Battleship Island

Battleship Island is an abandoned island in Nagasaki, that for some years was the most densely populated island on Earth. It was abandoned over a 3 month period in the 1970s, so most of the buildings were left intact, with even some possessions still inside. The island built up over 200 years for the sole purpose of undersea coal-mining: it hosts two mineshafts that go about a kilometre underground and branch out in a network under the sea. Because the island is too far from the mainland for commuting, a community built up around the mines. At its peak this community included schools at all grades, a cinema, pharmacy, clinic and city hall. The island is only about 500m long and 150m wide, so the community was densely packed, and by the 40s the island was so heavily built up that it resembled a battleship – hence the name, gunkanshima (軍艦島), although the island’s official name is Hashima (端島).

While I was in Nagasaki presenting my HIV model, I took a trip to gunkanshima. It’s a fascinating place in its own right and, I think, for people interested in role-playing settings, could make an excellent adventure setting. Some kind of Meiji-era Outland-style detective story springs to mind, or a Cthulhu-in-the-mineshafts post-WW2 horror story. So here are some pictures and background to give a feel for the place, as both a fine example of modern industrial archaeology and a potential adventure setting – and an excellent zombie survival spot. Also, if you’re in Nagasaki this is an excellent afternoon trip, so I’ll give a few pointers on how to get there at the end.

The Island from the tennis-court end

It takes about an hour to get to the island from Nagasaki harbour, with a brief stop at Takashima to look at a diorama of Battleship Island and visit a museum of coal-mining in the area. This is interesting for its depiction of coal mining through the ages, and its excellent three dimensional cut-away models of the mineshafts under the islands. Here you can get a sense of what a claustrophobic and grim world coal-mining was during the era of the island’s existence, and why the setting is ripe for cthulhoid fantasies. The guide will also give you an explanation of what it was like to live on the island (he grew up there) and set a kind of stern tone of things-that-are-gone that I think is quite helpful for appreciating the decay on the island itself.

The view from the coal-loading side

The boat approaches the island from the coal-mining side, so you see the flat (Eastern?) side of the island with the apartments and schools of the tennis court end on your right, and the shrine just visible at the top of the island. The parts most visible from this approach are the most intact; once you land you can see a lot more rubble.

Coal-processor remnants

From the pier it is possible to see the stilts that used to hold the coal conveyor belt, and which once ran through piles of coal. The buildings in the distance are the old schools: elementary school at the bottom and high school further up, with the top floors devoted to a gym of some kind. From this the proximity of the residents to their only source of employment – and the reason for the island’s whole existence – is pretty clear. As someone who lived in the shadows (literally) of a lead smelter in a one-industry town, I can imagine the importance this industrial infrastructure had on the island – everyone who lived here was either directly working in the mines, or there purely to provide services to those who were. It’s a town that must have closed down as soon as coal mining stopped, and the Japanese economy shifted rapidly away from coal in the 1960s and 1970s, so it was inevitable. In fact the whole island was owned by Mitsubishi – so when they closed it no one had a choice, and everyone had to move out in a very short time. There are apparently still apartments with their televisions left behind, and other markers of residential habitation still stuck on walls or doors.

Coal miners' baths (left) and pit head (far right)

Further to the south are the pit head and coal mining facilities. The miners bathed in heated sea water, and for much of the history of the island everyone experienced strict water rationing – no fresh water could be used for anything except drinking and food preparation until a pipe was laid from the mainland in the 50s. There were also no private bathing facilities – the apartments were linked to public baths that everyone shared (a very common Japanese practice even now in towns like Beppu, where for example there is a guesthouse for foreigners that doesn’t have its own bathrooms but expects guests to use the local public bathhouse). The building at the top of the above picture held a rainwater trap, I think, and a pipe leads down the hill to the apartments. The lighthouse was added after the island was abandoned, since before then it gave enough light from human habitation not to need its own lighthouse.

