“You have to hike up about 30 minutes to get there,” said our car driver outside Beijing. “And never mind the ‘No Trespassing’ sign. We won’t get caught…”
I’d like to set the record straight: I am an urban explorer. This means that in my free time, I like to sneak or climb into abandoned places and take a look around. Like a slightly demented modern archeologist. In my adventures, I have investigated abandoned amusement parks, love hotels, mental institutions, islands, and a bullfighting stadium. Through an elementary school overflowing with hardened lava. Among the ruins of an old industrial park and whiskey distillery. And most recently, around a psychiatric facility where (unknowingly) the new X-men was being filmed.
The driver quoted at the beginning was part of where my love affair for abandoned places started: at the Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China, a crumbling and decaying piece of the legendary world wonder. One that is technically closed off to the public. Far from the crushing touristy section full of carnival attractions and bear cages and lines simply to climb. Standing atop the ruins of Jiankou, I looked out into nothing but silence. It was eerie. And exhilarating. And super sexy for photo ops.
Japan loves abandoned shit.
“There’s a whole lot of haikyo enthusiasts… people who hoist bulky camera equipment to huddle in front of psychiatric beds…”
It was only later when I read about Nara Dreamland in Japan did I realize that haikyo— the Japanese word for the urban exploration of abandoned places— is a thriving “industry.” Turns out, there’s a whole country/ world full of abandoned places left to rot due to location, finances, and/or laziness. And… there’s a whole lot of haikyo enthusiasts enjoying them. People that wake up in the middle of the night to evade security guards at a centuries-old mountain hotel. Or hoist bulky camera equipment to huddle in front of psychiatric beds. Or attempt to bargain with the local government on a fake press pass just to sneak a glimpse at the unglimpsable (gulity as charged).
Japan, in particular, is buzzing with haikyo. Tons of abandoned places exist thanks to the bubble economy of the 1980s. When the country was prosperous, places went up but failed after the bubble burst. And instead of demolishing them, the government has let them be… mostly because it’s too expensive or burdensome to tear them down. Lack of security— despite the unnecessary large and useless police force— also makes exploration easy. Last year, right before Nara Dreamland was demolished, I solidified my love of haikyo in writing and began a crazed hobby.
If you are thinking that urban exploration is illegal, than you’re mostly correct. It’s a gamble. And that’s the appeal (see below). But you learn to be cautious and you tend to go at it alone (to minimize the risk). You wear appropriate clothing that helps avoid the inevitable injuries. You use your common sense and steer clear rooms/ stairs that look precarious. And run away if you see an authority figure. That kind of thing. There’s also a few rules that you sort of learn to abide by. Never take anything but photos (yay Girl Scouts). Never leave anything… that includes graffiti or broken glass. And never, ever reveal the whereabouts of a wicked abandoned place unless it’s already well marked on Google Maps. The treasure hunt is part of the fun after all.
Since leaving Japan for good last year, my own treasure hunt continues. I continued it as we traveled around South America and have used my few weeks off here in Boston to discover some relics. Exploring abandoned places has become an integral part of my travel and for good reason. What are they? I’ll give you four… four fantastic reasons to include abandoned places in your travel plans.
1. Calm down. Not all of it is illegal.
There’s plenty of abandoned places that are open to the public. Yes, I have climbed over and under fences with blatant “No Trespassing” signs clung to the wires. And have been lectured at by family members, concerned citizens, and the occasional apparition. But you don’t have to be. If you fear your safety and squeaky-clean record are of upmost importance, or if you have no interest in the sense of empowerment and thrill of doing something illegal, opt for the locations that charge an admission fee. You’ll most likely be sharing the experience with other people but sometimes that’s okay. And sometimes you have no choice.
Case in point Hajima, an island off of Nagasaki. It was evacuated in 1974 but used to harbor over 5,000 people (mostly miners) on 6,300 square-meters of rocky land. Hajima was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site so even haikyo enthusiasts have to settle for the tour (which is fantastic). As mentioned above, even pleading with the local government can’t get you a private tour. Sigh. Other big ticket items that are technically abandoned but open to the public include rad locales like the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia and Easter Island. But there’s plenty of stuff state side. Hell, here’s a whole road trip dedicated to abandoned sites, including the bear pens in Boston, Mass.
2. Give yourself a crash course in history.
“Every place has a history and abandoned places are a thrilling way to time travel…”
Places aren’t left to fend for their own for nothing. Something happened. And usually that happening is scary or just plain interesting. Take the abandoned bullfighting ring in Colonia, Uruguay. It was randomly opened in 1910 to fame and fortune, only to be closed down a few year late thanks to a new decree outlawing the sport. Why it remains there over 100 years later is beyond understanding… but cool, right? I attempted to go to a psychiatric hospital nearby last week, and my research led me to radiation testing led by Quaker Oats. Whoah dude.
Every place has a history and abandoned places are a thrilling way to time travel. If you’re lucky, you even find— but don’t take— relics from the past. One of my favorite experiences was at an abandoned love hotel in Japan. Here, I found old family portraits from the owners, dusty karaoke books, and the best: pneumatic tubes that would shoot mail to the hotel’s occupants. Makes your time there rather discreet I’m guessing. On Miyakejima in Japan, I found a boombox from the 80s stuck in the lava. Exploring abandoned places often offers you a slice of the frozen past. And it’s delightful.
3. Feel alive.
Just a few days ago, I was lurking around a Massachusetts State Hospital when I spotted
a shit ton of people on golf carts. Something was going on despite being located on abandoned grounds. As a golf cart closed in, I ducked behind hedges as I heard him stop. F*&$! Who was going to make the first move? I stood up hesitantly and realized he had driven away. So I bolted. Only back at near my car did a security guard catch me… I coyly played dumb and made my getaway before he could think twice. As mentioned above, X-men “The New Mutants” was being filmed on the premises. Oops.
Exploring abandoned places lends itself to danger. Will I be caught? Is a homeless person occupying the space? Will I stumble across an axe murderer? Who knows! Nothing makes me feel more alive than adrenaline pumping through my veins, whether it’s watching a scary movie right before bed or creeping down a stairway into an abandoned prison. Maybe this isn’t your cup of tea and that’s alright. But short of robbing a bank or paying a few hundred dollars to jump out an airplane (that’s fun too), urban exploration is a pleasing alternative.
4. Revel in the way nature takes over.
“I love setting my camera up and becoming a part of the backdrop where everything is silent and calming…”
Finally, abandoned places are utterly beautiful. They are usually taken over by nature: vines, flowers, animals all reclaiming their land. These places are a glimpse into a world without people and that is fascinating, even more so than a famous site swarming with tourists. I love being able to take photos in black and white. Without people. Full of history and decaying architecture and weird angles. I love setting my camera up and becoming a part of the backdrop where everything is silent and calming. There’s beauty in the chaos of leftovers… but not everyone wants to see it. I beg you to.
There’s a lot of resources out there if you want to begin your own urban exploration. This website actually has a map of places in the States (tsk tsk) and this one of sites in Japan. I’m also not the only one who believes travel should be accompanied with abandoned places. Check out SEA Backpacker’s article on a few more reasons you should try it.