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Archive for the ‘Restaurant’ Category

How to enter Spreepark?

That never really was a question. I knew I would find my way into Germany’s most famous abandoned theme park, though I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to. When I first saw the sad leftovers of what once was Spreepark im Plänterwald on a sunny early Monday afternoon my heart sank a bit – all the horror stories about vandalism at famous abandoned places in Europe seemed to have come true at first sight, even from the outside. I just had arrived in Berlin to abysmal weather forecasts (rain, rain, rain and… rain), so I headed there immediately after I dropped some luggage at my freshly booked hotel – a mild disaster in comparison to what I am used to living in Japan. In Japan you go to the clearly labelled tourist information and you name your budget and the part of the city you are interested in. At Tegel Airport I first had to ask somebody if there was a tourist information at all and the first reaction I got there upon voicing my general request was „We charge three Euros for a hotel reservation!“ – I guess it’s needless to say that it’s a free of charge service in Japan. After not being asked, I tried to state my budget and the area of the city I was interested in, to which I had to deal with a rather rude „First I have to find out what’s available!“ Jawohl, mein Fräulein! Of course the hotel she found was 50% above my budget, which provoked her to the following snarky comment: „You can go to the city center and try to find a cheaper hotel on your own!“ After booking, the tourist information “lady” tried to send me on my way with the hotel’s address printed on top of a legal document 5 pages long, but without a map or information about how to get to the damn city center. Gosh, you gotta love Berlin… (It turned out that the hotel was not only over the price I had in mind, but it was also overpriced. Breakfast was 10 EUR extra per day, WiFi in the room an additional 5 EUR, the room had no fridge or complimentary toiletries like a toothbrush, and the bed was about half as wide of what I am used to from Japan – where I pay about half as much per night, but including all of the above!) If you think I sometimes rant too much about Japan, don’t get me started about Germany! 😉

Well, there I was, finally, at the Spreepark, just 15 minutes on foot away from the S-Bahn station Plänterwald, named after the city forest of the same name. The park opened in 1969 as the only amusement park in the German Democratic Republic a.k.a. East Germany. Called Kulturpark Plänterwald (cultural park Plänterwald) back then, it was privatized and renamed in 1991, one year after Germany’s reunification. Originally a pay as you go amusement park, the concept was changed in 90s as the Spreepark Berlin GmbH under owner Norbert Witte added more and more attractions – nevertheless visitor numbers dropped from 1.5 million per year to 400.000 per year, followed by the bankruptcy of the GmbH in 2001. In early 2002, Witte, his family and some employees made authorities believe that they would ship 6 attractions to repair, instead they sent them to Lima, Peru, where they opened a new theme park called Lunapark – later Witte and his son were convicted for trying to smuggle 167 kilograms of drugs upon returning back to Germany. The gutted park itself closed for the public in 2002 and became a famous spot for urban explorers, despite round the clock security. Taking advantage of that huge interest, a company offered official photo tours from August 2009 on, a café called Mythos opened in April 2011 on the weekends and from Mai 2011 on the park’s train Santa Fe Express became its first official active attraction again – and Spreepark turned into a zombie amusement park; looking (and probably smelling) dead, but being somewhat alive…
In early 2014 the city took over and I was told that for the first time in 12 years there were neither security nor official tours – and by coincidence I went to Berlin anyway, so I had a look myself. Remains of the park can be found as far as 500 meters away from the entrance, where I saw a huge ad box for the park, promoting raffles for free tickets. From there a path lead through the forest to the main entrance, damaged lamp posts from the GDR era on both sides of the way. Upon arrival the first thing I saw was a parked car right inside the gates, so I assumed somebody was on the premises, which made me have a look around first. A couple of minutes later I found several spots to enter Spreepark comfortably, but at the same time the sun was gone and it began to rain… heavily… at least for a while – the forecast was right after all. I took shelter in a little hut right next to the Spree and when the sun came out again I continued to circle Spreepark in full, amazed that the fence had more holes than Swiss cheese! On the way I saw several vandalized signs, a vandalized wooden kiosk and a locked up, fenced off and slightly vandalized restaurant for day-trippers called “Zum Eierhäuschen” (The Egg House), dating back to the 19th century and made famous by Theodor Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin.
Upon getting closer to the main entrance again, I finally saw the park’s landmark, a Ferris wheel 45 meters high – and to my surprise it was moving! I took a quick video, when I saw some people inside of the park, walking towards one of the gates… Half a dozen left, one stayed behind, so I talked to the guy and asked him when the next tour would start – it turned out that he wasn’t a tour guide, but security. Damn! He also told me that he kicks everybody out straight away and calls the police when he sees somebody twice – and that I was notice. Damn! And the Ferris wheel wasn’t running, it was moved by the wind… damn! Not my day…
Well, after a dozen years of vandalism and removing attraction, Spreepark was a rundown piece of crap anyway – and after 5 years of official tours and thousands of people entering illegally, there was no way I could have taken a photo inside you haven’t seen a million times on the internet anyway. So I decided to stay outside, taking some pictures from there – not spectacular ones, but new ones, stuff you probably haven’t seen yet; and to enjoy the atmosphere there for another hour or two. Minutes later I talked to a group of British students on a school trip to Berlin, who were eager to enter, but couldn’t decide whether or not to risk it. Then I went back to the Ferris wheel to have another look, when all of a sudden I saw a guy inside running like crazy, followed by a police car outside. The guy was able to hide and the police car left without catching him, but to me this was great – I am not used to that doing urbex in Japan, it’s a lot more mellow here! I headed back to the main entrance, when I saw two young women inside, just carelessly walking around, obviously not the slightest worried about security or the police – an attitude I saw repeatedly on two more locations the following day; people in Berlin don’t seem to have a sense of guilt whatsoever, their level of entitlement was amazing to see – though I guess some of them get crushed at the police station… 🙂 Despite that, I still had no urge to get inside and take some photos – again, there was close to nothing for me to gain. One big element of urbex is risk assessment. Spreepark is photographed to death and I have been to much better abandoned amusement parks in the past. *Nara Dreamland* for example – I was willing to take the risk to go there five years ago, when it was virtually unknown. Now it’s a vandalized piece of garbage much like Spreepark, and I pity the fools who nowadays risk getting caught by security and the Japanese police. At the same time I don’t mind taking a risk if it’s worth it – just three days ago I explored an abandoned capsule hotel right across the street from a police station, because it’s a unique location and I was able to take some amazing photos that no one has ever taken before; *click here for a first impression on Facebook*.
Anyway, I sat down on a bench, looking through the photos on my camera, when I was approached by an older man. We talked for a while and it turned out that he lived in the area for like 40 years and knew all about the park and its history, not happy with the current situation. He confirmed that the Ferris wheel hasn’t been used in a while and that it is actually very dangerous to get close to it as the authorities are worried that the whole thing might fall over as the foundations are completely rotten and a very strong wind could bring it down.

