Abandoned home

Author's note, 14/09/23: This didn't actually happen to me. Or anyone, probably. I cobbled it together as part of an abortive write-what-you-know Nanowrimo from different bits I'd picked up around Hokkaido.

Previously: Beach to town

Soon the fields give way to a tall stand of trees off to the right side of the road. Long, tall, old-looking things. Their trunks are slim and gray and give the appearance almost of stone, rather than wood. At this time of year, they’re almost totally leafless; a few bronze tatters dip and shimmer in the breeze. The rest of the leaves wetly paper the road and sidewalk. A car drives by and throws a few up in the air. The car is a Suzuki That’s. I’ve seen a few of these before and their name always makes me chuckle. I chuckle again here.

Within the stand of trees is a small hill on which stands an old, old house. The house looks askew and hunched, like an old human. The roof is metal, long narrow aluminum shingles overlaying each other. The shingles are painted that traditionally Japanese blue that skews towards teal, which I was told is called hanada. I look up at the roof and wonder if the color comes from some sort of treatment on the aluminum, or if it’s just a decorative thing. The roof has a very noticeable slump in the middle, like a saddle. Tall grass jostles up against the siding of the building, which looks like plaster framed with a dark, dark wood. Off to one side is a typical entrance, which the Japanese call genkan: a little gabled extension with wooden sliding doors into a little ground-level, unfloored room. The wooden doors have a couple of glass windows, as I make my way through the grass towards the front door, I can’t help but feel like the sliding doors’ glass is somehow more brittle, more dried out than regular glass. It’s caked with a thick layer of dust or dirt, which comes off crustily when I drag a finger across it. I try to peer in but it’s dark inside.

I look back towards the road—through the trees I’m not particularly visible, but I imagine my blue backpack sticks out somewhat. I shoulder it off and rest it in the grass. The grass is soft and a little wet. The trees above crackle against each other. Overhead the sky is slowly turning a bright, electric blue.

It’s unlikely, but I try to slide open the front door. It gives a centimeter or two but jams against the slouching doorframe. It’s easy to see that the wood has been warped and deformed, the runners on which the door slides all bent out of shape. The glass groans in its frames when I try to close the door again, return it the couple of centimeters it traveled. It finally yields and slams back closed with a huge noise, and I freeze and look behind me. There’s no one. A crow in one of the trees above me caws, and it sounds like, “Awa, awa, awa.”

I sidle along around the side of the genkan, past a power meter that has long since been disconnected. Its wires jut out from under the body of the thing. The plastic has some kind of mold growing on it, which honestly I hadn’t thought possible. Stuff growing on plastic. Ahead of me there’s a big sliding glass door in an aluminum frame, which has sort of popped out of the hole cut in the building, which is no longer a rectangle but a parallelogram. The aluminum sliding doors are sort of hanging off the front of the hole, and it looks pretty easy to swing them aside and gain entrance to the building. The aluminum feels plasticky and easily manipulable. It doesn’t ping like metal but clacks like brittle plastic. I peer inside but the darkness is thick. The grass is tall enough here that it’s unlikely that I could be seen from the road. My backpack is still resting in the grass. It almost looks like a small animal waiting for me.

I duck down and pull the sliding door and shimmy underneath and I find myself in what appears to be a living room. The floor is framed and wooden but you can tell at one point that there were tatami mats on it, by the way that the siding is raised and beveled. There’s a good amount of debris on the floor, mostly what looks like crumbled plaster. In one corner of the room there’s a big metal contraption, like a big beige cube. Rust is slowly eating it from one corner. There are knobs along one edge, but the labels have long been worn away. It looks like it could be an old washing machine, or maybe a really large microwave? Ovens aren’t particularly popular in this country. Near the machine, I see a fox skull, white and dried out and missing not a few teeth. Scattered around it are a number of tiny bones.

Not much is left of the ceiling; all of the wooden structure of the house is visible. I can actually see up to the underside of the roof. Long fingers of light are making their ways in between the cracks.

The smell is heavy and musty, the smell of your grandfather’s house. It’s what I imagine the 1970s smelled like. The smell of the insides of old books. The smells seems like a part of the air rather than just a quality of it. As if whatever is causing the smell is floating in the air, visible in the beams of light above as weighty little motes of dust or decay or mold or whatever it is. I’ll likely be sneezing for the rest of the day.

One side of the living room is lined in Japanese-style doors, a lattice of wood that probably used to be papered over. I can see through the lattice into another room, much brighter. The wall between the living room and this other room is also at a pretty serious angle, so I have to find another way around; through what once might have been a doorway (but I can’t be too sure), I find the dividing wall’s end. On the other side is that bright room, carpeted with a natty pinkish carpet. There’s a tremendous amount of detritus on the carpet, an amount you’d see only on vacuum commercials to demonstrate the might of a particular brand’s suction. One wall has these sort of recessed windows, like bay windows, with a high ledge for books or plants or decorative somethings. A couple of the windows are broken and the others are very dirty; they look out over the brushy tops of the long grass outside.

