For a growing number of people in Japan, a rewarding weekend involves ducking under rusty pipes, inching up crumbling stairs and soaking in the ambiance of rotting hotels, desolate amusement parks and empty hospitals where decaying surgical tools still lie on the operating table.
Sound fun? Well you’re not alone. Urban exploration has grown in popularity across Japan over the last few years. What started as a fringe activity for goths, hardcore photographers and teens looking for a thrill is now attracting tour groups and dedicated Web sites.
Advocates of haikyo (廃虚, or “ruins” in Japanese) have also developed their own code of conduct, which is quite similar to the environmental mantra of “take only photographs, leave only footprints,” but with an added prohibition of forcing one’s way inside (ie. cutting wires, breaking glass).
Less-informed newbies to haikyo have recently been known to trash the places they find – which makes old-school hobbyists furious. A friend of mine, who has been photographing abandoned buildings for over a decade, finds haikyo’s new-found popularity disconcerting: “Lately a bunch of [not very nice people] have even documented how they break in. They break glass and steal stuff,” he explained. “And they use the fire extinguishers. It’s depressing to find a place which was practically untouched for 30 years, only to find traces of some English teacher’s recent visit all over the place.”
For true haikyo enthusiasts, part of the thrill is the history behind the place, and witnessing the blurring line between natural and man-made worlds as structures are slowly overtaken by plants and the elements. Japan has no shortage of places that fit this description, so it’s no wonder that haikyo has taken off here. Most resort areas in the Japanese countryside have their share of once-extravagant bubble-era buildings that have been left to decay. You could even venture to say that there is something very Japanese about seeing these man-made objects returning to nature: trees growing in kitchens; vines swallowing roofs; storms washing away years of paint; and so on. Haikyo could almost be seen as a form of industrial wabi sabi.
Romanticism aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the downside. What some people call urban explorations, many others call “illegal” or “trespassing,” so keep that in mind. You could also call it “very dangerous.” Many of these places were abandoned for a reason: rotting floorboards, rusted-out ladders and broken glass are the norm, and there have been cases of feral dogs and freaky loners living in some of these spots, so all you Indiana Jones types out there, be careful what kind of adventure you ask for. Some of the most common threats are rusty nails and a nice deep breath of asbestos, both of which are enough to ruin a weekend, so if you think this is just another fun way to spend a Saturday, stick to the city, sister.
- A short, fascinating documentary video about Japan’s haikyo mecca Gunkanjima.
- The boys at How Stuff Works have an excellent podcast on urban explorations.