My accidental encounter with an underground Japanese hobby happened when we came to Sagami to spend a day drifting over the lake. We were taking in the burnt shades trees give off at that time of year, when we saw it. The entrance to a building over run with foliage, a squat Doraemon with waves of lazy black spray paint on his face standing sentry at the door. The building was nondescript, all signage had been cleared.
Julie was the brave one. She dipped under the rope tied over the entrance and strolled right in to find a bowling alley. A dust covered bowling alley with all the apparatus. It was intact enough to know where everything was, and was supposed to be, but messed up enough to know a few teenagers had hung out here.
This was my first encounter with Haikyo, 廃虚, the illusive Japanese hobby of urban exploration which involves looking through abandoned and unstable buildings. After the Japanese economy took an astounding fall during the 80s buildings were frequently abandoned as the costs of demolition outweighed the gain from selling the land.
Inside, a pushed over shelf of bowling shoes leads to a stripped down bowling alley, the pins thoughtfully left standing in position. The machinery at the back has been stripped out and there are more than one bowling ball-shaped holes in the back wall. Graffiti lines the walls and the soft wood of the alleys are muted by a thick covering of dust. On our left, huge windows covered with spray paint let in a golden day.
Haikyo is a secretive hobby and its practisers put a lot of effort into keeping it so. More traffic through the areas means more attention from authorities and a greater chance of the site being demolished due to complaints about noise and graffiti.
Pushing on through the rooms we find an echoing chamber with no windows, once a pachinko parlour, with a pile of plastic chairs in the middle. At the end, through a staff door, was a small room with records lining the walls and piled on the floor as if they were carpet. In the next door, are piles of boxes holding meaningless trinkets in plastic balls, the floor of which is covered with tiny metal pachinko balls. On one filing cabinet rests staff records, complete with photos, left fanned out as if they were being used. We avoid the stairs, not knowing how stable the building is.
All Haikyo comes with a warning: the buildings have weathered the typhoons and earthquakes, and so may not be stable. There are also the authorities to worry about. Walking into an area is trespassing and pushing open a door or entering through a window is breaking and entering. As a foreigner, your rights in Japan are barely even present as it is. If caught doing any of this you may find yourself in trouble you can’t talk yourself out of using the dumb foreigner card.
Proceeding through the building we find toilets, clean apart from the obvious, and a room lined with ceiling to floor glass windows, white 70s chairs spotted around a bar. Here, broken glass has matted the floor.
The aesthetic of the exploration lies in taking an authentic peek into an era gone by, of someone’s life arranged through rooms as if they would stroll in at any moment and complain that everything was dirty. It’s a romantic tribute to lives that have been lived in their tangible essence gleaned from their belongings, and their arrangements. It’s a tragic reminder of the traditions and ways being permanently lost from Japanese society.
“Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
The motto of the explorers is such that information is never passed easily around the internet. Whilst the bowling alley is an often frequented hangout, it seems, there are other Haikyo spots that take hours of driving to access, and reveal lives frozen in time from 40 to 60 years gone by. It is the haikyo belief that everything should be left as it is, untouched. A frozen capsule of a previous time, of a reality once lived, for other explorers to appreciate.
I’ve only been to a destroyed bowling alley so far but a short google shows you blog after blog of Haikyo photography, secretively capturing candid shots of an unmade bed, a clinic filled with jars of medicine and human organs, a lunatic asylum’s wheelchair behind barred windows. Obsessed with the worlds that have passed, with worlds that will never return, with worlds that have no order, we explore. The gnawing awareness that our own lives could possibly be captured in such candid pictures, in a world that is dying.