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Archive for the ‘Snow’ Category

Go big or go home! Over the last few weeks I’ve presented a couple of smaller locations on *Abandoned Kansai*, but now it’s time to come back with an impressive abandoned place – and it’s not going to get bigger than the Arai Mountain And Spa a.k.a. Lotte Arai Resort, a large ski resort north of Nagano.

2 million square meters (200 hectare). That’s how big the Arai Mountain And Spa resort was. Almost seven times as big as *Nara Dreamland*, the greatest abandoned theme park the world has ever seen. And as Nara Dreamland, the Arai Mountain And Spa was all about fun… at least for a while.
Developed by Hideo Morita, the eldest son of Sony co-founder Akio Morita, in the early 1990s for a whopping 50 billion Yen (about 440 million USD, both back then and today), the large ski and spa resort about 50 kilometers north of Nagano (but in Niigata prefecture) opened in 1993 with state of the art facilities around a huge center square, basically its own town with several restaurants, shops, accommodations, indoor and outdoor pools, entertainment facilities – and of course access to the 11 slopes for skiing and snowboarding via a gondola and four lifts, two of them starting at the center square. Located at a height of about 330 meters the total vertical descent of the slopes was 951 meters – the longest run possible was 5200 meters long. Sadly the Arai Mountain And Spa had management and therefore financial problems right from the start, despite more than 200000 visitors in the 1998-99 skiing season. Between the opening of the resort in 1993 and its closing in 2006 the Morita family reportedly invested another 23 billion Yen (200 million USD) to fix problems and keep the resort running – a disastrous investment, even if you are rich…
After the lights went out at the Arai Mountain And Spa, rumors about this gigantic closed / abandoned spread all over the internet, yet only a few urban explorers seemed to have the guts to have a look themselves – I found out about it via a Japanese skiing blog back in 2010 or 2011. Rumors included tight security and reports about barricades, two rather off-putting elements, especially in Japan, where most abandoned places are actually abandoned; except for schools, which are usually just closed… In addition to that, Myoko and its suburb Arai are not exactly accessible in a time- and cost-efficient way from Kansai, so it took me until November 2014 to get there as part of a road trip with my buddy *Hamish*.

Let’s go!

Very well aware of the security rumors and quite impressed by the good condition of the gigantic complex of buildings, Hamish and I decided to explore the outskirts first, so we drove up the mountain… until the snowy road prevented us to go any further in our small rental car with summer tires. But we made it past one of the ski lifts, so we stopped there, took some pictures inside and outside and enjoyed the breathtaking view. We also confirmed that there was no visible activity at the main plaza – no security, no maintenance, no other people. On the way down we also stopped at the Roppongidaira Station, which connected the Village Station with the Zendana Station and gave guests of the resort access to a ski lift that lead to another set of slopes. Everything was locked, but in overall good condition. Nobody was mowing the pampas grass anymore, so it was rather unclear if there was some maintenance going on or if the area was just lucky to be spared by vandals, despite minor signs of destruction were visible all across the resort – though nothing worth mentioning, considering how much money was invested into the business…
By the time Hamish and I arrived back at the building complex we were pretty confident not to run into anybody, especially after gaining access to the main square without having to jump and fences or getting past any barricades. It was a sunny November day, rather warm, overall gorgeous – and the plaza, measuring about 150 by 100 meters on three levels (connected by several staircases and roofed escalators), was absolutely awe-inspiring. At that point I had seen my share of abandoned places – but nothing of that size, nothing in that good condition; even with an ultra-wide angle lens I was able to capture only parts of the area at a time. This really was the *Nara Dreamland* equivalent of an abandoned ski resort!
At the same time the lack of vandalism also meant that 90% of the buildings were not accessible. Not the spa, not any of the hotels, neither of the two ski stations, … Nevertheless an amazing exploration with some stunning photos. Speaking of which: Usually I publish the photos in the same order they were taken to give you an idea of my progress through a location. Since the plaza photos are much more spectacular than the early morning pictures, I decided to put the main area photos first and then jump to the accessible ski lift station halfway up the mountain. To get a better idea of how big the Arai Mountain And Spa really was I strongly recommend to watch the walkthrough video at the end of this article. You can also have a look at GoogleMaps (or any other online map…) – here are the coordinates: 36.990680, 138.181261

There is more!

