It’s a perfect day in Nagasaki and I’m on a boat speeding across the blue water. The wind is tearing through my hair and my flip-flopped feet are bound in rope and wrapped up to my calves like gladiator sandals. I feel powerful.
In reality, everybody on the boat is gawking at me because I didn’t realize that sandals aren’t allowed. The rope came courtesy of a Japanese attendant, who knelt down to tie my Havaianas to my feet.
A loudspeaker squawks in indecipherable Japanese, and we all crane starboard and look at the distant shape of what appears to be an old warship anchored in the water.
It’s Hashima, Battleship Island — or Gunkanjima, as the locals call it. This tiny outcrop off the coast of Nagasaki once played host to a community of more than 5,200 coal miners and their families, briefly making it the most densely populated place on earth. But that vibrancy died 35 years ago along with the coal mine that had brought people in their thousands to live and work on an island only 480 meters long and 150 wide. Once the mine was depleted, the population was evacuated, and by April 20, 1974, a once-lively community with shops, schools, apartments, a hospital and a cinema had become vacant and lifeless.
In the wake of the mass exodus, Gunkanjima was transformed into a concrete ghost town. And there it stood, alone in the water, for more than 30 years: blasted by typhoons, torrential rain and general erosion and decay.
Our boat docks along the southern edge of the island, and the tour group — at least 50 people, mostly older Japanese, save for me and my girlfriend — climb ashore.
The silence confirms what we’d all expected: this place is dead. Entire façades of apartment blocks have been reduced to piles on the ground, exposing countless tiny black windows into a world that once was. Warped steel rebar and corroded shards of metal jut out of everything left standing, while a sea of broken concrete and shattered infrastructure washes away any notion that people could ever have lived here.
I want to see more. I want to climb inside and explore the dead city for myself. But I can’t. Although walking tours of the island began in April, they only include a small portion of the southern perimeter, where three viewing spots offer glimpses of ruined apartments, a school, a conveyor belt, and various workshops.
It’s like watching a teaser for a movie: exciting, but also disappointing when you realize there’s not more to see. Especially because the glimpse we get is nothing compared to what was experienced — and documented — by those haikyo enthusiasts who snuck onto the island before the legitimate tours started.
Over the years, intrepid journalists, photographers and crafty adventurers have covertly explored Gunkanjima and seen firsthand what it’s like to walk among the ruins of a dead modern city. Yet while they all undoubtedly got to spend more than a single, restricted hour looking from afar at the ruined industrial wasteland, they all had to do so illegally. At least with the tour, you can see Gunkanjima without having to worry about the law or the chance of disrupting this fragile, dead ecosystem.
The island is currently included on Japan’s tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage designation, along with a few other sites in the region, which is presumably why these tours began in the first place. If they’re serious about the bid, though, they’ve still got a way to go. An English pamphlet would be a good place to start, as the tour is entirely in Japanese. And while we’re at it: can we see a bit more, please?
How to get there
From Nagasaki station, take a southbound Blue Line streetcar (or walk ten minutes) to Ohato. From there, you’ll see the water and signage for the Nagasaki Ferry Terminal. Inside, buy tickets for the Gunkanjima Cruise at counter seven (4,300 yen, 170 minutes). Tours leave twice daily, barring inclement weather, and advanced booking is essential for weekends and holidays. Don’t wear sandals or high heels, or they’ll make you rent Crocs for 200 yen (or, if your feet are too big, wrap ’em in rope to be safe). For more information, call 095-822-5002 or see http://gunkan-jima.com (Japanese only).
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today