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Archive for the ‘Visited in 2015’ Category

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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The first abandoned hospital I ever explored was a small town clinic in Kyushu I called the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic* – it was an amazing experience and the Small Town Clinic did its best to keep up with that…

Living in Osaka I barely ever make it to northern Kanto and Tohoku, the area between Tokyo and Hokkaido, because train tickets are so expensive in Japan that it’s cheaper and faster for me to fly to Hokkaido, Kyushu or even Okinawa. (Yes, I am aware that there are overnight buses, but I’m too old for those things!) Which is a shame, because some of the best abandoned places in all of Japan are in that region. About a year ago a three day weekend offered the opportunity to head north, luckily I was able to convince my buddy *Hamish* to hit the road with me as I was able to come up with quite an impressive list of possible locations, which included about half a dozen abandoned hospitals / clinics as well as the legendary *Russian Village in Niigata*. Of course not everything went according to plan, but one of the locations we were able to explore was this small town clinic about 2.5 hours outside of Tokyo…
Sadly there is little to nothing known about the Small Town Clinic, except that it was built in the 1920s, the Taisho era – and that it is yet another good example of a mostly intact Japanese countryside clinic that once combined a fully furnished doctor’s office with a sizeable house. Not as mansion-esque as the Tokushima Countryside Clinic, but pretty big, even in comparison with other countryside houses (which are much bigger than the hamster cage sized apartments in the large apartment blocks most Japanese people live at in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, or Yokohama). It took us a couple of minutes to find a way in, but we managed to do so without gaining any attention or causing any damage. Sadly the countless visitors of the past few years did their share of damage to both the stairs leading to the upper floor as well as to the wooden floor leading to the (dark) private section of the house – so we focused on clinic part as it seemed to be the much more interesting one anyway. The entrance area featured an old hat that reminded me of pre-WW2 photos I’ve seen of Japan many, many times, yet I don’t know what those were called and if they were military or school… which was kind of intergradient back in the days anyway. To the left was a large rack with countless old, but still smelly bottles, to the right were the treatment room and the office area… not THAT big, but enough to keep us busy for two, two and a half hours, thanks to lots of items big and small. Bottles with chemicals, a large water jug, office items, a black and white photo of a surgery scene, old patient files… a book, in German, published in 1923 – Tuberkulose der Kinder (“Pediatric tuberculosis”). Back then Japan “imported” pretty much all its medical knowledge from Germany… and tuberculosis was still a threat. It was like stepping back in time – and maybe one day photos like mine will be used to create 3D models of buildings like this. For science, for museums, for video games. To bring old neighborhood clinics like this back to life… when the last of them has been torn down to make space for yet another shopping mall…
Overall the Small Town Clinic was a pretty interesting exploration as it’s been a while since I’ve visited and written about the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic* – sadly it didn’t live quite up to the expectations and in the end it was no match for the most legendary of all old-style Japanese hospitals; but still a very good experience with some nice photo opportunities!

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There are countless hot springs all over Japan, from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaido in the north. Over the years I’ve been to quite a few abandoned hot spring hotels, but I’ve never actually seen an abandoned hot spring by itself…

We (my exploration buddies Kyoko, Dan, and I) found the Mount Aso Hot Spring by chance while exploring the remains of the *Aso Kanko Hotel* – one of my friends spotted ascending smoke / steam behind some trees and were curious about it. Since it always takes me longer than them to explore and take pictures, they headed out to have a look while I stayed behind to finish up.
It turned out that the source of the steam was a complex arrangement of extremely rusty metal containers and pipes, some of them leaking water – the air filled with a sulphuric stench. So this was the well that once supplied hot spring water to the Aso Tourist Hotel… pipes leading there still fixed to a wall and partly covered by a landslide on the way there. Some nearby ruined buildings furthermore suggested that the well was used to feed one or two onsen with the same water. Since we were short of time on that beautiful, bright spring day, I didn’t have a closer look at the remaining buildings, but they looked rundown, partly collapsed and overall really uninteresting anyway – if you are interested in abandoned onsen, you’ll find more than enough good ones on Abandoned Kansai!
So I focused on taking a couple of quick shots of the convoluted metal structure and a puddle of hot water down the road, always avoiding the haze and it breathtaking stench. Less than half an hour later I was back with my patient friends in the car, heading out to explore what turned out to be the *Trust Hospital*. Personally I loved the Mount Aso Hot Spring, because it was a nice, small, unique location – nothing epic like *Nara Dreamland*, but unexpected and interesting in its own way. This article comes with a small gallery and a rather short video though, but if you stay with me, I promise that I will present some gigantic spectacular locations again soon. There’s a time and a place for everything… 🙂