Now, before you get a heart attack over me posting coordinates – there is more to the story as you might have already figured out reading the title. At the time of my visit in November of 2014 the Arai Mountain And Spa was up for public auction after Myoko City seized the resort due to unpaid property tax. Hm, have I already mentioned parallels to *Nara Dreamland*? Yes? Okay, so let’s move on. The city set the minimum bid at 914 million Yen and some change for the property, including all of the 200 hectares of land and 22 buildings (that’s about 8 million USD – a fraction of the original costs and barely more than what Nara Dreamland sold for in late 2015). A golf course developer won the bid at 1.3 billion Yen, but apparently there were some problems, so Myoko City gave it another try in June of 2015, this time starting at 884 million Yen. The winning bid? More than double, 1.8 billion Yen – from Lotte, a multinational conglomerate with 5000 employees in Japan… and 180000 in South Korea. They quickly renamed their latest purchase Lotte Arai Resort and started renovations for a piece by piece reopening from late 2016 on. Realizing that those plans wouldn’t work very well, the restart of the former Arai Mountain And Spa was scheduled for the 2017 season – not only with all the fully renovated previous facilities, but also some proposed new ones, like a new half pipe near the top of the mountain, a luge run, and some zip lines. I’ve seen photos of the renovation works, taken in August and in November of 2016 – so now the property is actually fenced off and most likely guarded by security… much like *Nara Dreamland*, but with the opposite outcome.

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In Japan “skylines” often describe scenic toll roads on top of beautiful mountain ridges – a lot of them feature rest stops with restaurants and souvenir shops, some even have a funicular line for people without cars… or had, like in this case.

When you are used to German highways, the world famous Autobahn, Japanese highways are a disgrace and barely tolerable. First of all: They are not even real highways – the majorities of Japanese highways, the National Routes, are country roads at best; most of them even are regular (inner city) streets with no by-pass function whatsoever. If you want to go fast and past inner cities, you have to use the so-called expressways – a nationwide network of roads that look the like Autobahn at first sight, but is not nearly as good; initially built and financed by the State, but later split into three main areas and privatized in 2005. First of all: Unlike the German Autobahn, Japanese expressways are not free. They are toll roads that currently cost 24.6 Yen per kilometer / 39.36 Yen per mile for a regular passenger car! You take a ticket when you drive on and pay, rounded to the nearest 50 Yen, when you get off. It doesn’t sound like that much at first sight, but it adds up – a day trip can easily include 400 to 500 kilometers of driving, which means more than 100 bucks just for highway fees! But that’s not all! While more than half of the Autobahn network only has an advisory speed limit (i.e. you can drive as fast as your car and common sense allows), the speedlimit on Japanese expressways is… 100 km/h. If you are lucky. Even without road works it’s often lowered to 80 km/h. And while an Autobahn has at least two lanes (in each direction, sometimes up to four!), two is the standard in Japan. Sometimes three, but more often one.
Long story short: Japanese highways are not bad, but they are expensive and often mind-numbingly slow – especially when you are trying to return to a big city like Osaka or Tokyo at the end of a long weekend. Bumper to bumper to bumper to…
In addition to “fast” toll roads, you also have “beautiful” toll roads – sometimes they can be used as a short cut (like the Arima Driveway between Kobe and the old onsen town of Arima), sometimes they are their own tourist destination; for example the Ibuki Driveway up Mount Ibuki in northern Shiga prefecture.

