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Archive for the ‘Shiga’ Category

What goes up must come down? In this case it was a rather close call…

Back in 2009, when I picked up urban exploration as a hobby, I was an avid hiker – spending most of the weekends in the mountains of Kansai; this blog could as well have become KansaiHiking instead of AbandonedKansai, but I quickly found exploring abandoned buildings much more interesting than being sent in the wrong direction by poorly marked hiking trails. A lot of my *early explorations* actually combined Japanese ruins, *haikyo* and hiking – and the Hira Lift was one of those haikyo hiking trips in mid-May of 2011; one of the last of those, for reasons soon to be obvious.
The Hira Lift was opened in 1960 along with a skiing area on the slopes of Mount Bunagatake, one of the most famous peaks in Kansai. In 1961 the Hira Gondola followed to connect the top station of the lift with the skiing slopes. Things were good for several decades, but the rather remote and not easy to access slopes started to suffer from lack of snow – and after a couple of bad seasons the skiing area shut down in 2004; and with it the lift and the gondola. Sadly there was little to nothing known about their status in 2011, so when my buddy Luis and I checked out the transportation up the mountain, it turned out that the valley station of the lift had been abandoned and the lift itself demolished. We arrived at the abandoned lift station reasonably early, at around 10 a.m., with light equipment and the intention to be back at the train station at around 3 p.m. for a trip to Costco – as foreigners living in Japan the happiest place on earth, at least to us. We took a couple of photos and then decided to hike up the mountain to have a look at the top station of the lift, and to find out what was left of the gondola. A nice hike on a warm, sunny spring day, but along some narrow paths with steep slopes; one of the more demanding hikes I did. Sadly the gondola station had been demolished, too, leaving just lots of concrete behind. We were still good on time, so we decided to get to the top of Bunagatake at a height of 1200 meters. The good old days, when I was young and in shape…
At the top of the mountain Luis and I made a crucial mistake. Instead of getting down the mountain the way we came up, we decided to look for another way down. Down, down, down… Soon we followed a runlet down the mountain, which grew bigger and bigger. The path started to disappear and we foolishly followed the small river clinging to the mountain slope until we finally reached the top of a waterfall, about three meters tall. No possibility of climbing down – at that point the sun was already Setting, we hadn’t eaten in hours and didn’t bring any food, and only small amounts of (drinking) water. We were probably at a height of 400 meters, rather close to the bottom of the mountain, so Luis had the brilliant idea to jump. Which I refused to, carrying my photo equipment and NOT KNOWING how deep the water was down there. The ice cold water, because in the shadowy areas, there were still patches of snow! It took me a while, but I was able to convince Luis to backtrack and return up the mountain to a plateau at about 1000 meters – to save time, we waded through the ice cold and at points more than knee deep river several times; me almost slipping once or twice… By the time we reached the plateau it was pizza time and dark, about 7 p.m.  – but we were far away from Costco; without flashlights, hungry, thirsty, alone, tired, pissed off, but with a great view at Lake Biwa on a mountain range… Luis suggested to stay the night at the concrete shell of an abandoned viewing point we found earlier, but me being hungry and wet, I was able to convince him again to move on. It took us a while, but we finally found the narrow, neck-breaking path we came up, first using the screens of our mobile phones, then the focusing light of my camera to poorly light the way down. By the time we finally got back to the train station we caught the second to last train back to civilization at something like 10:30 p.m. … instead of 3 p.m.

What did I take away from that day? Not much about urbex, that’s for sure, as pretty much everything of interest had been demolished between 2004 and 2011. But I learned to really respect the mountains, because even popular and populated hiking trails on sunny days can bring you in danger, if you stray from them carelessly and without proper gear / provisions. Overall just a horrible, horrible experience! But in hindsight a pretty good story, though I could have done without the cramps in both legs for two days – especially at night…

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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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Two abandoned ski resorts halfway up one of Japan’s most popular mountains – one at about 500 meters, the other at about 750 meters… and no working lift anymore to get up there! The Ruins of Mount Ibuki.

