Gunkanjima – every urban explorer’s dream. A deserted island of concrete ruins slowly crumbling away off the West coast of Japan. Travellers have long been forbidden to land there and view the secrets within its walls. But with an awesome guide and a little luck, I was able to do just that. Here’s my story.
Gunkanjima (軍艦島) – literally ‘Battleship Island’ – is the nickname for Hashima Island (端島), named so because it has an uncanny resemblance to a military warship. Once just a small reef, the discovery of coal in 1810 led to the installation of mining facilities and eventually gave rise to a population, all densely packed into a self-contained metropolis.
But by 1974, the dream was gone. Petroleum came in place of coal, the mines were shut down and the now jobless workers were forced to leave. In a matter of days the island was deserted – everything left exactly as it was, to slumber eternally in the same position like a broken clock face.
Since then visitors have been prohibited to land on this haikyo (ruined) island. Right up until April 2009, anyway. The landing ban on Hashima was lifted and the first tourist boats in years were to be allowed to land. My dream of secretly chartering a boat and infiltrating the place under cover of night was dashed.
They made it into a tourist attraction?? How could they!?
But my disappointment was not to last. While it is true that it is no longer illegal to land on the island through the designated tours, it is still prohibited to for individuals to explore deep inside. All the interesting places like the well-known ‘Stairway to Hell’ or ‘Block 65’ may as well be invisible for all the view you’ll get from behind those shiny white safety bars. Yes, it was clear no tourist trip was going to satisfy my curiosity to walk the corridors of a 100-year old structure. Live site or not, I needed to get inside those concrete relics.
An impenetrable fortress
It seemed like an impossible feat, and certainly not one I could undertake by myself. Even if I could get to the island, navigating it safely and in a timely manner would be tremendously difficult. It was my good fortune then, to meet Ikumi. Concept Designer by day; Urban Explorer by night.
It was that such meeting that led to me sitting in a dimly-lit car at 4.30am off the coast of Nagasaki. Munching on some adzuki bread in the passenger seat, I carefully eyed the figures of the local fisherman outside as they lit up their cigarettes.
“Those bastards. Look at them puffing away. The sun hasn’t even peaked out yet! If any more of them come, there isn’t going to be enough space on the boat…”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry”, Ikumi comforted me. “It’ll be fine. But what about those people over there..? Don’t they look like photographers to you? Haikyoists, perhaps?”
They did indeed. A couple of young Japanese guys, one wrapped up in the typical ‘couldn’t-care-less’ head towel and another with a camera draped around his shoulder.
“Might have company today…” Ikumi murmured.
It was something like Ikumi’s 6th time to visit Battleship Island. I felt as though I was in capable hands. She’d briefed me on the safety aspects beforehand and how our efforts may be in vain if the weather suddenly turned.
Not long after, the fisherman began hustling aboard a boat. Ikumi ushered me to follow and we liaised with the captain. A quick nod and we were setting foot onto something seaworthy with our two photographer friends following behind. Now all we had to worry about was the landing. Apparently due to tumultuous tides and whimsical weather, being able to dock a boat on Gunkanjima can be as difficult as infiltrating the island itself.
Fortunately, today was to be my lucky day. One calm sea and one Battleship Island cast in a cold morning gloom stretched before us. Before we knew it, we had passed the sea wall surrounding the island and were breathing heavily inside.
I’m in! my brain whirred. Right, where’s my E-P1 and that ultra wide Panasonic 7-14mm lens..? And tripod. Check. Alrighty then…
The regular tour boats would be circling the island in just a few short hours, so we’d need to make haste. So much to see! So much to shoot! I didn’t quite know where to point my camera at first, but the infamous Jigokudan (地獄段) staircase (above) lay before me. It is known as the Staircase to Hell because, apparently, running up the steps will exhaust you to the extent that you feel hellish pain. No time to attempt it today though…
Snap snap. Hmm… Maybe a different angle would bring out this shot better..? Snap.
“Come on!” called Ikumi. “We’ve got to hurry.” I quickly followed her and noticed our two photographer friends disappearing off on an adventure of their own.
Tiny, yet huge
Gunkanjima only measures 1.2km in circumference. Less than half a kilometre lengthways, I was surprised at how much smaller it was than I had been expecting.
That’s not to say we got to take a good look at everything though. With stopping to take pictures and getting lost in the undergrowth enveloping the old buildings, the time quickly passed. Most of it was spent taking exterior shots. I figured that we may be blessed twice and get back the following morning too. That would be reserved for interior exploration.
