Week 13

Driving through the rain, Nicole said, "Where do you think this place is, anyway?" I said, "It must be close. We've been driving for twenty minutes." We had pulled off the Asahikawa-Monbetsu Expressway (or Monbetsu-Asahikawa, depending on which way you're traveling). This highway actually spans the space between Asahikawa and a small town called Maruseppu, but will probably at one point actually reach Monbetsu — but not today and not tomorrow. We had been, for the aforementioned twenty minutes, tooling through the inclement weather, making our way through the low, hollow forest all around us on a reasonably well-maintained, probably reasonably well-traveled (though not this time of year) road cutting straight into the Daisetsuzan National Park. We were following a little river, more of a brook, marking old decrepit-looking factories as our milestones, our final destination an abandoned hotel in the general vicinity of Sounkyo Gorge. I wasn't entirely certain where we were, but it looked nothing like Sounkyo Gorge last time I was here — although I'm more than a little inclined to blame the weather.

Ed. note, 14/9/2021: The expressway now reaches as far as Engaru.

And so but twenty minutes into our drive, I said, "It must be close," as I looked out the window; and there it was, sitting at the bottom of a hill, across from an enormous and scenic-looking cliffside, square in the middle of an open though slightly overgrown field, standing gray and sentinel-like a ways back from the road. The wall facing the road had been opened, surgically almost, in two places, the walls torn down in a perfect rectangle by some sort of big yellow industrial equipment. I learned later that the hotel itself was part of a nationwide chain of mid- to upscale hotels, that it was built in 2002 but by 2006 wasn't raking in nearly enough $$ and was shut down. The owner still had to pay property tax, ostensibly because the building was still technically 'habitable,' so he tore out most of the inside and knocked the walls down. I can only imagine him returning to the tax office with pictures of the mess he made, saying something like, "Habitable my foot," and walking out of there with I don't know maybe an explosion going off in the background. He wouldn't look back.

We parked our cars out of sight of the highway and started looking for a way in. We found at first a door marked 'Private' that turned out to be a utility closet. The dust lay some four or five millimeters thick, which, if you think about it, is altogether more dust than there should be anywhere. Trying to access the building itself, we found an open ventilation shaft that we could have climbed through secret-agent-style, but — let's be frank with each other — that's where the killers live.

Deciding that a more frontal attack would probably do well, we made our way to one of the three-story holes on the facade and climbed through. Interestingly there were no 'keep out' signs here — only a half-demolished fence on which was written 'Safety First,' as if the hotel were still open to the public so long as they all wear hard-hats. The fence, obviously forced apart, seemed to indicate that we were not the first ones there.

We found ourselves, on the other side of the rubble, in what may once have been a lounge overlooking the lobby but was now a large, empty, flooded room. We began to make our way forward, peering into dark rooms to find them, too, large, empty, and flooded. The only other interesting features were a pile of large, tarpaulin-fabric bags in which some sort of foam, probably insulation, had been stored, and a number of upturned tatami mats, because have you ever seen the bottom of a tatami mat? It's not particularly interesting, but it was something that I hadn't seen before.

We made our way onward to a long, dark hallway. Here we switched on our cellphone flashlights and steeled our sinus canals against the black mold growing on nearly everything and made our way forward. The only indication of what this hallway had been was a squat stainless steel oven; thus we deduced that the hallway had either been a kitchen or some sort of crematorium, one of which possibilities was significantly scarier than the other.

But not finding any ghosts there, we pressed onward out of the hall.

We rounded a corner, not quite knowing what we were looking for, and wound up in the onsen, which in its heyday must have been quite nice, like one of those ¥700 onsens — the kind that let you keep the modesty towel. The baths were still in good shape, though empty, the walls were still intact — in fact, the only things that seemed to be missing were the faucets for washing yourself, and the water. But it looked as though a quick go-over with a hose and some bleach could get the room reasonably up and running again.

I only mention our surprise at finding the onsen in such a state of almost-working order due to the never-again-will-be-in-working-order-ness of the rest of the hotel. Entering an abandoned hotel, one expects almost to find things as if people just left one day — but it appeared that measures had been taken here to make the hotel uninhabitable. Walls had been torn down, flooring had been removed, and almost all of the traces that humans had stayed here overnight, had bathed here, had played here, and so on had been purposefully and systematically erased. Whereas Konomai was creepy in that it almost represented the slow triumph of nature and time over humanity, this hotel, the Kamponoyado Sounkyo, seemed almost more as if it was mid-construction instead of mid-destruction. I got this weird sense that building had stopped on Friday, and would resume on Monday.

I suppose the creepiness in finding an abandoned place is the uncanny — the feeling of accessing something familiar yet foreign, like seeing human buildings being overtaken by nature — a sense of cognitive dissonance that leads to that slow creeping discomfort, like cold, moist air getting way deep inside your bones. But the Kamponoyado, looking half like a construction site and half comically similar to a Call of Duty multiplayer map, didn't really get at my sense of discomfort at all. In fact, standing in the only still-reasonably-functional hotel room we found, I had to remind myself, out loud, that we had made our way to a place where people came to stay, that we were invading some kind of history, behind a heavy hotel door, where people had once felt safe, where people had once slept. In the moment, admittedly it was creepy as all hell, but I wasn't left with that unnerving sense of human existence onto which I was intervening; that sense of human history into which I Occidentally impose my present-ness.

We had climbed to the top floor where the building itself, but for the bare steelworks holding it up, had been almost entirely gutted. The only remnants of the former rooms were, strangely enough, the doorstops bolted into the floor and the latches on the doorframes. From there we returned to the lobby, finding a bank of telephones, the rack for the room keys, and some turn-of-the-millenium printer units; and beyond the concierge desk we found what may arguably have been the creepiest part of the hotel itself: a series of rooms and hallways, covered here with more black mold than anywhere else, their ceilings coming apart with the humid biological decomposition, with no apparent use. Along one wall we found a bank of what I could only guess were circuit breakers, but the other walls were entirely bare; in one room we found a large bare shelving unit (eerily reminiscent of concentration camp bunkbeds) holding only a good number of telephones; a third was a room empty except for a statistically significant number of black zipties (like more zipties than any hotel could possibly need); another hallway extended into the darkness further than we could see, a dot of light at the very end. It's easy to imagine that these were locker rooms or utility rooms or general purpose rooms for the staff; and in reality there must have been a use here that didn't occur to me. But standing in the pitch darkness, unable to explain away the reason for some black boxes filled with old technology and rife with mold and inexplicably extant — this creeped me out.

Having been wandering the building for close to an hour at that point, we decided to make our way back out to the cars. It was still raining, the water was still dripping everywhere, and the Kamponoyado echoed with nature. It seemed almost as though we were peering into the future — that is, where water is, life is sure to follow; so where the waterlogged Kamponoyado now stands, maybe in a decade's time will be a little more crumbled, a little more decrepit, a little more uncanny. Maybe the field will grow thick, and maybe over the course of ten winters and summers the trees will crowd close, and maybe some JETs in the 2020s will come across the gray head of the building sticking out of that hollow forest and decide to trace the same footsteps we did.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme


Week 14

A belated Halloween party, home from which we took the low roads over the mountain passes.


Week 12

Konomai, the first time I explored some abandoned infrastructure that marks so much of the face of Hokkaido.