Saturday, 15 August 2009

Yubari - It's not dead! Look, it just twitched!

I've mentioned Yubari before, and it's a pretty famous place all over Japan for two main reasons.

One) They grow these incredible sweet melons that are really expensive and highly sought after.

Two) It's dying.

The town is dying that is. Yubari's boom years were rooted in coal mining, and like in the UK, when the mines closed down the down was gutted. The town council borrowed what I imagine to be a ridiculous amount of money to stimulate tourism to the area, hoping to make it a tourist hot-spot to compensate for the loss of their industry. They organised an international film festival (that apparently, Quentin Tarantino attended) and built a robot museum that I watched being demolished on TV last year. Have you ever seen a giant robot being torn down by a JCB? No-one should ever have to watch something like that! It's like watching a unicorn being mauled by a rugby team.

So the town famously went bankrupt, and people have been referring to it as a "dying town" ever since. The film festival still exists I think, possibly every other year and driving through the centre of Yubari city there are lots of classic film posters blown up on the sides of buildings all over town. That part looks pretty cool, but the town just feels so deserted. We were travelling during the Obon vacation and Furano was busy as hell, but Yubari was like the Marie Celeste. After hitting the "Welcome to Yubari" sign we drove for ages, hitting clusters of buildings and wondering... is this the city? Is this the city? And when we finally got there, the buildings were bigger but there were just as few people. I feel so sorry for the town, because the kind of tourism they wanted to bring there just seems to unlikely in that location. Furano is in a broad valley, with fields and flowers and wide open spaces. Yubari is really in the mountains, and not easily accessible from anywhere. They have a big ski resort there, Mount Racey, which I imagine does well for itself in the winter but otherwise...

Wikipedia says they've started demolishing the amusement park, which we almost went to (we had no idea, so that would have been darkly amusing), but we ended up not travelling that far on the road out of town, and instead stopped at the one place in Yubari that was busy: Hanabatake Bokujou.

Hanabatake Bokujou (Flower Garden Farm), I also mentioned before. It's a farm that's owned by an ex TV personality, specializes in fresh, soft caramel and ice-cream and in the words of Mugatu - is so hot right now.

Really, people get silly about visiting Hanabatake Bokujou. There is plenty of other nama karameru (fresh caramel) around and plenty of other ice cream, but this place is flavour of the month so... Well, at least the guy is doing something good with his fortuitous prosperity. In Yubari there's a huge Hanabatake Bokujou, with a cafe, ice-cream hut, shop and a workshop where you can watch the caramel being made.

Then up on the hill above that is the heartbreakingly named "Yubari Hill of Hope" where Hanabatake Bokujou has built another cafe, a hands on caramel workshop and even a cinema. It's all good investment for the area, but our eyebrows were raised in scepticism since a couple of hundred metres away one of Yubari's old tourist destinations was like a ghost town.

That's the entrace to the Yubari Coal Museum complex. Eventually we did find some other people, but it took a while. The souvenier shops and cafes here were locked up, the boating lake was closed, the fossil museum looked like it shut up early... man it was a depressing place, if somewhat cool in an eerie way. The Coal Museum itself was open though, and actually much better than I'd ever imagined a coal museum would be.

There were all the things you'd expect from a coal museum: What is coal? Where does coal come from? The wonder of coal! There were some notable lumps of coal and lots of cutaway models of coal mines, then at the end there was an elevator that - somewhat unbelievably - simulated the terrifying descent into a mine. A coal mine that is, not a caramel mine or a land mine. The mine really was underground though, it was cold and damp - so damp in fact that moisture was trickling down the walls and covering the cheesy mannequins and wearing away at the displays. It looked shabby as hell, but perhaps they were letting it all rot to show people just how hard life was down there. Me, I've read Germinal and I know that coal mining is just no bloody fun at all. We got to wear hard-hats and go even further underground before we finally climbed back into the daylight and gave our hard hats to a man who was probably having a pretty quiet day.

I should mention, check all of this out on my flickr coz there's a lot more photos. You can get more flavour and goodness that way.

So Yubari: come to witness a town fighting for survival and stay to enjoy the ice-cream and possibly a film fesitval next year. And buy some melons while you're about it why don't you?

1 comment:

  1. Hey have you been to that sewage museum yet?? I'm thinking i'd definitely take the coal over the sewage but I need a nice review so I can make an informed decision.