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Archive for the ‘Visited in 2015’ Category

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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I’ve explored all kinds of abandoned hospitals in Japan – old and new, big and small, wooden and concrete, general and specialized, countryside and in the middle of cities, unfinished and fully equipped, private clinics run by a single practitioner and those with a dozen specialized doctors on staff. But hardly ever have I been to a vandalized, mouldy piece of haikyo crap like the Toyo Hospital…

Walking / driving up to a location is always exciting. Have I really found it? Is it still there? Is it accessible? What condition is it in? All those important questions are usually answered in a split-second – not fully, but 95%. My first impression seeing the Toyo Hospital? “Oh no… Damn!” It was still there and the waist high fence was not really an obstacle, but the vandalized entrance area lowered my expectations significantly. My second impression wasn’t any better than the first: Most of the ground floor of this rather modern hospital had been smashed to pieces – and the upper floors didn’t look that much better at all. Vandalism and mould, mould and vandalism. Here and there I found a couple of items left unharmed, lonely witnesses of former urbex glory, but overall vandalism was the dominating shroud hanging over everything. Yes, vandalism. In Japan! Shocking? A little bit. Vandalism always shocks me a little bit. Surprising? Not at all. Have you seen the photo of the dentist equipment I posted last Sunday on *Facebook*? I am pretty sure that clinic will look exactly like the Toyo Hospital in two years. While I was there, I actually met a handful of Japanese explorers, loud and obnoxious. I quickly made my presence known (to ask them to be quiet as I could hear people outside from time to time – meaning that people outside were able to hear noises from inside), which stopped the running and yelling, but I was really glad when they were gone 20 minutes later; I spent more than three hours exploring that place, although it was not even half the size of the Toyo Hospital!

Exploring the Toyo Hospital took less than 1.5 hours – including the video walkthrough at the end. In the past I’ve spent more time documenting single hospital rooms! (For example at the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic*.) The greyish weather outside didn’t contribute to lighten up the atmosphere and gave the whole exploration a very gloomy undertone… and not necessarily in a good way. There are quite a few places I would love to revisit – the Toyo Hospital I wouldn’t give a second thought even if it would be five minutes down the road…

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Namegawa Island is quite a phenomenon. Every explorer in Japan seems to know about it, every explorer seems to have a high opinion of it… yet apparently nobody has ever been there, because this place is probably the most overrated in all of Japan.

Opened in 1964, this huge zoo and resort at the Pacific coast of Chiba prefecture was a mild success for about half a decade, peaking in 1970 at about 1.2 million visitors – probably thanks to a brand-new train station of the same name opening right across the street that very same year. Unfortunately for Namegawa Island a place called Kamogawa Seaworld also opened in 1970 just 12 kilometers down the road / train line – new facilities tend to beat old ones in Japan, and so the downfall of Namegawa Island began, resulting in its closure more than 30 years later; after the summer season of 2001. The resort featured several indoor and outdoor habitats for animals (including a monkey house and a center for tropical birds), a hotel, a mini water park, a BBQ area, an outdoor stage, several eateries, Polynesian dance shows from 1971 to 1996 for six months per year, and several animal shows with flamingos, penguins and seals. Three years after Namegawa Island was closed, an investor bought it for 42 million Yen; less than 400k USD at the time. Another three years later without any further development, a hot spring well was drilled on the premises, but never put to use – I guess it was around that time, 2007/2008, that all the buildings have been demolished. Interestingly enough I never found any inside photos of the abandoned state – only of the ticket booth outside the now heavily fortified, gated entrance tunnel; all the other ones were either pre-closing or post-demolition.

