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Wooden schools in Japan… the kind of abandoned places I can’t get enough of! Always interesting, always different, always unique… and always very Japanese.

Another thing that abandoned wooden Japanese schools have in common is the fact that they are really abandoned – and most of them are located in the countryside between two towns (hamlets…) or even on top of a ridge between two valleys. The Riverside School was abandoned, wooden, Japanese, and located out of sight… but there still was a caretaker we had to carefully avoid even on a Saturday visit. Luckily I quickly figured out a way how to reach the elevated located school from the back.
The Riverside School consisted of three main buildings – an elementary school, a junior high school and a gymnasium… with easy access through an open door far away from the main entrance. Both of the big school buildings were actually long gorgeous wooden hallways with rooms to one side – the hallways ended in beautiful staircases with just one upper room, not a complete second floor. Why? I have no idea. Little is known about the Riverside School in general. Apparently it was built just after the war in the late 1940s and both sections closed in the mid-1990s – most likely due to the lack of students in the Japanese countryside.
Nowadays at least one of the buildings is still maintained, although none of the buildings necessarily looked like it. But just a few minutes into exploring the Riverside School we heard some noise from the other end of the building. Since I was super busy taking photos, my fellow explorers Dan and Kyoko “stealthed” forward and had a look – as I feared it was indeed a caretaker, not fellow explorers. We kept quiet as well as we could and just as we were done exploring the lower school building and the gymnasium, the caretaker took his bike and cycled away – lunch time!
Of course we took the opportunity and headed outside for some outdoor shots before walking up the mountain (hill?) to the second main building a bit higher up. The interior of the upper school (like I said, technically the Riverside School consisted of two schools…) was in worse condition, but less chaotic – while the rooms in the lower building were cluttered with all kinds of items, the rooms with often dangerously arched floors in the upper building were tidy and neat – a telescope still standing behind a window, books stacked on untouched tables; probably because one would most likely have broken the floor if trying to enter the rooms.

Like I said in the intro, I absolutely love abandoned old wooden schools in Japan – and the Riverside School was no exception. There is just something very special about exploring a 70 year old wooden building that has seen the rise and partly decline of post-war Japan. All those items left behind, the stunning natural decay, nature creeping in – the skipped beat of your hear when you stick your head into a rather dark room and all of a sudden a bat flies out. And nobody else around. Just you and this “open air museum” that allows a glimpse at times long gone. And the architecture of those buildings! Simple, but so beautiful… There’s just nothing like those abandoned schools anywhere else in the world. And if you enjoyed this article about the Riverside School, have a look at classics like the *Landslide School* and the magical *White School*… they are at least equally interesting, yet completely different.

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Bears are a growing danger to people in Japan – little did I know that one of them was waiting for me inside this abandoned school / holiday village!