Wow, this visit really had it all – security, police, neighbors, wannabe explorers, risk takers; and me enjoying the atmosphere.
About four weeks later Spreepark made national news when four men started two fires that destroyed parts of the park. The city’s reaction? Increased security, a new fence all around the park… and new photo tours, probably starting in 2015.

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Japanese love their onsen hotels, accommodations with natural hot springs – they are popular all over the country and of course Hachijojima was no exception… until this hotel had to close for a quite bizarre reason!

I’ve written about Japanese bathing culture on Abandoned Kansai several times before, for example in my article about the *Meihan Spa Land* – usually not in a very flattering way as my first and for years last visit wasn’t a very pleasant one. The day that changed everything was April 28th 2014, when I first visited the abandoned Hachijo Spa Hotel… and then Mirahashi No Yu in the tiny village of Sueyoshi. Both visits I enjoyed surprisingly much in hindsight, despite or maybe because of my low expectations in both cases.

I wasn’t off to a good start when I got off the bus pretty much right next to a *koban*, one of those small neighborhood police stations you can find everywhere in Japan. It wasn’t so much that the first thing I saw was a koban – it was the sign in the window stating “on patrol” that worried me a little bit. But hey, what can you do? The show must go on… and it did. Walking up and down several different roads on Hachijojima’s steep slopes in search of the Hachijo Spa Hotel I got lost several times (GoogleMaps being rather useless in that specific area due to many additional roads big and small) – and when I finally found my way… I got passed by that friggin police car maybe 200 meters away from the hotel! Despite being a big tall foreigner far away from anything even remotely touristy, the cops ignored me, but of course my confidence was ruined when I finally arrived at the wooden fence that separated me from the abandoned hotel; even more so when I realized that said fence featured a brand-new chain and lock, which meant that someone checked on the place at least every once in a while and was invested enough to invest in basic security equipment like that.
Obviously I finally made it in somehow, otherwise there wouldn’t be any photos at the end of the article, but my first impressions of the Hachijo Spa Hotel confirmed the concerns I had before my visit – that it would be another rotten, rotting piece of moldy trash that was really boring and exhausting to explore. Even the gorgeous view from the lobby and the small arcade right next to it couldn’t cheer me up; not really a surprise after I explored the amazing *Arcade Machine Hotel* the day before. I tried to lighten up a bit, so I used the big mirror pillars in the lobby for some more creative photos before I headed outside and down the slope, where I found another part of the hotel as well as several tiny apartment buildings. While the latter were locked up, the hotel building hosted a big dining room, but everything was moldy and rotting, so I left after a few quick shots – the whole building was one big decaying health risk. Outside most of the roads and trails leading to more small buildings were overgrown, everything made of metal was rusting at a mind-blowing speed. I almost had given up when I saw steps leading underground somewhere, so I grabbed my flashlight to make up for the rather cowardly start.
To my surprise this rather short tunnel was the access point to one of the hotel’s pools / spa areas – and it was gorgeous! Back in the days it was an indoor area, but like I said, metal was rusting quickly and anything made of glass had been broken a long time ago, so this area surrounded by thick vegetation was its own little rundown paradise and definitely the highlight of the Hachijo Spa Hotel!
Which reminds me, I never mentioned why this hot spring hotel had to close its doors. Guess! Okay, you don’t have to guess. You would have been wrong anyway if you would have said “lack of customers”. The main reason this hot spring hotel had to close was… because the hot spring dried out!
No hot spring, no hot spring hotel…

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Nichitsu is a legend amongst Japanese urban explorers, a world-class ghost town that attracts visitors from all over the country and even overseas. In day trip range from Tokyo (but not from Osaka!), this mostly abandoned mining village in the mountains of Saitama prefecture is famous for its huge variety of abandoned structures crammed into a single valley – countless mining buildings (some still in use, even on the weekends!), several schools, a hospital, a gymnasium, a vast residential area and who knows what else.