So why the larger than life image of Namegawa Island? I have no idea, probably because of said impassable massive gate. But over the last decade there must have been several dozen conversations like that:
“Hm… abandoned places in Chiba prefecture…”
“How about Namegawa Island?!”
“I’ve heard about it! It’s huge, isn’t it? But is it any good?”
“I don’t know! Let’s check it out – if we can past THE GATE!”
“Challenge accepted!”
I guess my old *haikyo* buddy *Mike* and I at one point had one of those conversations and put it on our schedule… in part due to lack of alternatives. After walking up to the big bad gate, I quickly decided that I wouldn’t be able to get past it, much to the frustration of Mike – a new iteration of the same old story; worse this time as we were actually pressed for time. It was mid-afternoon at the end of a three day weekend, leaving us with less than 90 minutes as I insisted to be back at the car at 5 to have some wiggle room on the way back to Tokyo. Usually the trip takes less than two hours, but we had to get the rental car back by 8 p.m. sharp and traffic is always a nightmare at the end of a long weekend, especially in the Tokyo area. I hate to be rushed as much as the next guy, but I played the role of the bad guy pushing us through the exploration – which was excellent in hindsight, because we were actually back at the car at 5 and only both made it home on time, because Mike generously dropped me off at a train station before returning the car by himself with about two minutes to spare. Kanto traffic is a nightmare!
Exploring an area of about 500 by 450 meters within one and a half hours is close to impossible, but somehow we made it… once we got past the other spiky gate guarding a slope fortified by barbed wire. Not an easy way in, but easier than the main gate. When I first approached it, I saw a guy in an overall behind it and went back to Mike to abort the mission – luckily this time he won the short conversation, so we gave it a second try and it turned out that the guy wasn’t security, but some kind of metal looter or waste dumper… the kind of people that give us explorers a bad name in Japan. Once we got up the mountain past Mr. Overall we had to pass through two narrow tunnels, one once blocked by a heavy metal grid. Then we had to walk down an overgrown path with a very steep drop to right before running into three bad surprises.
1.) An animal trap – for a large animal, maybe a bear?
2.) The trap and all the roads looked well maintained – signs of security?
3.) Only foundations left of first buildings we saw – neither of us was aware that Namegawa Island had been demolished about a decade prior…
Speaking of bears – the mountainous area was riddled with tunnel entrances big and small, most of them blocked, but every couple of hundred meters there was a cave that would have made a perfect bear’s den. Why all those holes in the mountains? Because, as I assumed on location and confirmed later, this area was used by the Imperial military in an effort to fortify the coastline to prevent an American invasion from the sea. A waste of resources as it turned out, but at least some niche explorers are having a great time now…

Anyway, despite the possible bear and security threats, the exploration of Namegawa Island was rather uneventful und a series of disappointments, as almost all the buildings were gone – if it wouldn’t have been for the hotel’s pool at the coast, the lush autumn vegetation and an amazing sunset, this whole exploration would have been a rushed disaster. Yet strangely enough I can’t say that I hated the experience, despite the time pressure and the lack of structures. There was something special about this demolished resort… something quite assuasive, probably thanks to the calming waves and the beautiful light. Spending three of four hours there to have a look at every cave and concrete platform would have been an unforgivable waste of time, so maybe the unfortunate terms of this exploration turned out to be a blessing in disguise… though overall it didn’t come even close to amazing afternoon explorations like *Kejonuma Leisure Land* or the *Katashima Suicide Attack Training School*.

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Aaaahhh. On some days, there is nothing like a good soak after endless hours of hiking and / or photography. One of the few things that Japan is known for worldwide and that really lives up to the expectations, even long-term, is the bathing culture – but you gotta do it right: Not every onsen (hot spring) or sento (public bath house, which can be fed by an onsen) is a memorable experience! Especially sento can be rather dull places in suburbs or along highways… like the Health Land Yutopi.

The Health Land Yutopi was clearly missing quite a few things. Most of all financial success, obviously. But also an “a” at the end of its name, making it not only a failed business, but also a failed play on words… interestingly enough one of the most common ones in the Japanese language, as yu means water – I guess you get it now: yu, yutopi, yutopia, utopia. Well, the Yutopi turned into a dystopia…
Built in 1996, this public bath charged a 2000 Yen entrance fee, which is quite steep for a sento, given that even well-known onsen with nice views and gorgeous wooden tubs are more in 1000 Yen range. Optional food courses raised the price up to 5800 Yen… which wouldn’t be much of a surprise in an established onsen town, but in a rather generic looking building in the Ibarari inaka? (Inaka means “countryside”!)
Abandoned for at least five years, this location was dead as a dodo. Getting in an out was easy, not just for us, but for the metal thieves who stole all valuables a long time ago, too. While the tiled baths were quite dirty, but in decent condition, the changing rooms both suffered from mold, especially the one for women. Both areas featured a small outdoor area each, quite overgrown now, as well as a sauna and a beauty corner for further upsells; like an oil massage for 4500 Yen. On the upper floor was a bar, a rest room to relax, a “karaoke salon” and the restaurant area – all pretty much emptied out and of little interest.

Overall the Health Land Yutopi was just another abandoned run-of-the-mill sento. In fact, I have been to abandoned hotels with much more interesting baths… and of course to abandoned sento that were bigger and more interesting, for example the *Meihan Health Land*; in that article you can also read more about Japanese bathing culture, if you are interested…

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How does a quite dull hotel exploration turn into a pretty memorable story? Add some yakuza!