Hokkaido, the great, wild north of Japan… The country’s second largest and by far coldest island is especially popular amongst outdoor and nature fans. Oh, and brown bears love Hokkaido, too. There are more brown bears in Japan than anywhere else in Asia besides Russia – and due to climate change they are becoming increasingly more dangerous to people; roaming the streets of small towns, killing one or two people per year, most often over a dispute about bamboo shoots (a.k.a. locals) or the right of way (a.k.a. hikers). Urbexers? Not (yet) on the diet of Japanese bears, but some abandoned places are definitely in bear territory, including the Haboro Green Village; the converted Taiyo Elementary School. Little did I know that one of them was waiting for visitors inside of the defunct and derelict building complex…
Like most urban explorers visiting Japan’s most famous abandoned school, my buddy *Hamish* and I started our day with the spectacular round gymnasium / auditorium. The Taiyo Elementary School (not be confused with a school of the same name in Hokkaido’s village of Niikappu – that one was auctioned off in 2009 for 30 million Yen, about a quarter million bucks) was built in 1940 for the children of the workers at the *Chikubetsu Mine*. In 1967 it was refurbished / rebuilt – and in 1971 it was closed, just a year after the mine; sad! After being without children for almost a decade, the city reopened the school as the Haboro Green Village, apparently a hotel / hostel / campsite for families and even larger groups. It ran from 1979 till 2000 – just before the internet and digital photography became really popular, which is probably why there is so little information about it out there.
Anyway, Hamish and I went to the round gymnasium / auditorium first and took all the usual pictures there, especially the most famous standard shot I called “Symmetry For Dummies”, because there are so many lines everywhere that you’d have to seriously shaky for whatever reason to mess up that shot… As far as school gymnasiums go, this was probably as good as it gets. Cleaner and newer? No problem! Bigger / more original? Probably not…
Since the wooden hallway connecting the gymnasium with the main building was slightly dilapidated, we decided to head outside and enter the former school directly through the front door. Usually I would have circled the school, but I guess it was a mix of time pressure, cold wind, drizzle, and false familiarity with the location that lead me to grab the doorknob, twist it, open the door… and stare right in the face of a big brown bear! Luckily it was a taxidermy one, so there was no harm done… 🙂
The Haboro Green Village was a rundown, boarded up, vandalized, moldy piece of something – with tons of surprises other than the bear “guarding” the main entrance probably 95% of people will enter through. First of all there were other taxidermy animals, a gigantic seal and a decently sized deer. Then there were quite a few Pokémon Trading Cards on the floor of boys’ restroom. The table video games / video game tables from the early 80s were amazing, including Championship Baseball by Sega. And the amazing (bust rusty and vandalized) Live Beer cooler by Asahi. The rest of the building offered some nice spots here and there, thanks to some decent patina due to 17 years of abandonment.

The Haboro Green Village / Taiyo Elementary School has been on my list of places to explore for many, many years – mainly because of the impressive gymnasium and because it was a famous spot easy to find. Locations like that tend to disappoint, because they are known so well and taking the same photos as everybody else feels more like a chore than a successful explore. And to some degree this actually applied to the gymnasium – luckily the main building offered quite a few surprises, so overall I was very pleased with this exploration… and it was only the first one in Haboro (before the mine *I wrote about last week*)! More about the rest will follow soon – but first some completely different locations… 🙂

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A rainy autumn afternoon, an ancient trail in the midst of a thick cypress forest, an abandoned school at the edge of a small town… and then the fog started to creep in!

I admit it, I am good weather explorer. I like clear blue skies as backgrounds, I like it not getting wet when taking pictures or having to fight the elements in general. Have you ever taken pictures during a cloudburst? Not fun. Even less outside, in rather tough terrain, with a small umbrella, trying to avoid that the camera (mounted on a tripod) gets wet. Been there, done that, looked like a drowned rat afterwards – and as we all know, wet sweaty human doesn’t smell much better than wet sweaty dog… But sometimes bad weather is impossible to avoid, for example on multiple day trips or when the weather forecast failed again. And in a country full of unreliable people, Japanese weathermen are the kings of unreliability.
And I also happily admit that some of my best photos have been taken during rain, during snow, or shortly after. Unforgotten the exploration of the China themed park *Tenkaen* in Hokkaido, where the weather changed every 30 minutes… or the *Ruins of the Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo*!
The Silent Hill School turned out to be another one of those blessings in disguised. Closed in 2008 I expected it to have the right amount of patina during my exploration in late 2016, and the start was promising. Walking through the forest to get to the school was highly atmospheric as it was already getting dark on that day without sunshine. Upon arrival the school was bigger than expected, but not as abandoned – despite the fact that I could swear that I had seen photos from the inside on the internet all doors and windows were tightly shut. While I checked dozens of possible entry points, fog was creeping in and then gently floated away thanks to rather strong winds. Much like the *Silent Hill Hotel* this closed school felt like the setting of a video game or a horror movie. I strongly recommend watching the videos at the end of this article to give you a much better impression! Sadly there wasn’t a way in, I actually found a “Do not enter” note at the main entrance after almost 1.5 hours of exploring and taking photos. On a sunny day, this closed school would have been a rather boring location, but thanks to the drizzle and the fog it was a quite creepy exploration. And when I tried to do some research for this article, all the photos I thought I saw on the internet were gone…

