Why ‘Queen of ruins’ is to be cultural asset

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The abandoned Maya Kanko Hotel is seen in Nada Ward, Kobe. The building is usually off-limits.

KOBE — An abandoned hotel in Kobe is expected to be registered as a national cultural property.

The dilapidated Maya Kanko Hotel is more than 90 years old, but there are people nationwide who appreciate these types of buildings. They refer to the hotel as the “queen of the ruins.”

I visited the old building to find out why it was being considered a cultural asset and ended up experiencing something completely new.

Falling apart

I took the Maya Cable Car from the foot of Mt. Maya in Nada Ward, Kobe. After a five-minute-long climb up the steep mountain, I arrived at Niji no Eki station.

As I got off the cable car, I saw a sign warning passersby that the area was off-limits. I was only able to walk onto the premises after getting permission. Walking down the half-broken stairs, an enormous ivy-covered building with trees and weeds growing on its roof came into view.

I entered the hotel from its second floor — the floor that houses its great lecture hall.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A large dining hall is seen with a bar counter in the foreground.

The air was cool and damp. The wind was free to pass through the windows as almost all of them were broken. The hall — roughly the size of a school gymnasium — is said that to have been used to show movies or hold lectures.

Now, pieces of mortar and broken glass lie scattered across the floor. There was also a puddle of rainwater.

Heading down another set of stairs, I took a further look around the building. Large windows fit within curved walls and a kitchen with a bar counter still remain in what was once a large dining hall. However, I was surprised to come across Japanese-style toilets, as they didn’t fall in line with the rest of the Western-style structure and interior. The entire place was falling apart.

It all began in 1925 with the first operations of the Maya Cable Car and the beginning of development on the top of Mt. Maya. The cable car operator opened the hotel in 1930 as a recreational mountain resort with hot spring baths and a large dining hall, according to Hyogo Heritage Organization H2O Kobe, an organization working to preserve the hotel.

Seeing a modern structure of this kind, designed in the Art Deco style with semicircular walls and windows, was rare in those days.

The powerful image of it standing on the side of the mountain reminded people of a warship, apparently leading some locals to nickname it the “warship hotel.”

However, it has been ravaged by time. The hotel has remained standing through many hardships, including World War II, typhoons, the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the hotel caretaker’s declining health. Until finally, in the late 1990s, the building was made off-limits.

Still, there are those who appreciate these types of neglected buildings.

“The balance between nature trying to absorb a man-made structure, and the structure trying to resist, has created these extraordinary spaces,” said Yohei Maehata, director general of J-heritage, an organization working to preserve industrial heritage.

As internet use became more prevalent, the hotel became more well-known. The building eventually came to be known as the “queen of the ruins.” However, the more well-known the hotel became, the more people began to trespass onto the property. As a result, demolition was being considered.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A room in the Maya Kanko Hotel is seen with its floor-to-ceiling windows.

Understanding its value

“The building oozes the latest Western trends of the time,” said Eiki Matsubara, a director of H2O Kobe and first-class architect.

The old hotel shows how mountain resorts of the past used to look. This was a key point for its selection as a cultural property.

But I still was unconvinced that a building in such disrepair could become a cultural property.

When I asked a Cultural Affairs Agency official, they said, “As long as certain features and other historical aspects are not lost, and if the community is willing to preserve and maintain it, even an abandoned building can be registered.”

I finally understood what it means for something to have cultural value. The building displays the features and characteristics of the era in which it was built, and it is well-loved by the community.

Kenichi Utsumi, a member of a local group working to revitalize Mt. Maya, said, “We realized its importance after it became popular among those outside the region.”

The group has organized guided walking tours once a month since March 2017. The walks also serve as a patrol to prevent crime.

“Things built by humans will disappear one day,” he said. “I want people to feel that sense of sadness from the abandoned building.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun