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Archive for the ‘Visited in 2015’ Category

The Aso Kanko Hotel (Aso Sightseeing Hotel) has been an urbex legend for many, many years. Japanese bloggers were excited about its size, its beauty, its famous former guests – and after the abandonment: its security and its function as a movie set. They came up with abbreviated or even fake names to keep it a secret, but of course sooner or later somebody spilled the beans… without mentioning some essential information!

When Kyoko, Dan and I arrived at the Aso Kanko Hotel on a warm spring afternoon, we were in need of a successful exploration. Earlier that day we wanted to explore abandoned onsen hotel with an amazing water park, only to find the demolition crew wrapping up their work – the onsen hotel was gone, but the heavy machinery was still there… Next on the list was the *Bungomori Railyard*, and you know what happened to that one! So after another 90 minutes in the car we finally arrived in the Aso area, famous for its active volcano(s). The road leading up to the Aso Kanko Hotel was in good, but not perfect condition, and soon the distinctive roof was appearing between the treetops. Everything was going according to plan…
… but then the hotel turned out to be not nearly as big as I expected it to be. Not small, but mid-size at best. Long, but narrow; only three storeys tall. And it was vandalized! Not just slightly, but pretty much beyond repair. They shot a movie here? Really? Even though that was ten years prior to our visit, the hotel was in really bad condition. Well, average abandoned hotel condition, the kind I really loathe to explore by now. But given that the first two destinations were total duds, this wasn’t too bad… We quickly scouted the surroundings and found another small, but extremely rundown house plus a couple of rusty shacks, so we headed back to the main building. As you can see in the videos and on the photos, most of the windows and doors were smashed, the whole thing was just wet and rotting and moldy. I am sure both the outdoor and indoor baths for men and women were gorgeous 30 or 40 years ago, but now they were just part of this depressing sight. The rooms were pretty much standard, just some kind of bar next to a huge terrace showed original 70s style. Overall a rather disappointing exploration, but the background story of the hotel is actually quite interesting.

The Aso Kanko Hotel was opened in July of 1939, built with government funds. It made quite a splash those days as it was designed to be a Western style hotel with several features very unusual in Japan at that time, like a revolving door, flushing toilets, a Western style bath and a big dining room with a bar. After World War 2 ended, the Aso Kanko Hotel, much like the gorgeous *Maya Tourist Hotel in Kobe*, was used by the American forces for rest and recuperation – to make the stay even more comfortable for the exhausted soldiers, some billiard tables, a golf course and a trapshooting facility were added.

When the American military occupiers left, the Aso Kanko Hotel was taken over and renovated by a predecessor company of today’s Kyushu Industrial Transportation Holdings Co., Ltd. – a move that lured one of the most controversial people in Japanese history to visit the hotel: Emperor Hirohito.
The elder amongst us might remember the Showa Tenno as an older, tiny man with a friendly attitude towards everything but the Yasukuni Shrine… an image bestowed on him by both the American occupational forces as well as the Japanese Imperial Palace. Yet much like the image we have about the samurai, our impression of Hirohito is mostly wrong – he might have underwent a Damascene conversion after the end of WW2, but up till that point he was responsible for one of the most costly war of aggression in human history, and was only spared being tried as a war criminal due to the forceful powers previously mentioned; especially McArthur, who saved countless high ranking Japanese war criminals for political reasons, including surgeon general Ishii Shiro, one of the worst human beings in history. But don’t let propaganda fool you, Hirohito was actively involved in Japan’s wars during the 1930s and 1940s, even authorizing the production (on *Okunoshima*, now known as Rabbit Island) and use of chemical weapons – unique during WW2! And he at least knew about and condoned the horrors his military spread over Southeast Asia, including the vivisections on humans conducted by Unit 731. Oh, also I am sure you’ve heard stories that many Japanese rather committed suicide than being taken prisoner towards the end of the war – that was based on Imperial orders to civilians (!), released by Hirohito from as early as June 1944 on! Please keep that in mind and stop contributing to the myth that Japan was one of the main victims of WW2… especially later this year at the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. (Sorry for getting distracted, but Japan’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions from the Meiji era till 1945, especially for the last 13 years, makes me sick to the stomach every time the topic comes up. 70 years of history-falsification are enough!)
Okay, so it was back in 1957 when “I honestly had no idea what was going on during my reign…”-san visited the Aso Kanko Hotel with his family… and apparently he liked it so much that he came back twice in the following years, making the hotel one of the most famous ones in all of Japan.
Sadly that didn’t prevent the resort from disastrous events. On July 9th 1964 for example, 3500 square meters of the hotel, including the lobby, went up in flames. Nobody got killed, but an exhibition of paintings by Ebihara Kinosuke became a victim of the fire. Renovations took a whole year, but afterwards the complex of three main buildings and several annexes continued to thrive and quickly became the most popular summer retreat in all of Kumamoto. Three main buildings? Yes, three. It seems like back in the heydays the Aso Kanko Hotel was a much bigger resort than it is a ruin now. Nobody seems to have documented what happened exactly, but as the complex grew older, it became less popular. In December of 1999 it was decided that the AKH would be closed in February 2000… and so it happened. After five years of (undocumented) abandonment, director Shimizu Takashi (inventor of the Ju-on / The Grudge movie series) shot most of his Japanese flick Reincarnation on location. Back then the complex must have been still intact as you can see much more of the Ono Kanko Hotel (as it was called in the movie) than on any urbex photo of the Aso Kanko Hotel. The oldest photos I’ve seen of the abandoned AKH were from 2007 and showed the hotel pretty much in the same state as it is now, so I assume most of the other buildings were demolished shortly after the movie shot wrapped up.
That explains why the Aso Kanko Hotel was much smaller than I expected upon arrival. It also leaves us with the question why Japanese explorers glorified the place so much that they left out the fact that 70 to 80% of the hotel already had been demolished upon their arrival. But then again, if there is one thing you should have taken from this article, it’s that Japan has a long history of idealizing history…

