon next to the gift shop. There was a fake hotel, a barber, a bank, a black smith, and a sheriff office; interestingly enough the fake looking church was real, imported from California. Several attractions costing extra money included a haunted house, the now almost empty Mystery Shock with its messed up floors and walls, a shooting game featuring futuristic looking guns (long before Cowboys & Aliens!) and a photographer’s shop, where you could dress up in cliché outfits. Some of those buildings were “inhabited” by animatronic characters like a clerk, a bartender and a Pony Express employee, giving the now abandoned park a really spooky Westworld vibe, especially since most of those animatronics were built to match the likenesses of movie icons. (The older among us remember Michael Crichton’s movie with Yul Brunner and James Brolin, the younger will get a star-packed HBO version produced by J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan soon.)
Western Village has suffered quite a bit from vandalism and natural decay over the last couple of years. Animatronics and mannequins have been moved all over the park, so were clothes from the photographer’s shop and several single items. Some people clearly had fun positioning large teddy bears (from an exhibition at the Mount Rushmore building) behind partly smashed doors and lurking creepily through windows. The auditorium at the foot of Mount Rushmore was rather overgrown even in winter, and the veranda of the hotel was on the brink of collapse – but overall Western Village was still in decent condition, considering that it consists largely of wood and is one of the most popular *haikyo* in all of Japan. It’s totally beyond me that *Nara Dreamland* is super popular and Western Village is completely overlooked; the latter one is actually in much better condition (well, probably because of it…). Sure, it lacks the rollercoasters, but it’s stuffed with tons of interesting items and animatronics. It’s a lot easier to access and has a unique subject matter, especially considering its location… Japan. Overall a fantastic exploration – and I really hope that somebody will hold back the heavy machines for a while, so more people will be able to explore Western Village!

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More often than not I barely have any information about the places I visit in advance. Sometimes I only saw a photo and have a general idea where to look for the location. It was like that when visiting the *Bibai Bio Center* – and the Horonai Substation was not much different. A red brick building somewhere in the middle of nowhere – and a road leading there. That was it. I didn’t expect a spectacular location… and I didn’t find one. Nevertheless it was a good exploration with an interesting history, the first one on my *haikyo trip to Hokkaido*. *Michael* thought so, too – although he almost paid a steep price for making a snow angel…

History

The Horonai Mine has an incredibly and unusually long history, dating back to the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Back then it was a time of new departures and Hokkaido still was kind of unknown territory. Japan recently opened itself to the world after more than two and a half centuries of information and immigration control, relying heavily on foreign experts to accomplish in a couple of decades what Europe and the States took about a century – industrialization. Just a decade prior Hokkaido was still known as Ezochi and for its renitent inhabitants, but the new government in the newly appointed capital Tokyo pushed for the development of Japan’s most northern prefecture… and population rose from 58.000 to 240.000 in the mere ten years of the 1870s. Agriculture and mining became the prefecture’s most important industries – and while agriculture is still important (especially wheat, potatoes, pumpkins, corn, raw milk, and beef), mining isn’t. The amount of abandoned mines in Hokkaido is incredible, but since most of them are in extremely rural areas, often hours away from bigger cities, we decided to visit the Horonai Coal Mine as an example – because it wasn’t completely out of the way, came with an electrical substation and, to our surprise, with the Horonai Shrine.
It wasn’t until writing this article though that I found out that the Horonai Mine was actually Hokkaido’s oldest modern mine and that Hokkaido’s first railroad, the Horonai Railway, was built to establish and operate the Horonai Mine. It’s said that in 1868 a local resident discovered coal in Horonai, but it wasn’t until 1872 that the village received any attention, leading to a survey in 1873. Expecting massive amounts of high quality coal in Horonai plans were made concrete in 1877 and money was raised through industrial bonds in 1878 after important statesmen like Ito Hirobumi and Yamagata Aritomo visited the area in previous years and campaigned to establish a mine. Further surveys were conducted in May of 1878 and the mine was opened on December 18th 1878, reaching full production almost four years later in June of 1882.
Plans for the Horonai Railway, necessary to transport the coal mined in Horonai to places where it could be used, were finalized in December of 1879, so construction of the railway began in January of 1880, installation began in July of the same year – technology and knowledge was imported from the United States by J.U. Crawford, who oversaw the railway construction project for the Japanese government; the line was officially opened on September 13th 1883 and was used for the transportation of passengers as well as coal.
In 1889 both the mine and the railroad were privatized, probably for little money, as both of them were not profitable at all. This happened a lot in the late 19th century in Japan, strengthening the so-called zaibatsu (gigantic family controlled holding companies, amongst them still famous corporations like Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Kawasaki), but also countless mid-sized companies (although sometimes even profitable companies were given away for a fraction of what they were worth…). Business continued for another 100 years and ended in 1989, when most of the buildings were demolished for security reasons – and because back then industrial heritage wasn’t considered worthy of preservation. (The Völklingen Ironworks in Völklingen, Germany, and the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, Germany, were actually spearheading the idea of maintaining old industrial buildings, becoming UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994 and 2001 respectively.)
A not so fun “fun fact”: Like many other mines in Hokkaido, Horonai was taking advantage of prison labor. Not only during times of war, but in the early years, both before and after privatization. In 1883 250 prisoners worked next to 228 general laborers. In 1890 there were 1.043 prisoners and 183 normal workers “employed”, the forced labor accounting for more than 80% of the work force, extraction and transportation almost exclusively relying on prison labor! (It was actually thanks to the prison laborers that the Horonai Mine survived the first couple of years. From 1882 to 1888 the mine was deep in the red with only one profitable year and couldn’t even afford to implement mechanized coal transport – that actually happened only after it was privatized and exploited prisoners as cheap labor for years. And after the extraction costs per ton of coal were cut down to one sixth over the course of six years till privatization in 1889.)
The Horonai Mine also gathered some local fame in Japan when it was used as the setting of the second Season of Survivor (サバイバー) in 2002 – after Palau, but before the Philippines and North Mariana. Probably the most original setting ever and by now much more exotic than all those islands in the Pacific Ocean; they look all the same to me anyway! (I usually don’t link to other people’s Youtube videos, but *here is the intro to that season* in 240p. Don’t miss the *video I took at mine in late November* in 720p!)

