Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hauntings in the Mountains

This was the first sign that notified me that I had begun to tread on haunted ground. I didn't see any ghosts or things moving against the normal laws of time and space, but this place was weird. I assume she acted as a sort of scarecrow, but it doubled as a scaregaijin.

Here's another view with her friend over there on the left in purple. If I could, I would love to meet their maker, but maybe in a voyeuristic kind of way. I'm not sure I'd want to talk to her right away, but see what kind of person put together this manakin for the crows. Across the road from these frightful broads was another scarecrow of sorts, but was just clothes on a cross with a large farm hat. From it I could hear nonstop chatter. I quickly realized it was a radio blaring; the only sound in this strange mountain town. I looked to find someone around working who may be listening (seems like a pretty normal thing to expect right?), but I didn't find anyone. I wonder how such a poor farmer can afford such battery use.

And the abandoned granny wagon on the side of the road? How far could someone who needs this kind of transport gone on their own?! Have you reader's ever heard of Tengu? In Japanese folklore they are a kind of half-crow, half-human goblin responsible for various kinds of mischief. I've only read about them in books until now.

But before I move on to the really strange stuff, I'll give you a little background information for this particular trip into the mountains on my mamachari. It was a Sunday morning I awoke to my summer ritual of a fried egg, english muffins with blueberry jam, and a little too much coffee. Oh yeah, and a slightly more than slight hangover this time. The night before was my last enkai, Japanese work party, which are famous for heavy drinking for those willing to go to afterparty after afterparty. Because it was my last one, I made a big speech which I did pretty well with (excellent planning, poor practice, and extremely nervous upon delivery), I talked with a lot of other teachers, and went to a few afterparties with the usuals. I think I'm much closer with my coworkers at Sakurai High School than most other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). This is probably because I only go to one school whereas many others often go between 5 or 10 different ones a week. Also, I speak Japanese enough to make conversation, and so I do so daily with the various teachers at my school. Furthermore, I don't mind having the same conversations over and over and over and over again that come up in such enkai scenarios; as long as I can drink and make the other party laugh in the end. If there's no drinking and no laughing, my face gets sore from fake smiling so much and I want to drink way more than I know I should ... that situation happens often in my line of work/life here in Japan.

So, I felt as though I did as much beer imbibing and socializing that a weekend needs and was just writhing to get on my bike and into the mountains. Funny thing is, there was an annual beer festival in Toyama City where small breweries from all over Japan come to Toyama for a big party. The fact I passed this up means I really wanted to be on my bike and away from people. This is kind of like school teachers who are forced to become crabby and bossy when kids drive them crazy at work; maybe they're not like that naturally, but because of their circumstances, they become so. I feel as though I'm a pretty social and extroverted kind of guy, but because I'm constantly around people in social situations that are not fitting to my ideals, I'm constantly finding myself escaping more such events. Perhaps this makes me anti-social. Maybe other people should find more interesting things to do. All I know, is that at the time, being stuck in transit and paying large amounts of money to drink beer while I already had a hangover and have to make conversation with people known and unknown alike made me feel like I'd really hate Monday when it came along. Therefore, I was off.

This brings me to an important tangent about enduring harsh weather and hangovers. Both are quite separate, but first, by far the best way to deal with harsh weather is to get out in it. Lately it's been the rainy season, and so it's in the low 90's, incredibly humid, and it usually breaks out into raging thunderstorms at least once a day in the middle of sunny weather. If I spend all day under air conditioners and fans, my skin and feeling gets all screwy and I hate it. Moreover, when you finally get out into the heat, it's just unbearable because you could just as easily be under the air conditioner which you've grown accustomed to all day, all season long. And you know what? I really don't mind the heat, which sounds weird when I hear myself say that, because usually I prefer colder to hotter temperatures. But seriously, I could care less if I'm sweaty and stinking. I only care because it is uncomfortable for other people if I'm teaching at school or getting together with friends. I'll sit and write on my blog in my apartment and lose track of things in the world and look down at my arms to realize I have more beads of sweat than an elephant in the oven. I don't care! I'll drink water. When I'm on my bike, I'm either not around people, or people are already staring at me because I'm white, so what does the sweaty factor matter? It just adds to my general freakness here in Japanland. Anyway, the same works for snow and rain. Weather only sucks if it keeps you from doing what you want. So you should just do what you want in whatever weather is happening, and if it's really what you want, the weather won't matter. This little conversation has gone differently than I thought, I wonder if you learned anything. Oh yeah, hangovers: if I can manage to get out of bed then I can completley forget about the hangover when I'm leaking sweat in the sun towards the mountains.

