Back in 2015, on one of my first trips to Japan, I tried to go to Gunkanjima, the “James Bond” island off the coast of Nagasaki. I was staying in Fukuoka and had booked the trip via the Gunkanjima Concierge website, one of several operators of sightseeing tours to the island. I was aware that weather conditions would decide whether the boat would be able to land on the island or indeed actually depart or not, but I forgot to check the weather the morning of my departure. When I got there after a long train ride, all trips had been cancelled for the day.
“Gunkan” battleship roll, an oval ship-shaped maki sushi.
Hashima Island (端島) better known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島; meaning Battleship Island), is an abandoned artificial island about 19 kilometers off the coast of the city of Nagasaki, in southern Japan. One of Nagasaki Prefecture’s 505 uninhabited islands, it’s best known for the abandoned concrete buildings used as the backdrop for some notable scenes in the James Bond movie Skyfall, although the scenes involving the actors were not actually filmed on the island, but in Macau.
Around 5000 people used to work in undersea coal mines on Gunkanjima. They lived in multi-story apartments that covered the island, giving it its battleship shape. The coal was mainly for the Yawata Steel Works, managed by the Mitsubishi Mining Company since 1890. Controversially, from the 1930s until the end of the Second World War, conscripted Korean civilians and Chinese prisoners of war were forced to work at the Gunkanjima Mitsubishi facility under Japanese wartime mobilisation policies in very dangerous conditions.
It does look like a battleship.
Eventually, the coal ran out and the mine was closed in 1974. All of Gunkanjima’s inhabitants left and the island was abandoned for 30 years. The buildings crumbled and tumbled under the harsh weather conditions. But the ruins stirred up interest with urban explorers and eventually and access was re-opened in April 2009. Gunkanjima became an unlikely tourist attraction even though more than 95% of the island is still off-limits during the organised tours. Japanese tourists flocked to the island first, and after the Bond movie, foreign visitors started to join the daily tours, operated by various companies from Nagasaki harbour.
Unesco World Heritage
In 2015, the island was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site as part of “Industrial Heritages for Modernization in Kyushu and Yamaguchi”, but not without opposition from both China and South Korea. Japan had never acknowledged the existence of forced labour on the island before and during WWII. Japan eventually said they would take measures “to allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought there against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions” and the island was then approved for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Until today, there is no mention of this dark history on the island and tour guides apparently do not refer to or appreciate being asked about it at all.
In 2018 I was on day trip to Nagasaki from Fukuoka, with no planned intention to visit Gukanjima. I wanted to see more of the city and its Chinatown than I did last time I went. Beautifully situated on the coast, surrounded by mountains, Nagasaki has almost a European flavour. The city has street names (“Holland Street”) and you’ll find signs and plaques everywhere telling you about its history. I walked up “Dutch slope” and had a coffee at a very colonial looking mansion. I went to Dejima, the former Dutch settlement that has been lovingly restored. Marvelled at the Dutch language videos in the rooms. The city has recently restored the bridge to the original entrance of the settlement. They even want to make it an island again by digging canals on its two, now landlocked, sides.
Nagasaki’s famous dish, Champon
After exploring the city, I picked Shikairou, the oldest Chinese restaurant in town (1899), for lunch. I’d seen the historic spot where it used to be in Chinatown, but it has since moved to a 5-story, ugly modern building near the waterfront. I ordered the dish that Shikairou’s owner invented: Champon. A noodle soup in sea food broth. It had no flavour that I could detect, and neither did the small piece of slow cooked pork I ordered as a side, another local specialty.
A disappointing lunch, but Shikairou is very close to Tokiwa Pier, the spot where four years earlier I’d found out my trip to Gunkanjima had been cancelled due to weather conditions. This time, the weather was outstanding, so I walked over to the tour operator’s office. By chance I got there exactly at the right time, the boat was due to leave within the hour. A small queue had already formed. I was handed a waiting list ticket and ended up nr 6 in line after all the pre-booked people. Eventually, I got on the tour without a problem. They made me sign a landing certificate and a ‘safety contract’ and the ticket for the tour cost 4000 yen, plus 300 yen island landing rights.
Nothing better than an unplanned boat ride. I’d read about the sea around the island being rough and to get ready for sea sickness, but there was none of that. The trip takes about 50 minutes and the island comes in view about 30 minutes after departure. The boat circles the island slowly before landing, so everybody can get a good look. From a certain angle, the island and its buildings really does look like a battleship. The captain of the boat has to decided whether conditions are safe enough for the boat to land. If not, the boat will keep circumnavigating the island for the duration of the tour. Landing on Gunkanjima is said to be possible only on about 100 days per year and is most difficult between November and March.
Fortunately, conditions were deemed good enough. After the boat landed, everyone on the tour had to walk along the designated paths as a group. You get to spend about an hour on the island and are only allowed to walk within a fenced off strip about 1/4 of the island’s circumference. The rest of the island is deemed too dangerous to explore. You are not allowed to stray from the group. Commentary on the tour that I was on was in Japanese only. Like a lot of Japanese bus and boat tours, the whole thing was highly organised, with continuous and inescapable Japanese commentary both on the boat (pre-recorded) and on the island. Some tour operators provide English language ear pieces. The guides will talk about the history of the island, its role in the modernisation of Japan and the stories of the people who risked their lives in the mines.
The best parts for me were the eerie ruins, their shapes and colours, a contrast to the blue sky and sea around us. Sailing back after the trip and getting a good look at Nagasaki’s coast line was another treat. While some boat trips in Japan have been disappointing (there’s one in Hakodate that’s particularly lame), this visit to Gunkanjima island was an excellent way to spend the afternoon.
How To Get There
You can only get to Gunkanjima by joining an organised tour. Private landing is strictly prohibited. Ferry tours from Nagasaki range from ¥3,600 to ¥4,200 for adults. In addition to ferry fees, visitors must also pay a ¥300 landing fee (¥150 for children). This fee is charged by Nagasaki City and goes towards assisting in Gunkanjima’s preservation.
There are several tour operators who all leave from various piers in Nagasaki Port. You can reach Nagasaki Port by taking tram #1 heading for Syokakujishita and get off at Tsukimachi station. Transfer to tram #5 heading to Ishibashi. Get off at Ourakaigandori Street station. From there it’s a one minute walk to the harbour and Gunkanjima Concierge Co, the tour operator that arranged the tour I was on.
Gunkanjima Concierge Co.
Fee: Adults ¥4,000 / Students (Junior and Senior High School) ¥3,300 / Children ¥2000
Departure Area: Tokiwa Pier, Nagasaki Port; Ioujima Pier, Ioujima Port
Gunkanjima Cruise Co., Ltd.
Fee: Adults ¥3,600 / Children (~12) ¥1,800
Departure Area: Motohuna Pier, Nagasaki Port
Yamasa Shipping Co., Ltd.
Fee: Adults ¥4,200 / Children ¥2,100
Departure Area: Ohato Pier #2, Nagasaki Port