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Hashima (Gunkanjima)

   
  - darkometer rating:  8 -
  
Hashima 12A small island in the sea south of Nagasaki, Japan, which is the location of one of the most spectacular ghost towns on Earth! This had originally been built to house miners and their families – since below Hashima undersea coal seams were exploited until 1974. Since then, the place has been abandoned. So what once used to be the most densely populated spot on Earth is now empty and crumbling. Except that since 2009 tourist boat excursions have been running, which were given a boost when in 2015 Hashima was declared a World Heritage Site.
  
However, these tours only go to three viewpoints a safe distance from the buildings, which remain off limits to ordinary tourists. What is also – controversially! – missing on these tours is any acknowledgement of the really dark parts of Hashima's history, namely Japan's use of Korean and Chinese forced labourers in the coal mines during WWII (see below).
  
Note that within Japan, Hashima is better known under the nickname “Gunkanjima”, which means 'battleship island'. That's because the silhouette of the island, from some angles, is said to resemble that of such a warship.
More background info: Until 1810, Hashima was just an uninhabited barren rock in the sea, but then coal was discovered on the island. Mining of this coal soon began, but only on a small scale and without digging especially deep.
That changed when in 1890 the Mitsubishi company bought the island and started full-scale mining operations. Shafts were driven deep down (eventually reaching as far as over a thousand metres below sea level) and tunnels were dug under the seabed to extract coal from those undersea coal seams as well.
  
Together with the intensification of coal mining came the physical expansion of the island. Through land reclamation and added embankments the area of the island increased threefold. To house the miners and their families more and more buildings were constructed. This includes building No. 30, which in 1916 was Japan's first seven-storey reinforced apartment block.
  
In addition to housing there was a school, a hospital, shops, barbers, a cinema, sports facilities, including a swimming pool, and on some of the apartment blocks, residents planted rooftop gardens to grow vegetables and flowers. In its heyday, the population on Hashima reached more than 5200 in 1959. Given the small size of the island this meant it was at that time the most densely populated spot on the planet.
  
Living conditions on the island improved, wages were high, rents low, and in the 1960s Hashima had the highest level of ownership of television sets, for instance. Residents also enjoyed modern amenities such as refrigerators, radios, washing machines and so forth. There was entertainment in traditional forms in island festivities and apparently there was a convivial community spirit. The picture of island life painted, for instance, in the Gunkanjima Digital Museum, is one of a content, close-knit community full of solidarity and happiness. To what degree that is realistic is hard to say. The work in the mines was certainly still hard and dangerous, the densely built-up residential areas left little room for privacy, and being confined to the island must at the same time have had an element of feeling isolated.
  
One of the unavoidable downsides of the island's isolated location out at sea is that it is frequently battered by typhoons. But apparently island residents enjoyed watching from the rooftops as the huge waves crashed over the embankments and into the lower parts of buildings. It was probably spectacular entertainment, but surely there must also have been damage.
  
By the early 1970s the population had dwindled to less than half its peak. In January 1974 the coal mines were closed for good (as Japan moved away from coal as its main industrial fuel), and by April all of the remaining residents had departed, leaving behind an empty ghost town. It has been abandoned ever since.
  
Coal extraction had reached its peak in the 1940s during WWII … and this is also the time when Hashima saw the darkest chapter in its history. Since most able-bodied Japanese men were drafted into the military, there was suddenly an acute lack of workers to do the mining, so Imperial Japan resorted to “mobilizing” workers from Korea, then occupied by Japan, and also Chinese POWs, i.e. it was forced labour. Such exploitation was against the Geneva Convention, but then Imperial Japan had never signed up to that (hence similar exploitation of POWs also took place e.g. on the infamous Death Railway in Thailand/Burma).
  
Not only were these slave workers treated badly, and were severely undernourished, they also had to do inhumanely long shifts in the mines, where conditions were brutal: at 95% humidity and temperatures of 30 degrees Centigrade. The coal seams were so narrow that miners had to work lying down to extract the coal. Accidents were a common occurrence. No wonder these poor people called Hashima “The Island of Hell”.
  
