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Japanese hot spring spas are some of the most relaxing places on earth and offer from barely more than a wooden tub full of hot water to everything from massages to chill-out rooms to meals. This exploration though started rather stressful… and almost didn’t happen.

Before arriving at the Tohoku Spa with my friends Dan, Kyoko and Heather I knew little to nothing about it – which is always a two-edged affair. On the one hand it’s exciting as everything is new and unknown, on the other hand those places are risky in many ways. Is the place still there? Is it accessible? If it’s accessible, does it have alarms or security? If not, is it any good?
From a distance the Tohoku Spa seemed to be in decent condition. Sure, the parking lot was a little bit overgrown, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as almost a decade has passed since it was closed according to several sources… and there was a bit of trash outside, though that could have been dumped there by strangers. But other than that the building and the massive walls of the outdoor baths weren’t rundown or damaged. The first few doors we tried were tightly locked, the massive glass front didn’t even have a crack, including the glass doors, which is quite unusual given the rather rural location of the spa… and the four table arcade machines in the lobby – all of them in excellent condition, given their age and that they were used in a public space. Other than that the lobby looked like as if there were some renovations going on, but it was impossible to say whether 9 minutes, 9 days, 9 weeks, 9 months, or 9 years passed since somebody entered the building. And so we kept circling the building, looking for open / broken doors or windows – and failed! Well, I knew that the spa was closed, but I had never seen photos from the inside, so it was indeed possible that this exploration could have ended before it began… And just as we were about to give up we found a way in. Not a pretty or easy one, but at least it didn’t qualify as B&E…

The ground floor of the Tohoku Spa consisted of two large indoor baths with several pools, a sauna and the usual “get yourself clean first” stations as well as two decently sized outdoor baths, so-called rotenburo – one for men, one for women. While one changing room was cluttered with all kind of items, including more table arcade machines, the other one was empty. The baths also looked like as if there was some (de)construction going on, and the back of the gigantic kitchen even showed an area definitely used by people for (smoking) breaks. Yes, at one point there was definitely some heavy work going one… hopefully 9 years ago, not 9 minutes ago!
The upper floor featured two large rest rooms, as in “resting after a long hot bath”, a movie room, an outdoor area and a restaurant with several rooms for cozy dinners as well as large karaoke parties. Much like on the ground floor there had been quite a bit of renovation work / demolition prep been done – furniture to certain rooms, carpets and wallpapers removed, … There was still quite a bit to see, but luckily the upper floor was less interesting than the lower one, otherwise this exploration would have taken me much longer than the two hour it already took me – especially as my friends were ready to leave after an hour or so; which they actually did to look for a kombini since we arrived at the spa without having breakfast first. Exploring in the countryside… you never know when you’ll get your next meal – and all the spa had to offer was fake food and a dead bird…

Nevertheless a good exploration overall. I liked the narrow maintenance hallway between the two bath areas, the rotenburo for men was rather nice, obviously I can’t get enough of abandoned arcade machines, and I really loved some of the remaining ornaments in the baths, one of which became my new wallpaper – on location it reminded me of a shisa, but I guess it was more of a shachihoko. (Any experts out there?) So I finally left after about two hours to reunite with my friends, who patiently waited in the car after their return – on the way there I took one last photo, of an underwear vending machine. Fresh, clean underwear. Not used one… at least I hope it wasn’t used!

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Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but puddles of sweat – urbex in July and August comes with its own set of challenges in Japan…

I think I’ve mentioned before that I usually take a break from exploring in Japan during the summer months, especially in July in August. In June the humidity in Kansai and the surrounding areas skyrockets due to the rainy season, in July the heat kicks in, and in August temperatures tend to be between 34°C (day time) and 30°C (at night) in the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto megalopolis. You probably don’t mind if you are used to that kind of weather, but I’m from west-central Germany, where temperatures are 5°C lower in average – and humid days are rather rare… and never for up to four months in a row. In addition to that bugs are much smaller and other animals are less poisonous than in Central Japan, because… well, you know… nature likes Central Europe. But exploring is like celebrating – you have to when you have the opportunity… even if the circumstances are borderline crazy!
2017, late July, Friday evening – after a long week of work two friends of mine picked me up at home at half past 10. The goal? A 24/7 super sento (large public bath with places to sleep – on the floor in special rooms, on benches, or special chairs, …) in a suburb or Hiroshima, a “nice and easy” 4+ hour drive away from Osaka. We arrived at around 2 a.m., took a bath, and crashed on some benches at around 3 a.m. for two and a half cool hours of sleep. The sun rises early in Japan in July, we had places to go to, and time was of the essence! After a kombini breakfast, the *Horseshoe Hospital*, and a quick snack for lunch in the car we arrived at the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic pretty much exactly at high noon – and walking the 100 meters from a nearby parking lot to the hospital mansion felt like being an ant under a magnifying glass. While the partly overgrown (and partly collapsed!) mansion, roped-off by city officials to prohibit people from entering, offered protection from the sun, it did little to nothing regarding heat, humidity and gnats.
While it is hard to say how much of the damage to the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic was natural decay and how much was vandalism (some rooms were nearly untouched, others looked like some people vented their frustrations), it’s easy to say that this was a fascinating exploration. I just love those old countryside clinics, mansions with doctors’ offices. There was so much to see, so many unusual items to take pictures of – like the creepy dolls in the living room, the German medical books, or the labels for medicine bottles.

