Japan’s Haikyo Maniacs
Have you ever wanted to explore a ghost town? Perhaps crawl through forgotten wartime tunnels? Piece together puzzling secrets of the past? If so you may have unknowingly longed to do some urban exploration!
These are all activities enjoyed by so-called ‘haikyo-maniacs’ (廃墟マニア), a subculture manifested in Japan’s breed of urban explorers. Urban exploration (or increasingly, its abbreviated version ‘urbex’) is the act of exploring man-made structures with a primary focus on abandonments, ruins and the parts of facilities unseen by the general public. While urbex is enjoyed in many different countries, ‘haikyo’ (廃墟) – literally ‘ruins’ – is the Japanese equivalent of this past-time. The most famous Japanese ruin would be Battleship Island, or ‘Gunkanjima’, recently used in the Bond film ‘Skyfall’.
Although urban exploration has the common focus of exploration, reasons for pursuing it vary between individuals. For some, the attraction lies in photography, capturing surreal scenes such as mother nature’s green fingers reclaiming corroding concrete or the skeleton red rust left behind as iron structures are oxidised. Others enjoy researching the history and culture tied to locations and people that existed there before, much of which would be otherwise lost to time.
Some explorers just love basking in the illicit nature of their hobby, venturing where one ought not to go and seeking out adventure. Experiences that just can’t be found living on the right side of social norms and going places that few regular people would dare even entertain the idea of visiting, such as sewers and drains. This is sometimes even taken to the extreme, trespassing and infiltrating live facilities in search of a genuine – but entirely innocent – thrill, although infiltration is not quite as prolific in Japan has can be seen in other western countries.
Japan’s Haikyo Maniacs prefer facilities closer to the true sense of the word and generally stick to true ruins and abandonments. Such ruins are commonplace in Japan, especially following the collapse of the bubble economy in the late 1980s. Following Japan’s post-war economic boom, many individuals and corporations were left with a surplus of cash and, with rapidly rising real estate prices and a favourable mood, made many misplaced experiments and investments which were not sustainable after the catastrophic crash. Today, those investments lie slowly rotting away, the owners without necessary funds to have them properly demolished. There’s also little incentive to do so, owing to the fact that a building entitles the landowner to reduction or exemption from fixed asset tax.
Japan urbex has its origins in railroad fanaticism, with works such as Junichi Hori’s ‘Disappearing Railroads – An Ode to Ruined Rails’ (1983) being a precursor to the rising popularity of the pursuit. The haikyo boom really took hold in the 80s-90s, seeing publication after publication devoted to the topic, culminating in the recent haikyo ‘bible’ of sorts, ‘Nippon no Haikyo’ (2007, OOP). Nippon no Haikyo was particularly controversial among the exclusive haikyo community for its bold move to include detailed maps and location information for hundreds of abandonments across Japan.
As with most urbex circles overseas, there is an unwritten code among haikyo explorers. One of the most prevalent and fierce rules is the understanding that locations or information easily leading to them is never given out or made freely available to non-members. There tend to be three main reasons for this: 1) to avoid causing local residents trouble, 2) keeping locations free of vandalism and 3) the sense of exclusivity borne from being one a select few people who know of a secret place.
New discoveries and special buildings are kept as closely-guarded secrets among the tight-knit communities of explorers and it can often be frustratingly difficult to become a trusted member of the club. But since the age of the internet and the rise of consumer GPS, detailed maps of the world are available through handheld smartphones and it has become remarkably easy to pinpoint locations and share them with others, something that would have been incredibly difficult in the decades before.
As such, the publication of Nippon no Haikyo and the combination of other modern media, such as websites and message boards detailing locations caused ripples in the community, ultimately leading to locations becoming more well-known and inevitably demolished by anxious owners. This is one of the perpetual paradoxes found in urban exploration: there is a strong desire to seek out and share unique locations for recognition within the community, but a constant fear and reluctance to let the locations become common knowledge, which is almost always the result of sharing, even among cliques.
But while there are factions and fighting within the communities themselves, the very pursuit of urban exploration is often misunderstood and frowned-upon in itself. In order to visit abandonments, sometimes the explorer must trespass on private property and venture into dangerous areas, leading to potential liability for the landowner should an injury occur. And while almost all urban explorers follow the motto ‘Take only pictures. Leave only footprints.’, other destructive individuals vandalise sites and tag them with graffiti, simultaneously destroying the much-sought-after natural beauty in decay (often encompassing the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi) and sullying the image of well-meaning explorers and photographers.
It cannot be denied however that the past-time of urbex frequently edges into legal grey-zones. A pursuit not socially acceptable, it is thus one that is at once enticing to those seeking the unusual and threatening to others. It wouldn’t quite be urban exploration if all elements of risk, both legal and physical, were removed, and for those same reasons, it’s unlikely to ever be a widely accepted past-time because of that, at least in its current form.
But for those who do find a curious satisfaction when standing alone, camera-in-hand, before a living, breathing abandonment, there is unlikely to be a shortage of adventure any time soon. With the ageing Japanese population and falling birthrate, more and more properties are becoming vacant and left for time to erode, and there will always be people such as myself who find a fascination with urban death. For those who prefer to sit back and enjoy the tales of others, free from risk, there are undoubtedly plenty of amazing stories and photographs from haikyo and urban explorers around the world yet to be seen.
Disclaimer: It should go without saying, but for safety and security reasons I always try to make a point of doing so, that I do not encourage people to visit haikyo. Locations can be very dangerous – explorers have died in the past falling from great heights after underestimating the damaged structures they enter. It’s also legally quite a risky pursuit which is especially true for foreigners without the protection that full citizenship administers. Adventure at your own risk.
Click here to read more of Michael Gakuran’s haikyo adventures.