How many forced labourers were sent to Hashima isn't quite clear. Figures given range from 500 to as many as 4000. And how many of these died as a result of their plight is even less clear. Conservative estimates say fewer than 50, others go as high as over 2000. The exact true figure will probably never be known for sure.
  
After the A-bombing of Nagasaki, which also cut off the power supply to the island, the “mobilized” workers of Hashima were sent into the devastated city to take part in the relief efforts and thus were also exposed to radiation.
  
None of this has ever been properly acknowledged by Japan, let alone officially commemorated. Only a small private initiative has been campaigning to change this and eventually set up the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum in 1995, where Hashima's dark sides, as well as other Japanese war crimes, are the main focus, which is quite exceptional for Japan.
  
When Japan launched its bid for the inclusion of Hashima, and other historic industrial sites, in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, there were predictably protests, in particular on the part of South Korea (and to a degree also the North). Eventually an agreement was reached that stipulated that Japan would acknowledge the issue of forced labour and establish an information centre to tell the whole story and commemorate the victims. Under this condition World Heritage Status was granted in 2015. However, this promise was not honoured. The very next day the term 'forced labour' was already being called into question by some Japanese politicians.
  
There is still no information centre about this, and neither the Gunkanjima Digital Museum nor the narration on the tourist boat tours or any of the interpretative panels set up on the island make any proper mention of the subject. In June 2018, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) hence “strongly urged” Japan to keep its promise to make this acknowledgement and include it in the commodification of Hashima. But as I could see for myself in April 2019, this had still not happened by then.
 
On the contrary, there was even some vague denial: at one point the audio-guide narration mentioned that there had been “some negativity” concerning “foreign worker” on the island. And this was quickly brushed aside by the claim that Japanese and foreign workers alike were all just contently working for a common goal. Typical Japanese revisionism again. (See also Yasukuni & Yushukan!)
  
Instead all the commodification of Hashima stresses it being one of a set of heritage sites related to the “Meiji Industrial Revolution” of Japan between the 1850s and 1910 – which neatly avoids the more problematic WWII-era – never mind that this, as a consequence, also avoids the time when Hashima was most active as a coal mine.
  
Since 2009, tourist boat tours to Hashima have been operating. They started literally a few days after my first visit to Nagasaki in April 2009. Until then access was only possible by special permit. Such special permits are still required for the off-limits parts of Hashima – i.e. 95% of the area, including all buildings. Occasionally permits are granted to photographers and film crews, in addition to historians and industrial archaeologists. Several stunning photo books are hence available. And the island also featured in a few film documentaries – including Netflix's “Dark Tourist”, in which the series' presenter visits the island accompanied by two former residents. And while the episode is highly appealing visually, it too fails to mention the actual dark history of Hashima in any way.
  
An extra boost of popularity also came from the fact that Hashima featured in a James Bond movie (“Skyfall” of 2012), where it was the fictional setting for a typical Bond villain's den. However, while the movie took inspiration from the real Hashima, the set depicted in the film was actually a recreation and partly CGI, not the genuine island.
  
The real thing can be explored online, though. In 2013 Google Maps captured images on the island and so you can go on a kind of virtual tour using their website's Street View function. This has also been incorporated into this grim looking experimental website (external link – opens in new window). Plenty of good photos of the off-limits parts can be found all over the Internet too.
  
Hashima is legendary amongst the urban exploration community, and some daring urbexers have made it there – adventurously, and presumably illegally – and managed to take spectacular photos as well (see e.g. this site – external link, opens in a new window). From all this it becomes clear that Hashima may well be the ultimate ghost town on Earth (well, together with Pripyat, maybe). Yet as a normal tourist you will never get to see any of this with your own eyes, as the crumbling ruins are (rightly) considered dangerous, so visitors are kept well away from them.
   
