Hashima Island (Gunkanjima)
- darkometer rating: 8 -
One of the coolest ghost towns
on earth thanks to its unique location: covering a small island off the coast south-west of Nagasaki
, that was once densely built up to house the workforce for an under-sea coal mine, set up and run by the mighty Mitsubishi corporation.
The second name of this (mostly) artificial island, in addition to the official Hashima, is "Gunkanjima", which in Japanese means 'battleship' – because that's what the island vaguely resembles when seen from afar. It has never had any military role, though.
The coal under the sea and the island was first exploited during the early industrialization of Japan in the second half of the 19th century. Hashima's coal mine continued to be in operation until 1974. The concrete apartment blocks built on the island for the workers once made for the densest population anywhere on earth. Nowadays no one lives there. It is a ghost island with a ghost town.
Since the island population’s departure in 1974 (as Japan moved away from coal as its main fossil fuel source), the place has fallen into dereliction
– and what dereliction! It is not without reason that the place has such a legendary standing within communities concerned with lost/ruined/abandoned places. Images you can see online (e.g. at artificialowl.net) are amongst the most stunning such post-apocalyptic ghost town
images to be found anywhere.
Moreover, the place also has its share of dark history
: not only were the mining operations underneath the seabed dangerous, and workers risked their health and lives down there. Especially during Japan's occupation of Korea and parts of China
in the run-up to and during WWII
the coal mining was also done by hundreds of slave labourers
from those occupied countries who were forcibly brought here and held in inhumane conditions. Well over a hundred of these, mostly Koreans, are said to have died on Hashima.
's failure to properly acknowledge this part of its dark history was long standing in the way of Hashima's inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, which both South Korea
and the USA
objected to. Only after Japan promised to change this, was World Heritage Status granted to the site (but see below).
For many years it was not legally possible to set foot on the island at all (a few exceptions for specially licensed photographers and scientists notwithstanding) but since late April 2009, new tourist services started operations, taking visitors by boat from Nagasaki
harbour to a specially constructed pier and viewing platforms on Hashima.
The island had a significant boost in public consciousness worldwide when (a studio mock-up of) it was used as a setting for scenes in a James Bond movie (“Skyfall”) in 2012, in which it featured as a Bond villain's lair.
Since finally gaining World Heritage Status
in 2015, tourist numbers on those boat tours have gone through the roof. However, most tourists, predominantly Japanese, are still not properly made aware of the dark aspects of the island's history. Instead it is celebrated as a pioneering venture in Japan's industrialization. The fact that forced labourers were incarcerated here is at best grudgingly conceded. This has yet again attracted criticism from not only Koreans, but also within Japan
, for instance, there is a Peace Museum that campaigns for the recognition of this dark part of the island's history. This museum is a private operation, with no government support, and is mostly about Japan's various war crimes during those dark times, including a section on Hashima, featuring a coal mine tunnel mock-up as well as original artefacts from the island. However, texts and labels are mostly in Japanese only. (It is called “Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum” and is located at 9-4 Nishizakamachi. Open Tue-Sun 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission: 250 yen.)
But back to those boat tours: In any case, don't expect to get close to the spots from where all those spectacular photos were taken. For safety reasons, the viewing platforms for tourist visitors end quite a distance from those buildings – as they are said to be in danger of collapse. Still, it's certainly worth going, even if it is second best only. The only other alternative would be going illegally and possibly risking your life doing so – and I shall not encourage such dangerous explorations here. In order to venture into the ruins and up the stairs to the rooftops you'd have to get an official permit from Nagasaki's city authorities (and you'd have to give a good reason for wanting to get one – mere curiosity won't cut it).
However: as an alternative you can now go on a “virtual visit” online – at this grim-looking website
(external link, opens in a new window).
The official boat excursions to Hashima last about three hours in total (with just about hour on the island) and cost something like 4000 Yen. At least three companies now offer these trips, from separate locations in Nagasaki harbour. Just look for the adverts or search for it online (you can also book tickets in advance online). The boat trips are now being heavily promoted so it shouldn't be difficult to locate them; but make sure you also look for 'Gunkanjima', which is the name the Japanese seem to prefer (see above).
From what I've read about these trips, the tours are conducted primarily in Japanese, but foreigners are given an audio guide (but the narrative in English is said to be far shorter than the original live narration by the guide) or, with at least one operator, they can hire an interpreter (who would cost more than the trip, though).
Note that the fact that this has moved into more mainstream mass tourism also means that you have to expect large groups of ordinary (mostly) Japanese tourists, and few, if any, like-minded dark tourists.
Note also that bad weather can make landing on the island impossible! Sometimes the whole boat trip has to be cancelled due to adverse weather conditions. In that case you'll get either a refund or an "alternative tour" (to a viewpoint on the coast from where you can see Hashima).
Unfortunately, when I visited Nagasaki
back in April 2009 it was just less than two weeks before this new service commenced, so I was unable to go myself. Going back to Nagasaki isn't the highest on my long list of travel priorities, but if I ever do I will certainly try to go to Hashima too!
off the coast of Japan
's southern main island Kyushu, some 12 miles (18km) from Nagasaki
UPDATE: there is now also a “Gunkanjima Digital Museum” in Nagasaki city centre. As the name suggests it's a high-tech affair utilizing all manner of cutting-edge media facilities. But from what I've seen online I get the impression that you won't learn much especially about the dark history aspects of Hashima, as the exhibition focuses more on the life and work conditions of the ordinary (voluntary) island inhabitants. (Located at 5-6, Matsugaemachi, inside the Nagasakido Building near Glover-en-Iriguchi bus stop; open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., admission 1800 Yen.)