Cycling Kyushu: Day 6, Gunkanjima / by Ryan Mundt


Today is a rest day from cycling and a day to explore Nagasaki. The only plan is to join a tour to Gunkanjima (aka Battleship Island) 15km off Nagasaki.

I first learned about Gunkanjima during my first year in Japan. I was doing tachiyomi at a Shibuya bookstore when I picked up a copy of Wonder Japan, a magazine all about abandoned places in Japan. The pictures looked absolutely apocalyptic. I still have that magazine on my bookshelf today.


Having read all kinds of websites, watched documentaries and bought books about the place, it was actually starting to become a bit like a mythological city in my mind.

Mitsubishi began mining coal on the tiny island, then called Hashima, in the early 1900′s. For the next seven decades it went gangbusters. The tallest reinforced concrete apartment building in Japan was on the island, only nine floors. At its peak it was the most densely populated place in the world with 5,200 people living on the approximately 500×150 meter island.

The old vintage pictures of the place look unreal. It must have been such a surreal place to be…or even grow up on.

The island had everything the mainland had; izakaya, movie theater, post office, barber shop, and even a small shrine. The apartments were tiny but the workers paid zero rent and got large salaries, thus could afford luxury items like TVs.

The island was described in a local news paper as Battleship Island because of its appearance and the name stuck ever since.

In 1974, when petroleum was overtaking coal, Mitsubishi Corp closed and all the people left the island and most of their previous belongings as well.

For the last 40 years the concrete sea wall and buildings have been taking a pounding from Mother Nature and has left it crumbling. It’s unbelievable what 40 years of no maintenance will do to a place.

Getting on the island was prohibited. But adventurous haikyo otaku found a way to get on, by paying off local fishermen to take them out. The photos from inside the apartments are amazing.

With the general public becoming increasingly curious, they finally opened the island for tours, albeit VERY limited.

So that’s my short explanation of Gunkanjima. Believe me; I could go on for hours!

I’d guess otaku are interested in these places for lots of different reasons; maybe ghosts or the danger aspect. Who knows?

The reason I love places like this is the history and the story that it tells. Whether it’s a mine or a hotel or an amusement park, it all started as an idea by a corporation or an individual. Thinking that it was a good investment, they found a way to finance it, and had the place built and developed. For decades, day in and day out, it provided jobs and contributed to the local economy. People came every day to work to feed their family. Or it provided a place to unwind and get away for couples or families. In some closet somewhere there are old family photos of vacations here long passed.

Then suddenly it’s over. The world shifts and that place that was so important to the lives of so many people is no longer needed. The people find other jobs and other places to go for leisure and all that is left is an empty building, equipment, furniture and documents.

It takes decades for those items to go from not needed to junk to artifacts. And when you look at these amazing artifacts, you can’t help but dream about what this place was like decades ago. Now what was once so meaningful to people’s lives is slowly decaying and being reclaimed by nature.

So, back to Nagasaki: After a nice little breakfast in the same waterfront park, I got to the tour office. The woman there is very nice and her English is really good. I get my ticket and we make a little small talk. She says that her husband is from America. I ask where from and she says Iowa! What!?! Where? She says Iowa City, which is only an hour away from my hometown. What a small world it is sometimes! My trip had a surprisingly high number of Iowa coincidences.

So we board the boat around 10am and there are about fifty people on the tour. The tour guide is an older guy with four or five assistants. He is really entertaining and knowledgeable. He goes through the history of the island and shows pictures on the flat screen TV on the wall.

We head out of Nagasaki port and go past the shipbuilding yards. Having had worked at a maritime newspaper before, this was pretty cool to see, actually. The ships are huge and look like a construction site.

We continue down and he points out a few more things to us. Finally we get to a couple other small islands. I know that this must be Takashima. Then I see Gunkanjima and everyone starts to move around and take pictures. “Wow! It really exists!”

I’m so excited I can’t help but start to snap away even though I’m sure I will get shots closer. Plus I’m on the wrong side of the boat.

The boat goes nice and close to the island while the guide tells us about each building. We pass the island and turn around to pass it again, only this time it’s on my side.

Waves crash against the high retaining wall of the island. It looks like a fortress. On top of the wall are a few fishermen with their rods. These must be the fishermen you bribed in the past. I hate fishing but how cool must it be to be able to walk around the island wall!

The boat finally moors to a small dock and we get off onto a new concrete walkway.

