Naeba, Ghost Town / 廃墟の町、苗場

Naeba Niigata 新潟県 苗場

In my previous post I talked about the amazing underground music festival, Labyrinth. Being held in the town of Naeba (苗場), in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県), the trip would not have been complete without doing a bit of exploration. What my wife and I found while out walking around, however, is something that neither of us had been prepared for!

Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟 Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟
What we discovered is that Naeba is (no exaggeration) a ghost town! Walking around the aged ski resort town, we passed by numerous businesses, hotels and shops that have clearly had their doors closed for at least a decade or even longer. Much of the town has remained unchanged since the 1970s-80s, including even the Naeba Prince Hotel with its run down and weathered facade appearing to have almost nothing in common with the nationwide chain of exclusive, high-end Prince Hotels. Broken window glass, crumbling structures, and run-down properties abound in this poor town that's well past its prime, leaving visitors with an overall impression that's somewhat chilling when juxtaposed against the verdant greenery and crisp, clean air of its mountainous backdrop. It soon became apparent that aside from the two handfuls of people locally employed in the area, there was virtually no one in sight aside from the other music fans who were in town for Labyrinth.

Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟
Niigata Naeba 新潟県 苗場Niigata Naeba 新潟県 苗場

Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟While exploring the town, we experienced a range of emotional reactions touching upon loniless, melancholy and even mild trepidation. Naeba was obviously a trendy resort town decades ago and clearly enjoyed a lucrative tourism boom during the 1980s bubble economy. What's left of it now are the remains of a time long forgotten filled with faded memories, abandoned dreams and probably a number of ghosts and wandering spirits as well. In a discussion about the town, my wife, our friends and I speculated that perhaps the town comes alive in winter when the ski slopes are covered with fresh snow. It could be possible, but many of the chair lifts have clearly gone several years without maintenance, which makes this seem unlikely. I mentioned the experience to a co-worker whose grandparents were raised in, and still live in northern Niigata. She said that she remembers a time when Naeba was indeed an exceedingly popular vacation spot for skiers, but that it lost its popularity quite some time ago and is rarely mentioned as a travel destination nowadays. She was somewhat shocked that Naeba is the host of such a highly-acclaimed international electronic music festival. Indeed the locals must mire at the annual influx of visitors from overseas.

Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟
Niigata Naeba Ruins 新潟県 苗場廃墟

Sangoku Toyado Onsen, Honjin 三国峠温泉 本陣
Despite the gloomy and possibly even depressing tone of this post, something very nice did come of our visit aside from just the amazing musical performances at Labyrinth. We managed to make reservations at a lovely, albeit somewhat worn Japanese inn called the Sangoku Toyado Onsen, Honjin (三国峠温泉 本陣). Admittedly, the inn is in need of an update, but the decades-old feel of the place left my wife and I with heart-warming feelings of nostalgia, and we have zero complaints about the cleanliness of the establishment. Our room, with attached outdoor cedar bath was comfortable, our in-room course-meal dinner service was wonderful, and the multiple hot spring baths were just what we needed to help us feel refreshed and rested. Honjin was indeed and oasis of comfort in the middle of the eerie ghost town that is Naeba.

Sangoku Toyado Onsen, Honjin 三国峠温泉 本陣Sangoku Toyado Onsen, Honjin 三国峠温泉 本陣

Sangoku Toyado Onsen, Honjin 三国峠温泉 本陣Sangoku Toyado Onsen, Honjin 三国峠温泉 本陣

Other high-points of the trip worth mentioning are the two brief stop-overs at Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅) on the Joetsu Bullet Train line (上越新幹線). Yuzawa is a charming mountain town with quaint shopping streets and a fantastic train station that's packed with outstanding restaurants and shops, all featuring locally-produced products, foods, crafts and souvenirs. As Niigata Prefecture is famous for rice, sake and microbrews, these items are available there in great abundance and vast variety.

Naeba. What an unexpected and fascinating journey!
More photos are available here for anyone who's interested.


Labyrinth / ラビリンス 2014

Photo courtesy of @mindgameslab

Held each year, high in the mountains of the aging ski resort town of Naeba (苗場), in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県), Labyrinth is arguably one of the most important underground electronic music festivals of our time. The fest is three days of music showcasing the world's most cutting-edge artists, spanning a wide range of electronic music genres. Fans from all over the world gather to hear music legends and pioneers share their latest creations, many of which were composed or created especially for the event. Artists like Atom™, Burnt Friedman, Petar Dundov and Surgeon made their appearances against the crisp mountain backdrop as audiences danced and became entranced.

This year's festival (Sep 13-15) was a particularly special one since my close friend of two decades, Chicago-based DJ and producer Phonaut, was invited to take his place alongside the world's top artists, and make his international debut at Labyrinth 2014! Phonaut took the stage first thing in the morning on day three of the festival and played a 3-hour set that lasted the whole morning. As the morning matured, the crowd emerged, growing from wake to shake as the eclectic, experimental and phantasmic sounds of Phonaut's performance rolled and drifted from the stage's sophisticated and high-tech sound system.

I had the pleasure of enjoying an "I'm with the band" experience after being invited to hang out onstage during Phonaut's performance. This gave me a chance to get some candid photos and also allowed me to get a tiny taste of the event from his perspective, and allowed me a precious opportunity to see my good friend in a new light and to catch a fresh glimpse of his talent and newly-tapped music potential which is certain to grow all the more now that he's an international performer.