The view from the swimming pool

On the western side of the island from these facilities are more apartments, pictured here with a building whose purpose I don’t know (left, foreground). This picture was taken from near the swimming pool, which was a salt water pool filled directly from the sea. The whole island is surrounded by sea walls to protect it from storms but during typhoons these walls are insufficient – on the tour you will be shown photos of waves crashing over the building in the foreground, and residents of the apartment blocks looking down on the storm from the roofs of their homes. All of the apartments in Battleship Island had gardens on their rooftops, because although greenery is visible in these pictures there was none when the island was in use – the green you see here is a recent, natural addition. For the residents the only chance to appreciate elements other than stone and water was the time in the rooftop gardens.

Battleship Island's eastern side

This photo, taken on the return to the ship, shows the island in more perspective. The block in the middle is the second pit head; the building on the hillside is another apartment, possibly containing the city office. The vista stretching away from the foreground is of the coal processing facilities with the school in the background. What you see here is the work of 40 years of typhoons and storms and salt water. Most of this area was reclaimed from the sea in the first half of the 20th century; I guess by the last half of this century it will be reclaimed by the sea, unless someone decides to preserve the island in perfect form. As it is the whole place is a dangerous place, an we all had to stay very carefully inside the fenced off areas, and once the sea has had another 40 years to work its destructive way through the reclaimed areas I guess the island will become unvisitable.

Industry abandoned: the remains of the coal loading dock

The island is in many respects a kind of microcosm of Japan’s industrial history – it grew as Japan’s economy grew, and its economic and physical fate were determined by the powerful economic forces shaping Japanese society; as a result its demographic development mimicked that of Japan as a whole. Our guide showed us a magazine article from the 1960s, when Battleship Island was the most heavily populated place on earth, asking “Is this the future of Japan?” Now it is deserted and crumbling, a fate that will undoubtedly come to many other Japanese towns of similar size. As a model of the way industrial societies grow and decline this island is a powerful example, and an extreme example as well of the way that access to resources shapes the physical and cultural landscape. This isn’t the only such example in Japan – Shimane’s Iwami Ginzan is an abandoned silver mine in a slowly fading rural area that harkens back to the time when Japan was the richest country in the world because of its silver resources. They are long gone, and Shimane is now famous for its religious heritage and its crumbling seaside towns, and not much else.

If you visit Nagasaki I strongly recommend a visit to the island. You will also get a nice overview of Nagasaki’s working harbour, and see some of the scenery in the peninsula, during your trip. I booked my trip with Takashima Kaijo, which at time of writing does 9am and 14:00pm departures for 3 hour round trips, and employs a guide who used to live on the Island. It’s all in Japanese, but they have an English pamphlet that gives you the crucial information you need and some nice pictures. The staff speak enough English to get you on the ship – you need to sign a disclaimer and pay 4300 yen (about $43) for the trip (not refundable if the weather is too harsh to get onto the island). The conditions are described on their website in English, too.  Their office is a little distance from the main harbour terminal, but their website has a map and you can find other cruise companies in the terminal if you don’t want to take the risk. They can take up to 210 people, so if you go during a busy time it will be a bit crowded; you probably need to be prepared for a fairly regimented style of tourism but it’s not too cloying (but don’t take photos while the guide is talking – he’ll get angry). You get about 15 minutes to take photos and wander around and since you can’t leave the confines of the viewing area this is more than enough. The staff are very sweet and accommodating, overall. The ship also stops at Yojima, which apparently has an onsen (hot spring) and hotels, so if you wanted you could make a nice couple of days by booking into an onsen hotel in Yojima and making the trip to Gunkanjima a side trip (about an hour shorter from Yojima).

Finally, it should be recognized that Gunkanjima is a heritage site and as such a little respect should be shown: as the guide says, to us it’s a pile of rubble but to him it’s his hometown (実家). So don’t go breaking their rules because you think they’re silly, or get worked up because they wouldn’t land on the island and you lost 4000 yen. Also, if you are planning to go to Nagasaki I think this week – the 24th – 30th – is probably best because it coincides with the tall ship festival, which is quite a nice harbourside event. This season the weather is a little unpredictable, but I think it’s clearing up for the end of spring, so if you are in Japan in late April Nagasaki could be worth the effort. And if you’re in Nagasaki at any time, Battleship Island is a great afternoon trip, well worth the money and of interest to anyone who is interested in history or a little urban exploring.

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