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Urban exploration can be quite educational – especially when visiting an elementary school in a town where most families had the same job(s) for centuries…

A sunny Saturday morning in a small fishing village along the coast of Japan. Dan, Kyoko and I made our way through a labyrinth of narrow paths between rundown houses, up a few flights of stairs, avoiding locals when possible and greeting them with a cheerful “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning) when not – and then there it was, the local elementary. On the edge of town, yet still in sight of at least a dozen occupied houses. When you are trying to sneak into a location unseen, it’s always a good idea to try doors and windows out of sight first – on lower or higher floors, on the sides or the back of the building. With a total of more than 750 explorations under our belts we quickly found an unlocked door and soon deliberated what would be the best strategy: just entering, hoping not to be caught, despite the large, most uncovered windows – or talking to a local, sharing the risk and responsibility by asking them for permission. Both strategies have worked out for us, but in this case we decided to keep a low profile and just snuck in.
As we were contemplating our options on the back of the school, a senior citizen started to do laps in the yard in front of the school. Slowly, but steadily. As if he could do it for hours. To avoid being seen after just a few minutes, we decided to explore the upper floor first – which kind of exposed us to a small path leading up the mountain and a few neighboring houses.
The upper floor consisted mostly of regular classroom and the school’s rental library. I’ve not seen many abandoned schools with libraries, but what really set the Fishing Village Elementary School apart from every other school I’ve explored were the countless student made posters on the walls, teaching the basics of everything related to fishing and growing your own fruits and vegetables – for example explaining the different kinds of nets, how to repair nets, a year in fishing (when to fish and when to rest…), how to clean fish, information about different kinds of seafood, harvest times of local vegetables, and much, much more. Probably the most informative exploration I’ve ever made!
The lower floor of the Fishing Village Elementary School featured among others a gymnasium / auditorium, a nurses’ room, a teachers’ lounge, and a science room – like the upper floor still in very good condition as the school was closed in 2010 (though the last calendars inside the school were from 2008) and probably is maintained to some degree by locals. The most serious damage to the school was actually outside and counts as natural decay: Two rain water downpipes broke off and were not replaced. As a result, parts of the bright wooden exterior started to rot… and in a few years mold will start to cause serious damage. A shame, considering that this would be quite an easy fix. I can’t imagine that the problem has gone unnoticed, yet nobody took the initiative to take care of it. A real shame…

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Abandoned schools are a dime a dozen in Japan, but in Germany they are rather rare – welcome to the Alte Martinsschule!

The (Alte) Martinsschule ((Old) Martin’s School – named after St. Martin of Tours, one of the most well-known Christian saints) was founded in 1978 after the German federal states Hesse and Baden-Württemberg officially funded this institution for about 180 to 200 physically disabled pupils in Ladenburg, a rather rich suburb exactly halfway between Mannheim and Heidelberg. The Martinsschule was a huge success, so the number of students grew and grew until the location in the Wallstadter Straße became too small – and so in 2010 the Martinsschule moved from the city center into a shiny new complex (matter of expense: 28 million EUR!) in the outskirts of Ladenburg, where currently about 240 students are educated.
To make some of the money back, the inner city building now known as the Alte Martinsschule was supposed to be sold – 10000 square meters of prime real estate: 400 meters away from the train station, 3 kilometers to the next freeway entrance ramp and right across the street from a small shopping mall, the local fire station… and the cemetery. To have control over the new use of the area, the city of Ladenburg started restricted tender a.k.a. architectural competition on October 19th 2012 and set the price at 550 EUR per square meter; not cheap, especially since getting rid of the old school was the new owner’s responsibility. In July of 2013 Bouwfond (a.k.a. BPD Immobilienentwicklung GmbH, part of the Rabo Real Estate Group, a subsidiary of the Dutch Rabobank) won the bid against six competitors with a medical center; including a café, a pharmacy, 40 condos and 65 units for assisted living. But the city still had some reservations about the shape of the building as they wanted to avoid getting another large concrete block, so in August of 2013 asylum seekers were moved temporarily into the Alte Martinsschule. From January 15th till February 5th 2014 they were split up across neighboring communities, and on February 10th the school was returned to the city, which spent 415000 EUR on renovating and converting the Alte Martinsschule as temporary quarters for the Carl-Benz-Gymnasium (Carl Benz Grammar School). In July the investment plans almost failed, when Bouwfonds handed in their final plans and some councilmen weren’t 100% satisfied as they thought the building was too big and that there were not enough public parking spots. After some back and forth the plan was finally accepted… more than a year later in October of 2015. In early 2016 the renovation of the Carl-Benz-Gymnasium was finally done, so the Alte Martinsschule was finally ready to be taken over by the new investor – but not before making the news again in early February, when a couple of vandals broke into the school on a weekend and emptied some fire extinguishers, causing the police to show up the next Monday, publicly appealing for witnesses. In late February refugees helped cleaning out the school as the investor expected it to be broom-clean when taking over… for demolition.