When I first picked up urbex as a hobby, I was an avid hiker and actually bought my first DSLR to take better pictures of scenic landscapes and waterfalls – I received it the day before I climbed Mount Atago in the outskirts of Kyoto. Not the normal route, but along the *abandoned cable car*, my first real abandoned place I visited on purpose. I started to go to abandoned places more often, quite a few of them in combination with hiking, like the *Taga Mine* or the *Mount Hiei Artificial Ski Slope*. In summer of 2010 I decided to climb Mount Ibuki and brought my big camera just in case there would be some spectacular views, because I didn’t expect to see any ruins along a popular hiking trail like that – I was wrong…
Mount Ibuki is one of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains, a list compiled by mountaineer Kyuya Fukada in 1964 and made popular when Crown Prince Naruhito took note of it and decided to climb them all. It’s the highest peak of the Ibuki Mountains along the border between Shiga and Gifu prefectures and offers a great view at Lake Biwa on clear days.
With an early start, the 1377-metre-high peak can be climbed even by occasional hikers like myself in a day trip from Kobe / Osaka / Nara / Kyoto – usually by taking a train to Omi-Nagaoka and a bus to the trailhead near Sannomiya Shrine (bus stop: Ibuki-Tozanguchi). As fate willed, the regular bus wasn’t running that day without a reason given, so I shared a taxi with three ladies in their 60s, as the 5 kilometer walk would have totally messed up my schedule. The first 200 metres in altitude you gain by walking up what is basically a long staircase through the woods (the trail starts at about 220 meters above sea level). Steps, steps, steps – hardly any even stretches, but protected from the sun. Then you step out in the open right next to an abandoned lift on the right and a large abandoned ryokan to the left. Upon further exploration I found a still partly stocked abandoned ski rental shop, another accommodation, a restaurant / ski rental called Dorian, and some ski lifts right next to a beautiful slope. At one point this area must have been quite popular, now only the Mount Ibuki Plateau Hut and the Mount Ibuki Paragliding School are open for business – accessible for employees (and maybe customers) by a road closed to the general public. Already feeling the climb in my legs, surprised by the photo opportunity and only half a year into writing Abandoned Kansai I took a couple of photo, but I’d have to lie if I’d claim that I would be proud of them; now, six years later. Anyway, I continued to follow the track up Mount Ibuki for about 150 meters (height, not length!), past another abandoned restaurant, to the top of this lower skiing area, which included a still active accommodation, a temple (I didn’t visit) as well as another large abandoned rest house / ryokan with a beautiful UCC vending machine in front of it. At this point the hiking trail disappeared between some trees for another 200 meters of height gain – the lift leading straight up to connect the lower skiing area with the upper skiing area left abandoned.
The upper skiing area, basically another plateau, was riddled with about half a dozen lifts in all directions – and it also featured an abandoned hotel (Mount Ibuki Highland / Plateau Hotel) as well as an inaccessible gondola station connecting a parking lot next to Sannomiya Shrine directly with the upper skiing area. Even more exhausted thanks to the gruesome June summer heat and humidity I took some more pictures, but again… I was in hiking mode. And that was necessary, because at the upper skiing area the hike up Mount Ibuki becomes exhausting. For the final stretch of about 550 meters of height difference you see barely any tree, instead you have to hike up a rather narrow trail in serpentines without any natural protection from the sun – back and forth, back and forth, between 5 and 50 meters each. Like I said, I did quite a bit of hiking the previous year, but nothing like that! Upon reaching the top of Mount Ibuki I was surprised to find a small hut village, selling everything from food to crappy souvenirs. I wasn’t aware of it beforehand, but as it turned out that there is a pay road leading up the back of Mount Ibuki, called Ibuki Driveway. In summer, you can even take a public bus from Sekigahara Station! It kind of ruined the atmosphere up there, but at the same I was really, really, really happy to have some kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) to cool down! According to the hiking maps, it takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes to climb Mount Ibuki – 1157 meters of height difference stretched across exactly six kilometers.
On the way down, flooded by a motivating feeling of accomplishment, I continued to take photos… and I actually think that they are the better ones. I was more relaxed, more focused on framing – and to be honest, the warm afternoon light was much better than the rather harsh morning light. After a total of about six hours I was back at the bus stop – and this time it actually came!

Climbing Mount Ibuki is quite an experience, whether you are into urban exploration or not – and I can only imagine how nice it must have been before all the lifts, huts, roads, and the big mine that is carving a gigantic open sore into the western part of the mountain. I actually liked it so much that I came back with a friend a year later, in 2011, only to find that most of the lifts had been demolished and the hotel was in use again – not by tourists, but probably by the workers who removed the lifts. What else was different? Well, that’s a story for another time…

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The remains of the Nakagawa Brick Factory are a conglomerate of old bakestone buildings dating back to the Meji era (1868-1912), Japan’s questionable return to the global community. As mentioned in several articles before, back then the Imperial government hired hundreds of foreign experts to turn the agricultural society into a modern industrialized country (much like North Korea currently does in Kaesong and Rason). Back then one construction material barely known and used in Japan was bricks – because brick buildings are heavy and vulnerable to earthquakes; which are not a problem in central Europe, where bricks were quite popular. Nevertheless bricks were introduced to Japan, mainly to build previously unknown, modern western buildings like train stations (like the famous one in Tokyo), ballroom buildings, beer breweries, and all kinds of industrial installations, like transformer stations (the one in *Horonai, Hokkaido* comes to mind).

