ghost towns

ENTERING the Fukushima red zone, I feel a burning sensation in my eyes and there’s a thick chemical stench in the air.

Safety measures? I have a full gas mask to protect my eyes and reduce inhaling air in the red zone.

I have been wondering what it would be like in the Fukushima exclusion zone, to be the only person walking in the town and have 100% access to every shop in the ghost town and to explore at will. And now, here I am.

Before going in, I am told by the authorities that I need a special permit from the local council.

That is too much bureaucracy for me, so I just sneaked in through the forest to avoid the police on the road and it is amazing!

I just have GPS and Google Maps to guide me, walking in the woods at 2am, getting into the towns of Okuma, Futaba and Namie in the Fukushima prefecture.

It is eerie; how towns once filled with people now lie empty.

All the shops are unlocked – the supermarkets, goldsmiths, banks, bookstores and restaurants.

There is still electricity.

The traffic light changes from green to red even with no cars around.

It feels like being in a post-apocalyptic movie like I am Legend or in the Fallout video games, but with no zombies!

Animals, mostly stray dogs and wild boars, hang around the shopping malls and supermarkets fora-ging for food.

The radiation levels are still very high in the red zone. Not many people have been in this town in the last five years; it’s like it vanished.

I find food, money, gold, laptops and other valuables in the red zone.

I’m amazed that nobody has looted this town.

Though the red zone is untouched, there are obvious signs of looting or items moved by animals in the yellow zone.

(Residents are allowed by the authorities to return to their homes for a limited time every month to reclaim items left behind.)

There are digital boards which measure radiation levels on the main road where the police patrol.

There are also safety booths at the yellow zone where I go for a check before leaving.

The scan rates me as “normal”.

I am careful not to overstay so I believe the trip will not cause me any serious health problems.

I got a flu later but I think it is probably due to the cold weather and not from any radiation.

photo -1
Stuck in time: A calendar at a shop in the Fukushima red zone lies undisturbed from the time the nuclear meltdown happened following the tsunami and earthquake in the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

The Star, Published: Wednesday, 13 July 2016
A trek through ghost towns
By Keow Wee Loong

Keow spoke to The Star Online on the passion that fuels his daring acts.

The law graduate from University of London completed his first climb up the Shanghai Tower in April 2014.

Q: What prompted your first climb up the Shanghai Tower in April 2014? What or who inspired you to start rooftopping?

I was in Shanghai on vacation and someone told me that two people climbed that building in February, so I was curious and decided to try it out during a public holiday in China, the Qing Ming Festival.

Q: Why do you do this? Is it for the adrenaline rush? Or to take photos from the top of the buildings?

It is no different than people who wanted to conquer the tallest mountain while carrying their country name. I am the only Malaysian who does this. A lot of people think only Europeans or Americans can do these crazy things. But why not an Asian? Why not a Malaysian?

I also enjoy climbing to the top of the building and capturing an image that is so rare that no one can duplicate. Is it worth risking my life to capture the perfect photo? As a photographer, I will say yes, it is worth it.

The view from the top is so great that I want to share it with people all around the world. When I stand on top and look down, I feel that what we do sometimes is just so insignificant. Everything seems so small up here. We are just a dust in the universe.

I am always trying to inspire others to do what they want and say yes to all the opportunities life presents to them. It takes great courage to take the first step.

Q: What kind of preparation do you do before ascending a building?

I cycle, swim, jog and climb mountains. Nothing big and I don’t do these all the time.

Q: Your attire when you climb the buildings has always been black T shirt, shorts and sandals, and you always have your face covered. Why?

Well, it is easier to climb with T-shirt and shorts. I wear black because it doesn’t get dirty easily. It is also easier to blend in with the shadow so I don’t get spotted at night when I climb. It will be very obvious is you are wearing pink or other bright colours at night.

I cover my face when I climb the buildings because I don’t want people to recognise me in public. It will make it very difficult for me to move around.

Q: In July last year, you were fined RM1,000 for climbing 1 Sentrum Tower. This hasn't stopped you from scaling skyscrapers. Why? Were you not afraid of the possible punishments?

I am only producing art – which are the photos – and I am not hurting anyone, so why should I stop doing it? I enjoy climbing and taking photos from above. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do in life. If you want something in life, go get it. No one will give it to you if you don’t put in effort to get it yourself.

Q: You climbed the Ping An International Finance Centre in Shenzhen on New Year's eve. Can you describe this experience for us?

I chose Ping An International Finance Centre because it is the second tallest building in the world. I visited Shenzhen specifically for that. It was really cold that time and I was just wearing shorts. It normally takes me one-and-half-hours maximum to reach the top of any buildings, but for this climb it took me 23 hours because I was evading the guard and construction workers.

Besides using the stairs – which were only built until Level 97 then – I climbed from the outside, on the steel frame of the building to get up to the crane. It was freezing on top.

I bumped into a guard at Level 55, who then alerted the other security guards on the ground floor. They were looking for me floor by floor, so I just hid for eight hours until they changed shift before moving up again. It was like looking for a fish in the ocean for them because the building has 115 storeys. They beefed up the security later, but I managed to get out in one piece.

I was doing this alone.

Q: People would say what you do as crazy and dangerous. What’s your response to this?

My dad actually knew about this and he is very supportive. Well, it is only crazy and dangerous if you don’t know what you doing, like flying a plane without any knowledge or skydiving without knowing how to open your parachute. While other people see it as crazy and dangerous, it is normal for me.

I don’t really care what people think as I don’t need their approval to do what I enjoy doing. I smile at them, and ask how often do you get to do what I do?

Q: The label of "Spiderman" – like it or hate it?

Seriously, I hate that title. Other international media also used “daredevil” or “adrenaline junkie” in the story headlines. I always tell them I am a photographer from Malaysia, but somehow the editors got creative and changed everything.

I am okay if you call me a rooftopper, but I prefer to be known as a photographer rather than Spiderman. I am just a normal human being.

The Star, Published: Tuesday, 17 March 2015 | MYT 10:51 AM
Malaysian rooftopper hates to be called Spiderman

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