Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wreckless abandon

Or, 'Walking into spiderwebs'.

As you may have seen from my Flickr, I did something a bit unusual at the weekend: I visited an abandoned theme park.

This all started because someone on the mailing list that the Yamagata ALTs use to communicate was discussing going to creepy abandoned places for Halloween. My curiosity piqued, I did some googling and discovered the 'urban exploration' movement (or urbex, if you're into Orwellian-sounding contractions). There's a bunch of people all over the world who like sneaking into abandoned facilities of various kinds and having a look around.

Japan is something of a hotspot for this pastime, it turns out. The hubris of the postwar boom, followed by twenty years of economic stagnation/recession, plus a falling population, are perfect conditions for generating haikyo (ruins), as the Nipponese wing of the urban exploration movement refers to them.

I learned that there's a defunct theme park situated a little more than an hour's drive from Nanyo, in neighbouring Fukushima prefecture. As haikyo go, 'theme park' is surely right up there with 'mental hospital' or 'nuclear bunker' in terms of awesome creepiness. The are lots of beautiful photos on the web of rusty roller coaster rails and decrepit ferris wheels rising eerily out of a misty forest.

It wasn't entirely straightforward figuring out the exact location of the place. Obviously, abandoned theme parks don't advertise, and urban explorers are understandably secretive about locations because they don't want every Tom, Dick and Haruki going there and trashing the place. But with a little bit of sleuthing (for which my limited Japanese literacy proved handy) I was fairly confident I'd got the co-ordinates nailed.

Being a spineless goody two-shoes (I phrase I've never really understood - do real rebels wear a number of shoes ≠ 2?), I was a little worried about the legality of this pursuit. I suppose it could constitute trespassing, but surely no-one is going to be too worried about land which they have abandoned. I reassured myself that, if the worst came to the worst, I could just about plausibly deny being able to read 'no entry' signs. However, I was adamant that I wouldn't compound my crime with breaking and entering, vandalism, or looting. "Take only photos, leave only footprints" is a kind of motto among responsible urban explorers, and I adopted it as my credo. Of course, one must also consider the dangers posed by entropy and physics - floors cannot generally be assumed safe to walk on, etc.

My friend Alda was to be the Scooby to my Shaggy, so I thoroughly briefed her on these guidelines, warned her that we might not be able to find the place - indeed, that it might no longer exist - and we set off on our adventure. Homing in on the GPS waypoint, there was a distinct absence of towering roller coasters. Nevertheless, we'd come this far, so we parked the car and went in for a closer look.

Only a few tens of metres from the road we found an abandoned building which looked to have been some kind of eatery. There were trashed vending machines, and strewn across the tatami mats were plates, cups and the like. It felt quite a lot like Fallout 3, though naturally with fewer guns and giant mutant scorpions. There was quite a bit of graffiti and human-looking damage, so it appears the place had hosted quite a few loutish youths since closing for business. The most interesting booty we uncovered was a pile of tickets and maps of the park. Slightly breaking my self-imposed rule, I pocketed one of each as souvenirs. I figured the map could actually be quite helpful, though I couldn't find the cafe I was in. Judging by the looks of the pictures - particularly the clothes of the park-goers - the leaflet couldn't have been made any later than about 1990.

There were tarmac paths leading off from the building, but these quickly became difficult to follow as the forest had all but reclaimed them. We fought our way through the foliage and spider webs - man, you have no idea how many spider webs there would be if there were no people to disturb them. If the human race died out tomorrow, I think Japan would be three inches thick in gossamer by about Christmas. Anyway, we found a few tantalising indications that the terrain we were slogging through had at one point been an amusement park: weird swathes of concrete, stairways that went nowhere, the odd bench amongst the trees. We even found a broken sign in the shape of a frog indicating that this was where to queue for the 'Jetcoaster'.

Alda, possessing a better sense of when to give up, headed back to the car, which was parked beside a picturesque lake. I pressed on, through increasingly dense forest, in search of a rusty dodgem, a decayed candy floss machine, anything. I found one or two mildly diverting sights, like a tree growing through a forgotten picnic table, and the go-kart circuit, its walls still lined with tyres, though the encroaching flora had rendered sections of it impassible even on foot. After encountering a couple of deserted clearings, I concluded that someone had done a pretty thorough job of removing every last ride and stall at some point in the last few years. After about an hour I called it quits, returning with ripped trousers, strands of spider silk hanging from me, and a collection of insect bites on my face and neck.

So, my first foray into the world of urban exploration was unsuccessful, but not an unmitigated failure. I don't know why they left that one building standing, but I'm glad it was there for us to find. At the very least, I got some good exercise clambering through the woods. Apparently there's another abandoned amusement park in Niigata...

An abrupt change of subject to conclude: My classrooms are invariably decorated with various motivational posters made by the students, promoting unity, co-operation, courtesy, positivity, and all that shizz. ('All for one, one for all' is an English slogan that pops up surprisingly often.) At lunch today I decided to entertain myself by deciphering a rather more involved class rules poster. The third rule (自分勝手な行動しない) translates to 'Don't do things your own way', which surprised me a little, being pretty much contrary to the advice given in my Western education. It's nice that as I'm starting to make in-roads with the language, I'm beginning to perceive these more subtle cultural differences.


  1. Hi Finlay - must apologise for not keeping up to date with your Japanese adventure but was totally worn out by your pals' visit!

    Goody Two shoes was an orphan gal who only had access to one shoe but she was incredibly nice and kind that - you guessed it - she eventually got another shoe. dont know if it matched but anyway ... in my remake of this classic her happiness is short lived as, whilst celebrating her elevation to the lower classes, she falls into a bacon slicer and promptly becomes Goody Two Shoes One Foot Unlucky or GTSOFU for simplicity.

    Anyway again - a blog suggestion (2). Why dont you do a blog from the viewpoint of a Japanese exchange student/teacher and their first few days in Edinburgh, their thoughts on Princes Street, youths drinking Buckie, her flat in Leith and school in Wester Hailes?

  2. If I did that, and I really got into the role, I might be at risk of contracting Paris syndrome, a kind of clinical disappointment experienced by some Japanese when visiting the West (especially France) for the first time.