Archive for the ‘Snow’ Category

Japanese doctors are the worst in the world! Well, probably not in the world, but most likely in the industrialized world. If you think that Japan is all about lasers and robots and modern technology… then think again! Sometimes it’s shocking how far behind the rest of the (industrialized…) world Japan already is – and it’s rather getting worse than better.
It’s a complex topic, so where do I start? Probably with the fact that I have never heard of a single doctor who just calls himself a doctor – every doctor in Japan seems to have a clinic or even a hospital, even if it’s just a general practitioner working all by himself. They work long hours (usually closing Wednesday afternoons and Sundays), but one of the reasons for that is the fact that they love to make patients come back as often as possible. Constant check-ups, even on rather long-term treatments like high blood pressure. The standard health insurance here covers 70% of the costs, 30% have to be paid by the patient right after each treatment – so when you get charged 15 bucks, the health insurance pays another 35. For minor things it beats the high insurance rates in my (almost) all-inclusive home country of Germany, but if you get seriously sick it can ruin you financially like in the States, especially since there are no sick days in Japan. If you spend a day in a hospital or at a clinic (or at home with a cold for that matter) you have to use a paid vacation day – and if you are running out, the missed day comes right out of your paycheck. But that’s an insurance thing and has little to nothing to do with the medical staff. So why was I bashing Japanese doctors right at the beginning? Oh, because they are terrible and have a bad reputation even amongst the obedient Japanese populace.
I am lucky for having a good constitution in general, but about 4.5 years ago I injured my ankle playing airsoft with a couple of colleagues. I was jumping into a ditch and heard a loud noise when hitting the ground, instantly feeling serious pain. My American colleagues were all like “Don’t worry, just a sprained ankle!” and continued to play instead of bringing me to a hospital while the Japanese colleagues couldn’t care less. I never had a sprained ankle, so I believed them. Two days later when getting ready for work I almost blacked out, but I though that’s normal. When the “sprained ankle” was still a bit swollen and hurting after two months (yeah, I’ve been naive…) I finally asked a Japanese colleague to accompany me to see a doctor – a “clinic” where they took X-rays. They confirmed that it wasn’t a sprained ankle (really?!), but were unable to say what it was and how to treat it. So they transferred me to a hospital, specialized on fractured bones and stuff. When we went there a couple of days later the doc in charge was really eager to talk me into surgery as quickly as possible after he told me that I fractured my ankle and had torn a ligament. (Yes, I walked to the office with a torn ligament for 2 months! I always knew that I was a tough cookie, but that was suffering through a lot of pain, even for a foreigner in Japan…) His way to solve the problem: A one week stay at the hospital, transferring bone material from my hip to my ankle! (The reaction of my Japanese colleague when I said that I didn’t like that idea very much: “Don’t worry, I can bring you work to the hospital!”) And if it would have been for the Japanese Dr. Frankenstein I would have started treatment right the next day. I asked for a couple of days respite and then the guy admitted that after 2 months it was not that urgent anyway. And that he couldn’t guarantee that I will ever walk without pain even with that operation. What the heck? Was that the island of Japan or the island of Doctor Moreau? My school education started a deafening alarm and all I was able to think of was Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet On The Western Front”… That doc would never ruin my foot! Later that day an American ex-colleague told me how a woman at his new company did the same operation, except that they took bone material from her wrist. One year later she still wasn’t able to walk without pain – neither could she fully move her hand! And with that the surgery wasn’t even an option anymore and I relied on the natural healing power of my body. Half a year later I did 25km hiking day trips to the mountains (which I had never done before, because I was couch potato for most of my life…) and another six months later I started urban exploration. So if you ever need medical treatment while in Japan, ask your embassy for advice and get a second or third opinion. But even that might not be the solution in some cases – look forward to a future article where I will describe how a business trip to Germany probably saved my life when I contracted Lyme Disease, which seems to be undetectable and not treatable in Osaka, although it is native to the northern parts of Japan…

