The abandoned Matsuo Mine Apartments – or: How I almost got myself seriously injured… twice!
Urban exploration is a dangerous hobby, I can’t stress it often enough. And I am a really careful explorer, sometimes to the annoyance of my fellow photographers, when I simply refuse to climb certain staircases or cross suspicious bridges. But you can be as cautious as you want to be, there is always a remaining risk that can’t be eliminated.
Upon arrival we had to figure out how to approach the Matsuo Mine Apartments best. Access in general was easy, but there were quite a few “from the road photographers” and the street lead directly to what is left of the mine itself – which is mainly a neutralization and treatment facility, operated by JOGMEC (Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation).
History of the Matsuo Mine
Okay, let me get the history part out of the way first: In the 1950/60s the Matsuo Mine was the biggest sulfur mine in the Far East, population in the area reached almost 15.000 people – which includes the families of the workers. But mining in the area dates back much longer. Sulfur resources were known as early as 1766 and the existence of a sulfur mine was documented in 1879. Around that time the Meiji government turned Japan from an agricultural state into an industrialized country by spending tons of money on the process and by hiring foreign experts – something I am sure North Korea will do as soon as the Kims are history; they already started in *Rason*. Anyway, after a local man discovered more sulfur in 1882, a small scale trial digging failed in 1888. In 1911 a private investor from Yokohama took over and lead the mine to temporary glory by being responsible for up to 30% of Japan’s sulfur production. Around that time the now iconic Matsuo Mine Apartment Buildings were constructed. 3 standalone blocks plus a conglomerate of 8 connected buildings, all facing west for beautiful sunsets. While none of the apartments had private baths or even showers (which isn’t uncommon in Japan, a lot of small accommodations like minshuku and ryokan are that way till this very day…), they were rather spacious by local standards and featured central heating and private water closets – the mining town was also provided with an elementary and junior high school, a hospital and plenty of space for entertainers to present their shows.
In the 1960s the success collapsed quickly when the oil industry was forced to desulfurize their products – imported sulfur became cheap, too, and there was basically no demand for domestic sulfur ores anymore. In a last effort to lower costs and avoid bankruptcy the Matsuo Mine was converted from underground mining to surface mining, but the plan and with it the mine failed in 1969; all miners were fired and the apartment buildings were (mostly?) abandoned. A new follow-up enterprise was founded right away to mine iron sulfide and to prevent that everybody would lose their jobs permanently, but that company failed, too – in 1972 the Matsuo Mine closed for good.
As you might (or might not) know, you can’t close a mine like a restaurant and just leave it behind. Mines and other industrial enterprises do massive damage to their surroundings, sometimes causing problems for generations to come (as we currently can see in Germany, where politics decided to get rid of all nuclear power plants) – and after the Matsuo Mine closed, it still leaked large volumes of acidic water that was polluting a nearby river. The first reaction was to drop a neutralizing agent directly into the waterway, turning it into a muddy brown mess. Several ministries studied the problem before it was decided in 1976 that a large neutralization and treatment facility would solve the problem. Iwate prefecture and the former MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) constructed the place and handed it over for operation to the MMAJ (Metal Mining Agency of Japan), a predecessor of the already mentioned JOGMEC. Most of the Matsue Mine itself was stripped down and renaturalized in the process – wooden buildings were burned to the ground, the ferro-concrete apartment buildings were left to rot.
Exploring the Matsuo Mine Apartment Buildings
Before Mike, Ben and I tackled the 11 apartment blocks, we wanted to get a good look at the complex and found a rather big abandoned building southwest of the main area. 3 floors, open basement, very *Gunkanjima* like style. The outdoor staircase was almost completely crumbled away and the inside saw massive amounts of damage, too – both natural and vandalism. It’s hard to say what the building was exactly, probably offices or more living space; maybe for senior employees, closer to the mine? Each floor consisted of about half a dozen rooms and a communal rest room. In the open basement I found some crates containing core samples from test drillings, so I assume the building wasn’t just another apartment block – the rest of the room was filled with snow BTW. Sadly the quick photos I took there didn’t turn out to be good, but you can see the area in the third video at the end of this article.
Soon after we headed over to the apartment buildings. While people in Osaka enjoyed the two weeks of spring between “winter” and the hot-humid hell they call summer here, parts of Iwate were still covered by snow in early May. The sky was overcast, but every now and then the sun broke through, so I decided to leave my jacket behind and explore in jeans and T-shirt. My standard wear all year long as a surprisingly large number of buildings in Japan are kept at 28 degrees Celsius all year long – in summer by pretending to be eco and only cautiously using AC; in winter by heating full power, completely ignoring the summer slogans about saving energy. Japan going green is just another lie, government PR, pure lip service. (And considering the amount of lip service here, the number of blow jobs is ridiculously low; figuratively speaking.) The advantage of this pre-spring atmosphere: vegetation was still low and only occasionally hindering.
