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  • Writer's pictureAtlas

The Weird and Wonderful: Exploring Unusual Towns

Dear FCI,


Traveling and researching various cities and towns around the world, you come to understand that certain places are known for specific things. Chicago, for example, is the “windy city” and known for deep dish pizza, while Paris is known as the “city of love.”


I’m sure you all know by now that I have always had an interest in the strange and unusual, so when I’m looking for new places, I like to look for the odd titles. Fortunately, enough, the world is home to many weird towns each known for rather unconventional things.


From a city in Cairo that is nearly covered in garbage, yet people still reside in, to a village nestled in the valleys of Tokushima, where dolls outnumber the human residents, extraordinary towns are out there and my goal is to explore them all.


As such, I’d like to share with you some peculiar places I’ve been to, ones that really piqued my curiosity.



Nagoro, Tokushima, Japan


Woman sleeping in field in Nagoro

If dolls are not your thing, this may not be the place for you. Nagoro is home to roughly 350 scarecrows representing former residents. Nestled deep in the valley of Oku-Iya, Nagoro’s population declined rapidly, and to fill the void of a lacking population, one resident artist took it upon themselves to create scarecrows/dolls.



Ayano Tsukimi makes the scarecrows, or Kakashi in Japanese, and dresses/positions them to represent the former residents. Therefore, dolls are positioned as children sitting behind desks in a classroom, a mail person delivering mail, people praying in a temple, etc. Tsukimi also changes the positions of the figures regularly, and dresses them to fit the season!


Dolls places to represent a classroom.

What makes the town eerie though is that the dolls outnumber the residents, there being only about 35 people remaining. The majority of what you see, is dolls “living” like people. Visitors can come and explore the village, but the chances of encountering a living person is slim as most of the current residents stay inside. The town is commonly referred to as the “Village of the Dolls,” which is aptly named.



Hashima Island, Nagasaki, Japan


Hashima Island from the sky

Cities can be very crowded, but this island took urban living to an entirely different level. Hashima Island in Nagasaki, Japan, is one of Nagasaki’s 505 uninhabited islands, but Hashima used to be home to nearly 5,300 people in its heyday. Residents used to live in small apartments, with apartment buildings being multiple stories high. The land also contained a hospital, two schools, a temple, and a shrine, all within a 16-acre area.


On the streets of Hashima Island

The island was a coal mining hub in the 1930s, with miners and their families living on the island. However, as energy needs shifted and the relevance of coal diminished, the area was abandoned in 1974 and the buildings were left to the elements.


Hashima island sat abandoned for several decades, until an interest in exploring abandoned ruins emerged, shedding light on the dilapidated structures. Today, visitors can explore the island in group tours, however it’s not advised for all as the area is rather unstable. Tourists must sign a safety contract due to the unpredictable conditions on the island.



Coober Pedy, Australia


Coober Pedy, Australia, where most of the residents live underground

Imagine a town where it stays 75 degrees all year round, but there is no sunlight and no wind. Coober Pedy in Australia is a town that is partially, if not mostly, underground. Also known as the Opal Capital of the World, Coober Pedy is an opal mining town, with most of the residents working in the industry. However, the area is a desert, with scarce water and grass, and the temperatures on ground level can rise to nearly 113 degrees (and that’s in the shade).


Given the incredible heat, most of the residents built dugouts in the hillsides to stay cool rather than moving somewhere else to live. Over time, townsfolk continued building underground resulting in a subterranean community that now has museums, churches, watering holes, a bookstore, and bars.


Inside an underground home of a resident in Coober Pedy.

Most of the residents have homes underground as well, with rooms out across the area. There is life aboveground however, with a supermarket and shops, but people are advised to be cautious when wondering around on ground level as there are holes all over the place from former mine shafts.



Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA


Centralia was once a thriving coal mining town, like many small towns in the northeastern region of Pennsylvania, but today the town is essentially abandoned due to an underground fire that has been burning for decades.


In the 1960s, the community of 1,500 residents made a living off the seam of coal that ran underneath the area. However, in 1962, a fire was lit by the town dump, and it spread beneath the entire area. The residents weren’t aware of what was happening until 1979, when a gas station owner measured the temperature of the gas in his underground containers and the gas was 100 degrees higher than normal.


Boy who almost fell in to 150 foot-deep sink hole.

Things escalated further when a 150-foot-deep sinkhole almost consumed a young boy. Over the next few years, the levels of toxic gas increased, making most of the residents flee the community.


 


By 1990, 63 residents remained, decreasing to only 10 in 2012. Since then, many buildings have been destroyed but visitors still come to explore the abandoned, smoky, ghost town. A particularly spooky place in the town is the local cemetery, where the smoke underneath seeps from the gravestones, reminiscent of scenes found in films. It may not be the safest place to explore, but it may be the closest thing to a real-life scary movie set.