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When I first researched abandoned places in Japan back in 2009 the Bungo-Mori Railyard in Kyushu was one of THE locations. Everybody knew it, everybody went there, everybody got in and out with some interesting shots. I on the other hand never was much interested. Kyushu? That was way too far away! I was about to call my blog Abandoned Kansai anyway, because that was the area I planned to explore: Kansai. Well, half a year later I went to Kyushu to see locations like *Gunkanjima* and the *Katashima Training School* – and the term Abandoned Kansai became more of a name of origin. Some people actually address me in e-mails with “Dear Kansai”, which is kinda cute. But I still didn’t go to the Bungo-Mori Railyard, deep in the mountains of Oita prefecture. Even when I stayed a night in Oita city I had other places to explore. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally had the opportunity to have a look at the Bungo-Mori Railyard… only to find it halfway transformed into a tourist attraction!
Most of the surprisingly small railyard building (opened in 1934 and closed in 1971) close to the Bungo-Mori Station (opened in 1929) was cleaned out, new fences were put up, so were lights to illuminate the building at night. A dozen workers were swarming the area to remove remaining tracks and to build a new road leading up to the railyard that once serviced 21 steam trains. And to make things worse, the sun was standing high in the sky and behind the building. It turned out that in 2009, when I did my research, the railyard finally received some money to be preserved, and in 2012 it was added to some national register for cultural properties – the result of a campaign started by a single train enthusiast in 2001! The now developing memorial park already features photo spots indicated by signs and expects to receive some old steam trains soon.

On the one hand, a legendary location like that deserves its own article… though… there was not much left to see. Especially in comparison to the large Railyard Pankow-Heinersdorf I visited past summer in Berlin. I wanted to write about that last location I explored in the capital anyway, so here’s a short article about the tiny tourist railyard in Japan, followed by a longer article about the gigantic railyard in Germany on Tuesday; kind of an appetizer, a snack… another example that everything is smaller in Japan. (Except for the crowds on trains! Gosh, I am getting so tired of the big cities in Japan…)

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Japan never fails to surprise me. Five and a half years into urban exploration I have been to some amazing abandoned hospitals, pretty much all of them either rather empty (like the *Sankei Hospital* in Hokkaido, damaged by a volcano eruption) or rather old; like the then mind-blowing and now vandalized *Tokushima Countryside Clinic*. One thing though I never expected was to explore an abandoned modern hospital with all furnishings and fittings, fully stocked with medicine and everything you need to diagnose and treat patients – somebody would at least sell the valuable machines and dispose leftover medicine, right?
Well… Have you ever seen an abandoned MRI scanner? 🙂

When you live in a Japanese conurbation life tends to be comfortable and you have access to whatever you need in walking distance – public transportation is barely ever more than 10 minutes away, convenience stores where you can do banking, send parcels, and buy food 24/7 are usually located within five minutes. And of course there are all kinds of doctors that treat everything from minor ailments to deadly diseases (within the limits of their abilities…). When you live in the countryside on the other hand, Japan can become very rural with only a few buses per day and the next supermarket being many kilometers away. With regular hospitals usually being located only in bigger towns, medical care in the countryside can become dire – of all things in areas where it is needed most, as younger people tend to move to large cities, leaving the elderly behind. On the other hand, senior citizens, especially in Japan, tend to have a lot of money… and that’s why medical cooperatives were started. The Wakayama Hospital actually was the result of one of those cooperatives in 1987. Of the estimated 45.000 people in the area, about 6.000 joined the cooperative, each contributing at least 5.000 Yen. That quarter of a million USD was only the beginning, of course, as building, equipping and running a hospital costs much more than that. Luckily some of the cooperative’s members were really into the idea of having a cooperative hospital, and by 2007 the average investment per active member (about 400) was an impressive 3 million Yen – or 25.000 USD. And so the cooperative constructed a 4-storey building with several elevators and all kinds of medical devices you can imagine. The Wakayama Hospital was not only equipped with the latest SPECT, MRI and CT machines – they basically had everything from room filling scanners over ultrasound machines and a dentist chair to plastic syringes and rubber bands. It operated departments such as cardiology, surgery, respiratory diseases, and internal medicine.
For 15 years life was good for the 14 doctors and the dozens of nurses and other staff. In 2000 the hospital billed 2 billion Yen (about 16.5 Million USD) to patients and insurance companies, everything was peachy. From 2002 on though the medical service fees, paid to hospitals and other medical institutions under the medical insurance system, was lowered three times and the hospital’s income fell to 1.3 billion Yen – and with that the number of doctors went down to six. The hospital was in danger of falling into serious debt, so the board of directors decided in June 2007 to close the Wakayama Hospital by the end of the month. A screeching halt and a total disaster for those elderly investors, who not only lost their hard earned money from one moment to the next, but also their neighborhood medical facility. Inpatients were either discharged or transferred to other hospitals in the area, outpatients were confronted with waiting times of up to three hours at nearby hospitals. One of the remaining six doctors at the time of the Wakayama Hospital’s closing stayed behind and opened a small clinic on the premises, together with three nurses – a fraction of the former capacity and a fraction of what was actually needed in the area. The sponsors of the now closed hospital accused the former board of directors of negligence, that they had been out of touch with the community and didn’t know what was really needed – so they went to trial, but apparently nothing came out of it. In the end the hospital was just shut down, fully equipped and squeaky clean.

