In 2015 there were about 134000 karaoke rooms in Japan, shared by a total of 475 million guests – and yet it is very difficult to find an abandoned karaoke establishment in decent condition… but I finally succeeded!

Karaoke and Japan are inextricably linked with each other. The word karaoke is a Japanese portmanteau, consisting of kara (= empty) and oke (= an abbreviation of the English word orchestra a.k.a. okesutora). It was most likely invented in 1971 by a musician Daisuke Inoue, who worked as a drummer at an utagoe coffeehouse, where the gathered customers sang songs together; those establishments were popular in the 1950s to 70s in Japan and are all gone now, but a handful. (Inoue apparently got tired of playing the same song requests all the time, so he recorded and sold them – the rest is history.) For the last five years, the Japanese karaoke industry has been recovering from a ditch in popularity (from 585 million customers a year in 1995 to 465 million in 2010) with slowly but steadily rising numbers in both boxes and guests. Personally I couldn’t care less about this aspect of Japanese pop-culture. My dad’s a retired musician, I was always surround by excellent albums and live music – hearing amateurs sing is one of the most painful things I can imagine, no matter how drunk I am; more than 10 years in Japan, not a single karaoke night for me! If you are into karaoke… good for you, I wish you all the fun in the world with it! Luckily they sound-proof those karaoke boxes… 🙂 (When I went to *North Korea* in 2013 the guides tried to peer pressure us into singing our national anthems – I claimed that it’s illegal to sing the German national anthem without the written permission of the German government and strangely enough not only the North Koreans believed me…)
Like I said, currently there are about 134k karaoke rooms in Japan. Let’s say each establishment features 20 rooms in average, that makes 6700 karaoke locations… And yet it was very hard to find an abandoned one in decent condition. Took me almost eight years! It’s not like I haven’t seen any abandoned karaoke parlors in the past, but they were pretty much all partly collapsed and overgrown. And the large places in the cities are not really abandoned when they close – they get locked properly and wait for a different use / demolition. Unlike hotels, hot springs, temples, theme parks, … karaoke joints have to be in walking distance and therefore in sight and / or hearing range of civilization, because let’s be honest: More often than not doing karaoke is just a thinly veiled excuse for getting s#!tfaced… 🙂
The Abandoned Japanese Karaoke Box was actually a shipping container construction near a more or less popular tourism spot. Each container was transformed into a karaoke room or a bathroom, the VIP room consisted of two containers, the kitchen probably of three; an additional one or two for the hallway / staircase, some plywood for the roof – done. Considering the location, the rather cheap construction and that the place must have been abandoned for something like five to ten years, it was overall in decent condition. Sure, some windows were smashed, some items were thrown around, but at least nobody started a fire or stole every single piece of equipment. The various lights and the half disco ball I found especially fascinating – when I first saw the Abandoned Japanese Karaoke Box from the outside I thought I’d be in and out in 30 minutes; it took me almost three hours to document this unusual 2-storey 4 by 20 meters construction… Since the place was an original find, I don’t know anything about its history, but to honest, I don’t really care. I finally had fun at a karaoke box!

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A new fence upon arrival is barely ever a good sign – and things didn’t get better after that!

Deserted hospitals are amongst my favorite abandoned places, so when I first heard about this little gem somewhere in the Aichi countyside I knew I had to visit it. Sadly it’s barely reasonable to explore locations in Aichi as day trips from Osaka, so when the opportunity for a three day road trip came up in spring three years ago, I was all in. Luckily my buddy Hamish gives me free hand when it comes to planning schedules, so the Aichi Hospital became the first destination of said trip.
Upon arrival we were welcomed by a brandnew bamboo fence, replacing the old metal barrier that had quite a few holes in it – the surrounding fortified with several layers of barbed wire. New fences are always a problem, but physically and morally. If there is still somebody investing in a fence, is the unused location behind it really abandoned? Since we were lucky enough to find a small hole in the thinner part of the barb wired bamboo we took the risk and slipped through, despite the fact that we could have been seen by neighbours. We passed through the empty shell of a small building at the foot of the hill and walked up the (only) road to the hospital… only to find out that the clinic had been mostly cleaned out, too, probably when the fence was replaced.
About half an hour into exploring the Aichi Hospital we heard police sirens. Sirens that got closer… and closer… and closer… And when it sounded like they were in front of the bamboo gate, they stopped. Had we been seen by neighbors, who alarmed the cops? Worried that our way in (and out) was now under police control, we ran out of the building and into the woods, hoping to sit out a possible building search. Nothing happened for painfully long 15 minutes, so we checked out the situation carefully. No coppers, no cop cars. Really just a false alarm.
Nevertheless we decided to finish up quickly – which is what we did, because you never know…