After exploring a cute little regular ghost town on a sunny Sunday morning, my buddy *Hamish* and I arrived in Nichitsu to grey weather and low hanging clouds; at one o’clock, totally underestimating the vast amount of buildings to explore – though even a full day would barely be enough to see everything there, let alone document it properly. To make the best of the situation, we avoided the rather busy lower part of the valley (with company cars parked as well as a group of explorers arriving) and headed for a small parking area used by hikers. From there we wanted to find out what all the fuzz was all about… and it didn’t take us long!
Given the rather active area we passed through just minutes prior (feeding the rumors about security) as well as the fading light even rather early in the day, I decided to take a first video of what I thought was everything there was to see in that area – then we started to explore buildings on a sample basis as it was pretty clear that less than 4 hours of daylight remaining wouldn’t allow us to see everything anyway. From the very beginning it was close to impossible to take indoor photos without a tripod as exposure times quickly reached up to 30 seconds in darker areas of buildings.
A school, an office building, several private houses (ranging from completely empty to fully stocked and suitcases packed), a small fire station and some other structures later we reached the area at the end of the first video – only to realize that the really interesting buildings were still ahead of us and just seconds away; including a gymnasium and the now mostly collapsed hospital! Crazy…
With less than an hour of daylight left, we kept shooting and shooting and shooting, but even test shots to frame pictures properly took painfully long (as you might or might not know, I don’t even crop my photos). The last building we found was the hospital, of course, and despite the conditions we both managed to take a couple of decent shots – overall it was a bit disappointing though as it didn’t even come close to its reputation or similar places, like the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic*.
Overall the Nichitsu Ghost Town totally lived up to its reputation… and given that I didn’t even enter a mining related building means that another visit is in order – probably sometime in 2015 as I am pretty sure that Nichitsu will see some snow soon, rendering parts of the village inaccessible (then I will tell you more about Nichitsu’s complicated history, too…). The white stuff in some of the videos and pictures definitely wasn’t snow! Maybe some kind of gypsum? Solid when dry, it became viscous when in contact with water – I am sure during a typhoon you can watch it flowing down slopes and roads, slowly suffocating the lower parts of Nichitsu…

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You would think that after eight years in Japan surprises and weird situations should become rather rare, yet Hachijojima was full of them – good and bad…

In early 2014 a bunch of interesting looking abandoned hotels popped up on Japanese urbex blogs, with one thing in common: they all were located on an island I hadn’t even heard of before, Hachijojima. Turns out that it is right next to Aogashima, a hard to reach volcanic island that is often part of those “the most remote places in the world” lists that are so popular on Facebook and other social media sites. When you are living in Kansai, basically one big city of 22 million people (plus 0.7 million spread across the countryside), “the most remote place in the world” sounds wonderful, at least to me – so I decided to do a combined Hachijojima / Aogashima trip during the first half of Golden Week. Long story short: I was able to locate three gigantic abandoned hotels on Hachijojima, but I failed to organize the side trip to Aogashima due to unpredictable weather, high risk of boats getting cancelled and the season I was travelling in; *Golden Week can be a real pain* as even the biggest Japanese couch potatoes think that they should travel, because everybody else is. So I stayed on Hachijojima for 3.5 days – part relaxing vacation, part urbex trip.

For the first night I booked a small minshuku on the east coast, just five minutes away from one of the abandoned hotels. Sadly the place turned out to be in a very remote area with hardly anything around… and even worse, it was terribly overpriced due to Golden Week. So instead of extending my stay, I took a taxi to the local tourist information the next morning – and the super friendly staff managed to get me a cute little hut at a local lodge with breakfast, bathroom and internet for the same price as the basic tatami room with shared bath / toilet and without food or internet, a.k.a. the night before. They even drove to my new accommodation to introduce me to the owners of the family business as they barely spoke any English – a pleasant surprise after the cold reception at a local sushi restaurant the previous night; upon entering the chef, smoking outside, was asking his wife who just came in… and she answered “a foreigner”, using the slightly derogative term “gaijin”. Thanks a lot for the warm welcome! Luckily my new hosts were the exact opposite, some of the friendliest and nicest people I ever had the pleasure to meet. Should you ever go to Hachijojima and don’t mind a little bit of a language barrier, try the *pension Daikichimaru*!

I continued Day 2 by exploring the second big hotel on the island before climbing the most famous local mountain, Mount Nishi (literally “West Mountain” – guess where it is located…), better known as Hachijo-Fuji, thanks to its resemblance to Japan’s most famous mountain. 854 meters tall and of volcanic origin, Hachijo-Fuji turned out to be quite an exhausting and steep climb, especially on the last few hundred meters – but the view up there was amazing; one of the most rewarding hikes I ever did. (You can actually see the hiking trail on the first photo I took from the plane during landing approach.) If you are free from giddiness you can even walk along a sometimes just foot-wide path along the crater, but from where I started it looked like a rather risky walk, so I opted to descent to the green hell of Mount Nishi’s caldera; 400 meters wide and 50 meters deep it is home to lavish vegetation and even a shrine!
On the way down from Hachijo-Fuji I made a quick stop at the Hachijo-Fuji Fureai-Farm, a dairy products selling petting farm, which offers a great view at the plain between Hachijojima’s two mountain ranges. Upon arrival at the base of the mountain, near the airport, I came across a local guy and his dog. Despite being on a leash, the pooch ran towards me at full speed, barking like a mad dog (not a spaniel!) without any Englishmen; stopped by the slightly mental grinning owner maybe 20 centimeters from my ankles. Luckily it was one of those field goal dogs and not a German Shepherd or a British Bulldog, so I wasn’t too worried, but still… what a weirdo!
Almost as weird as my visit to a local supermarket the night before. After the sushi snack I had (made from local varieties like flying fish), I thought it would be nice to get some local products, so I entered a mom-and-pop store, the owner at the cash register talking to a customer. I grabbed a couple of things and when I was about to pay I saw the other customer leaving – and the owner told me that the shop was closed. So I asked if I could pay for the items I already grabbed. No! So I put the stuff back, which probably took longer than paying for it, and left empty handed… literally. Really strange 24 hours!

Day 3 was a lot more unspectacular. I took a bus to the southern part of Hachijojima and explored the third gigantic abandoned hotel after passing a police car basically in sight of it. Then I continued by bus to the Nankoku Onsen Hotel – which turned out to be a vandalized, boarded up piece of garbage with a neighboring house just 10 meters across the street. So instead of wasting any time I enjoyed a soak at a really, really nice onsen (without a hotel).

My last day on the island I spent mostly walking – to the Kurosuna sand hill and then along the coast back to the second abandoned hotel and then to the pension, from where I got a free ride to the airport.

