More often than not I barely have any information about the places I visit in advance. Sometimes I only saw a photo and have a general idea where to look for the location. It was like that when visiting the *Bibai Bio Center* – and the Horonai Substation was not much different. A red brick building somewhere in the middle of nowhere – and a road leading there. That was it. I didn’t expect a spectacular location… and I didn’t find one. Nevertheless it was a good exploration with an interesting history, the first one on my *haikyo trip to Hokkaido*. *Michael* thought so, too – although he almost paid a steep price for making a snow angel…
The Horonai Mine has an incredibly and unusually long history, dating back to the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Back then it was a time of new departures and Hokkaido still was kind of unknown territory. Japan recently opened itself to the world after more than two and a half centuries of information and immigration control, relying heavily on foreign experts to accomplish in a couple of decades what Europe and the States took about a century – industrialization. Just a decade prior Hokkaido was still known as Ezochi and for its renitent inhabitants, but the new government in the newly appointed capital Tokyo pushed for the development of Japan’s most northern prefecture… and population rose from 58.000 to 240.000 in the mere ten years of the 1870s. Agriculture and mining became the prefecture’s most important industries – and while agriculture is still important (especially wheat, potatoes, pumpkins, corn, raw milk, and beef), mining isn’t. The amount of abandoned mines in Hokkaido is incredible, but since most of them are in extremely rural areas, often hours away from bigger cities, we decided to visit the Horonai Coal Mine as an example – because it wasn’t completely out of the way, came with an electrical substation and, to our surprise, with the Horonai Shrine.
It wasn’t until writing this article though that I found out that the Horonai Mine was actually Hokkaido’s oldest modern mine and that Hokkaido’s first railroad, the Horonai Railway, was built to establish and operate the Horonai Mine. It’s said that in 1868 a local resident discovered coal in Horonai, but it wasn’t until 1872 that the village received any attention, leading to a survey in 1873. Expecting massive amounts of high quality coal in Horonai plans were made concrete in 1877 and money was raised through industrial bonds in 1878 after important statesmen like Ito Hirobumi and Yamagata Aritomo visited the area in previous years and campaigned to establish a mine. Further surveys were conducted in May of 1878 and the mine was opened on December 18th 1878, reaching full production almost four years later in June of 1882.
Plans for the Horonai Railway, necessary to transport the coal mined in Horonai to places where it could be used, were finalized in December of 1879, so construction of the railway began in January of 1880, installation began in July of the same year – technology and knowledge was imported from the United States by J.U. Crawford, who oversaw the railway construction project for the Japanese government; the line was officially opened on September 13th 1883 and was used for the transportation of passengers as well as coal.
In 1889 both the mine and the railroad were privatized, probably for little money, as both of them were not profitable at all. This happened a lot in the late 19th century in Japan, strengthening the so-called zaibatsu (gigantic family controlled holding companies, amongst them still famous corporations like Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Kawasaki), but also countless mid-sized companies (although sometimes even profitable companies were given away for a fraction of what they were worth…). Business continued for another 100 years and ended in 1989, when most of the buildings were demolished for security reasons – and because back then industrial heritage wasn’t considered worthy of preservation. (The Völklingen Ironworks in Völklingen, Germany, and the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, Germany, were actually spearheading the idea of maintaining old industrial buildings, becoming UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994 and 2001 respectively.)
A not so fun “fun fact”: Like many other mines in Hokkaido, Horonai was taking advantage of prison labor. Not only during times of war, but in the early years, both before and after privatization. In 1883 250 prisoners worked next to 228 general laborers. In 1890 there were 1.043 prisoners and 183 normal workers “employed”, the forced labor accounting for more than 80% of the work force, extraction and transportation almost exclusively relying on prison labor! (It was actually thanks to the prison laborers that the Horonai Mine survived the first couple of years. From 1882 to 1888 the mine was deep in the red with only one profitable year and couldn’t even afford to implement mechanized coal transport – that actually happened only after it was privatized and exploited prisoners as cheap labor for years. And after the extraction costs per ton of coal were cut down to one sixth over the course of six years till privatization in 1889.)
The Horonai Mine also gathered some local fame in Japan when it was used as the setting of the second Season of Survivor (サバイバー) in 2002 – after Palau, but before the Philippines and North Mariana. Probably the most original setting ever and by now much more exotic than all those islands in the Pacific Ocean; they look all the same to me anyway! (I usually don’t link to other people’s Youtube videos, but *here is the intro to that season* in 240p. Don’t miss the *video I took at mine in late November* in 720p!)