Sankei Hospital

Of course I don’t know if the doctors at the Sankei Hospital were as bad as the ones I had to deal with so far, but they definitely had to deal with some serious problems. And by that I don’t mean their own education or their patients’ quirks, kinks and serious illnesses (the Sankei Hospital was a mental hospital!), but Mother Nature. As beautiful as nature is in Japan (or everywhere else in the world for that matter…) one thing is pretty clear: Nature hates Japan! If you ever spent a summer in Kyoto, a winter in Hokkaido, or if you look at all the typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis… then it’s pretty clear that Japan isn’t God’s own country, nevertheless the Emperor still claims to be a descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess of the Shinto religion. (Although it’s more likely that he is of Korean descent…)
In 1910 the volcano Mount Usu erupted and lead to the establishment of an observatory under the leadership of Prof. Fusakichi Omori, a pioneer seismologist of his time. In 1945 the eruption of Mount Usu created Showa-shinzan, a volcanic lava dome next to Mount Usu – I took a photo of it and published it with the *haikyo trip to Hokkaido* article a while ago. When Mount Usu erupted a third time in the 20th century on August 7th 1977 the observation registered precursors up to 32 hours prior – luckily the hospital’s founder and director Kazuo Kato wasn’t mental at all. He came up with an emergency plan involving both his staff and officials of Sobetsu, where the hospital was located. When the eruption started at 9.12 a.m. the prearranged evacuation program kicked into gear and all 230 inpatients were taken to safety at a former school 12 kilometers away. At first the hospital suffered only minor damage (some small cracks here and there) when the northern flank of Mount Usu was severely deformed, being thrust 200 meters to the northeast. The process continued for months and due to magmatic intrusions the cracks widened further till the building finally collapsed almost a year later. (It goes without saying that the Sankei Hospital is famous amongst Japanese ghost hunters. Nobody was even injured during the evacuation, but a collapsed and abandoned mental hospital? That is as good as it gets if you are into that kind of stuff…)

Going Mental

By the time *Michael* and I arrived at the hospital, via a forest road since we had no clue that we were approaching a publicly known spot, the sun was already really low and behind a mountain range, so I took a quick and rather ugly video from the outside before it was too late to shoot any video at all. Michael was already entering through the back and by the time I jumped the fence and was ready to get in myself I received the advice to climb in through the front to avoid the vegetation in the back – nobody would show up at that time of the day anyway; and nobody did. Running out of light it was a quick exploration – the first part felt like walking in a picture by M. C. Escher as the floor was completely twisted; the fact that the Sankei Hospital was a mental hospital made the whole thing even more bizarre. Thanks to the level function of my camera all the floors on the daylight photos should be perfectly horizontal – but they aren’t, because they weren’t. When it got dark I left the collapsed eastern part and strolled through the (mostly) not collapsed western part. Not a pleasant exploration, especially when Michael was on the floor above me – it sounded like he could crash through the ceiling at any time, as if the whole building could come down at any time. The fences outside were there for a reason and I strongly recommend to respect them and to not enter the Sankei Hospital. That’s why I won’t add it to *my map of abandoned places*, although technically it was another tourist attraction, much like the *Horonai Mine* or the wonderful island of *Okunoshima* – fenced off and equipped with several large information signs in both Japanese and English, nevertheless way more dangerous than all the other locations on that map.
Given that we were running out of time the Sankei Hospital was a nice way to end the second day of explorations in Hokkaido. There wasn’t much to see, but it was a truly unique place and in the end way more interesting than the Xth abandoned hotel with the same moldy rooms and the same interior…

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More often than not I barely have any information about the places I visit in advance. Sometimes I only saw a photo and have a general idea where to look for the location. It was like that when visiting the *Bibai Bio Center* – and the Horonai Substation was not much different. A red brick building somewhere in the middle of nowhere – and a road leading there. That was it. I didn’t expect a spectacular location… and I didn’t find one. Nevertheless it was a good exploration with an interesting history, the first one on my *haikyo trip to Hokkaido*. *Michael* thought so, too – although he almost paid a steep price for making a snow angel…


