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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Gulliver’s Kingdom, based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, has been the most famous deserted theme park in Japan… once upon a time, before *Nara Dreamland* was even abandoned. Closed in 2001 after only four years of business and two years after the financing Niigata Chuo Bank collapsed (which also ran the *Niigata Russian Village*), it was mostly demolished in 2007 – ten years ago and two years before I started exploring. And yet I receive e-mails asking about Gulliver’s Kingdom on a regular basis; where it is / was, if it is still there, whether or not I’ve been there. Time to answer all those questions publicly: Sadly I’ve never been to Gulliver’s Kingdom as it has been demolished two years before I started exploring myself – so it’s not there anymore, but it has been located at the NW foot of Mount Fuji, only 14 kilometers away from Fuji-Q Highland and in sight of the Fujiten Ski Resort.
Another famous abandoned place in sight of Mount Fuji? The Kurodake Drive-In a.k.a. Global Environment and Energy Museum!

An abandoned environment and energy museum in Japan? What a friggin surprise! Man, I would have loved to write a rant about how fake eco Japan is, but I am running out of time and I haven’t written yet a single line about the history and exploration of this strangely wonderful location. Just don’t buy into the eco bullshit, Japan is everything but; with a few exceptions of course. Whether it’s winter illuminations, individually wrapped cookies, electronic waste along countryside roads, sun-blinds to block daylight all year long yet at the same time lights inside on, the insane amount of plastic bags / bottles / containers handed out every day, apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees – and don’t get me started rambling about the lack of insulation and ACs set to 28°C in winter… (In summer you can’t go below 28°C during the humid 33°C heat that is punishing everybody all day and all night, because we all have to work together and save electricity. But in winter it’s absolutely no problem to go from 0° to 28° because… heating apparently doesn’t require electricity and the warmth comes from the positive energy we created when saving electricity in summer!)
Please don’t buy the fairy tale of eco Japan, just because some garden in Kyoto has put up a crotch so a tree can grow a branch the way it wants instead of pruning it. (I’m not saying Japan is worse than most countries, but if you promote a certain image you better live up to it… or deal with the criticism.)
Construction of the Kurodake Drive-In started in 1965 as part of the Atami Highland project on a mountain ridge above the famous onsen town Atami, in the 1950s by far the most popular spa town in all of Japan with more than 11 million visitors per year – the new attraction featured a gorgeous, unobstructed view at Mount Fuji along the Izu Skyline, some hiking trails, a nearby pond with a boat rental, and the Kurodake Drive-In, which opened as a miso shop, restaurant for up to 300 guests at the same time (up to 1000 cars and 300 high-capacity busses stopped there per day!), and upper terminus of the Atami Highland Ropeway (or Atami Cactus Park Ropeway), connected by said ropeway to Atami and the Atami Cactus Park – with the largest gondolas in the world at the time, for up to 121 people (!). The grand-opening of this 1.3 billion Yen investment was on October 1st 1967. Less than three years later, in summer of 1970, the owner of the miso shop went bankrupt and caused a financial earthquake in the area, which lead to the suspension of the ropeway for about three weeks in June 1970. In July the Atami Highland Ropeway resumed operation, only to be shut down for good in December, barely three years after it was built.
Strangely enough there is not much information about what happened after that. It seems like the ropeway remained idle but intact and somewhat operational until 1983, when it was finally dismantled. The cactus park? I’m not sure… I think it closed for good in 1973. The Kurodake Drive-In definitely survived the longest, but I don’t know in detail what happened exactly after the miso shop went bankrupt. It probably was turned into a general souvenir shop, before somebody shoved the Global Environment and Energy Museum into the crown-shaped building. The last account of somebody being there I found was from April 2002 – strangely enough their photo didn’t feature the museum signage on the roof nor did the (Japanese) article mention it. Since I also read that the State seized the property in 2002 (much like *Nara Dreamland* and the *Arai Mountain And Spa*) I guess it’s safe to assume that the museum was installed after that – but before the building was finally closed and abandoned in November 2008. (Last second addition: Apparently the museum was run by an NPO called “Forever Green”; if I ever revisit the place, I’ll try to find out more, but that’s it for now as time is up…)

