Nagasaki is infamous in world history as the second city hit by an atomic bomb by the USA, two days after the bombing of Hiroshima. This city had bad luck, as the bomb was originally aimed at cloud covered Kokura, but a break in the clouds over Nagasaki sealed its fate. It is largely forgotten by visitors to Japan who often go to Hiroshima, due to its convenient location on the main Shinkansen Bullet train from Tokyo & Kyoto. However, Nagasaki is well worth a longer visit at has a superb harbour and unique history as a port that has been open to foreign influence in times when Japan was isolated.
The city is located on the extreme western end of Kyushu island, which is in the southern warmer parts of Japan. High speed trains travel link Nagasaki to Fukuoka (Hakata) – it’s a scenic journey along rivers and deep mountain passes, before passing through a long tunnel shortly before arriving in Nagasaki. The city is hemmed in by steep mountains against a deep harbour, with a geography that is similar to Hong Kong or Wellington (New Zealand).
Nagasaki port was open to foreigners during a period where Japan was largely isolated from the rest of the world, so it has many interesting historical buildings and museums within this scenic environment of mountains and the harbour. This post, however, focuses on one of the more unusual islands off the coast of Nagasaki.
A James Bond Connection
James Bond movie “Skyfall” included a scene where the Bond villain Raoul Silva had a secret headquarters in a dystopian abandoned city in the middle of the sea. I still remember being spellbinded by the abandoned apartment blocks. In this age of computer graphics, I was surprised to learn that this movie scene was shot in Hashima Island, an abandoned coal mining community off the coast of Japan near Nagasaki.
The journey into the open ocean
This abandoned island can only be visited on organised boat trips that depart from the central port in Nagasaki. I joined a very well organised tour company that had very good safety equipment and a modern boat – Gunkanjima Concierge tours. The 20 kilometre journey to the island is very scenic as you are taken from one end of this incredibly scenic harbour to the other, before heading out into the deep grey dramatic sea off the coast of Japan. Churches are dotted along the harbour foreshore and outlying islands, as these communities are a Christian stronghold in Japan.
The weather was very dramatic. We had strong gales in the middle of winter, while typhoons can come through at other times. As the seas were quite rough, we needed to circle the island before a decision was made that it was safe enough to dock the boat.
After arriving at the dock, we explored the island as a group, along well defined paths that were very safe, some distance from the huge delapidated towers that dominate the landscale. I would have preferred a more free range approach to exploring the eerie abandoned towers, but I guess we live in an age of risk aversion where there is little need to take responsibility for your own actions. Seriously stupid people could quite easily meet their end in their endeavour to take an Instagram photo in this place. Concrete and bricks walls are crumbing away due to the strong winds, high seas and regular typhoons that continually pound Hashima Island.
Although the walking tours are in Japanese, all foreigners are issued with set of headphones that are linked to a wireless device, with English commentary. I was able to handle this for about two minutes, before referring back to a printed brochure. This explained the main points about this island’s history, which is closely linked to the industrial rise of Japan and “boom-bust” economics that arise with mining finite resources like coal. Once the coal ran out, there was no reason to live here.
Coal mining commenced on Gunkanjima in 1887, with Mitsubishi Corporation ramping up operations to an industrial scale by the turn of the 20th century. The mines operated up to 1000 metres below seas level, which seemed quite dangerous and extraordinary as we looked over the mountainous waves of the ocean. It was a really frightening thought – sinking down below the sea in this part of the world. Up to 5,000 people lived here in the period to 1974, when the coal deposit was exhausted. The island was abandoned overnight, before day trippers began to arrive from 2009 – but no one lives here permanently.
The island contained most things that you would expect in a large high rise town, including housing, a school, restaurants, shops, a public bath, a cinema and a hospital. It was the most densely populated place on the planet in the 1950s, as it only measures 480 metres by 150 metres. The high residential towers give an appearance of a battleship as you approach the island by sea.
Gunkanjima also has a dark history that does not appear to be fully acknowledged by the Japanese. In the height of WWII, 500-700 Koreans were forced to work in the dangerous mine, with minimal safety standards, poor pay and inadequate food. Up to 120 did not survive – quite a sobering thought as I was wandering around this World Heritage site.
Practicalities & Useful Links
Accommodation: we stayed in the Forza Hotel which was centrally located and quite good value.
Transport: Japan Guide has a good summary of transport options to Nagasaki and local transport options.
Gunkanjima Concierge tours : website from one of the tour operators, providing practical information on the boat trips and launching place.
Christian sites in Japan: a useful guide on the local Christian sites in Nagasaki, many of which are World Heritage locations.