Japan, a country where tradition and modernity coexist in harmony, holds a fascinating secret within its rural and urban landscapes: haikyo, the practice of urban exploration in abandoned places. This exploration reveals the poignant beauty and eerie silence of Japan’s forsaken villages, offering a unique glimpse into the country’s past and the rapid pace of its economic and social changes.

The Allure of Haikyo

Haikyo, which translates to “ruins” in Japanese, is a term used to describe the exploration of abandoned buildings and settlements. While urban exploration is a global phenomenon, Japan’s haikyo has a distinct character due to the country’s unique history and cultural context. The post-war economic boom and subsequent decline have left behind numerous ghost towns, derelict amusement parks, and deserted hospitals, each with its own story.

For many, the primary draw is photography. They are captivated by surreal scenes where nature gradually reclaims decaying concrete or where iron structures turn a deep red as they rust. These explorers aim to capture the eerie beauty of abandonment, preserving moments of transformation that would otherwise fade away. Others are driven by a fascination with history and culture. They delve into the stories tied to these forgotten locations, uncovering the lives and events that once animated these spaces. This historical research brings to light aspects of the past that might otherwise be lost to time.

Some urban explorers are motivated by the thrill of engaging in a clandestine activity. They seek adventure in places where societal norms dictate they should not go, experiencing the rush of entering forbidden zones like sewers and drains. Occasionally, this desire for excitement leads to extreme actions, such as trespassing in active facilities, although such infiltration is less common in Japan compared to some Western countries.

Haikyo: The Japanese Context

In Japan, haikyo enthusiasts typically focus on genuine ruins and abandoned sites. These locations have become more prevalent, especially after the economic bubble burst in the late 1980s. During Japan’s post-war economic boom, an abundance of wealth led individuals and corporations to make speculative investments in real estate and other ventures. When the bubble economy collapsed, many of these projects were abandoned, leaving behind a landscape of forsaken buildings and facilities.

Japanese haikyo explorers, or “Haikyo Maniacs”, are particularly drawn to these remnants of economic excess. They explore a variety of sites, from deserted amusement parks to forgotten villages, each place offering a unique glimpse into Japan’s rapid economic rise and subsequent fall. These ruins are not just decayed structures but are imbued with stories of ambition, failure, and the passage of time.

Another factor that contributes to the existence of these hauntingly beautiful locations is Japan’s demographic shift. As the population ages and birth rates decline, many rural areas experience depopulation. Younger generations migrate to urban centers in search of better opportunities, leaving behind villages that gradually empty out and fall into disrepair. Natural disasters also play a role. The Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 is a poignant example, where entire towns were evacuated, leaving behind eerily preserved snapshots of daily life abruptly halted.

Nara Dreamland. Picture: JP Haikyo

Famous Haikyo Sites

Gunkanjima (Battleship Island)

Gunkanjima sits approximately 20 kilometers from Nagasaki Port. Until 1974, it functioned as a coal mine, accommodating over 5000 residents on its compact 480-meter-long, 150-meter-wide expanse, earning it the distinction of the highest population density ever recorded worldwide. To house such a large populace in such a confined area, every available inch was utilized, resulting in the island’s striking resemblance to a colossal battleship. Hence its nickname, Gunkanjima meaning “battleship island” in Japanese, though its official name is Hashima.

Coal was initially unearthed on Gunkanjima in 1810 by the feudal lord of Saga. Industrial mining commenced in the late 1800s, prompting its acquisition by the Mitsubishi Corporation. As production escalated, the island expanded, with extensive residential and industrial infrastructure, including towering sea walls, erected.

The island was home to managers, laborers, and their families, who led lives mirroring those on the mainland. Half the island was dedicated to mining operations, while the remainder housed residences, schools, eateries, stores, a communal bathhouse, and a medical facility.

However, in April 1974, the mine ceased operations, compelling residents to vacate Gunkanjima, abandoning its structures. Over ensuing years, exposure to typhoons led to the gradual decay of its buildings and mining infrastructure, imbuing the island with a haunting allure. Due to safety concerns regarding collapsing edifices, Gunkanjima was closed to the public, accessible solely via sightseeing cruises circumnavigating the island.

Nara Dreamland

Modeled after Disneyland, this amusement park opened in 1961 and closed in 2006 due to declining visitor numbers. The decaying roller coasters and empty ticket booths create a surreal and melancholic landscape.

