Ashiodozan copper-mining town in the mountains north-east of Tokyo is infamous in Japanese history as a site of extreme environmental damage- so much so the town was mostly abandoned 40 years ago, the mines and factory shut down, and new standards in environmental care called for at the highest national levels.
Now it’s a ghost town. When I visited in 2009, it was a creaking conglomeration of fading facilities- a power station, numerous barricaded mines, a train station, a temple, a school, the factory, and a small town of tumble-down wooden apartments, haunted only by a few aged holdovers with nowhere else to go. I spoke to a few.
This is the story of Ashio’s life, and my explore through its ruins.
The abandoned train yard, with 3 old white sulfuric acid tanks on the hill to the left, and the bare-boned skeleton of the main factory in the distance.
I went to this haikyo with SY- we’d hoped to stay in Ashiodozan (dozan means ‘copper mountains’) itself, or Mato- the terminus station of the Keikoku Watarase valley train line, but the few available ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) up there had no spaces available. So we over-nighted at the base of the line, in a town called Kiryu in Gunma, in a regular travel hotel. That night we spent poring over fan websites of the place, soaking up the history and mood.
History and Mood
Ashio had been a copper mining and processing town for over 400 years, at its peak supplying over a third of Japan’s entire copper supply, in the process though poisoning the nearby mountains with sulfurous acid gas from the plant’s smelters.
Copper was discovered there in the 16th century. The Tokugawa Shogunate commandeered the area and ramped up mining, until Ashio was producing 40% of the nation’s supply. Ashio thrived. In the early 20th century the mining process was modernized and production shot through the roof. The population of the village burgeoned to 39,000- a number I find very difficult to imagine living in that tight river valley.
Soon after the second World War though production slowed down, as environmental damage grew and the copper reserves dwindled. Finally the last of the mines were shut down in 1973.
Ashio was a truly historical site. Bearing all that in mind, we went to sleep anticipating big things of the following day.
Only the hardiest scrub-vegetation can live on these polluted mountain-tops.
In the morning we were up early and off to the train station. We were surprised to be met on the platform with a gaggle of teenage school-kids, seemingly off for some sporting event. We wondered whether Ashio was going to be quite as deserted as we’d expected, but it turned out we had nothing to fear- the kids all got off after a few stops. After about 20 minutes we were the only ones left on the small caboose.
Mountains brown with bald earth rolled by us on either side, and we took turns shifting in our facing seats to capture the best views up and down the valley. Soon all of the mountains we were passing were totally denuded, bare of vegetation. This was the cost of all those industrial years, I supposed, crippling environmental damage from the factory’s numerous smelter chimneys. Sulfuric acid from the refinement process coagulated in the atmosphere and fell as acid rain, poisoning the water table and blistering the mountains so all plant-life died.
Jutting up amidst scrubby mountain tops, the rusted-bare bones of the main factory.
At each small station a few workers were strapping up Christmas lights- an attraction the train conductor came down the aisle and handed us flyers for. It seemed at once a little desperate- for tourists, for attention, for some investment, but mostly just sweet. I don’t think they expected it to be a big draw- they just liked to do it.
We got off at the terminus in Mato, and Su Young wasted no time setting us up with fresh maps and renting bicycles from the lone warden at the station. He seemed pleased to see us, and answered all our questions with smiles and good humor.
“Can we go inside the mines?” Smiling – Oh no, no… “Can we go inside the abandoned train station?” -No, no, but you can take pictures from outside, sure. “How about the factory?” Nodding – Yes yes, of course, you can see the factory through the fence.
We left our bags with him and took to the road on our bikes, clutching sheafs of hand-drawn maps and struggling to figure out the oddly-organized gears on our new bicycles.
Scarcely 200 meters along we stumbled on the main factory. It loomed up over the valley as we climbed. It was gloriously hollow and rust-boned, clearly as corroded by its own pollution as the surrounding mountains.
On a nearby sign it said- ‘Please explore our town like a museum, please take lots of photographs’. So we did.
