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"There’s a House on My Block/ That’s Abandoned and Cold/ Folks Moved Out of It a/ Long Time Ago…"

November 13, 2009

My interest in photography started, coincidentally enough, with my first trip to Japan in 2003. At the time, I hadn’t been out of the UK for something like ten years. Not aware of the fact that I would later end up living here, and with foreign travel being something of a novelty to my 20 year-old self, I splashed out on an SLR camera with which to record my trip.

5 years later, and the shutterbug’s mandibles are still sunk deeply into my skin; photography has become one of my main hobbies. I’ve been somewhat blessed by being in Japan: its reputation as a nation of lensaholics is well-deserved, and the country’s many die-hard snappers are catered for by a range of camera shops and photo-friendly locations. The lack of crime, and people’s accepting attitude toward photography and photographers, means that it’s a great place to develop your camera skills worry-free and safe from hassle.

And yet, whilst Japan is a wonderfully photogenic place, I was, having travelled about half the country’s length, stopping at all the major tourist spots on the way, getting a bit bored of snapping all the things and places you’re supposed to. I fancied training my lens on a less obvious, not so heavily-photographed subject. Whilst avenues of sakura, ancient torii gates and improbably tall skyscrapers are undeniably beautiful, to focus on them exclusively projects an idealised image of Japan; imagine living in the UK for a year and only taking photos of cathedrals, double-decker buses and quaint country cottages. I wanted something to reverse my shutter ennui. Something that would project an image of Japan that cleaved a bit closer to the truth on the underside of all those tourist haunts.

As luck would have it, I was leafing through an expat magazine one day when I noticed a boxout in the Travel section : Haikyo Corner. The main picture, a row of fire-damaged flip-seats, sitting alone in a sea of charred debris, stood out against the usual brightly-coloured, aspirational imagery. In front of the chairs stood a slim, silver pole, an unmistakable symbol of male-targeted, closed-door titillation.

The photo was, the caption said, taken in a former strip club, once at the centre of a modestly-sized red light district but now, ravaged by fire and open to the elements, unoccupied and left to decay in the Japanese countryside.

Unsure whether or not this was a one-off, I asked my Japanese colleague about the meaning of the word ‘haikyo’. It was, she informed me, Japanese for ‘a ruin’, and that exploring such abandonments had become something of a niche hobby.

“So, there are lots of these places, then?”
“Oh yes, many. All over Japan. Some of them are really famous.”
“Do people go into them?”
“Yes. Some people. Maybe only the strange ones, though.”

Colour me strange. As soon as I got home I typed ‘haikyo’ into Google. What I found was astonishing. Not only, as my colleague said, are these places ‘all over Japan’, the variety of locations is jaw-dropping. Hospitals, theme parks, mining towns and, in probably the most notable case, entire islands lie disused and uninhabited. That so many should exist in a country as densely populated as Japan, where it seems like every available space has something built upon it was surprising, but also extremely exciting. This was what I’d been looking for.

And so started what has quickly turned into something of a minor obsession. Whenever there’s an available opportunity these days I’m skulking, camera-in-hand, around the kinds of places that you definitely won’t be seeing on a postcard any time soon. I’ve built a reasonable collection of images (to which I hope to add), but some explanation and background information on each location would, I think, help to render the pictures themselves a bit more interesting. Stay tuned!

Coming up next: First exploration: Toyo Bowl, Kanagawa.

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Let’s Go Away For a While/You and I/ To a Strange and Distant Land…

August 15, 2008
Hello! Apologies for the lack of anything resembling an update recently – the extreme heat and my long working hours have sapped me of the will to sit at my computer and type up blog posts. Yep: the Japanese summer shows no sign of abating. This week, we’ve been ‘treated’ to 35-degree, blistering sunshine and hot, humid, sleep-sapping nights. Wonderful. You might moan about the summers in England being grey, but I’d happily swap this sweat-bath for murky skies and pissing rain. You can take the pasty lad out of England…

Anyway, enough about the weather (an obsession that the English and the Japanese share). Currently, I’m just coming to the end of a 10-day school holiday (the perks of teaching transcend international boundaries, it would seem), and have managed to fit in a few days of sightseeing and general lollygagging. Rather than type about each one in great detail, I’ll just post a quick précis.

First up, the annual Tokyo Bay Hanabi: Japan’s largest yearly fireworks display. In more than one sense, too. Not only do they release something in the region of 12,000 airborne explosives over the course of 90 minutes, but the event is also attended by a few hundred thousand people. In the usual Japanese fashion, it was meticulously organised, which, whilst being necessary (due to the massive number of people) did rather rob the event of the atmosphere I’ve come to associate with Japanese firework festivals.