Spending a couple of days on Hachijojima was one of the best things I did in all of 2014 – it’s just such a surreal and yet neat place! The main roads on the island for example look brand-new and very expensive. Given the massive drop in tourist numbers one wonders how a place like that can survive financially. Sure, three planes and a ferry per day bring quite a few tourists, but at the same time the three biggest hotels on the island and a few smaller ones are abandoned. Back in the 1950s and 60s Hachijojima was known as “Japan’s Hawaii” as it is much closer to Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka than Okinawa, but those days are long gone and I doubt that fishing and some local farm products can pay to keep the island as neat as it is today.
Some of the islanders were just plain weird… and others were quite the opposite, the most helpful and welcoming people you could dream up. While mainland Japan became somewhat predictable to me over the years, Hachijojima gave me that “first visit feeling” back, where you just roll with the punches and expect the unexpected at all times. The nature on Hachijojima was absolutely stunning, the food was amazing (especially at the *izakaya Daikichimaru*, same owners as the pension; the best sushi I ever had!) and I even enjoyed the onsen visit… though usually I don’t like onsen at all – but the entrance fee was part of the bus ticket, so I gave it another try and liked it tremendously.
*Facebook followers of Abandoned Kansai* might remember two photos I posted to the “Brand-new and Facebook exclusive!” album in late April this year – those will show up in future articles as I will start the Hachijojima series with the most unspectacular of the three hotels on Thursday, two days from now; though unspectacular is relative, especially if you are into abandoned arcade machines…

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Uji is famous for green tea. And of course for the Byodo-in, the Buddhist temple on the 10 Yen coin, as well as for the final chapters of “The Tale of Genji”, one of the most popular pieces of classic Japanese literature. But overall the city is most famous for green tea.

Green tea (ryokucha, 緑茶) has been served and sold in Uji at least since 1160 when the cities’ (and probably the world’s) oldest tea shop opened, Tsuen. About 200 years later the famous shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu promoted the cultivation of green tea in Uji, resulting in what is now known as ujicha (宇治茶) – Uji tea. Located in the most southern part of Kyoto prefecture right next to Nara and Shiga prefectures, Uji still influences tea production across borders – and while most people think that Kyoto city is famous for green tea (thanks to its political significance for centuries and the perfection of tea ceremonies involving powdered green tea, matcha, 抹茶), it is actually the town of Uji that perfected its cultivation. So when you visit the city to have a look at the Byodo-in, you’ll see dozens of tea shops, selling several varieties of green tea and products like castella (a cake of Portuguese origin), manju (Japanese sweets made of flour, rice powder, buckwheat) as well as all kinds of cakes, cookies, puddings, chocolates and ice cream – if you like the taste of green tea, then come to Uji and you’ll feel like being in heaven!
There is hardly a dish in that town that they don’t flavor with matcha… (Even the vending machines in Uji sell 80 – 100% green tea!)

The Spring Tea Shop in Uji is the first and so far only abandoned tea store I found in Japan. Sadly there is little to nothing known about this beautiful straw-thatched little building, which is slowly falling into disrepair after it was vandalized probably for years. I’m not even sure about its name, since zenmai, which I translated as spring, can also be a name or the name of a plant, so maybe a more correct transcription would have been Zenmai Tea Shop or Japanese Royal Fern Tea Shop.
According to a calendar left behind the place was closed in 1999, but who knows who left that calendar behind? And there was not much else there… A couple of plates and cups, some cans… and that’s pretty much it (although trash and a dozen porn DVDs were dumped there probably long after the tea shop was closed and abandoned). The kitchen interior was gone, and so was most of the furniture. It was a small rest house for day-trippers and hikers, enough space for maybe 20 to 30 guests at the same time, with a little pond as a center piece and a rather big garden in the back.

Although there was not much left to see and to take photos of, the place strangely intrigued me. The building itself, despite its bad condition, was still gorgeous and I guess it must have been at least 50 years old, probably much, much older. Sadly my fellow explorer *Rory* and I were running out of time quickly, so the rather blurry photos I took don’t live up to the experience I had at this lovely place, that a lot of you might remind of a Miyazaki anime.

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An old GPS system can be a blessing in disguise. For the longest time my buddy Dan’s car was equipped with a navigational system that must have been about ten years old, maybe 15 – you know, from an era when Japan was a magical place with color screen mobile phones, by far the best video games in the world and… well… the first navi systems in regular cars. But what was so great about an ancient GPS device in 2013? Well, pretty much all the abandoned places we visited together were still in the system as active locations, making it very easy to find them. But one day last summer it got even better! Dan and I were cruising through the countryside, when I saw the name of a ski resort appearing on the screen – a ski resort I had never heard of, neither as active nor as abandoned. So we went on a little detour…

… and the resort turned out to be abandoned. By the looks of it pretty much around the same time Dan’s GPS was installed, maybe even before that. Located at a half-overgrown side-road in the middle of nowhere and covered by the most blurry satellite shot on online maps you can imagine, this rather small ski slope is close to impossible to find; unless you know where it is or you have a GPS system so old that it’s still marked there. (It isn’t on GoogleMaps…)

Sadly this also means that I know nothing about the Kyoto Ski Resort, which is obviously a shortened name to protect its exact location. Absolutely nothing. Not when it was opened, not when it was closed, and of course I can only assume the reasons why it was shut down, which are probably the same everywhere. Not enough snow, not enough customers, outdated equipment, short piste.