Exploration

When we arrived on location the initial situation wasn’t promising. Several hundred meters before we reached the substation we had to park the car as the road was completely snowed in. Luckily there were tire tracks (we were able to walk in) from a more suitable vehicle, but the road itself wasn’t accessible with the small car we rented. As we got ready to walk up the hill we saw a guy and his dog coming back to their car. Nothing unusual, until we saw that the guy was carrying a rifle. Not the usual BB guns you have everywhere in Japan. A real friggin rifle! Even if he wasn’t shooting trespassers we were wondering what he was hunting in the forest ahead of us… and if his prey might want to get a shot at hunting us…
Nevertheless we followed the previously mentioned tire tracks deeper into the valley. To the right we saw several concrete ruins of the Horonai Mine, abandoned in 1989, when the mine was closed after 110 years. Everywhere along the road we found information signs (Japanese only…) and it seems like the area was converted into a “coal mine scene park” in 2005. It turned out that the first abandoned place on our trip wasn’t actually that abandoned, more like a tourist attraction – like the *Shime Coal Mine*, a.k.a. the *Anti-Zombie Fortress*. Of course there were no tourists seen anywhere, so I guess the place is only of interest in the snow-free summer months… and basically inaccessible the rest of the year. Michael of course was eager to head over to concrete remains, but given the deep snow and the unknown terrain I was able to convince him to look for the substation first – especially since the grey leftovers didn’t look like they contained anything interesting.

It took us about half an hour to walk from the parking lot to the substation and the tire tracks ended a couple of dozen meters before reaching our destination thanks to a collapsed tree on the road – from that point on we had to walk through the snow which was about 30 centimeters deep.
The Horonai Substation, a two-storey brick-clad concrete building, was built in the 1920s, more than 40 years after the mine was opened, and received its electricity from a coal fired power plant in Shimizusawa. That plant, which was fuelled by coal from the Yubari Mine, not the Horonai Mine, is still in existence and closed in 1991, but was not visited by yours truly as the roads leading there would have required a separate day trip.
Sadly there wasn’t that much to see: The metal constructions of the transformers and the brick covered building – locked by a solid chain, but luckily Michael found another way in. The building clearly was in use during summer months, featuring some kind of exhibition with lots of exhibits and huge control panels from the good old days.
More interesting was the Horonai Shrine, which obviously was completely covered by snow, too, and probably as half-abandoned as the Horonai Substation. Located right next to the substation on a small plateau up a slope, the shrine offered a nice view at the remains below. At that point it started to snow and I don’t know why, but there is an amazing peacefulness about deserted snow-covered shrines. Michael was still down at the substation, so all I heard was snow falling – perfect tranquility.
Overall the Horonai location wasn’t spectacular, but at that point I hadn’t explored many snow covered (more or less) abandoned places, so it was a good start into the trip!

