Ruins are known in Japan as ‘Haikyo’ (廃墟) – literally ‘abandoned place’. The word has become synonymous here with Urban Exploration, or Urbex for short, which is the exploration of man-made sites usually hidden or restricted from the general public. But with such exploration comes inherent dangers.
The reason a large majority of abandoned sites are off-limits in the first place is due to the very nature of the places themselves. Often structurally unsound, with rusty objects, rotten floors and dark hidey holes means they are the perfect place for accidents to happen. Beautiful, enchanting and thrilling perhaps, but as with any pursuit, one should be aware of the risks involved before setting out. So here’s the dark side to haikyo.
“Take only pictures, leave only footprints…”
The motto of Urban Explorers.
.:: Contents ::.
1.1 The Law
2 The Environment
2.1 Rotten/Crumbling Floors
2.2 Rusty Staircases and Catwalks
2.3 Broken Glass
2.4 Protruding Nails
2.5 Fire Extinguishers
3.1 Lighters, Candles and Fire
3.2 Toxic Substances
4.1 Wild Dogs
4.2 Bees and Other Creatures
5.1 Encountering Other People
5.2 Film Crews and Adult Video
5.3 Criminal Scenes
6 Notes and Requests
The following article borrows heavily from the experience of 廃墟Explorer and other websites that document Urban Exploration. The person behind Haikyo Explorer alone (栗原 亨) claims to have experience visiting over 400 locations over the course of 10 years and the Japanese safety article includes the advice of over 30 veteran explorers. I have also included my own experiences and the general advice I have received since beginning the hobby myself late 2008.
As with any article, a certain amount of personal bias will undoubtedly creep in. This isn’t a definitive guide or strictly correct, but a collection of advice from experienced haikyoists which the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed explorer would do well to read. Alrighty, so let’s get to it!
Very often, the act of visiting haikyo is classed as illicit conduct. It’s usually illegal on grounds of trespassing, theft or breaking and entering. Just breaking one pane of glass or pulling off a board used to seal up a building will saddle you will charges of breaking and entering. Taking one small item as souvenir booty is classed as theft. Venturing into an unknown building with an open door is most likely in breach of someone’s private property and hence trespassing.
And that’s not all. Dropping litter inside a haikyo would be classed as unlawful dumping of waste, and lighting fires would be arson. All these acts, whether committed by you or not, could be suspected of you if you are caught in a place you are not supposed to be, and especially so if you are carrying particular items. What if the seeming ‘haikyo’ you entered were actually someone’s empty house? You would be a burglar. And with the state of some old Japanese houses I’ve seen, it can often be very hard to tell which is which.
The worse case scenario is that you could be arrested and detained for any of the above charges, which would obviously have grave effects on your work and life from there on. So before thinking lightly of heading out to an abandoned building, why not try asking the owner or the local residents to get permission to enter? You might also learn something about the history in the process.
Realistically, trespassing is a grey area, and depending on the site, you may get away with little more than a bemused look or a curt talking to. But I’ve seen stories around that range from guided tours by a friendly local to angry farmers with guns and screaming police cars. There are also copious books with pictures clearly taken inside such sites, which might lead you to think that is it okay. But be aware that the authors of these books may have got permission to take photographs in those locations. All in all, it’s not worth trying your luck with the law unless you are sure you are willing to take the risk.
It should come as no surprise that there are often floors that are rotten and waterlogged or just crumbling away in abandoned buildings. The Haikyo Explorer tells us of his own experiences stepping on a floor and having it collapse before him. Luckily he was wearing military grade boots at the time and escaped unharmed, but I would hasten a guess that the majority of keen explorers aren’t quite as hardcore as that. A soft pair of trainers may be comfortable, but they aren’t going to give you much support if the floor gives way.
I came across a whole tatami room that was sagging in the middle due to a water leak that had accumulated over the passing years. Needless to say, I didn’t step foot in there. Be extremely careful of any floor that feels soft or wet, and naturally, heed the state of the ceiling too! Walls are just the same. I foolishly attempted to drop down to the first floor in one UK haikyo by means of a hole between the floors. Bracing myself with a steel rod fixed to the piping system and a rough section of loose wall, I stepped… Thankfully for me the metal pipes held my weight as I dangled a couple of feet above the ground after the wall had given way.