The Skyline in Mie was a little bit of both. Kind of a shortcut, though you probably lost quite some time driving up and down the curvy road instead of staying on a flat one, and at the same it offered quite a few viewing points with gorgeous lookouts at both the mountains and the sea. The reason I wanted to have a look up there were a deserted rest stop and an abandoned cable car…
The Mount Asama Cable Car (not related to the also abandoned *Asama Volcano Museum* in Nagano prefecture!) was opened in 1925, but closed in 1944 as a non-essential line, because the Japanese military needed every piece of metal it could get. While the power lines remained, the cable car wasn’t restored / reopened after World War 2 and officially abandoned in 1962. Due to natural decay in the following decades, the upper terminus turned more and more into a deathtrap and therefore was secured with barbed wire (!) and fenced off with a regular black metal fence in 2006. (What’s with Japan and “securing” stuff with barbed wire? I’ve been hiking a lot a few years ago and came across trails that were “secured” with barbed wire, so if you slipped, your fall were at least temporarily stopped… before you bled to death three days later…) Luckily they didn’t combine the fence and the barbed wire, so it was rather easy to have a look at the upper terminus, which was little more than a concrete shell with holes 70 years after it closed for good. But the roof offered a nice view at the area below with the beautiful Mie coast line. A coast line I mistook for another one about 300 kilometers away, when I first tried to locate the cable car four years prior – interestingly enough I found an abandoned gondola station thanks to this mix-up, but that’s a story for another time… What I will remember the most about the Mount Asama Cable Car is the fact how cold it was up there. Since there is no real winter in Osaka (it snows only every other year and never strong enough to stick on the ground for longer than a few hours – in addition to that most buildings are overheated) I am not used to low temperatures anymore – and in combination with the hard wind I was freezing like hardly ever before anywhere in Japan.

The sun was already setting, so we moved on to what once was a rest stop along the skyline – large parking lot, large concrete complex with large windows. While the toilet area and a couple of separate souvenir were still open for business, the main building once housing a large restaurant had been closed, but in decent condition. The combination of toll road, remote location and regular visitors prevented 99% of the possible vandalism the place could have suffered if it wouldn’t have been for those protective factors. And while the view at the cable car was limited in northeastern direction, the rest stop area offered an almost 360° view – absolutely gorgeous!

Overall the The Ruins Of The Skyline were a nice way to end a day trip to the countryside. It took me a while to find the cable car station… and even longer to get there – and there’s always something special to cross an old entry off the list… 🙂

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Winter is coming! Not to Osaka, but to the Kansai region in general, as there is no real winter in Osaka. Sure, the locals start freezing the moment the temperatures fall below the 28° Celsius they set their ACs to in summer (which means that some of them go from cooling straight to heating, because nobody deserves to live in inhumane 26° weather!), but if you are from a place that actually has four seasons, you will quickly realize that Osaka doesn’t really have a winter. Temperatures barely ever fall below 0° Celsius and in the past eight years it only snowed two times hard enough for the white beauty to stick on the ground… for a few hours, never for longer. It also explains why certain types of women turn into walking urinary tract infections – if you wear belts all year long and call them dresses, then for a couple of weeks a year you have to suffer through your inability to wear proper autumn clothes… (Being male I am not complaining, I am just tired of the stupidity. The principle of cause and effect doesn’t seem to be a strength of the average ditz…)
On the other hand, Osaka is in day trip range of mountainous prefectures. Hyogo, Kyoto, Shiga, Fukui, Gifu, Mie, Nara and Wakayama all get their share of snow from as early as December on. And just because you have sunny 10°C in Osaka doesn’t mean that the weather is the same just an hour’s drive or two later. When I was planning to visit a school with *Michael Gakuran* I was aware of that fact and looked up the forecast for the target area – temperatures near freezing point, low chance of snow. Considering how unreliable the Japanese weather forecast is I expected nothing bad and off we went…
A few hours later we reached an elevation of just 600 meters… when it started to snow. Just a few flakes at first, but by the time we reached 800 meters we found ourselves in a full-blown snow storm, the white beauty definitely sticking to the ground! For the next few hours the weather changed constantly between early darkness caused by blizzard like snow falls and blue sunny skies at temperatures between -3° and +2°C. The problem in our case – what I call the Blizzard School wasn’t at 800 meters, it was significantly lower, deeper in the cool mountains. So we had to descend a few hundred meters in altitude on a typical Japanese mountain road. Snowy, sometimes barely as wide as the car (our rental car equipped with summer tires, occasionally sliding a couple of centimeters!), made of concrete (not asphalt!), sometimes cracked or damaged by falling rocks and small landslides, with steep slopes to at least one side where only tall trees would keep us from falling fifty or a hundred meters to our certain deaths. Driving at an estimated speed of 5 kilometers per hour we finally reached the Blizzard School after a painfully long drive – and Michael didn’t hesitate to admit that he is worried about driving back on that narrow, mostly snowy road (on some stretches the thick forest protected the road from getting snowed in). Well, we were halfway down the mountain, we could as well stay and have a look at the school after driving there for hours! And of course we did, everything else would have been a waste, but we agreed to leave well before sunset in case we would have to walk to a village along the way to ask for help.