Knowing all this I did try to apply for a permit to be allowed into the normally off-limits parts. I even had support from a local historian in Nagasaki, who also told me that it wouldn't be difficult to hire a fisherman to take me there and that it would cost no more than the tourist boats charge. So I wrote to the relevant authorities in Nagasaki, but my requests were ignored. I never even received any reply whatsoever. And since I was not prepared to break the law and try and arrange to visit independently without a permit, I just had to make do with one of those regular tourist boat trips. Better that than nothing, I decided.
  
The touristification of Hashima since its inclusion in 2015 in the World Heritage Sites list has actually boomed. And it comes with lots of typical Japanese elements, such as a cutesy mascot (Hashima atop a brown blob, with eyes and a mouth, that's probably supposed to be a lump of coal but to me looks more like a turd), gift shops, and happy smiling guides herding the groups of tourists along the prescribed circuit on the island (see below).
  
All this seems to be aimed primarily at the domestic tourism sector. I saw only a few other Westerners when I finally went on such a tour in April 2019. That said, though, they are certainly prepared for international visitors too. The staff on the boat spoke relatively good English, and an English-language audio-guide was offered. Still, I felt very much like the odd man out.
  
  
What there is to see: Less than you might hope for – that should be made clear right from the beginning. Only a small part of the island has been made accessible for tourists. Special walkways have been constructed that connect the landing pier with three viewpoint platforms, all on the south-west of the island, and all rather far away from the densely built-up parts.
  
But let's go back to the start. After boarding and taking your seat staff come round and hand out audio-guides to the non-Japanese passengers. The narration on this guide was clear and was delivered by what sounded like a native speaker, but the content was often hard to follow because the cables were very crackly. At times it cut out altogether, and after a while I got annoyed by this and took the headphones off. Then I gave it another chance, but what I heard was nothing new to me (I had researched the history of Hashima in enough depth that the audio-guide didn't tell me anything revelatory – and I already knew that it wouldn't cover the dark aspects, the story of the forced labourers; but see above).
  
The boat sets off sailing through Nagasaki harbour, past the visually impressive Mitsubishi shipyards and under the elegant Megami Bridge. It’s then past another, even larger Mitsubishi shipyard with massive cranes (a screen on board the boat informed us that the Mitsubishi logos on these cranes are the size of tennis courts!). And after an intermediate stop at another island (to pick up more passengers), the boat set course on the final stretch towards Hashima.
  
On my tour we first cruised all around the island in a counter-clockwise direction, getting quite close to the north-western parts with all the densely built concrete apartment blocks. Then we drifted a bit further away so that people could take pictures of the island from the angle from which it most looks like a “Gunkan”, i.e. battleship. I concede that there is a vague resemblance but I still find the comparison a bit stretched.
  
After that, it was time to get close to the island again and land at the pier. Just before we disembarked, we were handed rainproof capes – as the weather was good enough for landing, but it was bucketing it down with rain … as you can clearly see in some of the more zoomed-in images in the photo gallery below.
  
A modern walkway leads from the pier to the first of three observation platforms. It is here that the group assembles and a guide starts the narration in Japanese, occasionally holding up boards with historic photos so we could compare the images with today's ruins. Interestingly, the guide was wearing one of the company's tourist souvenir T-shirts with a shape like a big X on it. That's actually a rendition of one of the most fabled sights in the island, which is, however, in the off-limits parts: double stairs leading up one of the blocks, meeting in the middle, thus forming a shape reminiscent of an X (I include a location marker for it below so you can look it up).
  
There are also a couple of interpretative metal panels with some basic information and also one with a large aerial photo of the island in clear weather with a few of the key buildings marked. But no info in great depth and, of course, no mention of forced labourers.
  
The audio-guide for non-Japanese-speakers is supposed to be in sync with the live guide's narration, but I found it hard to get it to work under my raincoat's hood and with camera straps getting in the way all the time. After a while I gave up altogether and just concentrated on my photography.
  
