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

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

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

Her photographs of these places – from homes destroyed in the aftermath of natural disasters to closed theaters with the lights still on – are now featured in a book called The Lost World, which was released in May.

Japan’s spirit houses

Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world, with an estimated one in 1,500 people over the age of 100. As more and more young people move to cities in search of work, rural areas are becoming more difficult to maintain.
And that’s not the only major force affecting Japan’s landscape. Events such as earthquakes, typhoons, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster have also resulted in widespread destruction or abandonment.

Enter the phenomenon of Akiya or spirit houses.

A 2014 government report sounded the alarm, saying that if things continue as they are now, about 900 villages and towns across Japan would “go extinct.”

03 body lost world japan

Limburg not only found empty houses, there were also abandoned shops like this DVD shop.

Maan Limburg/The Lost World

But even vacant houses aren’t necessarily the cure for Japan’s Akiya situation. While other countries with aging populations, such as Italy, have given away or sold very cheap houses to foreigners, they often come with a visa or residence permit. However, Japan’s houses are not.

As a result, finding people willing to live in and fix the homes can be difficult, especially if they don’t speak Japanese or have access to a car.

Limburg, who lives in Utrecht, was irresistibly drawn to the lesser-known regions of Japan where many of these houses exist. She and her partner spent months at a time there, renting a car or van and driving through parts of the country that many tourists rarely explore.

Finding ephemera such as calendars and newspapers can help Limburg find out when a place was abandoned.

Finding ephemera such as calendars and newspapers can help Limburg find out 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 went to, people said, ‘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 just nice to see this other side of Japan,” she says.

And once she started visiting smaller villages, it was practically impossible not to find empty houses or abandoned buildings. At some point, Limburg says, her boyfriend asked if they really had to stop with every single one.

One of the reasons Limburg was connected to rural Japan was that it reminded her of her native Netherlands. Although both countries have a reputation for being cold and not always welcoming of foreign visitors, Limburg disagrees.

“Once the Dutch see that you are really interested, they will give you a lot of information. That’s something I really felt was true in Japan, too,” she says. “It’s one of the things I really enjoy about both countries, that when you really care about the people, suddenly they really share their life with you.”

But of course, not every landscape is the same, and that was reflected in the empty buildings she found.

In Hokkaido, Limburg explains, many people have had time to properly close and weatherproof their homes before moving. But in areas like Fukushima, where people had fled in a hurry, it wasn’t uncommon to still have teacups set out or televisions plugged in.

One of her personal favorite discoveries was a former theatre. The sets, costumes and lights were still intact, as if the actors had just taken a lunch break and should be back any moment.

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

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

Her favorite region was the “magic” northern island of Hokkaido.

“It’s rough and rugged and weird,” says the photographer. “We felt like we were in an Edward Hopper painting without people.”

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

Maan Limburg/The Lost World


In all, Limburg has visited Japan about 10 times, starting when she was a teenager.

Being a freelancer means she can be away for long periods of time, so her average visit to Japan lasted three weeks. Several trips enabled her to see different parts of the country and to meet and connect with some of the people she met along the way.

More than just a photo book, The Lost World is a tribute to the country she loves and respects.