Jan 1, 2015
A must-see for every visitor to Nagasaki, the Battleship Island, Gunkanjima, is a treat for both history buffs and shutterbugs.
If you’ve always found abandoned settlements hauntingly beautiful, Nagasaki’s Gunkanjima is the definitive destination for just that. Located 20 kilometers from Nagasaki, visitors are allowed on the island only if they follow a permitted tour group. The tour – led by Japanese-speaking guides – takes you to three observation decks built by the government. Don’t understand Japanese? Not to worry: You’ll be given a recorded audio guide in your preferred language.
The beauty of Gunkanjima first reveals itself as your ferry approaches its stony facade. From afar, its concrete buildings and seawalls give the island its famous “battleship” shape. Against a backdrop of stormy seas and grey clouds, you can’t help but look at the island in awe and imagine the lives led on it by its former residents before it was officially closed in 1974.
Formally named Hashima, the island came into prominence for its coal mines. When Mitsubishi bought it in 1890, the island became home to the miners, growing into a fully self-sufficient residential area with its own restaurants, schools, hospital and police station. At its peak, the island, measuring just 160 meters wide and 480 meters long, housed 5,300 people, earning it the fame of having the highest population density in history worldwide. To withstand the typhoons’ attacks, buildings and high seawalls were built using concrete. Gunkanjima was home to Japan’s first apartment building – a block nine-storeys high.
Visitors are not allowed to venture beyond the viewing docks for safety reasons. Years of disuse and exposure to the elements have led to significant decay and ageing of the buildings and mining structures. But it is its status as a modern industrial heritage site that has enabled the island to reenter the consciousness of Japan and the world.
The island was featured in History Channel’s Life After People to show how quickly buildings fall into decay after just 35 years of human absence. The desolated appearance of the island also inspired the James Bond film Skyfall. While the filmmakers were able to film the exterior of the island, they had recreate its interior using CGI and film sets.
A movement is currently underway to have Gunkanjima listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Supporters believe that the island should be preserved for its undisturbed remains of the housing complex that are representative from Meiji to Showa periods, and for the role the island played in Japan’s rapid industrialisation and modernisation processes.
If you’ve always wanted to enter a “lost world”, a trip to Gunkanjima is definitely a must.
That in 2013, Google sent an employee with a Street View backpack to capture the island in panoramic 360-degree view. The tech giant also used its Business Photos technology to let users look inside the abandoned buildings. On Google Street View, Gunkanjima is now the fifth-most visited place in the world among Asian countries.
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