Visit Gunkanjima (Hajima) – a James Bond location

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If you are in Nagasaki in Japan, do not miss a visit to the island of Gunkanjima. The Japanese word Gunkanjima means “Battleship Island”. And indeed a lookout seems to be rising over the bridge of an enormous ship. Long and massive, it looks more like a battleship than a cruise ship. But what we see from the tourist boat, when we visit Gunkanjima, is actually not a battleship but a small island with a huge concentration of concrete tower blocks. At some point in the 1950s, the 6 ha island had a population of over 80,000!

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This weird and fascinating island has speedily become a major tourist attraction in Nagasaki since its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Overseas travellers are spreading the word and visit Gunkanjima.

Nickname “Battleship Island”

Gunkanjima is actually the modern nickname of the Island. The people who lived and worked there called their home Hashima (Fringe Island).  Hashima used to be an even smaller island, just a few rocks really, not suitable for living. But scientists found a coal stratum that led from the neighbouring island of Takashima down below the sea.

There, on Takashima, mining had begun in the 18th century. When the Scottish entrepreneur Thomas Glover came to Nagasaki and took over the mine in the wake of the Meiji Restoration (1868), newly imported Western mining technology allowed the miners to go ever deeper below the sea-bed.

In 1887, Mitsubishi – who by then owned the Takashima coal mine – started a new mine shaft from Hashima to access the coal. And since there was a lot of coal (and the newly industrialising country needed all of it!), housing units arose even on the limited space of the island for the pitmen and their families. This meant building high. As early as 1916, Gunkanjima had Japan’s first seven-storey ferro-concrete apartment house, followed by several blocks of nine-storey houses. Meanwhile, several rounds of land reclamation increased the space on the island somewhat. Now it was possible to build more houses, schools, playgrounds for the children, and more industrial facilities.

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The boat ride from Nagasaki harbour takes less than an hour. It was a nice outing on such a pleasant day as we had, but apparently it’s not always like this. We stop on Takashima Island to have a look at the local coal museum featuring a large model of Gunkanjima and lots of black and white pictures of the miners. “When it’s windy there is no chance that people understand anything I say on the boat. If they feel like listening at all. That’s why I offer an introduction at this model” the Japanese tour guide explains and points out the different buildings.

While some tours only circle the island by boat, we have chosen a tour that lands on Gunkanjima itself.

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Setting foot on the island of Gunkanjima

The island is uninhabited today. In 1974 coal mining had become unprofitable. Back then, Mitsubishi decided to close down the mine – and to evacuate the whole island within weeks.

In spite of having the population of a medium-sized town, with sports clubs, a shopping street and a shrine, Hashima was in no way self-sufficient. Water, for instance, had to be brought by ship and was strictly regulated. Normal flats had no bathroom at all, and the public bath used seawater. So, as soon as the jobs ceased, people had to leave their homes, too. The buildings crumbled for the next decades and most are now dangerously instable. Not least because the sea crashes against the buildings during every storm. Visitors on a visit to Gunkanjima have to stick to a fixed route. A walkway leads around one quarter of Gunkanjima.

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We see the tower blocks huddling together, no large windows to the sea as we might have expected. “They had only corridors on that side, because the windows would often break due to the weather conditions” the guide explains. Also, there was a conveyor belt right between the housing blocks transporting colliery wastes to a dump on the other side of the island (because near the pit it would have blocked the harbour). The Conveyor belt was running 24 hours a day, but presumably the inhabitants would have gotten used to the noise.

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Work and life on Gunkanjima

Work, and life, on Hashima was probably not exactly pleasant, and not everyone was there voluntarily in the first place. During the war, workers (especially Koreans) were conscripted to work in the mines. This rather inglorious history also challenged Hashima’s inclusion in the UNESCO list. Even after the war, Hashima was clearly a place to earn some money and get out as soon as possible. But while most inhabitants must have been glad to leave the cramped housing estates, we learn that some of today’s visitors come with fond memories. Those who were children at the time of the evacuation knew this industrial rock in the sea as home. And of course they are shocked at the crumbling concrete, says our guide. “One visitor just resigned. He was born on Hashima, but this is now Gunkanjima, the battleship, a different place from his hometown”.

James Bond was here…

The stark setting of shattered concrete buildings and disintegrating industrial facilities on a windswept island has made Gunkanjima a perfect location for film shootings. In the James Bond film Skyfall, the grim island was recreated in the studio.

