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Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A couple of months ago I wrote an article about the *Utopia Lift* near *Shidaka Utopia*. Well, about the upper terminus… but of course I also took photos of the lower terminus, which is often overlooked by other explorers – it’s easier to reach, but harder to find, since the area is much more overgrown than its counterpart up the hill.
So you already know the history of the lift… and the history of the nearby amusement park. What’s left to say? Not much. Looking back, it was one of the best days of solo explorations ever. Four rather rare locations (including an amusement park), countryside, spring, hiking, beautiful weather, a wild fox on the kart track below – it barely ever gets better than that! So please enjoy the photos and the video below…

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The Mount T Lift was probably one of the most pointless transportation devices in the history of mankind. A large hunk of junk that once lifted lazy butts from the parking lot of a now abandoned hotel to a viewing point on top of a mountain – but not all the way or all the height difference, just half of it each; time and energy saving 250 meters (!) / 15 meters (!) respectively… more or less parallel to a regular road!
Located on a mountain slope about 10 kilometers away from the nearest train station, the Mount T Lift is a rather rarely visited abandoned place, because hardly anybody cares enough about it to go there… even by car. I on the other hand explored the place solo and by public transportation, which was a steep learning experience and quite a pain four years ago. To cut down the walking time, I took a bus for the first seven kilometers and walked the remaining three up the mountain – though in the end it would have probably been more time effective to walk all the way as researching bus schedules and routes is a friggin nightmare in Japan. Not only for a stupid gaijin like me, but also for the staffs of tourist information offices all over the country. (Half a year later I needed a bus connection from Sapporo Station to a university in the suburbs – it took the staff about half an hour to find the proper schedule!)

Public Transportation in Japan

And with that we are onto yet another “I beg to differ, Japan!” topic: public transportation.
Public transportation in Japan has the image of being flawless, especially amongst tourists, so I will hold it to higher standards than in other countries, because that common (mis)perception is annoying when you have to live with it on a daily basis. At least back home in Germany everybody knows that trains are always late and calculate that factor into their plans; Italians apparently are positively surprised if a train actually runs, and in France everybody is on strike all the time anyway… So you have a car and don’t rely on public transportation unless you really have to. And even then it’s rather “giving it a try, expecting to be disappointed despite lowest expectations” and less relying on it. Japan’s public transportation system on the other hand lulls you in a sense of reliability and screws you over in the most sneaky ways, usually when alternatives are either super expensive (taxis) or not available (taxis…). (I actually started writing this bit of the article a while ago when I was sitting in the middle of nowhere waiting for my bus back to civilization – the one in the morning was cancelled due to a marathon (!), so I walked the 7 kilometers to my destination without a map and just a general direction in mind. It was January, overcast, cold, windy and the “bus station” was a metal stick with a 8 connections per day schedule. The afternoon bus was due at 16:35, but didn’t show up – luckily the next one 45 minutes later did; the other direction (on time at 16:34!) was already out of service for the day…)
First of all: The Shinkansen Superexpress that connects most of the major cities on Honshu and Kyushu (no service on Shikoku and only a hub on Hokkaido) is indeed close to perfect, except being overpriced unless you are eligible for a JR Pass; which you are not when you live in Japan. The Shinkansen is fast, clean, almost always on time, offers the best souvenir shops in special parts of stations, standard announcements are at least bilingual (Japanese and English, recently maybe even in Chinese and Korean) and overall it is a real pleasure for destinations within one hour of flight time. Or maybe 45 minutes. Living in Osaka I’d rather take a plane to places beyond Fukuoka or Tokyo, because it tends to be so much cheaper… and most likely faster.
Public transportation in big cities tends to be great, too. When you have intervals of 3 or 4 minutes, who cares if a train / subway is early or late? You just take the next one… One big letdown though: No transportation between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. at all. Not even night busses once per hour in large cities. Nothing. Except for January 1st, so people visiting a shrine at midnight can go to one further away than just down the street. So if you limit yourself to big cities between Tokyo and Osaka (and / or between Osaka and Nagasaki), as most tourists do, your mind indeed will be blown. BUT:
If you leave the large cities, you might… you will… run into problems. Stations with 8 to 10 connection per day instead of per hour are anything but rare, so you better have your plans laid out well… It happened to me countless times that one of those countryside connections was late and I missed my connecting express at the next bigger station – which can quickly result in another hour of delay.
People tend to ridicule the Deutsche Bahn employees for their announcements in sometimes broken English… but at least they try! If something goes wrong, if there is any delay in Japan – only announcements in Japanese, not a single word in English; even on the Shinkansen and in cities like Osaka.
When you go to the countryside, be prepared that NONE of the announcements are in English anymore – just travel south towards Shikoku from Okayama to make that experience… or past Kansai Airport to Wakayama. A lot of those local trains heading to the countryside are old and therefore don’t have electronic signs, which means that you have to rely on the conductor’s announcements. Oh, and you’ll probably never forget your first “wanman” (one man) experience – normal looking trains that have no conductor, usually serving lines with unmanned stations. The first time I ever took one of those without being aware of the wanman concept I was sitting in the second car… and when I tried to leave, the doors wouldn’t open – by the time I realized that I had to leave through the first car (so the train driver could check my ticket, so I won’t exit the unmanned station with a low fee ticket), the train was already moving again and I missed my remote station. Since they tend to be far apart in the countryside, it was more time effective to wait 45 minutes in the cold for the next train in the opposite direction than to walk back one stop… Yay!
At least you can plan train schedules ahead easily as all train stations and schedules are available in English online data bases (if you can’t read station names you can write down when to get off the train) – probably 95% of the bus schedules / maps on the other hand are available in Japanese only… and on online maps usually only their locations are marked, not their names / schedules, like on GoogleMaps for example. Inner city tourist buses in major cities are the exception, but even regular city buses can be a challenge – like I said, it took the Sapporo Station tourist information staff 30 minutes to find me the correct bus to a nearby university…
Long story short: Japan’s public rail transportation in big cities is as good as it gets – if you think that also applies to bus transportation and / or the countryside… think again! In those cases you better know at least basic Japanese… and how to plan ahead. I’ve used bus routes with two connections per day and I’ve waited more than an hour for connecting trains just 13 kilometers (less than 10 miles!) away from an international airport – in perfect scenarios with no delays involved! Overall this rant is probably more than ever complaining about first world problems, but this is my tenth year in Japan and you have no idea what kind of ridiculous conversations I had about transportation in Japan. It’s good, but it’s also far from the glorified image some people seem to have…

