Fossil fuels have been on the decline for quite some time now in industrialized countries, with coal leading the way – and so it’s not a surprise that North America and Europe, but also Japan, are littered with closed / abandoned mines. The Mikobata Mine in central Hyogo is one of them…
Deserted mines are very close to my heart as it was one of them that re-ignited my slumbering interest in abandoned places – though this very specific one was everything but deserted. In the winter of 2004 I attended a bi-weekly seminar at the Zeche Zollverein (*Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex on Wikipedia*) in Essen, Germany. Unlike many other mines that were closed since the 1950s, this gigantic conglomerate was saved by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia – when the coal mine close in 1986 it bought the land and declared Shaft 12 a heritage site. Cleaning up and renovation began instantly and continued till 1999, from the mid-90s on also involving the massive cokery closed in 1993 (after selling it to China fell through). In 2001 the Zeche Zollverein became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and now houses a visitor center for the Industrial Heritage Trail (part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage), the Ruhr Museum, the Red Dot Design Museum, a performing arts center (PACT Zollverein), as well as several other spaces for artists and lecturer – and of course some eateries. Initially hardly anybody liked the idea, because the mining industry was associated with dirty, hard labour and many hazards… who needed to be reminded? Now the Zeche Zollverein and its unique mix of architecture (based on the 1932 Bauhaus style Shaft 12) and culture is a popular destination for all kinds of activities and hopefully the model for similar projects all over the world.
Japan is still lacking this kind of foresight for the most part. There are tourist mines here and there all over the country (for example the *Osarizawa Mine*), but little is done to effectively preserve large structures – probably because most of them will be extremely expensive and difficult to preserve, like the concrete jungle on *Gunkanjima*. Most other closed / abandoned Japanese mines are made of wood and corrugated iron, destined to slowly fade away. To make preservation financially feasible, most of those mines get stripped of all those costly, dangerous areas – some machines are salvaged, former administrative buildings are turned into mini-museums; done! Even on location you can only guesstimate the former glory of those places… unless you enter areas not supposed to be accessible for the general public.
The Mikobata Mine in Central Japan was actually one of those closed mines that were rotting for more than a decade, before some local historians and technicians turned them into a safe tourist attraction. Founded in 1878 as an offspring of the nearby Ikuno Mine, the whole mining conglomerate (Ikuno, Mikobata and the recently presented *Akenobe Mine*) was sold to Mitsubishi in 1898 (or 1896, according to other sources). All three of them were closed 1987 and in 2001 restoration began; resulting in the demolition of the Mikobata Processing Site in 2004. The bright grey concrete stumps were fenced off, nearby houses were restored, a mini train and several bilingual info signs put up, machines hidden under tarps, …
Due to my somewhat sloppy research ahead of time, Dan and I were not aware of all of this, and kind of expected a fully abandoned mine, *Taro* style. But it was a beautiful spring day in the mountains, so of course we made the best of it. First we headed over to the gigantic concrete UFOs and slipped through the fence to have a closer look – plenty of salvaged equipment, just waiting to be placed into more old restored wooden buildings. Nice!
Then we headed to the other direction, the part of the slope that still had plenty of trees. There we found all kinds of semi-overgrown concrete and metal remains, including an outdoor lamp in pieces… and tiny paths leading up the mountain. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade – and when urbex gives you a slope, you climb it. Even when the tiny paths disappear and you only think that there might be something up there… you go anyway. Basic rules of life, you know.
Half an hour and me fully out of breath later, we indeed found a road – and it lead us back to the mine! Of course there was a gate, but again… If urbex gives you gates, you climb them or find a way around them – I’m not making the rules, I am just following them! The view from up there down the valley was absolutely gorgeous, but we were very well away that this wasn’t abandoned anymore; rather part of a museum – so we headed across the open space and followed the road down the mountain, hoping that it would lead us back to the big street at the foot. On the way we found an old mining railway, partly covered by rock fall. Fantastic! As much as I love barely touched abandoned place like the *Wakayama Hospital*… there is something very special about a sunny day outside in the mountains, about massive concrete construction, about brittle wood and rusty metal – about a couple of dozen meters of bend old railroad tracks.
When we finally got back to the car I had gone from disappointment to pleasant surprise – the Mikobata Mine wasn’t really one of those classic abandoned mines, but nevertheless we were able to do some real exploration, seeing some things and getting to some areas that probably not a lot of eyes had seen in previous years. We didn’t know it at the time, but we should end our day at the *Akenobe Mine* a little bit deeper down into the mountains – two mines that not only belonged to the same company, Mitsubishi, but that were actually connected by endless kilometers of tunnels…
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