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Abandoned North Dakota Gas Station

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Creekside Gas & Auto Repair is an abandoned gas station in Bottineau, North Dakota. The gas station is approximately 50km from the Canadian border. Minimal information is available about when the property became abandoned. However, the pump on the right reveals a fuel price of $1.699, which (according to historical fuel price information) leads me to believe Creekside Gas & Auto Repair has been abandoned for at least a decade.

Incidentally, the current president of Cargill Inc., Gregory R. Page, hails from Bottineau. One of the first abandonments I explored in Buffalo was the Cargill Pool Elevator.

Abandoned Japanese World War 2 Underground Bunker

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Deep underground in the Kanagawa region of Japan is a series of tunnels spanning 27km (according to conservative estimates). They were built during World War 2 as protection from United States air raids. The tunnel system was intricate; it was home to a 500 bed hospital, power plant, numerous warehouses and even a submarine factory!

During my recent six week trip to Japan, our crew of urban explorers crawled down through a dark and claustrophobic tunnel to make our entrance into a section of the tunnel system. Naturally, we posed for a group photo.

Our team of urban explorers in the Mutsuura Underground Bunker.

The Unknown Path Well Worn

Tuesday, December 27, 2011
This is the second in a series of articles about my recent adventures in Japan.

The concourse echoes with emptiness. All but two security guards appear to occupy the cavernous space. A rush of empathy hits me as I recall the lone crewman exploring his barren hometown of Edmonds, Washington in the novel On the Beach.

I fish the large receipt out of my backpack that I purchased at JTB International (Canada) in Toronto two days earlier. This receipt will be a golden ticket to easily accessible travel on Japan's legendary rail system. But first, I need to exchange the receipt for a miniature booklet which will become my metaphorical source of ultimate power while slingshotting to and from Nagasaki.

The ticketing office (revealed by the bright green sign with large JR lettering I was instructed to look for by the JTB agents) is soon closing, so their small staff politely gesture me to sit down and quickly complete the process.

Setting up the Japan Rail Pass requires my hotel’s name, which I do not have committed to memory. I begin the process of retreiving it from my iPhone’s email cache. This proves to be a time consuming effort, so a clerk transfers me to a neighbouring ticket office. Eventually, a Japan Rail Pass and Reserved Seat Ticket are in my possession. All of this was accomplished with incredible politeness from the agents and minimal spoken English.

I proceed to the underground station in anticipation of my first ride on the legendary Japanese rail system.

An iPhone 4 photo of my newly acquired Japan Rail Pass and ticket to Tokyo Station.

The Japan Rail Pass is recommended as the easiest and cheapest method of rail travel for foreigners in Japan. With a flash of the pass at ticketing gate booths, foreign travellers gain quick access to train platforms while all other travellers flow through often crowded turnstiles. As I wave my pass at the booth's clerk, I temporarily fool myself into believing I’ve acquired Jedi powers.

While standing patiently on the platform waiting for the train to arrive at the station, I become bemused by the odd mixture of English and Japanese in the rail system. There are numbers where I expect Japanese symbols and vice versa. I feel somewhat prepared for this, thanks to the ever popular All Your Base meme. It still requires a few extra seconds to ensure I haven't taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

A typical train departure sign with a mix of Japanese and English characters.

The train arrives and I enter a virtually empty Car 9. The empathetic rush continues. As I seat myself, I notice only a few other passengers. There are three seats in my row, so I set my backpack on the seat beside me and get settled in for the ride to Tokyo Station in the heart of Tokyo.

Within a few minutes, a stereotypically looking Japanese businessman is standing in the aisle beside me and, while showing me his ticket, gestures that I move aside. I briefly pan my eyes around the nearly empty train car, then innocently shrug and slide my backpack and myself over one seat each. I humourously wonder to myself if seating us side by side in a nearly empty train car is a method of indoctrinating foreigners into Japan's infamous style of minimal personal space? Then, using surprisingly clear and tense English, he says, “You should read your ticket.” He proceeds to light up a cigarette (I was assigned to the smoking car) and begins to quietly read.