From the first observation point you get a view north towards the large former school building (with its collapsed roof) and some remnants of the coal mine installations. At the top of the rocky summit of the island stand the houses that used to be for the managers and supervisors – of course they were given the best accommodation with the best views.
The second observation point is just outside the red-brick wall of the ruin of what used to be the General Office of the mine, now hardly anything is left. Some other ruins showed some efforts of stabilizing them by means of steel supports. Others were beyond repair and collapsed.
  
The longest stretch of walkway then leads past some more ruins to the third and final viewpoint, which is in front of what used to be the swimming pool; now only a few lines along the bottom indicated that former function, otherwise it's just filled with rubble but no water.
  
From this final platform you get a good view of Block 30, Japan's first seven-storey reinforced concrete apartment block – but only from ca. 200 feet (69 metres) away. Next to it some stairs lead up and round a corner into the dark passages between the blocks in this densely built-up part of Hashima. How I would have loved to take those stairs and go exploring. But the no-entry signs make it quite clear that this is not allowed, and the guides would surely have stopped anybody attempting to break the rules.
  
To be fair, you can see why. Some floors inside Block 30 have collapsed, all windows are gone, and there's debris everywhere from bits that have fallen off, including a long piece of drainpipe that landed right across those stairs next to Block 30. The dilapidated state of the buildings is such that it would genuinely be dangerous to get closer, or even inside. And of course the tourist companies don't want anybody to get hurt and then sue them. Left to my own devices, I would have taken the risk … but sadly I wasn't able to obtain a permit for access (see above).
   
Eventually we were all herded back the way we had come and back on to the boat. On the return cruise the screen aboard the boat played some kitschy cartoon involving the “mascot” of Gunkanjima – the turd-like brown lump representing the rock the town was built on. You see it being discovered, the first mines set up, the expansions and activities, then the abandonment – all accompanied by the brown lump making “facial” expressions from surprise to happiness to sadness … It is history TV for kids. The big wow expression at the end must be for the recognition as a World Heritage Site. Needless to say, nothing at all about the Korean and Chinese forced labourers featured in the video either.
  
Eventually we passed the shipyards again and moored back at the departure pier and disembarked. So that was it.
  
All in all, it has to be said that these boat tours are indeed incredibly touristy – probably stretching beyond what some dark tourists are prepared to put up with. The access restrictions are also quite severe and it hurts seeing all those fantastic ghost town ruins and not being able to get closer, let alone inside. Moreover, the audio-guide is next to useless, especially if you already know a fair bit about Hashima and its history. What I gathered from the narration is that it is rather unbalanced, skewed in focus and just bit overly celebratory.
   
However, these boat tours are the only way in which normal travellers can see Hashima at all. So that's what you have to put up with ... unless you are privileged enough to have been granted a permit for the off-limits part (or are prepared to go there illegally – which I presume would be rather tricky to do without getting noticed, given the constant tourist boat traffic here during the day, almost every day, except in bad weather. So you'd have to go in such bad weather or at night … not ideal.)
 
  
Location: ca. 12 miles (19 km) south-west of Nagasaki in the sea off Japan's southernmost main island Kyushu.
  
Google Maps locators:
  
Hashima Island landing pier: [32.6267, 129.7388]
  
South-westernmost observation point: [32.6263, 129.7367]
  
Famous X-shaped stairs in the off-limits part: [32.62926, 129.73888]
  
Departure piers at Nagasaki Port Terminal: [32.7454, 129.8687]
  
Other pier at Oura-Kaigan-dori: [32.7377, 129.8698]
  
  
Access and costs: restricted and costly.
  
Details: The only officially possible way of visiting Hashima without any special permit is by going on one of the tourist boat excursions operating out of Nagasaki harbour (there's apparently also one operating from a different location on the coast but that won't be of much use for most foreign tourists).
  
