Discovering the real Japan through abandoned buildings: interview with a French photographer

Jordy Meow is on a mission to explore and record parts of Japan that not many others see. His love of abandoned places and buildings in Japan is well documented in his blog, and he uses his camera to capture their strange and lonely beauty. Since he first came to Japan from southern France 12 years ago, the freelance software developer has discovered new loves: photography, exploration of rural Japan, and sharing the curious and concealed through his blog and software projects. We talk with Jordy about the importance of getting lost, the serendipity of a chance encounter, and why the journey rather than the destination makes travel worthwhile.

Why do we travel? Abandoned buildings are teeming with the answers to this question.

—Where did your interest in abandoned buildings in Japan come from?

JM: I had a friend who liked my photos so much he told me to invest in a good camera. So I bought a new camera and wanted to use it right away. I remembered a photo on a Japanese website presenting the country’s ruins. I thought it would be great to take pictures like those. So I searched and found an abandoned site, which was basically an aquatic park with lots of pools and a hotel area. That’s where I took my first such photos.

Jordy Meow

JM: I stayed in that place for four or five hours, exploring every corner. It looked totally surreal.

—What’s so attractive about these sites?

JM: That’s another way of saying, why do we travel? To explore something different, to see something other than what we’re used to. To discover, to be surprised, to be amazed.

The plusses and minuses of every place are different. Theme parks, old schools, old houses, and every time a different atmosphere. Sometimes I like it. Sometimes I hate it. But I’m never indifferent. Every time is memorable.

I especially like the little houses in the Japanese countryside. For me, they look like a Totoro house from a Ghibli movie. Not luxurious but a very gentle, Japanese feel with a Western influence. Some portraits, a wooden desk and chair, old books on the side. Everything there is slow and relaxed, and you feel as if you lived in this beautiful place, looking at the scenery from the window with its rice fields, rolling hills and trees. There are no big cities, no cars. You can listen to nature. You can watch the animals. It’s like a dream land.

“I’ve never seen anything as crazy looking as Gunkanjima.”

—What sites do you find specially memorable?

JM: I always start with the most obvious, Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island”, officially known as Hashima), in Nagasaki prefecture, north-west Kyusyu. The island, listed as UNESCO World Heritage, has a complex history – from the late 19th century it was a base for undersea coal mining, In 1974 the mine was closed and the site abandoned. But I don’t think any of the experts on abandoned buildings go there for its history, they go for its appearance.

It’s a huge maze of concrete buildings, most of which were residential. With stairways rising up the middle, all looking strange and odd. You feel as if you’re in some kind of 70s or 80s science-fiction movie such as Blade Runner, in another world completely. You wonder how it’s all still standing. I’ve never seen anything as crazy looking as Gunkanjima, especially viewed from the inside.

Gunkanjima (photos taken inside with official permission).

—Are there any good beginner’s sites for tourists who want a taste of exploration?

JM: For beginners … the first thing to understand about abandoned buildings is that they are all dangerous in some way. Nothing bad has ever happened to me, but something could fall and injure you, or dogs could be sleeping in there. For that reason, I would definitely recommend Gunkanjima to start with. Some companies operate boat trips that include a visit to the island. It’s tough that nobody is allowed to go inside the buildings on the tour, but you can still appreciate the unique look of the island.

I can also recommend Chichibu Kozan village in Saitama, which was also a mining village and along with the surrounding area has now become Chichibu Geopark. Much of the village is abandoned by now. You can walk around and see the empty houses, the deserted school and hospital. (Be sure to keep to the public road when you visit, because some of the buildings are still in use and exploring the abandoned ones could be risky.)

Chichibu Kozan village

“Good pictures are mainly about chance and opportunity.”

—So it was abandoned buildings that first sparked your interest in rural Japan?

JM: I explored many of those buildings because for me it was something different to photograph. But the best part of the day isn’t always the site itself, but everything else. What I mean is, waking up early, getting in the car, driving along roads where I’d never been before. The sun rising in the countryside. Stopping at the convenience store for a coffee, enjoying it outside. Eating at a restaurant on the way. Seeing all those little villages, houses and landscapes that typify Japan.

I enjoy everything, not only the destination. It’s not the only point, it’s the journey that counts. There may be a shrine nearby, which is as interesting to me as an abandoned building. I’ll take some unique pictures, and if there’s anyone around you can have an informative chat.

—What appeals to you most about these pictures of rural Japan?

JM: Of course I love Tokyo. It’s very lively and I live here, so I can always come back to my home. But when I have time, on a beautiful day, I want to go outside and explore, discover, see something different, especially the places that haven’t been changed or modified, crafted for mass tourism. For me the real Japan is somewhere out in the countryside, not in Tokyo.

If you’re visiting Japan, I recommend driving around a while to find something surprising. It might be just a viewpoint. If you look at something from a certain angle it looks amazing, while from another angle it may be insignificant. The time of day and the season also count.

Many of my pictures depend on time and place. Just by chance, I come across something I’ve never seen in my life. It’s just a question of the right timing. I feel that Japan is full of opportunities like that.

One of the photos where Jordy caught the perfect moment. “In this case the sunset made the difference,” he tells us.

JM: Anybody can enjoy this. You’ll find something special along the road, but other people will find other things. They’ll have a totally different experience, which is fine. This is what I like. I know plenty of photographers, and even if we explore the same area we bring back quite different pictures.

I enjoy finding them myself. If you want to take good photos, it’s not about the camera or the lens you have. Of course, you need to know how to take a picture, but it’s more about planning, chance and opportunity.

“Head out of Tokyo, go anywhere. You’ll definitely find something.”

—What’s your advice for those wanting to explore Japan?

JM: Head out of Tokyo, go anywhere. This is the premise. At first I needed abandoned buildings as a destination, but now it’s more random. If I find a waterfall somewhere, even if it doesn’t look particularly amazing, I’d stop anyway and try to take a good picture. Because on the way I’m sure to find other wonderful sights.

It must be difficult for visitors to Japan to find new places to explore, especially in rural areas. That’s why I run a website called Jipangu, which gathers articles written by French bloggers about places they love on a map. The service is all in French for now, but material is being added almost every day. The goal is to arouse people’s curiosity and make them feel more confident about venturing into the countryside. Don’t be scared of going off the track, that’s where Japan actually is!

Jordy loves to discover rural Japan. This is Aogashima, an island south of Tokyo.
Hoshitoge Terraced Rice Fields in Niigata prefecture
A small village in Seki City, Gifu prefecture


Gunkanjima landing and cruise

*Visits to Gunkanjima are temporarily prohibited due to the November 2019 typhoon, until restoration is complete.

Chichibu Kozan village

Address: 420 Nakatsugawa, Chichibu, Saitama