Up Where We Belong

Sadly there is nothing known about the history of the Mount T Lift, but I assume it operated for a few years sometime between the opening and closing of a nearby hotel. Right next to the bright orange upper terminus was a little shack made of corrugated iron and wood on a concrete platform, supported by metal stilts – with a huge glass front, offering a great view to everyone too lazy to continue for another 250 / 10 meters on foot to enjoy the full 360 degree experience. Most of the lift line was overgrown and rather unspectacular, but parts of it were secured by a net below as the lift seats didn’t have safety bars.

Overall the Mount T Lift was a nice extra to the abandoned hotel I mentioned before, especially since I wasn’t aware of it beforehand. So I took some pictures and a video of the lower terminus before I explored the hotel – and some more pictures and another video of the upper terminus after I explored the hotel. What about the hotel, you ask? Well, that’s a story for another time… 🙂

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Japan is a mountainous country and therefore abandoned ropeways and cable cars are not that unusual – abandoned chairlifts are surprisingly rare though. One of the few examples is the Utopia Lift that once connected a mountain ridge accessible by the *Beppu Ropeway* with the *Shidaka Utopia* amusement park – both of them abandoned, too. (Judging by the latest satellite photos, the Utopia took a few demolition hits since my visit, but it’s hard to say for sure how much of it is left these days without going there…)

