The Mysterious Island in Skyfall: Hashima / Gunkanjima

By Michael Gakuran | | Haikyo / Ruins, Japan | 71 Comments |

Recently I spotted an article in the Nagasaki Shimbun noting that the latest 007 James Bond film, Skyfall, features the Japanese ghost island of Hashima (端島), otherwise known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島) – ‘Battleship Island’. Readers of this website will undoubtedly remember my illicit account of urban exploration on the real island itself back in 2010. Recommended reading for anybody curious about how the island really looks these days!

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As a tribute to the new Bond film, I’ve decided to upload some unreleased shots from when I returned to help film the documentary ‘Forgotten Planet‘ with the Discovery Channel on the island in 2011 – a follow-up of sorts to the original documentary ‘Life After People‘ on the History Channel. Enjoy!

Hashima: The Real Ghost Island


It might not look it, but the warship-shaped Gunkanjima is actually very small, measuring just 480m long x 160m wide. It was once the most densely populated city in the world – the packed apartment blocks being filled with miners and their families. The population reached a peak of 5,259 in 1959 – a density of 835 people per 10,000 square metres (100m x 100m) for the whole island, or 1,391 people per 10,000 square metres in the residential district alone. But it was not to last.

The owner of the coal mines, Mitsubishi Mining Company, shut them down in 1974 due to the rise in use of petroleum. With no further reason to remain there, the residents of the island were all forced to return to the mainland and, thinking nobody would ever return, left their many possessions behind to slowly degrade under the harsh sea elements.

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Despite its small size, exploring the island on my first trip was very demanding, simply because I only had a couple of hours to circle the towering structures, shoot my pictures and leave before the first patrol boats arrived. My friend and I received quite a shock when a tourist boat, evidently the early bird, passed by the island recounting the history over loudspeakers!

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While filming the documentary however, we were afforded two full days and granted access to pretty much everywhere on the island. The crew was a great bunch, made up of several local filmmakers from Nagasaki, director Jim Hense (sitting below), 3D cameraman Tom Collins, fixer Noriko Uchida, myself and of course, the passionate former resident of Hashima, Doutoku Sakamoto. Sakamoto leads a noble campaign to have Gunkanjima recognised as a World Heritage Site, as well as talking about his younger years on the island and the accompanying history on the official Gunkanjima tours that depart from Nagasaki.

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Needless to say, as an eager photographer and urban explorer, I was giddy with delight at both being featured in the final documentary as an amateur historian, and the chance to explore more of the nooks and crannies on the island that I had missed on my first exploration.

One particular goal of mine was to find the elusive television set, which is simply breathtaking to behold in its weathered, rusting state. I found it, resting solemnly in an empty room, like an eye looking back into a world long since past…

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Although I’ve yet to see the new Bond movie myself, from what I gather Gunkanjima was used as the inspiration for the deserted island lair of the villain, Raoul Silva. The actual island itself does not feature heavily in the film, but a set modelled on the ghost town was constructed at Pinewood Studios in the UK for filming purposes. I must say, some of the screens I’m coming across look pretty awesome! I will definitely head out to see the movie when it is released over here in Japan.

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As lucky as I’ve been to document the island’s decay and talk briefly about its history, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of this city. The abandoned island is no wild phantom of the imagination; it’s a very real and very moving place, rich with both heart-warming personal stories and shocking tales perhaps best left unheard.

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For now though, I leave you with these humble images. I hope over the coming years that I may again have the chance to visit this crumbling paradise and talk in more detail about its past and the people who lived there.

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Until then, fellow adventurer!

*****

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71 comments on “The Mysterious Island in Skyfall: Hashima / Gunkanjima
  1. Bobby says:

    Japanese text on that one part:
    この端島は荒れるにまかせ – This Hashima is left to rot.

  2. Wolfman says:

    G’day Micheal, i have posted n here before. I am an urbexer from Sydney, part of the Cave Clan. Just saw you on a doco on Australian TV about Gunkanjima. Love your work!

  3. Pitt says:

    Awesome photos….great work done. While I was going through the photos and the posts, I was actually puzzled bout why this island is abandon? Why the govt of Japan is not using this island for people of Japan?

    • ralphrepo says:

      The island itself is subject to a harsh ocean environment and is generally not that attractive as a place to live. During the late 1800′s, Hashima became a perfect example of a mining town which owed its existence to the ore it produced. When the coal which was mined there no longer mattered, commercial support (worker housing, schools for their kids, etc) pulled out, and the worker and their families soon left. The island soon reverted back to its original state; an inhospitable, difficult access and remote locale that no one would live on unless they were getting paid to.

  4. Carla J Behr says:

    Great photos and awesome story. My brother is a translates Japanese in Fukuoka and sent me your story. He contributed pictures of the island which I included in a story I did on freaky, abandoned places: carlajbehr.hubpages.com/hub/FreakyabandonedPlaces

  5. Laura says:

    I will be going to Nagasaki in the fall and was going back and forth on whether to visit Gunkanjima. After reading your post I’m definitely going to add it to my itinerary. I hope we will be allowed to get somewhat close to the structures but, if not, at least I have your wonderful pictures to look at!

