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Archive for the ‘Visited in 2016’ Category

A rainy autumn afternoon, an ancient trail in the midst of a thick cypress forest, an abandoned school at the edge of a small town… and then the fog started to creep in!

I admit it, I am good weather explorer. I like clear blue skies as backgrounds, I like it not getting wet when taking pictures or having to fight the elements in general. Have you ever taken pictures during a cloudburst? Not fun. Even less outside, in rather tough terrain, with a small umbrella, trying to avoid that the camera (mounted on a tripod) gets wet. Been there, done that, looked like a drowned rat afterwards – and as we all know, wet sweaty human doesn’t smell much better than wet sweaty dog… But sometimes bad weather is impossible to avoid, for example on multiple day trips or when the weather forecast failed again. And in a country full of unreliable people, Japanese weathermen are the kings of unreliability.
And I also happily admit that some of my best photos have been taken during rain, during snow, or shortly after. Unforgotten the exploration of the China themed park *Tenkaen* in Hokkaido, where the weather changed every 30 minutes… or the *Ruins of the Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo*!
The Silent Hill School turned out to be another one of those blessings in disguised. Closed in 2008 I expected it to have the right amount of patina during my exploration in late 2016, and the start was promising. Walking through the forest to get to the school was highly atmospheric as it was already getting dark on that day without sunshine. Upon arrival the school was bigger than expected, but not as abandoned – despite the fact that I could swear that I had seen photos from the inside on the internet all doors and windows were tightly shut. While I checked dozens of possible entry points, fog was creeping in and then gently floated away thanks to rather strong winds. Much like the *Silent Hill Hotel* this closed school felt like the setting of a video game or a horror movie. I strongly recommend watching the videos at the end of this article to give you a much better impression! Sadly there wasn’t a way in, I actually found a “Do not enter” note at the main entrance after almost 1.5 hours of exploring and taking photos. On a sunny day, this closed school would have been a rather boring location, but thanks to the drizzle and the fog it was a quite creepy exploration. And when I tried to do some research for this article, all the photos I thought I saw on the internet were gone…

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You like the aesthetics of abandoned places, but are afraid of the risks involved? Now that *Nara Dreamland is completely demolished*, how about a trip to Kyushu? The former mining island Ikeshima is happy about every visitor and welcomes them with open arms!

When *I first visited Ikeshima* in 2011 I arrived as a sceptic and fell in love with the island over the course of my eight hour long stay. It was a windy, humid, late spring day, but the amazing variety of abandoned places on the island was completely satisfying, yet it kept me yearning for more as I simply ran out of time at the end of the day without having seen most of Ikeshima. Nevertheless it took me five years to come back! Ikeshima is a bit off the beaten tracks, and there was always a new place that seemed to me more interesting… until the spring of 2016! (If you are interested in the fascinating history of this mining island that once was the home to up to 20000 people, I strongly recommend reading the *original three part series* I wrote six years ago. This is just a mere update / add-on for people who want to know how the island has changed over the years.)
Ever since the mine on Ikeshima closed and everybody but 300 people left the island, Ikeshima wanted to be a tourist attraction. Right at the harbour visitors can find the first tourist map, as sign that has seen better days. But with only one restaurant and no accommodation, Ikeshima wasn’t exactly a tourist magnet and only attracted a handful of fishermen and one or two photographer per weekend. That as changed quite a bit. First of all – you can stay over night on Ikeshima now! The former city hall is now a museum / ryokan for up to something like two dozen guests, there is a small supermarket now, and two or three eateries. And though the number of guests per day must have at least quadrupled over the last five years, you still see barely anybody on the Ikeshima, unless you are at the harbour or near the ryokan. Another thing that changed in comparison to five years prior is the amount of barbed wire. Even in 2011 large parts of the island were off limits, but that area grew quite a bit over the last half decade. Remember how I was invited by those two workers to see the entrance of the mine? Well, that building is off limits now – the back secured by a large gate, the front by a barbed wire gate. Since I had great memories of that building and wanted to have another look at it, I was like “Screw it!” and about to make it past the barbed wired gate, when I saw a couple of people in the distance – luckily I was able to retreat before I was seen – as it turned out that you can book guided tours on the island, but you have to give a few days notice. Most apartment buildings are off limit now, too, with extra layers of barbed wire. For good reasons. Especially the large apartment blocks on a slope that once were accessible from above and below are deathtraps now. And by that I not only mean the rusty bridges with holes in them which connect several block with each other… even standing in front of the buildings in the strong spring wind gave me a bad feeling, as if an AC or part of the roof could break loose and kill somebody below just minding their own business.