Also it had security, with a fence, security box, and several clearly occupied buildings in front. For that reason we decided to leave it, and the smeltyards and abandoned train station it harbored, to last, and instead go up the road by its side, to possibly find another entrance from the less well-watched rear.
Almost the whole factory complex, with new buildings at the front.
Ashio smelters around the main factory complex, back in the day.
Power Hub and Mine
Weaving up the side-road, we were not disappointed. To our left lay a series of tumbledown industrial buildings, to our right perched a derelict shrine on the bluff, overlooking the valley with hollow eyes. We were definitely in business.
We went for the first building to our left. From the exterior it looked bland- at best we expected a warehouse with a few bits and pieces in it.
Round the back.
We got off our bikes, rounded the side-fence which hung out over a smaller rivulet (“Be careful!” I keep saying to SY, “Hug the tree!” She laughs at me…) and cruised round to the back entrance.
I followed SY in and was instantly rewarded. In the center of the dusty space amidst shafts of light thrown through holes in the roof lay some hulks of huge rusted machinery.
Something out of a steam-punk fantasy.
It was some kind of power station, filled with giant Ingersoll-Rand generators, rows of breakers, dials, levers and controls, great big fuses, and spools of wire everywhere.
Blue windows, covered from the outside.
Cool old controls. Probably all this is now on a single chip.
Ceramic pylon heads look like deep-sea mines.
Would make an awesome retro-alarm clock set.
After toying with levers and switches a little, we left. Feeling peckish we sat down in the middle of he road (SY`s idea, because it was in the sun) and ate trail mix. Neither of us had any real food.
Next came the first sign of a mine. It was a 3 or 4-building complex gathered round a mine-mouth, heavily fenced-off and across the river. I approached the fence and judged the best place to cross- the razor wire on top had been cut at one point at the edge, a little too close to the drop though for comfort. I wandered round to the side and through some reeds looking for a safer way- down to the river, across, then back up.
*Come on then!” called Su Young. I turned back to see her. Of course, she had already gone over.
I suppose I’m actually quite timid when it comes to these things. I like to know the lay of the land utterly before I make a move, to know for sure I’ve done everything I can to minimize any risk of being hurt or being caught. SY on the other hand just goes for it. I think that’s pretty awesome.
Wood fallen, concrete rotten, on a mine sorting center.
There was a big concrete building that looked a little like a bird-blind with long thin windows, surrounded by an ocean of capsized wood. We walked carefully around it, always mindful for rusty nails poking up. Underneath the big building was what seemed to an engineers bay, where the walls were lined with markers for tools.
Lots of socket wrenches once hung here.
The stairs had been destroyed, but by climbing up the hill-side we were able to climb in through the second floor’s window. It was filled with all these plastic pipes, the purpose of which I had no idea.
Floor of plastic pipes.
From the building we walked across the open area towards a barred-off mine-shaft.
While we were peering through the bars blocking off the mine, we heard a metal clattering sound from nearby. Pressing ourselve against the shadowy back of a building, we edged a look round the corner. A security guard with a little van was opening a gate on the other side of the complex. For a little while we stood frozen, then he drove away.
Into a barred-off mine shaft.
Miners of Ashio- graphic borrowed from the site- ashiodozan.com
After the hemmed-in lifeless quarters of the mine and power station, we both welcomed the chance to get back out in the open air, bound for the cliff-top shrine.
The actual shrine buildings were scarcely visible through the scraggly brush- but we climbed a nearby hill and saw the trademark heavy slate roof, then went back down, circum-navigated the collapsed bridge (Su Young wanted to try walking across it, but she’s fearless- I suggested we walk around), and climbed up the loose-earth hill-side to be met with numerous stone lanterns and great copper vats.
Camouflaged by over-growth.
On the way up, another fallen house.
Giant copper bucket.
The glorious shrine.
We climbed up the disheveled stone steps, nearly stumbling over unsteady footing a few times, and walked around the main building, and a second one behind it. We were able to go inside both, but there was very little to see- wooden rooms with a few bits of furniture and ceremonial bits and pieces.
