Inside Japan’s Modern Ruins

19.12.2018

©Shane Thoms

Australian photographer Shane Thoms scoured Japan to find the abandoned places where nature has reclaimed its rights. His images have now been compiled in a book, Haikyo: The Modern Ruins of Japan.

Haikyo is Japanese for ‘ruins’. But the word can also be used in a broader sense, to describe urban exploration, or urbex, as it’s also known in Europe. It’s something Shane Thoms is hugely passionate about, and he travelled across Japan in search of its past glories. In the midst of nature, he discovered old leisure facilities and places where people once lived or stayed, all now become dens of solitude: theme parks, swanky beachside hotels, luxury residences… There are also onsen (hot springs), a love hotel and hospitals, all deserted overnight, with no one having taken the time to take any of the equipment or decoration away.

©Shane Thoms

These photos of mess and disorder are positively overflowing with details: moss, debris, weeds and shards of glass cover the ground. To capture these images, Thoms had to defy a few bans and rules, avoid broken staircases threatening to collapse, keep away from the voracious mosquitoes and skirt around hornets’ nests. But the result made it all worth it. “These modern ruins“, Thoms explains on his website, “provide a rich visual contrast in a country known for the brightness, sound and movement that swell in so many of its thriving metropolises.” The book, which preserves these spaces before time has a chance to wipe away their final traces, raises a broader, more fascinating question which extends beyond the borders of Japan: what do our ruins say about us?

Even if the book doesn’t offer a definitive answer, it calls out to us in the living, almost haunted, aspect of these forgotten places. In it, we discover a hospital which closed due to a lack of patients, with armchairs that could be used tomorrow if someone only took the time to dust them off. There’s also a theme park now overrun by nature, where the teacup ride has lost none of its garish colour and looks as though it is almost waiting for tourists to come along. This is, perhaps, what’s most striking about the photos: many of the objects are still standing and would need just a small breath of life to be revitalised.

Shane Thoms’ fascination for ruins dates back to his childhood. As a young boy, he was enthralled by Tim Burton’s macabre, magical world and absorbed by horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (the original version directed by Wes Craven, released in 1984). A few years ago, he began visiting abandoned sites in Australia and even went to Tchernobyl. But it was this journey across Japan which allowed him to rediscover the chills he felt as a teenager, in this marginal world with all its strange beauty.

©Shane Thoms

©Shane Thoms

©Shane Thoms

©Shane Thoms