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If everything would have gone according to plan, I would have never been able to explore this abandoned nursing home somewhere in the mountains of Germany…

Japan is a great country for urbex, because of the general “out of sight, out of mind” and dodging responsibility attitude – plenty of buildings demolished a long time ago in other countries survive for years that way; places like *Nara Dreamland* wouldn’t happen there as a liquidator would step in and squeeze out every cent possible.
Germany on the other hand has a problem with bureaucracy and too much paperwork in general. Things that are clearly regulated and should take weeks or months to take care of take forever to approve – and then everything grinds to a stop, because somebody though he saw a rare frog nearby…
I guess something similar happened to the abandoned retirement home my sister Sabine and I were exploring during my trip to Germany in 2015. The facility was run by the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (AWO, „Workers‘ Welfare Association“), who replaced it with a new one in 2005. The local city administration was aware of those plans, which required some planning, and decided in March 2004 to rezone the property from Gemeinbedarf (“public good”) to Wohnbaufläche (“general residential building area”), making it possible to build single-family houses with gardens that are so characteristic for this town. Sadly there is not much else known about the history of this retirement home – when it was built, how many rooms it had, what happened after it was closed…
When Sabine and I explored this location in summer 2015, almost all external walls were reinforced with iron lattice fence, and it took us a while to find a way in. The solid brick-built square construction was in decent condition, except for the fact that it was pretty much gutted and rather vandalized. Here and there we found small piles of cables, metal or fluorescent tubes, every other window still had little images on them children created for their grandparents. The former dining was still decorated with a piece of art hanging on the wall, a wheelchair standing in front of it. But overall it was a pretty empty building with a slightly creepy atmosphere. In it’s heyday though I am sure it was quite a sight, especially thanks to the large inner courtyard and the beautiful location in a Palatinate valley.

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The relationship between Japan and Russia has pretty much always been either non-existent or full of conflicts – so whoever thought that building a Russian themed park in Japan would be a good idea… probably was a moron with too much money.

When the Empire of Japan acted like the prototype version of current day *North Korea* from the early 1600s till the 1850/60s, it tried to keep out pretty much all foreigners, with the exception of a few Chinese and Dutch, who were strongly restricted in where they were allowed to go and what they were allowed to do (sounds familiar?). Back then most Russian settlements were too far away from Japan to make contact easily as cities like Khabarovsk (1858), Vladivostok (1860) and Magadan (1930) had yet to be founded – and so it was Yakutsk merchant Pavel Lebedev-Lastoschkin who first tried to establish a Russian-Japanese contact 1778 in Hokkaido. He was told to come back one year, only to be turned away again (sounds familiar?). In the early 19th century the Russians tried again several times without success – this time reacting with brute force when the shogunate stalled again; of course without much success. In 1860 Vladivostok was founded, but since it was not an ice-free port, the Russians were looking for a more convenient location and decided to seize Tsushima, an island under Japanese control, located between Korea and Kyushu. At this point the relationship turned really sour, and after being ignored by the consul Goshkevitch, the Japanese asked the British for help, finally forcing the Russians to leave Tsushima. Over the next few decades, Japan gave up its isolation policy and turned from an agrarian state to an industrialized nation; with the massive help of countries like Prussia, the United States, France, Great Britain and many more, of course. The Japanese-Russian relationships on the other hand didn’t develop for the better though, culminating in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05; the first time an Asian country significantly and surprisingly defeated a Western superpower. In World War 2 Japan fought less successful overall – and more than 70 years later, both countries are still arguing over the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kuril chain of islands. According to a 2012 survey, 72% of Japanese people view Russia unfavorably, a number that most likely rose since then, making Japan the country with the biggest anti-Russian sentiments of all participating countries.
So why a Russian themed park in Niigata? Because a banker said so! (Oh… so it was indeed a moron with too much money…)

Niigata Russian Village (1993 – 2003/04) was pretty much the borscht version of the *Tenkaen – Japan’s Lost China Themed Park* (1992 – 1999). Cultural exchange, “exotic” weddings, demonstrations of folk dances, sale of artisan craftwork… and carft beer. Financed with the help of and heavily supported by Ryutaro Omori, then president of the Niigata Chuo Bank, the Niigata Russian Village opened on September 1st 1993 and was heavily expanded in 1994… and then again in 2000 – a year after the financing Niigata Chuo Bank collapsed. The park closed in December 2003 for a winter break and didn’t open again as originally scheduled in April 2004.
The rather remote location of the Niigata Russian Village (6 km away from the next train station, 30 km outside of Niigata, almost 400 km away from Tokyo and therefore out of day trip range) was its downfall twice – first it wasn’t able to attract enough visitors / customers… and then it attracted too many visitors / vandals. Photos from 2008 already showed significant signs of vandalism, in September 2009 the hotel was partly destroyed by fire, and since nobody ever used a fake name for it, the Niigata Russian Village went to hell in a handbasket in record time.