The second building at the top had a small plastic wallet just inside the open doorway, sheltered by the structures wide eaves, filled with 4 or 5 note books- each dated and filled out with comments from visitors. The notebooks stretched back over 15 years, with a few comments in English and one in French.
Of course I had to add my own comment.
Kings of the Copper Mountains!
The ‘Kings of the Copper Mountains’ reference is because we’re in the copper mountains- and there’s a book I loved as a kid called ‘The King of the Copper Mountains‘ by Paul Biegel, about a beloved King who is dying, but kept alive by stories from the animals in his kingdom while a gnome adventures to find a fabled medicine to save his life.
We spent a little time in silence under the eaves of the shrine, looking out over the valley, trying to imagine what life might have been like when the factories were in full-flow, spewing fumes out over the clear blue sky.
Surveying the view of the Gods.
Life in Ashio would surely never have been easy.? At the peak of production around 1910 39,000 people lived crammed into that narrow river valley, blasted by freezing winter winds while living in uninsulated plywood apartments. Surely many would have turned to the ‘kamisama’ or Gods for spiritual succor.
Japanese religious beliefs are a little complex- ask most people here what their religion is and they’ll say they have none. To judge from that and popular culture, the country seems remarkably secular. There is no institute with regular services like Church, there is no one book of mythology and rules like the Bible, no central leader like the Pope. Religion in Japan is more of an ethereal thing, hard to pin down but most definitely there, its ceremonies done without really considering them ‘religion’, they’re more just part of traditional family life.
There are Shinto and Buddhist traditions in Japan, as well as a form of ancestor worship. It’s important to remember also that until the Second World War in the Pacific theater ended in Japan’s surrender- the Emperor was considered a living God and worshipped as such. Religion was a huge deal. The War was pitched to the Japanese as for the greater glory of the Emperor. When he surrendered and proclaimed himself not a God- that was an immense blow to the Japanese psyche- they most sincerely lost their way.
Factory and Train Station
After the mine and shrine, the main target left was the factory. We continued up the side road, hunting for a route back down the mountain. However at the top, the road gave off at a very live fence, with a security guy telling us to turn around. The road beyond that point hadn’t been built, or had been destroyed. I’ll guess this open space was where the more modern Ashio town had been. Gone now.
Going back down the road, it branched- one fork heading back the way we’d come, and the other shooting off and curling up the mountain. I assumed it must head to the back of the factory, but it was also well fenced, with a lot of signs, and was the same fence we’d heard a security guy earlier open and close while we were hiding in the mine complex.
We debated for a while, then just decided what the hell, we’d come this far, we had to at least try. So, I hoisted the bikes over the fence, and off we went.
The road snaked upwards with the mountain, soon affording us a view over what remained of Mato town, then plateau-ing out in a wide-open car-park type space, dotted with strange square holes in the tarmac. I’ll guess it was once a huge warehouse, but I’m not really basing that on anything. We raced to the far side, past a few empty security boxes, veering round the weird deep holes, and at the edge found ourselves looking down on the back of the factory. We savored the view for a moment, then laid down our bikes to deter detection, and, hearts racing at the thrill of it all, began our descent down the rickety metal staircase.
Looking down at the factory from behind, well-screened from the road, alongside a big slurry-pipe.
Racing down the stairs, we emerged into ruin and melted behind cover. In the shadow it was bitterly cold, and we kept moving to ward off the frozen tingle in toes and fingers. Here were immense concrete pipes smashed through, looking into silos piled up with some ancient crusted chemical, there the great rusted side of the factory had been peeled back to reveal the russet pipes and frayed wires of its musculature and nerve system.
Together we darted from the cover of great iron casting buckets to the elevated rail station buried within the factory’s bowels, eyes constantly turning to the road without and all the buildings were we could see people moving within. Though the worst they would likely do is simply kick us out, when you’re in the thick of the explore, taking photos manically, thirsty to see everything, that threat looms huge. It’s the difference between success and failure.
