I’ve always been fascinated by ruined buildings and abandoned places. When I was 14 I went to the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy, and was blown away. It’s hard to explain why- but it’s something about the life of the place, and the lives of the people who were there, being suddenly cut short. Whether they were killed, driven out, or just moved on, the things they leave behind tell the story of their life at that moment, a snapshot captured and crystallized like a fossil.
Haikyo in Japan are not the same as Pompeii- they’re buildings abandoned in the recent past, not ruins that have been sat mouldering for thousands of years- but they seem to flick the same switches in me that Pompeii did, powerful feelings that rumble up from within, that seem primal, that seem to cut down to something important inside. But what something important? Why this connection? What is the thrill of exploring them? I’ll attempt to answer these questions below.
ONE- I can connect to a past I never knew, learn about it, learn from it, and recognize the similarities between life in the past to life now. People are the same wherever and whenever we go, even if they are different, and seeing fresh evidence for this, that people loved, lived, cried, and died here, that means something. They had different ideas and were coming from different directions to me, but they were essentially the same. That connection breeds nostalgia, but it also breeds a feeling of belonging. These people in this far-away land from the land of my birth are kindred with me- I’m here for them. I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I did I’d compare it to communing with the departed spirits of the place, and feeling welcome.
TWO- See death and resurrection writ large. My feeling about life in the city is that all we ever see are the success stories. We only see the life side of life. And I’m not so glib as to complain about that, but it is unbalanced. To understand life, to live a balanced life, I think it’s necessary to keep one eye trained on the end-point, the finish line, death. In the city, death takes place in the night, and by the day it has been cleaned up. I’m not just talking about death of people here, though of course that applies. I’m more talking about urban decay, failed ideas, failed buildings which encapsulate failed ideas and failed dreams, failed lives. All the things we leave behind as we evolve forwards. These things are mopped up and tidied away in the city. So all we ever see is the bright, the young, the new.Â Especially this is true in a city like Tokyo, where buildings are recycled every 20 years, shrines and torii gates are rebuilt every 80 years, nothing holds its value if it is old, nothing is made in stone, so everything recycles endlessly. Haikyo stand apart from this, to some extent- though eventually they will all be cleaned up too.
THREE- Challenge wits and orienteering skills. It’s not always easy to find a haikyo, nor to gain access. Deciding what route to take through a haikyo, which areas are safe and which are not, where the best photographs can be taken from, where I might be sighted from outside, all are challenges that are very satisying to overcome.
FOUR- Challenge bravery and possibly foolhardiness. Going to a haikyo can be dangerous. Sometimes I feel as if going at all is rash and foolhardy. What if I get caught? What if I fall and get injured? I start to think how foolish I’ll feel if there are bad repercussions. I counter these worries with the thought- should I just stay at home in my apartment then? Is it too risky to walk out on the street for fear of a bike smashing into me? Is it too risky to go to Shibuya for fear of being stabbed? Of course- there is a line. I do everything I can to stay on the right side of that line. But when it comes down to it, I lose out if I don’t go. Facing those fears and challenges, doing those things that most people in their right minds would think crazy- that’s necessary for my mental well-being.
FIVE- See the beauty of man’s faded glory, being re-taken by nature’s inexorable tide. I’ve always loved the poem ‘Ozymandias’ by Shelley. Here it is:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It encapsulates for me the tide of progress, the vanguard marching miles ahead of us every-day people, the rearguard of death and failure and nothing-ness coming up behind that will catch up to us all sooner or later. We move through life and time, and we leave a trail of detritus behind. For some it is pyramids or a Great Wall. For others it is their home, as it was the moment the volcano erupted. For yet others it is their failed business in the mountains, their country estate they could no longer maintain. Either way, it is the march of progress, and it is a beautiful thing to see nature step in and fill in the spaces our past has left behind us.
SIX- Do something unique. I feel it is our duty in this world to do something unique, to bring something new to the world, a new idea, new life, new genes. Some people split atoms and map the genome. Others run governments and make speeches, while others create dreams and visions of a future that could be. Together we map the possibilities for our race. Going to haikyo is one of my very small contributions to that massive endeavour.
SEVEN- Get out of the city. The city (Tokyo) is a vibrant and colorful place, but it is also oppressive. There are no open vistas, no empty streets. There are no wide spaces that are not already filled with people. All the nature is carefully preened and controlled like a bonsai tree. And it’s difficult to complain about that- this is the second biggest conurbation in the world, we’re all living stacked on top of each other- it’s necessary to live and let live, to accept that my feet are in your space, your elbows in mine. So to get out of that- to go to a still place that hasn’t seen the bustle of mass human life for years- that’s an opportunity I do not want to miss.
EIGHT- Photography and blog. This ties into the ‘do something unique’ point above. I want to record what I see. I want to improve my skills as a writer and a photographer. Haikyo are an excellent way to do both.
NINE- The urge to explore. I’ve always wanted to explore- I think it’s hard-coded into our DNA to do so. We can do it in so many realms- geographically, in terms of ideas, cultures, scientifically, spiritually if we are so inclined. In some ways though there is not much left to explore. Like the moment in the Truman Show, where Truman as a child raises his hand and says-
“I want to be an explorer, like the great Magellan!”
And the teacher pulls down a world map and says-
“Oh, too late, it’s all been explored already.”
Geographically it’s all been done. Scientifically the only way to ‘explore’ is to spend countless years climbing up the mountain of past research, then pick a very narrowly defined sub-sector of experimentation, and make in-roads. In terms of arts and philosophy, the mountain to climb is our existing hulk of culture, from which it might be possible to sight other mountains in the distance, other challenges to rise to and other goals to set.
Haikyo fulfills a lot of these goals. Of course these places have been charted. They are man-made in the first place. But they have been forgotten. They are the mountains of culture we’ve put behind us. But perhaps, from those mountains, we can enjoy different views. The very act of ‘exploring’ them changes the explorer- makes him or her a person who sees the mountain in a different way.
And of course there is the simple excitement of exploring, the same excitement we get watching Indiana Jones, or the Goonies. Exploration! Discovery! Buried Treasure!
ONE- Don’t vandalise anything, don’t take anything. There’s a green code, I’m not sure what organisation has it, but it can apply equally well to haikyo:
“Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.”
I’m aware I haven’t always followed this rule. I’ve been tempted by the desire to fire off fire extinguishers- just to see what it’s like. I’ve smashed the handles off doors- like in movies- to see if the door then unlocks and opens (it doesn’t). I’ve even smashed a few windows and kicked holes in a few walls. But I don’t anymore. It may seem silly to be romantic about these haikyo- act like they should be preserved. But in a way- they should be. It is not my place to damage them. If they are to be demolished, that’s different. Let the tractors come and demolish them. That is impersonal, and part of the way things are. For me to go in and inflict violence though is just crass and tasteless and kicking a dog when it is down. There is no need, and nothing is gained.
So that’s my credo for haikyo. It bleeds into my ideas about evolution and the role of humans as part of life, and what we should do to push things forward. But it’s also just about making this tube (me) feel good and full and satisfied, productive, bold, brave, smart, experienced, adventurous, excited, young, inspired and inspirational, full of life and ready to go.