In the 1950s, Japanese entrepreneur Kunizo Matsuo engaged in discussions with Walt Disney himself to franchise a park in Japan. Although initial talks seemed promising, the deal ultimately fell through, likely due to licensing complications. Undeterred, Matsuo pressed forward with his vision, albeit sans any Disney intellectual properties.

On July 1, 1961, Nara Dreamland opened its gates to the public. Its entrance, nearly identical to Disneyland’s, boasted its rendition of the Train Depot, Main Street, U.S.A., and the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle at the heart of the park. Initially, Nara Dreamland thrived, drawing crowds due to its uncanny resemblance to Disneyland, which had yet to establish a presence in Japan. At its zenith, the park welcomed 1.7 million visitors annually. However, with the debut of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, Nara Dreamland’s fortunes began to wane as visitors flocked to the new Disney park. This marked the onset of Dreamland’s decline, with attendance dwindling to around a million visitors yearly.

The park faced further challenges in 2001 with the opening of Tokyo DisneySea and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, both drawing guests away from Nara Dreamland. Attendance plummeted, leading to a decline in the park’s maintenance. By 2004, signs of decay were evident, with closures of shops, rusty attractions, and abandoned service vehicles. On August 31, 2006, Nara Dreamland shuttered its doors for the last time. It remained abandoned for a decade before its eventual demolition in October 2016.

Nagoro Village

Nestled deep within the valleys of Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku lies the quaint village of Nagoro, now renowned worldwide as the Village of the Dolls. These dolls, known as kakashi or scarecrows in Japanese, serve a unique purpose: combating loneliness rather than warding off avian pests. As Nagoro’s population dwindled dramatically, resident Tsukimi Ayano took it upon herself to fill the void left by departing or deceased villagers by crafting life-sized straw replicas adorned with old garments. Positioned in naturalistic poses throughout the village, these dolls create an eerie semblance of bustling activity.

Along the way to Nagoro, you encounter similar hamlets—houses and occasional shops dotting the landscape, but devoid of any visible inhabitants. The aging population remains hidden from sight. Upon arriving in Nagoro, the sight of the lifelike dolls is startling. The village appears bustling, yet devoid of genuine human presence. One can wander freely, capturing photographs of the dolls, yet encounter no living soul.

Thanks to the reach of the internet, the dolls have garnered global recognition, evolving into a unique form of local artistry. Their influence has extended beyond Nagoro, with similar installations cropping up in other parts of Tokushima, injecting human interest into otherwise unassuming locales. Each season imparts a distinct mood to the dolls, yet regardless of the time of year, Nagoro exudes an undeniable air of haunting intrigue.

The abandoned Hashima Island (aka. Gunkanjima, “Battleship Island”) off Nagasaki, seen from the west from a boat. Picture: Jordy Meow.

The Ethics and Appeal of Haikyo

Urban explorers are drawn to haikyo for various reasons. Each site tells a story of human endeavor and abandonment, providing a poignant reflection on impermanence and the passage of time. However, haikyo exploration raises ethical considerations. Many sites are private property, and entering them can be illegal. Explorers must balance their curiosity with respect for the locations and the people connected to them. Responsible haikyo enthusiasts advocate for “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” to minimize their impact.

Exploring Japan’s abandoned villages offers a rare opportunity to connect with the past. These places are time capsules, preserving the everyday lives of people who once inhabited them. From classrooms with dusty chalkboards to homes with personal belongings left behind, each site provides a window into the routines and dreams of its former residents.

For those interested in experiencing haikyo, it’s essential to do thorough research and respect local laws and customs. Guided tours and visits to officially sanctioned sites can provide a safer and more ethical way to explore these fascinating locations.

In a rapidly changing world, Japan’s abandoned villages stand as poignant reminders of the transient nature of human endeavors. They invite us to reflect on the stories they hold and the lessons they offer about resilience, memory, and the inexorable march of time.

Disclaimer

For safety and legal reasons, I must emphasize that this blog and its author do not encourage anyone to visit haikyo sites, and that this article is merely for entertainment and cuiosity purposes for anyone who’s interested in various aspects of Japanese culture. These locations can be extremely hazardous—there have been fatalities in the past due to explorers falling from unstable structures. Additionally, urban exploration often involves legal risks. Please adventure at your own considerable risk.

 

Article picture: A student exploring Hashima Island in Japan. Jordy Meow.