I often forget where or how I found a location as I do a lot of internet research, basically almost every day, but this one I remember vividly. It was on a regular Japanese blog about everyday life, not one specifically dedicated to urbex. The guy who wrote it did some other explorations, but this apparently abandoned love hotel piqued my interest as I had never seen it before anywhere else before. And he did a lousy job disguising the location as he called the article by the place’s real name, only replacing one syllable with a placeholder – and in the article he mentioned the prefecture it was in. Since the hotel looked recently abandoned I just googled it and within 5 seconds had the exact address, because of course it was still listed on dedicated Japanese websites about (active) love hotels. (I might or might not have labelled one of the photos with the real name… but I won’t mention the prefecture!)

A couple of weeks later the opportunity arose to finally visit this abandoned love hotel in excellent condition. My expectations were pretty high – my source didn’t show many photos, but they were extremely promising. Arriving at the hotel finding access was surprisingly easy as a back door underneath the hotel, right next to the parking lot, was unlocked… which was quite unusual for a love hotel. Not that the door was unlocked, but that there was a rather big shared parking lot. Usually those hotels have individual parking booths, so guests can enter and exit without being seen by others. Anyway, we entered and started to have a look around… and were soon quite disappointed. Not only the parking lot looked like those at regular hotel, so did the rooms. No exotic interior design elements, not even outdated 70s or 80s porn atmosphere. Just regular rooms with pamphlets insisting that the hotel was indeed a love hotel – by presenting the typical room rates (making the usual difference between “rest” and “stay”) and advertising the sale of cheap sexy outfits. When we finally made it to the front desk, it looked a bit converted, like everything else there. Yep, this most likely had been a regular hotel originally, converted into a love hotel years ago. At the time of our visit the original bar and restaurant were used as one big storage room… It was then when one of my friends left the hotel to have a look outside and the other two (American guy, Japanese girl) went back upstairs to check something out. I stayed behind and took photos at the bar area. After a while I started to hear voices, which is quite unusual as we usually explore rather quietly. I couldn’t understand what was said and I remember thinking that I would have to ask my friends to speak English at abandoned places, so it would be clear instantly if they were talking – or some other visitors. (Running into other people at abandoned places in Japan is rather unlikely, running into other English speakers is virtually impossible.) As the voices came closer I realized that only male voices were speaking… only Japanese. So those people were definitely not my friends. Darn! Since they were coming from the part of the building where we entered, they basically cut off my way out. As the voices came closer I saw the first lights from their flashlights, so I hid in an alcove next to a door frame. But they came closer and closer and at one point I had no choice but to leave my improvised hiding place, still hoping that they would be fellow explorers. I turned right and… saw a group of about half a dozen Japanese guys in suits, definitely not urban explorers. My camera still mounted on the tripod I mumbled a quick “konnichwa”, one of the younger guys replied with a surprised “konnichwa” and I headed with quick steps past the group through the door into the rather dark hallway that lead to the other side of the building and towards the exit through a semi-basement. I heard footsteps of one or two people following me into the hallway, but they stayed behind and didn’t say anything while I accelerated my steps, my heart beating like crazy up to my throat.
Right outside the door I met my friends. They had been able to leave without being seen, but also without being able to warn me. I think it was my Japanese female friend who instantly said “They looked like yakuza!” – and my impression was the same, just by the way they looked and the way they talked. We left the premises as quickly as possible, and when we reached the road again, we saw a HUGE black Japanese limousine with tainted windows. The kind of car that costs more than a small house in the countryside, definitely nothing like the tiny ones usually used by real estate agents. The license plate had the number 88-00, which apparently symbolized luck if you are a supersticious kind of person. The car basically screamed “If you mess with me or one of my passengers, WE will MESS YOU UP!!!” – whatever was going on there, it definitely wasn’t a normal sales pitch by a regular realtor. They didn’t even use the friggin main entrance, but came through an unlocked back door in the semi-basement!
All four of us were pretty rattled by those events. Like I said, usually you don’t run into people at abandoned places in Japan, especially not half a dozen guys wearing black suits entering through a back door after arriving in a car that cost something like six-figures USD. For the first time in a very long time we took a real lunch break on an exploration day (instead of the usual sandwich / onigiri in the car), just so we could sit down and relax for like an hour. And then we did what you have to do after being thrown off a horse – we got right back in saddle and continued to explore.
Oh, before I forget: No video tour this week for obvious reasons… 🙂