When we left after just 1.5 hours it was a bittersweet departure. On the one hand I would have loved to stay at least another 1.5 hours to finish taking pictures, on the other hand I was happy to get back to an air-conditioned area. At that point I was literally dripping of sweat, my T-shirt wasn’t able to hold an additional drop. To accelerate the drying process in the car I actually took it off and wrung it out – much to the entertainment of my fellow explorers. Apparently one of my many useless ‘skills’ in life is ‘sweating’… Sadly I’ll never get a chance to return to the Hiroshima Countryside Clinic, one of the little known abandoned hospitals in Japan – last week I found out that it has been demolished shortly after my visit; again bittersweet… On the one hand I would have loved to have another look, on the other hand I am forever grateful to my friends who took me there… and for my decision to join them, because when you have the opportunity to explore, you better take it – there might not be a next time!

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About two years ago I first wrote about hatsumode, the first shrine / temple visit of the new year, on the *Facebook page of Abandoned Kansai* after exploring the *Shiga Shrine*. Let’s make abandoned temples and shrines a new New Year’s tradition by following up with the Shimane Temple…

As I mentioned before, I take much pride in the fact that I do the vast majority of my location research myself, which often is a slow and tedious process, but extremely rewarding when successful. Since the spring of 2016 I’ve been extremely lucky to explore on occasion (i.e. two or three times a year) with an amazing Japanese couple and their friends. Explorations that include the weirdest hours (getting up at 3:30!), but also locations I haven’t even heard of before – and strangely enough after, it’s almost as if they create their own places that mysteriously vanish after we leave. And all I have left as proof are some quick photos and shaky videos… (I guess that’s the advantage of being well-connected – and being native speakers!)
One of those mysterious trips / locations included the Shimane Temple. At least I think it was in Shimane, Japan’s second least populous prefecture – but who knows for sure? We started in the middle of the night (not at midnight!) and explored two other places before we all of a sudden stopped on a tiny mountain road on that rainy and slightly foggy autumn day. Silence for a couple of seconds, then somebody said in Japanese: “We are here – it’s to the right, over there!” And indeed there it was, mysterious, almost surreal through the low hanging clouds: A large temple building, about three storeys tall… and it looked as if a giant creature, a demon probably, ripped off its whole front. If large wooden constructions could be injured like a living being, this one had a gigantic gashing wound revealing the innards of the temple. (And aren’t there people out there considering their bodies a temple?) I had never seen or heard of this location before, so it was an extremely stunning sight as it literally and figuratively came out of nowhere. Sadly, as always, time was of the essence with my Japanese friends, so I had less than 90 minutes to explore the temple and the nearby abandoned monk’s house… enough to enjoy the amazing atmosphere up there, but barely enough to do due diligence to this unique location. (And no, I don’t know anything about this temple. Not its name, not when it was built, not when it was abandoned, not when or why it collapsed. Strangely enough I actually don’t care in this case, the lack of information just adds to the mystery of the location.)
As much as I dislike exploring on rainy days, I strongly believe that the unfortunate weather elevated the experience that day – it felt a little bit like being in a different world, being in a different time. Everything came together perfectly… like on that sunny summer day when I explored the *Kyoto Dam*.