The Blizzard School turned out to be an excellent exploration, partly because of the circumstances. Of course we were excited that we made there despite the horrible weather condition, but the snow outside and the cold temperatures everywhere just added to the atmosphere of being a student here 30, 40, 50 years ago; when 3 months of winter in the mountains was a reality for a dozen students or two.
Like quite a few abandoned Japanese schools, the Blizzard School wasn’t located in a village, but between two hamlets; which was good for us as we didn’t have to worry about neighbors showing up. Despite being a rather small school with only six rooms, including the inaccessible nursing room (or nurse’s room?), it took us almost four hours (!) to explore and shoot the place as the wooden structure was stuffed with all kinds of items: sports gear, tools, books, a taxidermy caiman, chemistry lesson equipment, an almost full-sized anatomical model of the human body, a globe, an overhead projector, a piano AND an organ, several TVs, an old daylight slide and strip film projector – and the list could go on and on and on. I’ve been to my share of schools this year, but hardly any of them came even close to what was left behind at the Blizzard School. And taking photos there wasn’t an easy process – partly because some of the floor was damaged, partly because the light inside the school changed on a regular basis due to the weather conditions outside; which brought back memories of the amazing *Tenkaen, a Chinese themed park in Hokkaido*.
There is not much known about the history of the school, but given that its schedule said Showa 62 (1987) and the calendar in the kitchen ended in March / April 1988, it is pretty safe to say that the Blizzard School was closed at the end of the school year 1987/8 – new Japanese school years start in April.
Still in decent condition, it’s only a matter of time until the Blizzard School will be gone. Built below the mountain road on a small (most likely manmade) flat area, the former schoolyard already suffered from a landslide ripping a hole into the ground. There were actually some small living quarters beneath the kitchen and the organ room of the school, probably for the head teacher; directly at the slope, so a disaster is just a matter of time; whether it’ll be a landslide starting there or a landslide rushing through from above, the school collapsing from the weight of heavy snowfalls or just from mold damages – danger lurks everywhere. I’d actually be surprised if I would come back in 10 years and the school would still be there.
This theoretical visit would take place in summer though as going down that crazy snowy road once was enough for me. Luckily we didn’t have to leave the valley by driving up a mountain again – after following the road we came on for about another 45 minutes the valley opened up and released us to a wide, paved and snow free National Route… the wonderful feeling of bringing another set of urbex photos back to safety!

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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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If you are a regular reader of Abandoned Kansai, then you know that sometimes it takes me years to write articles about locations I explored – and I apologize for that! Today I’ll try to change it up again and write about my trip to Tohoku before it even ends; “Instant Article”, so to say.

Currently I am sitting on a Nozomi Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka, and what better way to use those quiet moments than to reflect a little bit on the past five days? (Sleep! But who needs that?) I also realized that I haven’t written yet an article for this week’s update, and since the photos of this trip are basically all I have with me currently… here we go! 🙂

It’s been a while that my old *haikyo* buddy Michael and I went urbexing in *Hokkaido* together, 1.5 years to be specific, and we were talking about going on the road again for quite some time now. Since we are both living busy lifes in Japan, it was a matter of coordinating and allocating days – and the period of choice became the second half of Golden Week, the most miserable travel period in Japan as even the laziest couch potatoe decides to help clogging up trains and highways, if for no other reason than because everybody else is doing it. As for where were to go: Michael suggested Tohoku, to which I hesitantly agreed – since Tohoku is a pain to get to from Kansai, I basically only knew the most famous urbex locations there, and I was aware that there was a lot of driving involved. Michael was, too – one of many reasons to bring his friend Ben on board, another interesting fella from the UK, who was a great addition to our former team of two!