Despite the new limitations I tremendously enjoyed my sunny early spring day on Ikeshima. The atmosphere on the island is just fantastic, and the tons of books and old photos in the (free of charge) museum are super interesting. Since it still takes quite a bit of effort to get to Ikeshima, it will probably never become a popular tourist destination – which is fine by me as I still haven’t seen about half of the island. Maybe I should go back there… and stay over night. I’m sure it would be quite an experience…
And if you still haven’t read the old articles, *I recommend having a look now* – tons of information, photos, and videos are waiting for you!

(Since the inhabitants of Ikeshima consider their island a tourist attraction I added it to the *Map Of Demolished Places And Tourist Spots* and created *a new map just for Ikeshima*. If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Only a few things are more exciting to me than exploring abandoned places I found by myself – sadly not all explorations go as planned…

Urbex can be really frustrating at times. Some trips didn’t even start, because I was not able to locate a desired place. Others ended or almost ended due to broken equipment or injuries. Summers tend to be too hot and humid in Japan, winters can be rather cold – that usually doesn’t keep me from exploring, but I definitely go out there more often in spring and autumn. Another huge frustration factor are (possible) co-explorers. I think I spend more time talking about explorations than actually go exploring, because half of the people in Japan are oh so busy, the other half is just plain unreliable. Hardly a month without “Let’s go exploring together!” or “Let’s have dinner!” e-mails from strangers – maybe one or two per year follow through in the end, some even having the nerves to just not show up; which makes me appreciate my regular co-explorers even more! (Interestingly enough 95% of those efforts to get in contact with me are from or about Kansai – personally I am much more interested in possible collaborators in the south of Kyushu, south of Honshu, Shikoku or Tohoku…)
I was very excited about the weekend trip to Ishikawa: I found a handful of places I hadn’t seen on the internet before, knew a local expat I had been talking to for about two years via e-mail, the weather forecast was promising – no doubt a fun trip, despite the five hour long journey to the first location with a really early start after a regular week of work. And then my local contact went silent on the evening before the trip, after not being able to tell me if they were in the area or on a weekend trip themselves. Faaaan-tastic! Luckily the first day went as planned and I had a great day with great locations and great food – it was as good as solo explorations get. The second day? Not so much!
The weather forecast predicted sunshine for the whole weekend, and since this was only a two day trip, I tried everything to travel light, including leaving my folding umbrella at home. When I woke up to an overcast sky I didn’t worry too much. Mornings here often are overcast and then turn sunny, so I grabbed my backpack and my tripod and made my way to a small train station – so far in the countryside that there weren’t any open stores on a Sunday morning, not even a kombini; one of those 24/7 supermarkets that sell nearly everything. Long story short: It was raining upon my arrival. Within minutes the rain turned into sleet, and I still had a 25 minute walk ahead of me. Since the first location of the day was a large factory that looked extremely promising and accessible on GoogleMaps I pushed forward, only a thin towel between me and pneumonia…

