Still Forsaken: Kyoto University’s Kumano Dorm

As I wrote in January, one of the most forsaken places I've ever seen is Kyoto University's Kumano Dorm (京都大学熊野寮). It's right here in the city, but once you enter the grounds, it feels as if you're visiting the long-abandoned remains of a war-ravaged society. Wandering the grounds, only the word “forsaken” seems to do justice to the ambiance. It's otherworldly eerie.

“Kyoto University Kumano Dorm” -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 28mm — 1/160 sec, f/6.3, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
“Kyoto University Kumano Dorm”

Since my visit last fall when I took these pictures, I've learned a bit about why it is the way it is from my friend Shimada-san. During the student unrest common around the world in the late 60s and early 70s, radical leftist students took over the dorm, requiring the government to reclaim it by force. As part of the resolution, it was decided that the students would administer all aspects of the dorm's existence, receiving from the university only minimal financial support.

Without adult supervision, you really can't expect a bunch of college kids to administer a hot-dog stand for a long weekend, much less expect revolving generations of kids to administer a complex of buildings for 35+ years. I'm sure that over the years there have been students who felt a mature sense of responsibility for themselves and their actions, but for the most part it seems that if a resident broke something (accidentally or purposefully), there were no repercussions, and no authority to come along and fix it. Forsaken.

According to this history of the dorm, it seems that one of the first decisions the students made was to admit women. I must admit that I would have done the same. 🙂

View From the Entrance -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 17mm — 1/125 sec, f/10, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
View From the Entrance

From the road, the place has the drab and depressing look of a prison, a look common to educational institutions in Japan (particularly high schools). From the entrance, aside from a huge pile of abandoned appliances stacked up against the edge of one building (left side in the picture above), there's little to indicate the despair that awaits within. In fact, the large number of bicycles neatly parked in the large front area hints at the bustle of life inside.

You don't have to wander far before things start looking down.

Along the Front Fence -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 26mm — 1/160 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
Along the Front Fence

Beside the abandoned car is a massive tangled pile of abandoned bicycles. It's well covered with weeds, but being right against the front fence, is visible from the street.

The big pile of abandoned bicycles is actually an indication of the more mature nature of the students, having taken the trouble to discard them in one place. Not all have been so heavily burdened by a sense of community, discarding their vehicles randomly around the grounds....

Nice Spot for a Picnic -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 30mm — 1/640 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
Nice Spot for a Picnic
Scooters Congregated Mostly Over Here -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 30mm — 1/100 sec, f/4, ISO 1100 — map & image datanearby photos
Scooters Congregated Mostly Over Here

The stickers on the scooters' licence plates indicate that their compulsory insurance had been prepaid through 1994 and 1995. (Frankly, they look in remarkably good shape for not having been street legal for at least the last 12 years.)

Not Junk -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 24mm — 1/250 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
Not Junk

The vegetation had been cleared from one area to make way for a large skateboarding ramp, with the furniture in the photo above being where the spectators would sit.

Fire Exit -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 17mm — 1/100 sec, f/8, ISO 500 — map & image datanearby photos
Fire Exit

The photo above shows the far end of a long, thin dorm building, the same one mentioned earlier as being visible from the entrance with the stacks of abandoned appliances. At the bottom of the stairs, behind a tall and thick wall of junk, is the first-floor exit.

Someone's Dorm-Room Door -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 23mm — 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1000 — map & image datanearby photos
Someone's Dorm-Room Door

All the buildings seemed to be designed the same way, with the hallway servicing the dorm rooms being technically inside the building, but with huge windows (may broken) so that it feels as if the hallway is half outside.

The picture above looks through one such window, across the hallway to the brownish door of a student's room. Looking at the larger version (click on the image), you can see that there are various things scrawled on the door and its window. The big red text, which likely dates back to the 70s, warns that members of a rival communist group must keep out. (Although the students were united against the authorities during the unrest, rival factions often fought against each other as well.)

On the door's window, it looks to the pledge of some guy named Tanimoto to give up alcohol (dated Sep 30, 1988).

Looking in the hallway window, down the hall, reveals more gloom and an impressive collection of large beer bottles.

100 Bottles of Beer on the Floor, 100 Bottles of Beer.... -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 17mm — 1/80 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600 — map & image datanearby photos
100 Bottles of Beer on the Floor, 100 Bottles of Beer....

Having been built in 1965, the rooms are apparently quite spacious by today's standards, but still lacking space, students store their things in the hallway, and in the case below, in the stairwell. (A fire marshall seeing this would probably spontaneously implode.)