Gunkanjima has been listed together with nearly 30 other “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” in Southern Japan. Most of them are of little interest to regular travellers, but only to history buffs and some engineers. Those, however, can delve into the staggering technological developments in Japan at the end of the 19th century, when the country suddenly opened up to the world.

Should you visit Gunkanjima?

Yes, definitely it is worth travelling to Nagasaki and to visit Gunkanjima, and we appreciated the opportunity to land on the island. You have to bear in mind, though, that it is not possible to explore the ruined buildings: you have to stay on the newly-built visitor walkway. Nevertheless, there are quite photogenic views, and imagining the lives of the workers there is quite intriguing.

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How to get to Gunkanjima from Nagasaki

Several tour operators offer boat trips from Nagasaki harbour, in or near the passenger terminal. All tours are in Japanese. We went with Gunkanjima Cruise (www.gunkanjima-cruise.jp), situated behind the passenger terminal and somewhat cheaper than those in the terminal. In the main tourist season you have to make reservations in advance, but when we went in July, there were still seats available – so you can and should plan the trip depending on weather conditions. With high waves you might not only get seasick but there is also the possibility that the ship cannot land on Gunkanjima.

More mines in Europe to visit

Over the years we have visited several coal mines in different countries. The Zollverein Coal Mine industrial complex in Essen/ Germany and the Big Pit Coal Mine in South Wales are also UNESCO World Heritage sites. In Slovakia we did a very interesting tour through the silvermines in Banska Stiavnica.

NB: We did not receive any sponsoring for this post and fully paid for the boat tour to Gunkanjima.

14 Comments

  1. We visited Hiroshima when we were in Japan but missed Nagasaki. I now know we should add in time to visit Gunkanjima too. So interesting that it looks like a battleship. And that your tour actually took you on the island. Very strange to find a waste conveyor belt running 24 hours a day through the housing area. I will have to re-watch Skyfall and see if I now recognize this island.

    1. Dear Linda, you will remember it! The “Ghost Island” were the bad guy “Silva” has his headquarter is based on Gunkanjima. I think they had to rebuilt bigger parts of it in the studio, becauce the original place is too dangerous with all the collapsing buildings.

  2. I read a lot about Hiroshima & Nagasaki in the history book. Since then I want to visit Japan to visit all these historic places where these ruins are still existed to prove World War II. I had no idea about Gunkanjima but it seems amazing to visit. I would love to visit these places with Japan for sure. Thank you for this informative post with incredible pictures.

    1. Dear Pamela, it is good to remember WWII. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. But please notice, that the coal mine of Gunkanjima Island has nothing to do with WWII.

  3. I loved reading about this. For one, it is something I did not know of and the 2nd, the whole history of the place is super intriguing. It is sad that people had to move out of the place but at the same time fascinating to see how they converted a small isle into a buzzing town. It is rare you get to see something like this.

    1. It is a fascinating story, isn`t it? And so weired to see all these high-rising housing ruins that have been built in the 1930s/ 40s.

  4. This is the first I have heard of Gunkanjima. I would absolutely love to walk around the old abandoned buildings on this island and hear the stories of life on the island during the coal mining period. It sounds like it was a hard life

  5. The more I read about Japan, the more I realise that how less I have seen the country. I have been to Hiroshima as that was surely on my bucket list but unfortunately I missed Gunkanjima when I was there. I would definitely go back to Japan and see more of the country side and islands.

    1. Dear Raksha, no wonder you missed Gunkanjima, when you were at Hiroshima. Gunkanjima is near Nagasaki, around 400 km to the south. But Nagasaki is also worth a visit. It has a significant Chinese population, some historical sights connected with the atomic bomb and a nice harbor!

  6. I visited many places in Japan but I haven’t discovered Nagasaki yet. What an interesting and historical place to uncover. I’m not a James bond fan but I have seen sky fall so it would be great to visit the scenes from the film.

  7. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve not heard of Gunkanjima or its history. Fascinating, I can see why you wanted to visit there. It’s amazing to see high rises built in the early part of the century when it was so uncommon. It’s almost as if the island was ahead of its time. I would love to do the tour and so some interesting photography while there.

    1. It is a pity that you are not allowed to walk the island on your own to take pictures. But even from the marked paths it was possible to get some good images.

  8. Japan is really a destination that I have longed to visit for sometime. Truly fascinated with the country for their discipline and their inventions. Nagasaki would feature high in our list for its history. It was great learning about Gunkanjima and how it came into existence.

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