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If you want to learn about the history of modern day Okinawa and the old kingdom of Ryukyu (as the group of islands were called before Japan renamed them in 1879 after annexing them in 1872), you have many opportunities to do so while visiting Japan’s most southern prefecture – museums, historical sites, special exhibitions… and two themed parks called Ryukyu Mura (mura = village) and Okinawa World. Active themed parks still open for business, though both of them seemed to be struggling a bit during my visit in January 2015; a non-urbex trip and a good opportunity to take some photos of potential future abandoned places… Like many visitors of Okinawa I was wondering which of the both to visit – and since even the tourist information near the famous Kokusai Street in Naha wasn’t able or willing to give me clear advice, I checked out both myself.

Ryukyu Mura

First I visited *Ryukyu Mura*, about 30 kilometers north of Naha, accessible by bus #120 every 30 minutes (get off at Ryukyu Mura-Mae / 琉球村前 – 1070 Yen for the 80 minutes long ride from Naha Bus Terminal). Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for an entrance fee of 1200 Yen, the Ryukyu Village is composed of several original Okinawan houses that were dismantled and rebuilt there, plus some original buildings. Despite being a commercial themed park with occasional signs, the place felt rather organic; like a mix of real village and outdoor museum, plus some shops / stalls here and there. While about half of the houses just sat there, the other half was filled with life – people in local / traditional clothes, some offering lessons in dance, arts & crafts or playing instruments. When I passed through the park’s pottery barn, I saw that you were able to make your own shisa there, the infamous lion-dog from Okinawan mythology – 3300 Yen plus shipping (a month later, no overseas shipping!), pretty much the same total amount you pay for pre-made ones in Naha or any other tourist shop. Having no pottery experience whatsoever, but a patient teacher, it took me about 2 hours to make the little fella that is now guarding my desk at work. On the way out I tried a serving of soki soba (the local noodle soup variation featuring spare ribs) at the usual array of restaurants and gift shops. I didn’t visit the on-location snake center (included in the entrance fee) and my timing was a bit off, so I missed the twice a day parades, but overall it was a great day trip that I finished stopping at the Mihama American Village, kind of the US version of Chinatown right across a huge military base, on the way back to Naha. EXTREMELY touristy, but interesting to see…

Okinawa World

The next day I visited *Okinawa World*, about 10 kilometers southeast of Naha, accessible by bus #83 every one to two hours (get off at the terminal stop Gyokusendo-Mae / 玉泉洞前 – 580 Yen for the 60 minutes long ride from Naha Bus Terminal). Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Okinawa World is quite a touristy, commercial place which becomes evident even before you enter as there are several combo tickets available, depending on whether you want to see the village, the cave and / or the snake center – from 620 Yen up to 1650 Yen. Still not interested in snakes, I chose the 1240 Yen option for the village and the cave. The Gyokusendo Cave is a five kilometer long… cave… of which 850 meters are fitted with a metal walkway and countless lights for tourists to enjoy (you can do a free StreetView tour *here*). A nice bonus to what quickly turned out to be a rather small and therefore disappointing Okinawan village. There, pretty much every building was made use of to sell goods or services, much more aggressively than at Ryukyu Mura, where some buildings just sat there, rusting / decaying tools and other exhibits slowly fading away – and yet it would have taken barely 5 minutes to pass through the whole Okinawan World village… which lead to a huge exit building featuring an underwhelming Okinawan buffet (for the very affordable price of 1260 Yen, I guess you get what you pay for…) and a GIGANTIC gift shop. I’ve been to quite a few gift shops in Japan, but this one was without the shadow of a doubt one of the biggest!
The bonus location at Okinawa World was the Valley of Gangala right across the street – a cave / forest walking tour for people who can plan in advance as reservations are needed according to pamphlets and their homepage. I arrived without one 5 minutes after a tour started; too late to catch up, but I was offered to wait 90 minutes for the next tour to get together – which I had to decline politely as I had a plane to catch…