My good morning mood dropping with every step, I finally reached the factory; its gate wide open. Yes! I walked up the wide driveway and reached a large asphalted yard. To the right a medium sized storage building, in front of me the factory complex, to the right a 2-storey administrative building. The whole setup reminded me a bit of the industrial revolution – some (wannabe) tycoon in his Western style office welcoming potential customers, people slaving in the large manufacturing halls below and behind him. And the building actually lived up to it to some degree. Just big enough for a handful of offices, including what seemed to be a first aid station to quickly treat urgent work injuries. Sadly the building was mostly empty, except for a large, rather modern safe I wasn’t able to open – that thing was definitely not 100 years old…
But parts of the factory could have been. The front door was locked, nevertheless I was very motivated to find another way in, despite the fact that it was still sleeting. And that the whole factory was surrounded by undergrowth; about half of it of the thorny kind. It turned out that the factory consisted of more than half a dozen connected buildings of different age. After a while I found access to a really old and quite small part – unfortunately the door connecting it to the rest of the complex was stuck or maybe even welded shut. A few minutes later I was outside again, not only tired, scratched up, and wet, but also dirty from head to toe. Soon the undergrowth became so thick and nasty that I had to give up, so I tried to circle the factory the other way, which ended at a rather high open window and a steep slope. I took a photo through said window and called it a day, deeply frustrated. The second location of the day would have been outdoors and about an hour away on foot, something I really wasn’t in the mood for on this extremely disappointing day. Fortunately I only had to wait 20 minutes for the once an hour train, but guess what – 20 minutes into the 4 hour long ride back to Osaka it finally stopped raining and the sun came out. Lucky me, eh?

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Urban exploration can be quite educational – especially when visiting an elementary school in a town where most families had the same job(s) for centuries…

A sunny Saturday morning in a small fishing village along the coast of Japan. Dan, Kyoko and I made our way through a labyrinth of narrow paths between rundown houses, up a few flights of stairs, avoiding locals when possible and greeting them with a cheerful “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning) when not – and then there it was, the local elementary. On the edge of town, yet still in sight of at least a dozen occupied houses. When you are trying to sneak into a location unseen, it’s always a good idea to try doors and windows out of sight first – on lower or higher floors, on the sides or the back of the building. With a total of more than 750 explorations under our belts we quickly found an unlocked door and soon deliberated what would be the best strategy: just entering, hoping not to be caught, despite the large, most uncovered windows – or talking to a local, sharing the risk and responsibility by asking them for permission. Both strategies have worked out for us, but in this case we decided to keep a low profile and just snuck in.
As we were contemplating our options on the back of the school, a senior citizen started to do laps in the yard in front of the school. Slowly, but steadily. As if he could do it for hours. To avoid being seen after just a few minutes, we decided to explore the upper floor first – which kind of exposed us to a small path leading up the mountain and a few neighboring houses.
The upper floor consisted mostly of regular classroom and the school’s rental library. I’ve not seen many abandoned schools with libraries, but what really set the Fishing Village Elementary School apart from every other school I’ve explored were the countless student made posters on the walls, teaching the basics of everything related to fishing and growing your own fruits and vegetables – for example explaining the different kinds of nets, how to repair nets, a year in fishing (when to fish and when to rest…), how to clean fish, information about different kinds of seafood, harvest times of local vegetables, and much, much more. Probably the most informative exploration I’ve ever made!
The lower floor of the Fishing Village Elementary School featured among others a gymnasium / auditorium, a nurses’ room, a teachers’ lounge, and a science room – like the upper floor still in very good condition as the school was closed in 2010 (though the last calendars inside the school were from 2008) and probably is maintained to some degree by locals. The most serious damage to the school was actually outside and counts as natural decay: Two rain water downpipes broke off and were not replaced. As a result, parts of the bright wooden exterior started to rot… and in a few years mold will start to cause serious damage. A shame, considering that this would be quite an easy fix. I can’t imagine that the problem has gone unnoticed, yet nobody took the initiative to take care of it. A real shame…