That’s how I found it a few weeks ago in April of 2015. Most calendars on the walls still showed June 2007, but one or two of them were from 2009 – I guess that’s when the remaining doctor and his three nurses finally gave up. About six years after its complete abandonment nobody seemed to care about the Wakayama Hospital anymore – access points were plenty, not only on the ground floor, but on upper levels, too; accessible via outdoor staircases. Since the Wakayama Hospital wasn’t just a cube shaped building with four outer walls, it started to accumulate pools of water on its several flat roofs. One of them was actually used by birds for a swim. Which was lovely to see, but there was a huge downside to it: Despite being a solid concrete building, the roofs started to leak… and the ground floor (1F in Japan) started to become really nasty in some areas – not just water on the ground inside, but the wallpapers were rotting off, so was the damaged ceiling cladding. After a thorough look on every floor to make sure that the building was structurally still sound, I decided to explore it from top to bottom. That turned out to be an excellent decision as even the upper floors were super interesting and showed only few signs of vandalism. The heavy machinery though was on the ground floor, so I saved the best for last – and the worst.
The best, because it was just mind-blowing to see what kind of items were left behind. Why would anybody abandon an MRI machine? And how could it sit there for six years without being harmed by anybody? It basically looked brand-new, probably as good as it did when last used in 2007. Unbelievable!
The worst, because for the most part the ground floor was either nasty or dark… or both. Mold everywhere, water standing in some rooms, rotting cladding, vandals blocked certain areas, and at least half a dozen emptied fire-extinguishers. Despite me taking pictures as quickly as possible and breathing through a folded towel I had on me, I could feel how my breathing started to clog up, a chemical taste in my mouth. I would have loved to take more photos of the ground floor, but considering the health risks I was exposed to, I stayed as long as I could justify it to myself, and probably longer than most people would have.

“What’s your favorite abandoned place in Japan?” is a question I get asked quite often. Well, I guess the answer depends a bit on my mood, but I can assure you that this is my favorite abandoned place I have written about. Like I said at the beginning of this article, I would have never expected to ever explore a fully equipped modern hospital that is truly abandoned. Sure, sometimes you see half empty closed hospitals that are in a transition phase, explored by infiltrators – but a truly abandoned hospital with that many machines, that much equipment? What an amazing find… with such a sad story!
I really hope you enjoyed reading about the Wakayama Hospital as much as I enjoyed exploring it. And while the photos give a good impression about what the upper floors looked like, you really might want to watch the video I took on the ground floor (1F)… and then head over to the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic* to see what old Japanese hospitals looked like, the kind that were housed in wooden mansions.

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“Don’t play with your food!”
I wonder if any Japanese mom ever said that to their child before they went swimming at the Dolphin Lair, a now abandoned dolphinarium that apparently allowed its guests to take a dip with the world’s most popular aquatic mammals.

Japan is constantly under fire for how some members of its society treat dolphins and whales – whether it’s hunting the cetaceans or keeping them captive. I actually doubt that the majority of Japanese support the practices of those few, most people are just indifferent and don’t care enough to demand change. Hardly anybody eats whale or dolphin on a regular basis, but when the international community demands changes, a lot of people feel threatened by possible foreign influence, leaving them stranded in some area that can be summed up like this: “I don’t care, but I’ll be damned if somebody else tells me to give up what some of my fellow countrymen consider tradition!” You know, like having an assault rifle at home to protect your 32 inch TV…
As for the “keeping dolphins captive” part, Japan doesn’t differ much from the rest of the world – except that theirs are probably smaller. Not the dolphins, the dolphinariums; which in general have a bad reputation everywhere, even the big ones, the ones everyone knows… and they survive financially, because people still go there – which means that enough people think that keeping dolphins (or other animals) captive is a good idea. If people would stop going to zoos and dolphinariums, the problem would solve itself, except for maybe some few private or state zoos.

