Out-of-use historic hotel, temple ruins in Japan draw visitors

KOBE - As the ropeway cleared the trees, a stunning panoramic view of Kobe's urban areas and Osaka Bay unfolded. If you shift your gaze down on Mt. Maya, you can make out the ruins of a building almost hidden in the trees.

Built in the early years of the Showa era (1926-89), the now-defunct Maya Kanko Hotel has been closed for about a quarter of a century. The building, along with others on the mountain, including the remains of a temple and tea house, are collectively referred to as the "Maya ruins."

This group of ruins is now a popular destination for guided walking tours.

If you walk down for about half an hour from Maya Ropeway's Hoshi no Eki station near the top of Mt. Maya, you arrive at the site where Tenjoji temple once stood. The original temple structures were destroyed in a 1976 fire and later rebuilt at another place in the neighborhood.

The temple has been considered sacred as a guardian of women, partly because the temple has a statue of Maya, Buddha's mother, that was presented by Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai, 774-835), a great monk who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism.

The mountain is said to have been named after the statue.

I descended the 300 stone steps on which pilgrims would walk up to the temple. When I looked back, I found an amazing spectacle: The combination of the steep steps and stone walls built high on the sides reminded me of the ancient Mayan pyramids of Central America.

"The geographical name here isn't the only reason why they are called the 'Maya ruins,'" said Kenichi Utsumi, 51, the secretary general of a group that organises the walking tour in the area.

Another hour of walking takes you to Maya Kanko Hotel's four-story concrete building. Many of its windowpanes are broken, ivy covers the walls and rusty steel rods jut out here and there.

With the deteriorated concrete threatening to collapse at any moment, it is forbidden to enter the structure, but you can walk around the outside and admire the elegantly curved walls and the round windows that recall those on a ship, making you wonder at how gorgeous it would have been in the past.

"Visiting the ruins makes me realise how much time has passed and how fragile everything is in this world," said Taisei Yoshino, 28, a tour participant from Saitama Prefecture.

"It's great I can find evidence that tells us someone once used this place, such as empty beer bottles left in cases."

The area was developed for tourism after a funicular railway opened in 1925 to take pilgrims to Tenjoji temple. Maya Kanko Hotel started its business in 1929 as Maya Onsen Hotel, which offered an onsen, grand dining hall and entertainment area.

However, the funicular suspended its service in 1944 during World War II, which caused a stop in the flow of visitors to the hotel.

The railway resumed operation in 1955, the same year the ropeway service started.

The hotel resumed business under the new name in 1961 but was forced to close its doors again after suffering damage from massive downpours six years later.

The facility was then used mainly as a student centre before finally closing for good in 1993.

The general public is not allowed to enter the hotel, but it became famous mainly because it was used in movies, prompting many people to sneak in illegally.

Fearing someone could get hurt, Utsumi's group started the walking tour by getting permission from the hotel's owner. The tour is usually provided once or twice every month for 20 people, with spots snapped up minutes after becoming available. Participants have included tourists coming from as far away as Taiwan and Hong Kong.

"I hope participants can get a sense of the sheer energy people in the past put into building a large hotel and temple in the middle of a mountain beyond the reach of cars," Utsumi said.

The walking tour has inspired the launch of another project seeking to have the hotel ruins registered as a tangible cultural property. J-Heritage, a Kobe-based nonprofit organisation, and others conducted a crowdfunding drive from June to August to seek ¥5 million (S$60,000) necessary to examine the site to apply for the status. The donations eventually totaled ¥7.3 million.

"We will [use the financial support to] let visitors safely enjoy viewing the ruins while at the same time preserving their beauty," said Yohei Maehata, 38, who oversees the NPO.

The walking tour takes about two hours over 1.2 kilometers and costs ¥1,770 per person. To apply for a spot on the tour, visit www.mayasan.jp/mayaruins (some English is available on the site when booking).