Monday, 10 May 2010

Ruins… and re-imaginings

Where in hell can you go/Far from the things that you know/Far from the sprawl of concrete/That keeps crawling its way/About 1,000 miles a day?

Take one last look behind/Commit this to memory and mind/Don't miss this wasteland, this terrible place/When you leave/Keep your heart off your sleeve 
– Natalie Merchant, Motherland 

There are few ancient ruins in Japan. No Roman walls, no Middle-Ages ruined castles like I know from the UK. Ancient things in Japan are mostly either well preserved (like the 1,000-year-old Kiyomizu temple) or reconstructed (many old castles have been reconstructed after historical fires, or partly replaced with concrete). That ancient buildings were often being made of wood, the frequency of earthquakes – and a culture of replacement – have largely seen to the lack of such ruins.

But there are ruins. There is decay. It's just that often it's under a century old… and often concrete. Stuff that in the UK would largely be considered solely an eyesore sometimes becomes an attraction.

Since a partial opening last year, there's an interest in tourism to Gunkan-jima, an island off the coast of Nagasaki that became a mining community around 100 years ago and, since 1974, is deserted. It's a tiny island – nicknamed Battleship island for its size and shape – with a cast of decaying brick and concrete buildings. (It also has memory-ruins of Korean war-time forced labour.) NHK featured it on TV here only about a month ago. Meanwhile, the magazine WonderJapan still seems to be going strong, featuring its roadside attractions, strange children's playground structures, big Buddhas, bizarre statues… and industrial, often concrete, ruins.

That's at one end of the spectrum of a post-industrial landscape. At another – one of improvement and change – in the Seto sea between Honshu and Shikoku another former industrial island, Inujima, where granite was mined and refined, has remade itself into a tourist attraction… for quiet, retreat, and memory of industry. Nearby, but with no industrial ruins, more a reimagining of a declining fishing island into an art, relaxation and holiday destination – the nearby Naoshima was featured in Time magazine last week.

But back to the concrete, which is still too-often an eyesore in Japan (avoid concrete-littered beaches, look in awe at a concrete road bridge spanning farmland in the countryside). "Ruins" are constantly being made: as a money-saving exercise, the current government stopped construction on the Yamba dam when they were elected last year, leaving a SF-style dystopian vista of half-finished construction.

The photograph above is in Chichijima, Ogasawara and is not much of a tourist spot in itself. It's from World War II and had a decidedly eerie atmosphere, although it was only, I found from research later, an electricity generating station. Wandering around it, I could imagine why people find concrete industrial ruins curious. Though in Chichijima give me the beautiful forest land, wild beaches and wild life first. I generally see enough concrete in Tokyo, impressive metropolis though it is, so give me woodland, farmland, parks (and restaurants) for my travel attractions. Concrete is everywhere, anyway. Which I suppose is why its ruins are also celebrated.

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