The Dolphin Lair was a small dolphinarium along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea in central Japan. The regular entrance fee was 500 Yen for age 3 till elementary school (usually around age 12), 800 Yen for everyone older than that (currently 100 Yen are about 0.80 EUR or 0.85 USD). A 20 minute long “Petting Course” was 2.500 / 3.000 Yen, the 40 minute long “Swimming Course” cost 6.000 Yen for kids who were at least in third grade of elementary school and 8.000 Yen for everyone past elementary school. Dolphin Lair also offered a “Diving Course” for 11.000 Yen, though I am not sure if that involved the dolphins, too.
7 years after being closed in 2008, Dolphin Lair was a surreal sight. Located next to a small marina, the area was more roped-off than fenced-off, the pools mostly below ground, reaching a height of maybe 1.5 meters, to the right a café towering over everything. While the metal parts looked like abandoned decades ago, the wall paintjob was still in amazing condition – most buildings locked, the café probably in use during the summers. At first I had a really hard time connecting with the place, it just looked so… random. Thanks to the setting sun the light was gorgeous, but hardly anything caught my eyes. Exploring a tiny storage at least provided me with some items to take pictures of – swim fins, rubber boots, a stuffed dolphin; not to be confused with a taxidermy dolphin! Outside again I switched to my ultra-wide angle lens and all of a sudden the Dolphin Lair looked much more interesting to me – still not a place I would want to spend a whole afternoon, but enough to take a whole set of decent photos.
Sadly there is not much known about the history of the Dolphin Lair. According to a headstone on the premises a dolphin called Sakura died there on January 25th 2003 – and according to the Phinventory there were four more living there: Hikaru, Kuru, Mahina, and Sola. What happened to them after the dolphinarium closed? Nobody seems to know. But if you know Japan, then you know that the next restaurant is always just a short walk away…

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On the Izu Peninsula south of Tokyo you can hardly throw a stone without hitting an abandoned place – though I doubt that it was a simple rock that brought down this bright red loop bridge…

There are actually several stories / story elements why this iconic *haikyo* became a modern ruin:
– One part of the bridge collapsed during an earthquake in the 1970s and the bridge was then abandoned.
– Somebody planned a spa resort on top of the mountain, but the plans fell through and construction of the bridge stopped.
– Somebody planned dozens of holiday homes and company retreats on top of the mountain in the 1970s, finished building the bridge and opened it to the public, but then went bankrupt without constructing anything else – so the bridge fell into disrepair and the road leading up to the bridge was dismantled for security reasons.
– The bridge was built in the 1970s, but didn’t collapse until 1993.
– The bridge was built in the 1970s, collapsed in the 1980s, but city officials didn’t admit to that fact until 1993.

40 years later and without access to a local historian or some kind of city archive it’s pretty much impossible to say what happened here. You should think that building bridges is the responsibility of the State, but there are plenty of private roads and bridges in Japan, so having a private investor being responsible for this modern ruin is by all means a possibility. Given that there are no solid roads beyond the bridge, I doubt that it was ever finished and opened to the public; that’s supported by the surroundings, which looked like an unfinished construction site abandoned decades ago. On the other hand it is very likely that somebody wanted to build something on top of the mountain, given that there is another “colony” with dozens of holiday homes and company retreats in walking distance. The Izu Peninsula was indeed hit by three serious earthquakes in the 1970s (1974, 1976 & 1978), but there is no way to say that one of them caused the bridge to partly collapse – though I think it is likely that the bridge was finished in the 70s, then whoever was in charge went bankrupt / stopped caring about the construction, it fell into disrepair and finally came down in the 1980s or 90s. The current position looks very, very instable, too – the massive rocks the nosedived bridge element is resting on now shows huge cracks from the pressure and I wouldn’t be surprised if we will see more movement in the not so far future…

The Partly Collapsed Red Bridge is actually quite a famous abandoned place in Japan, first reports date back to 2004, when hardly anybody did urbex in Japan, and I was never really eager to see it – photographed to death, potentially instable, fences around, rather remote location… and just boring. An abandoned bridge with a collapsed element, come on, how interesting can that be?
EXTREMELY interesting, probably one of the coolest places ever! Yeah, there were large construction fences where the bridge was planned to connect with a regular street, but a few dozen meters down the road was a flat parking area to the right and partly overgrown steps lead up the hill directly to where the bridge begins now, past auxiliary structures to support the construction workers, now more looking like a dump. (And probably used as a dump by locals these days as getting rid of electronics and bigger furniture can be really expensive in Japan…) So I climbed these fading steps with little to no expectations, but then I left the shadow of the forest and stepped into the light, literally and figuratively – I know it sounds cheesy, but it was like a choir of angels started singing. Holy shit – there was a partly collapsed bridge right in front of me, its damaged element pointing almost vertically to the sky, and one step to the left the asphalted loop started! Before I went to see the bridge myself I had seen dozens, maybe hundreds of photos… of quite a rather simple and not very elaborate (failed) construction, yet none of those pictures came even close to capture what I felt like standing there, all of a sudden feeling very small and vulnerable. So cool, so damn cool!
Although I swore to myself that I would not get even close to where the final bridge element slipped off the huge pillar, all of a sudden I realized how my feet were walking towards the metal fence once put in the middle of the road to keep nosy people with bad sense of balance from killing themselves accidentally or on purpose. The lower part of the wire netting had been long gone, so it was easy to get past this now rather symbolic obstacle. In the main corner of the uphill loop I took a photo (now the wallpaper of my computer) and all I could think of was: “This would be an awesome Mario Kart 9 track!” The bridge was actually quite wide, perfect for sliding karts, especially in a video game environment as the crash barrier wasn’t very high and the width of the road varied. I’ve seen my share of amazing yet weird bridges in Japan (including one coming out of a mountain tunnel and looping back in a few meters lower, all of that several hundred meters above the ground!), but this one didn’t look like it fulfilled any modern safety standards!
The very top of the bridge was every little bit as vertigo-inducing as you would it expect it to be – what an awesome sight! Sadly not for me, so I took a few quick shots and filmed some video material on my way back to the “barricade”. From there I headed over to the element that had fallen off at least 20 years prior to my visit, not without a bad feeling in my stomach – the massive piece of dented metal, plastic and asphalt was resting on massive rocks with huge cracks in them, and despite weighing tons, the setup looked very fragile. A few more shots and a quick video from underneath the slipped off part and back to safety I went… still not really believing how cool this location was, especially on a sunny spring day!