A room adjoining this one is still in a fair state. The tatami mats are actually still in place, alongside a number of other tatami mats stacked in a corner—the ones from the living room, I imagine. Against the rear wall there’s a metal desk. The drawers are empty. There’s a deep closet on the opposite wall; the sliding doors open with relative ease. Inside are a number of huge glass jars filled with… vegetables, maybe, in liquid? It looks like a huge pickling operation. The liquid in a lot of the jars is a deep red, like grenadine, which for some reason sort of weirds me out. There are also a good number of cardboard boxes filled with blank lined paper.

The next room was evidently the kitchen. There’s a row of low cupboards and a crusty metal sink with a couple of cracked dishes in the bottom. Also a considerable amount of animal shit on the floor, which I do my best not to step in. On the floor by a doorway there’s an overturned gas stove absolutely covered in rust. The doorway leads to a narrow stairway that appears to go up into the attic. I take a first couple of steps on the creaking stairs, then drop down to my hands and feet to try and spread out my weight. My nose comes level with the landing above and I see a stack of floor pillows but not much else. I sort of crawl backwards down the stairs and back into the kitchen.

Off the kitchen is a narrow hallway and a tiny annex with a recessed concrete floor, which I can only imagine was the bathroom at one point. There’s a bath cover, which is this plastic mat that can be rolled out to cover the bathtub so that the water stays warm; but there’s no sign of a bathtub anywhere. I duck back out and find myself back in the living room.

I hear a car drive by outside. It slows to a stop and I freeze, as if the driver won’t notice me if I’m not moving. I can’t see the car from where I am anyway, which means he can’t see me. The car accelerates and drives away.

It doesn’t occur to me once that this house could collapse and crush me. I don’t know why.

To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m here, in this old house. I’m not looking for anything. In fact, I’m probably been in twenty houses like this before, all up and down the coasts—half smashed, with the roofs caving in, hug concrete things that looked like they were demolished on purpose, creaking barns still home to long dysfunctional farm equipment. I don’t take stuff—I’m an adherent to the idea of like, ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’, as hokey as that sounds. But that’s usually applied to nature and the ‘leave no trace’ movement, and here I am in someone’s 20-years-erstwhile home. There are cigarette butts on the floor. There’s a poster from 1989 with a figure skater in a garish pink costume. There’s an empty plastic bottle, like the ones from the beach, lying on the floor of the living room. Its cap is missing. This isn’t nature. So why do I feel like I have to leave this like I left it?

I make my way back to the living room and out, under the aluminum sliding doorframe. It sort of shudders and clacks when I release it, and for a moment I’m seized by this dread that it will come off its jammed hinges and fall into the grass. And almost certainly, after I’m gone, this winter or the next, it will. And the wood will rot, and the roof will collapse, and the plaster will crumble, and the whole house will return to the earth, until all that’s left are some plastic bottles and aluminum panels in the dirt, and then what’s the difference between this sliding door attached to the house and this sliding door sitting in the grass?

I peer around the side of the house. There’s a huge bush there that I don’t have the spirit to fight through. At the foot of the bush, I see a metal panel, though, and I tangle with the grass to get over to it. It’s a car, maybe from the 1960s or 70s. A tiny one. It says Subaru under the side-view mirror housing; there’s no mirror anymore. There’s still glass in the door—and you can tell by the way it reflects the light that it’s real glass, not this shatterproof stuff they have in cars nowadays. There’s no doorhandle anymore, though: just a rusty couple of holes where the handle was mounted. I lean in on the glass, testing my weight, and peer inside. There are no seats, just a bare floor filled with orange pine needles. I stand and try to haul up the hood. It’s tangled with grass. When I finally manage to lever it up, it turns out there’s no engine anymore. There’s a small bush growing there instead.

This intersection of humanity and nature—this, I think, is a part of my feeling. Watching nature take back from us, especially at a time when we’re taking so much from nature. I feel like I can’t articulate how I feel about it. It feels like seeing something you’re not meant to see. It feels like listening in on your rival’s phone calls. Watching your enemy succeed. Nature isn’t my enemy, I know that—but I’m a human, and we’re definitely not on the same side.

When I haul up my pack again, it feels heavier, somehow. I stand before the house, this artifact from the past, this totally ignored thing, everything that people thought was not valuable enough to take with them. I pull all the air that I can into my lungs, and the straps of the pack shift on my shoulders, and the hip belt bends with the pressure; and then I sigh out prodigiously, and the pack sort of clings and sags on me, so I pull everything a little bit tighter, and head back down the little slope to the road.

Hills and Letters JET Programme Japan


Abandoned bus in a field

The little-remarked-upon phenomenon of using old disrepaired buses as mobile storage in rural Japan.


Send me a PDF

Frustrated by Word documents that get mangled in email transit, a plea is issued for a simple PDF.