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Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010
Crumbling relics tell of life and death — and of rebirth, too
By ERIKO ARITA
There's an area in Miyagi Prefecture called Kejonuma that's home to an arresting legend.
Kejonuma means "pond of the ghost woman," and the tale that gave birth to this name tells of a beautiful damsel, daughter of a rich farmer, who lived near a pond supposedly well-known for snakes living around it.
One day the woman gave birth to a baby in the form of snake. Soon, though, the baby slithered away to the pond, where its cries could be heard every night. But such was the pain she felt upon hearing those cries that the young mother was soon driven out of her wits — to the point that she committed suicide by jumping into the pond.
Whatever the truth, or not, of that tragic yarn, in 1979 an amusement park named Kejonuma Leisure Land opened near the pond and was soon attracting crowds on weekends and holidays.
But whether due to an ancient curse or more mundane factors, the amusement park's popularity first stalled and then waned until it was closed in 2000. Nowadays, all that's left for curious visitors to enjoy are its rusting Ferris wheel, its topsy-turvy teacup waltzers and broken-down little locomotive overgrown by weeds. Even the merry-go-round horses look sad now they have no excited young children riding them anymore.
Never mind those horses' feelings, though, because in its current state of ongoing decay and dereliction, the amusement park has provided great subject-matter for "Haikyo-bon 3" ("Ruins Book 3"), a book that was published in April 2009 by Kaoru Nakata, a freelance writer, and Jun Nakasuji, a freelance photographer.
According to Nakata, in its heyday the amusement park also used to boast a campsite and a mini-golf course back in the days when it was the area's main leisure facility.
However, along with hundreds of amusement parks across Japan, the number of visitors to Kejonuma Leisure Land began to decrease in line with the nation's declining birth rate and people's expanding range of leisure possibilities. Consequently, for it and many others, the writing was on the wall as the national economy continued its post-bubble stall as well.
"Amusement parks for families ended their role in society because we have fewer children and the rides in the parks became old," Nakata said. "It was also because children got used to more stimulating playthings and no longer got excited by the rides at amusement parks."
But Nakata and Nakasuji — who have reported on some 300 modern ruins in Japan since 1996 — point out that it's not just once-prosperous amusement parks that have fallen victim to changing times and trends.
Indeed, another popular category of ruins they cite are mines — whether ones that extracted coal or other minerals.
Regarding the old coal mines, Nakata explained that as Japan shifted its energy source from domestic coal to imported oil and nuclear power from the 1970s, thousands of miners lost their jobs and left the towns around the mines.
"When the mines closed, such buildings as apartments, schools and hospitals in those towns became disused. Then the towns became deserted ghost towns," Nakata said.
The same fate has also befallen many hotels, and they, too, are now popular magnets for fans of ruins, Nakata said — naming the Fukinuki Kanko Hotel in Aichi Prefecture as a prime example. The huge hot-spring hotel opened in 1939, comprising three buildings, and at its peak in 1983 — according to the "Ruins" book — it attracted 200,000 guests and posted more than ¥2 billion in revenue.
Then Japan's economic bubble burst at the start of the '90s and the hotel's fortunes began to falter. Soon it was in the red without much of a safety net, as during the good times a lot of its profits had been plowed back into renovating its facilities, Nakata said. To make things worse, a social shift toward individualism severly impacted a mainstay of the hotel's business as workplace-group tours began to dry up fast. Then, after losing a steady stream of its staff, the end finally came for the resort in 1997.
However, after being a favorite site for ruins fans for many years, the abandoned hotel was bought by a religious organization a few years ago, Nakata said. After that, some of its buildings were renovated, some were demolished, and the site went off the ruins fans' radar.
There are, though, many abandoned and decaying hotels scattered around Japan, Nakata said.
"When industries in local areas collapsed, the private sector simply couldn't afford to buy the buildings," Nakata said. "And, because local governments' finances are often so weak, they can't afford to pay for disused properties to be torn down and the sites cleared."
As baleful as Japan's growing number of derelict properties and facilities may be, though, it's good news for Nakata and Nakasuji, who plan to publish another ruins book next year.
Some ruins, too, have recently been doing their postmortem bit for economic regeneration as they turn into popular sightseeing spots.
The most famous of these is Hashima Island, better known as Gunkanjima (meaning Warship Island), in Nagasaki Prefecture. Located some 19 km off the city of Nagasaki, the 6.3-hectare, 480-meter-long island thrived for decades on undersea coal reserves mined from there. At its peak around 5,300 people — comprising the workers and their families — were living on the island in high-rise apartments.
Then, as Japan shifted its energy source from coal to oil and nuclear power, the mine closed in 1974 and, for safety reasons, the Nagasaki authorities imposed a ban on anyone landing there.
Nonetheless, Gunkanjima — so named because its concrete sea walls and high-rise buildings make it look like a warship — became popular with tourists who would take boats out to view the rather eerie abandoned island from the sea.
Then finally, bowing to repeated requests from the public, the city of Nagasaki lifted the landing ban in April 2009. Since then, up to this May, about 70,000 people have visited the island, according to Tsutomu Yonehara, the city official promoting tourism.
"We expected about 25,000 people would come to visit the island in a year," Yonehara said, adding that the actual number was more than double that. "I think one of the reasons for the popularity is the 'ruins boom' in recent years," he said.
And, of course, that popularity has brought with it a welcome boost to the city's finances — amounting to some ¥1.78 billion in economic ripple effects by April this year, according to estimates from the Nagasaki Institute for Public Policy.
But rising revenues from ruins are not restricted to Warship Island, said Nakata. "Some abandoned buildings have became rental studios for photo sessions in recent years," he explained, adding that "there are benefits to ruins, which some people are using to make money."
In addition, he pointed out, some readers of his books are lovers of decaying environments or sites with occult associations. Although some people seek out such places for themselves and visit them at their own risk, he explained that others, mainly women, enjoy looking at photos of them in books.
Nakasuji, who took the pictures for the "Ruins" series of books, added that he thinks that those people who like ruins are hungry for reality.
"They've got jaded by virtual realities and fictions," Nakasuji said. "When they see ruins, which are the ultimate form of reality, they are impressed."
The reality that abandoned buildings show is failure and death, Nakata observed — to which Nakasuji responded by saying that when he sees grass growing through cracks in floors or moss covering buildings, he feels they are signs of the natural cycle of birth and death and rebirth that is at the very heart of Buddhism.
And truly, even there in a rusting Ferris wheel, such profundity as the Wheel of Life is there to be seen and felt by all.