Japan’s Russian Village Theme Park sprawls empty and forlorn atop a small hill set back from the main road, shrouded by a thick raft of cedar trees that hide its embarassing failed extravangance from the world. Built 2002 and abandoned after just 6 months, the endeavour was ill-fated from the start: a theme park in the middle of nowhere with no rides.
Russian church in Japanese mountains.
Now its giant fake mammoths rest unseen in their dark and musty show hall, the vibrant blue onion-domes of its vaulting ‘Russian’ church slowly tarnish to white, and the shops once filled with Matroska dolls and Russian jewellry lie in vandalized ruin.
Fake mammoth bones in the park’s central attraction.
I went to this haikyo with 3 friends- Mike, Jason, and Scott, the largest group I’ve been with yet. We rented an X-trail and set off from Tokyo around mid-day, hoping vaguely we might make it to the Russian Village before nightfall. We came close, but as the twisting roads of our ‘short-cut’ round Niigata city sucked the light out of the sky, and the actual Village proved to be located one large block over from where our map had instructed us to look- we ended up entering in darkness.
Various biblical scenes in technicolor glory adorn the church’s gables.
The baby Jesus holds court in a pocket of Mary’s gown, rather like a baby kangaroo.
It was my third night haikyo, second for camping, but the first for the rest of the guys (though Mike did a non-camp night haikyo before). Entering in a boisterous group though is very different from entering solo- but still, some of the emptiness of the place sank into us- such that later on when cooped up in a pristine hotel room, no-one dared to step out of the door into the empty corridor outside.
Entering by night and camping over is by far the best way to experience a haikyo. Haikyo at night and by day are two different places- one of them filled with mystery and intrigue, rippling shadows, noises in the dark- you miss all the detail and nuance, but catch the grand strokes, and the place at its emptiest and bleakest. By day it’s a cheerier affair, noisier, you can clearly see all the doors and the details you missed before. It’s time for video and photos- most of the exploring is already done.
The Russian Village has two main areas, one around the grand onion-domed church at the top by the entrance, and the other at the bottom, connected by a long covered walkway, the courtyard of shops and restaurants ringed by several cultural attractions and animal pens, including the show hall of the fake mammoths.
We started with the church interior- stumbling upon a huge harp box but no harp, a working accordion which Mike wheezed some notes out of, numerous bibles written in both Japanese and Russian, and a giant fake pipe organ. The walls were covered with religious artwork, lots of angels brandishing swords, men halo-ed by light, and Jesus himself set into a light parabola on the ceiling, plus a few stained glass windows with angels looking down on the pews benignly.
Crosses and ties like rigging on a ship.
Splattered with fallen plaster, faux-grandiose walk down the aisle.
Pony-tailed Jesus watching down.
Jesus in the sky-hole.
Feeding fishes to the 5,000.
After that we meandered into the very large hotel complex, following in the footsteps of vandals who’d torn down the chandelier, trashed the gift shop, and gone to a lot of work to break into the various rooms- not always successfully. Most of the rooms were in good condition despite this- except for the penthouse, which had been thoroughly torn up.
Somebody smashed the heck out of this lock. And still failed to open the door.
Next we took the long and spider-infested walkway to the shop square. There we found lots of splintered Matroska dolls in various crafts shops, a working piano which I played the eerie Terminator theme music on in a ghoulash restaurant, a micro-brewery emptied of all vats and tubes, and a shop that once sold diamond rings- I suppose for use in the functioning church.
Overgrown car park.
Model castle in a broken shopfront selling candy-canes and Matroska dolls.
Around that time it started to rain, and we all took up various rain-proofing paraphernalia- I used a box, others used Russian Village branded plastic bags. We studied the map- searching for the mammoth show-room. We had to rustle through chest-high weeds to find it, but once in it was really quite impressive, a high-ceilinged black-painted room with two giant mammoths, in front only a skeleton, in back a life-like rendering with matted brown hair. Of course the bones were fake, but the overall effect was impressive.
Toy mammoth on wheels. Of course I rode it, see in the video.
After the mammoth we were finished, and headed back to the hotel to pick a room to stay overnight in. There was a lot of debate about the cleanliness of the beds, and some talk even of putting up tents inside to avoid breathing the dust- but in the end we all bedded down on the hotels mattresses and sheets anyway. I had a wonderful sleep, unlike some of the others who barely slept- perhaps the atmosphere was a little too oppressive to sleep easily.
Executive suite. We didn’t sleep in here.
Bed-legs smashed into the wall like darts.
The next day dawned grey and dreary, with a fine drizzle of rain. We mostly split up and went our separate ways, documenting the place in our own style. I spent a lot of time around the church- I definitely admire it’s architecture, the sham art, the multiple cupolas. Scott called it ‘the Tetris building’ after a similar building in the game.
After that I tried my hand at interacting constructively with the ruins, for example by heaping chairs in the function room, gathering trash cans in an odd place, righting a giant owl on a perch, riding a toy mammoth, and setting up still-life mannequins in various poses round the lower half of the park.
Stacking chairs for kicks.
Mannequins strolled around the park like zombies.
Posing with the other grand old men of the park.
Gossiping in the walkway.
Arranged trash cans. I wanted to make a Stonehenge arch, but the darn things were too heavy to lift. See that failure in the video.
After I shot the mammoth for the second time, I was about haikyo-ed out. Haikyo fatigue has set in before- when exploring the Nichitsu Mining Town in Saitama. We were just going in and out of many apartments in a long row- with no joy of discovery anymore, mechanically looking in them all as if it were a repetitive job. When you get to that stage and the fun has drained away, it’s time to leave- and we did, with the added excitement of Mike seeing some kind of worker stalking the ruins with a measuring tape. We high-tailed it out of there and hit the road.
We had hoped to make it to another haikyo in Tochigi before the day was out, but it was already 2pm, we were hungry, and it seemed like wishful thinking to hope to arrive at a new place at least 100km away with enough daylight left to do it justice. So we called it a day, and headed back to Tokyo.
4 years later, in 2012, I revisited the Russian Village, to see how it had fared in that time. There had been a lot of damage. If you’re interested in how the Village changed, see that post here.
You can also see more haikyo here.
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