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After more than 400 explorations only a few things wow me anymore. The Irozaki Jungle Park did, more than once; continually actually!
The first thing that wowed me was the extremely bad weather upon arrival: March 1st, but heavy rain like in late June / early July. Urbex isn’t fun like that, especially when the first things you find are the former gift shop and another building boarded up! A few minutes later we reached the main entrance, patched up, too. Wow, damn, no easy access! I decided to have a look outside first, only to realize that the buildings of the Irozaki Jungle Park stretched across an area of about 200 by 400 meters (wow!), while my friends decided to find a way in closer to the main entrance. The back of the gigantic botanical theme park was roped off, the main building complex sealed tight, a car with license plates parked on the premises. Wow, this former urbex paradise definitely had been more welcoming before the city of Minamiizu took over to re-develop the area about two years ago.

The Irozaki Jungle Park opened in 1969 on 12,000 square meters, developed and run by the Iwasaki group, a conglomerate of about 50 companies, dealing with communications, transportation and tourism; hotels and resorts as well as artificial sightseeing spots like this humongous botanical garden. The park was an instant success, peaking at about 750,000 visitors in 1973. But instant success is rather easy to achieve in Japan, where everybody is on the hunt for the newest, the shiniest, the trendiest – long term success on the other hand is a real challenge, one that the IJP lost. The numbers of visitors went down significantly as the buildings aged. When less than 100,000 people visited the park within a year, Iwasaki pulled the plug and closed the Irozaki Jungle Park on September 30th 2003. Interestingly enough the JNTO (Japanese National Travel Organization) is mentioning / recommending the IJP in an old version of their official tourist guide to the Izu Peninsula, which is still available online. WOW, that’s a whole new level of expert fail! (According to the guide it is “containing well over 3000 species of tropical plants. Open daily: 8:30 – 16:50. Admission: \900.”)

Upon my return to the main entrance I found my friends were able to gain access to the first huge structure without breaking anything, so I joined them to have a look inside. About 15 meters wide, 50 meters long and maybe 7 meters high, this first greenhouse made quite an impression on me (wow!), though that doesn’t mean a lot given that I am not exactly a regular visitor of botanical gardens… Despite the park being closed a dozen years ago, some of the plants inside of the conservatory were in pretty good condition. There was plenty of foliage on the ground, so I had to choose my steps wisely, especially since the greenhouse was located on a gentle slope. The path split and reunited several times before leading into a pitch black and pretty much empty area, connecting the first greenhouse with a slightly wider one of almost the same length, followed by a 15 meter long Rainforest Zone, connecting the middle part with a third greenhouse; about 20 meters wide and 60 meters long. The height inside the halls varied between maybe 4 meters and probably 7 or 8 meters, before we finally reached the end of the tube like biosphere looking complex. There we found some restrooms, a rest area and lots of pamphlets of other nearby tourist attractions. Wow, I knew that the Irozaki Jungle Park was big, but this was much larger than I expected, even though I had already seen the entire place from the outside! The park’s mascots apparently were two slightly dumb looking white “jungle explorers” equipped with helmets, guns and binoculars as well as a dark skinned “jungle dweller” wearing rings around his ankles, his neck, through his ears and through his nose (!) – the three interacted in “funny” ways, for example when the jungle man was drumming, he used the white guys’ helmets, too. I guess you don’t have to be overly sensitive to find this at least slightly racist, and of course we were cracking jokes that the only plywood cutout scene missing was the black guy boiling the white guys in a big cauldron.
And so we headed through a pair of sliding doors – not the exit, but the connection to a huge last greenhouse, a rectangle of about 50 by 70 meters, probably 10 meters high. WOW, WOW, WOW! This gigantic hall featured several ponds of various sizes, several food stands, sculptures made from different materials, and two large glass containers with specimen; the kind you’ve seen in several of my articles about *abandoned schools* before – a ray and some kind of eel, maybe. Wow! Some of the ceiling panels were broken… pretty much in all halls, but especially in this one, so the vegetation here was especially lush. We could even see and hear a couple of birds inside the greenhouse. This place would be amazing to film a 1970s style science fiction movie or some kind of horror flick – gosh, I bet you could scare urban explorers shitless by playing John Barry’s The Black Hole theme when they enter the last gigantic greenhouse! 🙂
Overall the Irozaki Jungle Park was a really mind-blowing location! There was so much to see, so many paths to explore. Sadly we had to leave around lunch time already as we had to return our car before 5 p.m. in Mishima, with traffic being unpredictable due to nearby hanami festivals, the first in all of Japan this year – and we also lost quite some time finding a way inside the gargantuan structure, so taking photos was kind of a rushed job, nevertheless I enjoyed my visit to the Irozaki Jungle Park tremendously. The last thing I did, as always, was filming the walkthrough, and for that we looked for the official former exit of the park. And guess what… There it was, the plywood cutout of the black guy boiling a white guy in a large cauldron, tasting the “soup” with a scoop! WOW…