I absolutely loved exploring the Kurodake Drive-In, despite the fact that it was little more than a vandalized restaurant. I loved the scenery upon arrival, I loved the exterior of the building, I loved the lighting in some areas (especially the lamps in the office), I loved the items left behind (like the Lotte Chewing Gum vending machine or the three animal shaped bottles), I loved the interior staircases – I just loved being there. It could have been an empty building, instead in revealed itself little by little, step by step. I instantly connected with the Kurodake Drive-In and the feeling held on till I was yanked out of there by my impatient co-explorers. Other places I explored in the past might have been more interesting objectively, but I never really felt them; like the *Japanese Strip Club*. The Kurodake Drive-In on the other hand I really enjoyed – to me it’s one of the most underrated abandoned places in Japan…

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Every once in a while I complain about all those rundown abandoned hotels in Japan, only to present yet another one that features an awesome pool, some arcade machines or spectacular brutalist architecture. But the Wakayama Mountain Hotel honestly was a real piece of shite! Well, except for the view and the unique saunas…

Mold, broken glass, mould, peeling paint and wallpapers, mold, rusty handrails, mould, dripping water, mold, endless staircases and hallways, mould, always the same looking rooms, mold, vandalism, mould, countless dark corners, mold – the list of reasons why to dislike abandoned hotels is seemingly endless. Luckily the Wakayama Mountain Hotel was located on a ridge and had seen more than its share of vandalism, so neither mold nor mould was a problem during this exploration thanks to generous ventilation. On the downside it meant that there was barely an intact window or door left at this rundown and severely vandalized accommodation and the next door onsen, probably run by the same people.
Exploring the Wakayama Mountain Hotel was rather unspectacular – especially after the Miffy plush with the cut throat in the lobby deeply rattled some of my one time co-explorers that day. Japanese women are so easily scared… Anyway. Lobby, bar, restaurant, banquet room, standard guest rooms – all a mix of vandalism and decay. The next door hot spring, most likely a combo deal for hotel guests, looked as unspectacular as the hotel at first. Luckily my all of a sudden utterly fearless friend Yoshiko followed me and made me aware of the cave or oven shaped saunas, that according to her were super special and the reason for a couple of newspaper articles on the walls of the dressing room. Unfortunately the lighting in there was far from perfect – inside the sauna it was almost as dark as a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night; okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit for the sake of weaving a movie quote into this article. But the sauna shots were definitely the most challenging that day! And that’s pretty much it… The view from the hotel’s roof was pretty nice, too. Sadly we couldn’t find any access to the part with the water tower on top. That looked pretty neat, too… But overall the Wakayama Mountain Hotel was just an average abandoned hotel in Japan as you can find them a dime a dozen all over the country.

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Urban exploration can be quite educational – especially when visiting an elementary school in a town where most families had the same job(s) for centuries…

A sunny Saturday morning in a small fishing village along the coast of Japan. Dan, Kyoko and I made our way through a labyrinth of narrow paths between rundown houses, up a few flights of stairs, avoiding locals when possible and greeting them with a cheerful “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning) when not – and then there it was, the local elementary. On the edge of town, yet still in sight of at least a dozen occupied houses. When you are trying to sneak into a location unseen, it’s always a good idea to try doors and windows out of sight first – on lower or higher floors, on the sides or the back of the building. With a total of more than 750 explorations under our belts we quickly found an unlocked door and soon deliberated what would be the best strategy: just entering, hoping not to be caught, despite the large, most uncovered windows – or talking to a local, sharing the risk and responsibility by asking them for permission. Both strategies have worked out for us, but in this case we decided to keep a low profile and just snuck in.
As we were contemplating our options on the back of the school, a senior citizen started to do laps in the yard in front of the school. Slowly, but steadily. As if he could do it for hours. To avoid being seen after just a few minutes, we decided to explore the upper floor first – which kind of exposed us to a small path leading up the mountain and a few neighboring houses.
The upper floor consisted mostly of regular classroom and the school’s rental library. I’ve not seen many abandoned schools with libraries, but what really set the Fishing Village Elementary School apart from every other school I’ve explored were the countless student made posters on the walls, teaching the basics of everything related to fishing and growing your own fruits and vegetables – for example explaining the different kinds of nets, how to repair nets, a year in fishing (when to fish and when to rest…), how to clean fish, information about different kinds of seafood, harvest times of local vegetables, and much, much more. Probably the most informative exploration I’ve ever made!
The lower floor of the Fishing Village Elementary School featured among others a gymnasium / auditorium, a nurses’ room, a teachers’ lounge, and a science room – like the upper floor still in very good condition as the school was closed in 2010 (though the last calendars inside the school were from 2008) and probably is maintained to some degree by locals. The most serious damage to the school was actually outside and counts as natural decay: Two rain water downpipes broke off and were not replaced. As a result, parts of the bright wooden exterior started to rot… and in a few years mold will start to cause serious damage. A shame, considering that this would be quite an easy fix. I can’t imagine that the problem has gone unnoticed, yet nobody took the initiative to take care of it. A real shame…

