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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!

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