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Archive for the ‘Visited in 2016’ Category

Wooden schools in Japan… the kind of abandoned places I can’t get enough of! Always interesting, always different, always unique… and always very Japanese.

Another thing that abandoned wooden Japanese schools have in common is the fact that they are really abandoned – and most of them are located in the countryside between two towns (hamlets…) or even on top of a ridge between two valleys. The Riverside School was abandoned, wooden, Japanese, and located out of sight… but there still was a caretaker we had to carefully avoid even on a Saturday visit. Luckily I quickly figured out a way how to reach the elevated located school from the back.
The Riverside School consisted of three main buildings – an elementary school, a junior high school and a gymnasium… with easy access through an open door far away from the main entrance. Both of the big school buildings were actually long gorgeous wooden hallways with rooms to one side – the hallways ended in beautiful staircases with just one upper room, not a complete second floor. Why? I have no idea. Little is known about the Riverside School in general. Apparently it was built just after the war in the late 1940s and both sections closed in the mid-1990s – most likely due to the lack of students in the Japanese countryside.
Nowadays at least one of the buildings is still maintained, although none of the buildings necessarily looked like it. But just a few minutes into exploring the Riverside School we heard some noise from the other end of the building. Since I was super busy taking photos, my fellow explorers Dan and Kyoko “stealthed” forward and had a look – as I feared it was indeed a caretaker, not fellow explorers. We kept quiet as well as we could and just as we were done exploring the lower school building and the gymnasium, the caretaker took his bike and cycled away – lunch time!
Of course we took the opportunity and headed outside for some outdoor shots before walking up the mountain (hill?) to the second main building a bit higher up. The interior of the upper school (like I said, technically the Riverside School consisted of two schools…) was in worse condition, but less chaotic – while the rooms in the lower building were cluttered with all kinds of items, the rooms with often dangerously arched floors in the upper building were tidy and neat – a telescope still standing behind a window, books stacked on untouched tables; probably because one would most likely have broken the floor if trying to enter the rooms.

Like I said in the intro, I absolutely love abandoned old wooden schools in Japan – and the Riverside School was no exception. There is just something very special about exploring a 70 year old wooden building that has seen the rise and partly decline of post-war Japan. All those items left behind, the stunning natural decay, nature creeping in – the skipped beat of your hear when you stick your head into a rather dark room and all of a sudden a bat flies out. And nobody else around. Just you and this “open air museum” that allows a glimpse at times long gone. And the architecture of those buildings! Simple, but so beautiful… There’s just nothing like those abandoned schools anywhere else in the world. And if you enjoyed this article about the Riverside School, have a look at classics like the *Landslide School* and the magical *White School*… they are at least equally interesting, yet completely different.

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Nara Dreamland is no more… but that doesn’t mean that you’ve seen the last of it – quite the opposite! This is the first in a series of articles that will show you the rather unknown parts most people missed…

*Nara Dreamland* has been demolished in the last quarter of 2016, but most visitors who went to the world’s most amazing abandoned amusement park took all the same photos: of the two rollercoasters, the castle, the main street, the water park, and maybe the merry-go-rounds in the back… and that’s it. Spectacular photos that never got boring to look at, but Nara Dreamland had much more to offer – and sadly people rather crossed sights off their lists than actually explored the large park. In the spring of 2016 it became very apparent that Nara Dreamland would be demolished rather sooner than later when the new owner piled tons of metal framework on the *Eastern Parking Lot* – and though I had seen much more of the park than your average visitor due to regular visits since 2009, I realized that there were whole areas I hadn’t seen before… resulting in more than a dozen trips to Nara in 2016 alone – in addition to revisiting the spectacular sights I was looking for the unknown areas. At first completely undisturbed, then while the demolition preparations began (I’ll write a separate series of articles about that sad part of NDL’s history…) – and from one week to the next Nara Dreamland turned from open gates (yes, the gates were literally open, you could drive in by car if you wanted to!) to an active construction site with security and alarm systems; but that’s a story for another day…

Today I want to show you an area I’ve barely ever seen on the internet, wedged in the back between a pedal coaster and the Jungle Cruise of the Adventureland – the Nara Dreamland Shrine. Yes, there was a shrine on the premises, and hardly anybody ever mentioned it… not even the official maps of Nara Dreamland that I’ve seen; which makes me wonder how many tourists saw it while it was still open. The shrine was located on a little hill, after you followed a small road underneath the now overgrown rollercoaster. It consisted of half a dozen buildings and maybe a dozen statues and sculptures – not very spectacular to look at, especially in comparison to the nearby abandoned rides, but at least worth mentioning. The *Ishikiri Shrine* I visited in 2010 and wrote about in 2011 was even less to look at and very well deserved its own article, despite the fact that it had absolutely no connection to any famous theme park. Was there a priest living at Nara Dreamland? Most likely not. I don’t even know if the shrine was run by employees or a real priest. All I know is that the Nara Dreamland Shrine existed… and so do you now, too!

There is no doubt about it: As a fan of spectacular urbex photos, the Nara Dreamland Shrine was a bit underwhelming – and to be honest, I thought that had taken a lot more than just three photos when I decided to write this article… I guess my memory was a bit tainted by the many visits and the video I took of the shrine – a video that shows much more of the shrine than the meager three pictures. As a fan of Nara Dreamland though, the Nara Dreamland Shrine was a mind-blowing surprise find that put a smile on my face for many, many days. I hope you are with me on that, and are looking forward to future installments of Nara Dreamland Unknown as much as I am… then with more photos, I promise! (Yes, I double-checked before I made that promise!)

(For all your *Nara Dreamland* needs please have a look at the *Nara Dreamland Special**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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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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