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Archive for the ‘Restaurant’ Category

Food in Japan is amazing – but the competition is boiling and not all eateries survive; some even become abandoned…

Having long term success in the Japanese restaurant business is tough, even for established brands from overseas. Burger Kings are hard to find, Wendy’s gave up. When one of the first Coldstone Creameries opened in West Japan’s largest shopping mall the lines were 2.5 hours long. Half a year later you could walk up to the counter most of the times, two years later the store was gone. I think the first Krispy Kreme a few years ago in Osaka had a similar destiny: Lines around the block, regular business, closed after a year or so. The standards are high and especially in densely populated areas food is available everywhere 24/7. Even the main roads through the countryside are littered with restaurants – most of them offering rather simple dishes like Japanese curry, soba, and udon… but still!
Of course not all of them can survive. While closed kombini are usually de-branded and blend in with the countless other abandoned dull buildings in the suburbs and countryside, independent restaurants tend to be just closed, sometimes boarded up.
The Countryside Restaurant & Karaoke was closed almost 20 years ago and boarded up tightly at first sight, so my expectations were pretty low, but it looked kinda cool from the outside, which justified a quick stop. It turned out that there was a way in after all – and that the place has visitors that loves to break glass. Windows, doors, glass cabinets, coolers. You name it. If it originally had a solid piece of glass, it was broken now. That probably contributed to a decent amount of air circulation, which means that the place was dusty, but not overly moldy – which is always a plus in my book, because so many abandoned places in Japan rot away, creating unbearable smells upon closer looks. Unfortunately there was also not much left behind after almost 20 years of abandonment, except for a few tables, the broken stuff and a mummified mouse… The back area with the karaoke rooms looked a bit spooky, but it was pretty much empty of course, too. Typical 60s building abandoned 30 years later.

Overall the Countryside Restaurant & Karaoke was a decent exploration, especially since this is not a popular location and I hadn’t seen any inside pictures before exploring it last weekend (yep, those photos are not even two and a half days old…) – a good place for a quick stop on the way to other locations (*Facebook* followers know more!), but not as good as the *Japanese Restaurant & Onsen* or the *Japanese Yakiniku Restaurant*.

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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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Abandoned houses are a dime a dozen in the Japanese countryside and I pass by 99 percent without even remembering them a minute later – the one I stopped at last weekend though was very well worth the effort!

According to the latest estimates, there are about 8 million empty houses in Japan, 3 million of them abandoned. Some of them form ghost villages like *Mukainokura*, others are hidden gems in little town, like the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic* – but most of them are just small partly collapsed houses or even huts; rotting structures made of wood, clay, straw, and corrugated iron, long beyond repair and not even worth a second look.

On Sunday, while enjoying a cherry blossom viewing and exploring abandoned buildings trip to the countryside, my fellow travelers and I spotted a rather tall wooden house with a thatched roof located a below street level. It was still in sight of the next settlement, but a couple of hundred meters away from it. The front of the house was already collapsed, probably when a load-bearing pillar or wall finally gave in under the weight of tons of snow in yet another beautiful, but devastating countryside winter.
Approaching the house I didn’t expect much, except for a nice snapshot of the front for a possible collective article about abandoned Japanese houses in the countryside. Sadly it was drizzling at the time, the sky a greyish mess, so the photos of the front turned out to be quite bad actually. When my fellow explorers Ruth and Chelsey had a closer look I took the opportunity to circle the house and had a look at the back, where an outhouse and a storage were added to the structure – seconds later I fell in love with the tiny bathroom next to the two toilets, featuring a traditional wood-fired metal bathtub that looked more like something you should prepare large amounts of soup in. The crammed space and the sparse light coming through the tainted frosted glass was just… fascinating.
When the girls popped their heads in I told them how I usually don’t stop at random houses and that I would be done in a few minutes as this was an excellent place to take two or three great photos, but not a location for a whole set – and then I moved on to take pictures of the small urinal next door, of the can of insecticide, of the brush hanging at the wooden wall. So many small interesting details caught my eyes, and the more photos I took, the more details I found! Soon later we upgraded the planned 5 minute stop to a full exploration that took almost 2 hours in total. While I was busy taking photos, my fellow explorers actually explored. First they confirmed what I already assumed – that the building was not safe to enter and a potential deathtrap; which wasn’t too much of a loss as the inside of the building didn’t look that interesting and would have been a nightmare to shoot on a difficult light day light that anyway. Luckily they also found half a dozen large old signs leaning against one of the exterior walls – and those explained both the size of the building as well as the outhouse area. What we found once had been a rest stop, a countryside cafè for hungry and tired travelers; an abandoned cigarette machine still visible in the background.

