On a scorching hot day in late June, some 20 tourists were gazing at the fenced-off entrance of an abandoned tunnel named Taura Zuido (Taura Tunnel) in the Kanagawa Prefecture port city of Yokosuka.
Yoshiyuki Hiranuma, who was guiding that “Old Tunnels of Yokosuka” tour, explained that the Taura Zuido tunnel is 80 meters long and was constructed by local volunteers in 1893 as a shortcut for workers at a munitions factory.
“It was used until 1923, when a new and bigger tunnel was made,” Hiranuma, an authority on abandoned roads and tunnels, told the group.
“It is said that when the authorities constructed the new tunnel, they made sure it was high and wide enough for tanks to go through.”
Conjuring up not only history but past lives, too, Hiranuma went on to explain that Yokosuka has more than 150 tunnels because it has many hills and valleys. Since late in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when a military port was constructed there, he outlined how the city developed into a major naval base, with many of its tunnels built to house and transport munitions and other military materials — some, like Taura Zuido, by volunteer local labor.
The members of the tour organized by East Japan Railway Co. were clearly fascinated by what Hiranuma was telling them, and some appeared lost in a reverie of times past.
Indeed, one of those on the tour, Takao Takagi from Hayama in Kanagawa Prefecture, looked so excited as he explained, “This way I can see many tunnels that I cannot visit just as an individual. This kind of tour is very rare and it is so intriguing.”
The tour guide Hiranuma, who is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in abandoned roads, explained that tunnels exhibit a great diversity of designs, construction methods and purposes, and that this is just part of their appeal he hopes more people will become interested in.
Since 2004, Hiranuma has been posting pictures and reports on abandoned roads, tunnels and bridges in eastern Japan on his Web site at yamaiga.com, which typically logs around 7,000 views a day. He also coauthored a series of books titled “Haido wo Yuku” (“Traveling Obsolete Roads”), which has so far sold a very healthy 60,000 copies.
No doubt many of the 60-strong audience who turned up to hear a lecture Hiranuma gave at a bookstore in Chiba in mid-June had bought those books. In his talk, the author defined what are haido (obsolete roads) and discussed how many of them came about.
“Generally, when a new and more convenient road has been constructed, fewer people will use the old road rather than the new one,” Hiranuma said. “But because it takes money to maintain a road, those responsible for the old one will often stop spending on it. Then it falls into disrepair and may well just be abandoned.”
Until the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), very few wheeled vehicles were used in Japan, but in the rapidly modernizing Meiji Era that followed, horse-drawn carriages and wagons mimicking those in use in the West were gradually introduced — and they required new roads on which to run.
But by the time the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) took the throne in 1926, Hiranuma explained, those roads made for horse-drawn vehicles were becoming obsolete in Japan’s dawning automobile age. Consequently, enthusiasts can still find those old tracks and lanes on which horses provided the only horsepower there was.
However, it’s not just changing means of transport that can lead to roads becoming disused, Hiranuma pointed out — explaining that natural disasters and depopulation can also make that happen.
In his PowerPoint presentation to highlight the attractions of such forgotten byways, Hiranuma showed a picture of one of those Meiji Era roads he had talked about, commenting, “Look at this road with its stone fence, it’s so beautiful and elegant.”
Then he showed photos of bridges on such routes that have fallen into disuse as well, poignantly noting, “Obsolete roads, and bridges especially, let us feel sorrow.”
Indeed, it is the pathos and the beauty of abandoned roads that seemed to be their key appeal to the 32-year-old freelance writer — though he insisted those weren’t the only reasons he loved to seek out remote routes now largely grassed over.
“I have a mission to record the old abandoned roads by taking pictures of them and writing about them,” he said, citing as his driving force the comments about his photos that viewers of his Web site report. Typical of those comments, he said, “was one that said, ‘I used to walk on this road decades ago.’ ”
“When I get such reactions, I feel I am rewarded,” he said.
However, he also felt obliged to remind his audience that exploring old, abandoned roadways can be a dangerous pastime.
In particular, he reminded those who would follow in his footsteps that out there in the often long grass may lurk not only sharp leaves and spiky plants, but also mosquitoes and leeches. Then there can be falling rocks and sometimes even bears to watch out for, too.
Despite all that, though, Hiranuma concluded by confessing that he loves to explore abandoned roads . . . both for the adventure and to keep knowledge of them alive.