Still, the display itself was amazing: thousands of bangs, spread over an hour and a half. As taking photos of fireworks is extremely difficult, I only managed to get a couple of decent ones:

Fire Flower

These really don’t do it justice; at times, the sky was choc-full of rockets and what-have-you, and was a genuinely awe-inspiring sight. That said, I did manage to capture one of the infamous Japanese ‘air-shape’ fireworks that I’m always going on about:

Heart on Fire

I headed back to Tokyo the next day for a day trip with some colleagues. As well as catching the new Batman film (wow), we also went to a rather unusual temple. Called Tamagawa Daishi, it’s in a less-frequented part of Tokyo which you have to hop on a number of different train lines in order to reach. Anyway, the selling point of this particular temple is that it has a tunnel beneath it, the walls of which are lined with about three-hundred candelit statues of the goddess Kannon and a few other subsiduary deities. The tunnel itself is meant to represent a passage through the guts of the temple’s guardian Buddha. Sounds nice, eh?

Actually, it is. The underground chamber and the statues it’s filled with are a stunning sight. Unfortunately, the guide in which I read about the temple omitted an important detail: the underground tunnel is not a continuous, candlelit passage. Rather, it is a series of candlelit chambers, linked by very claustrophobic, low-ceilinged, pitch-black tunnels. The floor isn’t level, either, so each step you take is filled with trepidation and uncertainty. This is, I imagine, the desired effect, and I can honestly say that, out of all the temples I’ve visited in Japan, my time underneath Tamagawa Daishi is the closest I’ve come to a religious experience in any of them (‘religious experience’ here being shorthand for ‘pant-wetting, disconcerting terror’ – like Southern Baptists, really). Definitely worth the trip, though, as it’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

As for the rest of the holiday, I’ve made a concerted effort to study some more Japanese (and, as ever, failed to make as much progress as I would’ve liked), and picked up a few bits and pieces of tat. My favourite haul has been the ‘Edamame Soybean Pod Keychain’, which…well, just watch the advert:

You squeeze it, and the bean pops out! Wow! Like all the best Japanese inventions, it’s cute, a little bit wacky and completely, painfully pointless.

I bought two.

Oh, and one quick note before I go: they weren’t lying. You can see Mt. Fuji from the front door of my apartment:

Mt. Fuji Sunset

(Taken last night)

Hopefully the next update will be made in a more timely fashion.

Tom ‘MA-ME, MA-ME, MAAA-ME!’ Richardson


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Turning Japanese/ I Think I’m Turning Japanese/ I Really Think So [Had to Use It At Some Point, Didn’t I?]

July 31, 2008
When I first got to Japan, everything seemed slightly unreal. Yes, jetlag was probably partly to blame, but the fact that I was now here as a resident (read: immigrant) didn’t really sink in. The first couple of weeks felt like borrowed time, rather than the start of a prolonged stay. That feeling hasn’t entirely subsided, but I’ve made a few moves towards being something like a proper member of society in the last couple of weeks.

Take, for instance, my growing arsenal of official documentation and super-convenience life aids:

Top right: The document which shows that I’m now recognised as a legal immigrant. The official term is ‘Alien Registration Card’, but it’s known colloquially as a ‘Gaijin Card’. For those who aren’t aware, ‘gaijin’ is an almost-pejorative-and-definitely-not-affectionate term for a non-native resident. A sort of ‘foreign barbarian’, if you will.

A note on the picture: To obtain a Gaiji – sorry, ‘Alien Registration’ – card, you have to register with your local City Hall. As luck would(n’t) have it, the day I went to submit my registration happened to be an extremely hot one. And so, by the time I got to City Hall, dressed in a shirt and trousers on what was resolutely a t-shirt and shorts day, I was, to put it midly and not at all pleasantly, ‘a little moist’. Of course, I forgot the relatively acceptable passport photo I’d planned to submit, and was required to take a new one when I got there. This is why I look like a Catholic priest at a school sports day. Nevermind: it’s only the picture of me that the JAPANESE MINISTRY OF JUSTICE have on file!

Bottom right: Suica, the Japanese equivalent of an Oyster card. Well, ‘equivalent’ isn’t quite right. You see, as well as allowing you to pay for rail travel, the Suica can also be used to buy stuff from vending machines on rail platforms, and make purchases from certain kiosks and stores within station buildings. Suica is Japanese for ‘Watermelon’, so it’s not entirely clear why they’ve decorated the card with a penguin. I assume, given that you can buy Suica bags, pens, cuddly toys and t-shirts, it’s something to do with the Japanese propensity for inventing a cute mascot for EVERYTHING (even local police forces have cartoon mascots).

