(All images by Jordy Meow (Haikyo.org), reproduced with permission)
Urban Ghosts has documented hundreds of abandoned places and examined closely the offbeat hobby of urban exploration. But we’ve never focused specifically on the derelict buildings of Japan. Known as Haikyo, Japanese urbex is a discrete part of the broader culture, where modern ruins are revered by those involved. We spoke to haikyoist Jordy Meow to get a deeper understanding of the activity. Check out our interview below, illustrated by Jordy’s spectacular images of the forgotten places he’s infiltrated.
Can you tell us a little more about haikyo and how it relates to urban exploration?
Haikyo means “ruin” in Japanese, but it’s also the name of the hobby. What we call the “haikyoists” in Japan are actually doing “urban exploration”, which means also exploring places which are not necessarily abandoned.
I like to think that haikyo and urban exploration have differences. In comparison with westerners explorers, haikyoists seem more interested in the story and history of the places they visit and don’t take as many photos (sometimes none). The general pace is slower and quieter, new images aren’t put online immediately and explorers tend to take their time. Attempts at visiting many haikyo or exposing too much locations in a short amount of time is not appreciated.
How long have you been engaging in haikyo?
I started in 2010. I got extremely active in 2011 and 2012. Last year I was busy with new projects, but I would like to explore the beautiful landscapes of Japan more. That said, I will always go to a haikyo that is really worth it. I don’t have the urge to go everywhere frenetically anymore.
How did you get involved?
The day I decided to start trying photography, I looked for an original subject. At that time, I remembered a website that a colleague showed me: it was full of abandoned locations throughout Japan, created by one of the first and more famous Japanese urban explorers. It got me started, and the first haikyo I visited is called “Sports World”.
Why do you do it and what is the appeal?
My excitement at first was to explore, to scare myself, and I was really attracted to the fact that you’re entering forbidden territories, full of dangers and unexpected encounters. Then, like a drug, I just wanted to do it all the time, to explore everywhere, and experience every kind of haikyo. From the smallest to the biggest, it was a never-ending and exciting challenge.
With time, I got used to it and the feelings of fear, bewilderment, or over-excitation were washed away. The only attraction to haikyo that remained was the beauty of those places, their quietness, the fact that they rest in peace but you still can imagine their ghosts and stories drifting all around.
I became picky and only go to a haikyo if I know it worth it, or if its existence remains largely unknown. Then I go and take only a few photos, and carefully try to understand the story if there is one, listen to the wind, and then if the location is good, I wait for my buddies while taking a nap or just sitting. I really enjoy haikyo this way.
How do you decide where to explore? Do you research places first or do you just wait and see what you find?
I started with a book, then looked at websites, trying to find the locations by myself. It wasn’t as hard as I expected, but of course you need to get accustomed to it. My way of doing things has now changed completely. I mostly go with people I get along well with, and follow them. When you belong to a few circles of trust, it is much better and more enjoyable. And honestly, I love to be part of a team.
What is the coolest place you’ve ever explored?
Gunkanjima, of course! I went a few times, and I am so in love with the island that I wrote ten articles about it on my website. There’s an index for my articles about Gunkanjima here.
I really enjoy the wooden clinics and schools in general. Nara Dreamland is also one of my favorite haikyo sites ever.
Do you get permission to explore places before you enter them?
Usually not, but sometimes we do ask the neighbours since they are usually the owners of the land. I definitely chat with the people I find around the ruins to check whether it’s okay or not with them.
What are the important attributes of a good urban explorer?
In Japan, I would say it’s important to take it slow and easy and to show respect to everyone and everything. Then, as anywhere else, don’t steal anything, leave only footprints, and take good photos. Uploading a bunch of exaggerated HDR apocalyptic-looking photos or trashed disgusting places doesn’t play in the favour of the country we love and is far from being a tribute to a place we enjoyed, and the memories of the people who were there. I am not saying I never did it, but I try my best to make haikyo sound like a beautiful and peaceful alternative universe.
Why do you think haikyo is important?
I am actually not sure that it is “important”. The people who built, created or lived in those places might actually dislike what we do. Therefore, that new reality we are displaying about these places is controversial. It may be important for us but objectively it is not.
Do you feel haikyo is an important way of discovering, uncovering and exploring history?
From my personal point of view, haikyo is important because it opened my eyes. I didn’t study history and even less so Japanese history, but thanks to haikyo I had to really dig into it, and learned in a more pleasant way because I could associate images with places I experienced myself. I feel I can now understand the country and the people better.
What hazards do you face when undertaking haikyo?
I could enumerate a long list of hazards here, but to be honest I never ran into many. In Japan, you have to be aware that asbestos was used heavily between 1960 and 1990 (and was not banned until 2008), so better to wear a very good mask if you visit buildings from those days.
Another hazard is the weakness of the wooden buildings – especially when visiting a second-floor of a wooden school or clinic, you might fall at anytime! It’s better to walk very slowly and carefully. Last but not least, the snakes can be a real danger, especially when crawling somewhere in order to take photos. Japan also has stinging caterpillars and the mosquitos in summer are real bloodsuckers.
What advice would you give to those seeking to get involved in haikyo?
Don’t contact everybody living in Japan and ask them to give you a map, please! As you know, foreigners are not always welcomed and haikyo is a very sensitive subject. Japanese people are extremely secretive and they are also very careful. Please respect them first and explore the country’s beauty before running to haikyos.
A good way to start is to get the “Nippon No Haikyo” book that contains 200 locations. Even though some of them have been demolished, you will learn to understand the maps and names of the places. The effort required to do so is not only part of the hobby but will also be recognized by people. If you live in Japan, you should try to join a local team. That’s the best way to enjoy it.
Urban Ghosts would like to extend our thanks to Jordy for taking the time to speak with us and for allowing us to feature his work. To find out more, visit his website and check out his book – available for sale here.
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