To be honest: I’m still a bit starstruck and have no idea how to begin this little blog entry. So many things have been written about Gunkanjima’s history – some short, some long, so it would be kind of foolish to be Captain Obvious and write another lengthy article about Gunkanjima’s past, although the ex-student of Japanese History in me is very tempted…
Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island”, thanks to it’s unique silhouette), also known under its original name Hashima and the not so flattering nickname “Ghost Island”, is without a doubt one of the most famous abandoned places in the world (almost on par with locations like Pripyat/Chernobyl) and by far the most well-known haikyo. Although landing on the island was strictly forbidden between 1974 and early 2009 (internet rumors claim that fishermen hired by adventurous people lost their license and foreigners were deported after being sent to jail for 30 days if they were caught – though I didn’t find any proof for those stories) there were exceptions made for film crews (documentary and fiction), professional photographers and scientists. Everybody else had to take a look from the nearby Nagasaki Peninsula or ships passing by Gunkanjima.
On April 22nd 2009 this situation changed – the island was (partly) opened to the public again.
A few years earlier, Mitsubishi (who used Hashima as a coal mine for almost 90 years and constructed all the buildings on the island) donated Gunkanjima to the Japanese state and from 2005 on the city of Nagasaki administered the abandoned island. In the same year the new owner invited journalists to Gunkanjima, bringing it back to the awareness of the public, and announced the reconstruction of a pier and the construction of a visiting zone in the southern part of the island, so tourists can land and have a safe look at the dangerously rotten buildings – entering those is strictly forbidden until this very day.
Although nowadays it is legal and relatively easy to go to Gunkanjima it still isn’t a foolproof thing to do. When Enric and I went to Kyushu in late March of 2010 we made a reservation with the only operator that has permission to land on Hashima, Yamasa Kaiun. For most foreign tourists this is the first hurdle as the homepage is in Japanese only. (The tour itself and the pamphlets they hand out are in Japanese only, too.) When we arrived at the harbor terminal to pick up our tickets we learned that the tour was cancelled. It was a beautiful, sunny day – but they cancelled anyways; the trips surrounding the island (and not landing on it) were also cancelled. You can’t imagine my disappointment as this was the center piece of the whole trip, a boat ride I was looking forward to ever since I’ve heard about Gunkanjima for the first time several years ago. But there was nothing we could do, so we moved on to Sasebo, making a stop at what turned out to be the fascinating Katashima Training School – a blessing in disguise.
The next morning we originally wanted to go to an abandoned coal mine near Sasebo, but Enric convinced me to take a train back to Nagasaki to give it another try; although we didn’t have a reservation and although I knew the tours were completely booked out. We arrived at the harbor terminal just after the first of two boats to Gunkanjima left on a day equally sunny and calm as the one before – and of course they turned us down and tried to send us away. But this time we saw a glimmer of hope and Enric convinced the ticket sales person to give us two spots on the next boat – he claimed (in Japanese) that we had tickets for the day before (which was true) and that I came all the way from Europe to Nagasaki just to see Gunkanjima (which was partly true…) while I put up the saddest face I possibly could – which was never easier although I’m a horrible, horrible actor. They told us to come back two hours later and then indeed gave us tickets: 4000 Yen for the boat ride plus 300 Yen for landing on Gunkanjima. (I followed the updates on the homepage of Yamasa Kaiun: All the tours on the next few days were cancelled. So in the end we were really, really lucky…)
Getting to Gunkanjima takes about 50 minutes by boat and the stay there is strictly organized and supervised. The pier is on the southeast part of the island and from there you pass through a tunnel in the island wall to a long concrete path that includes three gathering areas (the last one on the southwest end of Gunkanjima) where guides tell a bit about the island’s history and you have time to take some pictures. You are not allowed to move freely between the zones (several guards were blocking the path, having an eye on everybody) and of course the path is limited by chest high handrails to prohibit you from leaving the predetermined visiting zone. (Chest high by Japanese standards…) We were lucky to be in the group that started in the gathering area closest to the boat, so on the way back from area No. 3 I was actually able to shoot a video of the whole visiting zone in one shot. (I didn’t include videos so far to this blog, but maybe I’ll put it up in the future…)
If you know Gunkanjima from internet pictures made by illegal or professional photographers be prepared that you won’t be able to take similar shots as you don’t get even near the interesting buildings like housing, school or hospital – so I highly recommend bringing a good zoom for your camera to catch at least some details. The 200mm end of my lens was okay, but sometimes I wished I could get just a tiny bit closer.
The stay on the island takes about an hour and after the boat leaves, it continues to surround Gunkanjima clockwise, offering good views from pretty much every angle before returning back to Nagasaki.
Visiting Gunkanjima was an emotional rollercoaster, but in the end it was totally worth it! If you wanna go there you better be prepared that the tour you have a reservation for might be cancelled; it happens all the time…
Sure, you are limited to a predetermined path far away from the really interesting parts of Gunkanjima – and other haikyo offer similar views, some might even have more spectacular buildings. But not that many on such a small area, not with that kind of historical background. Therefore the atmosphere on Gunkanjima is absolutely unique, you can almost feel how it must have been to live on that crammed rock off the coast of Nagasaki. Unless you have some people doing wacky poses and spazzing around, having no appreciation for the island and its history. But I guess that’s a side effect we all have to live with when you make a tourist attraction out of a place like that, where 1300 laborers died during World War 2 alone – not a few of them forced workers from Korea and China.