We meet Florian, the King of urbex (urban exploration) - that means the visiting and investigation of abandoned man-made structures.
What does urbex exactly or un-exactly mean to you and how did you get involved?
To me urbex is the greatest hobby in the world. I love doing research to find places, piecing little bits of information together. I love travelling to see other parts of Japan. While I could do without the sneaking into a location part, I love looking for interesting objects and angles. Running an urbex blog just adds to the experience, as I love writing articles without being restricted, except by my own limitations. And finally I love seeing / reading the reactions of people looking at my articles, often engaging in conversations, sometimes making new friends. It’s a very active hobby that challenges a large variety of skills. I think I’ve always been fascinated by the aesthetics of abandonment.
What do you feel in the moment when you are 'urbexing'?
Curiosity is what connects all locations, but more often than not it’s just the second or third layer. What I feel while exploring really depends on each individual location and factors like the weather, time restraints and whether I am exploring alone or with a friend. Some locations I connect with and feel 100% relaxed at, others I don’t even really want to enter. At some locations I could stay forever, others I want to leave as quickly as possible. So sometimes I feel relaxed, sometimes I feel anxious, sometimes
I feel relieved, sometimes I feel nervous, sometimes I feel proud, but most of the time
it’s a mix of emotions that can change from one second to another – especially when you think or know that you’ve heard something strange.
On your blog Abandoned Kansai you write with lots of details about your subject matter?
Of course it would be a lot easier and faster to just take a dozen of photos or two and put them online with a couple of basic information, like a (fake) name and maybe the year of abandonment. A lot of urbexers do it that way, including here in Japan. But when you see fascinating photos of an abandoned place, isn’t the rst question you ask yourself: “I wonder what happened there?” And that’s the same question I ask myself when I am exploring. What happened there while the place was buzzing with life – and what went wrong? More often than not it’s hard or even impossible to nd out more about a location. Because it didn’t have a major significance, because it was closed before the age of the internet, because nobody cared to keep the memories alive. So I do some research... On location I look for the last calendar that was put up, maybe plaques or some documents – and the real name of a place. That information
I use to do more research online. If I am lucky, I am able to tell fascinating stories but when I end up with no facts, I still try to make it informative. I write about owning a car in Japan after exploring an abandoned driving school, about relationships in Japan after visiting a deserted love hotel, about the Japanese health care system after exploring a desolate hospital. But whenever I can I make it all about the respective location.
How do you select the sites that you explore – what draws you to a location and not another?
There are actually several factors that in uence which locations I choose next. Generally I prefer abandoned theme parks and abandoned hospitals to abandoned hotels and abandoned restaurants. Since I am not into this for the thrills, I prefer my locations really abandoned – if a place has alarms, security or even just nosy neighbors it goes down to the bottom of the list. If I can go to a good place by myself or to a mediocre place with a friend, I usually take the location where I have company. If the weather to the north is rainy, but there’s sunshine in the south, I’ll head towards the “better” weather. (Though “bad” weather can contribute to the atmosphere) Easy access without having to jump a fence, climbing a steep slope or ghting through thick vegetation is another big plus, too. I also prefer rather unknown locations to famous ones, just because the feeling of exploring is much stronger and I don’t want to take the same photos two-dozen people before me have taken.
It seems to me that in these sites one can witness a battle - the resilience of nature in the face of human relentlessness?
While I like the aesthetics of nature taking back human made structures, I don’t enjoy being on that battle eld as it is often much too hot and much too humid for my taste, especially in Japan. And don’t get me started on the fauna. Giant Asian Hornets, wild boars, swarms of mosquitos, venomous snakes and spiders, leeches – I’ve had contact with all of them, and never did I feel like: “Yes, this is so much better than sitting on my couch watching a movie while eating pizza!“ I love spending days in the countryside and wish I could live there, I enjoy the quiet of a remote abandoned place and the beauty of nature.
You mentioned on your site that there are 8 million empty homes in Japan and 3 million are abandoned – why is there such a high number of unused homes?
There are basically three factors in my opinion; the first two are facts, the last one is my experience. Japan has an extremely low birth rate and at the same time an extremely low immigration rate, which results in a decreasing population. People are getting older, but that only slows down the decrease and makes the second factor worse – the continuing urbanization. Young people move from the countryside to bigger cities and from bigger cities to large cities mainly to get a college degree – and then they stay there, because the jobs are there and they got used to certain conveniences. At the same time older people don’t have anybody anymore to take care of them, which means they leave their houses if for nothing else than medical treatment or assisted living, with the result of millions of empty homes. And then there is the “out of sight, out of mind“ attitude of Japanese society. If you don’t have a single responsible person and hold their feet to the fire, it’s most likely that your problem won’t be taken care of. A general problem of a country with a group mentality I guess – most people try to dodge responsibility in hope another person will take it.
You have visited Chernobyl and what is known as the Zone of Alienation – tell us about that experience?
It was mind-blowing. I am old enough to remember when the Chernobyl disaster hit
the news, and since I grew up in Germany, the radioactive cloud was heading our way. (Which is also why the town of Chernobyl, south of the power plant, is still inhabited by people who work in the zone, while the city of Pripyat, west of the plant, was evacuated.) A few years later in high school nuclear power was both a topic in German Literature as well as Social Studies, we even visited a nearby nuclear power plant in Germany as a eld trip. So shortly after I picked up urbex as a hobby, I went to the Zone of Alienation for two days, because it had (and still has) that typical urbex look, but a much higher historical relevance – which is why I consider that trip less urbex and more dark tourism. The Zone of Alienation is not abandoned, quite the opposite, it’s highly guarded. Sadly a lot of tourists there lacked the respect a place like that deserved – a couple of computer game nerds even wore camouflage gear as if they were heroes in a game set in Pripyat! Spending two days in Pripyat with a guide and a driver was an intense and highly recommended experience. I could tell anecdotes for hours, including how I spent the night in a container hotel in Chernobyl... Strangely enough I was just writing the second to last article about that trip for Abandoned Kansai, when the Tohoku earthquake of 2011 wiped out the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, just about 600 kilometers away from where I live.
You also visited North Korea – how did your visit come about?
I grew up in a country that had similar circumstances as there are on the Korean Peninsula now – Germany; fortunately on the western side. My family had no relatives in the eastern part, I was 13 years old when the country was reunited, and I was not particularly interested in politics, so I wasn’t aware of the significance of what was going on there. More than two decades later I finally had read up on things (including a few classes about Korean history at university) and thought it would be a good idea to visit the last somewhat communist / Marxist-Leninist state on earth after the Soviet union dissolved and both China and Cuba kinda softened in that regard. You know, to get a taste of both the German Democratic Republic and every dystopian novel I’ve ever read...
What are your 5 top abandoned sites and why do they make your top 5 list?
Nara Dreamland – a run-down theme park that was abandoned without a single ride,
a single arcade machine, a single paper clip being removed.
Tokushima Countryside Clinic – a countryside doctor’s private practice in excellent condition; closed in the 1980s, with handwritten patient files and interior dating back to the 1930s.
Wakayama Hospital – a medical cooperative that went bankrupt, leaving the elderly investors without their money and their medical support; still completely stocked. Japanese Sex Museum – a few years ago one of the few remaining hihokan treasure houses; eclectic adult collections, everything from phallic art to frivolous mechanical mini games.
Kejonuma Leisure Land – another nearly pristine abandoned theme park; much smaller than Nara Dreamland, but with a Ferris wheel and a driving range.
Credits - Abandoned Kansai