A couple of months later my sister Sabine and I showed up at the Alte Martinsschule, knowing little to nothing about the long recent background story. I thought we were exploring an abandoned school for the physically disabled, so you can imagine my surprise when we found the whole school surrounded by construction site fences… and a huge gate wide open on the back. Since there were no “Do not enter!” signs anywhere and the gate was open, we had a closer look. The school looked like it had been abandoned for years, yet posters inside advertised a school Faschingsball (kind of a Mardi Gras party) earlier this year – very mixed messages that only made sense after I did some research; the Faschingsball was basically the farewell party of the grammar school.
Most breakage of glass had been fixed and the only apparent way in was an open window at the main street, where cars and pedestrians were passing by constantly. Sabine and I kept looking and found steps leading down to an indoor swimming pool with an open area in front of it, allowing daylight in through the large, massive glass windows. One of those windows, out of sight of the traffic three meters above us, was broken – and before I could say anything, Sabine slipped through and headed for the control room. Not expecting to find a way in and not sure how long we would stay I left the tripod in the car and followed my little sister. The pool was in nearly pristine condition, even covered to prevent accidents and further damage. Through the dark underbelly of the school we found our way to the main area of the Alte Martinsschule – which in many ways was so exemplary for every school in Germany I’ve ever been to. It had a couple of more ramps for obvious reasons, but other than that it looked like a German school, it smelled like a German school, it felt like a German school. A mostly empty school, as the investor was supposed to take over any day now, as we were not aware of. Nevertheless an exciting exploration – very familiar, yet a first time experience. Some walls still featured the results of group tasks, for example about the American Constitution, musicians, and what to expect from the new school (again, confusing at the time as we had no clue about the temporary stay of the grammar school). Via the ground floor we also found a way to the gymnasium / sports hall above the pool area – lots of large windows again, and with it the risk of being seen. Exploring back home should have been easier than in a foreign country, yet I was quite a bit more nervous than when exploring in Japan. Still don’t know why. Probably because I know the laws better and can’t play the “I don’t speak your language” card… Anyway, when we left a staircase to get back to a hallway I opened the heavy fire door, passed, handed it to Sabine and instead of closing it quietly, she slipped through and past me – the door closing with a loud BAMM that must have been audible in both Mannheim and Heidelberg! Damn! I’ve been on at least a dozen exploration with my beloved sister, never ever did she something that stupid and I was pissed. Really pissed. Luckily it was towards the end of our tour, so soon afterwards she returned to the car while I videotaped the walkthrough – almost 20 minutes long, so to all you out there who think that my videos are too short, I hope you’ll enjoy that one!
Soooo… This exploration happened in mid-July, why do I write about it now? Because back then I was on vacation and had time to do some research on the Alte Martinsschule, especially since I was curious about all those alleged contradictions. And a few weeks later, in August, an article in a local newspaper laid out the plans for the school’s future. It seems like Sabine and I just got in and out before a company took over and removed the remaining materials in the school – with separate containers for wood, metal, insulating materials, and other stuff. The facadism was planned to take till late September, then gigantic hoisting cranes were supposed to dismantle the concrete elements of the Alte Martinsschule like a house built of Lego. The plan was to get everything done by late October. I did my best to find some updates on the progress, but no online source reported about delays or success of the plans, so I added six weeks buffer and finally wrote about this rather unusual German location in exceptionally good condition. If the Martinsschule still stands I guess I accidentally revealed a pretty amazing location, but I didn’t want to wait any longer and it would have been a waste to write about this unique school without telling its story!