The Horonai Mine has an incredibly and unusually long history, dating back to the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Back then it was a time of new departures and Hokkaido still was kind of unknown territory. Japan recently opened itself to the world after more than two and a half centuries of information and immigration control, relying heavily on foreign experts to accomplish in a couple of decades what Europe and the States took about a century – industrialization. Just a decade prior Hokkaido was still known as Ezochi and for its renitent inhabitants, but the new government in the newly appointed capital Tokyo pushed for the development of Japan’s most northern prefecture… and population rose from 58.000 to 240.000 in the mere ten years of the 1870s. Agriculture and mining became the prefecture’s most important industries – and while agriculture is still important (especially wheat, potatoes, pumpkins, corn, raw milk, and beef), mining isn’t. The amount of abandoned mines in Hokkaido is incredible, but since most of them are in extremely rural areas, often hours away from bigger cities, we decided to visit the Horonai Coal Mine as an example – because it wasn’t completely out of the way, came with an electrical substation and, to our surprise, with the Horonai Shrine.
It wasn’t until writing this article though that I found out that the Horonai Mine was actually Hokkaido’s oldest modern mine and that Hokkaido’s first railroad, the Horonai Railway, was built to establish and operate the Horonai Mine. It’s said that in 1868 a local resident discovered coal in Horonai, but it wasn’t until 1872 that the village received any attention, leading to a survey in 1873. Expecting massive amounts of high quality coal in Horonai plans were made concrete in 1877 and money was raised through industrial bonds in 1878 after important statesmen like Ito Hirobumi and Yamagata Aritomo visited the area in previous years and campaigned to establish a mine. Further surveys were conducted in May of 1878 and the mine was opened on December 18th 1878, reaching full production almost four years later in June of 1882.
Plans for the Horonai Railway, necessary to transport the coal mined in Horonai to places where it could be used, were finalized in December of 1879, so construction of the railway began in January of 1880, installation began in July of the same year – technology and knowledge was imported from the United States by J.U. Crawford, who oversaw the railway construction project for the Japanese government; the line was officially opened on September 13th 1883 and was used for the transportation of passengers as well as coal.
In 1889 both the mine and the railroad were privatized, probably for little money, as both of them were not profitable at all. This happened a lot in the late 19th century in Japan, strengthening the so-called zaibatsu (gigantic family controlled holding companies, amongst them still famous corporations like Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Kawasaki), but also countless mid-sized companies (although sometimes even profitable companies were given away for a fraction of what they were worth…). Business continued for another 100 years and ended in 1989, when most of the buildings were demolished for security reasons – and because back then industrial heritage wasn’t considered worthy of preservation. (The Völklingen Ironworks in Völklingen, Germany, and the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, Germany, were actually spearheading the idea of maintaining old industrial buildings, becoming UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994 and 2001 respectively.)
A not so fun “fun fact”: Like many other mines in Hokkaido, Horonai was taking advantage of prison labor. Not only during times of war, but in the early years, both before and after privatization. In 1883 250 prisoners worked next to 228 general laborers. In 1890 there were 1.043 prisoners and 183 normal workers “employed”, the forced labor accounting for more than 80% of the work force, extraction and transportation almost exclusively relying on prison labor! (It was actually thanks to the prison laborers that the Horonai Mine survived the first couple of years. From 1882 to 1888 the mine was deep in the red with only one profitable year and couldn’t even afford to implement mechanized coal transport – that actually happened only after it was privatized and exploited prisoners as cheap labor for years. And after the extraction costs per ton of coal were cut down to one sixth over the course of six years till privatization in 1889.)
The Horonai Mine also gathered some local fame in Japan when it was used as the setting of the second Season of Survivor (サバイバー) in 2002 – after Palau, but before the Philippines and North Mariana. Probably the most original setting ever and by now much more exotic than all those islands in the Pacific Ocean; they look all the same to me anyway! (I usually don’t link to other people’s Youtube videos, but *here is the intro to that season* in 240p. Don’t miss the *video I took at mine in late November* in 720p!)