The Verdict

Despite being very similar at their cores, featuring all kinds of hands on experiences, local food and tons of merchandising, my experiences at Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura were quite different. If you only have half a day to spend or want to go to the Valley of Gangala anyway, you are kind of stuck with the much more commercial Okinawa World, but if you can take your time, I would recommend Ryukyu Mura over Okinawa World at any time (*check out their locations on a GoogleMap*). Okinawa World felt like one of many fake tourist spots you can find all over Japan – while fake churches and fake castles are excusable to some degree, a fake Okinawan village on Okinawa Island is not. And even if some of the houses were not fake, they felt fake. Ryukyu Mura on the other hand had a much more relaxed atmosphere… not all constructions were event or sale spaces, everything there seemed to be a little bit more rustic and run-down, more authentic, less pushy. If you have to choose between Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura, definitely go to Ryukyu Mura! (And check out their homepage before visiting! Ryukyu Mura offers a similar amount of events and hands-on stuff as Okinawan World, but since they don’t push it on you, you will barely know just by walking through the park…)
If you are actually not that much into those regular tourist things to do, let me remind you of the abandoned places I visited on Okinawa during a previous trip, like the *Nakagusku Hotel Ruin* and the now demolished *Sunset View Inn Shah Bay*!

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Themed parks were one of the outdoor entertainment trends of the 1980s / 1990s in Japan. “They are called theme parks!”, you might say now, but don’ you worry, I know what I am writing about – I really mean “themed parks”. So, what’s the difference? Well, theme parks are those big amusement parks with tons of high tech rides, loosely connected by a common theme – like Disney, Universal Studios or roller coasters. Themed parks on the other hand are focusing on a certain topic, not so much on the rides, which usually are rather low tech – they consist of huge scenic parks with picnic areas, bike rentals, small attractions like merry-go-rounds, go-kart tracks and slides as well as tons of informational / educational facilities like museums, exhibitions, artisan stations and the sale of products made on location, like butter or bread.
Sadly there is little to nothing known about the Japanese Agriculture Museum – except for that one tag line above the real name on a now mostly overgrown sign next to the cheesy looking entrance; darn, I have seen fake playground castles that looked better than that on public ground back home in Germany! The park is surprisingly little covered by Japanese explorers, probably because overall it’s not very spectacular; especially the shots taken from outside or near the entrance, dating back as far as 2007 on blogs with miscellaneous content. Next to the cheap looking entrance with an even cheaper looker ticket booth (700 Yen for adults, 400 for children; opening hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Mondays, rainy days and from November till April) *Mike* and I found a green house… and further down the path were the rather well-known bird peddle boats you can even see on GoogleMaps; white swans, black swans and pink flamingos in rather faded colors. Huge, strong spider webs with arachnids as big as the palm of your hands slowed down our progress even in this early stage and our general disappointment didn’t disappear when we realize that there was a huge stretch of land past the peddle boats with nothing on it – the park had been demolished, probably years prior to our visit, that’s why those other blogs only showed the entrance, the greenhouse and the swans. Or so we thought. Nevertheless I insisted to go further, deeper into the park… and after a couple of minutes we found more. A small river with a now rotten wooden bridge to the left, a grove of fruit trees with ladder looking wooden contraptions to the right – and in front of us? The remains of the Garden Restaurant, a decaying eatery more tent than actual building, the brick print wallpaper peeling off. Not that bad after all, though the spiders and their webs everywhere kept making moving around a bit tricky. Upon entering the restaurant I had to remove a spider web as it was covering most of the door frame, but I made sure our mosquito catching friend left alive – only to find the same frame mostly covered again when coming back an hour later to shoot the video walkthrough. In case you wonder why I didn’t fully enter the room: blocked again by the same friggin spider! Behind the Garden Restaurant we found the usual array of minor attractions you’d expect to find at a themed park, some kind of trampoline and a slide on a slope, both overgrown now.
Overall the Japanese Agriculture Museum wasn’t a great exploration, but a nice way to spend a couple of hours outside on a sunny morning. I wish there would have been more left to see and to take photos of, but sometimes you gotta roll with the punches and play the cards that you are dealt. No regrets – though exploring similar themed parks like the *Tenkaen* and the *Shikoku New Zealand Village* was a lot more fun!

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Yeah, I know. Two weeks ago I wrote about an *abandoned hospital*, last week I wrote about an *abandoned crematorium* – and now another abandoned hospital again? Bit much about pain and death, eh? Well, I guess it’s Halloween week, so it’s about time for another story about horrible Japanese doctors… and I still had an abandoned hospital on hold so dull, that I can easily stray and rant again without taking anything away from the location’s (non-existing) glory…

Japanese Doctors Suck! (Part 3)

