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Common Tread

Searching for ghost towns in Japan

Jun 19, 2015

Looking for an excuse to ride, our new-found expat friends in Japan suggested we head into the mountains and hunt for haikyos.

Little did I know, this “hunt” would turn into an eight-kilometer hike up a mountain in my motorcycle gear. Cue the blisters...

Haikyos are abandoned homes or commercial building that have been left to rot away in the Japanese countryside, because society has left them behind. Some we could reach on our dual-sport bikes, but the first involved hiking.

Three of us took a sharp right at the creek and headed, well, up. The other three continued to follow the ravine a little further. By the time we reunited, everyone had managed to scale their respective sides of the mountain. Sunlight poking through the trees guided us to a clearing that had been pinned on Google Maps. Or so we’d hoped. Unfortunately, "just over that ridge" turned into an additional hour-plus of dizzying switchbacks.

Hiking past the dead to dead towns. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Finally, two old signs, rotting with age, came into view, then our goal. It was clear that the old house we found had experienced a fire. How long ago, I couldn't say. Everything smelled like mold, and the wooden floors were spongy and wet. Green moss covered much of the ground and fungi filled other spaces.

fire damage
Fire damage everywhere. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

A surprisingly well preserved shrine in an otherwise decaying house. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
An ancient-looking cabinet housed a gold-leafed shrine, suspiciously well preserved. Suitcases, old records and boxes sat slowly disintegrating. Tin toys and other such remnants were perched on the precarious upper floors. The expats searched for photographs, but nearly everything had been damaged during the fire.

Near a decrepit outbuilding, we passed a graveyard of Honda Cubs. Around the corner was yet another graveyard, this one filled with an assortment of ancient headstones. Some were so worn, they had to be hundreds of years old! The wilting flowers in front of the single shiny memorial suggested a devoted visitor had made it here only a few days ahead of us. We glanced behind in reverence, and moved on.

rindo road
Riding an empty road. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Thankfully, we discovered an easy trail back to the highway and made our way to an abandoned road we'd scouted the day before. After sneaking around an open gate, we had an epic ride down a slender “rindo road” covered with dried pine needles and a range of hazardous boulders. With no threat of on-coming traffic, we opened the throttles. As the empty highway wound tightly down the mountain, it unveiled an unbelievable view of the adjacent peaks. Nearly dusk, a haze distorted the lines and colors — a beautiful sight.

off road
When the road's abandoned, traffic is not a concern. Other obstacles are. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Ever adventurous, our expat escorts deviated from the pavement, uncertain of the path but sure of the fun. We were in for a slippery scramble, but sadly, this late in the day, at least one of our gas tanks wouldn't last the voyage. It was at that realization that we turned around and continued down.

A few of us coasted, riding our motorcycles like heavy steel bicycles to preserve precious fuel. Who knows how far we had to travel to the closest station? Because of this, it was nearly dead silent as we rolled into a town, unexpectedly.

rindo road
Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Rubble was scattered along the road, and the houses in the background were eerily unsullied — mostly intact but visibly unoccupied. It was all a bit surreal.

To our surprise, the first haikyo we entered seemed almost inhabited. New things mixed with old. We retreated cautiously, out of respect mostly, to avoid startling those who wouldn’t expect us.

abandoned building
Houses have been left to decay in rural areas. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Most of the other buildings had been ransacked and left for dead. Set deep into the trees was an ominous, two-story home that was a meager shell of what it once was, as if a giant ice cream scooper had removed the guts then dumped them somewhere, never to be found again. We used the full capacity of our imaginations, trying to uncover the mysteries of this dead community: Did poverty strike, and the cost of owning land sit heavy on their shoulders? Or maybe something more sinister? Were they chased out? Chills scurried across the little hairs on the backs of our necks, and were then met with bouts of laughter, while exaggerated stories flew between us.

The real explanation of these rural haikyos is a little different. Japanese society has aged, while the youth have become increasingly uninterested in accepting a country-dweller’s fate. Inheriting a family business can mean mostly laborious work that's hardly as fruitful as one would hope. Young adults shun the rural farms and factories which are rightfully theirs, and instead look eagerly toward the opportunities available in the city. Rural towns are now occupied with the dying generations. Are these villages destined to be the next ghost towns?

Exploring haikyos. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Darkness had settled as we drifted to the highway. We pow-wowed next to a sign at the road’s entry. I can’t recall the name, but I remember it being an oddly spotless welcome sign for an abandoned village.

Curiosity is what quiets my conscience while I make plans for more treasure hunts. And, each time that I bypass an open gate or missing door, I’ll recite my apologies — just in case.