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Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year, is one of the few religious traditions in Japan that is still going strong – though, much like going to church on Christmas, for most people it’s more of a social event… and it’s also big business!
Unless you are a sales person in a large chain store or work in public transportation, chances are good that you are off work from December 29th till January 3rd if employed in Japan. It’s the time of the year(s) when apartments are cleaned and debts are paid – and shrines are visited. Getting drunk senseless while hurting yourself with fireworks is just a New Years Eve tradition in Western countries only – Japanese people do that in summer! Here the turn of the year is more like our Christmas – family, maybe friends, maybe doing something “religious”.
Hatsumode either happens on New Year’s Eve around midnight with family or friends – or before going back to work on January 4th. On those three days a single shrine can have up to 3.5 million visitors (!), which is great for them in many ways. Unlike most Buddhist temples, the vast majority of Shinto shrines don’t charge entry fees, so hatsumode is THE opportunity to cash in by selling tons of protective charms (omamori), oracles (omikuji), and all kinds of other superstitious merchandise. A lot of the shrines have their grounds lined with the usual array of food / entertainment stalls you find at major festivals, so if you have an appetite for baby castella or want to catch small fishes with wet paper, hatsumode is the thing to do on January 1st, 2nd, or 3rd!
Unless you are anything like me. My hatsumode on January 1st 2016 was without food stalls, omikuji or millions of other visitors. Heck, during my visit of the Shiga Shrine on this beautiful winter day I was the only person there. Probably because the shrine had been abandoned for many, many years. How long exactly? I don’t know. Probably decades by the looks of it. The heavy stone steps were in bad conditions, half the structures collapsed, the ground covered by a thick layer of foliage. Nevertheless the Shiga Shrine offered some neat photo opportunities I happily took advantage of.
I’ve done hatsumode with family, I’ve done hatsumode with friends, I’ve done hatsumode with colleagues – I’ve done it at midnight and on the following days. Yet the most beautiful fake religious experience was spending one and a half hours of quiet time at the peaceful Shiga Shrine… 🙂
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Love Hotel, Japan’s favorite euphemism. A billion dollar industry, despite the country’s extremely low birth rate – and while Japanese girls pretend to hate them, foreign guys apparently are… intrigued.
Back in 2012 the abandoned *Furuichi Love Hotel* was one of the first original finds I made, spotted it from a train while on the way to another location. I wrote about it on Christmas Eve 2012, including a rather long and very subjective rant about relationships in Japan. *Check it out*, despite its age it’s still a fun piece to read!
If you have no clue what love hotels are and how big the business really is, you might want to check out my article about the *Love Hotel Gion* – it’s all in there, no need to repeat myself here…

After exploring the *Asuka Quarry* on a hot spring day (= hot day in spring, not a day enjoying hot springs…) the afternoon was still young, so my exploration buddy for the day Colin and I went on a nice long walk over to a lovel hotel area. Unlike most people having sex, love hotels barely ever come alone – and chances are good that at least one of them has been closed and abandoned when bigger and shinier ones opened as time passed. Having done some research beforehand, I was actually pretty sure in that case, so it took us not long to find the love hotel Guest House; a rather dull name for an establishment like that. Short time lovers paid 2500 Yen for the first hour and 600 Yen for every 30 minutes of overtime (per room, not per guest), overnight stays were 5800 Yen – obviously outdated rates as current ones are about 30 to 50 percent higher; at luxury establishments you can easily spend 20k per night…
Sadly the Guest House was not and never had been a luxury establishment – it looked more like your average run-of-the-mill love hotel; actually on the lower end when it comes to privacy. While most love hotels outside of big cities feature private access to the rooms directly from the car, the Guest House was built like a regular hotel, which means that there was a risk of meeting other couples in the lobby or the hallways. Soooo embarrassing in a society where pretending is more important than being… and probably one of the reasons why the Guest House went bankrupt.
As of now, the whole building is branded as “piichinakibun”; Peach Feeling; maybe more like “feeling peachy”? I actually only found out about the Guest House name, because somebody started peeling off adhesive foil on rate signs. The peachy approach was definitely more casual: offering free food (as known from a lot of manga cafés), advertising longer stays (like at regular hotels) and implying that pets are welcome. Sadly it was not much more successful. Probably because people who like regular hotels don’t want to spend their nights amidst a bunch of active love hotels next to a highway and away from all the amenities of a tourist destination. Since this deserted love hotel was located next to a baseball field, it had seen more than its share of vandalism – at the same time I had to be careful not to be seen or heard; which admittedly wasn’t exactly a task for Solid Snake or Sam Fisher…