The ride to Tokyo Station is rather low key, so I return to reading the Steve Jobs biography. Occasionally, I lift my eyes away from the page to see the vistas of Japan zoom past under a nearly full moon sky. The first bright sign that flows past is, of course, the golden arches of McDonalds. I grin to myself with an additional eye roll and dive into the next tale of Steve Jobs’ early temperament.

As the train pulls into Tokyo Station, I prepare for the first adventure on the road to Hashima Island - actually finding Tong and our hotel!

Tong’s friend Kuni, who lives in Tokyo, has graciously made hotel arrangements on our behalf for the night and will be joining us for a few hours. Originally, we planned to meet in Tokyo Station, but they understandably decided to wait for me in the hotel versus standing around for hours in Tokyo Station. It’s up to me to find my way to the hotel on my own.

My feet lead me off of the train and into the busy station. The empathetic rush fades. My goal is to get to a central location in the complex and search for a directory map with some kind of “You Are Here” indicator. I spot a large map display at the top of the concourse ramp.

While at the Vancouver airport, I captured a Google Maps screenshot of Tokyo Station and its surrounding area. Out comes my iPhone and I swipe through numerous photos to get to the image of that map. I pause for a second and decide to flip back a few photos to one I passed of my sister Arlene. This brings to mind a conversation we had just before I left for Japan, when she assured me I’d be alright on the trip and my instincts would carry me through any potentially difficult moments. Always appreciating a little inspiration, I decided to make that photo my wallpaper to have it serve as a constant reminder to stick to my instincts and, as Arlene would say, “Just do it!”. On a deeper level, Arlene simply inspired me to remember how my Dad approached all intense situations - with a calm, yet quick ability to assess a situation and determine a sound course of action.

After a few minutes of comparing my iPhone map image to the station’s map, I realize the Pearl Hotel Yaesu’s location is not indicated. There are several hotel icons, but none of them are marked with my hotel’s name. Now what?

To be continued...

Adventures in Japan

Sunday, November 27, 2011
This is the first in a series of articles about my recent adventures in Japan.

Japan will be a trip of firsts.

It will be the first time leaving North America since a family trip to England when I was six years old.  In hindsight, due to youth, that trip almost feels like a dream that never happened.  In every way imaginable, going to Japan feels like the first continental adventure.

It will be the first time visiting a primarily non-English speaking country.  Curiosity begs an answer to the question of whether or not the power of body language can really overcome the crutch of linguistics.

At the apex of my thoughts is how the safety net will be truly absent for the first time.  Previous urban exploration adventures all had a fallback - readily available cell/web communications, similar languages and currencies, a group of travel companions to rely on - forms of control over the situations of "planned spontaneity" I would get myself (and fellow urban explorers) into.  But not this time.

The only real fallback will be Tong, who I’ll meet up with in Tokyo.  Tong is a well travelled, analytical thinker who can understand some characters of the Japanese language (I like to joke that he knows 18% Japanese due to his Asian heritage).  However, with our exact plans still somewhat undefined as we’re about to converge upon Japan, even he displays an air of uncertainty in our email exchanges leading up to the adventure.

The adventure will be simple, in theory: illegally land on an abandoned island 10km off the southwestern coast of Japan, evade being sighted by sea patrols and other vessels for (an unprecedented) eight continuous hours, then escape the island without being caught. theory?

Hashima Island was a coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi from 1887 to 1974 and sits in the East China Sea, approximately 15km off the coast from Nagasaki, Japan.  Due to the island’s shape, derelict high-rise structures and sea walls it often goes by the nickname Battleship Island.  By 1959, Hashima Island had the highest population density in the world, housing 5,259 people (an average of 139,100 people/km2) in a multitude of concrete buildings on 15 acres of land.  After the island’s operations closed 37 years ago, it became off limits to the public and the slow process of dereliction commenced.

