A Travellerspoint blog

December 2013

Kyuushuu Part 2 - Gunkanjima

Today I'm finally going to get to set foot in one of the places that I've most wanted to visit in Japan ever since I first learnt about it. We will be setting out from Nagasaki Port and taking a ferry over to the urban explorers wet dream that is the abandoned island of Hashima; more commonly known as Gunkanjima.

As I said in the last entry Nagasaki has played a big role in the industrialisation of Japan through the likes of Mr. Glover and his associates; and as we slide out towards open water we can see one of his gifts to Nagasaki, Japan's first dry dock for ship repair and building (see below, bottom left). These days ship building is a far grander affair, but Nagasaki is still in the thick of it as you can see by the huge Mitsubishi rigs out in the bay.

Mitsubishi (which Glover was a key player in the establishment of) is actually a Nagasaki based company, and their logo was on a lot of things we passed during this trip; from these giant ship building rigs to elevators and automated carparks. So it's no surprise that Mitsubishi are also firmly connected to the history of Gunkanjima as well as we'll see.


Now, firstly I think I should maybe manage your expectations a little bit. As much as I would have loved to make a daring landing on the island with a small fishing boat and really explored the decaying heart of Gunkanjima (as some people do), I'm afraid that I'm limited to doing the tourist approved tour, which is ok - I will at least get to see Gunkanjima with my own eyes and Haru is happy to come along as well when there is an official boat with a freindly captain, so we can go together.


Mitsubishi bought the island in 1890 with a view to using it as a base for mining undersea coal reserves. This island was populated from 1887 to 1974 when my birth herelded the closure of the mine (Please note, no connection between my birth in 1974 and the closure of the mine can be lagally supported, it was probably much more likely due to a shift away from coal towards petrolium as a major fuel source).

Since then the island has been abandoned and left, uninhabited and at the mercy of the elements, to fall into disrepair.

As the boat draws closer the island presents itself as a dramatic silhouette on the hoirizon. My first impression is that it looks like an environment designed for a video game like Tomb Raider or Uncharted; that is a very good thing in my book.


Even the name Gunkanjima (Battleship island) is highly evocative, but (as you can see below) that's just what it looks like from the right angle; a huge concrete battleship riding the waves. Seen from the air though you can see just how compact the island actually is, there isn't any part of the surface that wasn't covered in concrete or any edge that wasn't walled to protect it from the churning sea.

Along with the exclusion zone around Chernobyl this is one of the few places where you can see on a larger scale what happens when man walks away from what he built, and nature if left to run it's course. As such it is a somewhat unique place that captures the imagination, and has appeared in several documenteries (Such as 'Life after people') and numerous art exhibits, photo books and unofficial blogs. Recently the island was the inspiration for the abandoned Chinese island hideout of the villain in 'Skyfall'; a few external shots of the real island were used to establish the location, but all the 'on the island' scenes were filmed in a studio.

However, those unofficial blogs created by tenacious Urban explorers are some of the best sources to get an idea of what it's like at the heart of Gunkanjima. One of the best (that I stole from, a little, for the collage below) is the post by Gakuranman which is well worth checking out; though there are other good ones if you search.

(The photos in the collage below are from various sources, just to show things I personally couldn't get a picture of)

OK from here on the photos are all mine, I promise! So first let's give you a quick tour around the perimeter of the island. If you headed right around the northern tip of the island, before looping back to the official landing site this is pretty much what you'd see.

Most of the buildings here are the workers housing, incredibly at the height of it's productivity as a mine Gunkanjima was the most densely populated place on earth with 5,259 people in just 6.3-hectare (16-acre). So many people packed into such a small area. Unfortunately these areas, although perhaps the most interesting, are considered highly dangerous due to the deterioration of the building materials, and are still firmly closed to casual visitors.

The northern most tip.

Going around the back.

The far side of the island.

So, having established what you can't see as a regular tourist, lets take a closer look at what you can.

The official landing site covers the south east portion of the island, with 3 designated viewing areas linked by a paved walkway. This is more the 'business area' of the island meaning you get a much clearer view of the mining ruins here.

