A Night on Gunkanjima
Upon the depletion of its once plentiful underground coal beds combined with a surge in the use of petroleum, Hashima Island, or Gunkanjima (meaning ‘Battleship Island’) ceased its mining operations forever in 1974.
Established in the late 1800s at the height of Japan’s industrial revolution, its population peaked in the 1950s with 5,259 residents – most of whom worked deep within the confines of its dangerous mine. Now, in place of what was once a suffocatingly crammed community that lived on top of each other, sits a deserted and enchantingly dark ghost city.
Located 15 kilometres from Nagasaki and far more visually intense than any post-apocalyptic movie set, this isolated labyrinth of crumbling concrete and steel provides a rich and spectacular vision of urban decay.
Since 2009, tourists have been able to (depending on the weather) visit Gunkanjima for approximately 30 minutes to view a small section of the island via a fenced off platform…but myself and a few of my Japanese mates sometimes sneak onto the island, spending the night exploring, photographing and checking things out.
Very recently, Gunkanjima was granted a UNESCO world heritage listing, and (apparently) plans are under way for the restoration of some of its buildings. Since it was granted this status, security around the island has increased dramatically (they have even installed a few security cameras which hang off the corners of a few apartment blocks).
We stock up on snacks, water and beer and, at around 4 am make a bumpy 15 minute boat ride and climb up a high concrete wall via a ladder. This leads us to a large overgrown grassy area in front of a huge dilapidated building (the former school). After setting up a small camp in one of the classrooms, we take off in our own directions, getting lost inside this beautiful decayed maze of concrete and steel.
The mosquitos on the island are intense in summer (winter is much more bearable) and insect repellant is mandatory.
The islands long forgotten apartment blocks have these amazing inner centers with open ceilings where overgrown weeds and plants hang off crumbling balconies. The apartments themselves hardly contain any furniture but in some rooms you can still find a couple of old 1950’s television sets or a few telephones. Forty years of no maintenance have taken its toll with many stairwells and corridors falling to pieces.
Getting completely lost in this stunning labyrinth of small decayed concrete alleys and narrow staircases covered in moss is amazing fun, magical and kind of enchanting. Everything is visually exquisite and beautiful in a post apocalyptic way.
Standing on the rooftops of any one of the islands decaying buildings to watch the sunset is a definite highlight and, after the sun goes down, exploring its dark and haunting interiors is creepy fun. In the basement of one of the housing complexes you can find the remains of what was once the islands hairdressing salon. Sitting in darkness since 1974, its rusting chairs and hair dryers still remain moderately intact.
In the very early morning, we wait for our tiny fishing boat to appear from the watery darkness and scramble quickly back to Nagasaki's coast before the sun comes up.