Haikyo: exploring abandoned Japan

September 24th, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

Urban exploring has grown quite popular in Japan. Image from Gunkanjima courtesy of Juergen Specht

Urban exploring is growing in Japan. Image from Hashima Island (Gunkanjima) courtesy of Juergen Specht

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.

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9 Responses

  1. I am having what I believe to be the first haikyo photography exhibition in the U.S. of photographs I made in Japan. If you are in Florida, please come visit the exhibition:


  2. I think it’s likely your source is a guy who goes by the name ‘kuroneko’ and I also think it’s likely that he’s talking about me as one of the ‘not very nice’ people. I met kuroneko for coffee about a year ago and he expressed his concerns to me. I explained then as I’ll explain now that I don’t do what he thinks I do.

    I do not break windows or force entry and never have- though it’s hypocritical of us all to decry that when we use the holes cut and smashed by others who went before us. On my website I simply explain how I enter as part of the story of visiting the place- ‘kuroneko’ said he disliked this chiefly because it meant others would then know how to gain access. Well- I’m not in the business of closely guarding haikyo locations, so this never bothered me.

    The charge about letting fire extinguishers has some truth to it- but not in the plural sense which he suggests. It’s not a habit, it was a one time thing captured on film. As such, doing that in an abandoned structure where the fire extinguishers will never be used, causing zero damage in the process- it’s not great behaviour but it’s hardly a demolition derby.

    I doubt you’ll publish this comment, but if you do it will help to set the record straight.

  3. Hi Jason. Congratulations! Would love to hear how it is received!

  4. Hi Michael.

    Not sure if my source goes by “Kuroneko,” but for what it’s worth, he didn’t provide any names to me. I appreciate your input, though. I’ve seen your site many times and you have some great shots.

  5. Time to chime in! As a good friend of Kuroneko, I totally agree with his concerns…just 2 weeks ago I visited a Haikyo with Kuroneko and another professional Haikyo photographer only to find a disarray of recently used fire extinguishers, a recently smashed window and a blackboard tagged with the URL of MJG…we have even photographic evidence!

    Me and other Haikyo lovers find this a rather sad development…what is so special about Japanese ruins is the fact that some of them were *absolutely untouched* for many, many years. Kuroneko and I – who also visited Gunkanjima 5 years ago (see cover photo) – found a hospital which was abandoned since more than 38 years and practically *nobody* entered it ever. Talking to a neighbor, he told us that it spooks inside and he would not even think of going in the building. We did and found a photographers dream, a place only nature touched and slowly absorbed.

    It’s the beauty of decay we are after and none of us ever altered the state of affairs, in fact we regular re-visit some places again years later and compare what changed…trying to immortalize these places with our cameras.

    So just because there are working fire extinguishers doesn’t mean they are waiting to be used…please don’t destroy more and please don’t lie, you leave too many traces on the Internet and in the places itself.



  6. Juergen and Kuroneko et al, your accusations are tiresome and you need to stick a sock in it. I don`t want to come off as belligerent- but kuroneko has been painting me with this `not very nice person` brush for 2 years now and it`s getting ridiculous. So you found my URL tagged on a blackboard (horror! shock!), and deduced that every bit of carnage in that place was caused by me. Wow. Fine reasoning, fellas.
    Get off it, seriously. It`s not far from me saying kuroneko`s dead cat in black and white was killed and skinned by him, or that Sprecht leaves the weird bubbles he shoots naked girls in lying around in the suyicide woods.
    Filmwasters? Yes, Ok.
    So next time you go to any haikyo where you know I`ve been, feel free to assume that access was smashed in by me, all the graffiti was done by me, all the fire extinguishers were let off by me, and if the place has been demolished- then that was me too.
    Get a grip.

  7. Jason must be happy about all the attention this article receives! :)

    Michael John Grist, if you would behave less like a vandal and more like an explorer, nobody would ever pester you. Its that easy!

  8. I’ve seen beautiful places destroyed by vandals or completely sealed up because of too much online exposure by explorers. It’s a real shame when that sort of thing happens. I can completely identify with the urge to have a bit of fun in these forbidden places, but I think part of being a conscientious explorer is taking care of these sites. I don’t think the culprits behind the vandalism are the sort to post good photography online though. Most likely it’s a group of kids who get wind of a place and just let loose. All the more reason to keep locations between trusted friends.

    I have a few of my recent explores here if interested:


  9. I’m pretty sure that most of the vandalism done to ruins isn’t caused by urban explorers, but by the bored local youth. I’ve been to many, many places, some of them completely or almost unknown to the internet and special interest books, and I’m time and again surprised how even remote and quite unspectacular places (like a driving school in Hyogo countryside) get trashed. Maybe there are some exceptions, but I doubt that people go 3 or 4 hours by train to vandalize places they saw on the internet – but they do to take pictures…


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