And one of the first things you see is a huge hill that towers above you with dilapidated buildings on top. What makes it even more eerie is that the place is teeming with hawks soaring above. Can’t imagine there is much food here.

The guide rounds us all up and continues with facts and antidotes about the island. The young assistants have A3 laminated pictures that they flip through to go along with his tour. This is really helpful. I’m blown away just looking around and listening to the guide.

We move to the next section of the walkway and he continues. When he’s finished we have the assistants take our pictures and then we move on to the furthest part of the walkway less than a quarter of the way around the island. The main cluster of buildings are on the other side.

Here you can see the ruins of what was once a swimming pool, which I didn’t know before. It was of course filled with sea water rather than fresh water. They showed us old pictures of the kids in the pool smiling and having fun.

In total we were probably only on the island for around 40 minutes. It’s a very short tour and I hope one day as it continues to be popular that they decide to extend the walkway further around the island. Actually it looks as though they could with very little effort. But for the time being this will have to suffice. It was definitely worth the ¥4,000 fee. And judging by all the activity on the island and fishermen, I’d say a stealth mission on to the island is pretty much impossible. So if you are ever in Nagasaki, even if you don’t care about abandoned places, I really recommend the tour!

We get back to the mainland around 1:30pm, and being as that was the only thing planned for the day, I’m left wondering what to do.

Before getting on the tour I had to use the ATM around the corner and noticed a lot of tourists walking up a windy street full of souvenir stores. It’s close so I take a walk up the hill and it’s actually pretty nice. Halfway up the hill is Oura Church. I park my bike in front and head further up the hill.

Random Iowa coincidence no. 2: Outside one the souvenir stands is a rack of US license plates for sale. Half of them are strangely from Iowa and several Nebraska plates as well. Where the hell do they get these and who wants to buy them?

I wonder if the original owners of these plates would believe they are being sold on Nagasaki streets.

Anyway, at the top of the hill is Grover Garden. Thomas Grover was one of Nagasaki’s first foreign residences. The Scottish entrepreneur is known for introducing the locomotive to Japan as well as the first dry dock, I believe.

The garden costs ¥600 and is built on the hillside. When you enter you immediately get on to an escalator up to the top. I doubt this was in the original design; however the hill would be trouble for the seniors.

The garden is beautiful and doesn’t feel like Japan. Very European and has great views of Nagasaki and the bay.

After the park I spend the rest of the day riding around Nagasaki. Eventually I head back over to Chinatown to have a late lunch. I couldn’t possibly come to Nagasaki and not eat chanpon. I think it may have been my first time having it. And, to be honest, it was a pretty forgettable experience. Seems every city or region in Japan is famous for a particular food and Nagasaki’s is probably this and/or castella cake. I think I will stick to Hiroshima or Osaka’s famous cuisine.

Nagasaki chanpon...meh.

For the third time in 12 hours I go back to the park on the waterfront and relax. I can hear music pumping out of a nearby shopping area so decide to have a look. It turned out to be a little festival with a stage. On stage groups of kids performed dance routines, and pretty damn well! Although the scantily clad preteen girl group was a bit creepy. I even ran into the girl from the rooftop there and talked for a bit before heading back to the hostel.

I threw in another load of laundry and had a shower as it was getting a little later now and I was planning on getting up at 5:15am to catch a ferry. But I got to talking with some young Australian travelers and decided to go get a bite at an izakaya or okonomiyaki joint.

We walked around a few blocks only to return to a small street stall I had seen the night before. I was put together pretty piecemeal and had red lanterns outside running on gas generators. This place was just my style. A middle-aged couple ran the place, serving oden and ramen. We ordered up three big bottles of Asahi and a variety of oden items soaking in the broth. It’s damn delicious but I’ve always been skeptical about the festering broth! It can look pretty questionable sometimes.

The guys are pretty interesting and we go back to the hostel and have one last drink with all the other guests that have filled the common area. One was a German girl who said she had done a one-year home stay in Dubuque, Iowa, which is only about an hour or two north of where I grew up. Earlier at the food stall I told the Aussies that I was from near Chicago. They later called me out on this when it was clear I was from Iowa. Close enough!! I think from now on I will simply say Iowa and explain more specifically when people don’t know where it is.

Everyone’s having fun and I would love to stay up and hang out but I got to have an early one. I get all my bags packed up and take them down to the common room so I don’t have to wrestle around with them in the morning and wake anyone up.

I say goodbye and good night to everyone and go up to my bunk around 10pm.