Exploring an abandoned ski resort in summer is a bit strange as a location like that looks out of place at that time of the year, but if you are (un)lucky like I was, it still can make a good story.
At the bottom of the slope were two wooden buildings, a restaurant and what looked like a gear rental / general shop. From there we walked up the mountain to a smaller restaurant / snack bar in questionable condition; the wooden beams outside were crumbling away and we had to be very careful where we stepped. After passing some shacks in extremely poor condition, used as restrooms and storages, I reached the now rusty ski lift.
I took some photos up there, minding my own business, when I was hit in the head what felt like a golf ball or a tennis ball, right after I heard something buzzing. This surprising event caused me to make a noise that can be described as “less than manly”, but hey, despite my explorations in the middle of nowhere I actually like nature tamed or grilled, not kamikaze attack me. Anyway, my less than manly outcry caused Dan to laugh his ass off, which was kind of good as we actually had lost sight of each other. Minutes later Dan’s head popped up behind one of the shacks, still laughing. And while he came closer, all of a sudden I heard that buzzing noise again, followed by Dan yelling “SUZUMEBACHI!!!” – and him running down the slope as if the devil himself was after him! Not so funny all of a sudden, if they are after you… (Just in case you don’t know: suzumebachi, also known as Japanese Giant Hornets or just Killer Hornets, are gigantic hornets with a body length of about 50 millimeters, a stinger of 6 millimeters and a wingspan of about 75 millimeters; they kill 40 people in average every year in Japan, especially in the countryside.)
I followed my fellow explorer down the hill for a while, but I hadn’t taken a video yet – so I went back up to the abandoned ski lift, where the suzumebachi probably had their nest. Aware of the dangerous situation I started the video right away and did the usual tour…
Urban exploration is not a fun thing to do in Japan during summer – not only are there giant killer hornets, there are also huge spiders and pretty big snakes as well as all kinds of non-venomous critters. From June till September the whole country‘s wildlife is buzzing and it seems like all of those buzzers are eager to have a look at you when you visit their habitats; and some like to have a bite! So after the suzumebachi incident we had a quick look at the restaurant at the lower end of the slope; a wooden building in dilapidated state, the floor arching and a HUGE old suzumebachi nest right under the ceiling. And then we left. There was not much to see anyway – and everything was in rather bad condition.

Overall the Kyoto Ski Resort was a neat original find. Nothing you would rent a car for and spend a day on finding / exploring, but it did a good job as a bonus between two locations we were eager to see.

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“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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The first full day in Rason was packed with tons of program. After breakfast in a separate building (once an exclusive retreat for party members, on some maps marked as “DPRK Leadership Complex”) we headed down the bouncy mountain road to downtown Rajin and paid respect to the Kims. Despite being part of the Rason Special Economic Zone since 1991, Rajin still doesn’t have its own set of statues, so we had to make do with portraits right across from Rajin Stadium. (The statues are currently being built on top of a hill overlooking the city and will most likely be revealed later this year.)
On that hill already is a music hall and a museum, the latter we visited for a couple of minutes. Here I found out that our second set of guardguides were not as funny and relaxed as we all thought the night before. After listening to the local museum guide and Mr. Kim’s translation I was about to choke since I caught a cold after four days of low temperatures and no hot water in North Hamgyong. I live in Asia long enough to know that blowing your nose is considered impolite in some areas, but snuffling wasn’t an option – the space was already occupied. So I waited for the guides to finish their speeches, until we got time to explore the room by ourselves. And then I dared to blow my nose, as quietly as possible of course – and if look could kill, I would have dropped dead.
Mr. Pak, soon be known as Robocop amongst our group, shooshed me with an evil stare only somebody with ten years in the North Korean military can develop. Our “lovely” third “guide” got his nickname because of his amazing range of facial expressions, which was somewhere between Keanu Reeves and… well… Robocop. Since he was the least experienced minder, being with the team for just two months, Robocop had the task of keeping an eye on us to make sure that we follow ALL the rules; especially the ones nobody mentioned. Before his new career as a tourist guide, Robocop actually was a career soldier who spent the past decade with the Korean People’s Army – and given his general demeanor I don’t think he was a chef there, though I am convinced he was very good at deboning…
Anyway, I survived both the snot attack and Mr. Pak’s evil stare (his shooshing being louder than my nose blowing), but I would have a run in with Robocop at least once a day – and so did a lot of people.

Next we visited an art gallery in the city. Half a year prior I bought two hand-painted propaganda posters in Pyongyang and I was hoping to get more here; especially after 5 days of only being able to buy nothing but alcohol and a couple of books. Finally some real souvenirs! Or so I thought as the art gallery turned out to be the first of many disappointments in Rason (not counting Mr. Pak’s shooshing, which actually was kind of a disappointment, too). Despite the fact that they had a dozen propaganda posters on the wall, the gallery staff refused to sell them to us. We could buy anything else, but not the propaganda posters. What the heck? Sadly they didn’t make any effort to sell us anything at all, so we left after a couple of minutes, slightly confused. (And when we drove by the gallery a few minutes later it was closed already, at around 11 a.m.!)
Next on the itinerary was “something very special” – we were allowed to go to the Golden Triangle Bank, one of several financial institutes in Rason, to change EUR, USD, RUB, JPY or CNY into North Korean won at the current, actual exchange rate. (When we did “something very special” in Pyongyang, they allowed us to change money, too, but at a horrible rate, worth a fraction of the actual value. Advantage in Pyongyang though – we received brand-new bills and coins…) All four of our guides warned us not to change too much money as we were not allowed to take it back to China – if we were caught, terrible things could happen to our Korean guides! Spoiler alert: Two days later at the border crossing nobody checked our wallets or what we could have potentially have hidden in clothing or underwear. Since we were a good group, nobody or hardly anybody tried, but it was one more bullshit story we wouldn’t have bought anywhere else in the world. Dozens, probably hundreds of Chinese cross the border every day and on a regular basis at Wonchong – you can’t tell me that they too are forced to cross without any Korean money on them!

Well, anyway, the usual spiel of “something they want to do, something we want to do” continued, so next on our schedule was a visit to a greenhouse where they were growing North Korea’s two most famous flowers, Kimilsungia (an orchid) and Kimjongilia (a begonia) – guess why we went there! While the Kimilsungia was named after Kim Il-sung when he saw the then unnamed flower during a visit to Indonesia, the Kimjongilia was cultivated by Japanese (!) botanist Kamo Mototeru in the dictator’s honor. There wasn’t really much to see other than a couple of dozen potted flowers (plus the usual array of info signs in Korea), so the whole group was back out and ready to go in no time.