On the left: My Japanese bank book and cash card. As you can probably tell from the lack of any kind of logo on the card, I’ve been handed the most basic, kid-friendly bank account going. Probably for the best, really.

Whilst I still feel like someone’s going to pull the rug out from under me at any moment, I’m feeling like less of a fraud by the day.

I’ve even got used to pressing my clothes cross-legged, though the Japanese ‘cold iron’ method still has me baffled. Any tips, Mum?

Is This Thing On?

Coming soon: another story about me getting drunk and falling asleep on a train. I might be a teacher, but I’ll never learn.

Tom ‘Rip Van Wrinkle’ Richardson

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If You Find the Time, Please Come and Stay a While/ In My Beautiful Neighbourhood

July 18, 2008
As promised, here are some pictures of the outside of my apartment block, and the area surrounding it. Here’s the building itself:

Like I said: it’s essentially a giant shoebox which has been partitioned for human habitation. My apartment’s on the top floor, third door from the left. The area with the blue net in the bottom left is where your rubbish waits to be collected.

There’s a handily-placed vending machine at the bottom of the stairs:

And this is the view from upstairs. The complete lack of town planning in Japan makes all suburbs look like shanty towns, even though they’re not (I don’t live in a Japanese favela – promise). I’m assured that the mountains look beautiful when they aren’t shrouded in fog:

Rice paddy out the back:

The river is about two minutes’ walk away. It’s rather low at the moment, as you can see:

Wider angle:

It’s rather overgrown:

There’s a park next to the river. It’s popular with afternoon strollers, even though the paths in it lead absolutely nowhere:

The women above are using umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun (a very common practice here in Japan).

Five minutes beyond the park, there’s a beach. It’s (predominantly) a rock beach, so has that earnest, seaweedy smell that you don’t get at sandy tourist beaches:

It’s quite relaxing, in spite of the massive expressway that runs alongside it:

Is popular with fisherman:

Kids:

And storm debris:

There’s more to the area, but I haven’t got ’round to photographing it yet. I’ll post a more detailed update when I’m less tired.

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Sleeper Carriage

June 29, 2008

At the end of their first week’s training, new teachers at the company I’m working for are taken out for an on-the-house meal before being thrown to the wolves (a.k.a. students) on the following Monday. Afterwards, they’re dropped off at one of the local ex-pat bars, where they can meet their colleagues and get to know them over a beer (or twenty). For me, this was last night.

A lot of fun it was, too. Because bars in Japan can open for 24 hours if they so choose, it’s quite common for people to stay out until around 5 a.m. and get the first train home, rather than rushing for the last train at about 1 a.m. Now, being a responsible sort, I opted for the latter course of action, and was safely tucked up in bed by 2 O’ Clock. The night passed without incident, and I didn’t disgrace myself or do anything stupid.

Yeah, right.

Actually, the night itself did pass without incident. It was the getting home that proved to be interesting. As you can probably understand, when you’ve been drinking fairly solidly between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., you start to feel a little peaky by the end of the night. My home station, Kamonomiya, is roughly half an hour’s train ride from Fujisawa, the district where we had spent the night. As myself, Andrew and Claire (two fellow survivors of the evening) waited for the train, I mentioned that I was worried about falling asleep on the way home and missing my stop. They assured me that I’d be fine – easy for them to say, as they only live two minutes down the line.

My worries were not unfounded. Not only did I have the fact that I was really quite drunk to contend with, I was also concerned because of the mystical, soporific effect that Japanese trains have on people. Only the most caffeine-addled, adrenaline-pumped insomniac could fail to be lulled to sleep by their chug-chug rhythm and the gentle rocking back and forth in your seat as they move along. It’s not unusual to see the majority of a carriage’s passengers fall asleep over here, especially if you’re on a train full of tired, overworked commuters.

“Don’t fall asleep!” said Andrew, as he and Claire jumped off the train.

“I won’t!” I said.

Of course, two minutes later, I fell asleep.

The Tōkaido line, which serves my home station, runs back-and-forth between Tokyo and Atami, a coastal town not too far from where I live. To travel the length of the line takes, at a guess, around two and a half hours.

I woke up some time later as the train pulled into a station whose name I didn’t recognise. Shit. Undeterred, I simply hopped off and changed platforms in order to catch a train that was going in (what I thought to be) the correct direction. Had I looked at my watch, I would have realised that the train I was on had already reached the end of the line and started its return journey: it was going in the right direction. Blissfully unaware of this, I jumped on the next train that came along (going in the wrong direction), and proceeded to fall asleep. Again.