So we continued sprinting around, over lifeless chemical puddled ground, in awe at the scale of the rotting hulk around us. At times it felt like standing in the corpse of some giant, long-dead beast.
My favorite shot of the whole endeavor- I assume part of the smelting process.
Race you to the top.
Two huge buckets, I assume for carrying molten copper to be cast.
More dilapidated bones.
After about 30 minutes spent in that heady state of discovery, we began to feel more confident, and decided to venture out into the much more exposed train station area. There we sped over long-unused rails, took our turns heaving at lodged-tight rail-switching levers, and peered through the dusty windows of the numerous shacks lining the tracks. To stand on an utterly abandoned rail line was one of my oldest haikyo goals, so to achieve it here felt transcendent, especially at the confluence of so many tracks at a station. Bizarre, and brilliant.
Looking over the terminus station of the old Ashio line.
Away from the factory, where the tracks die out.
After that, it was getting colder, late, and we felt we had seen just about all we could. The main road out of the factory beckoned, despite the low traffic-fence across it, but of course we had left our bikes atop the cliff behind the factory, and had to go get them back. So we climbed back up the mountain-side, relieved to find our bikes untouched, exactly as we’d left them. We got back on and raced off down the winding road.
However, we didn’t get away wholly scot-free. At the fence there was the same security guard from before, standing beside his little van and seemingly shutting the gate behind him. He was clearly coming back up the road to do his rounds.
For a moment we froze, hovering just around the bend from him. He had his back to us, working on the gate. There was really nowhere to go. We could back-track, but in his van he’d catch up to us easily. His back was still to us. What option did we have? We decided to just go for it.
We rode down the last stretch, squeezed by his van as he was finishing up the locking process (perhaps it was a padlock and chain that took so long), and by the time he turned to us and realized what was going on, I already had lifted my bike over the fence. He turned to us in total surprise. Who would expect to see that, coming out of nowhere down a prohibited road, with no greeting of hello. It must’ve been pretty surprising.
He managed to blurt out- “you shouldn’t be in here!” I nodded apologetically and said “So desu ne, sumimasen” (Sorry, yes you’re right), as I lifted the second bike over. Then we were off. Phew. Once you’re out, you’re out.
On our way back through the quiet little village, heading for the train tracks home, we spotted an interesting side-alley. We had a little time before the next hourly train, so nipped off to have a look.
Here were the apartments. Some of them, anyway, remaining of the ones that had once earned Ashio the nickname ‘town of 1,000 houses.’
Ashio- also known as the ”town of 1,000 houses.’
I’ve seen lots of fallen Japanese apartments before, but was astonished afresh by these, by how feebly thin the walls were- basically ply-board screens less than a centimeter thick.
I can’t imagine they had any insulating powers at all- at best they acted as wind-breaks. It must have been freezing in the winter inside. I can imagine families huddling together around their one stove under blankets while they ate, probably shivering, then drifting into a chilly sleep, all bundled together round the dying embers of the fire.
Walls of tattered wood.
Broken telephone poles.
An overgrown slide.
After walking around the broken apartments and playground for a while, the coming chill of a mountain night sinking into my bones, I felt not only a deep sympathy for the hard lives of the people who lived there, but also gratitude for the ease of my life.
After that we headed back to the train station.
We free-wheeled down the main road back to the train station, where we waited in the waiting room- of course just me and SY- for one hour, drinking hot cocoa and corn soup from a vending machine, waiting for the train to come take us home. It was a stunning explore, a glimpse of a past life so different from ours that it had felt like traveling into a whole other world. That’s the whole reason I go to haikyo.
As the train pulled into the station, we offered up a quick prayer to the Gods of the copper mountains for holding off the bad weather, and then like any tourists, we got on board the train headed home.
I made a video of the bits that I shot:
I first wrote this story in four parts, with lower-rez photos. You can see those individual parts, along with the comments they elicited- here: 1. Shrine and Apartments, 2. Power Hub and Mine Complex, 3. Train Station and Factory
You can see more ruins / haikyo explorations here:
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