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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*…)

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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It’s been more than five years since I last presented an abandoned driving school – those things are pretty hard to find…

In Germany a driving school more often than not is little more than a two room rental, consisting of a tiny office and a bigger seminar room, where a driving instructor is teaching a couple of theory lessons several times a week. Not much more space needed, because German driving schools tend to be small, at least when I got my driver’s license more than 20 years ago. The owner then tends to hire one or two driving instructors, who are usually are out on the road, because that’s where the real money is as you need a certain amount of practical experience to take the final test, including a few hours on the Autobahn (Germany’s infamous highways) and at night. Pretty much all driving school cars in Germany are manual / stick-shift cars – probably because there is only one license (no separate automatic-only license like in Japan). Most cars in Germany, except for taxis, have manual transmission anyway. A lot of Japanese people are surprised when I tell them about it, even more so when they find out that you don’t have to renew your driver’s license in Germany. It’s lifelong, of course unless you mess up by violating traffic rules too often.
In Japan (and probably your country) the situation is a bit different. First of all: Most cars in Japan have automatic transmission, which kind of makes sense since traffic here can be nerve- and ankle-wrecking. So when you enter a driving school you have the choice between a “general” manual license and a “limited” automatic-only license. And a surprisingly high number of Japanese people only have an automatic-only license – which feels totally wrong from my German point of view since I would never give up that kind of control over my car; to me shifting gears manually is part of the fun and it (usually…) reduces fuel consumption. Even worse: In Japan you have to renew you license every 3 years, which costs time and money – if you managed to not violate any traffic laws for 5 years you get gold status and have to renew your license only every 5 years. But it gets worse! New drivers have to put a yellow and green sticker to their car denouncing them as beginners. If you are a senior citizen age 75 or above you need a orange-yellow sticker – guess why… (None of that bullshit in the land of the Autobahn!)
The biggest difference between a driving school in Germany and a driving school in Japan is what we would call a “Verkehrsübungsplatz” in German. It seems like there is neither an English nor a Japanese term, but the literal translation would be something like “traffic training location” – a place that has roads, traffic lights and crosswalks, but is on private property, separated from normal traffic; and therefore you are allowed to practice driving there without having a license (if you at least 16 years old, have an experienced co-driver with a regular driver’s license and are able to pay an hourly fee). In Germany those place are separate from driving schools and usually run by automobile clubs. In Japan those traffic training locations are part of the driving school, which is kind of ironic given the fact that Japan has oh so little space… But it gives the students the great opportunity to practice safely in a driving school car. Worst case scenario in Germany: After a couple of theory lessons and a general instruction by the driving instructor you are pushed right into traffic…
Abandoned driving schools are pretty rare, especially in Japan. The reason is simple: Since driving schools serve customers without a driver’s license, they are usually located within a couple of hundred meters from a train or subway station for easy access. But since land near public transportation hotspots is rather expensive (and driving schools take up a lot of space since they have that huge training area…) they tend to be quite valuable and are rather turned into new real estate projects than being abandoned – especially in overcrowded areas like Kansai and Kanto.