The ticketing of commuter trains in Japan is largely automated. So many people use the country’s mass transit systems that it’s much easier to let ticket barriers and machines do the work. There are no conductors on local railway lines, as checking the ticket of everyone on board would be an impossible task. Of course, the lack of a conductor means that there is no-one on board to perform important tasks such as sweeping through the carriages and waking up any drunks who happen to have fallen asleep and missed their stop.

Thanks to this, I awoke to find myself the only passenger in a stationary carriage. All of the doors were closed, and a sea of very confused Japanese people stood on the outside, staring at the very confused, bleary-eyed foreigner stuck on the inside. I squinted, and looked above their heads at the station sign: Tokyo.

Bugger.

Refusing to let this small setback get me down, unfazed by the stares and the fact that I was very far away from where I wanted to be, I did what any self-respecting British person abroad would do in the face of such adversity:

I went back to sleep.

The next time I awoke – to disapproving stares – the train was rolling into Kamonomiya: home! I leapt off, and just about stopped myself from sinking to my knees and kissing the ground (I was already drunk and smelly, so it didn’t seem a good idea to make the locals think that I also harbour delusions of Pope-deur). I looked at the time: 12:29. It had taken me six hours to make a journey which should have taken 30 minutes.

After clearing the ticket barrier (at least a machine doesn’t ask why a half-hour hop turned into a quarter-day epic), I headed back to my apartment, got out of my clothes…and fell asleep.

Tom ‘Rip Van Winkle’ Richardson

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In My Apartment, the Home Where I Hide

June 29, 2008
If I were an estate agent, I would probably describe my new flat as ‘a modest but comfortable, fully-equipped one-person apartment, in a pleasing location close to local conveniences, national parks and beaches’.

As I am not a liar, I shall offer a shorter description:

It’s bloody small.

Not that this is surprising, of course, given that the population density of Tokyo and its surrounding area is roughly 200 people to one square foot. And, despite the size of the apartment, I’ve got (more or less) everything I need for ultra-success mega-happy homelife.

There isn’t much to see, but here’s a guided tour:

Take Off Shoes Before Entering

Traditionally, Japanese homes have genkan (entrance halls), where guests remove their shoes before stepping into the house. The little well in the floor by my front door doesn’t really constitute a genkan, but still: no shoes in the house, as mum used to say.

Kitchen

As with my ‘genkan’, calling this fridge, sink, hob and cupboard anything so grand as a kitchen seems a little generous. I have a chopping board, but no surfaces on which to rest it, should I actually want to chop anything. Ah well, it’s the thought that counts. The piece of paper stuck to the fridge is the local council’s refuse collection schedule. In Japan, all household waste has to be separated, and different types of rubbish are collected on different days. On the face of it, this policy seems quite commendable, until you realise that the vast majority of domestic debris falls into the ‘burnable’ category (Monday and Thursday collection). No prizes for guessing what happens to it.

washing machine

My washing machine. You have to fill it with water manually before you set it spinning (notice the tap above). There isn’t anything of great interest to say about it. It’s a washing machine.

New Apartment

New Apartment

The apartment proper. My space for living, working and sleeping. It’s not quite as tiny as this picture perhaps makes it look, but it’s still pretty…cosy (as our friend the estate agent might say). That thing in the top right corner is my futon:

Futon Rolled Up

Futon rolled up.

Futon Rolled Out (+Me)

Futon rolled out.

Aircon

Because of the blistering summer heat in Japan (which, mercifully, hasn’t arrived yet), pretty much every home here is fitted with an air conditioning unit. Mine even has a remote control. Fancy.

Bathroom

Japanese bathrooms are fun. They’re essentially one big, solid bit of plastic, so you can splash water around to your heart’s content. As long as you remember to close the door, obviously.

Toilet

Disappointingly, my toilet isn’t of the Japanese ‘warm the seat, play music and wash your bum for you’ variety (though they are quite common). It does, however, have one interesting feature. There’s a little flower-shaped tap on top of the cistern, which runs everytime you flush the loo, allowing you to wash your hands. Thanks to some Japanese chemical wizardry, it also makes the bathroom smell nice.

Cistern-Top Tap

Close-up of the flower tap in action.

The apartment block itself is pretty unremarkable: it’s essentially a cuboid-shaped filing cabinet for human beings. The town where I live, Kamonomiya, is a less urban part of the Greater Tokyo area, so there’s a rice paddy out the back (I can hear the frogs in there at night), and you can see the mountains from my front door. Apparently it’s possible to see Mt. Fuji on a clear day, but the chances of there being one of those during Japan’s hot, hazy summer months are very slim indeed.

So there you have it: my new flat. Coming soon: pictures of my local neighbourhood (when it stops pissing it down).

Tom ‘Man-in-a-Box’ Richardson

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