Which was good, because now we were in a hurry to make it to the American run shoe factory in Rajin as the workers there were about to have a break; which would have prohibited us from seeing how shoes are made. Maybe it was because of lunch time or because it was Saturday, but the assembly line we saw wasn’t exactly super busy. Half a dozen workers were gluing sports shoes together and all of a sudden they were gone – so we had lunch, too. Interestingly enough the workers didn’t look like they were about to have lunch when we left – we saw them getting together in the yard to work on the construction of another building. I guess nobody cared or dared to ask, but some things didn’t fit. Either it was one big misunderstanding from my side or those guys weren’t really working in that factory on Saturdays…

Lunch was interesting in that regard as the restaurant we ate at was next to a souvenir shop – the next shopping disappointment. The store, targeted at foreign tourists, was stuffed with all kinds of low-price crap and high-price art (fine-art paintings, wood carvings, …) for Chinese and Russian tourists. No books, no sweets, no posters. Just a couple of national flag pins I loved during the first trip. In Kaesong near the DMZ those pins were 50 cent a piece, in Rajin they wanted 3.50 EUR! Congratulations, guys – I guess Juche and capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive after all, especially when supply and demand are involved; and rich Russian tourists!
Luckily the tides turned just minutes later and the money we got our greedy little hands on came into play, when we were taken to a local store to buy some sweets and notebooks for the kindergarten kids we were about to visit. A local store, with local money, in North Korea! (Okay, in Rason, the Candyland version of North Korea, not the real North Korea – but real enough to realize that this was a very special moment and something only a handful of Westerners have ever done!) I was finally able to satisfy my souvenir urge by buying some really interesting looking pins I’ve never seen anywhere else before – and then I was just fascinated by the fact that I had access to local prices. Again, in the probably overpriced and definitely Candyland version of North Korea, nevertheless in a store that had everything from gigantic sacks of rice to Chinese razors (30,000 won and up), from Hello Kitty sweaters (62,000 won) to cigarettes (1,300 won to 47,000 won per pack!), from local sweets (1,000 won and up) to plastic guns. Given that 10,000 won were about 1 euro, everything there was dirt cheap from our point of view – at the same time you have to consider that the biggest bill in North Korea is a 5,000 won note and a ride on the *Pyongyang Metro* costs 5 won… and that most people only get some kind of pocket money as the state provides housing and most of the food. This realization hits you so much harder when you are there on location! (It also explains why I paid 2 EUR for Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of Cinema” in Chongjin while a fellow traveler paid 20 EUR for about 30 pages of legal text in Rason; Chonjin / Rason, supply / demand. North Koreans officially hate capitalism now, but Rason is proof that they are learning at the speed of light.)

From the shop we walked to the city center of Rajin to have a rest at some street stalls (selling beer, snacks and cigarettes). On the way there we met Czech brewer Tomas, who was temporarily living in Rason to supervise the construction of a microbrewery. By nature a kind person and admittedly bored, he invited us over to his place of work, but we had more urgent things to do at the street stalls; namely waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for 45 minutes.

Next on the schedule was the rather underwhelming Suchaebong Seafood Processing Factory, where we saw a couple of clams in water basins. Wow!

Luckily the kids at the kindergarten totally made up for it. As you know, I am still not a fan of these singing and dancing performances, but those kids were ADORABLE. Yes, all caps; THAT adorable! First they had to deal with a blackout halfway through their show and none of them even blinked. When the whole thing was over, of course we were encouraged to take photos with the kids, who were all giddy with excitement as most of their audiences have been Asian so far. Back then I was sporting a full beard and it was just hilarious to observe some of the kids talking to each other, pointing at their own faces with a circular motion and then pointing at my face. But it were fellow travelers Kent and David who put them in a previously unknown state of mirth when they started to take photos of the kids with their Polaroid camera – the room was buzzing with kid-sized humming birds, shaking countless pictures; absolutely unbelievable!
Sadly the kindergarten itself, while rather modern and without a spot, was one of those propaganda pieces of crap. I mentioned it in another article that *the chariot in front of the kindergarten was quite different from the one in Pyongyang*, but that’s not all. One of my fellow told me that she found what she described as “a war museum” when she was opening doors in the hallway while nobody was looking – and the militaristic sculpture next to the soccer field (labelled “strong and prosperous nation”) surely wasn’t put up there to build a bridge between the DPRK and the USA…

More adorable kids followed just minutes later, this time teenagers at the Foreign Language School. I fell victim to three 14 year old girls who bombarded me with questions in English, some of which I was able to ask back. Of course all questions were prepared and most of them were trivial, standard stuff like future jobs (2 out of 3 wanted to become soldiers!) and favorite hobbies (2 out of 3 liked to rollerblade in the park)… but when they asked me about “October 10th” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, the founding day of the Workers’ Party of Korea, stupid! D’oh! Luckily they didn’t hold it against me and so we continued with less political topics – for example food. They were very eager to find out what pizza is and how they can make it at home; halfway through the description I realized that three female teachers in their 20s/30s were listening closely, too, more or less obvious. One of them was brave enough to ask afterwards what pasta is exactly and how to prepare it. When I mentioned that you can get it in every supermarket where I am from I felt a bit embarrassed, but I didn’t see any negativity in their eyes – her attitude was more like “I can’t wait for Rason to develop enough, so I can buy pasta, too!”. Probably the deepest insight got one fellow traveler who started talking about cars and who was asked by his students if he was military or a taxi driver – because even in the rather rich Rason Special Economic Zone hardly any Korean has a private car, so people being able to drive must be taxi drivers or members of the military, one of the few places in North Korea where you have the opportunity to learn how to drive. Those students obviously weren’t aware that in industrialized countries cars are as common as bikes are in North Korea.

