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Archive for the ‘Sacred Site’ Category

Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year, is one of the few religious traditions in Japan that is still going strong – though, much like going to church on Christmas, for most people it’s more of a social event… and it’s also big business!
Unless you are a sales person in a large chain store or work in public transportation, chances are good that you are off work from December 29th till January 3rd if employed in Japan. It’s the time of the year(s) when apartments are cleaned and debts are paid – and shrines are visited. Getting drunk senseless while hurting yourself with fireworks is just a New Years Eve tradition in Western countries only – Japanese people do that in summer! Here the turn of the year is more like our Christmas – family, maybe friends, maybe doing something “religious”.
Hatsumode either happens on New Year’s Eve around midnight with family or friends – or before going back to work on January 4th. On those three days a single shrine can have up to 3.5 million visitors (!), which is great for them in many ways. Unlike most Buddhist temples, the vast majority of Shinto shrines don’t charge entry fees, so hatsumode is THE opportunity to cash in by selling tons of protective charms (omamori), oracles (omikuji), and all kinds of other superstitious merchandise. A lot of the shrines have their grounds lined with the usual array of food / entertainment stalls you find at major festivals, so if you have an appetite for baby castella or want to catch small fishes with wet paper, hatsumode is the thing to do on January 1st, 2nd, or 3rd!
Unless you are anything like me. My hatsumode on January 1st 2016 was without food stalls, omikuji or millions of other visitors. Heck, during my visit of the Shiga Shrine on this beautiful winter day I was the only person there. Probably because the shrine had been abandoned for many, many years. How long exactly? I don’t know. Probably decades by the looks of it. The heavy stone steps were in bad conditions, half the structures collapsed, the ground covered by a thick layer of foliage. Nevertheless the Shiga Shrine offered some neat photo opportunities I happily took advantage of.
I’ve done hatsumode with family, I’ve done hatsumode with friends, I’ve done hatsumode with colleagues – I’ve done it at midnight and on the following days. Yet the most beautiful fake religious experience was spending one and a half hours of quiet time at the peaceful Shiga Shrine… 🙂
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As of a week ago, one of my biggest urbex regrets had been not exploring the abandoned Western Village before its demolition. I found out about this Wild West amusement park many years ago, long before it was picked up by Japanese urbex blogs, but it was far away from Osaka, nestled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, giving it a Rocky Mountains-ish vibe. A trip rather time and money consuming, I kept postponing my visit, until I heard in autumn of 2014 that Western Village had joined the long list of famous places demolished last year. Apparently that news was rather exaggerated, as I read by chance last week – heavy machinery had been put into position and a locomotive was removed, but the main park was still there… at least during the Japanese winter break, ending on January 4th 2015. So I did what every upstanding person with regrets would have done: I tossed all concerns about money and time out of the window and headed up to Tochigi to explore Western Village before it was gone for good! (Which is probably, but not necessarily, happening as you read these lines…)

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

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

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

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No matter what you think of marriage in general – weddings in Japan tend to take it to a whole new level, in many regards…
I actually don’t even know where to begin. Maybe I should just shut up, describe the building and get out of here before I write things I might regret later. To be honest with you, I am not exactly the most qualified person to write about weddings as I am not married myself and had to turn down most invitations in both Germany and Japan as I was coincidentally in the other country when they happened. But damn, Japanese weddings are weird!

First of all – getting legally married in Japan is the most unspectacular thing ever. It just takes a few minutes and involves the almighty seals (hanko) of both partners, but not necessarily their presence; one is enough as long as you have the correct documents to stamp. The way more important and spectacular part is the religious ceremony and the party afterwards; or rather parties – three or four (in a row!) are considered rather common.
At a time that Christian nuts are taking over the States and Muslim nuts are taking over the Middle East, the Japanese are very relaxed when it comes to religion. 85% are considered Buddhists, 90% are considered Shintoists, and 1% are considered Christians. “But… Florian, that doesn’t add up properly!” you might say – and you’d be correct! But that’s just part of the craziness, because according to statistics, 53% of Japanese couples marry in a Christian ceremony, 32% in a Shintoist ceremony and less than 1% in a Buddhist ceremony – the rest choose to marry in a secular or other way. Most men couldn’t care less, but Japanese women are basically like: “They nailed that Jesus guy to a cross? Funny, that’s what we did in Japan with Christians for most of the 17th, 18th and 19th century… But whatever! I want that white dress and I am getting that white dress!” (That’s actually not true. Most people in Japan aren’t even aware that their government persecuted Christians for centuries. But it’s only logical when the leader of the country legitimizes his power via their own religion, Shinto.) Most marriages end in ignorance and selfishness, why shouldn’t they start with it?
In Germany you still have to jump through quite a few hoops before being able to getting married in a church – like having several meetings with the local priest, convincing him that you are a dedicated Christian; and of course you better be a registered member and pay church tax! None of that in Japan, of course… most Japanese Christian weddings don’t even take place in real churches!
Since most Japanese live in tiny apartments not suitable for huge parties, most weddings take place at big hotels or specialized places; like the Ibaraki Wedding Palace. There they have decorated rooms for the most common ceremonies; like a love hotel has rooms for whatever turns you on… Comparatively small rooms, as only close family and a few best friends are attending those “religious” ceremonies, then everybody else joins for a rather big party; instead of choosing a considerate gift you pay an “entrance fee” that’s usually between 8000 and 10000 Yen – the couple will let you know in advance… Since Japanese weddings cost about 4 million Yen in average (though common ones are rather half that price!), that first party can be huge. 80 to 100 people are nothing, I’ve heard of friends inviting up to 250 people. And I’ve been invited to weddings of people I barely knew, in one case I actually never met the wife before! With all the fakeness surrounding Japanese weddings one can only hope that the couple’s love is real…

