Hashima (端島), more commonly known by its nickname, Gunkanjima (軍艦島, Battleship Island), is an abandoned island lying about twenty kilometres from the coast of the city of Nagasaki. Most people would recognise the maddening wreckage of this topography from movies like Attack on Titan– this island used to be a hub of action and served as an active coal mine until 1974 – and more than 5000 residents called this miniscule patch of land home. This island was one of the major draws for me to visit Nagasaki – I have a mild obsession with haikyo (廃墟, “ruins”) – places that have been abandoned, and left to the wreckage and decay of nature and time. Like my interest in serial killers and unsolved murder mysteries, my husband calls this “weird” and I am often not allowed to wander off the beaten tourist path (I wasn’t allowed to go to Aokigohara – known as the 青木ヶ原, Suicide Forest or 樹海, Sea of Trees) – I call it a mildly disturbing, yet completely-reasonable, morbid fascination.
Despite it being an industrial wasteland, this tiny island has been turned into a booming tourist destination due to the opening of a refurbished boat dock in 2009, and unless undue effort is made, you must follow the allocated “safe” route – a series of short pathways that have been cleared for you consumption. Turns out, after years of neglect, much of the island is in complete ruin and extremely unsafe to venture around by yourself. Understandably, most people would not be super content with just seeing this much of the island – but unwilling to tempt fate (and being caught by officials), the husband and I settled with the sterilised, easy consumption version of this trek.
After a little research – and also noting that the only tour that provided an English-speaking guide was booked out – we settled for the Gunkanjima Cruise (軍艦島上陸クルーズ). This company allows you to book out your day on their website after which you are to present to the Gunkanjima Cruise Office (near to Motofuna Pier) at least 20 minutes prior to your allotted departure time. From here, you fill in your safety contract, receive your cruise tag and head over to where the Black Diamond is sitting at the docks.
This tour has several parts to it and in total is supposed to run about 3 hours in length – it takes a detour out to Taksahima (where there is a small tour of the Coal Museum and background of both Takashima and Hashima), circles Hashima and then lands on Hashima for a 50 minute tour of the island before heading back to the mainland, with a possible stop-over at Takashima to pick-up/drop-off passengers that may have boarded there.
On the afternoon that we headed out, the conditions appeared to be pretty good but soon after we landed on Hashima, the weather took a steep turn for the worse. Luckily, the husband and I had prepared for the possible sogginess by purchasing rain coats before heading out for Motofuna Port. Others weren’t as lucky and ended up getting soaked to the bone. Keep in mind that there a quite strict rules concerning landing on Hashima – all tour websites stipulate clearly that landing is not possible when the “Wind velocity reaches above 5 meters, the wave height reaches above 0.5 meters or the visibility is 500 meters or less.” We found out that this was because the boat dock on Hashima is basically a vertical stone wall – making it pretty dangerous to dock once even slightly windy. As a result, the tour of Hashima was cut short and we were promptly herded back on to the boat only 20 minutes after landing.
By this time the Black Diamond was full-on screaming at us – I mean this in a very literal way – a droning and plaintive bleep began to emanate through the cabin – at which the captain was still quite joyfully (through a cold sweat) instructing people to sit closer together so they could fit more people into the undercover inner cabin. Meanwhile, through this mildly disturbing series of events, the husband was fully enjoying himself – he always manages to have a complete and utter disinterest in the concept of fear and personal safety. Even though we were only around twenty kilometres away from the port that twenty kilometres easily felt like twenty hundred thousand forevers.
The tour is completely performed in Japanese – which is fine as we had thoroughly researched the location before we went and were provided with some quite in-depth information pamphlets. The only thing that the pamphlets completely glassed over was the slave-labour that was an essential component of the island’s workforce. Beginning in the 1930’s and until the end of the Second World War, Korean conscripted civilians and Chinese prisoners of war were brought in to work the coal mines on Hashima. Koreans who were promised a new life of prosperity and freedom were forcibly enlisted to be positioned on the island – Japan, to nobody’s surprise, has completely glossed over this defining factor of the island.
Thus, I present this island with the message that many tourist destinations often have dark and unwritten (or unspoken and underrepresented) history and to visit these places we need to recognise the history behind them, or in the words of the author of the photo book ” I Was Here“, Ambroise Tézenas:
“Maybe you should go there; maybe you shouldn’t. But you should think about why you’re going there.”