Mukainokura is probably the most famous ghost town in all of Japan as it was featured in many books and by many websites. It is also quite easily accessible by ghost village standards – it’s less than 10 kilometers away from the next train station (more like 6 km actually) and you can drive right up to it if you have a car. And since it’s on top of a hill in the mountains of Shiga prefecture, there are millions of potential visitors from all over Kansai.
Mukainokura was the first ghost town I ever visited, back in the spring of 2010 – and the last location I ever visited with my colleague and dear friend *Enric*, since only weeks later his fugue kicked in and he left the company we both worked for back then.
Spending a sunny spring day hiking with a friend in the Japanese countryside is as good as a day can get in my book. And so Enric and I passed several beautiful temples, shrines and rice fields on our way to the mountains. Back then there was way less information about Mukainokura on the internet, including GoogleMaps, so of course we overshot the side road taking us to the deserted town by a couple of kilometers. After walking back on the beautiful valley road along a small river we finally hiked up the mountain. Almost 200 meters height difference on a length of about 700 or 800 meters – I can see why that village was abandoned! The location was beautiful, but going up and down that slope on a daily basis must have been a pain… Which applies to a lot of villages in the area, about a dozen, all abandoned. Mukainokura is just the most famous one.
Mukainokura was founded halfway through Japan’s most famous era, the Edo Period (or Tokugawa Period), in the early 18th century. Back then people were living off agriculture and by producing charcoal. Growing slowly for one and a half centuries Mukainokura was home to 95 people in 1880, living in about 20 houses. Although in the 1920s the production of ogatan, Japanese charcoal briquettes made from sawdust, brought a more advanced source of income to Mukainokura, the number of inhabitants decreased quickly when gas, oil and electricity replaced charcoal everywhere in Japan after World War 2 – and younger people moved from mountain towns to the big cities in the plains. Mukainokura had:
52 inhabitants in 1960
43 inhabitants in 1965 (12 households – 17 male, 26 female)
10 inhabitants in 1970 (3 households – 5 male, 5 female)
3 inhabitants in 1975 (2 households – 2 male, 1 female)
2 inhabitants in 1980 (2 households – 1 male, 1 female)
0 inhabitants in 1985
After more than 25 years of abandonment there was not much left of Mukainokura. About a dozen wooden houses (half of them completely collapsed, the other half partly), scattered across an area of several hundred square meters, connected by tiny paths, short staircases and terraces. More than two dozen winters with heavy snowfalls left the remaining houses in a dilapidated state – beyond repair actually. Nevertheless a couple of houses were still accessible and full of everyday items like magazines, china, photos, bottles, boxes and cans.
I guess in 2010 Mukainokura had more visitors than in 1980. During our two hour long visit Enric and I ran into four different groups having a look at the abandoned town. From a elderly couple that might have been born here to an early twen couple wearing designer clothes – the guy behind the wheel of the sports car showing his trophy girlfriend the spooky dark side of their home country… All of them were driving up the paved road, not walking, like us and for centuries the inhabitants of Mukainokura did.
The two most vivid memories I have of Mukainokura involved nature though. When Enric and I strolled through the ghostly remains of the village Enric spotted a wild monkey in the forest. It was ignoring us completely, minding its own business – sadly I wasn’t able to get a photo of the furry fella. Right before we were leaving Mukainokura we were following signs to the Ido Jinja, the “Well Shrine” (井戸神社). Turns out that this shrine near Mukainokura’s well is quite famous till this very day, featuring signs that were clearly put up after Mukainokura was abandoned (one was dated, 1991, others looked even newer). The shrine was (and is) accompanied by a Katsura tree 39 meters tall and 11.6 meters in girth, according to the sign 400 years old. A wonderfully tranquil place and the perfect location to stop by before heading home…