My goal for this particular bike trip was a place called "Kitayama", which literally means "north mountain". It's really not that far north and niether a particularly high mountain. One of my maps said there was an onsen there, and it looked a bit far, which were both good enough reasons to get me excited while I stared at them with my coffee cup in hand in my "living room", which has tatami mats and isn't really like what most people would think of as a living room. So I'll call it my "living tatami room". To skip all the little details of things I saw and get on to the weird stuff, I went looking for an onsen I didn't find, and instead found myself in the same place I did almost exactly a year ago in an equally disappointing trip where I was so close to what I was looking for but didn't find. After the initial feelings of failure, I decided to follow the road further up, and found this strange town of Kitayama. It was all rice fields and farm houses ... except ...


I first saw this unfitting gigantic building from the bottom of town and I was pretty excited to make the rest of my trip downhill. However, I was just mesmerized by the oddity of this building. I thought maybe it was some kind of community center, maybe a hospital? Maybe it would even be an onsen. Many of the nicest onsen are actually in hotels that look pretty bare or even shoddy from the outside. I decided to give it one look before I go down because I was pretty sure I'd never be here again.

As I got closer, I noticed graffiti on the walls and a lot of broken windows. Also, a wall of shrubs grow around the perimeter save a long sheet metal barrier. I rode my bike beyond it to higher ground, like a wolf circling some strange corpse to extend the time of distant investigation.

This place was really tagged up. I couldn't see a single intact window, and any space along the inside looked like it was covered in graffiti. I looked down on the sleepy farming village, and then back to this giant decrepit builidng ... it didn't make sense. From my perch I looked for an entrance and then descended upon the mystery.

I went back to that sheet metal wall, and parked my bike conspicuously across the street. I found a space that was slightly ajar, just wide enough for some punk high schooler with a bag of contraband to get through, which fit me just fine. I walked through for twenty meters through overgrown grass and came to the entrance of the building. A part of me synched right back into a mode of exploration I honed growing up in my forested island hometown. Investigating abandoned buildings alone or with friends always began by rustling through head high brush and grass. The outside had been completely razed by bats (of the swinging smashing sort) and spray paint. There was no real door inside on the bottom level. I could have taken the rusting metal staircase that went along the outside, but I went for the midget-sized cutting in the side of the building which seemed to function as the main entrance for whoever it was that had been here last.

Ever since my plan to find onsen was foiled earlier, all I heard in my mind was "I don't know anything. It's OK if you don't know anything, it's if you do know that you get in trouble." This conversation echoed from the last car conversation to "strange" aikido earlier in the week. Sensei got on the topic of how to get good at aikido, and the concept of time came up ... practicing aikido 3 times a week for 5 years is better than practicing aikido 5 days a week for a year. "But what about practicing 5 days a week for 5 years, Sensei?" I wanted to ask, but for some reason I held back. Anyway, both of those scenarios are better than practicing once or maybe twice a week ... that is way too slow for my liking, however, it is my near future hear. At least for the next year, my aikido training will most definitely be cut down to one, maybe two if I'm lucky, training sessions a week. I told Sensei, "I'm very worried." There was dead silence for about 5 seconds, and then I said something else. I wish I hadn't have said it. I was begging for some kind of fatherly reassurance. "Don't worry, Zac, you'll be good no matter what." Or "Well, maybe I can fit in another practice or two for you sometime." But there was nothing but the dead silent reality of a question with no answer: "How am I going to get better at aikido?" I really wish I hadn't said it, and I understand at least on some surface functional level, that it's way better for me to smile and say no problem than to worry about this ... for so many different reasons.

Where was that onsen? I don't know. What is this building? I have no idea? Nothing ... in reality there's nothing but nothing, and limited questions that lead to real expansive nothing.

It was incredibly dark. Not pitch-black, but incredibly dark. The pictures only reveal as much as they do because I used the flash. I was thoroughly creeped out. It was dead quiet and my eyes were wide open trying to pick up any sign that may indicate I need to get out of there as quickly as possible. The area I had walked into was a wide high-ceilinged ballroom of sorts with stairs on either side spiraling up to other open areas. Graffiti revealed itself quietly through the shadows. My vision was maybe at 20%.

This seemed to be the main piece in the gallery, possibly naming the group that was responsible for the recent life in this place: "MASK THE REVOLT!!! SEXGANG CRU!!!" They really should have had a native speaker look at this to check their English. Maybe I should have left my card in case they need my future services. I saw this slogan along with a drawn face (unfortunately covered by the post on the right) in many different places in the building. Wandering around I was still incredibly weary of whether someone else was in the building at that time. Who knows how recently anybody was in there? Were they punk high school kids? Junkies? Biker gang rapists? A couple weeks earlier I was talking with another English teacher and he mentioned a story about a biker gang about ten or twenty years ago who abducted two high school girls, and took them against their will to an abandoned school in the mountains. They were never seen again. This wasn't a school though. The main area I was in looked like a dining area. I have no idea.