The Nakagawa Brick Factory dates back to the year 1883 when Nakagawa Hisao of the Koto Group founded the factory in Omihachiman, back then famous for trading and pottery. The heart of the factory was a so-called Hoffmann kiln, a huge oven for the perpetual baking of bricks and other pottery, invented by German master builder Friedrich Hoffmann. 14 meters wide, 55 meters long and with a chimney 30 meters tall the kiln at the Nakagawa Brick Factory is the largest of four remaining Hoffmann kilns in Japan – at one point in time there were more than 50… From 1886 on, the factory produced bricks for the Lake Biwa Canal (under construction from 1885 till 1890), which connects Lake Biwa with Kyoto and was essential for the modernization of the former capital – the first public hydroelectric power generator provided electricity for Kyoto’s tram, the canal itself provided tap water, and until the 1940 the canal was important to transport goods; interestingly enough about 10 years ago I wrote a paper at university about “The Modernization of Kyoto in the Meiji Era”, little did I know that one day a kiln providing bricks for the Lake Biwa Canal would be part of my urban explorations…
After the canal was finished, the Koto factory was officially named Nakagawa Brick Factory and continued to produce and sell bricks until 1967, although the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 once again proved that bricks weren’t good construction material for Japan; that and the rising cement industry were the downfall for brick producers.

Today most ways to enter the kiln are blocked by sandbags or wooden planks, but of course you can imagine that there is always somebody to get rid of blockades like that – which doesn’t mean that you are allowed to enter. When *Rory* and I did for the second or third time, a woman called a guy who politely asked us to leave as it was way too dangerous to be in there. So of course we left, especially since we had more than enough time to take photos and a quick video. (Technically the factory isn’t abandoned and belongs to the Township of Red Bricks nursing home close to the kiln.)

Right next to the Hoffmann kiln we found another brick building in terrible condition. With the roof and one of the walls gone, the machine inside was exposed to the elements 24/7 – only people were barred from entering by a solid fence. The huge metal machine, made by Ishikawa Iron Works of Aichi prefecture and rusted beyond repair, once must have been used to form bricks to be burnt in the kiln.
There are other buildings associated with the Nakagawa Brick Factory in Omihachiman, but none of them is in good condition, although the factory was selected to represent the industrial heritage of Japan by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry – much like the *Shime Coal Mine* in Fukuoka, a.k.a. the Anti-Zombie Fortress.

It was a rather short exploration and doing research for this article actually took much longer than exploring the Hoffmann kiln in Omihachiman, nevertheless it was an interesting place to see. Like I mentioned earlier, I studied Japanese history when I was young, but in this case I even wrote about a canal built with bricks that were made at this very kiln almost 130 years prior – and that’s why I love urban exploration so much. Because even not so spectacular places can provide you with a unique experience, that connects you with history in a way books or movies never can…

BTW: These days the city of Omihachiman is famous all over Japan thanks to a local bakery named “Club Harie”, which, by common opinion, makes the best Baumkuchen in the whole country – and therefore in all of the world. As you may or may not know, Baumkuchen (tree cake) is of German origin… and so the beautiful old city of Omihachiman is fuelled by German engineering and inventions for more than 130 years now.

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Almost completely demolished, yet exploration fun for more than two hours – this Sumitomo Osaka Cement Factory delivered one last time!

Sumitomo is one of the oldest companies in all of Japan, tracing their roots back to Masatomo Sumitomo, who gave up his life as a Buddhist priest to become a businessman at age 45 in 1630. Starting with a shop selling books and medicine in Kyoto, he later became closely associated with copper – his brother-in-law Riemon Soga had learned from Europeans how to separate silver from unrefined copper in the late 16th century… and when Soga’s first son Tomomochi married one of Sumitomo’s daughters, the business expanded to Osaka under the Sumitomo name. In the following centuries the company diversified and became one of Japan’s four big conglomerates called zaibatsu; along with Mitsui, Mitsubishi and the now dissolved Yasuda.
After ignoring the cement market for decades, Sumitomo got into the business in the early 60s, when the demand for coal plummeted and the subsidiary Sumitomo Coal Mining was looking for new opportunities. In 1962 Sumitomo invested in one of Japan’s most successful cement producers, Iwaki Cement, and basically took them over in 1963. The new company soon opened / acquired more plants and in 1994 merged with competitor Osaka Cement to form the Sumitomo Osaka Cement Co., Ltd – one of their plants was in Shiga prefecture and ran from 1952 till 2003; shortly afterwards the demolition of the factory and partly new use of the premises began.

