It was a crisp March morning in Hokkaido as we snowshoed across a field of radiant snow. Crossing small animal tracks, my two companions and I trudged through a copse of birch trees and saw the intended goal of our journey dead ahead: a two-story structure covered with snowdrifts that bulged over the roof like heavy whipped cream. It looked like a clumsy attempt at a birthday cake.
As we approached, it was clear the structure had been long neglected. Surrounded by undisturbed deep snow, the building was fringed by long icicles and rust, and several windows had been smashed.
Our guide led us to an unlocked window in the back and we were soon inside. We found ourselves in a large kitchen, with pots, pans, plastic beer crates and random debris strewn about.
It was one of my first times exploring an abandoned building in Japan and I was fascinated.
The building had been a wedding hotel until business dried up and the managers walked away in 1995. With all the furnishings and cookware left behind, it seemed like they just shut the door, intending to return, but never did. Now the interior was a collection of scenes both disturbing and enchanting.
A chair was imprisoned in a floor of ice, with moss and mold colonizing its arms. Snow had blown in through a broken guestroom window and piled up incongruously on futons. Icicles dripped from broken ceiling fixtures and wallpaper hung like rags. The lobby looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster.
In the back office, we found 8-inch TEC floppy disks, reams of dot-matrix printout and stacks of moldy brochures advertising “High Quality Resort Lubedence.” Crumbling photo albums showed newlyweds posing by a long-gone chapel. Where were all these people now?
A framed promotional text in English lay on the floor, shards of glass and plaster all around. It read: “Here is the ideal spot with everything, where the soul may be refreshed by all the really important things in life which Japan has to take care not to lose.”
Land of the lost
Hotel Lubedence in Hokkaido is one of countless abandoned buildings in Japan, ranging from factories to theme parks and homes. Such sites are often described as haikyo in Japanese, a term that translates as “ruins,” and they’ve attracted countless visitors and explorers in recent years. Haikyo meguri, or touring haikyo, is also a popular pastime overseas, where it’s sometimes called urban exploration, urbex or UE for short.
There’s no universal definition of haikyo, but depending on the site, it could be completely forgotten, still owned but neglected, or actively preserved for posterity. In many cases, these sites are hazardous and, depending on the location, entering a haikyo could run afoul of trespassing stipulations in the Penal Code as well as the Minor Offenses Act, which states that “a person who, without justifiable grounds, lurks in a house, building or ship that is unoccupied and unguarded shall be detained or fined.”
Japan is in some sense uniquely blessed as a land of ruins. Its rapidly aging population, low birth rate, urbanization and lack of immigration have left a legacy of ghost towns and more than 8 million abandoned homes, or akiya. That tally could hit 21.5 million, one-third of all residences nationwide, by 2033, according to the Nomura Research Institute.
Abandoned homes are ubiquitous in rural Japan, posing health and safety hazards to locals, but they can even be found in central Tokyo, vacant edifices that for whatever reason owners refuse to demolish and rebuild.
In addition to the scourge of abandoned homes, Japan is dealing with lingering effects of the asset-inflated bubble economy of the 1980s and 1990s that saw the construction of numerous hotels, theme parks and other leisure facilities that went bust when the bubble burst. Some money-losing facilities, including the ill-fated Canadian World in Ashibetsu, Hokkaido, themed on the popular “Anne of Green Gables” novels by Lucy Maud Montgomery, were rehabilitated into public parks. But in all too many cases, others were left to rot.
Nothing could be better for devotees of haikyo. Ruins of hospitals, schools, factories, homes and other forgotten sites have an ineffable lure, a numinous mix of history, mortality and a sense of the passage of time. Finding something long lost lies at the heart of this appeal, like digging up an old coin.
A haikyo presents a chance to touch the past in a more meaningful way than visiting a museum or historic site. The ravages of time, the elements and vandals can also lend an eerie or post-apocalyptic atmosphere to an ordinary house or hotel that has been untended for decades.
In that sense, haikyo become doors to mysterious fantasy worlds — a place where the imagination can run wild, yet immeasurably more authentic than, say, Tokyo Disneyland.
“Much of the appeal of haikyo lies in a sensation of the extraordinary,” says veteran haikyo explorer Toru Kurihara. “Isn’t that why people pay lots of money to experience theme park attractions? Haikyo also allow a look at sites that are usually restricted or private, so fulfilling a sense of curiosity is also part of the appeal.”
Kurihara has been visiting ruins for more than 30 years and has explored over 1,000 sites from Hokkaido to Okinawa. He has written guides such as “Shin Haikyo no Arukikata: How to Walk Ruins,” which details sites across Japan such as a spooky pachinko parlor in Ibaraki Prefecture, an old cement factory in Chichibu outside Tokyo and a rusting Russian theme park in Niigata Prefecture famous for its life-sized woolly mammoth model. Judging from book sales and other indicators, he estimates there could be a few hundred thousand haikyo fans in Japan, but believes fewer than 100 people are core enthusiasts who actually explore many sites.
These hard-core fans include foreign nationals living in Japan. Frenchman Jordy Meow is one of them. Hailing from a town near Bordeaux, the Nara- and Tokyo-based software engineer runs haikyo.org as well as jordymeow.com, both of which detail his love of exploration and photography.
“I am attracted to haikyo because they represent a travel through space, time and emotions,” Meow says. “I also love jumping over forbidden fences.”
Meow’s 2015 photo book, “Abandoned Japan” is a beautifully illustrated and loving tribute to haikyo that takes the reader on an intimate journey through Japan’s past. It takes in everything from abandoned schools to ghost villages to theme parks and industrial sites. There’s no shortage of creepy sites: a tuberculosis sanatorium for children closed in 1992 still has leftover X-rays of skulls; a corroded mental asylum has walls stained with something that could be blood; an ancient smallpox hospital, disintegrating in a forest on the Izu Peninsula, seems like the perfect place for a spectral encounter.
