Many of us have probably wondered what our modern-day cities might look like a few decades after being surrendered to the ravages of nature. For those seeking real-life inspiration to fuel their fevered post-apocalyptic fantasies, a brief visit to an abandoned island off the coast of Kyūshū might help them paint a more vivid picture of utter desolation than any book, documentary, or half-witted zombie flick could conjure up.
After spending the morning in downtown Nagasaki, I made my way to a pier fronting the city’s fine natural harbour…
…where I was due to catch a boat bound for the small island of Hashima.
That’s the official name, anyway. Many people – myself included – know it better under the well-established nickname of Gunkanjima, or “Battleship Island”.
This forlorn corner of Japan has had a long (and often painful) history, perhaps too long (and too painful) for this post to adequately address. (Other sources, such as this Japan Times article, might do a better job of sketching out the background.) Suffice it to say that from the 19th century up until 1974, Gunkanjima played host to a major coal mining operation: one that required a lot of workers, who in turn required a small town’s worth of buildings to shelter and support both themselves and their families. The result was a dense concentration of towering apartment blocks, schools, commercial structures and other facilities, all of which were abandoned to time and tide when the mine was shuttered for good.
Needless to say, neither time nor tide has proved a kind guardian to these tattered remnants of a once thriving industrial colony, which numbered over five thousand souls at its peak. With steel supports eaten away by the salty sea air, and crumbling concrete walls pounded incessantly by enormous waves, Gunkanjima’s uninhabited ghost town fell into such a state of hazardous disrepair that landing on these abandoned shores (apart from limited one-off events) was forbidden until 2009. That year, a small portion of the island was made secure and safe paths laid out for strictly controlled tour groups. Several companies are authorised to run these tours (the lower part of the related Japan Guide entry has links to some of them), amongst which is the Gunkanjima Concierge Company with whom I placed my booking.
For up-to-date logistical details (prices, timetables, and so forth), please consult the official websites of the various cruise operators. The tours are quite popular and seats do sell out, but the very helpful tourist information office at JR Nagasaki Station might be able to assist with last-minute bookings (as they did in my case).
Right then, enough with the preliminaries. All aboard the good ship Mercury, our ride to Gunkanjima.
A one-way trip to the island takes less than an hour, but there are some quite stunning views to be had along the route, and these are obviously best enjoyed from the boat’s open upper deck. Alas, I ended up with a place in the enclosed main cabin, so let’s skip the outbound journey (not much to tell anyway) and jump ahead to the part where we set foot on the island.
Here’s a brief video I shot as the boat approached the dock. The eerie desolation of the island’s empty buildings is apparent even from here.
The route is quite short: about a couple of hundred metres in length, with three viewing points where the group would pause to take photographs. For safety reasons, visitors aren’t allowed to wander off the concrete path and must remain under the watchful guard of the licensed guides at all times. I’m sure many of us in the tour group would have wanted to stroll along the deserted streets and even enter the abandoned structures if given the chance, but with many buildings on the verge of total collapse, that chance was never given.
Here’s a zoomed-in bird’s eye view of Gunkanjima’s southern tip, where the tours currently take place. The authorised route and the three viewing areas are readily discernible as bright stretches of newly-laid concrete on top of older rubble.
Portable English audio guides were available for those who needed them. I tuned in as directed, but from time to time I would also drop the headphones and listen to the live Japanese commentary delivered by our guides. In addition to bare facts, they would throw in entertaining stories about what life was like for former residents of the island, and even raise some relevant pop-culture references that might interest younger visitors. (For example, they mentioned that a recent live-action movie adaptation of the popular Attack on Titan manga/anime franchise contained scenes filmed on Gunkanjima.)
Okay, I think I’ve said far more than absolutely necessary. Let the pictures speak for themselves.
As the walking tour wound down and the group began trickling back to the dock, I increased my pace and tried to put as many people as I possibly could behind me. The reason was simple: with no fixed seat assignments, I wanted to board the ship early and grab a prime spot on its open-air upper deck.
Which I eventually did. Yay. (^_^)
The boat sailed a short distance away from Gunkanjima, gently manoeuvring into an orbit that would provide excellent opportunities for taking pictures from a distance. En route, there were some great views of neighbouring islands…
…but once we were in position, all eyes – and cameras – were firmly swung back onto the star attraction. We circled Gunkanjima in a sweeping loop: around the southern tip, along its western edge, and finally past its northern shore as the ship began to sail back towards Nagasaki.
Up here on the open deck, the cold sea breeze whipped across our faces as the Mercury picked up speed. It was incredibly bracing, and I enjoyed the sensation almost as much as I enjoyed the magnificent views all around us.
There were also a few landmarks to be seen along the way, such as the Kōyagi Plant of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ sprawling Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works. As I was examining my photos and doing research in preparation for this post, I discovered that the enormous cruise ship I’d seen that day (visible below)…
…was the AIDAprima, a 984.25-foot-long behemoth ordered by a German cruise line. Incidentally, the ship was completed quite recently and delivered to its owner just a couple of weeks ago, nearly a year after I’d seen it under construction.
Across the mouth of Nagasaki Bay, I spotted the beautiful white profile of Kaminoshima Church, built in 1897 and one of the many fine Catholic places of worship that form such an important part of Nagasaki’s cultural landscape.
Not long afterwards, our ship sailed beneath the enormous span of the Megami Bridge, which crosses the entrance to Nagasaki’s harbour.
Soon, we were back in the embrace of the harbour itself, and the city of Nagasaki came into view.
One of the harbour’s most prominent features is, of course, the Main Plant of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works (we saw the Kōyagi Plant of the same company a short while earlier).
Although heavily modernised and expanded since its founding, the shipyard has been a part of the local landscape since 1857, and – together with Gunkanjima – is one of several constituents of a newly registered World Heritage Site.
Another look at the city and its harbour as we drew closer to the pier from where we’d set off hours earlier…
…and just like that, the boat returns to its berth and the cruise is over. An experience to remember, certainly: though I hope that – with the right infrastructure put into place – I might someday return to Gunkanjima and manage to see even more of the island than we’d encountered this afternoon.
Back onto dry land now…
…and into Nagasaki, where a stunning night view awaited me that same evening.
But we’ll save that story for another post.