Jutting out of the sea about 15km off Nagasaki lies the city’s newest attraction, and perhaps its most fascinating. Properly known as Hashima, it’s more commonly referred to as Gunkan-jima, or “Battleship Island”; this may sound like a board game or pirate film, but the reality is far more interesting.
Gunkan-jima was once one of Japan’s most important sources of coal, and from 1890 to 1974 was inhabited by hundreds of miners and their families. This dense concentration of people gave Japan a sneak preview of what it has become today – Gunkan-jima boasted the country’s first ever high-rise concrete buildings, which together with the island’s high sea walls make it appear from a distance like some huge and rather monstrous ship, hence the name. For a time it functioned quite well, with just enough schools, shops and housing to keep its tiny population satisfied. However, mainland Japan soon raced ahead development-wise, giving this brave attempt at urban utopia a relatively improverished appearance. Its fate was sealed when the domestic coal industry collapsed in the mid-1970s; the island was abandoned and left to decay.
Gunkan-jima was only opened up to tourism in 2009, and it is now possible to visit on half-day trips, organized through the tourist office. It’s wise to book at least a couple of days ahead, and trips can be cancelled in bad weather. There are two tours available – a three-hour one which includes a brief stop on the island (¥4300), or a two-hour version which merely scoots around it (¥3300).