The Japanese Driving School consisted of a lobby area and a couple of seminar rooms, all of them pretty much empty now… except for the remains of a DS-5000 Driving Simulator – apparently once upon a time a state of the art simulator with three main screens and two or three additional ones working as rearview mirrors. The pictures I saw kind of reminded me of a hydraulic simulator I played in Tokyo’s Odaiba district back in 2000 – pretty simple vector graphics, but as a simulator really impressive back then! The building wasn’t accessible at all, signs of intrusion on one side had been professionally patched up.
The training area featured all the usual obstacles, like a ramp, a fake train crossing, narrow tracks, crosswalks (in Japan usually ignored…), traffic lights, and so on… Somewhat in the middle a small tower for observation and car traffic control.
Overall the Japanese Driving School was a lovely outdoor exploration,  more memorable for its rarity and the fun company I had than its spectacular looks. Nevertheless a great experience – and I absolutely loved the abandoned traffic school bus on the last picture!

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Modern military ruins are rather rare in Japan. The country still tends to deny or cover up its responsibilities for the Imperial years, especially the 1930s and 1940s – or even worse, tries to glorify the past, for example my special friend Shinzo Abe and his wife, both being tied to the ultra-nationalist kindergarten Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka recently; *please read The Guardian’s article* to find out more as a lot of people missed that story. So most of my military explorations happened in Germany, where countless abandoned American, British, French, and German bases (or remaining parts of them) can be found within like a 100 kilometer radius…

The Shooting Range of the Markgraf Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden Barracks (or Schießanlage der Markgraf-Ludwig-Wilhelm-von-Baden-Kaserne) was one of the last remains of a Bundeswehr garrison in Achern, Baden-Württemberg, German. The barracks were officially opened in Mai 1962, about half a year after the first recruit moved in. At the end of 1993 the location was closed and occasionally used for band rehearsals and emergency drills. In 2003 most of the area was levelled and turned into an industrial park – for some unknown reason the overgrown shooting range on the edge of the forest survived…
My friend Nina and I explored this rather unusual location during my summer vacation to Germany in 2012, almost five years ago. The front end of the shooting range was easy to find and had lots of available parking spots next to it, but it was also so overgrown that there was barely anything to see other than the first bullet trap and a small wooden rain protection. So we went for a walk into the forest and actually found the massive concrete back end of the shooting range after what once probably was a small water-filled ditch. Now, outdoor shooting ranges in general are not exactly exciting constructions – basically a couple of earth walls and walls, some of them wood-clad. The Shooting Range of the Markgraf Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden Barracks also featured a massive bunker with a very outdated way to hoist up paper targets… and a few other items / installations left behind. Luckily this wasn’t a restricted military area anymore, so exploring this abandoned shooting range was not much of a deal – the overall lack of graffiti and rather low amount of vandalism were a real surprise.
Now, when it comes to abandoned military installations, places like the *Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne*, the *Langerkopf Communication Center* and the *Hochspeyer Munitions Storage* are hard to beat and have become all-time classics on Abandoned Kansai as those articles still attract the attention of veterans once stationed there. The Shooting Range of the Markgraf Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden Barracks will probably be forgotten much sooner as German soldiers tend to show a lot less pride in and nostalgia for their service to their country, nevertheless it was a good experience for Nina and I as the shooting range was visually quite different from the usual school / hospital / hotel / repeat routine, and there is nothing like a nice walk on a sunny summer day…

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Gulliver’s Kingdom, based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, has been the most famous deserted theme park in Japan… once upon a time, before *Nara Dreamland* was even abandoned. Closed in 2001 after only four years of business and two years after the financing Niigata Chuo Bank collapsed (which also ran the *Niigata Russian Village*), it was mostly demolished in 2007 – ten years ago and two years before I started exploring. And yet I receive e-mails asking about Gulliver’s Kingdom on a regular basis; where it is / was, if it is still there, whether or not I’ve been there. Time to answer all those questions publicly: Sadly I’ve never been to Gulliver’s Kingdom as it has been demolished two years before I started exploring myself – so it’s not there anymore, but it has been located at the NW foot of Mount Fuji, only 14 kilometers away from Fuji-Q Highland and in sight of the Fujiten Ski Resort.
Another famous abandoned place in sight of Mount Fuji? The Kurodake Drive-In a.k.a. Global Environment and Energy Museum!