When we arrived on location the initial situation wasn’t promising. Several hundred meters before we reached the substation we had to park the car as the road was completely snowed in. Luckily there were tire tracks (we were able to walk in) from a more suitable vehicle, but the road itself wasn’t accessible with the small car we rented. As we got ready to walk up the hill we saw a guy and his dog coming back to their car. Nothing unusual, until we saw that the guy was carrying a rifle. Not the usual BB guns you have everywhere in Japan. A real friggin rifle! Even if he wasn’t shooting trespassers we were wondering what he was hunting in the forest ahead of us… and if his prey might want to get a shot at hunting us…
Nevertheless we followed the previously mentioned tire tracks deeper into the valley. To the right we saw several concrete ruins of the Horonai Mine, abandoned in 1989, when the mine was closed after 110 years. Everywhere along the road we found information signs (Japanese only…) and it seems like the area was converted into a “coal mine scene park” in 2005. It turned out that the first abandoned place on our trip wasn’t actually that abandoned, more like a tourist attraction – like the *Shime Coal Mine*, a.k.a. the *Anti-Zombie Fortress*. Of course there were no tourists seen anywhere, so I guess the place is only of interest in the snow-free summer months… and basically inaccessible the rest of the year. Michael of course was eager to head over to concrete remains, but given the deep snow and the unknown terrain I was able to convince him to look for the substation first – especially since the grey leftovers didn’t look like they contained anything interesting.

It took us about half an hour to walk from the parking lot to the substation and the tire tracks ended a couple of dozen meters before reaching our destination thanks to a collapsed tree on the road – from that point on we had to walk through the snow which was about 30 centimeters deep.
The Horonai Substation, a two-storey brick-clad concrete building, was built in the 1920s, more than 40 years after the mine was opened, and received its electricity from a coal fired power plant in Shimizusawa. That plant, which was fuelled by coal from the Yubari Mine, not the Horonai Mine, is still in existence and closed in 1991, but was not visited by yours truly as the roads leading there would have required a separate day trip.
Sadly there wasn’t that much to see: The metal constructions of the transformers and the brick covered building – locked by a solid chain, but luckily Michael found another way in. The building clearly was in use during summer months, featuring some kind of exhibition with lots of exhibits and huge control panels from the good old days.
More interesting was the Horonai Shrine, which obviously was completely covered by snow, too, and probably as half-abandoned as the Horonai Substation. Located right next to the substation on a small plateau up a slope, the shrine offered a nice view at the remains below. At that point it started to snow and I don’t know why, but there is an amazing peacefulness about deserted snow-covered shrines. Michael was still down at the substation, so all I heard was snow falling – perfect tranquility.
Overall the Horonai location wasn’t spectacular, but at that point I hadn’t explored many snow covered (more or less) abandoned places, so it was a good start into the trip!