The final stop of a really long day was at a textile factory where a few dozen women were sewing winter jackets – incredibly unspectacular. It kind of reminded me of the local company my grandma worked at when I was a child, and therefore nothing like the sweatshop images we all know and ignore from Southeast Asian countries. Of course we didn’t get any deeper insights (payment, treatment of the workers, …), but I didn’t get the point of visiting the factory anyway – we were a bunch of tourists, not investors. After we left though, one of my fellow travelers described how they saw that the labels sewn into the jackets said “Made in China”. Damn, I missed that little detail! I would have loved to seen it with my own eyes… and camera.

Anyway, Day 6 turned out to be a veeery long day – and this article turned out to be a veeery long one, too. I hope you enjoyed it… and I’ll see you in a few days!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Why staying at Kyongsong? Because if the town was good enough for Kim Il-sung, his wife and his son, it is damn good enough for any western tourist! And of course there were more things to see, like the house the most famous Kims stayed at while giving guidance on location, now part of the Kyongsong Revolutionary Museum. There we listened to some “fascinating” stories about the Kim family, for example about how Kim Jong-il was really smart at a very young age. When he asked his mother Kim Jong-suk why most animals drink with the help of their tongues, but not chickens, his mother told him to observe the feathered fellas and come to a conclusion by himself. So he watched the chickens for seven days straight and then told his mom the correct answer at age 5!

Just out of town we visited the Jipsam Revolutionary Site, where three generals met during the Japanese occupation to defeat the invaders. Luckily our guides kept the story short; either because they were still hung over or because they slightly panicked when they saw planes practicing starting and landing at the nearby Kyongsong-Chuul Airport a.k.a. Kyongsong-Chuul Military Airfield. We got permission to take photos freely, except of the airplanes. Which was kind of hard to do, because the machines were coming down every other minute right over the scenic fishermen’s village. Luckily the planes were so tiny in the distance that nobody really cared – yet Mr. Li yelled another “No take photos!” at me when I took one of a boat on the shore. So we were allowed to take photos of everything – except for the unmentioned things they didn’t want us to take photos of. Sometimes I really had the impression that our guideguards had no clue what they were doing… So I paid even more attention to keep out of their sight without losing contact completely, because nothing is worse than an unaccounted tourist! And by chance it happened that I “accidentally” caught some of the planes on video when filming the coastline. I have no idea what kind of planes were starting and landing there, but the whole thing felt like a WW2 airshow. If that was a representative example of the DPRK’s airforce, those poor pilots better stay on the ground and hide somewhere in case of another war!

Next on the itinerary was a stop at a kindergarten in Chongjin – and we all know what that means, right? Singing and dancing children! Yay!
Luckily this kindergarten had so much more to offer, involuntarily!
For example the playground in the yard. Sure, it was a bit rundown, but it had a new layer of paint recently. And the rides were awesome, amongst them a rough merry-go-round with rockets and even a small Ferris wheel. I think children all over the world would have loved those playground attractions. The problem was: I am sure none of them had been used in the past couple of months, since branches of nearby trees blocked their movement! At first I was like “Hey, cool, those are awesome!” before the “Wait a minute…” moment kicked in. Kind of sad to maintain those rides and then make no use of them.
But that’s not all, because we also got a tour of the building. Well, part of the building. We witnessed an art class, saw the room for the kids’ afternoon nap, even had a look at the indoctrination rooms where the little ones were taught about the lives of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The hallways and staircases were decorated with Hello Kitty and nature motifs (like a partly sculptured tree), all beautifully executed. The children’s performance was on the third floor, so when we went from the first to the third through a staircase, we were kind of rushed as the kids were waiting. Nevertheless I was able to walk down a hallway on the second floor for a few of meters, where I took a picture of a painting I am sure we were not supposed to see. It showed some armed children attacking a couple of snowmen. Even without being able to read what was written on them I knew that I struck gold – later I found out that the snowmen were labelled “American Bastard” and “Jui Myung Bak”, a play on words meaning “rat-like Lee Myung Bak”; Lee being the 10th President of South Korea. Lovely, just lovely!
But to be honest with you, it’s actually this kind of photos I was hoping for before the tour started – you can see quite a few pictures of Chongjin and Mount Chilbo on the internet; little gems like the snowman propaganda painting I’ve never seen anywhere before. At the same time experiences like that are the main reason why this series of articles is so much more negative than the first one – they make it so much harder to believe the show you get presented in Pyongyang. Everything in North Korea is full of contradictions all the time!

Well, lunch was at the Chongjin Seamen’s Club and I mainly mention it for the “hot se(a)men” jokes somebody has to make sooner or later; and now let us continue to pretend that the fourth season of Arrested Development doesn’t exist. The Seamen‘s Club is actually one of the few places in North Korea where foreigners and locals can mingle, though it seems like in the end everybody sticks with their own kind – and of course we were seated in a separate room, though we were allowed to roam the gated area freely. It was there that I bought my first souvenir of the trip, a hardcover copy of Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of cinema” for 2 EUR! I almost felt bad getting it for that price, but in the end it probably was a good deal for both sides; and one of the few things I was able to buy overall. (More on prices and overpricing in the article about Day 7!)