The plan was to visit Kejonuma Leisure Land and the Wagakawa Water Power Plant on the way north, where we wanted to explore the three big Tohoku mines Matsuo, Osarizawa and Taro – plus some minor places along the way. While the Leisure Land was nothing but amazing, the water power plant turned out to be a colossal waste of time; to get inside you have to cross one of two nearby rivers on foot, which can be done rather easily in late summer… but not in spring, when the melting waters of the surrounding mountains rush through. The three mines on the other hand were extremely interesting and quite different from each other. Each one of them deserves at least an own article, maybe even more. Sadly most of the additional side locations were cut for different reasons, except for the Naganeyama Ski Jump, for which my fellow explorers didn’t even want to leave the car, and a locked up school in Fukushima prefecture. What made this trip real special though, was the fact that we were able to visit one of the few remaining open sex museums in Japan, which was quite an interesting experience after exploring two abandoned ones in the *south* and in the *north* of Japan.

Living in Osaka and being spoiled by the incredibly high level of food quality there (Osaka is usually referred to as Japan’s kitchen, while Kansai in general is considered Japan’s birthplace) I was surprised to experience that the Tohoku area doesn’t even come close to that. While I only had less than five bad meals in more than seven years living in Kansai, I don’t think I had a really good one during the whole trip; except maybe lunch near the sex museum, which is in Tochigi prefecture and threrfore not Tohoku anymore. At the Osarizawa Mine, mostly a tourist attraction now, I had a tonkatsu burger (deep fried pork chop burger) with gold leaves… and even that was barely eatable despite the allmighty „even a bad burger is still good food“ rule. Most restaurants on the way though were serious disappointments.

Overall it was an exhausting trip with up to 7 hours of driving per day (altogether Mike and Ben drove 1946 kilometers, most of it on days 1 and 4, when we were getting to and from Tohoku) and less than 6 hours of sleep per night in average; which isn’t that bad, but not enough when doing a dangerous hobby like urban exploration. Although we were very careful, all three of us had more or less minor accidents – luckily we all got away again without any serious damage. (Except the one to the wallet, as everything gets super expensive in Japan during Golden Week…)

Sadly I won’t be able to publish these lines from the Shinkansen, so there will be a gap of at least about an hour between me writing and you reading this article, but I hope you’ll enjoy this quick write-up nevertheless. In the upcoming weeks I’ll publish half a dozen more detailed articles about this road trip – and I am sure some of them will blow your mind! I saw only a handful locations in the past five days, but almost all of them were spectacular must sees. Here’s an alphabetical list, followed by some photos:
Abandoned Japanese Cinema
Kejonuma Leisure Land
Kinugawa Onsen Sex Museum
Kuimaru Elementary School
Matsuo Mine
Naganeyama Ski Jump
Osarizawa Mine
Taro Mine
Wagakawa Water Power Plant

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I love the Toyoko Inn hotel chain in Japan. Their prices are fair, they are located right next to bigger train and subway stations, they offer free breakfast from 7 till 9.30 and free WiFi / internet 24/7, their staff usually speaks at least a little bit of English, they have a discount and point system for members – and you can make online reservations via their English homepage.