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Even though the Fukushima Theme Park was never affected by radioactivity or the huge tsunami of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, it was nevertheless a victim of the circumstances caused by the costliest natural disaster in history…

The Fukushima Theme Park (not its real name…) dates back to the Japanese asset price bubble in the late 80s, when pretty much every part of the country saw itself as the next top tourist destination and money was spent with both hands. Two of the most popular investments? Theme parks and botanical gardens. So why not combine both and make it real big, as in something like 200 by 400 meters?
And so it was done… A large flower park with plenty of eateries (admission fee: 500 Yen) and about a dozen pay as you go attractions spread across the whole area – including a gigantic ball pit, with 2.5 kilometers the longest kart track in all of Tohoku, some murder mystery adventure in a converted trailer, a mini zoo, a 9 hole golf course, a 3D mini cinema called “Inner Space Vehicle”, a fishing pond, AND a… drumroll… big Ferris Wheel! Things apparently went well (more or less…) for a solid 20 years, when the Fukushima Theme Park closed in December of 2009.
In early 2011 a professional golf player invested 100 million Yen (1.2 million USD at the time) into the park to reactivate it – unfortunate timing, to say the least. Though not directly damaged by the earthquake or the tsunami, the Fukushima Theme Park of course must have been facing the same challenges as the rest of the region – blackouts, supply shortages, damaged access routes, locals with other things on mind, and the almost complete absence of tourist, both foreign and domestic. The now pretty much useless large parking lots for up to 1000 cars and 50 busses were used to build temporary housing for displaced people… Japanese people only, of course – no Syrians allowed, anywhere in Japan, at least not for humanitarian reasons. (Interestingly enough both crises started within only four days of each other…) The refugee camp existed till late summer / early fall of 2012, two years later the whole park reportedly was closed for good.
When I explored the Fukushima Theme Park with my friends Dan and Kyoko three years later, the parking lot had already been turned into a solar park. The entrance area with the gift shops and a dozen karts parked inside was in surprisingly good condition, but most of the site’s attractions were at the other end of the park. Unfortunately the area in-between was almost completely overgrown by thick vegetation… except for that piece of forest with what looked like a footpath. Well, usually I’m not the kind of person heading directly for the undergrowth, but it was getting dark quickly, I eagerly wanted to see the Ferris wheel, and I really thought I was onto something. Well, long story short: the path disappeared and the undergrowth got thicker. Giving up wasn’t an option though, and so I kinda talked my fellow explorers into following me (sorry again, guys!). About 10 minutes and several bruises and scratches later I found a way out, only to realize that the rest of the park was located on a steep slope. Darn! While Dan was scouting an easier way out I was pushing forward by myself, borderline desperate to take pictures of that darn Ferris wheel before it was getting too dark. On the way uphill I found some of the already mentioned rides and attractions, yet no sign of the Ferris wheel. Hmm… Maybe behind those big trees, following the kart track? While I was seriously considering heading out into the darkness after my friends had just caught up with me, Dan annihilated all hope of taking pictures of a Ferris wheel that day – he found the overgrown concrete foundations… though it didn’t make sense. And it still doesn’t! On Streetview from 2015 the solar park was just being built, on satellite view the park is complete and the Ferris wheel is still there, so… two years between visual confirmation and a location that looked like it had been abandoned for at least five years. Darn, darn, darn!

Well, you win some and you lose some – and overall the Fukushima Theme Park was an interesting exploration, even though the Ferris wheel was gone. And before you ask, because people ask me since March 12th 2011: No, I didn’t go nowhere near the nuclear power plant and I didn’t explore any abandoned places in the disaster zone. I’m generally not a big fan of exploring ((temporarily) abandoned) private homes, and it would feel especially ghoulish to me in this case, considering that there are still many people unable to return. This was my second trip to Tohoku since the big earthquake and again we focused on classic abandoned places, though this one here was indirectly a victim of the disaster. And don’t worry, we found some great spots – this time and last time (*Matsuo Mine*, *Taro Mine*, *Kejonuma Leisure Land*).

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Snow and a giant taxidermy seal… two things I definitely didn’t expect when I was planning my trip to explore the Asahi Elementary school!

The weather forecast in Japan tends to be quite unreliable – and so the 10 to 15 centimeters of snow took me completely by surprise when I arrived by train in that small countryside town the Asahi Elementary School was in; and judging by the empty roads / the way the few people were driving, I wasn’t the only one…
After walking uphill for almost half an hour I finally reached the outskirts of town and with it the deserted school. From the outside the complex looked bigger than expected – an elevated concrete behemoth with a huge gymnasium in the background.
Entering through a side entrance I was confused – with the kitchen, dining hall, and front desk this looked more like a rundown hotel than a school. The cold didn’t add to my urge to be there either, so I felt very luckily when soon after I found a taxidermy fox. It wasn’t in good condition anymore, but neither am I, so who am I to judge? 😉
The second floor was as moldy and rundown as the first one, but it looked a little bit more like a school – confirmed by large letters on the building, “family school”; maybe some kind of boarding school? A family hotel? As I found out afterwards, the Asahi Elementary School existed only from 1975 till 1983 – then it was renamend, most likely repurposed, and used until 2006.