I investigated further and found a few nondescript rooms, totally ravaged and tagged, and found the main staircase. It led to a hallway that could be seen from the outside. (See pictures above of view from outside.) On each floor there were four rooms, which looked like domiciles. Actually really nice ones at that. Each had an entryway, a large main room, a small bathroom, and porch space. It looked like a hotel room to me. The balconies looked out towards the ocean which yielded great views of Uozu City and the ocean. I went through and checked each room, each equally abused and individually marked by artistic creations.

Each hallway as well had been marked. A lot of English phrases you'd expect to find from foreign taggers, but nothing too explicit. When you see amatuer graffiti in the States, I'd say most of it are strings of the most obscene English words available accompanied by pornographic illustrations. There were certainly some explitives written, and strange faces drawn, but nothing like you'd see in bathroom stalls at home. There was a lot of Japanese as well, it looked like a lot were names and locations. Here we can see the musical choice of some of the members: "Metallica" (perhaps a sign of aggression and good choice in music), "Mr. Children" (Really? I don't think anyone who listens to Mr. Children would be responsible for anything more than harmless misdemeanors), and others above read, "Radwimps" (They're OK but still pretty mainstream) and something else I didn't recognize.

There were four stories of these kinds of rooms and I went through each one. As I advanced to the next floors, I had a very ominous feeling like I was ever getting closer to some horrible revelation or impending doom. Perhaps unknowingly I was slowly walking into a trap that would change me forever.

Man this place had some really good views.

One other interesting note about this place is that there were no empty alocohol containers or any trash for that matter that wasn't originally in this place. Isn't that a crucial part of tresspassing and trashing public property? Pissing and throwing your trash around in defiance? Not here. Maybe these were well seasoned hikers well accustomed to "pack-in, pack-out" philosophies.

Ah-ha! Some hard evidence! 2002. Almost ten years ago. I would imagine if someone had been there since for such destruction, it would be written on the walls. But I checked every square inch of wall in the building and this was the only date. That's a pretty long time for the residents of the town to tolerate such a monstrous monolith of youthful rebellion in their sleepy farming village. Such a demolition. project would be incredibly expensive and time consuming.

I have to mention again, this is extremely rare. Perhaps in the city you'll see some abandon buildings taken over by such activity, but this is the first time I've seen it in Toyama. What makes this especially weird to me is that it's deep in the mountains at the very end of the road and civilization. When you live in town and go about your daily life you really don't see the kind of people whom you would associate with this activity. But even in small country towns in Toyama certainly have their own underbelly. If you're out late at night around the highways you'll see and hear biker gangs from time to time. Not quite the Harley image, but a younger Japanese version. If you go to the right bars, you'll find the people who could really care less about fitting into Japanese society, but the difference about Japan is that if it's clear this is the case, then you're obviously an outsider. On rare occurences I have been sitting in an onsen and just before closing time seen bald men with goatees and scars wearing yakuza-esque tattoos on their chest and arms. The other Japanese ignore them with contempt. The counter culture is incredibly hidden in Japan, but most certainly existent.

I made it to the roof and expected some kind of epic conclusion to my shady adventure, but instead found nothing, expect myself standing on the roof in plain view of the town. I crouched down and left the premises soon after. I got back on my bike, which obviously belonged to someone who had went for a tresspassing peek, and descended from the town. As I passed through I rode by an older woman who was certainly surprised to me and let out a "Harro!" and laughed. I said "Hello" back and laughed myself.

In the end I would guess it was a failed hotel project of sorts. One of the many signs, all over Japan, that there was a time a decade or two or three earlier where lots of people had big ideas and wallets. Maybe it was built for workers out there in the mountains. Along the many rivers in the area, there are huge dams everywhere and lots of people come from major cities to do seasonal work in the country on various projects from time to time. But I don't know. Certainly it wasn't to boost tourism. Maybe it was intended as a weekend resort area for people living in Uozu? Maybe there was onsen there one day!

I didn't find my onsen, but I found something far more ... something. You never know what you're going to see when you start taking nameless roads inland. This was definitely the last town into the mountains here, but tiny roads followed rice fields further up, and alternative routes leading out of the town were on either side. This was enough for me on that day, but by no means had I exhausted exploration in the area. I would be back. Especially because I think I saw a sign for castle ruins and an extremely enticing road leading into darkened woods away from civilization.

I'll be back.

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