As it so happened, we were blessed, but even with two landings we couldn’t begin to capture the full scale of the island. Block 65 (６５棟), the huge, towering concrete monstrosity that housed a great many of the island’s worker’s back in its heyday lived up to its reputation (below).
Ikumi had been chatting to me about how she’d like to do a sweep of the place and take a picture of every room, but after thoroughly investigating the top couple of floors, we realised it would take a good day or two to really see everything this island has to offer. We didn’t even get to see half of Block 65 on our second day, but managed to find a few of the mysterious relics left lying around.
Most of the rooms were empty, save for rotting tatami mats and broken doors, so it took time for us to discover things of interest. When we did though, the feeling was so much more powerful. One such oddity we hunted high and low for was the old children’s toy Poron-chan (ぽろんちゃん) – one of those self-righting dolls. Not quite the cutie anymore though…
Advancing onwards, Ikumi dipped under a ledge and took me inside another of the buildings. Clambering up a couple of flights of stone steps, we peered out into the narrow gap between the buildings with trees spewing out of the crevices. Nature slowly reclaiming the land. I hastily set up my tripod, snapped a few shots and dashed off again after Ikumi, shooting video footage as we moved. There was no other way with the limited time we had.
Around the far side of the island, a vivd blue morning sky stretched out over the old school building. Making good use of my wide angle lens, I just about managed to cram the whole thing and the next door hospital in. No time to look around inside much though.
Hopping out from the school we poked our heads inside the hospital. This island really did have everything – except for a cemetery – but only the bones of rusted medical equipment and a decapitated manikin remained. Looks like this old girl has seen better days too, judging from this old magazine cover I tracked down online…
The early morning sun on both days was stunning. With all the hidey-holes and interesting architecture Gunkanjima had to offer, we often stumbled across beautiful scenes of destruction. Here’s one such shot of Ikumi enjoying the fleeting golden rays.
And yours truly striking the Gakuranman pose in a moment of excitement. Ikumi snapped a good amount of decent shots as we darted around, including the cracker at the top of this post and the eerie blue-tinted shot of some buildings. She claims her interest in photography is only secondary to her love of the explore, but I reckon she’s got some talent!
It felt like we’d only just arrived but time soon crept up on us. By the end of the second day, I was frantic trying to see every last thing I could. This may be the one and only chance I had to explore the legendary Battleship Island, so I didn’t want to miss anything.
“Mike, come on! The boat will be here soon!” came an irritated voice a couple of floors down. I was standing alone in the dim light of Block 65, trying to photograph an old Mitsubishi sewing machine.
“Okay, okay. I’m coming..!”
Some of the dust fell off a nearby ledge and I could hear the rumble of our boat in the distance.
As fate would have it, departing on the second day wasn’t so easy. Waiting for our ride with our backs to the inside of the sea wall, we heard a strange voice.
Fishermen, perhaps..? There were fisherman dotted around the edges of the island, after all…
But no, not fisherman. The voice gradually got louder and louder and it was then that we realised… The voice was from a loudspeaker on an approaching boat!
Damn! It’s still way too early for other boats…what the hell?? I thought. Ikumi gave me a quiet, but not altogether unperturbed look. What could it be?
Turns out it was a passing tourist boat with some guy on the loudspeaker chatting about the history of Gunkanjima.
“Nobody allowed on the island for many years…completely deserted and dangerous…” said the electronic voice. I couldn’t help but smile and continued to hold my breath as the ship sailed by.
Safely back on our boat, we relaxed a little as we headed back to land, Hashima slowly getting smaller and smaller. I must have taken a few dozen pictures as we sailed away, as if desperately trying to cling to the island’s disappearing form. Ikumi looked over some of the pictures we’d taken. She’s taken to wearing a gas mask in pictures at the haikyo she visits, so this time she asked me to bring the gakuran (a Japanese schoolboy jacket) to do a collaboration.
A balaclava to complete the outfit and we were set – Ninja Gakuranman and Gas Mask Ikumi! I dare not think about just how high those crumbling ledges were that we sat upon…
Once back to shore, we thanked our captain and breathed a satisfied sigh of relief as we sank down into the seats inside our car. There was still a full day’s worth of haikyo explorations ahead, including a gruesome love hotel, picturesque shipyard and majestic torpedo training facility. But those are stories for another time. Gunkanjima was done and at least some of its secrets unearthed. But just how long will it be before it beckons us again..?
New! Check out the follow-up post where I returned to shoot a documentary. Brand new shots, including the elusive television set!