Despite the BAMM towards the end, I absolutely loved exploring not only a German school (after I’ve been to dozens of Japanese school, which are amazing in their own regards!), but a German school with a connected sports hall and an indoor swimming pool; that’s pretty much as good as it gets in this category. Sure, a couple of more items left behind would have been nice, but I am pretty sure you are getting a general idea of what schools in Germany look like. Thanks for making it all to the end of one of the biggest articles this year: almost 1500 words, more than 40 photos and a 20 minute long video… 🙂

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Getting to an abandoned place in the middle of nowhere can be a difficult challenge – but getting back home is the much more important one…

Since premises are really valuable in the bigger cities of Japan, most abandoned places in the land of the rising sun are in more or less rural areas – the more places I’ve explored, the further away from where people live I have to go to find suitable locations; some of them deep into the mountains, near a peak, dozens of kilometers away from the next settlement, past narrow roads riddled with rock fall. And one can only hope that everything goes well on those excursions – no damaged cables / pipes when accidentally driving over a sharp stone, or dead batteries due to negligence when parking the car. You don’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception!
Usually I go exploring solo or with local friends, but this time I was on the road with visitors from Europe, Michel and Tom; both awesome guys with impressive portfolios and many, many years of urbex experience. We were heading for the mountains to check out some schools I’ve located – sadly only two out of the seven I found were accessible, but the scenic drive in the countryside and exchanging exploration stories were half the fun anyway.

The first explorable school we reached was the Old Wooden Japanese School – one of those places appearing out of nowhere between a barely ever visited shrine and a ghost town at the end of a long drive up a mountain on a rock fall tormented road. Closed in 1969 and probably finally abandoned when the last resident left the nearby hamlet 30 years later, this was one of the oldest modern ruin I’ve ever visited. Not an easy exploration, as most windows had been boarded up and most entrances were covered by corrugated iron, basically separating the school into two parts – the easily accessible and rather well-lit storage / teacher’s room… and the rather gloomy class room(s), the main area of this wooden single-floor school. Overall the condition of the school was rather bad – which wasn’t really a surprise, given that it was made of wood and abandoned for almost 50 years. While the hallway in the back was almost completely gone and the floor of the classroom looked so bent and brittle that I didn’t dare to put any weight on it, the front was only in slightly better condition, probably thanks to different layers, including a door now lying on the ground. My favorite items in the school were the old Toshiba TV, the Hiruma day light projector, and the metal basketball hoop. (Yes, even as a German who has never seen a full basketball game I know that the thing is called a hoop in English, not a ring…) In total we spent about 1.5 hours taking pictures of the Old Wooden Japanese School, mainly because the lighting required long expose shots (30 seconds or 1/30 second makes a huge difference in how long it takes to document a place!), before we returned to the car and left…
… Well, tried to leave. The electronics of the car seemed work perfectly (lights, AC, …), yet whenever Michel turned the key to start the car, all we heard was a three note sound, as if something was dying; probably the battery. Early afternoon in the middle of nowhere, up on a mountain, past a rock fall riddled section of a rather narrow road, kilometers away from the next street with regular traffic, even further from the next occupied house. ARGH! A look at the car’s Japanese manual didn’t help at all, neither did Michel’s attempt of trying several lever position combinations. Just that depressing dying sound… over and over and over again. Starting to worry, we got out of the car – no visible damage, no liquids dripping; the car seemed to be fine… and the worrying intensified. It would take us hours to get help, at this point I considered getting home on the same day the best case scenario. Running out of ideas, Michel tried more lever positions… and all of a sudden the friggin car started! Three of the loudest sighs of relief I ever heard followed. As Europeans none of us was used to cars with automatic transmission – and without being able to understand the Japanese manual, we still don’t know what we’ve done wrong or how we fixed it. But we kind of didn’t care at that point. We were spared a really shitty afternoon, so we explored another school instead… and at the end of the day had tons of grilled and deep-fried chicken at Torikizoku – dinner of champions!