For the past seven years I ignored pretty much every abandoned house I saw in the countryside, always in a hurry to get to the next location I knew was abandoned, I knew was promising. On Sunday I realized that it’s not only time to slow down, but to stop every once in a while. The Japanese Countryside Rest Stop wasn’t a loud spectacular location like *Nara Dreamland*… it was a quiet spectacular location. Very Japanese in every aspect. A place that took us back in time by decades. No signs of vandalism, because people don’t stop when they pass by. Their loss, our win – and that’s why I love this photo set so much more than most of the others I published so far…

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Gulliver’s Kingdom, based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, has been the most famous deserted theme park in Japan… once upon a time, before *Nara Dreamland* was even abandoned. Closed in 2001 after only four years of business and two years after the financing Niigata Chuo Bank collapsed (which also ran the *Niigata Russian Village*), it was mostly demolished in 2007 – ten years ago and two years before I started exploring. And yet I receive e-mails asking about Gulliver’s Kingdom on a regular basis; where it is / was, if it is still there, whether or not I’ve been there. Time to answer all those questions publicly: Sadly I’ve never been to Gulliver’s Kingdom as it has been demolished two years before I started exploring myself – so it’s not there anymore, but it has been located at the NW foot of Mount Fuji, only 14 kilometers away from Fuji-Q Highland and in sight of the Fujiten Ski Resort.
Another famous abandoned place in sight of Mount Fuji? The Kurodake Drive-In a.k.a. Global Environment and Energy Museum!

An abandoned environment and energy museum in Japan? What a friggin surprise! Man, I would have loved to write a rant about how fake eco Japan is, but I am running out of time and I haven’t written yet a single line about the history and exploration of this strangely wonderful location. Just don’t buy into the eco bullshit, Japan is everything but; with a few exceptions of course. Whether it’s winter illuminations, individually wrapped cookies, electronic waste along countryside roads, sun-blinds to block daylight all year long yet at the same time lights inside on, the insane amount of plastic bags / bottles / containers handed out every day, apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees – and don’t get me started rambling about the lack of insulation and ACs set to 28°C in winter… (In summer you can’t go below 28°C during the humid 33°C heat that is punishing everybody all day and all night, because we all have to work together and save electricity. But in winter it’s absolutely no problem to go from 0° to 28° because… heating apparently doesn’t require electricity and the warmth comes from the positive energy we created when saving electricity in summer!)
Please don’t buy the fairy tale of eco Japan, just because some garden in Kyoto has put up a crotch so a tree can grow a branch the way it wants instead of pruning it. (I’m not saying Japan is worse than most countries, but if you promote a certain image you better live up to it… or deal with the criticism.)
Construction of the Kurodake Drive-In started in 1965 as part of the Atami Highland project on a mountain ridge above the famous onsen town Atami, in the 1950s by far the most popular spa town in all of Japan with more than 11 million visitors per year – the new attraction featured a gorgeous, unobstructed view at Mount Fuji along the Izu Skyline, some hiking trails, a nearby pond with a boat rental, and the Kurodake Drive-In, which opened as a miso shop, restaurant for up to 300 guests at the same time (up to 1000 cars and 300 high-capacity busses stopped there per day!), and upper terminus of the Atami Highland Ropeway (or Atami Cactus Park Ropeway), connected by said ropeway to Atami and the Atami Cactus Park – with the largest gondolas in the world at the time, for up to 121 people (!). The grand-opening of this 1.3 billion Yen investment was on October 1st 1967. Less than three years later, in summer of 1970, the owner of the miso shop went bankrupt and caused a financial earthquake in the area, which lead to the suspension of the ropeway for about three weeks in June 1970. In July the Atami Highland Ropeway resumed operation, only to be shut down for good in December, barely three years after it was built.
Strangely enough there is not much information about what happened after that. It seems like the ropeway remained idle but intact and somewhat operational until 1983, when it was finally dismantled. The cactus park? I’m not sure… I think it closed for good in 1973. The Kurodake Drive-In definitely survived the longest, but I don’t know in detail what happened exactly after the miso shop went bankrupt. It probably was turned into a general souvenir shop, before somebody shoved the Global Environment and Energy Museum into the crown-shaped building. The last account of somebody being there I found was from April 2002 – strangely enough their photo didn’t feature the museum signage on the roof nor did the (Japanese) article mention it. Since I also read that the State seized the property in 2002 (much like *Nara Dreamland* and the *Arai Mountain And Spa*) I guess it’s safe to assume that the museum was installed after that – but before the building was finally closed and abandoned in November 2008. (Last second addition: Apparently the museum was run by an NPO called “Forever Green”; if I ever revisit the place, I’ll try to find out more, but that’s it for now as time is up…)