Snow Angel

Oh, after all those paragraphs about the mine’s history I almost forgot about the snow angel! It seems like either Michael or I have a serious amount of bad luck when exploring together. In spring I broke my D90 on our *haikyo trip to southern Honshu* – and I already mentioned Michael’s misstep at the *Hokkaido Sex Museum*. His bad luck started earlier though, when he insisted on making a snow angel on the way back to the car. I thought it was a bad idea in the first place as it was cold and he was jumping spine first onto unknown ground (concrete, rocks, metal, …), but everything went fine until the point when Michael first took off his glasses and then stood up shortly after, realizing that his glasses were gone. In a comedy movie kind of situation he asked me to watch my steps – the last words barely left his mouth when he moved one of his legs and we both heard a crushing sound. The spectacle frame under his boot wasn’t only bent, but broken. Well, bent and broken. Michael, the designated driver on this tour since my license isn’t valid in Japan, had some contact lenses with him, but they would have only last for two or three days – shorter than the trip. So on the way to our second hotel we were looking for a glasses store. 5 minutes to 8 p.m. (i.e. closing time) on a national holiday (!) I spotted one. Not only were they able to fix Michael’s glasses in a miracle operation taking almost half an hour, they did it for free and also give mine a new polish. Quite a few people complain about the (lack of post-buy) service in Japan (and I admit that sometimes it can drive you nuts!), but the glasses shops here are amazing and saved not only the day, but kind of the whole trip…

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All I knew about the Bibai Bio Center when I added it to the itinerary of the *haikyo trip to Hokkaido* was its name and a photo similar to the first one I published myself – just without the snow. I was intrigued by the strange looking tower and the ripped upper floor of what seemed to be the main building. At that time the GoogleMaps satellite image was so blurry that it was basically useless. So when *Michael Gakuran* and I drove up to the place we had no idea what to expect – or how to get in…

Blessing and curse of visiting Hokkaido in late November is the fact that most of the huge island is already covered by snow; which is nice to look at, but limits the accessibility of certain areas and buildings. The Bibai Bio Center, way bigger than expected (about 100 meters by 200 meters!), was one of those areas / buildings. Well, there was an easy way in, but luck wasn’t on our side as we found a whole crew of workers repairing the street and / or lamp posts right in front of the bio center! So we had to find another way in, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult as there were several houses and companies nearby, the surroundings of the buildings were completely overgrown with all kinds of plants – and the whole area was covered by 20 to 30 centimeters of snow. At this point I was actually willing to call it a day and move on to the next location. It was cold, we had to deal with unknown terrain, the building looked rubbish and we were in constant danger of being spotted by workers, local residents or even cars passing by. Michael on the other insisted on getting in somehow, clearing the way from the backyard of a private home like a minesweeper, using his tripod to find possibly dangerous spots under the snow – which worked out surprisingly well, except for one or two missteps… and the fact that we gained about two meters of ground per minute.

Once inside the Bibai Bio Center my impression of the place changed completely! Sure, it was run down and there was not much to see, at least not much you could describe as spectacular or even unusual, but for some reason I totally fell in love with the level of decay, the little things here and there, and especially the colors. The colors were amazing! Most of the rooms had a wooden floor and were severely damaged, moss and mold had taken over, so it was basically impossible to step inside. The more interesting and challenging were the shots I was able to take from the hallway. I fondly remember a ceiling lamp lying on the ground, surrounded by moss and mushrooms. Or a stack of tatami mats rotting away at different levels of decay – the side on the hallway was still intact, the middle was black and the window side was already green thanks to growing moss… and all of that in late November in Hokkaido!
Usually I am the one who finishes shooting a place first, but this time it was Michael who got bored and made me hurry a bit. I shot a quick video at the first building, which seemed to be kind of a dormitory or a school (or maybe both?), and then we moved on to other parts of the vast area.
Through a corridor we reached a lower building connected to the first one. Here we found several offices with stacks of scientific magazines from the 1980s about plants. Since most ceilings in that part of the building must have collapsed years ago the offices were in horrible condition, but one of them had a calendar on the wall, dating back to 1992.