Graffiti Highway in Centralia, PA


Slab City, California, USA


This city has no postal address, no landmark, no electricity, no water, and no toilet. It’s known as the “last free place” on Earth and residents call it “The Slabs.” Slab City was once the site of Camp Dunlap, a former US Marine Corps base, housing labs testing how concrete survived in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert. The camp was shut down by the end of WWI, and soon enough, squatters staked their claim on the area, building domiciles out of available material on the concrete slabs. Over time, more people seeking to live off-the-grid came here, residing in trailers, tents, and broken-down buses.


Residents homes in Slab City, California

The city has no access to the main power grid, it has no trash or water services and no basic amenities. The residents live solely off of material they have brought with them and resources they can find. Although not a conventional city, the community has developed urban aspects There are street signs, roads made of hardened dirt, a library, places that sell food, and even an Airbnb. There are more than a dozen neighborhoods in the camp, each with their own established rules and culture.


Salvation Mountain near Slab City, California

The Slabs also contains a fair amount of art, with residents creating and designing pieces with available resources. One local artist made a technicolor art creation called Salvation Mountain, bringing in tourists wishing to view the eccentric designs. The camp is also home to an outdoor art museum open to the public year-round, featuring unconventional projects: a wall of broken TVs painted with pithy messages, a car with a spider emerging from the top, and other unusual oddities you’d be hard-pressed finding anywhere else.



Manshiyat Nasser, Cairo, Egypt


Manshiyat Naseer is also known as "Garbage City"

This city may look a little jarring at first, and you may think it’s simply abandoned buildings, but there are residents here who make a living of off recycling garage. Manshiyat Nasser is one of the districts that make up the western area of Cairo, Egypt, and it’s more commonly referred to as “Garbage City.” Not the most flattering of names, but this garbage filled city is mainly the result of the Cairo Metropolitan Area never having established an efficient garbage collection system, despite there being nearly 20 million people.


A closer look at Garbage City in Cairo, Egypt

The residents of Manshiyat Nasser have filled this need for the past 70 years, collecting garbage for Cairo’s residents (for a small fee) and transporting it back to the city, where they can sort it and recycle it. The garbage collectors are called Zabbaleen, and with their efforts, nearly 90% of the garbage is recycled, which outnumbers most western countries.


Unfortunately, living conditions in the city are poor and as of 2003, the government hired companies for garbage disposal, limiting work for the Zabbaleen. The town wasn’t too popular until a 2009 documentary titled Garbage Dream shed light on it, thus attracting tourists looking for an offbeat yet resourceful adventure.


 

These aren’t our typical towns, albeit some are no longer inhabited by people, but at least once were in the past. I don’t know about you, but it’s the places like this that simply amaze me. The unconventional and strange is what gives color to the world. This makes you think, a city doesn’t have to be pretty for people to flock there, sometimes it’s the oddities and curiosities that makes seeing it all the worthwhile.


Until next time,





Sources

14 Most Unusual And Weird Towns Around The World. (n.d.). TripHobo. https://www.triphobo.com/blog/unusual--towns--around--the--world

Author, G. (2023). The 7 most unusual towns in the world. MapQuest Travel. https://www.mapquest.com/travel/the-7-most-unusual-towns-in-the-world/

Cheney, J. (2023). Visiting Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Toxic Ghost Town (Updated for 2023). Uncovering PA. https://uncoveringpa.com/visiting-centralia

Japan National Tourism Organization. (n.d.). Hashima (Gunkanjima) | Travel Japan (Japan National Tourism Organization). Travel Japan. https://www.japan.travel/en/spot/752/

Nalewicki, J. (2016, March 3). Half of the inhabitants of this Australian opal capital live underground. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/unearthing-coober-pedy-australias-hidden-city-180958162/

Nalewicki, J. (2018, October 1). Inside Slab City, a squatters’ paradise in southern California. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/inside-slab-city-squatters-paradise-southern-california-180970218/

Ugc. (2023, July 3). Cairo’s Garbage City. Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/garbage-city

Ulrich, A. (2023). As Slab City grows, the community of outcasts, squatters, and desert dwellers grapples with the cost of its unique freedoms. Roadtrippers. https://roadtrippers.com/magazine/slab-city-california-desert/

Weller, C., & McDowell, E. (2020, May 3). Inside Coober Pedy, the Australian mining town where residents live, shop, and worship underground. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/inside-coober-pedy-australias-underground-town-2016-1#faye-nayler-and-two-friends-managed-to-build-a-bar-a-swimming-pool-in-the-living-room-and-a-full-eat-in-kitchen-10


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