I absolutely loved exploring the Kurodake Drive-In, despite the fact that it was little more than a vandalized restaurant. I loved the scenery upon arrival, I loved the exterior of the building, I loved the lighting in some areas (especially the lamps in the office), I loved the items left behind (like the Lotte Chewing Gum vending machine or the three animal shaped bottles), I loved the interior staircases – I just loved being there. It could have been an empty building, instead in revealed itself little by little, step by step. I instantly connected with the Kurodake Drive-In and the feeling held on till I was yanked out of there by my impatient co-explorers. Other places I explored in the past might have been more interesting objectively, but I never really felt them; like the *Japanese Strip Club*. The Kurodake Drive-In on the other hand I really enjoyed – to me it’s one of the most underrated abandoned places in Japan…

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There is probably no other country in the world where access to food is easier and faster than in Japan. Not only has the land of the rising sun the highest number of vending machines per capita (one machine per 23 people!), it also has a borderline insane amount of convenience stores – the numbers are constantly changing, but in 1996 there was one store for every 2000 people living in Japan; of course in addition to all the supermarkets, shopping malls and countless restaurants. It’s amazing how many tiny eateries with just a dozen seats survive both in the huge cities as well as in the countryside. Though less and less in the countryside. On pretty much every road you drive along outside of the big cities you can find two shacks made of old containers or leftover wood and corrugated iron with fading “udon”, “soba” or “omiyage” (souvenirs) signs in front of them for each restaurant still open. The surviving ones tend to be mom and pop run cafés / restaurants with rustic interiors and surprise menus that offer anything from sandwiches to pizza to classic Japanese food to curry to… Those places obviously are hit or miss, but two of them stuck with me so much that I would like to mention them here:
Café Pickles (coordinates: 34.354730, 135.796344) is a small café outside of Yoshino in Wakayama prefecture – if you ever go to Yoshino or Mount Koya by car, stop by and try their katsu sandwich; probably the best sandwich of my life, and it came with a great salad, a cup of soup and some fresh (!) fruit on whipped cream for something like 1000 Yen. That place in the middle of Osaka would be a gold mine!
The best curry of my life I had at a small nameless restaurant along the Ozasa Highway in the mountains of Nagano prefecture (coordinates: 36.521435, 138.333017). It came with a topping and probably a salad and / or soup, but what really stuck with me was the amazing dark curry flavor, that we had to wait about 30 minutes for our order (because cooking a homemade meal takes time!), despite us being the only customers there – and the lovely owner who cut up some delicious Nagano apples for us while we were waiting.

Usually we just pass by the countless closed and abandoned food shacks as there are way too many to check them out all – and the few we checked as inexperienced explorers years ago turned out to be pointless wastes of time. The Tottori Countryside Restaurant on the other hand looked like one of those very promising eateries in the middle of nowhere. Decent size, rustic exterior and even more rustic interior. At first look the place seemed to be boarded up thoroughly, but upon closer investigation it turned out that one of the wooden doors was unlocked; tough to open thanks to years of neglect, but unlocked.
To be honest with you, I didn’t like the place very much. The former dining room was cluttered with all kinds of things, as if the owners laid out everything they had, trying to figure out what to take with them. There was not much light inside the building, which made it kinda tough to take photos without a tripod. And the kitchen? Was probably the 100th abandoned kitchen I have seen in a variety of buildings. Not the worst one by a long shot, but nothing worth taking pictures of, except for the Coke machine they slapped a huge Pepsi sticker on. The upper floor consisted of a couple of small rooms, pretty much all cluttered, too. There we found a calendar or two on the walls, indicating that the restaurant has been abandoned in 1997, more than 15 years prior to our visit. Other than that… just more junk.

Overall a nice little original find, probably more interesting from the outside than the inside – at least to me and my fellow explorers. I think for our taste, it was too close to daily life. If you’ve never been to Japan, this location is probably infinitely more interesting, but to us, there was nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before. Well, except for that slightly Darth Vader / Mickey Mouse looking sign outside, advertising coffee and cigarettes…

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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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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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