Stairwell Entrance -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 17mm — 1/45 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600 — map & image datanearby photos
Stairwell Entrance
Jungle -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 17mm — 1/160 sec, f/13, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
Jungle

Behind the rear-most building is a “lawn” of sorts, closer to a jungle. Looking at the large version of the picture above, you can see a bazillion gossamer wires draping from the roof, placed there as students placed their own antenna on the roof and wired it to their room.

The dorm got hot water in the communal showers only in 1991, and apparently it broke down quickly thereafter, so something like a TV antenna must be a luxury.

Between two of the buildings is an elegant water feature and courtyard....

Fountain of Elegance -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 17mm — 1/100 sec, f/8, ISO 450 — map & image datanearby photos
Fountain of Elegance
Extra Storage -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 55mm — 1/60 sec, f/8, ISO 1600 — map & image datanearby photos
Extra Storage
Signs of Recent Life -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 44mm — 1/100 sec, f/4.5, ISO 500 — map & image datanearby photos
Signs of Recent Life

I didn't see a single person the whole time I was there. As I said, it was eerie, to say the least. Most of the time I was somewhat on edge, half expecting that at any moment a pack of disfigured, marauding, wild dogs would come flying around the corner to eat my face.

Twice while I was there, the ghostly silence was rudely interrupted by announcements over a hidden (but very loud) public-address system, an elderly man's voice calling such-and-such a person for a phone call. Apparently, the rooms have no phones, but there's a phone (and an old man) somewhere.

Shimada-san found a site with some pictures from 2002 of the dorm. It's all in Japanese, but just click on the list of links at the bottom and you'll see some small but interesting pictures. In particular, page 6 shows an amazing pile of dust with a slight layer of telephone underneath.

Recently I've noticed what appears from the outside to be a substantially worse version of this dorm, Kyoto University's Yoshida Dorm. It's apparently much older (dating back perhaps 100 years, to the Meiji Era), but unlike this dorm I often see signs of life as I drive by. It's on my list to visit.


All 8 comments so far, oldest first...

Looks like the perfect cleanup job for a company called GOT JUNK???

Number to call is 1-800-GOT-JUNK!!!!

Aunt Jeannette

— comment by Aunt Jeannette on May 22nd, 2007 at 11:40pm JST (10 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

this is so fascinating. something about abandoned stuff always is.

very cool.

— comment by krister on May 23rd, 2007 at 3:10pm JST (10 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

I’m a graduate student living in the Kumano dormitory. It’s very messy and dirty as you said because most of us don’t clean up out rooms except me or a few of students. Additionally it’s so insecure that students in dormitory are often stolen their money or notebook PC.

— comment by Inugasa Ginjiro on October 14th, 2007 at 2:26pm JST (10 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink

So this is the place where i will spent my day in Kyoto next year.

thanks for the post, really helpful for me.

Inugasa Ginjiro = is it really insecure? oh noooooooooooo………

yussu
Indonesia

— comment by yussu on September 1st, 2009 at 5:01pm JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I was a grad student at Kyoto University in the late 90s, and lived in a different dorm. I’d heard talk a lot about this place and even had one friend in our lab who lived here. So one day a friend and I went in to look around. We were amazed when we peeped into one of the bedrooms… it was pretty large with about three bunker beds and there were several students in there… and each one was watching his own TV facing a different direction as if they were alone in the room. Then one of them noticed us and came to chase us away. LOL!

Ahhh, natsukashii!

Cheers from Lima, Peru!

— comment by Andy on February 26th, 2013 at 8:00am JST (4 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

Over the last 10 years and several visits to Kyoto I had wondered, and even semi-correctly guessed, that this was a student squat (though I did think it was an abandoned high school turned in to a squat).

Funny thing was that no one in any of the guest houses, even at the almost equally run down Uno House, would talk to me about it when I enquired… in hind sight kind of strange given a lot of the owners of the guest houses were of the age to remember or maybe even be part of the original student riots of the late 60’s and many of the staff were Kyoto university students.

Maybe there’s a fair bit of stigmatism about it?

Personally I like it, it’s a riot of anarchy in the otherwise almost overly clean and sterile Kyoto street scene.

— comment by Marxz on August 13th, 2013 at 1:17pm JST (4 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

More on Yoshida-ryo from 2010:

Yoshida-ryo: Dilapidated, decrepit and downright dirty A peek inside the Kyoto University dormitory first built in 1913 that still houses student squatters for the ultra low price of ¥2,500 a month. No wonder it looks like this

— comment by Miles Wolbe on November 11th, 2013 at 11:59am JST (4 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

This actually looks awesome I’m applying there next year and the dorm is one of the reasons … Am I crazy? My mates think so. Thanks for this post, I’ve been looking all over the Internet for info about this legendary place. Cheers

— comment by S Ohara on August 30th, 2015 at 8:53pm JST (2 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink
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