The first viewing area looks north towards the workers quarters, and is lined with a series of concrete arches similar to those I've seen at other mine ruin sites. What, I think, was the main administration building stands at the highest point, bringing a very literal interpretation to the idea of overseeing your workers.

Our guide, who used to live on the island as a child, said that even in the last couple of months that the view had changed and one or two structures had collapsed during recent bad weather. Gunkanjima exists at the whim of time and tide, and day by day it is disappearing.


The second stage is right next to what used to be the exit from the mine. That small two storey building with half a flight of stairs hanging down into nothing; that is where the miners would once have emerged from at the end of their shifts. From there their next stop would have been the workers baths, large communal baths which used heated sea water for bathing as fresh water was a valuable commodity on the island. The water of the baths would be dyed black a mere moment after the miners climbed in our guide recalls.



The third and final area is on the southern most tip of the island and is as close as we can get to the concrete skeletons of the apartment blocks. Although not typical for Japan at the time, concrete was used to make buildings able to withstand the typhoons that would often batter the community. One 9 storey apartment building was Japan's first large concrete building.

Nowadays the absence of people and access to good fishing waters make it a great nesting site for Black Kites, several of which could be seen wheeling in the blue overhead. Repurposing at it's best.



Then the tour is over and it's time to retrace our steps back to the pier, but it feels too soon. There is so much here to see, even if I am seperated from it by white safety bars and a no man's land that I'd be easily spotted on if I tried to dash across it. No choice but to get back on the boat as scheduled.

As the boat pulls away I'm still snapping pictures as the islands shrinks away, I can't help but feel I've been there but I haven't really done that so to speak.


Overall I really enjoyed my time on Gunkanjima, though I was left with twinges of regret, and a stong desire to really walk the ruins and explore the forbidden depths.

However, if it came down to a choice between either never setting foot on the island or only going on an official tour.... Well, then I'm glad I got to go there, and that Haru came and enjoyed it too is a bonus; she'd never have gone without the seal of official approval on the tour.

That night, after a rest stop back at the hotel, we took a drive up a long, winding hillside road to a famous view spot over looking modern day Nagasaki. And there it was, the city humming with light and energy, Nagasaki as it is. What is that though?

Well what I've seen and learnt over the last couple of days tells me that it's a place poised somewhere between it's history and the ruins it will one day become. In that sense it's where we all are, it's what we all are; and while we should never forget all the turmoil that brought us to this place or the fact that time moves on, and that change is the only promise the future keeps... sometimes it's just best to be in the present and enjoy the view.

Happy New Year everyone.



Posted by DKJM74 16:40 Comments (0)

Kyuushuu Part 1 - Nagasaki, First contact

Internationalization, indoctrination and industrialization

Today, we are embarking on the first of three enteries about my first trip to Kyuushuu; the southern most of the four main islands that make up Japan (excluding the islands that make up Okinawa).

After a short flight from Osaka we arrive in Nagasaki, a town well known around the world as being, along with Hiroshima, one of the two cities to be targetted with Atomic bombs during WWII. However, Nagasaki has a much richer history that isn't quite so well known as it was the first point of real contact between Japan and the rest of the world; a fact that has shaped the city in a way that is still evident to this day, with clearly visible European and Chinese influences abounding all over the city. Such as this hill top church looking down on the waterfront


The map below shows Nagasaki as it used to be in 1792, in particular the placement of foriegn colonies around the harbour. On the right is Dutch trading post, Dejima; more about that later. On the left are the Chinese settlement and Shinchi Warehouse complex. There is still a small China town in Nagasaki, a few intersecting streets strewn with Chinese resturants, but not much remains of the orignial settlement bar a few gateways that open onto nothing. There was a vending machine full of Chinese specialities, including canned 'Bird's Nest Soup' right where the historical heart of the settlement would have been.