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Giant hornets, large spiders, wild boars, monkeys, deers, snakes, mosquitos, bumble bees, regular bees, rats, mice, cats, pigeons, dragonflies, raccoons… and maybe even a bear – you have to love animals if you want to do urbex in Japan!

Japanese people are very proud of their four seasons and some of them actually think that Japan is the only country in the world with four distinctive seasons – which is ridiculous, because not only are there many other countries with four distinctive seasons, but Japan stretches over a length of about 3000 kilometers – there are definitely not four seasons in Okinawa; and in Hokkaido they are anything but equally spread. Furthermore the majority of Japan is affected by a thing called tsuyu; literally plum rain, but commonly translated as (East Asian) rainy season… bringing the count to five seasons. Living in Osaka, “winters” can be cool and windy between late December and mid-March (hardly any snow, but temperatures can drop below the freezing point shortly, but tend to stay between 5°C and 10°C), while summers tend to be hot and humid nightmares between early July and late September with daytime temperatures reaching 35°C and nighttime temperatures not falling below 30°C for countless weeks in a row. The time between “winter” and hell (and vice versa) is usually really nice though – warm autumns with colorful maple leaves and springs with clear skies and millions of blooming cheery trees. Personally I like spring a little bit better as nature is still slumbering, which means that abandoned places tend to be more accessible and the previously mentioned local fauna is still awakening, too. Well… and then there is tsuyu, the rainy season, squished in between spring and hell, usually starting in early June and ending early July – give or take a week or two. About one month of torrential rain on about 5 out of 7 days a week… and a significant rise in humidity, making urbex not only unpredictable, but also not fun at all for the next four months; including the hellish summer. (And I go from one weekend per month not exploring to one weekend per month exploring… at best.)

Exploring the Crocodile School marked the beginning of tsuyu and the end of my spring urbex season last year, 2015. At first sight it was just another abandoned elementary school, the main entrance covered by a wide green net to prevent animals from entering; flexible and large enough to allow humans to gain access easily. The main area was still in decent condition, despite the fact that there were visible signs of vandalism and progressing decay in the back. While somebody was still mowing the lawn and kept things like the net intact, nobody was able or willing to spend money repairing rotting wood or the partly collapsed roof. At the end of a hallway, close to the nurse’s room, was a (b)locked door – luckily there was a separate entrance available from the outside… and that room turned out to be the highlight of the school. Most likely used for storage and maybe as a staff room, this end of the Crocodile School was packed with all kinds of items – including the name-giving taxidermy crocodile! But of course that was not all. Next to a table saw and what looked like a pottery oven (maybe?) I found a taxidermy turtle, countless pieces of china, several sea creatures preserved in half-empty glass tubes and much, much more…
When it comes to season endings, this was one of the better ones – for sure better than the ending of the sixth season of Lost! 😉 It was the first weekend of tsuyu… and I paid the price for it. It was hot, it was humid… and exploring the *Silent Hill Hotel* on the day before was much spookier than necessary. Luckily it didn’t rain on the morning of Day 2, nevertheless getting up to and exploring the Crocodile School was a sweat-inducing endeavor, rewarded by a beautiful view, an interesting amount of decay and plenty of unusual items left behind.

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