Anything rusty is asking for trouble. Haikyo are not maintained and usually the owners are keen to keep people off the site because they are liable for any injuries that may occur there. Rusty staircases are one of the first things that can cause serious injuries, not least because of the worry of contracting a tetanus infection from a cut, but because rusty metal is prone to breaking.
Haikyo Explorer warns us of one of the less obvious dangers of rusty staircases. Apparently there are situations where the outside can look perfectly sound and reliable, but the inside of a stair is rusted away or has degraded concrete. Judging this to be safe and clambering to the top of an old metal staircase, you may find yourself with a foot dangling and looking down at a 100ft drop. This is especially so with factories and places that have exterior staircases originally used to access unusual parts of machinery.
Best to re-think if there is really anything worth seeing that you have to risk your life to do so. People have died falling from great heights in Urban Exploration. And if you really must climb dodgy staircases, keep a firm hold on any rails or beams that look reliable and take each step one by one, keeping at least one foot secure and your weight balanced at all times. Sure, you may look like a coward, but nobody will be laughing if a stair does give way, or the entire staircase for that matter.
Broken glass litters the floors in many haikyo and of course many windows are also broken due to both vandals at play and natural causes (swinging tree branches – etc.) If you aren’t wearing tough boots, the chances are you are going to step on something which could cut through your shoes, especially by mistake in the darkness while exploring. There are also stories of glass rain, where a strong wind breaks a loose pane of glass above you and it comes tumbling down.
That’s without mentioning the substances that could be or were previously contained in the glass containers. Cut yourself on a piece of glass bearing the remnants of something infectious in a hospital haikyo and you could find yourself with a high fever, swollen limb or something much worse.
Haikyo Explorer tells of us his friend Mr. S who was not wearing gloves and cut open the palm of his hand on a piece of exposed glass. Although he stopped the blood and applied disinfectant, he needed a total of 15 stitches in his hand afterwards at the hospital.
Glass on the floor or sticking out from window panes isn’t the only sharp, spiky object threatening you. Rusty nails protruding from the floorboards are a very common sight in haikyo and have the potential to cause very real injuries.
The rubber soles of sneakers or trainers are not going to be any defense against a sharp spike jutting out from the floor, especially if you are in a hurry or dropping down from somewhere. Haikyo Explorer’s friend Mr. A had the sole of his trainer punctured, but luckily for him, the nail surged between the opening in his toes and he escaped unharmed.
Touch and feel how sensitive the sole of your foot is. I had a wasp sting me here some 10 years ago while playing outside in the garden barefoot and couldn’t stop wailing for half an hour at the pain in this delicate region. It’s a fair bet that you won’t be able to walk very well after stepping on a nail.
It’s recommended that you wear military-grade tough boots to protect yourself. Even safety boots aren’t likely to stop the pressure from the acute point of a nail piercing your footwear.
A pretty common sight in old hotels, fire extinguishers are often set off for fun inside haikyo. Everyone has the strange urge to squeeze the trigger on something we’re told should only be used in emergencies. And how often are you in a situation where you can use one? But did you know that old fire extinguishers have the potential to explode?
The bottom sometimes rusts and degrades after many years of storage, and the pressure caused by squeezing the trigger can be enough to set off a frightening bang, sending the extinguisher rocketing upwards into your chin. Death is certainly plausible, if not a disintegrated jaw.
And if not maimed by exploding vessels, then consider the possibility that the noise and dust caused by setting off a fire extinguisher might attract someone’s attention to your presence. Next you’ll be needing a course on dealing with law enforcement.
Doors? Yes, doors. The self-locking kind that have a tendency to close after you have walked through them. If you’re on the 5th floor of a building, there’s not going to be much hope of jumping down or calling out for help, and should anyone hear your banging from inside the room, the chances they’ll be too freaked out to open the door are pretty high. Bringing a door stopper with you would be a good way to avoid this nasty situation.
You probably shouldn’t be bringing such things into haikyo in the first place on the grounds that it looks pretty suspicious if you are caught. But a lot of ghost hunters and people who search for haunted spots like to heighten the mood with candles. Haikyo Explorer warns us to beware of leaking gases that may ignite on a naked flame. You can’t be sure what sort of chemicals are lying around in some of the places visited, especially factories and basement boiler rooms. That’s also without mentioning the dangerous machinery itself which could cause injury if you try to operate it. Best to bring a torch or flash light to light your way, and some spare batteries too.
