‘The Lost World’: New book sheds light on Japan’s abandoned rural spaces

(CNN) — Just saying the word “Japan” can conjure up images of manga, maid cafes, and neon lights.

But for Dutch photographer Maan Limburg, Japan is a series of rural landscapes dotted with empty houses.

His photographs of these places – from houses abandoned in the wake of natural disasters to shuttered theaters with the lights still on – are now featured in a book, “The Lost World”, published in May.

Japan’s ghost houses

Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world, with about one in 1,500 people over the age of 100. As more and more young people move to cities in search of employment, rural areas have become more difficult to maintain.
And that’s not the only major force affecting the Japanese landscape. Events such as earthquakes, typhoons and the Fukushima nuclear disaster have also caused large-scale destruction or abandonment.

Enter the phenomenon of akiya, or ghost houses.

A 2014 government report sounded the alarm, saying that if things continued at the current rate, around 900 villages and towns in Japan would be “extinct”.

Limburg didn’t just find empty houses – there were also abandoned businesses like this DVD store.

Maan Limburg/The Lost World

But even free houses aren’t necessarily the cure for Japan’s akiya situation. While other countries with aging populations, such as Italy, have given or sold very cheap houses to foreigners, they often come with a visa or residence permit. The houses of Japan, however, do not.

As a result, it can be difficult to find people willing to live in the houses and repair them, especially if they don’t speak Japanese or don’t have access to a car.

Limburg, which is based in Utrecht, has found itself irresistibly drawn to the lesser-known parts of Japan where many of these houses exist. She and her partner have been there for months at a time, renting a car or van and driving through parts of the country that many tourists rarely explore.

Finding ephemera like calendars and journals can help Limburg determine when a place was abandoned.

Finding ephemera like calendars and journals can help Limburg determine when a place was abandoned.

Maan Limburg/The Lost World

Leave the cities

Limburg says she “fell in love” with rural Japan.

“In every village we came to, people were like, ‘What are you doing here? The nearest tourist attraction is 35 kilometers away. We can send you there. We can draw you a map. if you want.’ It was really nice to see this other side of Japan,” she says.

And once she started visiting smaller villages, it was almost impossible not to find empty houses or abandoned buildings. At one point, Limburg says, her boyfriend asked if they really should stop at each.

One of the reasons Limburg bonded with rural Japan is that it reminded them of their native Netherlands. Although both countries have a reputation for being cold and not always welcoming to foreign visitors, Limburg disagrees.

“As soon as the Dutch see that you’re really interested, they’ll share a lot of information with you. That’s something I found true in Japan as well,” she says. “That’s one of the things I really appreciate about both countries, if you really care about people, they suddenly share their lives with you,” he added.

But of course, not all landscapes are the same, and that was reflected in the kinds of empty buildings she found.

In Hokkaido, Limburg says, many people have had time to tightly seal and caulk their homes before moving. But in areas like Fukushima, where people had hastily fled, it was not uncommon to find teacups still in place or TVs still plugged in.

One of his favorite discoveries was an ancient theatre. The sets, costumes, and lights were still intact, as if the actors had simply taken a lunch break and had to be back any minute.

Some of the smaller houses had the most emotional punch. Limburg saw family photos still hanging on the wall and found herself wondering what had happened to the people who lived here and what made them leave.

“I hope I treated the place with enough respect,” she says.

His favorite region was the “magical” island in the north of Hokkaido.

“It’s rough and it’s rugged and it’s weird,” says the photographer. “We felt like we were in an Edward Hopper painting with no one there.”

"Once you start looking for empty houses," Limburg says, "they are everywhere."

“Once you start looking for empty houses,” Limburg says, “they’re everywhere.”

Maan Limburg/The Lost World


In all, Limburg visited Japan about 10 times, starting in his teenage years.

Because she is independent, she can spend long periods away, so her average visit to Japan was three weeks. Multiple trips allowed her to see different parts of the country, as well as meet and connect with some of the people she met along the way.

“The Lost World” is more than just a photo book, it’s a tribute to the country she loves and respects.

About William Moorhead

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