When we arrived on location the initial situation wasn’t promising. Several hundred meters before we reached the substation we had to park the car as the road was completely snowed in. Luckily there were tire tracks (we were able to walk in) from a more suitable vehicle, but the road itself wasn’t accessible with the small car we rented. As we got ready to walk up the hill we saw a guy and his dog coming back to their car. Nothing unusual, until we saw that the guy was carrying a rifle. Not the usual BB guns you have everywhere in Japan. A real friggin rifle! Even if he wasn’t shooting trespassers we were wondering what he was hunting in the forest ahead of us… and if his prey might want to get a shot at hunting us…
Nevertheless we followed the previously mentioned tire tracks deeper into the valley. To the right we saw several concrete ruins of the Horonai Mine, abandoned in 1989, when the mine was closed after 110 years. Everywhere along the road we found information signs (Japanese only…) and it seems like the area was converted into a “coal mine scene park” in 2005. It turned out that the first abandoned place on our trip wasn’t actually that abandoned, more like a tourist attraction – like the *Shime Coal Mine*, a.k.a. the *Anti-Zombie Fortress*. Of course there were no tourists seen anywhere, so I guess the place is only of interest in the snow-free summer months… and basically inaccessible the rest of the year. Michael of course was eager to head over to concrete remains, but given the deep snow and the unknown terrain I was able to convince him to look for the substation first – especially since the grey leftovers didn’t look like they contained anything interesting.
It took us about half an hour to walk from the parking lot to the substation and the tire tracks ended a couple of dozen meters before reaching our destination thanks to a collapsed tree on the road – from that point on we had to walk through the snow which was about 30 centimeters deep.
The Horonai Substation, a two-storey brick-clad concrete building, was built in the 1920s, more than 40 years after the mine was opened, and received its electricity from a coal fired power plant in Shimizusawa. That plant, which was fuelled by coal from the Yubari Mine, not the Horonai Mine, is still in existence and closed in 1991, but was not visited by yours truly as the roads leading there would have required a separate day trip.
Sadly there wasn’t that much to see: The metal constructions of the transformers and the brick covered building – locked by a solid chain, but luckily Michael found another way in. The building clearly was in use during summer months, featuring some kind of exhibition with lots of exhibits and huge control panels from the good old days.
More interesting was the Horonai Shrine, which obviously was completely covered by snow, too, and probably as half-abandoned as the Horonai Substation. Located right next to the substation on a small plateau up a slope, the shrine offered a nice view at the remains below. At that point it started to snow and I don’t know why, but there is an amazing peacefulness about deserted snow-covered shrines. Michael was still down at the substation, so all I heard was snow falling – perfect tranquility.
Overall the Horonai location wasn’t spectacular, but at that point I hadn’t explored many snow covered (more or less) abandoned places, so it was a good start into the trip!
Oh, after all those paragraphs about the mine’s history I almost forgot about the snow angel! It seems like either Michael or I have a serious amount of bad luck when exploring together. In spring I broke my D90 on our *haikyo trip to southern Honshu* – and I already mentioned Michael’s misstep at the *Hokkaido Sex Museum*. His bad luck started earlier though, when he insisted on making a snow angel on the way back to the car. I thought it was a bad idea in the first place as it was cold and he was jumping spine first onto unknown ground (concrete, rocks, metal, …), but everything went fine until the point when Michael first took off his glasses and then stood up shortly after, realizing that his glasses were gone. In a comedy movie kind of situation he asked me to watch my steps – the last words barely left his mouth when he moved one of his legs and we both heard a crushing sound. The spectacle frame under his boot wasn’t only bent, but broken. Well, bent and broken. Michael, the designated driver on this tour since my license isn’t valid in Japan, had some contact lenses with him, but they would have only last for two or three days – shorter than the trip. So on the way to our second hotel we were looking for a glasses store. 5 minutes to 8 p.m. (i.e. closing time) on a national holiday (!) I spotted one. Not only were they able to fix Michael’s glasses in a miracle operation taking almost half an hour, they did it for free and also give mine a new polish. Quite a few people complain about the (lack of post-buy) service in Japan (and I admit that sometimes it can drive you nuts!), but the glasses shops here are amazing and saved not only the day, but kind of the whole trip…