    • William says:

      Definitely go. I was there earlier this year and walking around the island is pretty cool. However, it’s not going to compare to Gakuran’s depth of exploration. It’s all done on a strict path, all guided and with groups. Another bonus is being able to see the Port of Nagasaki as you travel back and forth to the island.

  6. Alex says:

    I saw this island on a different website (creepiest places on earth or something)I instanlty researchedi more and cam across your webite, it’s go the best images and information about. I would loe to visit this island, I don’t like scary / haunted places(I’m nearly 16), but this doesn’t make me feel that way, it looks like a place that has an interesting story, I’d love to visit it, especially if I could go on he island(even if it’s unsafe)! I’m really jealous!

  7. It’s eerie but not tragic. Had Gunkanjima ended in, for example, a massacre, fatal accident or storm, it would have rendered the island hallowed ground.

  8. Alan Bramich says:

    Hi Michael, I wanted to congratulate you on some of the most amazing architectural images I have seen. Like many others I was prompted by the movie “Skyfall” to find out more about the island. Coming across your photos has been a true inspiration . As an amateur landscape / architectural photographer this location is a dream come true. You have captured a part of history that is truly unique and I commend you for sharing your wonderful story and stunning images. The image of the tv and phone is just superb. I hope to see your documentary one day here in Australia .

    • Thanks for the comment Alan. Do let me know if the documentary airs in Australia. It’s a great episode with lots of history and dramatic shots of the island. Best of luck with your architectural photography too. There are many things I wish I had done better when shooting the island – perhaps if I make it back there one day!

  9. Jim says:

    Finally saw SKYFALL and it led me your Hashima page. Great job! I’m happy as a kid in a candy store in that picture.
    It was my second trip back and I loved it more the second time. A great experience and great working with you.
    Forgotten Planet still gets re-airs on 3Net on DirecTV. Too bad it’s not easier for most people to watch. But I have it on DVR in 3D…so stop by for a viewing!

    • It was a pleasure working with you and the team during the shoot! I’ve seen Skyfall myself now as well and was very impressed with the film as a whole and the shots of Hashima.

      It’s good to hear that the documentary still airs in the US. I know it was scheduled for release in the UK at one point, but I wasn’t in the country to actually see if it did air. Hopefully it will be released on DVD at some point!

      • Mau says:

        Hey,Michael..I think I’ve seen your documentary about this in a cable channel ..dunno when was it though..but i do appreciate it a lot!!!i like history and traveling…and of course the pics were all awesome!!!:-)

  10. Khim Han says:

    Your pictures tell a tale of a strange place that is usually unheard of. They capture the essence of the scenery and are very much alive. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of art!! :)

  11. C Ohara says:

    I went there too! It was pretty wild~ My band mate makes rock music about the place, so we went together as a band to take some shots for an album we were doing. Sadly,we were stuck on the tour though, and most of the place was ‘too dangerous’ for us to venture into. You’re lucky!

  12. Dominik says:

    Some say that given such a topic it is easy to produce great photos. Indeed, it is, as what is depicted is always going to be interesting, due to the awesomeness of the place. But this is why it gets even more tricky to take extraordinary ones, these that would stick out of the crowd. The challenge gets just way higher. I just love these photos, and the story behind them (actually: both stories, regarding the island history and the intrusion). Out of these photos I like most the second one, last one and the one with glass apple. And the least preferred is the one with a chair (too obvious) and tha one with tv and phone (too much modified). Great work, dude, it’s a pity I don’t have such people around.

  13. Tyrene says:

    Came across some pictures of deserted cities on a local television stations website. I was curious and did a search and came across your website. The pictures you took are amazing! The whole notion of a deserted city is fascinating and a bit spooky at the same time. I thank you and your assistant for taking and sharing these images with the world. Not many people get to travel and explore so you are the eyes for us :) Take care!

  14. Allie says:

    hey!!! absolutly LOVE this article. things like this AMAZE me. It’s funny, because I thought when I was watching Skyfall that the island looked particularly Japanese (or did they say that in the movie?)

  15. tony says:

    Hi it me again how to get black border around the photo i cant find in at firefox for black border do i need software to make black border around the photo. I have imac computer i cant find to make black border around photo

    tony

  16. Tony winter says:

    Hi what kind of software you got do the black border around the picture? I have IMac. I can’t even get black border around picture. Thanks so much for your help
    Please let me know thank ou
    Tony

    • Hi Tony. The border is created using simple css and html. If you use Firefox or Chrome as your browser, you can right click, ‘inspect element’ and see how the code works. Hope that helps!