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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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After having spent five hours at two clinics yesterday due to my first somewhat serious urbex related injury after more than seven years of exploring, I’m kind of in the mood to write about one more abandoned hospital – because deserted ones are definitely much less frightening than active ones!

The Moldy Mountain Medical Center once was a small hospital in the outskirts of an onsen town somewhere in the mountains of Japan. Little to nothing is known about it, which is usually an unfortunate situation, but since I have not much time to write this article as every walking related activity costs twice as much time due to my twisted knee, I am actually quite relieved for a change that my research resulted in dead ends quickly. Exploring the Moldy Mountain Medical Center almost turned out to be a dead end, too. I had never seen any inside photos or videos before I gave it shot myself… and upon arrival all the side doors and windows were locked. I nearly gave up on it when I finally tried the obvious way in – the main door; which owas unlocked and opened easily, much to my surprise.
Also much to my surprise was the stench I smelled immediately – mold. I couldn’t see it (yet), but the smell was heavy in the air. The entrance area with the reception, a couple of consultation rooms and offices was still in pretty decent condition, the back of the one floor building though was indeed moldy as heck – so I took as many photos as possible in the front and as few as reasonable in the back; the video tour includes both areas, though I probably walked a bit faster in the mold hell…
As far as *abandoned hospitals* go, the Moldy Mountain Medical Center was a rather small and unspectacular location – nevertheless it was an exciting exploration, as it was all new to me. Like I mentioned before, I never had or have seen inside photos of that clinic anywhere else, neither from its active time, nor from the time of abandonment. So here you are, another abandoned place in Japan for the first time on the internet… only on *Abandoned Kansai*!
Funny to think that I almost didn’t write this article as I seriously considered taking a few weeks off from blogging until a few hours ago… But I haven’t missed a Tuesday in years and I don’t intend to start slacking now! 🙂

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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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You can’t always get what you want… Sometimes you don’t even get what you expect. In this case in abandoned school – which turned out to be an abandoned bungalow village…

Closed schools are a dime a dozen in Japan. About half of them are maintained for emergencies or local festivals, some have been converted into hostels or cafés. The rest, which I am after, is without supervision and slowly decaying or getting quickly vandalized. After exploring an abandoned hotel at the coast of Wakayama (soon to come to Abandoned Kansai!), my buddies Dan and Kyoko were heading to the mountains to explore said school… which not turned out to be what we expected. It was still there, but mostly locked and nailed up. Signs inside implied that it had been used as a café probably not too long ago – so did the roofed outdoor area in front of it, with countless tables and chairs. Since we came there in winter, maybe it was still used in the warmer months of the year? But most likely it was connected to the bungalow village above, consisting of about 30 huts. And while the former school was still in good condition (even still featured some hospitality related certificates and price lists on the wall), ready to be reopened as a restaurant or emergency shelter, the huts had suffered a lot more from the ravages of time and vandalism… and seemed to be out of use for much longer. But who knows, maybe people just showed the school more respect?
By the time we reached the school and the bungalows on top of a plateau in the mountains of Wakayama, the sun was already setting – and we couldn’t start exploring right away since we were followed by an old man in a kei truck, who obviously was suspicious of a car full of strangers from a strange city. So we parked the car and pretended to go for a walk, this was along the famous hiking trail kumano kodo anyway, while the guy was parking just a few meters from where left our car. After about ten minutes he had enough and drove away, costing us valuable daylight time…
The Wakayama Bungalow Village was another “better than nothing” exploration you probably won’t find on many urbex blogs, showcasing once again that there is indeed vandalism in Japan; especially when it can be done out of sight… The pool across the street turned out to be a pretty neat bonus, but overall the whole day was more about spending quality time with friends than exciting explorations. More about those hopefully soon again, when I have a little bit more time for elaborate articles as I am currently busy with a couple of… other things  – more about those soon, too! 🙂

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