An abandoned environment and energy museum in Japan? What a friggin surprise! Man, I would have loved to write a rant about how fake eco Japan is, but I am running out of time and I haven’t written yet a single line about the history and exploration of this strangely wonderful location. Just don’t buy into the eco bullshit, Japan is everything but; with a few exceptions of course. Whether it’s winter illuminations, individually wrapped cookies, electronic waste along countryside roads, sun-blinds to block daylight all year long yet at the same time lights inside on, the insane amount of plastic bags / bottles / containers handed out every day, apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees – and don’t get me started rambling about the lack of insulation and ACs set to 28°C in winter… (In summer you can’t go below 28°C during the humid 33°C heat that is punishing everybody all day and all night, because we all have to work together and save electricity. But in winter it’s absolutely no problem to go from 0° to 28° because… heating apparently doesn’t require electricity and the warmth comes from the positive energy we created when saving electricity in summer!)
Please don’t buy the fairy tale of eco Japan, just because some garden in Kyoto has put up a crotch so a tree can grow a branch the way it wants instead of pruning it. (I’m not saying Japan is worse than most countries, but if you promote a certain image you better live up to it… or deal with the criticism.)
Construction of the Kurodake Drive-In started in 1965 as part of the Atami Highland project on a mountain ridge above the famous onsen town Atami, in the 1950s by far the most popular spa town in all of Japan with more than 11 million visitors per year – the new attraction featured a gorgeous, unobstructed view at Mount Fuji along the Izu Skyline, some hiking trails, a nearby pond with a boat rental, and the Kurodake Drive-In, which opened as a miso shop, restaurant for up to 300 guests at the same time (up to 1000 cars and 300 high-capacity busses stopped there per day!), and upper terminus of the Atami Highland Ropeway (or Atami Cactus Park Ropeway), connected by said ropeway to Atami and the Atami Cactus Park – with the largest gondolas in the world at the time, for up to 121 people (!). The grand-opening of this 1.3 billion Yen investment was on October 1st 1967. Less than three years later, in summer of 1970, the owner of the miso shop went bankrupt and caused a financial earthquake in the area, which lead to the suspension of the ropeway for about three weeks in June 1970. In July the Atami Highland Ropeway resumed operation, only to be shut down for good in December, barely three years after it was built.
Strangely enough there is not much information about what happened after that. It seems like the ropeway remained idle but intact and somewhat operational until 1983, when it was finally dismantled. The cactus park? I’m not sure… I think it closed for good in 1973. The Kurodake Drive-In definitely survived the longest, but I don’t know in detail what happened exactly after the miso shop went bankrupt. It probably was turned into a general souvenir shop, before somebody shoved the Global Environment and Energy Museum into the crown-shaped building. The last account of somebody being there I found was from April 2002 – strangely enough their photo didn’t feature the museum signage on the roof nor did the (Japanese) article mention it. Since I also read that the State seized the property in 2002 (much like *Nara Dreamland* and the *Arai Mountain And Spa*) I guess it’s safe to assume that the museum was installed after that – but before the building was finally closed and abandoned in November 2008. (Last second addition: Apparently the museum was run by an NPO called “Forever Green”; if I ever revisit the place, I’ll try to find out more, but that’s it for now as time is up…)

I absolutely loved exploring the Kurodake Drive-In, despite the fact that it was little more than a vandalized restaurant. I loved the scenery upon arrival, I loved the exterior of the building, I loved the lighting in some areas (especially the lamps in the office), I loved the items left behind (like the Lotte Chewing Gum vending machine or the three animal shaped bottles), I loved the interior staircases – I just loved being there. It could have been an empty building, instead in revealed itself little by little, step by step. I instantly connected with the Kurodake Drive-In and the feeling held on till I was yanked out of there by my impatient co-explorers. Other places I explored in the past might have been more interesting objectively, but I never really felt them; like the *Japanese Strip Club*. The Kurodake Drive-In on the other hand I really enjoyed – to me it’s one of the most underrated abandoned places in Japan…

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