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Writing an urbex blog is a double-edged sword – on one side I would like to present every single location in the best light and with the most information possible, on the other side I am aware that this kind of exposure may attract people that don’t treat those deserted places with the same respect as I do. A year or two ago I saw that wonderful abandoned school on a Japanese blog and I was especially captivated by its amazing anatomic model of a human body. It was tall, it was detailed, it was clean; everything you could hope for as an urban explorer. The school was virtually unknown to the internet, but the author used its real name – not caring about the school’s future or thinking that the tiny village could not be found anyway; it took me about five minutes to locate it, even with basic Japanese skills. In January I finally had the chance to explore the school, eager to take photos of the anatomic model… but it was gone, somebody stole it and left the box behind as if to mock later visitors like me. If you ever wondered why I sometimes use fake names for locations or don’t reply to “Hey dude, where exactly is XYZ?” messages via e-mail or *Facebook* – that’s the reason! And now let me show you the remains of the Stolen Anatomic Model School…

When I told my regular explorer friend Dan about that amazing school somewhere in the mountains I was super excited… and a bit nervous, as it would take us several hours to get there. On day trips I usually avoid locations that are further than 2.5 hours away from Osaka, just because driving there and back takes so much time of the day – and the school was well outside that perimeter, especially in case of heavy traffic. So Dan, his girlfriend Kyoko and I met just around sunrise and headed for the countryside. What started as an overcast day turned into a sunny one on a surprisingly warm winter day.
Walking up to the school in a small and sleepy yet picturesque mountain village, we were relieved to see that the slightly out of sight school was still in good condition, unlocked and without any “Do not enter!” signs. Nothing like sunny days and close to 0 risk of getting into trouble… 🙂
We first entered the main building, another example of a gorgeous wooden school right out of an anime series or a manga. One of the rooms was used as a storage for those huge plywood signs Japanese politicians stick their election posters to, other rooms were stuffed with school furniture, handwritten slogans, posters and all kind of equipment you would expect to find in an old Japanese school. A good start, but unspectacular.
We left through an open side entrance, right next to a spot where the floor caved in and a former classroom started to rot – that’s why you always close doors and windows you open as an explorer! Giving the forces of nature easy access to abandoned buildings can contribute as much to their demise as active acts of vandalism.
The next building, connected by a short roofed walkway, basically consisted of only two rooms, but those two rooms made this abandoned school so wonderful! One room was full of musical instruments (pianos, keyboards, xylophones, accordions), speakers and lines of a stave on the green blackboard – the other room was the science room with countless models, samples and instruments to teach physics, chemistry, and biology. There I was hoping to find the anatomic model of a human body, but it was gone, only parts of the box left behind. Disappointing, but not a complete catastrophe since I have previously taken picture of similar models, for example at the *Blizzard School* and at the *Landslide School*. Luckily there were so many other things to see and to take pictures of that I quickly forgot about that one missing item – especially after Dan and Kyoko told me that there was more to explore!
The gymnasium was in much better condition than the main part of the school, with the exception of the storage area. Nevertheless the floor felt a lot more unstable. I guess the wooden ground got a bit loose during countless changes of seasons. The auditorium / sports hall was easily the most beautiful I have ever seen at an abandoned Japanese school – and some of the extra rooms behind the stage and near the entrance told their own stories silently. One of them was actually kind of a memorial for a guy from that village who cycled around the world and brought back several gifts, at the same time it explained the history of the school; dating back to the 19th century and revealing that the building we first entered had to be reconstructed after a fire during World War 2.

Overall the Stolen Anatomic Model School was an amazing exploration and the continuation of documenting nearly untouched abandoned Japanese schools, a series that started with the *Kyoto Countryside School* about 1.5 years ago.

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The morning after exploring the abandoned *Western Village*, I woke up physically and mentally drained like hardly ever before. All I wanted to do is getting home, so I skipped breakfast and the first location I considered exploring that day. Feeling slightly better on the two or three trains I had to take towards Tokyo, I decided to stop at a small station with a large shopping mall. Two fences later I found myself in the semi-basement of an abandoned psychiatric hospital, taking pictures of metal-grilled solitary cells – by far the most nerve-wrecking solo exploration I’ve done so far!