Sadly there are not many sources anywhere revealing information about the Bibai Bio Center – and I won’t go down the slippery Resident Evil, T-virus, Umbrella Corporation road…
Its full name must have been “Fuji Foods Bibai Bio Center Co., Ltd.” and it looks like it was a company that produced processed food and perishable goods, like enokitake – enoki mushrooms, a key ingredient in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine. Originally the land was used by a company called White Birch Wooden Yarn (白樺毛糸) before Fujishokuhin (= Fuji Foods) took over and added quite a few buildings and machinery.
Those buildings Michael and I were exploring after leaving the office area, but first we had a quick look at the shiny silver sphere on top of a tall pillar that caught my eyes months earlier and was basically the main reason for me to go to the Bibai Bio Center. I am still not sure what it was exactly, I guess a water tower, but there was some strange antenna attached to one side… maybe a lightning rod?
On the way there we found a vandalized and tagged abandoned car partly covered by snow. I guess no abandoned place is complete without an abandoned car!
The factory buildings with all kinds of tanks, boilers and containers attached to their sides weren’t in good condition either. Some of them were damaged by fires, other must have been collapsed thanks to the masses of snow they had to deal with for 20 Hokkaido winters. One of the huge halls, featuring wooden tiles on the floor, was filled with dozens of huge trash bags (the white boxes on that photo I took were supposed to be filled with enoki mushrooms according to their labeling), another one was basically empty. There weren’t a lot of shelves or production machinery, so I guess a lot of the interior was sold – either to other companies or for scrap. Or maybe we missed some stuff as we were rushing through the gigantic area way too big to squeeze it into a three location per day exploration schedule. Places like a growth chamber I was only able to see from the corner of my eye. Definitely a place to come back to if I ever get the opportunity to travel to Hokkaido again!

As leaving the Bibai Bio Center the way we came in (or just waltzing outside the front gate since the workers were gone at that point…) would have been way too easy, Michael decided to explore new territory… again. Attached to the huge halls were some kinds of metal covered supply tunnels. We saw a collapsed one from the outside, so when Michael saw a small opening in a wall from the inside to explore an intact one of course he was gone before I had the opportunity to yell “Objection!”. Being about 50% older, taller and heavier than Michael I don’t like narrow spaces and maybe I should have just left via a more secure way, but of course I acted against my conscience and followed him. Big mistake. The supply tunnel ended in a collapsed part from where we had to jump down back into the snow. From there we had to climb through a window into another building and from there we went outside again, back to the area we came in – but about 150 meters to the east. Walking along another one of those snow covered supply tunnels (outside this time…) we got miserably cold and wet within minutes and I almost poked an eye out thanks to the resilient plants. And as if being cold and wet and wearing snow filled hiking boots wasn’t bad enough I slipped down a tiny slope at the final drainage and landed straight on my behind, filling my jeans with snow from the top, too. The fun of urban exploration in winter! At that point I thought I couldn’t get any colder – little did I know that the *Canadian World* an hour later would easily top that…

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Canadian World (current full name: Canadian World Park) was the third location I visited with my haikyo buddy Michael Gakuran on the first day of our *haikyo trip to Hokkaido*. It was an unsual exploration for many reasons… One could even say it’s a zombie park!

First of all: Unlike most of the locations I visit Canadian World wasn’t really abandoned. Not because it was guarded by security, but because it was more like on a winter hiatus. Located in a beautiful mountain landscape in the center of Hokkaido the Canadian themed park was snowed in completely in late November already, hence the rather short season from early April to mid October and the equally short opening hours from 10 a.m. till 5.30 p.m. – not much time to make some money. And not the best location either since bigger cities are about an hour away and even the closest train station requires a 20 minute long car ride… To make things even worse: Unlike the already closed or abandoned *Tenkaen*, *Hiroshima New Zealand Farm* and *Yamaguchi New Zealand Village* Canadian World actually doesn’t charge an entrance fee!
So how does the Canadian zombie park survive? And why do I keep calling it a zombie park? Well, because Canadian World Park originally was a privately run themed park called Canadian World. It was (and still is…) based on the book Anne of Green Gables by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery and in private hand until its bankruptcy in 1997, including typical themed park attractions like restaurants, an art museum, BBQ areas and a mini train; there even is a “Anne in Canadian World” logo… When Canadian World went bust the city of Ashibetsu took over and gave new life to the dead park, basically making it a zombie park. Or a Frankenstein park. Just without zombies or Frankenstein monsters. Still kind of spooky though, especially in winter. But this explains the lack of an entrance fee and the rather short service time – Canadian World Park is publicly funded and run! (With the co-operation of locals, supporting the park on volunteer days once or twice a year…) Luckily the staff there is really polite, even when you show up at a time when you shouldn’t be there…

