The Ruins of Gunkanjima
Brief history of Gunkanjima
Gunkanjima (軍艦島), or its actual name of Hashima (端島), is a 16-acre island approximately 15 kilometers from Nagasaki. In 1887, a coal mining operation was established on it and very quickly, the entire island was surrounded by a sea wall, with concrete buildings constructed on most parts of it. These, and the torpedo-like shape of the island, eventually gave rise to the popular nickname. Gun-kan in Japanese means battleship or military ship.
My Visit to This Strange Island
I visited Gunkanjima on April 1, 2015, having learned of the island from the James Bond movie, Skyfall. (It was used as the lair for the villain Raoul Silva). The only way to visit the island was by group tour, and this I managed to arrange quite easily over the Internet.
Regretably, the weather was not at all cooperative during the tour. There was a constant drizzle in Nagasaki that day, and right after our ferry left Nagasaki Port, our vessel was engulfed by a dense fog. To share, I was quite fretful throughout the boat ride, worried about safety and how the afternoon would turn out. Was the whole trip going to be wasted? Would we be denied entry to the island? Would I get the sort of pictures I wanted? By the way, it was quite chilly on the vessel too. The ride out to Gunkanjima, in short, wasn't pleasant at all.
Well, it was as I expected. I ended up not getting the sort of travel guidebook shots I hoped for. However, it would be unfair to say the entire trip was wasted. On hindsight, that foul weather could even be considered as a boon. Believe me when I say Gunkanjima literally popped out from the sea mist as we neared it. As everybody squealed and scrambled for their phones and cameras, more details of the ruins became visible, and soon the entire ghostliness was heavy over us. From certain angles, Battleship Island also resembled an otherworldly ship gliding obliviously beside our ferry. Was it sinister? Indifferent? We had no idea. Too many of us were frantically snapping pictures. We wanted as much of it captured in memory as possible.
Curiously, the weather improved significantly after we stepped foot onto Gunkanjima. This naturally heightened everybody's enthusiasm, and we eagerly followed the guide as he narrated the history of the island. Midway, I started straying from the group to snap more pictures and soon that was all that I was doing. The whole island felt to be such a perfect dystopian backdrop for games, movies, novels, etc. As lifelong gamer and mover addict, I just couldn’t get enough of it.
Er ... I don't speak Japanese.
The entire tour of Gunkanjima was conducted in Japanese. However, audio sets with English narrations were given out to foreign visitors before leaving port. Regretfully, my set was frequently cut off during the ride and at parts of the island. My suggestion, therefore, is to read up before you visit. Anyway, you don't want to stand around listening to a headset while on this strange island.
Limited Access While on Gunkanjima
One important thing to note about Gunkanjima tours is that visitors are permitted access to very few areas of the island. My visit covered a route that ran no more than a fifth of the perimeter, which translates to there being no way to see the main ruins up close, including the apartment blocks that were featured in Skyfall. With a telescopic lens though, I was still able to capture a few reasonable shots from far. I just have to accept that this was for the sake of safety. The island, after all, had been abandoned for decades. Many of the derelict structures are in danger of collapse.
Access Information: How to Visit Gunkanjima
Several agencies provide tours to Gunkanjima. You can easily find them online by searching for "Gunkanjima tours" or "Battleship Island tours."
Different tour companies depart from different piers, and some ships might stop over at other islands before reaching Gunkanjima. Typically, a tour would last at least 3 hours. As mentioned earlier, the tours are in Japanese but audio sets providing commentaries in other languages are provided. Most tour staff would also speak a minimum level of English too.
When the weather is that foul
According to a few posts on Tripadvisor, some groups were not allowed to embark onto Gunkanjima because of bad weather. When the rain or wind is that bad, the trip might even be suspended. Do be prepared for such unfortunate outcomes especially if you're visiting during the rainy months. Don't be too disappointed too. Remember, it's always safety first during travelling.
The Darker Side of Gunkanjima
I'm obliged to highlight the darker side of Gunkanjima. This is not about how miners used to work in dangerous conditions, or how several died. It’s about Korean and Chinese forced labourers being imprisoned on it prior to and during World War II.
When Japan applied for Battleship Island to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2009, South Korea put up a furious opposition. Gunkanjima has since been approved as a UNESCO heritage site, with South Korea backing down after a last minute compromise. The controversy, however, is far from over, and in August 2017, South Korea released an eponymously named movie detailing the lives of Korean prisoners on Battleship Island. To know more about this controversy, please visit this write-up on Wikipedia.
For anime lovers, Gunkanjima was used as the backdrop in the live action versions of Attack on Titan
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong