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.