By the time I started exploring in 2009/10 people started rumors about tight security and demolition to prevent bigger masses from trampling through like Siberian mammoths, but at the time I never thought I would ever explore outside of Kansai (hence the blog name, *Abandoned Kansai*) – in addition to that, Niigata is probably the worst area to go to from Kansai as flights are insanely expensive (32500 Yen!) and trains take about 7 hours at a price of 22500 Yen… per direction! 700 bucks for one location? Hell no!
Speaking of hell: As satellite photos more and more confirmed the demolition of the Niigata Russian Village, I more and more regretted that I was never able to take a picture or two of that iconic church that was part of the park; apparently a copy of Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Suzdal. Years later, in 2015, I was compiling locations for a three day urbex road trip starting in Tokyo. Of course there are plenty of great abandoned places around Tokyo… but Niigata is in perfect range for a three day trip. Exploring stuff on the way north, heading to the coast after dark, exploring Niigata Russian Village and some stuff on the way south, spending the night in Fukushima or Tochigi, continue exploring on the third day on the way back to Tokyo… Since satellite photos can be rather old and outdated I confirmed that the cathedral was still standing via a quick photo search and added Niigata Russian Village to our schedule – as the first thing on the second day!
Arriving at the Russian Village was exciting and sobering at the same time. The road up to the park was blocked by a massive gate fortified with tons of tree trunks and branches, all held together by barbed wire; signs informing about the start of further demolition work just days prior and the existence of camera surveillance. I traveled 650 km to fail 650 meters away from the church? Hell no! So my buddy *Hamish* and I went on to find an alternative way in, successfully… after a while.
As so often, the reality about the Niigata Russian Village lied between the reports of total demolition and the dozen buildings visible on satellite photos. At the time of our visit the lower area with the village part was pretty much gone already, little more than large piles of rubble and a small monument left behind. The upper area was missing several buildings, too – but the two most famous structures were still there, the church and the hotel. Despite the fact that 80 to 90% of the Niigata Russian Village had been demolished, it was still fun taking pictures there – especially the church was everything I was hoping for… and I don’t think I ever had as much fun in a religious building before or after! Overall for sure not nearly as spectacular as the *Tenkaen* or any of the *New Zealand Villages*, but still worth the detour…

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Giant hornets, large spiders, wild boars, monkeys, deers, snakes, mosquitos, bumble bees, regular bees, rats, mice, cats, pigeons, dragonflies, raccoons… and maybe even a bear – you have to love animals if you want to do urbex in Japan!

Japanese people are very proud of their four seasons and some of them actually think that Japan is the only country in the world with four distinctive seasons – which is ridiculous, because not only are there many other countries with four distinctive seasons, but Japan stretches over a length of about 3000 kilometers – there are definitely not four seasons in Okinawa; and in Hokkaido they are anything but equally spread. Furthermore the majority of Japan is affected by a thing called tsuyu; literally plum rain, but commonly translated as (East Asian) rainy season… bringing the count to five seasons. Living in Osaka, “winters” can be cool and windy between late December and mid-March (hardly any snow, but temperatures can drop below the freezing point shortly, but tend to stay between 5°C and 10°C), while summers tend to be hot and humid nightmares between early July and late September with daytime temperatures reaching 35°C and nighttime temperatures not falling below 30°C for countless weeks in a row. The time between “winter” and hell (and vice versa) is usually really nice though – warm autumns with colorful maple leaves and springs with clear skies and millions of blooming cheery trees. Personally I like spring a little bit better as nature is still slumbering, which means that abandoned places tend to be more accessible and the previously mentioned local fauna is still awakening, too. Well… and then there is tsuyu, the rainy season, squished in between spring and hell, usually starting in early June and ending early July – give or take a week or two. About one month of torrential rain on about 5 out of 7 days a week… and a significant rise in humidity, making urbex not only unpredictable, but also not fun at all for the next four months; including the hellish summer. (And I go from one weekend per month not exploring to one weekend per month exploring… at best.)