When my buddy Marvin came to visit from Berlin, it was pretty clear that we wouldn’t meet at a cute little café to spend 12 bucks on a piece of cake and a cup of coffee – instead we took the opportunity for a ride to the Shiga countryside on a lovely September Sunday; one of the first bearable days after a long, hot and humid summer. The Sumitomo Osaka Cement Factory was the second location of the day as its current condition was pretty much unknown to us, the area a blurry spot on GoogleMaps. All I knew was that demolition had started years ago and that there was at least one new company on the former factory ground. We approached from the south and it turned out that the area was a lot bigger than I expected – easily 400 by 800 meters, including the active looking part, most of it (sight) protected by partly overgrown fences; some fitted with barbed wire, some just plain fences of various kinds. When we found a section that looked like a possible entrance, Marvin was eager to get in, but I had a bad feeling and wasn’t ready to finish scouting yet; good decision as the area behind that fence was accessible from other places and still in use. About 15 minutes later I finally gave in at a gate we were able to pass easily. I still wasn’t fully convinced that it was a good idea, but most urbex noobs have an untainted enthusiasm that is infectious. We explored the former back of the now mostly demolished cement plant and actually found an open gate with no “Do not enter! / No Trespassing!” signs, which calmed me down noticeably. Still in the upper back part, all of a sudden I heard a heavy truck approaching – it turned out that they still loaded rocks on trucks there, they just stopped the production of cement. So Marvin and headed for cover and were just able to duck down before the truck rushed through. Phew, close call!
To avoid further run-ins with heavy trucks we headed down the slope to the concrete remains of the former cement factory, away from the main road crossing the vast premises. Technically there wasn’t much to see – one or two rusty machines here, some rusty packing devices there; but the atmosphere was just amazing. Very post-apocalyptic, like straight out of a Terminator or Mad Mad movie, the scorching sun on the almost clear sky physically supporting the feeling. Who would have thought that shooting a 90% demolished factory could be that much fun? There is just something about gigantic ferroconcrete structures I can’t get enough of…
Yet the most interesting part was actually a Hitachi transformer station, partly stripped, but still equipped with some switchboxes and all kinds of steampunk looking metal and ceramics parts. Sadly there were mosquitos everywhere, eating us alive and rendering some photos unusable.

Despite the fact that most of the plant was gone already, this was an amazing exploration – especially since at the time I didn’t know what kind of industrial complex the Sumitomo Osaka Cement Factory had been. I knew it under the name “Sumitomo Plant”, so it could have been anything. Just by looking at the remains and the surroundings, we figured out that it must have been a cement factory; later research at home confirmed our assumptions and revealed a lot more about the plant and its history. Good times!

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Usually I stay away from exploring regular Japanese houses. It happened way too often that I thought “Oh, this house / apartment building looks abandoned!” and upon closer look it actually was not. Japan has an unbelievable amount of rundown yet inhabited buildings, especially in the countryside and the outskirts of bigger cities – and I don’t want to get in trouble!

When *Rory* and I drove through the countryside on one of our exploration trips, my fellow explorer tried to point my attention to a slightly dilapidated concrete building to the left – and even without looking at it I dismissed the idea, because “there are cars parked”. Well, last time I saw the building half a year prior there were cars parked, but this time I jumped the gun. Rory was indeed right: the cars were gone, leaving behind a building that looked abandoned… and so we stopped.
Still not 100% convinced that the building was really abandoned I left the lead to Rory and had a look at the surroundings – a couple of storage shacks inhabited by half a dozen cats, some garden plots with Napa cabbage (the key ingredient of kimchi…), a few open windows; no real proof that this simple, ugly building was really abandoned. Access of course was easy – two staircases in the back lead to four floors with two apartments each. (The video shows one staircase, the photos I selected are from apartments on both staircases.)
While all apartments basically had the same layout, their interior was like a box of chocolates – we never knew what we were gonna get! Some apartments looked like you could move it in right away if you had low standards, others were completely moldy and a serious health hazard, while the third kind was covered by spider webs. Some were packed with brand-new boxed items, the strangest being the ones labelled “Glycerin Enema Mune 60”, others were filled with all kinds of trashed. Some showed signs of families with children, others most likely were bachelor pads. In one apartment was a calendar – showing last month’s date; which would explain why there were cars parks at the building half a year prior to our visit.
Since the apartment building was just outside of a small town, Rory and I went for a walk after we were done exploring. It was getting dark anyway, so we thought it would be nice to enjoy a countryside sunset. Countryside people in Japan tend to be much friendlier than city folks according to my experience, so it didn’t surprise me at all when a local woman started a conversation with Rory when he took a picture of a cat with an improvised Elizabethan collar – and she confirmed that the apartment building was abandoned just two months prior to our visit after it fell into disrepair.

