Lost worlds of Japan

Strangely enough as the country stagnates, Eriko Arita finds that increasing numbers of people are being drawn to the decaying delights of disused and abandoned buildings, roads and railways

by Eriko Arita

The sound of bells echoes through the monastery at Gion Shoja, telling all who hear it that nothing is permanent. The flowers of the sala trees show that all that flourishes must fade. Proud men, powerful men will fall, like dreams on a spring night, like dust before the wind.

Those first few sentences of the 13th-century Japanese classic “The Tale of the Heike” speak movingly about mujo (impermanence) as they presage that ancient account of the fall of a warrior family.

That transience, that awareness of the impermanence of all things, has remained a major theme in Japanese literature and culture to this day. Indeed, it could be said to be a part of the national psyche.

So it is hardly surprising that a fascination with buildings, railroads and roads left abandoned to sink into oblivion is now gripping some sections of the populace.

Not only is there the desolation and decay to be savored, but also morbid, “transient” musings on all those now dead and gone who built and used and enjoyed such places.

Though these lost worlds in our midst are only rarely officially designated as cultural assets in the way old temples or shrines are, so many Web sites and books are now focusing on ruins and abandoned roads and railways that a new term has been coined: haikyo boom, meaning “ruins boom.”

In offering an explanation for this boom, Keisuke Imao, author of a series of books on disused railway lines, has suggested that modern ruins fascinate people for much the same reason as do UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

“People have a nostalgia for what is ruined. I think it is common for everyone to be interested in abandoned structures,” Imao said.

In Japan’s case, of course, feeling nostalgia for ruins easily merges with another cultural trait — that of sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of old age, loneliness and tranquility.

But a love of ruins and ruination has been shared by many non-Japanese living in or visiting Japan, too.

For example, Michael Gakuran, a British freelance writer based in Nagoya, has a Web site on which he posts pictures of the abandoned buildings in Japan that he has visited since 2008.

“It’s something you don’t see in everyday life in cities or even in the countryside,” Gakuran said as he explained his attraction to ruins. “You don’t really see manmade structures being reclaimed by nature, but that natural decay is quite interesting,” he said.

Certainly he has a point, because old or redundant buildings in towns and cities are usually destroyed to make way for new developments. As a result, people don’t often see the process of nature reclaiming land or structures for themselves.

In rural areas, however, there are many more opportunities to see such decay and reversion to nature up close, as old and unused buildings and facilities are often left untended there for reasons that include depopulation and industrial decline.

Consequently, in the countryside it’s not hard to find abandoned and decaying buildings, rusting equipment or old roads and railways returning to nature as plants and animals repopulate land once briefly taken over by humans.

Though many such sites are difficult or dangerous, or even, on occassion, illegal to access, such restrictions have done nothing to deter the specialists whose passion for things and places from the quite recent past provides the rest of us with a wealth of armchair interest — or, perhaps, the inspiration to follow in their footsteps.

Welcome to lost worlds of Japan.