If any of my readers enjoy electronic music, I highly recommend checking out Phonaut and treating your ears to something fresh and innovative. His website, www.phonaut.com has lots interesting content as well as lots of music available for download. Also check out Phonaut's lineups on Mixcloud and Soundcloud. Finally, definitely check out last year's full length release on Carpe Sonum Records, the self-titled release by Indiana Drones, a collaboration between Material Object and Phonaut.

If you would like to check out more photos from the event, please visit my Picasa Album here.


Burger King Black Diamond Burger!

OK so I'm about a week late on this, but I wouldn't be doing my readers justice without a food review of the latest unusual offering from Burger King Japan, the Black Diamond (KUROヂアモンド) burger! I never eat at fast food franchise restaurants, so of course it took something as special as this to inspire me to order lunch at Burger King for the first time in over 20 years! So now I'm here to tell you about it!

As many folks already know, the bun and the cheese get their unique black color from being cured in a smoker fueled by bamboo smoke. Then there's the dark black sauce made from soy sauce, caramelized onions and squid ink! I had my doubts as to whether this would actually be good, because not only do I prefer to stay away from fast food like this, but I also assumed this would pretty much taste like a regular burger that's different only in appearance. Well, I was pleasantly surprised! The burger had a very mellow, distinctive smoky flavor that really accented the overall flavor. Whats more is that the taste of the squid ink was represented as well, bringing to mind the flavor of squid ink japanese pasta sauce; slightly salty and subtly sweet. I am surprised to be saying this, but it was delicious!

I think what surprised me all the more is that Burger King is pretty much a regular hamburger restaurant! The burgers are broiled when they're ordered and do not sit around under a heat lamp. I could see the staff preparing my lunch before me and I didn't expect that. Before today I hadn't eaten at Burger King in over 20 years so I'm no expert, but is this how BK operates in the U.S. as well? I always thought the sandwiches were made well in advance and kept warm. The food was made to order, which makes it slightly-less-than-fast food, but also made for a much better overall experience.

I guess my fast food franchise abstinence is now over, and I have no regrets. I definitely recommend this burger! Good stuff!


Manga: "1F The Chronicles of Labor at Fukushima #1 Nuclear Powerplant" (いちえふ)

Earlier this week I finished reading the first volume of the new manga, "1F The Chronicles of Labor at Fukushima #1 Nuclear Powerplant" (いちえふ 福島第一原子力発電所労働記) by "Kazuto Tatsuta" (竜田一人). **

First, a note about the artist's name. It is typed in quotes because this is a pen name, and his real name is not known. I find the name fascinating because "Tatsuta" (竜田) is the name of a small city that's quite nearby the crippled power plant (which I'm guessing is no coincidence). Despite it's close proximity, and despite it being all but deserted, Tatsuta still "operational" in that the town is pretty much the closest to the plant one can travel via public transportation, and a handful of businesses near the main train station are open. Also interesting to note is the alternate reading of the name "Kazuto," (一人) which is "hitori," meaning "alone" or "lone." "Alone in Tatsuta" is an image that is probably true much of the time in towns so close to the Fukushima #1 reactor.

Primarily, my interest in this manga comes from that fact that 1F is completely drawn and written by a laborer at the power plant, based entirely on his firsthand experiences working there. I don't think there can be a better source of factual and unbiased information about the situation than this!

When I first picked up this manga at the local book/CD shop I wasn't sure what to expect. Considering all the bad press and alarmist news reporting about the March 2011 accident and aftermath, what sort of story awaited me inside the pages, I could only imagine. A true life horror story? A tale of pending doom perhaps? What I found instead of such stories, is a story of hope, bravery, dedication and strong camaraderie. We've all heard the frightening stories of hazardous working conditions, contamination, unfair labor practices, etc etc. While it must be possible that a few of the stories are true, the reality of the laborers' daily work life at the Fukushima power plant appear to have very little in common with the stories from the rumor mill.

Many of the workers were born and raised in the Tōhoku area, in or around Fukushima Prefecture, but also lots of workers, like the artist himself, came from far away in order to find steady work and to have a chance to make a difference in the restoration of Northeastern Japan. The workers at the power plant work extremely hard to restore safety to the site. Safety is by far the most important concern for the laborers and contractors working there.  Each and every day begins with a long sequence of donning protective gear, proceeds with continuous safety measures, and ends with a complete evaluation, or "survey" of each worker's health. While radiation is of course inevitable, the workers' daily exposure is quite minimal, and every laborer's daily exposure is recorded. When they've reached their maximum permitted exposure for the year, they cannot return to work at the plant until the following year.

The story of 1F is very fascinating and immediately drew me in, allowing me to identify with the characters in such a way that I really look forward to seeing what they're up to. It's by no means an easy life, but the workers at the Fukushima #1 Power Plant have lives deserving of respect, honor and admiration. If there's any aspect of their situation that could be considered unsettling, it's that considering the work they do, their pay is surprisingly low. If something could be done about that, that would be a wonderful thing for them.

All these things aside, being a work of manga, readers must wonder, "how's the artwork?" In short, I love it! The images convey a certain playful friendliness that help bring the characters closer to our hearts. The story is informative and interesting, at times funny, and at other times inspiring. The artwork never fails to communicate these feelings, and besides this, 1F gives the readers a close up and personal look at a world we could never know otherwise.

The first volume is a complete story all it's own, but still I hope we can expect more volumes of 1F soon from this mysterious artist known at Kazuto Tatsuta.

** NOTE: The English language title of this manga is my own translation. I was not able to locate an official English title, but if one exists and/or I've gotten it wrong, please leave a comment. Thanks!