There are now at least five operators of boat tours to Hashima. Some depart from the Nagasaki Port Terminal just north of Dejima Wharf, one has its own separate pier further south near the Gunkanjima Digital Museum at the bottom of Glover Hill (see also combinations!).
  
Whichever operator you choose, don't expect it to be cheap. Prices for regular tickets for tours that land on the island cost between ca. 3500 and 4500 JPY; tours that only cruise around the island without landing are somewhat cheaper (around 3000 JPY). Some operators include the nominal landing fee of 300 JPY imposed by the Nagasaki City authorities, others charge it on top. So make sure to check that point too. Another aspect to bear in mind is the size of the boat used: larger ones may be more comfortable and better for people who are prone to seasickness, yet smaller ones have a slightly better chance of making the landing, and you'll also be with fewer other tourists.
  
Landings are not guaranteed! Weather conditions may preclude docking, and ultimately the decision is with the captain on arrival at the island. Chances are better outside the winter months, when there are frequent storms. Should the weather be good enough for cruising but landings still not possible, you may receive a partial refund, or the option to try again on another day.
  
When I went I invested in the extra cost (double, in fact) for a “priority ticket”. This meant better seats on the boat and priority in getting off the boat at Hashima and hence a few moments longer before the group tour guiding commenced (and also the option of being last reboarding for the journey back), as well as priority in disembarking back in Nagasaki. The other bonus was a drink and a snack during the crossing (but that was hardly worth the extra cost). The best aspect was that priority-ticket holders were given a much better rain cape – and that was indeed very welcome when I went, as it was bucketing it down the whole time we were on Hashima. On a nice and dry day, however, I would say the extra benefits of priority class are really not worth the extra cost.
  
The boats of each operator usually go twice a day, once in the morning and once at midday or early afternoon. The schedules of the different companies are co-ordinated so that groups don't clash while on Hashima.
  
You are urged to arrange your tour in advance through online booking, but you can also try and just rock up at one of the piers and see if any tickets are still available. That way, however, you risk being turned away if all sailings are already full. I did something in between, as it were, since the online booking engine of the company I picked failed to work for me, I sent them an email and they accepted my reservation that way, and then I paid when I got there at the time I was instructed to turn up at the reception desk.
  
  
Time required: The boat tours last between two and two and a half hours, with ca. 30 minutes spent on the island (if landings are possible).
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: In general see under Nagasaki.
  
Two particular places in the city have direct thematic links with Hashima. For one thing there's the Gunkanjima Digital Museum, which is actually associated with one of the boat tour operators (and if you book your tour with them you get free admission to the museum thrown in as a freebie). The contents of the museum are in line with the narrative on the boat tours – all celebratory and no word about the forced labourers.
  
However, the latter is a main topic at the exceptional Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum, where other Japanese war crimes are also covered. I suggest you arrange a tour in English there (see details) – and make sure you go there before joining a boat tour to the actual island, so that you are better prepared/informed.
   
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: If you enjoy boat rides, then this is a combination that necessarily comes with a visit to Hashima. And indeed seeing Nagasaki and the bay from the sea is nice, also the coastline beyond and the other islands that you pass en route.
  
And of course back in the harbour the rest of Nagasaki beckons – in my view the most pleasant of all Japanese cities I've ever visited.
 
 
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  • Hashima 18Hashima 18
  • Hashima 19Hashima 19
  • Hashima 20Hashima 20
  • Hashima 21Hashima 21
  • Hashima 22Hashima 22
  • Hashima 23Hashima 23
  • Hashima 24Hashima 24
  • Hashima 25Hashima 25
  • Hashima 26Hashima 26
  • Hashima 27aHashima 27a
  • Hashima 27bHashima 27b
  • Hashima 28Hashima 28
  • Hashima 29Hashima 29
  • Hashima 30Hashima 30
  • Hashima 31Hashima 31
  • Hashima 32Hashima 32
  • Hashima 34Hashima 34
  • Hashima 35Hashima 35
   
    
    
    
     
     
   

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