Monday, May 21, 2012

The 10 Best Japanese Ghost Towns

 By Michael John Grist

Common wisdom says Japan is a tiny island nation crammed from shore to shore with people living one on top of the other. Every bit of spare space is used to build Prius factories and grow rice.

In actuality, though, there are far more dark spots on the map than you'd imagine. The general view that every square inch of land is worth a bazillion dollars is just not true. There are gaps in the façade that whole towns have fallen into, along with bizarre abandoned theme parks, ruined U.S. Air Force bases, and the tawdry remnants of pay-by-the-hour love hotels.

These places are known as haikyo, the Japanese word for ruins -- and Japan has plenty of them.

Based on over six years of actively exploring thesehaikyo, I've put together a list of the 10 most beautiful, most historic and most interesting. Read on to see these amazing forgotten gems, and click on the images to see more.

10. Yamanaka Lake's Lost Bunker
The underground bunker haikyo by Yamanaka Lake in the shadow of Mount Fuji is one of the strangest abandoned structures I've ever explored. I stumbled upon this bizarre spot in an unpopulated and obscure part of the Japanese countryside while hiking. I knew nothing about its history.

At first I thought it must be the headquarters of a cult -- maybe Aum Shinrikyo, the one that bombed the Tokyo subway with sarin gas in 1995.

A sigil of 5 unknown logos formed a cross on the inner wall of the bunker, but none of the other explorers wandering the halls while I was there could recognize them.

Finally, the mystery was solved by a fellow explorer who had found a magazine featuring one of the logos at the location. The bunker belonged to the brokerage firm Sanyo Securities, which went bankrupt in 1999.

9. Ashio Dozan Ghost Town
Ashio Dozan was a mining town in the mountains some 200 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, and infamous in Japanese history as a site of extreme environmental damage. The town was mostly abandoned 40 years ago, the mines and factory shut down, and new standards in environmental care called for at the highest national levels. 

It had been a copper mining and processing town for over 400 years. At its peak, it supplied over a third of Japan's entire copper supply. But in the process, the nearby mountains were poisoned with sulfurous acid gas from the plant's smelters.

Now it's a creaking conglomeration of fading facilities -- a power station, the factory, numerous barricaded mines, a train station, a temple, a school, and a small town of tumble-down wooden apartments, haunted only by a few aged holdovers who have nowhere else to go.

8. Keishin Radiology Hospital
The Keishin Hospital in Kanagawa prefecture was once a pre-eminent site of super high-tech radiology equipment, leading the charge as Japan raced into the modern era. Some 20 years ago that dream fell by the wayside, and the place was left to the vandals.

They tore out everything that could be torn out, leaving only a few metal fixtures too heavily stapled down. Then came the taggers, followed by the true graffiti artists, the young people shooting documentaries, and the cosplay kids playing truant from school. Keishin has a whole other life now that it's dead.

7. The Russian Village Theme Park
A gigantic complex without any rides and built in the middle of nowhere, the Russian Village Theme Park in Niigata is an almighty folly. It opened in 2002 but closed only 6 months later for lack of visitors. 

The major attractions were a huge mammoth hall, in which the genuine fake bones of a prehistoric woolly mammoth were on display, and a grand Russian-style church for fantasy wedding retreats.

The place was already in tatters when I went to visit. In souvenir shops, Matroska dolls lay smashed and scattered. Mannequins stood on the weedy walkways. A stuffed swan guarded a hallway, having broken free of its glass case.

6. Osarizawa Factory and Mine
Mining of gold and copper at the legendary Osarizawa mine began around 1,300 years ago, with the last of the smelting facilities closing down in 1978. Now the site is owned by Mitsubishi, who run guided tours around the highlights and a museum for 1,000 yen. 

One legend of Osarizawa mine involves a gorgon-headed lion with the wings of a phoenix, the legs of a cow and the head of a snake. Its roar and monstrous appetite for children terrified the nearby villagers, who urged the village's wisest old man to go battle it on the mountain top. The old man had long gray hair, and went to battle the beast in a series of 6 dreams. In the final one he managed to slit open the beast's belly, from which poured gold, copper, and lead.

The vibrant blue color of the water in the pools is probably due to dissolved copper or a solution of copper sulfate used to precipitate out the purified solid metal. 