Insane, crazy, bonkers, lunatic, nuts. It was really stupid to explore the Japanese Mental Hospital all by myself, especially since pretty much everything that could go wrong, went wrong – yet I got away with it…
I wasn’t up to a good start when I woke up with a cramp in my right leg, only to realize that I had a serious headache, too. The previous day had taken its toll as I totally forgot to eat or drink between breakfast at 7.30 a.m. and dinner at 8.30 p.m. – not a problem 10 years ago, but I am no spring chicken anymore. The first location I planned to explore required a 12 kilometer roundtrip walk, so I scrapped the idea quickly as I didn’t even feel like walking from the bed to the bathroom in a really tiny hotel room. My secondary target that day was an abandoned hospital in Saitama, kind of on the way home and much closer to Osaka than my then current location in Tochigi’s capital. So I did some last minute research plus some paperwork and headed south 1.5 hours later. While I had no urge in the morning to ever take a single photo again, that feeling was gone around noon as my shutter finger was itching again. I wasn’t as super excited as I usually am, but at least I didn’t feel like turning inside out anymore – and the weather was really nice!
To my surprise the small station I arrived at was super busy, and so was the large supermarket / shopping mall right across the street. I had a general idea where to look for the mental hospital, so I walked right into a developing area that now more or less surrounded the former asylum – you could say that I entered the psychiatric ward. Most plots already had houses on, their inhabitants busy with cleaning and bringing out trash. Great. Exactly what I needed. Soon the old hospital stood out like a sore thumb and visible from quite a distance as it was two floors taller than the surrounding residential area. It was fenced off by a typical Japanese construction fence – the one consisting of connecting metal plates, about 30 centimeters wide and 2.5 meters tall. Faaaaaan-tastic. But it got better. Between the road I was on and said site fence was an elevated barbed wire fence, rusty as if it was made to spread tetanus. In-between was a grassy area… mown, which means that somebody still took care of the premises. Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner – full-blown urbex nightmare. Or so I thought, because I actually found a small hole in the outer fence where I was able to squeeze my bag and tripod through, followed by a bigger hole some 40 meters down the road where I could enter – I already had figured out how to get past the inner fence, but of course the outer opening was in the opposite direction of the inner opening. So I put my equipment through the outer fence and turned around to make my way to the Florian sized access point, when I looked directly at a woman living two doors down another road. Darn! So I walked towards her, trying to start a conversation, but she just closed the veranda door and disappeared. Damn, damn, damn! I was too close to give up, so I hurried down the first road, got past the outer fence, ran back on the inside, grabbed my equipment and… ROAR, another neighbor started his car! Seriously?! I didn’t even take the time to look up, headed towards the inner fence and went all in. Literally and figuratively.
The Japanese Mental Hospital turned out to be some kind of whitewashed concrete building, 95% boarded up or blocked by rusty grilles. For obvious reasons super nervous I first had a quick look at the semi-basement in the back, from the outside of course – separated from the real world only by a solid metal fence I could hear neighbors, the kids of neighbors, and of course the dogs of neighbors… as if they were right next to me. I assumed I would have 20 minutes max until a ballsy neighbor, security or police would show up to politely ask me to leave / threaten me with the police / arrest me, so I quickly looked for a way in.
The first option wasn’t really one – the smelly, dark boiler room of the semi-basement, but I wasn’t ready for that, not even close. Luckily I found an opening the size of 1/3 of a door, barely enough for a big guy like me, but a great gift given that the rest of the ground floor was shut tight. Seconds later I found myself in front of the reception, the only light coming from the hole in the entrance door. I took a couple of shots and moved on to the staircase, lit from the not nailed-up upper floors. About 20 minutes into my adventure I started to calm down a little bit, which wasn’t exactly easy as I was exploring a friggin mental hospital all by myself! Nevertheless I headed into the dark again, to have a look at the rest of the ground floor. The second of three patient rooms had a special surprise for me – on a rack I found a dozen comic books lined up, accompanied by plushies of Stitch and Sergeant Keroro / Sgt. Frog as well as all kinds of plastic figurines. Japanese urbexers… In other countries people steal and vandalize, in this part of the world they add cutesy stuff. The upper floors turned out to be well-lit and mostly empty – a wheelchair here, some beds there, but nothing too exciting. I kinda liked the massive concrete hallway that exuded strength and hopelessness at the same time. There was only this way to get in or out… and I am sure back in the days it was very well guarded. Upon reaching the top floor with its caged roof I finally felt relieved. I was done taking photos and ten minutes later, after filming the walkthrough, I would be out of there, finally relaxing on my way home. Even the possibility of people waiting outside the fences didn’t scare me much anymore – I had seen everything I wanted to see, took pictures of everything that looked interesting to me. So I took the video and…
… realized that the staircase lead down to the semi-basement; an area. Where it was sparsely lit at best, most areas were actually pitch-black. Where the solitary cells were… with solid metal doors on one side and almost floor to ceiling iron grids on the other. Where the mistreatment most likely happened… to helpless victims, mental patients in need of the care of others. Oh, didn’t I mention why the hospital was closed? Word on the street is that the Japanese Mental Hospital closed in summer of 2001 due to financial fraud and human rights violations against the inpatients! Up to 80 unexplained deaths over the years… Did I really want to go down there?
Of course I didn’t! I was exhausted enough already, I didn’t need that kind of excitement. I am not even into urbex for any kind of excitement, I do it for the tranquil atmosphere and the unique aesthetics most places have… and what’s more unique than a wheelchair in front of the rusty bars of a dimly-lit solitary cell at an abandoned mental hospital, once accused of mistreating patients? Right! Friggin nothing – so down the stairs I went! I hope you’ll enjoy the photos and the video, because I guess I aged about three months spending 20 minutes in the semi-basement… 😉

BTW: Not only is this the 300th article on Abandoned Kansai, today marks the 5th anniversary of the first exploration I ever published. What started as a small blog read by family and friends has turned into a CNN featured resource read in 205 countries and territories. Thanks to everyone for the continuous support!