Only slightly less frightening at night is Nara Dreamland, an amusement park built in 1961 as a knockoff of the original Disneyland in California. Remarkably, it survived long after the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983 and only closed in 2006.
For years it was relatively untouched but Dreamland has been heavily vandalized in recent years.
Choked by weeds, its famous Aska wooden rollercoaster still stands, a siren song to haikyoists who dare to brave the park’s security guards. Its decaying castle, once fit for a princess, looks over a stark land of broken dreams. The park is one of Meow’s favorite sites as well as fellow explorer Florian Seidel, an Osaka-based German who runs a blog titled Abandoned Kansai. His passion for exploration has taken him to more than 500 sites nationwide.
“Don’t get me wrong, a lot of deserted places are moldy, rotting hellholes, but even at those locations you can take interesting pictures,” Seidel says of his love of ruins. “Every once in a while, you find a hidden gem — spots straight out of a dystopian movie or locations that look like open-air museums, but without any ropes or explanation signs. Some places even have a minor historic relevance. At university, I wrote a paper about the modernization of Kyoto. A few years later I explored an abandoned kiln, and it turned out that the bricks made there were used to build Lake Biwa Canal, one of the key elements of Kyoto’s modernization.”
Japan’s industrial heritage has many compelling haikyo. Perhaps the most iconic is Hiroshima’s A-bomb dome, the skeletal remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall near ground zero of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing. Other haikyo have even generated internet memes.
A few kilometers east of Fukuoka Airport stands a giant concrete tower that earned the nickname of “Anti-Zombie Fortress” on Reddit in 2011. The Shime Coal Mine closed down in 1964 but its hollowed-out, 47-meter-tall citadel was later registered as an Important Cultural Property, fenced off and preserved. Today, it looks like an apocalyptic redoubt. Easily accessible by public bus, this monument to Japanese industry and workers becomes all the more ironic when one realizes a large, modern nursing home stands by its base, another sign of aging Japan.
The country’s rapid modernization program after the samurai era left a legacy of major industrial sites, some of which made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2015.
They include the grand lady of all haikyo in Japan, Hashima coal mine island off Nagasaki. Gunkanjima, or “Battleship Island” as it’s known, is an entire abandoned town on the waves. It was home to thousands of people until it was closed 42 years ago. Today, the island is an enchanting if ghostly collection of typhoon-battered mining facilities, apartment buildings and schools.
It can be visited via a 30-minute boat ride from Nagasaki Port, but tours are restricted to a short path by the seawall; you need special permission from Nagasaki City to enter the hazardous buildings. Meow devotes a large part of his book to Gunkanjima with photographs of these restricted areas — the corroded barber shops, communal baths and shells of CRT televisions that made up the daily lives of the miners and their families.
“The island was never pitch black, not even in the middle of the night. The mines never stopped,” Meow quotes a former resident as saying. “With this constant light we felt reassured, especially when we came back by boat from the mainland late at night.”
Ode to lives lived
Haikyo can become poignant, even elegiac, when they convey personal stories. This is especially true with well-preserved sites, which are surprisingly common in Japan. Meow has explored forgotten places overseas and says domestic haikyo are special.
“Japanese people being more respectful and sometimes more fearful than us Westerners, ruins here are generally less visited and less vandalized, and sometimes they’re even taken care of,” Meow says. “They are full of artifacts, windows aren’t broken, it doesn’t look like there have been robberies. Also, the kind of architecture is very different, we have a lot of wooden buildings here with a specific and charming atmosphere.”
A moving example of this is a crumbling cottage known as the Royal House. Set in a forest in Hakone, it’s one of the best-known haikyo in Japan and is well-preserved in terms of all the possessions left behind. It was built in 1948 and owned by British pearl magnate and philanthropist John Jerwood and his wife, Sugiko.
The cottage is still full of family heirlooms, 1960s electronics, hanging scrolls, paintings and even a photo of Jerwood with Queen Elizabeth. He died in 1991 without heirs but his legacy lives on in the Jerwood Foundation, a British arts charity.
After the death of his wife and mother-in-law, the cottage was left to the elements, with fallen trees, damp and mold slowly chipping away at the structure. Until it collapses, it will remain a shrine to the memory of this couple, who were buried together in a temple in Tokyo.
Taking a common sense approach to exploring ruins
Aside from internationally famous, accessible sites such as Gunkanjima, haikyo can be hard to find for would-be visitors.
In the interest of preservation, devotees are loath to share locations, but Japanese websites such as Haikyo.crap.jp have maps and links to blog posts.
If you are able to locate a site, don’t enter alone and consider the risks of trespassing, invasion of privacy and physical danger.
According to Seidel, these include rusty metal, brittle wood, mold, asbestos, falling rocks, protruding nails, broken glass, barbed wire, aggressive or venomous wildlife, and dehydration.
“Urbex is a dangerous hobby with countless hazards, so common sense and caution are essential when exploring abandoned places,” Seidel says. “Don’t get hurt, don’t get caught — and leave a location exactly like you found it for others to enjoy.”
“Don’t ask other explorers for help, they are solicited too much already and that is not a subject (that is) very easy to talk about,” Meow says.
“Locations are mostly kept secret, sharing them would give us a lot of trouble with local explorers. And, of course, it’s illegal,” Meow says. “Appreciate what is around, discover the place at your own pace, look for details and clues of the past.”
“Most importantly, don’t break or modify anything, don’t wear a gas mask or pretend to be a superhero,” Meow says. “You are simply a tourist braving more dangers than the usual ones. Respect the place and share nice photos.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5