After heading through the indoor hallway connecting four of the buildings and their staircases we found ourselves close to the former central heating plant; at least it looked like you would imagine one. To get there we had to go outside again and across some snow. Now, as I experienced at the *Fuji Foods Bio Center* 1.5 years prior, snow can be tricky if you don’t know what’s under it. Best case scenario: solid ground. Worst case scenario: abyss. Mike was fearlessly going ahead, so Ben and I followed a little bit more careful. We saw holes in the ground every now and then, but the snow-covered area seemed to be safe; except for rendering us borderline snow-blind. After about half an hour we headed back to the apartment buildings and started to explore those. Despite all staircases and adjunct apartments looking similar, there was so much to see, so many places to go to! I barely realized how cold it got when the sun disappeared and it started to rain…
And then it happened: When the three of us wanted to go from a lower apartment building to another one higher up on the slope, we found ourselves in a pretty overgrown area. Fighting through the vegetation would have been a pain thanks to the rain, so I suggested to go up a huge patch of snow that connected both areas. Mike headed first, then Ben, then me. I was kicking into the snow to create little footholds, when all of a sudden my left foot crashed through the snow and I sunk in up to my crotch, the right leg still outside. I felt my left leg dangling in the air when my friends hurried back to help me out of this miserable situation. It turned out that I was maybe 20 centimeters away from solid ground, even if I would have crashed through completely I probably wouldn’t have hurt myself thanks to hiking boots and solid trousers, but for the split second going down and a few seconds of uncertainty, I didn’t know that. In the end I got away with feeling terribly cold for the rest of the day, being partly covered in snow and rained on for about 2 minutes – and so I continued to explore the rest of the apartments. And not just the apartments. There were two kinds of staircases in those buildings – the centered ones with one apartment to the left and another one to the right, and the “stacked” ones, usually with four apartments on each floor; and the latter ones allowed access to the roofs! Some of the roofs were in really bad condition after 45 years of abandoned ones, but then there were those… that were basically deathtraps! The ground was all soft and the concrete was so withered, that the metal shone through; or formed bizarre exposed shapes. The views from the top of the buildings were breathtaking, that’s why the photo gallery isn’t in chronological order, but starts with one of those pictures, but it was also very, very dangerous up there. Especially since the wind picked up and some kind of thunderstorm began to brew around us…
Despite the little mishap this was an awesome exploration, but I am a sucker for that brittle metal and concrete look. I could have spent days there, but sadly the weather was getting worse and worse, so we decided to call it a day at around 5.30 when it was getting too dark inside of buildings to shoot without a tripod – and too nasty outside without weather-proof gear.
Revisiting the Matsuo Mine
Usually it takes me months or even years to revisit locations, but in this case it was less than 24 hours. We were on our way back from the *Osarizawa Mine*, when Ben and Mike realized on the highway that we could be at the Matsuo Mine again for sunset, if we would really hurry – and that’s what Ben did! When we left 23 hours and 45 minutes prior the sky was preparing for the apocalypse, but when we arrived the second time, the sun was just setting; flooding the whole area with beautiful soft light. We took a couple of overview shots from the first building and then headed over to the main complex. Ben and Mike wanted take photos again at the central heating plant, so I decided to explore some apartments I hadn’t seen before. On the way up one of the staircases I realized that one of the flights of stairs had a step missing. A whole friggin concrete step! Usually that would be a sign for me not to continue, but it was one of the staircases leading to a roof, so I made a big step, skipping some stair treads. (It’s not all bad being a big guy!) The further I went up, the worse the condition of the staircase became – basically rubble everywhere! I looked up the last flight of stairs and into the open when I realized that this one had three steps missing in a row. Like I said, I am not much of a risk taker, so this was the end for me – not knowing whether or not the steps before or after were safe, I decided to turn around and regretfully leave the roof behind and face the missing step below again.
And then it happened: It was on the second to last flight of stairs of this staircase, the one above the missing step one, when both my feet lost their grip at the same time due to the rubble and debris everywhere. I fell on my ass and started to slide down, but luckily the concrete below was solid and I stopped after two or three steps – one flight later, at the one with the missing step, the situation might have been different. Learning from the rather bad clothing decision a day prior, I was wearing my leather jacket, which prevented serious excoriations and maybe even worse. In the end I must have twisted my knee a little bit as it started to hurt later that day at certain angles, but overall I was very luckily again. My two fellow explorers heard my accident over at another building and started to worry when I apparently didn’t answer for a minute or so (I actually didn’t hear them right away being surround by concrete), but of course I made sure to let them know right away that I was a little bit shaken, but physically fine.
When I left the building I realized that the memory card of my camera was full – and since I left my backpack with the spare cards in the car (traded it for the jacket…) the afternoon was over for me… until I realized that I could delete some old photos! But the sun was setting quickly anyway and I had enough of rushing things, so I basically called it a day and made my way back outside, watching the sun setting behind the open-face mine.
The 45 minutes of the second day obviously were a lot less successful than what I did on day 1, nevertheless it was a good experience overall. On the way out I took a photo of the only chair I remember seeing in the building, probably the most famous abandoned wooden chair in all of Japan – and I saw another example of Japanese insulation. Insulation is a very big problem in Japan till this very day as even modern buildings barely use it, because Japanese construction is about price, not about being lasting long… or energy efficient (lip service!). If you heat or cool your apartment here it takes about 30 seconds to go back to outside temperature after you turn off the AC. On the first day I took a picture of straw ropes wrapped around the piping, then covered by plastic to insulate, this time it was a mix of bamboo sticks and plaster covered by plastic. Those are the little things I really love about urban exploration. I never thought about piping insulation at Japanese mining apartments, yet I found out about it just by paying attention to details. It actually makes me want to research the topic on the internet now. I wonder if I will be able to find out more – or if crumbling giants like the Matsuo Mine Apartment Buildings are the only way to gather (admittedly rather useless) knowledge like that…
Oh, and in case you wonder why I wrote so much about my two small accidents: Because they happened – and because urban exploration is friggin dangerous, even when you don’t expect it to be!
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