One reason I was hesitating to go on a trip *as mention in the previous blog post* was the fact that I was in-between credit cards for a couple of weeks. (In my experience it’s close to impossible for foreigners to get a credit card in Japan – but I am looking forward to the comments of every expat who got one… I know people who were rejected more than half a dozen times, I tried it once or twice and then got one in Germany…) But you need a credit card to make an online reservation at a Toyoko Inn – or so I thought.
When it was clear that I would spend the first night of my trip in Nagoya I stopped worrying. Last weekend wasn’t a typical time to travel in Japan (unlike *Golden Week*) and Toyoko Inn has six hotels in Nagoya, eight if you count the ones close to the airport – I was sure I would get a room somewhere. So the plan was to show up at one of them and ask the staff to make a reservation for me for the second night, which I planned to spend in Matsusaka – a town famous for its high quality beef, which turned out to be more dead then the cows it is famous for.

Luckily my plan was a good one, so I checked in at the hotel of my choice in Nagoya and asked the staff to call their sister hotel in Matsusaka to get me a reservation for the following night since I didn’t have a credit card. The friendly lady at the counter pointed to the opposite wall across the lobby and asked me to use the internet to make the reservation myself. I repeated that I didn’t have a credit card and therefore couldn’t make the online reservation. The answer was “You don’t need a credit card to make an online reservation.” – so I told her that I needed one when I tried to make one the night before. Since the hotel receptionist insisted that I wouldn’t need a card and was eager to show me that she was right we started the procedure on their English homepage – as usual. Another guest arrived so I filled out the form, scrolled down and… there it was, the section for the credit card information. I left it blank, tried to continue and of course it didn’t work and I got an error message. When the receptionist showed up again she seemed to be very surprised, switched the language settings of the homepage to Japanese and… finished the reservation without having to enter credit card information! She didn’t even have to log out / start the procedure from the beginning, she just switched the language settings and pressed a button to finalize the reservation.

I totally understand that hotels need some kind of security when people make online reservations and that’s the reason I never had a problem entering my credit card information when making an online reservation at a Toyoko Inn, 15 times for trips in 2012 alone. In fact they don’t charge your credit card and you can pay cash upon arrival, it’s just a security measure for no-shows, which I completely understand. Nevertheless I am kind of irritated by the fact that you have to put in your credit card information when you make the reservation in English, but not when you make it in Japanese – to me it implies that Toyoko Inn considers people who prefer to make reservations in Japanese more reliable than people who make reservations in English; which could be considered borderline racist. Again, I understand that (most) online hotel reservations require credit card information. But either it’s a general requirement for Toyoko Inn or not – doing it on the basis of the language chosen on the homepage feels wrong to me, as it means that not all customers are treated equally.

What do you think? „WTF?“ or “WTF!”?

(To end this posting on a lighter note I’ll add some non-urbex photos and videos I took during my three day trip. Inuyama Castle, Tagata Shrine Festival, Mount Gozaisho, Yunoyama Onsen, Toba, Iruka Island, Ise Shrine, … If anybody is familiar with dolphins please have a look at the video and let me know what you think – to me it looks like the poor creature was desperate to get away as it repeated the same motion at the “prison gates” to the ocean over and over again; I didn’t watch any shows on the island and didn’t spend any money there – Iruka Island (iruka = dolphin) was an optional stop on a harbor cruise I took in Toba.)

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When exploring abandoned places you are barely ever the first to visit, mainly because you have to find out about them somehow, which means that somebody had to write or tell you about them – so pretty much the best case scenario is that you haven’t seen too many photos and videos about a location before visiting it. That applied for most spots on my *haikyo trip to Hokkaido*, which is quite unusual, but Hokkaido isn’t exactly popular amongst foreign urban explorers (or Japanese haikyoists…) since it is rather off the beaten tracks. Those barely spoiled locations are especially exciting to explore, since there is only little known about them – how to get in, condition, size, dangerous parts, security…
Whether that’s a good thing or not lies in the eye of the beholder. I like my explorations with as little surprises as possible, to be honest with you, but at the same time I favor locations that haven’t been photographed to death; preferably places that are in the middle of nowhere with not a soul within a couple of kilometers. About 75% of the locations I visited in Hokkaido I knew little more about than their names and a handful of photos before exploring them myself – but the Mount Teine Ski Lift was special and stood out of even that group. Before walking up to the *Olympic Ruins Of Sapporo 1972* I had a look at the surroundings via GoogleMaps and saw a ski lift with two photos of abandoned constructions – but they weren’t named properly and I didn’t even know if they were just misplaced and in fact part of the Olympic Ruins. It turned out that they were a separate location, but although I know its name now researching it wasn’t exactly easy.