When approaching and exploring the apartment building I didn’t think it was a good idea being there, but in retrospect it was quite an interesting experience. I still wouldn’t drive hours to get there, but it wasn’t a bad location as far as original finds go!

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Abandoned Japanese towns must be the most common type of *haikyo*. For decades people have been moving from the countryside to the cities… and the trend continues: Almost 70% of Japan’s population live on 3.3% of the land – it’s a mountainous country, and the further you drive into the valleys, the more half-abandoned villages you’ll see; some are deserted completely, especially those so remote that they are almost completely cut off from the outside world in winter. (And that’s the main reason why ghost towns don’t show up at urbex blogs so much – only a few, like *Mukainokura*, are easily accessible; for most of them you need to have a car or a motorcycle…)

Across one of those hamlets my buddy *Rory* and I stumbled on our way to an off the beaten tracks location somewhere in the mountains of the Shiga / Mie / Gifu triangle. We thought it would be a good idea taking a direct way along a narrow one lane road stretching up and down several mountains instead of using the ridiculously expensive highways in Japan. It was a sunny day in March not only in Osaka (where there is no winter…), but also in Shiga. So we drove up one mountain in beautiful weather and started to descent on the other side… when all of a sudden we saw snow on the side of the road. We descended further and further, snow slowly creeping closer until we started driving on it. When we saw said hamlet, we made a quick stop to take a picture or two and continued driving… until we hit a dead end. The snow was getting too high and there was no way we were able to continue. So we turned around – and got stuck in the snow right in the middle of the hamlet (GoggleMaps doesn’t have a name for it, so I just simply call it Japanese Ghost Town). So I got out of the car and started pushing, successfully. Until we got stuck again a couple of hundred meters down the road, up the mountain. This time I needed the help of some boards that were conveniently placed right next to the road (coincidence?), but to both of our great relief we got grip right away and returned to the weather divide, this time without further incidents. Down the mountain on the Shiga side we found out that the only regular road nearby was still closed for winter, so we made our way back to Osaka as we were running out of time anyway.
Half a year later, November 2013, on our way to the remote haikyo Rory and I wanted to explore in spring – this time the first location of the day, not the third. Beaten by that darn valley six months prior and dangerously close to winter we decided to give the narrow mountain road another try. When we reached the hamlet this time there was no snow in sight, so we got out of the car and considered the place an original find. What started as “a quick look” turned into an hour long full exploration of about a dozen houses, most of them partly collapsed. All the buildings were Japanese style, which means mostly wood, so even the rather undamaged buildings were quite brittle once we found a way inside (without using force, of course) – half a dozen more winters with heavy snow and they will be flattened, too. To make the houses more stable and more durable, some outside walls were clad with thin metal plates. One of the houses still had an active digital (!) wattmeter above the entrance door and where we parked the car we found a laminated sheet of paper with information about an on demand taxi as a replacement for a regular bus service. My favorite item though was an abandoned bike, clearly an older model, maybe from the 50s or 60s. A really lovely piece of rust!

After we left the hamlet, we continued beyond the point where were forced to turn around half a year prior – and then we got lost in the mountains and reached dead ends… several times… losing massive amounts of time. The car’s navi more or less useless, we finally found a real road that lead us back to civilization, so we headed for the main road that was closed in March because of snow. This time we passed this point, too, only to get stopped in front of a tunnel – mudslides had severely damaged the road on the other side more than a year prior, so the tunnel was closed indefinitely, yet the road was open for hikers to reach a popular trailhead in spring, summer and autumn.
Running out of time again, Rory and I made our way back to Osaka, hoping to reach Location X on a third attempt. Or by finally trying a different route…

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