After my exploration of the *Shidaka Utopia* on a bright, hot, sunny spring day I hesitantly left the abandoned theme park to head for the mountains in search of the Beppu Ropeway and the upper terminus of the Utopia Lift. Back in 2012 the satellite photos of that area were rather outdated and blurry, so I had a tough time figuring out in advance how to climb the mountains of Oita to get to where I hoped to go. All I knew for sure was that it wouldn’t be easy as nature was already in full swing – both flora and fauna. It turned out that my chosen path was way too long as I unknowingly added about an hour of walking up and down a mountain slope to my route; a shortcut I only found on my way back. But hey, at least I didn’t have to go to the gym that night… or the following one. But sooner or later my hike finally ended when I saw a rusty tower and a single lift chair of the abandoned chairlift in front of me – I guess this rather strenuous hike is one of the reasons why the Utopia Lift isn’t exactly a favorite amongst urban explorers. Another one is the fact that there is not that much to see. A couple of towers, a handful of chairlifts, the massive return bullwheel overgrown in the forest closing in as well as a small office and an even smaller plastic lavatory. But I genuinely enjoyed the vandalism free decay of the chairlift as well as the atmosphere on the mountain ridge on this wonderful spring day. It would have been a lot easier to get up there and to take photos in winter, but the green of the surrounding flora against the clear blue of the sky was almost intoxicatingly beautiful. Probably not a place you should go to all by yourself, but I very much enjoyed being up there alone. I know the photos are a bit repetitive, but I often get e-mails asking to publish more photos with each article – in this case there are not more photos, but probably the most per square meter of explored location, so I hope you’ll enjoy the set…

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The Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf (Bahnbetriebswerk = railyard) is right next to the train station of the same name in Germany’s capital Berlin… and probably as famous as the *Spreepark* and the *Iraqi Embassy In The German Democratic Republic* – yeah, I was a lazy explorer last summer, going after the easy names instead of the unique locations like I do here in Japan. But I was kind of in a hurry and to the best of my knowledge, abandoned embassies and railyards are really rare in Japan, so it was a welcome change of aesthetics, though the insane amount of vandalism and other people there pretty much ruined the experience again.

The history of the Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf dates back to the year 1893, which makes the area one of the oldest “modern” ruins I ever explored. Back in Prussian times the roundhouse (Rundlokschuppen) at the southern end of the premises was finished – then a high tech building to store and / or repair up to 24 trains at the same time, protected from the weather; thanks to its internal turntable, protected from frost. At that time, new and bigger train models were released much more often than nowadays. Soon the roundhouse became too small, so the Königlich Preußische und Großherzoglich Hessischen Staatseisenbahnen (“Royal Prussian and Grand-Ducal Hessian State Railways”) had to add a semi-oval train repair shop (Lokschuppen) in the northern part of the railyard. The advantage of that building was that it could be expanded according to the needs of new train models, the disadvantage was its outdoor turntable, exposed to the weather all year long and therefore failure-prone.
Both repair shops are still standing today. The roundhouse is actually one of only two left in all of Germany – and under monumental protection, which is probably one of the reasons why the whole area is one big ruin, despite the fact that it was sold by the Deutsche Bahn AG to real estate and furniture mogul Kurt Krieger in 2011, more than ten years after the railyard was closed. Yes, Kurt Krieger – long-time readers of *Abandoned Kansai* might remember that name from an article I wrote 20 months ago, about the abandoned furniture store *Möbel Erbe Hanau*; it’s the very same guy, what a surprise! (Gosh, I love it when separate stories come together like that!)

The Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf once covered an area of 250000 square meters (that’s almost 2.7 million square feet!) and gave work to hundreds of people, now that most of the train tracks have been removed, there are only about a dozen rotting buildings in various states of decay left – other buildings and more tracks further south have been demolished around 2006. Over the years, they all have been boarded up and torn apart several times, graffiti everywhere. I spent around two hours at the trainyard and ran into more than a dozen people; urbex for the masses. While I had the newer repair shop in the north for myself, the roundhouse in the south turned out to be a popular spot for photo shootings… and a large group of eight to ten people was just setting up. When they called for a meeting in one of the adjunct rooms, I quickly shot a short video and then got out of there to not further disturb them.
Exploring the Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf was interesting, but a little bit underwhelming. I love those huge industrial sites from the Age of Industrialization, especially since they are so hard to find in Japan, but at the same time it was sad to see a rare building under monumental protection just rot away for monetary reasons, vandalized by bored morons – the railyard’s roundhouse is one of only two left in all of Germany, from an era so important for the whole country… for the whole world. It might not have been the most glamorous or the most just era, but it surely was one of the most interesting ones!

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