Anyway, the Ibaraki Wedding Palace… was one of those specialized wedding places – but unlike the *shangri-la* it didn’t come with hotel rooms and a pool, it was just a wedding and party venue. In the early 2000s it must have been quite a sight, with tons of tableware and items like fake plastic wedding cakes left behind. Since then it became a victim of arson and several clean-up operations, so when Y. told J. and I that this would be our next location after visiting the gorgeous *Japanese Vintage Pornographer’s House* I couldn’t believe what I heard. That piece of crap? After one of the most gorgeous locations in all of Kanto? Of course I didn’t say anything as I didn’t want to be impolite – and I am glad that I didn’t, because despite the Heian Wedding Palace being a rundown, burned down pile of garbage, it also offered an amazing amount of details; textures, to be more specific. Bent metal beams, charred window frames, tacky colored glass panes, cheap plastic chandeliers. Hardly anything that would deserve the label “beautiful”, but interesting enough to keep me busy for half an hour – then we continued to the third and last location of the day…

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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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Like many other countries, Japan struggled with religion and its negative attending ills many times. In 794 the capital was moved from Nara to Heian-kyo, modern day Kyoto, when Buddhist clergy became too powerful and the Imperial household decided to break free from its influence. In the early 17th century Tokugawa Hidetada and Tokugawa Iemitsu struggled with Christian merchants and missionaries so much, that the Sakoku Edict of 1639 turned pre-modern Japan into North Korea 0.9 – more than 200 years later, religious freedom was restored, the total power of an absolute leader was abolished and the country opened again for modernization, trade and travelling. Since World War 2 a more moderate country in many ways, Japan had to dispel only two religious groups for criminal activities in the past 70 years: Aum Shinrikyu after their sarin gas attack at the Tokyo subway in 1995… and Ibaraki’s Myokaku temple for financial fraud – welcome to the Japanese Gold Cult!

The whole story started back in 1984, at the same time when Aum Shinrikyu was founded. The superintendent priest of the Myokaku Temple in Chiba prefecture established a company that sold aborted fetus bodhisattva. In 1987 he established a religious enterprise called Hongaku Temple and started to sell all over Kanto, before becoming an independent temple in 1988. Soon after, the Consumer Affairs Agency started to receive complaints and temporarily shut down business. Unimpressed, the gold cult bought the Myokaku Temple on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture to expand its business to Kansai – which at that point included spiritual consultations for 3000 Yen and performing memorial services for 1 million Yen (back then and currently more than 9000 USD!) as well as selling overpriced item like marble vases and items made from gold. Center of the scam were the ihai, spirit tablets believed to hold the souls of deceased people – the cult took care of thousands of them and placed them in two special buildings at the Myokaku temple; but obviously they didn’t take of them in a proper way, hence the fraud accusations. In December 1999 a Wakayama district court finally followed the Agency for Cultural Affairs request to dissolve Myokaku / Hongaku Temple – the organization subsequently lost a legal battle for survival in front of the Supreme Court.
Sadly and surprisingly I couldn’t find anything about the case in English or German, so I had to piece together above information from various very complicated Japanese sources; please feel free to correct me if I misunderstood something! (My knowledge about Buddhism is limited, so I tried to avoid specialized terminology when possible… and I still don’t know what happened to Mount Koya’s Myokaku temple.)