When I was walking up to the Mount Teine Ski Lift (which most likely was part of the still active Sapporo Teine Resort) I saw an old bus stop sign of the JR Hokkaido Bus line, although the staff at the JR Teine Station told me there were no busses running; maybe an old sign that was never removed… Not worthless though, as the sign had the name of the stop written on it: 千尺. The first kanji is common – sen, one thousand. But the second I couldn’t read, so I took a photo to find out later. Now I know that it means shaku, which is a traditional unit of measure in Asia, not in daily use anymore in Japan; about 303 mm or almost one foot. So the place was basically called “303 Meters”, although the slope was actually much longer; about 2 kilometers to be more specific. To get to the top you had to use two different lifts and it turned out that the mountain station of the second left was in proximity of the former start of the Olympic Bobsleigh track before it was dismantled, while the *Olympic Ruins Of Sapporo 1972* were the goal – it’s all connected…
If you google the term you’ll end up with links to the Gosenshaku Hotel, a rather high end accommodation in the Japanese Alps, about 1000 km away from the Senshaku ski lift. If you do some more googling in Japanese you might stumble across two year old photos on which the rest house is in way better shape. Now almost completely collapsed it was in decent condition just 24 months prior to my visit – and several (now unreadable) signs revealed more information; sadly the Japanese guys hosting those photos didn’t care to write anything about the place. It seems like the full name was “Teine Olympia Senshaku Highland”. Unlike the bobsleigh ruins, this ski lift didn’t show off the Olympic Rings, so it’s safe to say that it wasn’t part of the official venues; even more so since according to the Japanese Wikipedia the Olympia Highland was established in 1974 and opened in 1976, four years after the games were held. Instead it was a skiing slope for the general public – with lockers, rental gear, food and arcade machines. The chartered shuttle bus service was stopped in August of 2001 and 15 months later Kamori Kanko bought the place (they also own Noboribetsu Bear Park and Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe near the *Tenkaen, Japan’s Lost China Theme Park*). And at that point I got lost a bit as I found contradictive information about combining two skiing areas, about places getting closed that still have active homepages, about areas that look the same, but have different names… Long story short: I still have no idea when Senshaku was closed!

All I know is that it was exciting walking up to the Senshaku area as I had little to no idea what to expect. While Sapporo itself was still basically snow free the 150 meters of additional elevation and not being in the city anymore made a difference of about 5 to 10 cm – just enough to be fun without being annoying. Of course a car was parked in front of the entrance upon my approach, but I decided to ignore the guy and just walked straight up the hill. I also ignored the mostly collapsed building to the left and had a quick look at the dilapidated ski lift to the right – being all by myself and already rather cold I refrained from climbing that death trap and made my way up the mountain to take some photos of the towers and to take some ultra-wide angle shots of the whole place. Up there I found a big cart with several ropes connected to it, probably used to transport goods up the mountain, though I didn’t find any information about it, even during the research I did for this article. While taking photos of the wagon I heard some wild noises that didn’t sound too friendly. I didn’t see any animals, but I wasn’t exactly eager to have any confrontation, so I grabbed my video camera and walked back down the hill. The video ended abruptly when I turned down the camera as soon as I saw a man standing between the lift and the rest house – preemptive obedience, Japan’s unofficial motto. It turned out that the guy didn’t mean no harm and just had a look himself, but it was good to stop anyway since him walking through the video several times or even talking to me wouldn’t have been good either. Obviously he wasn’t eager to talk to me… and left before I was done taking more photos of the ski lift.
The former rest house was in horrible condition and I only spent a couple of minutes exploring it – because it looked more dangerous than interesting, and because the sun was already setting behind Mount Teine and I still had to walk up the mountain to see the *Olympic Ruins of Sapporo 1972*

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