Exploring the Crocodile School marked the beginning of tsuyu and the end of my spring urbex season last year, 2015. At first sight it was just another abandoned elementary school, the main entrance covered by a wide green net to prevent animals from entering; flexible and large enough to allow humans to gain access easily. The main area was still in decent condition, despite the fact that there were visible signs of vandalism and progressing decay in the back. While somebody was still mowing the lawn and kept things like the net intact, nobody was able or willing to spend money repairing rotting wood or the partly collapsed roof. At the end of a hallway, close to the nurse’s room, was a (b)locked door – luckily there was a separate entrance available from the outside… and that room turned out to be the highlight of the school. Most likely used for storage and maybe as a staff room, this end of the Crocodile School was packed with all kinds of items – including the name-giving taxidermy crocodile! But of course that was not all. Next to a table saw and what looked like a pottery oven (maybe?) I found a taxidermy turtle, countless pieces of china, several sea creatures preserved in half-empty glass tubes and much, much more…
When it comes to season endings, this was one of the better ones – for sure better than the ending of the sixth season of Lost! 😉 It was the first weekend of tsuyu… and I paid the price for it. It was hot, it was humid… and exploring the *Silent Hill Hotel* on the day before was much spookier than necessary. Luckily it didn’t rain on the morning of Day 2, nevertheless getting up to and exploring the Crocodile School was a sweat-inducing endeavor, rewarded by a beautiful view, an interesting amount of decay and plenty of unusual items left behind.

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Do you like beer? So much that you would like to bathe in it? No, because it sounds like a horrible idea?! If only somebody would have told the last owners of the Kurhaus Stromberg…

The history of the Kurhaus (“cure house”) or Kurhotel (“spa hotel”) in Stromberg began in 1909, when a teachers’ association revealed plans to build a convalescent home in the picturesque small town near Bingen, Germany. Planning and financing took five years (almost everything was a bit slower a century ago…), but on April 16th 1914 the laying of the foundation stone took place. After “the Great War” erupted, construction was put on hiatus, and finally finished in 1921 – mainly as a recreation home for the “Rheinischen Provinziallehrerverband” (that teachers’ association…), but also as a hotel and restaurant for the general public. In 1933 the Nazis took over pretty much all associations, including this one, and only years later the spa hotel became a military hospital. After the even less great war (WW2) and shorts stints under American and French military management, the Kurhotel was turned into a pulmonary health institute for released German POWs. State control continued in the 1940s, but switched from military to civilian use in 1948 when Rhineland-Palatinate’s ministry for social afairs took over… and finally returned the Kurhaus to the teachers in 1953. Turmoil continued as the hotel at first lost money and then was sold to the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (DRK, “German Red Cross”). In the following year the institution apparently made money and was expanded several times, until it was closed in 1983. After six years of maintenance without being used, the Kurhaus Stromberg was repurposed as a transition dormitory for ethnic German immigrants to Germany, when the Iron Curtain came down in 1989. In the mid-90s the DRK sold the hotel to a private investor, who did nothing with it until 1997, when the Hotel- und Restaurantbetrieb Kurhaus Stromberg GmbH (Hotel and Restaurant Kurhaus Stromberg Limited) introduced the previously mentioned beer spa… The sobering awakening followed in 2001, when the beery dream ended once and for all.
Originally built in a style called Domestic Revival and equipped with a mansard hip roof, the Kurhaus Stromberg is now considered a national heritage site under monument protection – at the same time it suffered from almost a decade of vandalism and 15 years without maintenance, which means that it can’t be quickly demolished, but it’s also highly unlikely that anybody would invest in the rundown building and its ragged garden the size of a park.

Since I focus on urban exploration in Japan, looking for abandoned places in other countries doesn’t have high priority to me… especially as I usually don’t have much time to travel within a vacation anyway. When I’m back home in Germany for two or three weeks per year, I usually explore in the southwestern part as this is the area where most of my family and friends live. The Kurhotel Stromberg looked kind of interesting, but the information I found was contradictive – some said the place was inaccessible, some claimed it was completely vandalized. Well, it turned out that the latter was true. Upon arrival my sister Sabine and I had the place to ourselves, but it took less than half an hour for about a dozen teenagers to arrive – on the one hand claiming to be surprised that the hotel was accessible at all, on the other hand making noise like a wrecking crew. It got even worse after they dragged it some boxes and bags, and it turned that they were trying to shoot an amateur horror movie. I told them that I would shoot some videos and that they might want to be quiet if they don’t want to end up on Youtube, but much like the noisy tourists at *Nara Dreamland* and the *Former Embassy of Iraq in East Berlin* they claimed that they don’t care and that I should just shoot whenever I want…

Both the Kurhotel Stromberg’s changeful history as well as the grand structure with its gorgeous white exterior reminded me of the *Maya Tourist Hotel*, probably the most traditional abandoned place in all of Japan. Both places are pretty much empty and quite vandalized now, both are used for photo and video shoots, both offer a couple of interesting angles, yet both are only shadows of their former glory. It’s a shame what happened to the hotel, but I guess that is what happens to the low hanging fruits. So if you ever wondered why I more and more often use generic names like *Kanto Hospital* or *Japanese Luxury Spa Hotel* – places like the Kurhotel Stromberg are the answer…

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