Since I found this fruity location in a Japanese data base about love hotels, I am pretty sure it was still active in the 00s – the oldest photos of the abandoned place apparently were taken in 2012, so your guess is as good as mine when it closed exactly. The Guest House was an interesting exploration overall, thanks to the unusual architecture and the unusual type of deserted location, but I’ve been to more interesting abandoned love hotels in better condition before… Especially the *Furuichi Love Hotel* was quite a find.

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Abandoned schools are a dime a dozen in Japan, but in Germany they are rather rare – welcome to the Alte Martinsschule!

The (Alte) Martinsschule ((Old) Martin’s School – named after St. Martin of Tours, one of the most well-known Christian saints) was founded in 1978 after the German federal states Hesse and Baden-Württemberg officially funded this institution for about 180 to 200 physically disabled pupils in Ladenburg, a rather rich suburb exactly halfway between Mannheim and Heidelberg. The Martinsschule was a huge success, so the number of students grew and grew until the location in the Wallstadter Straße became too small – and so in 2010 the Martinsschule moved from the city center into a shiny new complex (matter of expense: 28 million EUR!) in the outskirts of Ladenburg, where currently about 240 students are educated.
To make some of the money back, the inner city building now known as the Alte Martinsschule was supposed to be sold – 10000 square meters of prime real estate: 400 meters away from the train station, 3 kilometers to the next freeway entrance ramp and right across the street from a small shopping mall, the local fire station… and the cemetery. To have control over the new use of the area, the city of Ladenburg started restricted tender a.k.a. architectural competition on October 19th 2012 and set the price at 550 EUR per square meter; not cheap, especially since getting rid of the old school was the new owner’s responsibility. In July of 2013 Bouwfond (a.k.a. BPD Immobilienentwicklung GmbH, part of the Rabo Real Estate Group, a subsidiary of the Dutch Rabobank) won the bid against six competitors with a medical center; including a café, a pharmacy, 40 condos and 65 units for assisted living. But the city still had some reservations about the shape of the building as they wanted to avoid getting another large concrete block, so in August of 2013 asylum seekers were moved temporarily into the Alte Martinsschule. From January 15th till February 5th 2014 they were split up across neighboring communities, and on February 10th the school was returned to the city, which spent 415000 EUR on renovating and converting the Alte Martinsschule as temporary quarters for the Carl-Benz-Gymnasium (Carl Benz Grammar School). In July the investment plans almost failed, when Bouwfonds handed in their final plans and some councilmen weren’t 100% satisfied as they thought the building was too big and that there were not enough public parking spots. After some back and forth the plan was finally accepted… more than a year later in October of 2015. In early 2016 the renovation of the Carl-Benz-Gymnasium was finally done, so the Alte Martinsschule was finally ready to be taken over by the new investor – but not before making the news again in early February, when a couple of vandals broke into the school on a weekend and emptied some fire extinguishers, causing the police to show up the next Monday, publicly appealing for witnesses. In late February refugees helped cleaning out the school as the investor expected it to be broom-clean when taking over… for demolition.