It’s not been unheard of for people to come across nuclear materials left behind from old X-ray machines and other nasty chemicals leaking from old containers in haikyo. And there’s the oft mentioned asbestos to contend with likely inside every old building you choose to enter, especially if you’re kicking up dust from the floor or clambering around on walls lined with plates made of the stuff. The above image shows a bottle of Calmotin which I found at one abandoned shack, which can be lethal if consumed in large amounts.
Mold spores flying around are another concern – too many lungfuls full of them and you might be throwing up. Bird droppings often line the windowsills and lofts of abandoned buildings and bird breeders often develop a condition known as ‘Pigeon Lung‘ from breathing in avian proteins found in the dried bird faeces. Mounds of bird poo are often found in high rise places like clock towers. I had my hands covered in it after a scramble to the top of one such tower back in the UK. Best left well alone. Be aware of methane buildup or other gaseous build-up as well. It can lead to poisoning if you are exposed for long enough.
Asbestos was the substance I was most worried about when I first began examining haikyo. From my research, it seems asbestos is only dangerous when airborne, and it only really becomes airborne when you break up boards made of the stuff or rub it off the walls. But you’d be surprised at the sheer number of materials that contain asbestos! Loft insulation, concrete bricks, pipes, flooring, roofing – you name it. The fibres most likely to make their way into your lungs are invisible to the naked eye and apparently it likes to stick to your clothes too.
Asbestos is reportedly only dangerous with constant exposure over long periods of time, but are you willing to take the risk when going to degraded buildings full of dust and other airborne particles? A gas mask or particle filter is recommended and you’ll need to be careful on the grade of the filter too. The mask I have is a disposable Moldex mask with an FFP3 D particle filter (basically, a P3 filter). The thing to look for is an asbestos mask that filters 100% of all particles (the highest grade HEPA mask). Having said that, many places I look say a half mask respirator is essential, so it would be best to consult an industry expert rather than rely on what I’ve heard.
Not uncommon at the sort of places an intrepid Urban Explorer is likely to go. Haikyo can be a haven for drug addicts and rebellious youths and pricking yourself on a used needle is the way to go for picking up all sorts of life-threatening and contagious diseases. Another reason for those military boots then.
I have never seen or come across wild dogs in any of the haikyo I’ve been to yet, and neither has the guy from Haikyo Explorer, but it is a hazard to be considered, especially in more rural locations. It’s probably not likely that you’re able to subdue the beast with your bare hands, but a hefty tripod might help, or other ‘tools’ if you have them. However, be wary of bringing items with you for defence, because it’s far too easy to be misunderstood if you are caught.
Haikyo Explorer tells us that, apparently, wild animals can be subdued by whips. The snapping sounds made by swiping it against the floor will cause most animals to run away or at least calm down. I have no idea if this is true, but maybe bringing a plastic-lined rope or something rubber with you might help in the unlikely event of coming across a wild dog?
Bringing insect repellent with you during the summer months is a good idea, as the rural places that often contain haikyo are a haven for all sorts of nasty creepy crawlies. You’ll want to keep a look out for wasps’ or hornets’ nests especially. Haikyo Explorer regales us with a tale of adrenaline where he mistook a bee’s nest for some machinery. The result was a sprint with an swarm of angry bees in hot pursuit, but luckily he was wearing long sleeves and had a hood to cover his head.
Durf in the comments tell us more about fearsome Japanese bees. Apparently suzumebachi can kill people and this happens several times a year in Japan. They go for dark colours like the hair on people’s heads or the fur of bears that might try to eat their hives. For this reason, pest controllers who remove the hives and kill the bees always wear white headgear. Best to bring a white coat or something then! Cheers Durf!
Don’t forget also that, in your panic, running into/off things is a real danger. One Mr. A fell off a cliff edge after being chased by bees, but got away with light injuries… Spider bites are another small possibility, with Haikyo Explorer again having had the unfortunate experience of walking into a spider web and getting bitten. The next day he took time off to nurse his swollen lip.
Snakes are more of a danger. Japan’s poisonous snake, the mamushi is present in some areas, and it’s unlikely you’ll be carrying a serum if you get bitten.
