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Gunkanjima sits about 15 kilometers south of Nagasaki city. Initially opened in 1887, this small island operated as a coalmine base which also housed its many miners and families. Mitsubishi (its last owner) closed the facility permanently in 1974 along with a number of other coal mining plants across Japan.

For forty years, this concrete island and its many buildings have been left to decay…and in place of what was once a thriving island mining town is now an enchantingly dark and haunting ghost city. Visually more intense than any post apocalyptic movie set and definitely the most amazing vision of modern decay I’ve ever experienced.

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 four mates decided to sneak onto the island, spending a 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 (we even spotted some cameras dangling off the corners of a few apartment blocks). We also found some electronic boxes connected to wires in some of the lower levels of the school (which we stayed away from).

So on a warm August afternoon we stood on a pier and watched the island through binoculars (to ensure the coast was clear) and then jumped onto a small fishing boat with cameras, snacks, water and beer. The bumpy ride took about 30 minutes, eventually dropping us off beside a high concrete wall with a small ladder. We quickly scrambled over and landed in a large overgrown grassy area in front of a huge dilapidated building (this was the former school). After setting up a small camp in one of the classrooms, we ran off in our own directions, getting lost inside this beautiful decayed maze of concrete and steel.

The mosquitos on the island were intense (I guess human blood would be a rare treat for these guys) and had it not been for the four bottles of insect repellant we had, I would’ve jumped back into the violent ocean surrounding us.

Most of my afternoon was spent hanging out in the apartment blocks…they had these amazing inner centers with open ceilings where overgrown weeds and plants hung off crumbling balconies.

The apartments themselves hardly contained any furniture but in some rooms I spotted a couple of old 1950’s television sets and a few telephones. Forty years of no maintenance had taken its toll with many stairwells and corridors falling to pieces.

After a while I found myself getting completely lost in a stunning labyrinth of small decayed concrete alleys and narrow staircases covered in moss. Just like the photos I had seen from other people, everything was visually exquisite and beautiful.

Also adding to this was the awesome haunting sound of the wind and the huge ocean waves crashing against the islands outer concrete walls (it was very H.P. Lovecraft if you’re familiar with his work).

Shane Thoms

We agreed to meet up on the rooftop of a building on the edge of the island at 8pm to watch the sun set (so stunning!), and then made our way back to the campsite to smash a few beers and have some laughs.

Later in the evening we heard some faint squeaking noises and discovered that rats were eating our unfinished food. It was kind of cute…these guys had light fur and big brown eyes and didn’t really look like your typical rat…so I didn’t mind them too much.

At 2am we decided to check out some more apartment blocks via torchlight. In the basement of one housing complex we found the remains of what was once the islands hairdressing salon. Sitting in darkness since 1974, its rusting chairs and hair dryers still remained moderately intact.

When the sun came up, we did one last circle of the island and took a few more photos in the morning light and made our way to our pick up point (a rocky cliff side with waves crashing everywhere). When the boat was close enough, we jumped on one by one and headed back to the mainland… lying on the floor and thanking the universe that we didn’t get busted.

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