The biggest surprise, both literally and figuratively, I found in one of the rather dark hallways – a gigantic stuffed seal in overall decent condition! Exploring an abandoned building like that on a gloomy day alone isn’t exactly a cheerful endeavor, and believe me, taxidermy animals don’t help to relax. More space and light offered the final “room” in the building, the large gymnasium – probably #3 after a yet unpublished location and the round gymnasium of the *Taiyo Elementary School* in Haboro, also converted after being retired as a public school.

After a slightly disappointing start the Asahi Elementary School turned out to be a decent location – nothing I would travel far for, but if one is in the neighborhood for other reasons it’s well worth to have a closer look… to see if the seal has (been) moved!

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A small, but quintessential Japanese conference center in the Japanese countryside – but most of all: a deathtrap!

Yes, I admit it: I like abandoned places in good condition! And while I appreciate the artisan work of Japanese carpenters, I prefer the solid ground most concreters provide – especially when a house is built on a slope…
Quickly after I arrived at the Japanese Conference Center with my urbex buddy Rory and his friend Toby, it became apparent that getting into the building would be a lot easier than getting out. Located on the slope of a small hill, the cultural institute consisted of a three storey main building (guest rooms, kitchen, dining room, ofuro, meeting rooms) and several small single storey constructions featuring guest rooms. The additional buildings were of no interest (too rundown, too locked-up, too generic), but the main building was actually quite intriguing due to its typical Japanese design. The main entrance featured a slab of concrete as well as a concrete wall on the slope side and a concrete staircase leading up one floor to the once with the back entrance. Pretty much the rest of the building, including some overhanging parts, was made from wood and other traditional material – and as a result the abandoned building was not only not structurally sound anymore, it had turned into a deathtrap since the last time somebody took care of it. There were collapsed walls, collapsed floors, collapsed ceilings… and the roof was partly collapsed, too. Most of the floor was so brittle that you could hear cracking noises with every step – I am admittedly a big guy, but the problem went literally and figuratively deeper as indicated by several folding tables scattered across the worst not yet collapsed parts of the floor, a way to distribute weight of previous, presumedly much lighter explorers. Unfortunately it was often unpredictable whether one would crash down two millimeters or two meters, which is why I had to refrain from seeing the whole building (I saw most of it though…), because what’s the point of equal weight distribution when you crash through the floor while standing on a folding table?

Thanks to the almost constant danger of crashing through a floor or having a ceiling falling down on me, exploring the Japanese Conference Center was quite a nerve-wrecking experience – on the other hand it had been a while since I explored a building in that bad condition, so it was nice to see one again… I just could have done without actually going through in person, so this is one of the explorations where I enjoy the photos taken quite a bit more than actually taking them. 🙂

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Closed pachinko parlors are everywhere in Japan – from right opposite train stations in busy city centers to the middle of nowhere in the countryside. Yet it has been six years (!) since I last wrote about one…

Pachinko is as Japanese as it gets – probably even more so than sushi and sumo as it is mostly contained to Zipangu. Currently there are between 15000 and 16000 parlors in Japan, and from the looks of it about 10% of them are closed or even abandoned. Although the number of regular players was cut in half between 2002 and 2012, there are still more than 10 million regulars in Japan. Some 34000 of them are professionals while the majority of players loses money big time; in 2006 the average customer spent a whopping 28124 Yen (!) per visit (today about 250 USD / 210 EUR). About the legal problems pachinko parlors face and how they are connected to North Korea in a way that’s hard to believe *I wrote about in a previous article*, so I won’t repeat it here.

Back in 2010/11 I found and explored two abandoned pachinko parlors in excellent condition and therefore wasn’t aware how rare they are in that state. In the following years I realized that most of those closed / abandoned parlors are either tightly locked – or completely filled with trash. I must have tried at least half a dozen of them under a variety of different circumstances, but none of the attempts lead to an exploration worth documenting. Until recently, when I came across the Countryside Pachinko Parlor in a small onsen town. While most of the machines were gone, the parlor was still in good condition overall. Most stools were still there, some advertising, the frames for the pachinko AND the slot machines… and nobody vandalized the large mirror / chrome / neon installments at the main entrance. Even the living area on the upper floor was accessible – featuring one of the slot machines, a kitchen / dining area, several balconies and half a dozen bedrooms. Nothing special, but better than nothing – especially after all those years, especially on a rainy day. (Exploring on rainy days sucks. Outdoor locations are hardly doable and even indoor places are a pain as everything is / can be wet and uncomfortable – from access points to whole floors…)
Overall the Countryside Pachinko Parlor was a decent exploration, but since you most likely never saw the much better earlier explorations I did, I strongly recommend checking out the now demolished *K-1 Pachinko Parlor* and the now classic *Big Mountain*!

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