Small Pox was once an incurable killer, claiming around 400 million deaths in the first half of the 20th century before its eradication. The people who contracted it were likely to die, and had to be removed from the general population lest they spread the infection to others. The Small Pox Isolation Ward Haikyo set into a then-remote Izu cliff-side was one such place they’d be banished to, to endure the agonies of their disease while lying on a straw mattress in a wooden shack, looking out to the sea and waiting to die.
This was the second leg of the grand Izu haikyo road trip I took with Mike and JC, a location I’d seen photos of in numerous books and always considered a little risky. True, Small Pox has been eradicated, but isn’t it tempting fate to walk into a sanitarium where people once died from that disease? Would we be the ones to bring the disease back to life, touching an infected bed or table where the disease had lain dormant for long lonely years?
It wasn’t easy to find- chiefly because it was so old that the road it was on had long been replaced, and would only appear as a ghost on our GPS, phasing in and out of existence as we went in and out of tunnels. The most immediate approach seemed to be to park on the bend of a very busy throughway, just before a narrow bridge and immediately after a narrow tunnel, with no obvious way into the cliff-side forest, and no clear way down. It seemed far too dangerous to park there, so instead we searched for the old road.
It took several sweeps of the new road up and down to find it. Eventually it emerged, at the end of an off-shoot through ramshackle houses towards the sea. What at first seemed to be a dead-end turned out to be an avalanche-damaged road. We climbed up onto the old greenery, pressed on, and at times saw the glimmers of the old road’s asphalt and yellow lines peeking through beneath us. As the going went along, it just got tougher, and we had to trail blaze along an increasingly steepening and overgrown mountainside. After a time of this effort, we came to the tunnel. It peeked out at us through a mess of tangled vines and bushes. It had been fenced off, but as usual an enterprising explorer had been there before us and forced the gate open. We went inside, clicking our flashlights on.
Inside the tunnel walls were pitted and damp, the floor covered in detritus fallen from the roof. We progressed through, only to find the far end nearly completely blocked off by land-slide dirt, but for a small chink of light at the top. We decided to climb for it, loose going on the unstable scree, but we made it. At the top the going became nearly impossible, until the cliff-side we were on became virtually sheer, and we had to quit.
Returning, we decided to park a little ways up on the main highway, above the dangerous spot between the narrow bridge and tunnel. Walking back down the road was terrifying, as cars whizzed by us really very close, and I constantly wondered if we’d get mashed into the guard-rail like a bunch of dumb little flies. We didn’t though, and made it to the little culvert. Mike scouted the back end and found a path leading down, and into the Isolation Ward.
It was much bigger than it first appeared, and one of the oldest and most rundown places we’ve visited. In every room the windows were gone, the wood degraded, the mattresses splayed in rotten straw, and bamboo stalks grew up through the floor. In several rooms we were startled by bats, who I suppose were startled by us.
In others the wreckage had been posed and prepared as if it was waiting for us to come along and capture it.
At the top I found the main ward room, laid out with four straw mattresses on the ground side by side. This was the shot I’d seen in other haikyo books, and the one that assured me we’d reached our goal. I soon cursed though my inability to properly capture it, as without a wide lens there was no way to get the whole room in. I had to content myself with backing up to the wall and going as wide as I could at 17mm.
This place more than any spurred me on to buy a super-wide lens, which I now have, and will be using with gusto at future locations.
Location – Izu
Entry – Over an avalanched road, through a tunnel, up a cave-in, along an overgrown road, then back to the highway, pull over, walk back fearing traffic spewing from the tunnel, down the side of the bridge and in.
Highlights – Bats, hay rooms, ancient.
RUINS / HAIKYO
You can see all MJG’s Ruins / Haikyo explorations here:
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