Michael and I arrived at Canadian World Park rather late in the day. The sun was already going down, so we stopped for a quick couple of shots at the parking lot and entrance area before we followed a mostly snow free road down the valley and deep into the park – most likely not for public use, but the gate was open and Michael was in an adventurous mood… so down the hill we went. Just to find two park employees at some kind of green house at the end of the road. Michael talked to them for a while and they seemed to be fine with us taking a couple of photos, so we drove back up halfway to get as close to the central plaza as possible. We parked the car in a small lay-by and waded through the shin-deep snow deep into the Canadian World Park, only to find all the buildings boarded up. We didn’t intend to enter any of them anyway, but we wondered if it was a winter closing security measure or if it was permanently, because let’s be honest – it’s only a matter of time till Canadian World will be closed again and this time there will be nobody in line to step in! For the time being the atmosphere there is magical though, especially when covered by snow and no chatterboxes there. The sunset was beautiful and the air was ice cold and crisp. After dark it was the coldest I have ever been in Japan and I don’t feel cold easily. First Michael mentioned that his fingers felt tingly, then my ears felt like popsicles – which reduced the usual old “just one more photo” banter from about 30 minutes to an estimated 5 minutes; plus another 5 for the way back cross country to the car. Not all shortcuts are a good idea, but in the end we made it back to warmth without suffering permanent damage, though a change of our soaked socks was in order…

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Sometimes you just gotta be lucky. Like I was on February 11th 2011.
Living in central Kansai you kind of forget about winter. Temperatures drop to 5° Celsius and people complain about how cold it is. There are barely ever minus degrees. Sure, if you hop on a train and go to the nearby mountains you can enjoy some snow. But in the Osaka Plain? Not so much. In the first 4.5 years of me being in Japan it happened once that it snowed strong enough for the white beauty to accumulate on the ground – but that was long before I started urban exploration.
On February 10th I met with some current and former colleagues to have a couple of drinks as the next day was a national holiday – a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. I remember mentioning how much I missed snow and that there hasn’t been some in three years. Well… When I woke up the next morning at around 9.30 a.m., slightly hung over, I opened the curtains so see… snow! Everywhere! And it was still coming down in beautiful large flakes. I slightly panicked as it was already quite late (for a haikyo trip). Where should I go to? A new place or revisiting one? And which one of them? Would there be snow, too? I always wanted to see *Mt. Atago* covered in snow, but in addition to the train ride I’d need to take a bus… and they were most likely cancelled. My mind spun for a couple of minutes before I came to the conclusion that there was only one place to go. A place I never wanted to go back to: Nara Dreamland!
So I took a quick shower, made sure that my equipment was ready and headed to the train station. 80 minutes later I was in Nara, pleased to see that the whole city was covered by a thick layer of snow, too. Reaching the Dreamland it was still snowing heavily and I went straight for the *Eastern Parking Lot* with the parking garage, the hotel and the iconic main entrance. The DreamStation in the background was definitely a welcomed bonus, but most important of all: You can enter without jumping fences or ignoring “No trespassing!” signs; you just have to know where – definitely a plus in case security shows up with the police… About half an hour later it stopped snowing and almost instantly I heard dripping water. Yes, even before the sky turned from dark grey to light grey the snow began melting! I sped up to take some more pictures of this oh so familiar place (noticing unpleasant changes like the ugly graffiti at the former pachinko parlor) and hurried over to the western parking lot, another one of my (rather risk-free) favorites. By the time I was actually ready to enter Nara Dreamland itself half of the snow was already gone. Happy with the pictures I already took and not willing to risk them I decided to call it a day and went back to JR Nara Station – where I found barely any proof that this was a very snowy day…
But I really was lucky that day. Lucky that it snowed. Lucky that it was a national holiday and I didn’t have to work. Lucky that I didn’t oversleep completely. Lucky that I decided to go to Nara Dreamland. While a Japanese blog was quicker than I taking and posting night shots of Nara Dreamland I’m happy to present the first snow photos of Nara Dreamland, although it took me almost a year to post them. Please enjoy and tell your friends!
(For all your Nara Dreamland needs please have a look at the Nara Dreamland Special. For a look at the area around Nara Dreamland on GoogleMaps, including some fancy icons linking to articles on Abandoned Kansai and videos on YouTube, please *click here*. If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the*video channel on Youtube*… Oh, and don’t worry: Nara Dreamland is neither Japan’s last abandoned theme park nor is it in immediate danger of being demolished. NDL will make many more appearances on this blog, most likely all of them with unique videos…)