Hashima Island photographed from the East China Sea

Very few people have had the opportunity to explore Hashima Island. After our urban exploration adventures at the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans in June, Tong proposed the idea of exploring Hashima Island in November (he will already be in southeast Asia for work). I mentioned having an urban explorer contact on Twitter (@ikumi_urbex) hailing from Japan who had previously served as a guide to the island for a limited number of other urban explorers. I offered to initiate communications with her via email and see what happens. Ikumi responded immediately, in broken translated English, with a very positive, upbeat reply. And so the journey began.

Ikumi, our guide on Hashima Island

Four months later, after numerous email exchanges (some through a small network of friends providing intermediary translations), we're on our way to meet up in Japan. Arrangements for Hashima Island have been made on our behalf, with guidance from Tong and I on some available options. We've been informed to meet in Nagasaki at a specific hotel and time and prepare for the urban exploration adventure of a lifetime. But first...

Flying can be an excellent source of focus. The constrained environment forces you to concentrate on tasks or emotions on your mind (especially if you aren't comfortable sleeping on planes). During the long flight to Tokyo (with a layover in the beautiful Vancouver airport) I'll do some writing, read large portions of the Steve Jobs biography, and mentally prepare for the pending Japanese adventure.

An iPhone 4 photo of Narita Airport's international visitor's greeting sign

After landing at Narita Airport and getting through customs (a surprisingly easy task), the bottom of the airport’s concourse escalator becomes a temporary homebase for myself and my large green suitcase. Immediately, expectations of having no cell signal and no way to call Tong are confirmed. The airport’s wifi becomes too weak in the concourse, so the time arrives to test my instincts and intuition(1). I have to figure out how to meet up with Tong without the assistance of digital technology or any understanding of the Japanese language.

To be continued...

1. I try to live a paperless life, so I have no printouts with me. Yes, I admit this tends to artificially enhance my adventures. ;)

Ten Years Gone: Reflections on 9/11

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Here we are, ten years after that fateful September day when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by terrorists hijacking commercial planes. Like millions have done today, I took time to think about the events of 9/11 and where I was (both physically and figuratively) in my own life. I also thought about how a significant date becomes a marker in time for annual reflection.

On September 11, 2001, I was working as a Web Developer at my first technology job, an eLearning start-up. My morning routine consisted of arriving at work shortly after 9:00am, reading a bit of news, grabbing an almond vanilla coffee, then doing research or web programming until lunch. The first website I would launch was Slashdot. I typed their URL into Mozilla (yes, I was an early adopter of their fledgling browser) and waited for the website to load. Sensing something was wrong with our servers (given Slashdot's established uptime reliability), I asked a co-worker if our company Internet connection was having issues. He said a plane or missle had hit the World Trade Center and rumours of it being a terrorist attack was causing extreme Internet congestion. Slashdot eventually loaded with some brief snippets of news about the attacks. Google's home page was the only other online source for small tidbits of news. Every other major website was down.

For the previous five years, the eleventh day of September had a different meaning for me than most people. My Mom died on September 11, 1995 after a short battle with cancer. For the next five years, I would wake up on that date with thoughts of her heavy on my mind. I would lose concentration throughout the day reflecting on my life with her in it and the gaping wound her absence had created.

But now, the bastards had stolen the date from me.

The bastards stole it from thousands that day. They created grief and loss where it didn't have to exist. Family members were lost in the attacks when they should have come home that night. Kids needlessly lost their parents. As David Letterman put it (during his first Late Show episode after the attacks): "if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any goddamned sense?"

There was no stopping the cancer that took my Mom from us. It was heartless, savage and unrelenting. It proceeded with one goal in mind - to destroy life. When medicine gave up, my Dad stepped in and did everything he could to stop the cancer. There were a few successes, but eventually she lost the battle and we were left to pick up the pieces.

The people that suffered during (and after) 9/11 shouldn't have had to endure the same sense of loss and tragedy as myself and my family.

Humanity is capable of such amazing things. In 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was directed to photograph the Phoenix Lander during its descent onto to the Martian surface. This is what we're really capable of accomplishing.

Creative Options in Waterloo, my location during the 9/11 attacks. I returned here today to grab a photo.
10-22mm, handheld HDR, f/8.0, ISO 100


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