The mist-wreathed ruin of Matsuo mine

August 20, 2009 · Haikyo, Iwate, Mines / Factories 

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.

matsuo mine ruined apartments4

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.

“What’s that?”

“Mist.”

“And that?”

“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.

matsuo mine ruined apartments3

Mike called up to me.

“Mike?”

“Yeah.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on the roof.”

“Which roof?”

“This one.”

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.

matsuo mine ruined apartments5

An old chest of drawers stands open in a futon cupboard.

matsuo mine ruined apartments231

The public bath-house welcomes you.

matsuo mine ruined apartments232

This way.

matsuo mine ruined apartments2

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.

FACTFILE

Entry - Difficult to find in the fog, but easy once you can see them.

Highlights – Everything. Reinvigorated my faith in ruins. Absolutely cut off from the rest of the world and loving it. A great place to practise meditation.

RUINS / HAIKYO

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16 Responses to “The mist-wreathed ruin of Matsuo mine
  1. Tornadoes28 says:

    That place looks amazing. That is definitely one of the cooler looking haikyo places I have scene recently, especially the chest of drawers room.

  2. Scott says:

    Hey Mikey – cool! Looks positively ancient – and like something out of a post-apocalyptic time. Your shots inside look like surreal paintings…

  3. David Meyer says:

    Beautiful pictures and article. The second picture looks like a ghost city on a hill. I know what you mean about the transcendant peace of quiet ancient places.

  4. Can. Mike says:

    It’s weird how our two articles echo each other in some places. I didn’t look at yours at all until mine was all done and uploaded.
    First time that I included a dialogue between you and I on the site, and I find that you did the same thing, plus beginning comment about not being able to find it until the last minute, and the end comment about seeing it in the distance.

    My favourite pic of yours is probably the first one from up on the roof. Awesome.

    Yeah being here really reaffirmed my love of haikyo. Want to get out on another trip!

  5. Richard says:

    Great interior photos, look almost like paintings. Are they HDR? Wondering how you got the effect. Thanks.

  6. Paul H- says:

    Invigorating stuff indeed. Ruins and mist … that’s one combination we need to see more of. Some of your best and most atmospheric shots to date, Kudos Mr. Grist.

  7. MJG says:

    Tornadoes- Thanks, and for sure this place was special.

    Scott- Thanks, and bring on the apocalypse!

    David- Thanks, and I think you’re right on calling it a ghost city. A lot of people would have lived here- 11 blocks!

    Can- I read yours with the same feeling- we framed the story in similar ways, though I guess part of that is just the way the experience played out. Including dialogue strikes me as a fun way to dramatize the story. Roll on the next trip! (but to where? further than Iwate?)

    Richard- Yes they’re HDR, in fact all of these shots are. HDR with a little tweaking in photoshop.

    Paul H- Cheers, am very pleased with how these turned out. HDR/tone-mapping makes a very different kind of photograph, a good look for ruins I feel.

  8. Michelle13 says:

    I am truly LOVIN’ the second pic!! It is amazing!!

  9. KK says:

    Awesome site!

    If you ever find yourself in the Kansai area, I know of a number of haikyo in Shiga. In northern Shiga there are haison, entire villages abandoned after they forced the population to move for a dam project that was never completed. Spooky stuff. There’s also you more run of the mill pachinko parlors, hotels, zoos, castles, etc. A fellow haikyo hunter that lives in my city has posted a number of videos of the stuff around here on Youtube. You can check them out here: http://www.youtube.com/user/IAmPlayingNow

  10. Adam says:

    Beautiful, simply beautiful. Another stonking report with some excellent HDR photography. I think my favourite parts of this Haikyo were the corridors where there were large holes in the walls and the vegetation had started creeping in to reclaim the building. Awesome!

    Oh but where are your usual collection of other photos at the bottom of the article?

  11. MJG says:

    Michelle- Thanks very much.

    KK- Haison, great tip thanks, I checked out that guy’s videos- fascinating stuff. At some point I will get over to Kansai- doubtless will be in contact with you seeking some help when that happens. Cheers.

    Adam- Thanks, and as for the photos at the bottom, I’m experimenting without it- was thinking most people don’t bother clicking through them. Now I’ll just include the best photos in the body of the post.

  12. Alice says:

    Great as usual mike, photos are amazing. x

  13. Nari says:

    I used to live near there, If you go up the Appi ski entrance road and take the Akita branch you’ll go by a abandoned hot spring resort that’s been taken over by boiling sulfur pools. They let off difference colored fogs to mix with the mist :)

  14. Kelly says:

    Wow, that was amazing, I really enjoyed reading!

  15. MJG says:

    Nari- I think we actually went to that place, or at least one very much like it. Situated in a fold of the mountain road overlooking a mist view that was probably gorgeous. Unfortunately the one we went to had already been demolished, and lay in rubble. We clambered over it, but there was nothing left to explore or photograph.

    Kelly- Thanks so much, I’m glad you liked it.

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