5. The Toyo Bowling Alley
The Kanagawa Toyo Bowl was one of several 1980s alleys built during Japan's bowling boom by Hideki Yokoi, a man with a true rags-to-riches story.

Yokoi came to Tokyo with nothing in 1928, when he was just 15 years old. By 1957, he had become the manager of a bowling alley and department-store chain. In 1958, he was shot by a Yakuza gangster for 20 million yen in outstanding debts -- but he survived. In 1987, he built the Toyo Boru. It had 108 lanes, and was the second biggest bowling alley in Japan. In 1991, he bought the Empire State Building in New York.

The alley went bankrupt at the same time as Yokoi's holding company in 1999. Its lanes were stripped of wood, and its gambling halls of machines. It has sat empty ever since. 

4. Akasaka Love Hotel
A love hotel is much the same as a roadside motel, though built with only one purpose in mind -- it's a place for people to go when they don't have a private place of their own. Rooms can be rented by the hour (a "rest") or for the whole night (a "stay").

The Akasaka Love Hotel is situated at the far end of a strip of love hotels on a quiet country road in western Tokyo, and clearly suffered for the lack of passing traffic. It was built only 11 years ago, but closed after just 3 years in business.

Love hotels are infamous for their gaudy "fantasy" rooms, decked out in vivid Day-Glo colors and with so little taste that they can still shock and awe, even in ruin.

3. Matsuo Ghost Town
Matsuo mine in the north of Japan opened in 1914 and closed in 1969. In its heyday it was the biggest mine for sulfur in the Eastern world. It had a workforce of 4,000 and a wider population of 15,000 people, all of whom were accommodated in a makeshift city in the mountains of Hachimantai Park.

The city was known as the "paradise above the clouds" for its comparatively luxurious apartment blocks and near-constant ebb and flow of mist. That same mist nearly prevented me from finding the place at all.

I drove on featureless roads up and down oddly rolling hills for nearly an hour before the first of 11 giant apartment blocks finally emerged from the mist, like granite crags on the hillside. 

Walking through the empty corridors I felt my love of ruins reinvigorated. The mist surrounded me, tamping the world down to just my small pocket of existence. I walked the length of three blocks in awe. I climbed to the roof, careful over rotten-through concrete steps, and looked out into the thick enveloping fog, and remembered why I go to these odd places.

2. Fuchu U.S. Air Force Base
The abandoned U.S. Air Force base in Fuchu is a vine-slathered memento from the early days of Japanese-American war and peace, built shortly after World War II in co-operation with the still-active nearby Japan Self-Defense Force Base, and abandoned in the 1980s.

Its huge twin parabolic dishes are still visible from the exterior -- though now half-eaten up by the passing decades, rusted red and bobbing like hole-riddled yachts on the sea of green jungle. Its roads swim with weeds and trees shot up through the cracks, and its barracks buildings glisten with waterfalls of rushes and creepers, windows and doors barely peeping through the shadowy gaps.

Going in the base was out of the question, but by shooting through the fence and borrowing photos from intrepid explorers who had braved charges of trespassing, I can shed some light on what the place looks like now.

1. Sports World Theme Park
Sports World is a massive theme park, featuring a hotel, large mini-golf course, gym, dive pool, wave pool, swimming pool, log flume, speed flume, triple tube-flume, and inner-tube rushing river, all in ruin. It was built in 1988 and abandoned only 10 years later, falling prey to its out of the way location and its proximity to the then-new Disneyland.

It's an explorer's dream come true, 20 years abandoned, overgrown, but still relatively intact, set in a truly gorgeous forested mountain area. There are terrifying screaming monkeys and birds at night, models on fashion shoots by day, and all manner of ways to entertain oneself clambering, clowning, and investigating the rest of the time.

Sports World was the first haikyo I overnighted in. I brought along a tent and arrived under cover of darkness. I ended up sleeping on the tatami mat floor of the park's fairly pristine abandoned hotel. The next day I awoke to a breathtaking view of rolling forested mountains to the horizon, a view unseen by anyone for years. That's why I go to haikyo.

Michael John Grist is a freelance photographer and novelist who lives in Tokyo. You can read his fiction and see more of his haikyoexplorations on his Web site.

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