I am a huge fan of A Clockwork Orange. Well, depending on my mood. It’s not the kind of film you pop-in randomly to have a good time. But when in the right mood, it’s kind of a perfect movie; with one of the best original scores ever written. Anyway, one sequence that stuck with me and probably most people who watched it, is the Ludovico Technique, where (spoiler alert!) the main character Alex has his eyes held open while watching violent movies, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and having medicine dripped into his eyes to condition him against his own violent behavior – a sequence that most likely set the development of eye surgery back for decades, because, let’s be honest, if you ever saw it, you won’t want to have eye surgery. Ever!
Wearing glasses was natural to me for all my life. I got my first pair before I started to remember things, probably when I was three or four years old. They were part of my body, a life without them was unimaginable to me – especially after watching A Clockwork Orange for the first time as a teenager. (I think by now you can guess where this is heading, so you might wanna skip to the next subheading if you have a weak heart and a strong imagination!)
In late 2012 I finally decided to get rid of my glasses after more than 30 years. Living in Japan it became quite a hassle to replace them every other year, and surgery could actually save money in the long run. Big mistake! As you know I wasn’t a big fan of the idea in the first place, but even less so after I found out that LASIK (for 350.000 Yen, at one point 4500 USD / 3600 EUR – currently about 30% less thanks to Dishonest Abe and his vicious circle) wouldn’t work for me and the only alternative was ICL (implantable collamer lens, basically an in-eye contact lens) for a whopping 730.000 Yen; but a bird kept whispering into my ear that it would be great thing to do. I should have known better as that little bird was what we call in German a Seuchenvogel! (Literally “bird of pandemic diseases”, describing a person who means nothing but trouble and brings bad luck to others.) Since I don’t lead a lavish lifestyle I was like “What the heck, it’s only money…” Big mistake! I grew up with computers and if learned one thing in my life it was “Never change a running system!” (And of course “Save often, save early!”, but that’s not an option in life…) I should have listened to my gut feeling, instead I changed the running system. Well, I allowed the running system to be changed by Japanese doctors…
At first everything went fine. The clinic claimed to be the most experienced in Japan, the staff was super nice, everything seemed great and exactly what to expect when you spend that amount of money on a single bill. I did a couple of very sci-fi-ish tests and exams, they ordered the ICLs to my very specific specifications and a couple of weeks later I went in for surgery. Though quite reminiscent of the famous A Clockwork Orange sequence, the fascinating and extremely interesting procedure was executed with almost no pain – my eyesight improved massively in comparison to before, but it wasn’t as good as with glasses. Not a surprise, only a few hours after surgery like that. Bad news came with the first checkup the next day. While my eyesight on both eyes got better, their chief of medical staff told me that the ICL in the left eye could cause problems down the road as it was too close to the lens of my eye. A one percent chance it would have to be replaced, nothing to worry about. And I actually didn’t worry, though my right eye was way better than the left at that point. “Period of adjustment”, I thought. Big mistake!
The next day I felt like the vision of my right eye had dropped a bit, but the regular checkup had a different result – according the examination my view was better than ever. Although I was quite irritated that the left eye all of a sudden was the leading eye with much better sight, I didn’t worry too much. 48 hours after a surgery like that things can still improve massively, right? Well, I guess theoretically yes, but not in my case. After three days of decent view (not as good as with glasses, but good enough to see and read everything without major problems) the left eyesight dropped gradually to a point where it was pretty much useless for both near and far – and the right eyes was decent at best. And by decent I mean having to up the font size to be able to read text on a screen. Luckily the one week checkup was close, so I still didn’t worry much. Period of adjustment…
During the checkup after one week it turned out that there was a problem with one of the lenses. They didn’t know for sure, but the doctor on the next day would; 50% chance though that I would need corrective surgery. Well, I didn’t worry much, whatever would get the problem fixed was fine with me. (And that’s such a Japanese reaction…) So I came back the next day for an unplanned check – and it turned out that the clinic might have chosen the wrong ICL size, causing the collamer lenses in my eyes to rotate. Very rare case, of course, but there were two ways to fix it. One was corrective surgery with a small incision, correcting the angle of the lens to match up my astigmatism. The other was to replace both lenses with bigger ones. Since those lenses are made to order and it can take up to 2 months to get them, I chose Option 1 to get the problem fixed right away. But unlike the first (pain free) surgery, the second one wasn’t a good experience, not even a decent one. During the first one I was blinded by a light, by my bad natural eyesight and a constant stream of water, and fascinated / distracted by the procedure – during the second one I could exactly see what was going on in the corner of my eyes: and it was a lot more painful! Really, really painful, despite anesthetics. But it was successful and my eyesight right after the surgery was better than before. Still not as good as with glasses, but almost as good as on the day after the initial surgery. Pleased I left the clinic with two new regular checkup dates, happy that the problem was fixed and not worried at all. Big mistake!