After lunch we headed north to Rason. Since there is no freedom to travel in North Korea, not even within North Korea, we had to cross an internal border and needed two different “visa” for North Hamgyong and Rason – and also two different sets of guardguides, since Mr. Li, Mr. So and Mr. Sin were not allowed in Rason unless they had special permission. (And none of us were allowed in Pyongyang! If we would have hurt ourselves seriously, they most likely would have taken us to China, not to the capital – because we didn’t have proper documents to enter…) About half an hour away from the internal border the unavoidable happened – our bus broke down with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and it took about an hour to fix it. Luckily we had a spare on board, so we left the forest just before the sun went down. Interestingly enough there were many locals strolling through the forest – probably the cause of the omnipresent plastic waste. Seriously, this was one of the dirtiest sections of forest I’ve ever been to! A real surprise, given that it was plastic trash and North Korea. Who knew they even had plastic there?! 😉

Finally arriving at the Rason border, Mr. Kim and his team took over (not the driver of the North Hamgyong bus, another one…) – and he turned out to be a jokester. First he apologized for the bad quality of the road, but hoped that we would enjoy the free massage for the next 10 minutes. When we asked him to turn off the internal lights of the bus, so we could have a better look outside (it was dark by then), Mr. Kim told us that one of the advantages of the DPRK (and the huge number of blackouts) was the fact that there was no light pollution in North Korea. Damn, if I ever do a comedy routine about NK I’ll definitely steal those two jokes!

Exactly 10 minutes later we left the bumpy dirt road and reached a normal one – and soon later we passed Rason Harbor on our way to the city center of Rajin. (Rason is a Special Economic Zone consisting of the cities Rajin and Sonbong – here the DPRK experiments with capitalism in cooperation with its ex-communist buddies China and Russia, plus a few others.) And by “normal” I mean that the road was not only smooth, it had street lamps! Light. In the darkness. 13 adult travelers excited like little kids. It’s interesting how fast you forget that you miss certain things you are used to – and how equally easily excited you can be to get them back. We all take electricity for granted and it’s truly amazing how much of it industrialized countries waste. While North Hamgyong is clearly lacking supply, Rason uses it reasonably; Yanji wastes quite a bit and Osaka… I’m sure Osaka uses more electricity than all of North Korea – and given that pretty much every apartment building and busy neighborhood is lit up like a Christmas tree, Osaka probably wastes more electricity than North Korea uses; which is amazing given the constant talk about being green and how the electricity price exploded in Japan after Fukushima!
After dinner at a well-lit (!) restaurant (in the same building as the local travel agency), we were supposed to check into our hotel just down the street, the Namsan Hotel – but Mr. Kim had a surprise for us: Instead of staying at the slightly run-down accommodation in Rajin’s city center, we drove up a mountain between Rajin and Sonbong to the newly built Pipha Hotel with a stunning view at the city’s (in)famous Emperor Hotel and the beautiful Changjin Bay. Upon arrival we found out that we were the first guests there – EVER. (And probably the last, as itineraries for future Northeastern Adventures still mention the Namsan Hotel…)
The Pipha Hotel turned out to be a slightly weird… installation. First of all, the hotel didn’t have a reception; it looked more or less like an annex building. We entered via an external staircase on the second floor, basically through a tiny lobby with a couple of seats in a hallway. There was a first floor / ground floor, but we never went there. As Mr. Kim said, the building was brand-new, so it was by far the most modern and overall best hotel I stayed at in North Korea across both trips. Hot water, running water and a (not working) AC, which was compensated by heating blankets. The first shower in three days felt wonderful! At the same time the Pipha Hotel showed how little experience North Korea still has with tourists. For example:
The bathroom had some toiletries, but those were sealed shut. While it’s worldwide standard that little packages of shampoo have a small cut so you can open them easily, the ones we were provided with had to be opened with a pair of scissors.
The room itself was quite nice, but when the architect planned the hotel, it seems like he didn’t think along… and put the main light switch of each room in the hallway instead of inside the room right next to the door. As a result it was impossible to switch the light on / off from within the room.

None of it affected our happiness about hot running water or the overall experience, those are just two more examples of things that we take for granted and that stand out when they are not the way we are used to. And despite looking strangely familiar, it turned out that Rason was full of things that were not the way we are used to…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Tottori is famous for its sand dunes, vast natural parks and pear omiyage – not for urban exploration. Located in the Chugoku region at the Sea of Japan (a.k.a. Korea East Sea and Japanese Sea) and therefore at the northern coast of Japan, Tottori is a little bit off the beaten tracks – most tourists travelling south of Tokyo continue via Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe to Himeji, Hiroshima and Kyushu along the Seto Inland Sea. Only a handful of Western tourists switch to one of the express trains from Kansai to Tottori (city), the capital of Tottori (prefecture) – there is no Shinkansen service as a northern line connecting Osaka and Shimonoseki via Tottori and Matsue was proposed in 1973 and then shelved indefinitely. The least populous of Japan’s prefectures (3.5 million inhabitants, less than the city Yokohama) is generally rather rural and agriculture is the most important economical factor – pears, scallions, yams and watermelons from Tottori are famous in all of Japan.

One thing Tottori is not famous for is urban exploration. Nevertheless I had plans to go to Tottori for almost a year, but for some reason I never followed through. The places I wanted to visit there were not that spectacular, the weather wasn’t consistent for a whole weekend, the season wasn’t right or I simply had other plans. In spring of 2012 everything came together finally, so I hopped on the first of eight special direct trains to Tottori and enjoyed the 2.5 hour long ride through the stunning Chugoku Mountains. After finding and checking into a hotel I did some haikyo hiking to another location and finally arrived at the gorgeous Tottori Sand Dunes in the late afternoon – running out of time, as so often.
The Sand Dune Palace turned out to be quite a rundown building secured by rusty barbed wire, only worth taking pictures of thanks to its relative fame and the round viewing platform which gave this old rest house (built in 1965) a little bit of an edge by making it more round… The salty sea air was gnawing through anything metal, especially lamp posts and handrails. All the bells and whistles, like door handles and lamps looked so 60s that it almost hurt the eyes. Really nothing special, so I headed over to the dunes to find my way to the beach in order to take some sunset photos. On the way back, late into dusk, I made another quick stop to take a couple of night shots, but then I had to leave to catch the last bus back to the city – it was an exhausting day and sadly not everything lived up to my expectations; for example the Sand Dune Palace – the pear sweets on the other hand were divine and if you ever go to Tottori, make sure to try the “nashi usagi” (literally “pear rabbits”, mochi filled with pear jam).

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