After hiking through the mountainous Japanese countryside for about an hour on a hot, sunny spring day I finally reached the headquarters of the former Japanese Gold Cult:  a cluster of about half a dozen buildings – and after climbing a rather long and steep flight of stairs I reached a regular looking building that probably was used for meetings and as living quarters. To the right, past a pond and a collapsed gate, there was a comparatively small storage house – nothing of interest. Up another small flight of stairs I found the main hall, which was hard to miss at it was by far the biggest building. Almost as good as new, with lots of dark corners and significantly colder than the outside, it felt kind of strange being there. Solo explorations are always a lot more nerve-wrecking than group explorations… but this location had a spiritual / religious component to it, obviously. I don’t believe in ghosts and I am not religious at all, nevertheless there is some awe-inspiring element to a lot of those institutions – graveyards like the Okunoin, cathedrals like the Kölner Dom… and abandoned fake temples like this one.
The main reason though why explorers from all over Japan travel to the middle of nowhere are two small buildings behind the main hall, in which the Japanese Cold Cult stored all the ihai – and the bling-bling of gold and black lacquer was indeed quite impressive and worth the long trip from Kansai!
I just had entered an official looking, administrative building, probably the one where visitors were welcomed, when I saw somebody outside through a window – so I left through the back without taking any video material or interesting photos. The parts I saw were small offices and a main room full of boxes and random items, not of interest.
The last building looked like a big, chaotic family home and was probably used for meditation. Since it was pretty much busted open, nature was taking over again and parts of the floor were rather soft and brittle. Again, items were scattered all over the place, as if somebody was looking for valuables without finding anything.

Three hours after my arrival I left with a heavy heart as I had an afternoon flight to catch. Exploring the headquarters of the Japanese Gold Cult was a weird and unique experience. On the one hand I felt a bit uneasy as I was exploring a crime scene solo, and the garden there wasn’t out of control (which means that somebody still had an eye on it), on the other hand it was such a tranquil and beautiful place, the peaceful atmosphere disrupted only once in a while by farmers tilling their nearby fields. The Japanese Gold Cult had been kept a secret for about a year or two – now that Japanese explorers gave away too many hints and its exact location kind of became common knowledge, I really hope that people will keep respecting it. Not because it’s a (fake) sacred site, but because it’s a beautiful and unique abandoned place that deserves respect!

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Spring is the perfect time for hanami haikyo – exploring abandoned places while the plum and cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The window of opportunity every year is small, especially during cold and rainy springs, but this year I was luckily to hit one of those perfect days early in the year…

A few years ago I saw the remains of what appeared to be a playground on some random Japanese blog. Another source called it an abandoned amusement park. And then some photos of a golden Buddha statue appeared. It took me a while to piece all those pieces together – and afterwards I knew as much about that mysterious place as before… plus its exact location on a small mountain in Gifu prefecture; very countryside, and so I explored in Gifu and passed through Gifu several times before I was finally able to visit the Golden Buddha Park myself – most likely not its original name, but the fake names Japanese blogs used make even less sense, so mine is as good as theirs.
In the Japanese countryside GoogleMaps often is little more than a general hint, especially when construction is going on, so Dan, Kyoto, Spencer and I (big group this time!) knew where we had to go, but didn’t exactly know how to get there. After several twists and turns we reached a strange area where about a dozen regular cars were parked on what appeared to be an abandoned road with small abandoned houses – and one active apartment building at the end, much too small to house everybody parking there. We turned back again and parked at pretty much the last available spot, next to a partly collapsed house and an overgrown and dried-out pond. The paved street had turned into a cobblestone road, the condition getting worse and worse, so we decided to walk. Soon even the cobblestones were missing and we hiked up what appeared to be a dirt road getting narrower and narrower, becoming more and more overgrown. But we were on the right track as I remember a mushroom shaped resting area I saw on photos years prior. At that point there was a rift about half a meter deep splitting the road / wide path we were on. A strange place and probably creepy as hell on a foggy day. After a couple of minutes we reached some kind of plateau with a metal beam cage – probably for bird or maybe a small feline predator. There was trash all over the nearby slope and a vandalized bus was rusting away, offering the first good photo opportunity of the day. Opposite of the bus and mostly overgrown were several flights of stairs, some handrails and other concrete leftovers – it seems like there had been a now mostly demolished solid building once, but what it was… your guess is as good as mine. Next to the construction ruin we found a massive flight of stairs leading up the mountain, one huge concrete elephant statue on each side, with the weirdest plastic eyes I have ever seen; also worth mentioning: since the trunk was crumbling away we could see that there was a hose inside, so those statues were probably able to spray water…
On top of the mountain / hill we finally saw the golden Buddha in its white dome, lined with cherry trees. What a sight! But it was also guarded by two statues that probably were supposed to be dogs or lions, but looked more aliens – or alions… The statues with their weird eyes formed an unnerving contrast to the tranquil atmosphere of the Buddha and the countryside beauty. Such a strange place!
Upon closer look the base of the interesting looking concrete construction must have been hollow as we found a door on the back. Since it was locked we rather climbed the socket and had a closer look at the statue. Most of it was actually undamaged, but the gold leaves of lowest part, even in reach of small people, needed some refoiling.
Sadly there we no sign or other hints what this could have been, so after a while we hiked back down the mountain to our car. There we had a closer look at the dried out pond and the neighboring building, probably a conference center or something like that. The front was already collapsed and the interior had seen much better days, too. With that, our motivation to go through another half a dozen abandoned houses dwindled and we decided to call it a day – if Japanese explorers were not able to figure out what this strange setup was, we figured it would be rather unlikely that we will. And it was a good decision, because later that day we found the most amazing *abandoned ski resort* ever. But that’s the story of another time…