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As of a week ago, one of my biggest urbex regrets had been not exploring the abandoned Western Village before its demolition. I found out about this Wild West amusement park many years ago, long before it was picked up by Japanese urbex blogs, but it was far away from Osaka, nestled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, giving it a Rocky Mountains-ish vibe. A trip rather time and money consuming, I kept postponing my visit, until I heard in autumn of 2014 that Western Village had joined the long list of famous places demolished last year. Apparently that news was rather exaggerated, as I read by chance last week – heavy machinery had been put into position and a locomotive was removed, but the main park was still there… at least during the Japanese winter break, ending on January 4th 2015. So I did what every upstanding person with regrets would have done: I tossed all concerns about money and time out of the window and headed up to Tochigi to explore Western Village before it was gone for good! (Which is probably, but not necessarily, happening as you read these lines…)

Western Village emerged from a family owned guest ranch with a few horses and a fishing pond called Kinugawa Family Ranch, started in the early 1970s as an additional attraction for visitors of a nearby hot spring – there were metal cups labelled that way all over the premises, most likely around 40 years old and once sold in gift shops. Kenichi and Masayuki Ominami’s uniquely themed leisure park was divided into several zones, the last one added in 1995 for about 25 million USD, featuring a three-floor building with a 1/3 scale replica of Mount Rushmore; the latter earned Western Village a few awards, from the Mount Rushmore Society and Northwest Airlines, making the park’s then-president Kenichi Ominami a honorary governor of South Dakota. Main attractions included said Mount Rushmore, several (now removed) locomotives and cars imported from the United States, and a live Wild West show – minor attractions were an arcade, two haunted houses, and lots of smaller buildings with western content. In addition to that, Western Village was often used as a film set for promotional videos and movies.
From 2003 to 2006 visitors were able to rent Segways, and in its later years of existence the entrance fee was lowered from 2400 to 1500 Yen, but all of that didn’t stop the demise of Western Village. In 2006 the official website announced that the park would be closed from December 6th till late March 2007 (the end of the business year) for maintenance, but the park never opened again as announced in February of 2007. In April 2007 the Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s biggest newspapers, reported that the creditor NIS Group filed for foreclosure of land and buildings in the Tokyo District Court in September 2006, deciding that it would be financially impossible to re-open the park. Since then Western Village has fallen into disrepair, suffering from metal thieves and vandalism, despite reports of security on patrol and the Tochigi police training on the premises. In the second half of 2014 Japanese explorers reported that the demolition of Western Village had begun. Usually something like that takes only a few days in Japan, a couple of weeks max, if the crew is small or if ferroconcrete buildings are involved. So everybody believed Western Village was no more and none of the visitors since then cared to debunk the rumors… until last week.

Every year around New Year’s Day Japan shuts down for about a week, coming to a near standstill on January 1st. On that day only basic services like trains, taxis and 24/7 supermarkets are running, even most bank ATMs are shut down – the perfect time to get out of the country or to welcome visitors without having to take sparse paid days off. In my case, my sister was visiting, so I was super busy planning and executing day trips, dinner with friends and stuff. By coincidence I saw a friend posting on Facebook that he just came back from Western Village and that heavy machinery was still in place, idle during winter break. Without time to plan anything, I packed a small bag with some clothes and my camera equipment, actually forgetting my ultra-wide angle lens. On Friday morning I accompanied my sister to the airport for a proper farewell, headed back to Osaka (without stopping at home) and took several trains north – continuing to Western Village on Saturday, spending more than six hours till sunset on the premises.

While a good portion of *Nara Dreamland* was just false front, Western Village was actually a full-blown Wild West town. All buildings were accessible, all of them had a purpose. The fully stocked arcade was surprisingly big and featured a custom made animatronic shooting game as well as classic video games like Space Harrier, Alpine Racer and Crazy Taxi. Two gigantic restaurants were able to feed hundreds of customers at the same time, not to mention the saloon next to the gift shop. There was a fake hotel, a barber, a bank, a black smith, and a sheriff office; interestingly enough the fake looking church was real, imported from California. Several attractions costing extra money included a haunted house, the now almost empty Mystery Shock with its messed up floors and walls, a shooting game featuring futuristic looking guns (long before Cowboys & Aliens!) and a photographer’s shop, where you could dress up in cliché outfits. Some of those buildings were “inhabited” by animatronic characters like a clerk, a bartender and a Pony Express employee, giving the now abandoned park a really spooky Westworld vibe, especially since most of those animatronics were built to match the likenesses of movie icons. (The older among us remember Michael Crichton’s movie with Yul Brunner and James Brolin, the younger will get a star-packed HBO version produced by J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan soon.)
Western Village has suffered quite a bit from vandalism and natural decay over the last couple of years. Animatronics and mannequins have been moved all over the park, so were clothes from the photographer’s shop and several single items. Some people clearly had fun positioning large teddy bears (from an exhibition at the Mount Rushmore building) behind partly smashed doors and lurking creepily through windows. The auditorium at the foot of Mount Rushmore was rather overgrown even in winter, and the veranda of the hotel was on the brink of collapse – but overall Western Village was still in decent condition, considering that it consists largely of wood and is one of the most popular *haikyo* in all of Japan. It’s totally beyond me that *Nara Dreamland* is super popular and Western Village is completely overlooked; the latter one is actually in much better condition (well, probably because of it…). Sure, it lacks the rollercoasters, but it’s stuffed with tons of interesting items and animatronics. It’s a lot easier to access and has a unique subject matter, especially considering its location… Japan. Overall a fantastic exploration – and I really hope that somebody will hold back the heavy machines for a while, so more people will be able to explore Western Village!

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