Snow Angel

Oh, after all those paragraphs about the mine’s history I almost forgot about the snow angel! It seems like either Michael or I have a serious amount of bad luck when exploring together. In spring I broke my D90 on our *haikyo trip to southern Honshu* – and I already mentioned Michael’s misstep at the *Hokkaido Sex Museum*. His bad luck started earlier though, when he insisted on making a snow angel on the way back to the car. I thought it was a bad idea in the first place as it was cold and he was jumping spine first onto unknown ground (concrete, rocks, metal, …), but everything went fine until the point when Michael first took off his glasses and then stood up shortly after, realizing that his glasses were gone. In a comedy movie kind of situation he asked me to watch my steps – the last words barely left his mouth when he moved one of his legs and we both heard a crushing sound. The spectacle frame under his boot wasn’t only bent, but broken. Well, bent and broken. Michael, the designated driver on this tour since my license isn’t valid in Japan, had some contact lenses with him, but they would have only last for two or three days – shorter than the trip. So on the way to our second hotel we were looking for a glasses store. 5 minutes to 8 p.m. (i.e. closing time) on a national holiday (!) I spotted one. Not only were they able to fix Michael’s glasses in a miracle operation taking almost half an hour, they did it for free and also give mine a new polish. Quite a few people complain about the (lack of post-buy) service in Japan (and I admit that sometimes it can drive you nuts!), but the glasses shops here are amazing and saved not only the day, but kind of the whole trip…

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The first time I heard about the abandoned deportation prison Birkhausen in the forest near Zweibrücken-Ixhausen, within a stone’s throw from The Style Outlets mall and Zweibrücken Airport, I got really excited. Abandoned prisons are rare… but an abandoned deportation prison? I’ve never heard of a place like that before! Even better: Zweibrücken was in rather close proximity of where I was staying during my yearly vacation to Germany, so I could easily get there by car in about 90 minutes – after I had to wait about 8 month to visit family and friends back home gain…
I met my old friend Gil at a high school reunion and we talked about urbex – he just failed entering an abandoned mill (the huge, early industrial kind from the late 19th century) due to lots of nosy neighbors and the place being boarded up, so I suggested to go on an urbex trip together. I guess it’s no suprise we decided to break into the prison! (And by “break in” I mean “enter through an open door or window” – I’ve never broke or even destroyed anything to access an urbex location and I never will! Vandalism isn’t my thing…)
The history of the prison in Birkhausen was short: The premises were used for decades to house a day-parole building with a market garden and a tree nursery (as a branch of the correctional facility Zweibrücken) before the buildings were converted into a deportation prison in 1996. About 900 people obliged to leave Germany passed through the facilty each year before it was closed in 2005 – from now on Ingelheim was the only deportation prison in Rhineland-Palatinate (no, dear Star Wars fans, not Palpatine…). Instead of demolishing the prison the Justice Department decided to keep it, considering plans to turn it into a prison for senior citizens.
When Gil and I walked along a forest road a truck with an empty construction waste container passed us by – and our hearts sank. A couple of minutes later we had certainty that the prison was in the process of being demolished. We approached the (de)contruction workers and they waved us through to their foremen. As always in situations like that honesty is the way to go, so I explained them what I am doing as a hobby and that I came to take pictures of the prison. The guys were really nice, but blocked right from the beginning – no photos, not without permission from the authorities; which would take way too long even if we could get it since they were about to finish they job by the end of the week. I asked them why the prison was taken down and they told us that geocachers were swarming the place ever since a cache was hidden there (later I found out the cache had almost 1400 logs on geocaching.com alone!) – all of a sudden the prison was kind of famous and irresponsible people brought their whole families, not even thinking about the dangers a place like that would hold. So the State decided to tear it down. So I explained that I have nothing to do with geocaching – urban exploration is about taking nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints, about keeping places secret (unless they were demolished or turned into tourist attractions…). My reason to come here was to take some nice photos to keep the memory about the place alive. The older guy started thinking and said that he wanted to take pictures himself, but never had the chance since they were so fast tearing everything down – so he asked his younger colleague to stay with us while we took some quick shots to prove that the place was gone and to spread the word about it; but no pictures of people or equipment! Gil and I happily agreed and had about five minutes to take some quick shots. All of a sudden the foremen’s boss showed up, so the two guys gave us a sign and we took our equipment to head towards the exit – quickly greeting the boss while hurrying away…
Leaving the deportation prison I was devastated at first. Such a great location gone because it grew to popular – not even amongst urban explorers, but amongst geocachers! Such a shame… (To be fair: Another reason to demolish the place might have been the serious amount of vandalism – and on 2009-08-24 there was a case of arson that burned down half a building. Where those vandals came from? I have no idea, but the cache called Alcatraz was hidden back in 2006…) At least Gil and I were able to take some photos due to our successful conversation with the demolition squad – unique pictures I might add since altogether it took them about 3 weeks to get rid of the whole facility and I don’t think they gave permission to photographers before…

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