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A lot of Japanese people are very proud of their country’s distinctive four seasons – summer, autumn, winter and spring. Yet a lot of them mention a fifth season, which explains why they are not very proud of their math skills… rainy season. Rainy season is a period that lasts for about two to four weeks, usually starting in early or mid-June, turning most of Japan (especially Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu) into a humid hellhole for about three months. Personally I don’t think Japan has four seasons as it stretches too much for a general statement like that. Okinawa definitely doesn’t have a winter, and in my personal experience, Osaka has only two seasons: “Kind of nice” and “unbearably hot and humid”.
The period of rather intense rain began early this year, in the first week of June, starting to turn Osaka into a sticky place where you don’t want to wear any long clothes or do anything that requires even the slightest effort. Luckily my friends Dan and Kyoko weren’t eager to stay in Osaka either, so I planned a nice little weekend trip to Shikoku… which I had to re-plan after the weather forecast changed – Chubu instead! (Chubu is one of eight major regions in Japan, basically the central part of the main island Honshu between Nagoya and Mount Fuji)

Three days later I found myself sweating like pig hiking up a mountain in Shizuoka prefecture. A couple of minutes prior we passed through a small village on the slope, located in the middle of nowhere, where only one old lady was living, at least part time – she and her husband were tea farmers, but he passed away a few years ago, so she takes care of what is left; everybody else had died or moved away many years before…
We escaped Osaka’s rain and humidity, but central Japan’s countryside was surprisingly warm for early July. The hiking trail us three were on connected the hamlet with its school, closed in the late 70s and officially abandoned in the early 90s. Why it wasn’t built directly next to the settlement is beyond me, but farm land was probably more valuable than the place for an elementary school; and so the kids had to hike up that mountain every day, an elevation gain of almost 100 meters! Even after 30 years the path was clearly visible, yet partly overgrown and covered by several layers of foliage, making it a rather slippery climb these days. I was taking another break enjoying the beautiful surrounding and silence, when I heard Dan from above: “The school is up here!”

A few minutes later I saw the school near the top of the mountain myself – a surprisingly big wooden building with a living quarter annex; probably for a teacher or two to live in. The main building consisted of two classrooms and an office (all wooden floors), plus a tatami room right next to the office. Outside was a small playground with a slide and leftovers of some swings and a soccer goal. And there was a shrine with a wooden building, empty according to the old lady…
What made the Shizuoka Countryside School quite special was its authenticity. While a lot of “abandoned” schools in Japan are still maintained by the local community (like the *Kyoto Countryside School*), it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the case here – yet there were barely any signs of vandalism, with small exceptions like the pink painted nipples of the female gypsum bust or the smashed wooden metronome. There were signs of visitors though – not only did I find a Sony lens cap in the grass, you could see that certain items were staged for photos and that some explorers crashed through the wooden floors when they were not cautious enough. Most of the rooms had plenty of interesting items left behind, like a chair and table combination, a table tennis plate, books, posters, chalk, and whatever you think should be at an abandoned countryside school – considering that it was basically a two room school I think it was rather well equipped and I really loved some of the tacky items, like the National manufactured red record player. The icing on cake, of course, was the location itself. Near the top of a mountain, with a shrine next to it, on a lovely late spring / early summer day… quite magical. Sadly I had to share one of the rooms with a suzumebachi a.k.a. Giant Asian Hornet. There are a lot of them at abandoned places these days and usually I avoid them, but in this case that would have meant not taking pictures of one third of the school. Half the time it was trying to leave through a window and failed, half the time it was flying around the room, causing me to hastily leave. After a few rounds of hide and seek I got most of the shots I wanted to take and called it a day.

Just getting out of Osaka for another two days was a blessing, exploring an abandoned countryside school in good condition and being able to share that with friends… priceless!

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