A couple of months later my sister Sabine and I showed up at the Alte Martinsschule, knowing little to nothing about the long recent background story. I thought we were exploring an abandoned school for the physically disabled, so you can imagine my surprise when we found the whole school surrounded by construction site fences… and a huge gate wide open on the back. Since there were no “Do not enter!” signs anywhere and the gate was open, we had a closer look. The school looked like it had been abandoned for years, yet posters inside advertised a school Faschingsball (kind of a Mardi Gras party) earlier this year – very mixed messages that only made sense after I did some research; the Faschingsball was basically the farewell party of the grammar school.
Most breakage of glass had been fixed and the only apparent way in was an open window at the main street, where cars and pedestrians were passing by constantly. Sabine and I kept looking and found steps leading down to an indoor swimming pool with an open area in front of it, allowing daylight in through the large, massive glass windows. One of those windows, out of sight of the traffic three meters above us, was broken – and before I could say anything, Sabine slipped through and headed for the control room. Not expecting to find a way in and not sure how long we would stay I left the tripod in the car and followed my little sister. The pool was in nearly pristine condition, even covered to prevent accidents and further damage. Through the dark underbelly of the school we found our way to the main area of the Alte Martinsschule – which in many ways was so exemplary for every school in Germany I’ve ever been to. It had a couple of more ramps for obvious reasons, but other than that it looked like a German school, it smelled like a German school, it felt like a German school. A mostly empty school, as the investor was supposed to take over any day now, as we were not aware of. Nevertheless an exciting exploration – very familiar, yet a first time experience. Some walls still featured the results of group tasks, for example about the American Constitution, musicians, and what to expect from the new school (again, confusing at the time as we had no clue about the temporary stay of the grammar school). Via the ground floor we also found a way to the gymnasium / sports hall above the pool area – lots of large windows again, and with it the risk of being seen. Exploring back home should have been easier than in a foreign country, yet I was quite a bit more nervous than when exploring in Japan. Still don’t know why. Probably because I know the laws better and can’t play the “I don’t speak your language” card… Anyway, when we left a staircase to get back to a hallway I opened the heavy fire door, passed, handed it to Sabine and instead of closing it quietly, she slipped through and past me – the door closing with a loud BAMM that must have been audible in both Mannheim and Heidelberg! Damn! I’ve been on at least a dozen exploration with my beloved sister, never ever did she something that stupid and I was pissed. Really pissed. Luckily it was towards the end of our tour, so soon afterwards she returned to the car while I videotaped the walkthrough – almost 20 minutes long, so to all you out there who think that my videos are too short, I hope you’ll enjoy that one!
Soooo… This exploration happened in mid-July, why do I write about it now? Because back then I was on vacation and had time to do some research on the Alte Martinsschule, especially since I was curious about all those alleged contradictions. And a few weeks later, in August, an article in a local newspaper laid out the plans for the school’s future. It seems like Sabine and I just got in and out before a company took over and removed the remaining materials in the school – with separate containers for wood, metal, insulating materials, and other stuff. The facadism was planned to take till late September, then gigantic hoisting cranes were supposed to dismantle the concrete elements of the Alte Martinsschule like a house built of Lego. The plan was to get everything done by late October. I did my best to find some updates on the progress, but no online source reported about delays or success of the plans, so I added six weeks buffer and finally wrote about this rather unusual German location in exceptionally good condition. If the Martinsschule still stands I guess I accidentally revealed a pretty amazing location, but I didn’t want to wait any longer and it would have been a waste to write about this unique school without telling its story!

Despite the BAMM towards the end, I absolutely loved exploring not only a German school (after I’ve been to dozens of Japanese school, which are amazing in their own regards!), but a German school with a connected sports hall and an indoor swimming pool; that’s pretty much as good as it gets in this category. Sure, a couple of more items left behind would have been nice, but I am pretty sure you are getting a general idea of what schools in Germany look like. Thanks for making it all to the end of one of the biggest articles this year: almost 1500 words, more than 40 photos and a 20 minute long video… 🙂

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