When I woke up the next morning my eyesight on both eyes was almost as bad as before the second operation – corrective surgery turned out to be pointless as the lenses started to rotate again. The doctor of the day (by then I had talked to five or six different ones throughout the various examinations and surgeries…) offered additional corrective surgery, which I declined – what’s the point when the eyesight goes bad within 24 hours? So he promised to get bigger replacement lenses as soon as possible – which meant 6 to 8 weeks since they are made to order in the States! Yay… A third round of surgery for the price of one. Could have done without it… (So if you have expensive health insurance and you are upset, because you pay so much and never use it – be glad! Be grateful for every single hour, every minute that you are of good health! Believe me, you don’t want to get your money’s worth from something like your health insurance!)
At that point I actually started to worry, because while my eyesight wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t good enough to enjoy the daily pleasures. Watching TV more or less turned into “listening TV”. Reading a book was impossible and enjoying travelling was out of the question. For 6 to 8 weeks! (Hence no urbex in 2013 until March… Writing articles for Abandoned Kansai was possible though, thanks to font size 18 and some photo sets I selected months prior.) What pissed me off about that situation almost more than the fact itself, was the reaction of the few Japanese people I told the story. “You shouldn’t get upset and wait and see how it turns out.” First of all – I didn’t get upset and actually thought that I was a pretty good sport up to that point; waiting for hours, coming in additional times, going through the pain and anxiety of additional surgery, … And second: I wish I would have been able to wait and see – instead I had to wait without being able to see (properly) for several weeks! Thanks to variable font sizes I was able to work, but my precious spare time was basically rendered useless for quite a while… At least the clinic paid for glasses (!) to lessen the restrictions, but those took a week to make, too – and the lenses kept rotating, so every couple of days I removed one of the eyeglass lenses as my sight without it was actually better… until the sight was so bad, that the lens improved my eyesight again. Nevertheless I did one urbex day trip during that time, which included the *Nakagawa Brick Factory* – where I couldn’t see any details, totally relying on the autofocus and guessing the correct brightness. Yes, I was definitely massively visually handicapped during that exploration! If you still like the photo set, I guess nothing can beat the combination of dedication, talent and pure luck. 🙂
A few weeks later the lenses arrived from the States and a third round of surgery was planned. The problem with those implantable collamer lenses is, that they are made to stay in the eye. They come rolled (folded?), the surgeon makes a tiny cut to the eye, inserts the lens, unfolds it, puts it into position – done, next one. 10 or 15 minutes per eye. Removing those lenses though is a bit like getting a model ship out of a bottle… without breaking the bottle, of course! Already anxious due to my bad experience during the second surgery (the correctional one) I wasn’t expecting a smooth ride, so when the surgeon asked if I had any last questions / requests before he started, I asked him to refrain from playing Beethoven during the procedure – of course I was the only one in the room who got that joke… and so it began! Years prior my boss (not a doctor!) “diagnosed” an airsoft injury as a sprained ankle – it turned out to be a *fractured ankle and a torn ligament*, and when I first put weight on it again after a day in bed I almost passed out. Imagine that kind of piercing pain not 1.5 meters away from your brain, but a few centimeters away – not lasting a few seconds, but on and off for more than an hour. All while you are fully conscious witnessing somebody operating on your eyes through what might best be described as a rather translucent milk glass pane. They say that giving birth is the worst pain in the world, but I’d like to hear the opinion of somebody who gave birth and had eye surgery with again not really working anesthetics – and please remember, my procedure didn’t end with holding my own newborn baby in my arms! Now, two and a half years later I remember two things vividly – me slightly bouncing in that chair due to uncontrollable spasms caused by pain towards the end of the procedure… and eternal gratitude that they didn’t play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, parts of which I still consider the most beautiful piece of music ever written.
(The new lenses fit well, everything healed perfectly and I am enjoying very good eyesight without the limitations of glasses ever since – in this case the journey definitely was NOT its own reward…)

