Matsuo mine in the north of Japan opened in 1914 and closed in 1969. In its heyday it was the biggest mine for sulfur in the Eastern world. It had a workforce of 4,000 and a wider population of 15,000, all of whom were accommodated in a make-shift city in the mountains of Hachimantai park. The city was known as the ‘paradise above the clouds’ for its comparatively luxurious apartment blocks and near-constant ebb and flow of mist. That same mist nearly prevented us from finding the place at all.
The complex of 11 apartment buildings was built over a few years from 1951. Each block stood four stories tall in reinforced concrete. The first floor was designed for young childless couples, with one 6-mat room and kitchen per flat, while upper floors were for couples with children, with one 8-mat room, one 6-mat room, and a kitchen. Compared to Japanese standards of the time they were very well-appointed apartments, with a central heating system, a flush lavatory and a garbage chute.
We drove on featureless roads up and down oddly rolling hills for nearly an hour before we finally sighted the battleship-like apartments through the mist. At each crest of a hill we’d stop and pile out of the car, wander off the verge and stare out into the white.
“That’s the mist.”
“Where are they?”
“They could be a hundred yards from us and we wouldn’t know.”
Finally they emerged, like granite crags on the hillside, the mist folding around them.
Walking through the empty corridors I felt my love of ruins reinvigorated. The mist surrounded me, tamping the world down to just my small pocket of existence. I walked the length of three blocks in awe. I climbed to the roof, careful over rotten-through concrete steps, and looked out into the thick enveloping fog, and remembered why I go to these odd places.
When I was 15 I went on a school trip to see the ruins of Pompeii. I had always been interested in Roman history, in ruined castles and forts, bath-houses. Walking the streets of Pompeii was amazing, but the most incredible thing happened in one of the least remarkable spaces, the small square-shaped ruins of the Temple of the Lares.
The Lares were protector gods, and small altars to them were regularly kept in private homes.
When I entered the small Temple, leaving the busy tourist thorough-fare behind, I felt suddenly enfolded in silence. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve had to a spiritual experience. Despite the rest of my class-mates trundling noisily on by behind me, I felt totally alone, in the moment, connected, and at peace. It was a lovely thing, and perhaps that’s what I’ve been searching for since. The silence of settled death amongst the most powerful of gods, gods who ultimately failed, but who were neither angry nor sad as a result, just at rest.
We can probably ascribe it to a wistful mood, and unusual acoustics in that particular ruined temple. Either way it doesn’t really matter, because the moment resonated and I was able to let it resonate with meaning for me. For everyone it might be different.
Searching for that feeling in ruins can be difficult. That moment of isolation, of solitary connection, is difficult. Modern ruins are too modern, too packed with brands and logos, too noisy. They’re too close to active roads, too easy to access, too easy to drive up to and breeze through and show no sincere respect for. Ancient ruins by contrast are often too well-visited, too well-known, too commercial, and also often just so ruined that there’s nothing left to connect to.
The Matsuo apartments in the fog managed to strike the right balance.
Mike called up to me.
“Where are you?”
“I’m on the roof.”
I didn’t dare go to the edge, as the concrete there had fallen through in places.
“I’ll come up.”
We crossed on the ground floor. It wasn’t a view to share, really.
An old chest of drawers stands open in a futon cupboard.
The public bath-house welcomes you.
We left Matsuo vowing to come back after we’d been to the Osarizawa mine, which was not so far away, hoping that the mist would have breezed away. Well, that never happened. The best we got was a distant view of the apartments when we were 20 minutes further up the mountain, the mist holding a short distance back like a tide briefly at bay. When we returned, the tide had returned to engulf them in even thicker folds than before.
Entry – Difficult to find in the fog, but easy once you can see them.
RUINS / HAIKYO
You can see all MJG’s Ruins / Haikyo explorations here:
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