Meeting other explorers in a haikyo is a surprisingly common occurrence. Just like you, other people are there to experience the ruins but may have very different objectives. I met a couple of foreign graffiti artists at a hospital haikyo near Tokyo, which startled us both for a few seconds before we both realised we were both there to enjoy the ruins. (The hospital is well known for its graffiti art and this was one of the rare haikyo where graffiti is considered acceptable. In most places it’s usually frowned upon).
They told me on a previous visit that the construction workers from a nearby scrapyard came up and caught them, but just watched them paint new graffiti art. One of the workers was apparently carrying a lead pipe though, evidently in order to deal with anyone less pleasant who they might meet there. A fellow explorer on the English haikyo web also told me his story about meeting a group of rebellious youths at the same hospital who were docile but not particularly happy at his being there.
Haikyo Explorer also notes that at one point he was surrounded by a group of 4 people and ended up in a pretty sticky situation. He doesn’t go into detail though, but I assume he managed to escape. And imagine if you’re a girl venturing into a haikyo alone to take pictures. It would only take a couple of guys to corner you and the situation would become pretty bad pretty quickly.
For these reasons, it’s advisable to never go to haikyo by yourself. Usually between 2 and 4 people is optimal. Go with more and you risk drawing too much attention to yourself. Go by just yourself and you could find yourself in a dire situation if you get injured or caught by a group of unpleasant people. Gangs of yakuza, drug addicts, youths or homeless people who feel like you’ve invaded their territory are all possible threats, so the old adage of safety in numbers works here.
Remember, too, that people residing in haikyo are unlikely to have anything to lose. They’ve already exhausted all their other options and stolen away from regular society, so are more liable to do things that you might not expect. But many of the sort of people living in abandoned buildings will know full fell that they are already on the wrong side of the law and so try to avoid you. It’s best to do the same and avoid infringing on their living space.
It’s not unheard of to sometimes come across film crews shooting on location in haikyo. A explorer buddy of mine, Ikumi, tells me she has stumbled across groups of teenagers making amateur documentaries or just testing each other’s courage in reputably haunted places. Ironically enough, the kids ending up following her around as she continued her photography claiming they were scared, but always be vigilant about where the groups are if you continue exploring. It is likely they will have safety in numbers, while you will not.
Ikumi tells us that she has also bumped into crews shooting adult photography and video on more than one occasion, which was quite embarrassing for both parties. It’s probably best to make your presence known to avoid startling the other people and then just explain what you are doing. Be aware that the crew may have official permission to shoot in the location and they could ask you to leave. Personally I think this unlikely, but it might be wise to ask to see proof of their filming permission if they claim to have it. In any case, it would be best to just shoot elsewhere in the building while they work.
If you do have the unfortunate experience of being at the scene of a crime inside a haikyo, it’s probably best you report it immediately to the police. Haikyo Explorer tells us he’s found a dead body in one case and uncovered a robbery in another. Both times he reported the incidents to the police and wasn’t blamed for trespassing into the haikyo. He was asked what he was doing in a place like that, to which he simply replied ‘because I like exploring haikyo’.
The day following his discovery of the dead body, he received a call from the bereaved family in thanks. They had apparently been searching for their relative. In the case of the robbery, he remembered the license plate number on the car and the criminals were arrested within one hour of his reporting it.
Should you choose not to report such incidents, you risk becoming a suspect when the discovery is made at a later date and traces of your visit are discovered. It’s probably best just to come clean about your discovery.
Notes and Requests
The above advice is based on the experience of many different haikyoists over many years, but it is entirely up to you how much of it you choose to heed. If you have any recommendations for additions or your own experiences dealing with any of the above or additional topics when doing Urban Exploration, please let me know in the comments. I will try to keep this article up to date and useful for all future explorers thinking of taking the risks to visit haikyo.
Also, if you have any good pictures that really illustrate the above dangers well, please let me know in the comments or send them to me! I’ll provide a link back to your homepage and credit you with the image if I decide to use it :)
Haikyo can be wonderful places full of history and intrigue, but also very dangerous, so take care of yourself and others with you. Please note that I don’t advise that you visit ruins and can’t take responsibility for your actions or their consequences if you do decide to venture to such places.