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I recently stumbled across Sekigahara Menard Land again after seeing pictures a while ago; it opened in 1972 and was closed in 2000 – at first under the pretext of renovating it; 3 months later it was closed for good. This time the pictures came with a map, so finally I had the exact location and although I’ve read it was destroyed I thought: “Great! 2 hour train ride, 1 hour hike – nice and easy Saturday trip!” Man, was I wrong…
Living in the Osaka area snow becomes little more than a memory. It snows on maybe two or three days a year, but it hardly ever sticks to the ground. 5° Celsius is considered “really cold” by the locals and overall Osaka winters don’t deserve to be called winters.
When I started my little Gifu vacation it was about 10° Celsius and sunny outside, perfect for the usual T-shirt and leather jacket combination. Reaching Lake Biwa the sky became cloudy and when I started to head east patches of snow were lying on the ground. When I arrived in Sekigahara I was welcomed by the iciest snow storm I experienced in years – horrible weather. After about an hour of walking along country streets I finally reached Menard Land, freezing like hardly ever before…
Entering was as easy as it can be, if you ignore the fact that the snow was about 20cm high even right along the street leading to SML; I was never that glad to wear hiking boots on my explorations. The few remaining fences can be passed on the side, but there was not a lot to see – except for lots and lots of snow. The entrance was quite disappointing, even the buildings I saw on the satellite pictures were gone. I followed a former maintenance road / hall and a way uphill to the right where I assumed was the main part of the park. That turned out to be a dead end: After I sank about 50cm into deep snow several times I gave up since I had no clue what was under the snow, if the way I assumed underneath would lead somewhere, and what was left of SML anways – especially after the entrance was very discouraging.

3 hours to get there, 10 minutes of taking pictures… great.
But it got worse. Completely wet from the snowstorm (it came down almost horizontally!) and sinking knee-deep into the snow I decided to go to another station just so I didn’t have to walk the same way back – not a smart decision since that other station was further away and made me walk along a highway. When I reached the other station more than 1.5 hours later my umbrella was destroyed, I was soaking wet and my hands were stiff from the ice cold wind. Of course the waiting room at the station was closed so I had to wait another 25 minutes in the chilly weather for the train to come. And it was no surprise that only 2 stations later the sun was shining and the weather was great…
Hiking in the snow was kinda fun, except for the fact that I wasn’t prepared for it at all. But overall the whole trip was a total disaster – especially in winter Sekigahara Menard Land is a total dud! (I might come back in summer though to find out if there is still something left behind the little hill that was covered by half a meter of snow… maybe with a quick sightseeing stop in Hikone.)
Oh, and by the way: Technically this haikyo is in the Chūbu area of Japan, but from Osaka it’s way easier to reach than certain places in Wakayama or the northern parts of Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures…
Addendum: In spring of 2010 I went back to Sekigahara Menard Land – you can read about it here.)

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