Gunkanjima: The Power of a Good Story (Nagasaki Pt. 1)

Now that my Japan time is winding down, I have a final few travel tales to tell. In April, my beau and I spent a few days in Nagasaki, which most people probably know as the site of the second atomic bomb in 1945. But no place can be summed up simply by one historic event, no matter how monumental. Neither of us knew what to expect, but we were eager to discover more.

What we found was a dainty port city in the south, the birthplace of modernization and industrialization in Japan, with an east-meets-west aesthetic and a ton of cats.

Flying over the Japan Alps; shot on film with my Nikon F3

10 April 2021

Why Nagasaki, you might ask? There are obviously many other cities in Japan that are more famous or noteworthy, and a lot to see that’s located much closer to Tokyo. So why Nagasaki?

Simply put, 1) because we had never been there and 2) because we wanted to see an abandoned island.

Japan has lots of abandoned sights, most of which are derelict, dangerous, or by now, demolished, but there is one rather famous island down in Kyushu called Hashima. The tours for the island leave from Nagasaki, and I’d heard that the city was also a rather nice place, so we figured we’d stay for a few days and check it out.

Hashima has been abandoned since the 1970s, and so nature is naturally taking its toll on the place. Until 2009, the public was not even allowed to set foot on the island. Currently, only a small portion is included in the tour – the remaining structures are that unstable. Even getting to Hashima can be a bit of a struggle, as the journey requires passage across a notoriously rough stretch of sea, with unpredictable wave swell that can prohibit landing. Many tours are cancelled, and if you are lucky enough to set sail, it is strongly suggested to bring some Dramamine with you.

At any rate, a chance to see Hashima is still somewhat rare, and a limited number of companies run tours. This is one excursion that has to be booked in advance. I booked with Gunkanjima Concierge, a recommended company as they use larger, more stable boats so don’t cancel tours very often, and also provide some English information to customers. “Gunkanjima” is another name for the island, because the shape is said to resemble a gunkan, or battleship.

It kinda looks like a battleship. . . (shot on iphone)

Even when I booked the tour, I didn’t do a lot of research. I admit, our motives for this trip were purely aesthetic. We were a photographer and an architect, going to see some decrepit buildings on a spooky abandoned island. We went because we thought it would be cool.

It was so, so cool. As I’d expected, I got some amazing shots. What I didn’t expect was to completely become taken in by the incredible story of the place.

As the boat pulled away from Nagasaki Port and made its way towards the open ocean, we began to learn via a slideshow projected on board, narrated live by our energetic tour guide with English subtitles. As I mentioned earlier, Nagasaki was the point from which the whole of Japan industrialized in the late 1800s, and quite a few companies that are now household names were born from this industrialization, including Mitsubishi. Coal had been discovered on Hashima around 1810, and in 1890 Mitsubishi bought the island, and constructed seawalls and other structures that expanded its boundaries. From then on, all the way until 1974, the island was continuously inhabited as coal was mined from the seabed.

Heading away from Nagasaki port; shot on film with my Nikon F3
Some giant Mitsubishi stuff; shot on special effect film with my Nikon F3

This wasn’t some pithy, wayward outpost with a few isolated miners stationed. This was one hell of an operation. At its height, the mine had three shafts that were running 24 hours a day, with miners changing shifts every eight hours.

Where the story really gets fascinating, however, is that around these mines, a whole community, nay, a city, grew. Not only the miners lived on Hashima, but also their wives and children. To support these families, high-rise apartment buildings were built, as well as a hospital and a school. In 1959, this 16 acre island housed over 5,200 people, earning it the record for the densest population per square mile in the world. To this day, this record is still unbroken.

Although the work of coal mining was grueling and dangerous, the miners and their families lived apparently pretty well off of the miners high salaries. In the late 1950’s, almost every household had a television, at a time when only 10% of Japan were tuned in. The island’s amenities included a swimming pool, a cinema, a rooftop garden, shops, and a pachinko parlor, of course. They held community events and festivals, just as any other town in Japan. They lived their lives.

Then, in 1974, Mitsubishi decided to close the mine. Coal wasn’t prosperous anymore, as petroleum had become a major fuel source, and coal mines all over the country were closing. So in April, everyone left. But the buildings and structures remained, at the mercy of the elements in a rough sea with yearly typhoons. However, on this day the weather gods were surely on our sides; it was bright and sunny, with calm seas. We should have no problems landing on Hashima.

A gorgeous day to explore a creepy abandoned island; shot on iphone

As we approached, the boat circled the island first, so that we could get a 360 degree view of the ruins. For much of the island, this was as close as we would be able to get, and the tour staff directed us as to where to stand so that everyone could get good views. The guide pointed out the hospital, school, and various high-rise apartment buildings, their windows blown out, now hulking, empty husks, devoid of the liveliness of fifty years ago. We came around the southern tip, extended and reinforced by Mitsubishi, and I thought that indeed, it did resemble a battle ship.

Circling the island; shot on film with my Nikon F3
Getting closer; shot on film with my Nikon F3

After we’d gone around the entire island, the boat docked, and it was the moment we’d been waiting for: we climbed ashore Hashima, the abandoned island. The hot sun and brilliant blue sky were in stark juxtaposition to the decrepit, crumbling buildings that surrounded us. For this part of the tour, we were given a small binder of English information so we could follow along with the guide’s animated lecture. However, one didn’t need to understand him to feel how passionate he was about sharing the story of this place with visitors, as he regaled us with anecdotes of the struggles and joys of life on a tiny mining island fifty years ago.

Shot on film with my Nikon F3
Shot on film with my Nikon F3
Shot on film with my Nikon F3
Shot on special-effect film with my Nikon F3

That’s what really gets me going, what I’m really chasing after when I travel: the stories. We need to hear the story to bring a place to life. Otherwise it’s just empty buildings. For some, an aesthetically-pleasing picture on Instagram may be enough. I’ll take the rusty, falling-down structure that happens to house an incredible story instead.

Although I do admit, the photos are pretty nice too.

Safe and Happy Travels,

Mo

4 comments

  1. Matt Stone · 12 Days Ago

    This is the best or tied for best travel story you’ve ever wrotten. Great visualizations and show me don’t just tell me. Can’t wait for part 2

    Talk soon Luvz ya

    Padre san

    On Wed, Jun 2, 2021, 5:55 AM A Stranger In Paradise wrote:

    > Mo Stone posted: ” Now that my Japan time is winding down, I have a final > few travel tales to tell. In April, my beau and I spent a few days in > Nagasaki, which most people probably know as the site of the second atomic > bomb in 1945. But no place can be summed up simply by ” >

  2. Alison and Don · 11 Days Ago

    Absolutely fascinating Mo. And great photos. Gah, I mostly hate what IG has become – all pretty pics and no substance. Makes me cringe. Like you I love a good photo, but there has to be a good story to go with it. Great post. I had no idea about this place.
    Alison

    • Mo Stone · 11 Days Ago

      Thanks Alison! This place was such a cool discovery. Most of the other blogs and English articles I saw on it focused on how to visit, so telling the story even with my limited knowledge of it seemed imperative. Glad I did a good job!

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