The Dutch settlement has been far better preserved. Actually Dejima wasn't just a Dutch colony, it was in fact built in 1634 to contain traders from Portugal. More specifically it was to contain the threat posed by the new religious ideas that came with the traders. However, only a few years later an attempted uprising (called the Shimbara Rebellion, mostly undertaken by peasents who had converted to Christianity) Japanese attitudes towards foriegners took a harsher turn. By 1639 all the Porugese had been expelled and from 1641 only the Chinese and Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan, and only via Nagasaki. The Dutch were allowed to stay, mainly due to there professional and business like approach to relations, and because of an emnity with Portugal that the Japanese now sympathised with. So between 1641 and 1853 Dejima became a Dutch trading post.

Dejima was in fact a small artificial island built in the harbour; 'Dejima' literally means protruding island. It was walled off and seperated from Japanese Nagasaki to satisfy the requirements of the Japanese Sakoku (an isolationist policy in effect at the time). Strict rules about inhabitants of Dejima leaving the compound and, vice versa, about Japanese entering it were put into place. It was purely business, and no more seditious ideas were going to be tollerated.

Over the years the expansion of Nagasaki has swollowed up Dejima so it's no longer and island. The area that used to make up the island is still preserved behind a wall that seperates it from the city, and many of the original buildings (a hybrid of European and Japanese styles) have been reconstructed exactly where they used to stand (there are plans to raise even more of these over the next few years)


Although the exterior of the buildings may be a hybrid of two cultures, but many of the interiors are strictly classic European. Real beds, fine lighting for fine dining, plush wall paper and elegant flourishes that betray the fashion of the times are everywhere; except in the areas where the Japanese would have worked, the fireplace in the tally house where the Japanese importers would have counted the goods it very Japanese in style for example.


There is also a fine collection of objects preserved from the period, including somehting else that Europeans brought to Japan that would forever change the country - guns. Though what you can see here is an encrusted pistol the weapon that had a real effect on the course of Japanese history was the Matchlock rifle, but that's another story.


By the time Dejima ceased to serve as a trading post the political tides had begun to shift again. Although anti-Western sentiment was still rife it was largely aimed at the Japanese Shogante who had entered into agreements unbalanced foriegn trade agreements. There was a rising movement to topple the Shogante, and restore the Emperor as ruled of Japan.

One man who sympathised with this cause, and even helped provide weapons for the rebels was the Scot, Thomas Blake Glover. After the eventual establishment of the Meiji Government, Glover's became in instrumental figure in the industrialization of Japan.

This bust of Thomas Glover stands in the grounds of Glover Garden, a park built around the site where his and his comapnion's old houses once stood.


Although initially in Japan to trade in green tea, Glovers role in supplying weapons during the Boshin war saw him soon expanding into other areas thanks to the gratitude of the new government.

The patch of asphalt road (pictured above) is just one of many firsts that Glover brought to Japan. He was also responsible for setting up Japan's first coal mine and first dry dock. This latter development was part of the establishment of the shipping company that would later became the Mitsubishi corporation that we know today.


Glover, for most of his life in Japan, lived with a Japanese woman called Awajiya Tsuru with whom he had a daughter called Hana. The couple never married, but Awajiya is regarded as Glover's common-law wife. Though the fact that he also adopted another British-Japanese child born of another woman, whose connection to Glover is unknown, suggests it may not have been a strictly exclusive relationship.


Yet, despite a strong Japanese influence in his life Glover built a distinctly European world aound himself. The buildings of Glover park may be roofed with Japanese tiles, but inside (like Deshima) they are bastions of European style. Though at the time the Georgian style may have seemed a little outdated to the modern Victorian gent; surprising for a man who brought so much modern edge to all his business concearns.


As you've probably gathered by now, all this history makes Nagasaki quite a unique place in Japan. It was the first point of contact for Japan with the world, and that first contact sent out ripples that that can be traced through the landscape of the city, and maybe even through all of Japan. Through the Portugese and Dutch Deshima traders bringing goods, Gods and guns. Through the missionaries and the martrys, the failed and the sucessful rebellions, the influx of new ideas and technologies that started here - Nagasaki has shaped Japan just as much Kyoto and Tokyo have.

Posted by DKJM74 22:11 Comments (0)

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