The Hospital Exploration

When I presented an exterior shot of the Tochigi Hospital as the Photo of the Day on Facebook (make sure to Like and Turn On Notifications to not miss exclusive content!) a couple of weeks ago, people seemed to be impressed by its rather intact façade – interpreting it as a sign for the superior respect Japanese have for abandoned buildings. Which is not entirely true in general… and especially in this case, because the Tochigi Hospital was not much more than an empty shell. At first I thought somebody did a really good job cleaning out this place, leaving behind only a few items. Then I realized, and later confirmed in the comments sections of Japanese blogs, that the hospital was never finished. It would have been impossible to remove all the flooring, wallpapers and fixtures the way it looks now – and if not impossible, it would have been cheaper to demolish the whole thing. I don’t know to which degree the building was finished, but I am pretty sure that it never had an elevator, wallpapers (maybe some tiling?) or a proper parking lot, now a wild sea of green in front of the hospital. The “remaining” objects in the building most likely were dumped there or brought by temporary squatters. The most common items, by the way, were spray cans – so much for the respect people showed this place. There was just little there to vandalize in the first place…
Since I don’t mind construction ruins, I actually enjoyed exploring the Tochigi Hospital – and as far as concrete shells go, this was one of the more interesting ones, mainly due to its unusual exterior, but also thanks to some interesting design choices inside, causing intriguing shadows to be cast even on a terribly humid, overcast day without direct sunlight.

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Burning people has a very, very long tradition of about 20000 years – luckily most of them were already dead when it happened to them…
Little known fact: Japan currently has the highest rate of cremation in the world (99.9%), after practicing it for about 1400 years; minus 2 years when it was illegal. At a time when burning dead bodies basically disappeared in Europe, as it was fought by the early Christians, it became increasingly popular in Asia due to the rise of Buddhism. In 700 AD the famous monk Dosho died, three years later Empress Jito followed. Dosho apparently was the first person ever in Japan to be cremated at his own request, while Jito was the first (ex-)ruler to be cremated, setting a trend that lasted almost 1000 years. During the Heian period (794-1185) cremation became closely associated with Buddhism and their teachings that everything is impermanent and that the fire has cleansing and dispersing effects. Nevertheless it wasn’t until the Kamakura period (1185-1333) that cremation became the standard for the general populace, not just the country’s clergy and nobility. In the centuries to come, Confucianism became more and more influential in Japan. Their scholars considered cremation unnatural and disrespectful to the dead, and so in 1654 Emperor Gokomyo became the first influential aristocrat to be buried in almost a millennium. During the Meiji Restauration (starting in 1868) cremation was first officially banned (in 1873), then unbanned (in 1875), and finally, in a weird twist of fate, actively promoted by the government (from 1897 on) – when it became law that everybody dying from a communicable disease HAD to be cremated, once again citing the cleansing effects of fire… And so cremation became the standard thing to do in Japan, its rate rising from 40% in the 1890s to 50% in the 1930s to more than 90% in 1980. Nowadays virtually every human body dying in Japan gets cremated (99.9%), the exceptions probably being some hardcore Christians and Confucians.

Sadly I wasn’t able to find out a lot about the abandoned crematorium I explored barely a week ago. Heck, two weeks ago I didn’t even know it existed as my urbex buddy *Mike* was the one who found it and added it to our itinerary of my first dedicated Kanto road trip. I think it was opened in 1964 and closed in 2005, but I am not 100% sure – not even 99.9% sure…
What I know for sure, is that exploring an abandoned crematorium is something different, even on a bright and sunny day. The mostly wooden complex was one of the smallest abandoned places I ever visited, yet it took me two hours to shoot – and that didn’t even include the locked and mostly empty part I first saw when I walked up to the building on a surprisingly busy forest road. The already crumbling chimney in the back was connected to overgrown brick and metal machinery, so I headed past the abandoned jeep to the main room – a white wooden structure with a marble clad cremation furnace, its door open, a massive gurney still standing in the middle of the room. On the left a small door leading to the back room, where the furnace was actually located – a big metal box, with heavy bricks on top of a mechanism to hold the furnace door in the other room open. Interestingly enough the furnace wasn’t directly connected to the chimney and its machinery as you can see in the photos and especially in the video. I guess it would be interesting to look up the construction of 1960s cremation furnaces for more details, because what I saw didn’t look much like what I read about modern ones. I am not even sure what the thing was powered by – by the gasoline tank looking container inside the back room or by the gas bottle outside. The whole setup looked interesting for sure, and with the constantly changing light on an early afternoon, documenting the place was surprisingly time-consuming and challenging. Sometimes it took just a minute to get quite different results with nearly identical camera settings.
Exploring the abandoned Japanese Crematorium was a really unusual experience. Not as spooky as the *Japanese Mental Hospital*, not as scary as the *Sankei Hospital*, and not as spectacular as the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic* – but with a unique atmosphere and amazing light; and just for the fact that it was an abandoned crematorium. How often do you get the opportunity to explore one of those?

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