  17. David Birds says:

    Hi Carol,

    That was unfortunately 3rd December 2011. I do hope they will re-run it though;

    http://www.skyuser.co.uk/skyinfo/forgotten_planet_in_3d.html

  18. Wow!, your pictures are simply amazing, i really can “fell” to be there looking at them.
    Great work!

  19. MICHAEL says:

    I love the fact that it is Japan, having lived there myself I found that there was always something new and wonderful to discover from its deserts in Tottori, whirlpools in Naruto, Amasaki to this now wonderful island. Pics are amazing, I think a blog or site should be dedicated to learning more about movie film locations and its history accompanied by create photography!!

  20. Gary goh says:

    I thought it looks kind of like the scene from “inception “when they enter a dream with deserted building.

  21. Lyrinda Snyderman says:

    Your photos are stunning and very moving. These images of apocalypse/decay of our technological society are as moving and disturbing as the powerful images I’ve seen from Chernobyl. The Bond film, of course, prompted me to find you. Thank you so very much for sharing. I will try to gain access to your documentary (Netflix, perhaps?) Is there another source for finding it?

    • Thanks for the comment! As far as I know, there’s no video streaming source online that has the episode (possibly because it was a 3D production), but if you do find it, please let me know so I can add the link to this article :).

  22. Gadgety says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I saw the Bond movie but thought it was some left over island from the Balkan war. Always interesting to read about the history, and then to find out it was all made in the studio. Amazing.

  23. Tom says:

    Hi,

    A shame really you only took a (ultra)wide angle zoom! This kind of set up makes your images look kind of gimmicky and creates an instant ‘visual deja-vu’.
    Next time maybe, slip a 35mm or 50mm equivalent lens in your pocket…
    Great effort anyways!

    • Thanks for the feedback. I personally like the way ultra-wide exaggerates to give extreme perspective and power to the image, which is the sort of photograph I was looking to create. I can see how using a 35mm or 50mm would be an interesting project, however! Perhaps next time.

      • Joe Stoner says:

        If you crop the wide angle photos to the field of view of a longer focal length lens, the result will be the same perspective as the longer lens albeit at less resolution. It helps to have a lot of resolution to start with such as the Nikon D800.

        Joe

        • Joe Stoner says:

          I should have clarified that the cropping should be outwards from the center to minimize distortion. This has been illustrated in photography books and magazines. The 36mp D800 allows quite a bit of cropping and therefore reduces the number of lenses needed to carry.

          Joe

      • Adrian McTiernan says:

        These are very nice pictures indeed – I had wondered where on earth they had found such a place – fascinating to have you just put this on Dpreview – again, another request to ask which lens you used for the wide shots – I am thinking 24 or 21mm, but likely even wider perhaps? The subdued colour is very nice, and has a rich subtlety I can’t match. Congratulations on being able to go and film the place

    • Fernando Sassone says:

      What kind of comment is this? ar you a puris of normal lenses? or a kind of Torquemada of photography? Each lenses has it´s lenaguage, nothing wrong with it… How can you claim that it´s a shame not using a specific lenses… absurd!

  24. anthony19584@hotmail.com says:

    Love your pictures what kind of lens do you take of all those building. Thanks. Your best photographer

    Tony

  25. Nate Martin says:

    Thanks so much or sharing this awesome experience!

  26. Charlotte says:

    That’s so wonderful, that you had the opportunity to go back for more exploration! I’m so jealous, and as always, your stunning photos never cease to amaze me.

  27. zoomingjapan says:

    Oh wow, you are so lucky! Congrats! :)

    I agree. The television and the old telephone next to it make a priceless and awesome photo.
    I only went there with a tour, so I didn’t get to explore the island as much as you did.
    Thanks for sharing this with us! ^^

  28. Another great article about this spectacular location – no wonder it looks more and more like a battlefield… ;)
    The shot of that TV is gorgeous BTW. Looks like a 19th century photograph of 20th century technology, taken in the 21st century.

    • Isn’t it? The television set was everything I’d hoped for and more. If only there were more beautiful relics like that in the many other ruins we visit. I suppose it needs the subtle hand of time to really being out the aged aesthetic, rather than forced intervention by vandals.

      • I wonder if there ever was an abandoned location where people said “Now that it’s completely vandalized it looks so much better!” – I doubt it. Graffiti is borderline, but unless they were part of the original building I prefer having them not at abandoned places, even if they are well-made.

        • That’s a good point. It’s very rare, but I’ve sometimes seen it happen (although of course, the apparent beauty to be found is largely subjective). The old Keishin Hospital was one example of a concrete shell that was more interesting with the various artwork from graffiti artists. Although saying that, I never knew it in the original state. I suppose overall I would have preferred to have seen it when it wasn’t an empty shell.

  29. Carol says:

    Coming to SKY 3D starting Dec 3rd.
    The première of Forgotten Planet hits Sky 3D this December and consists of a six part series.

    Produced in association with the Discovery Channel, the programme aims to give viewers a perspective on abandoned buildings and even entire cities, ghost towns and the like which have been long deserted by civilisation.

    It’ll be in a prime-time slot, Saturday and Sunday at 9pm, starting on December 3rd and running across that weekend and the following two up to Christmas.

    Places which come under the 3D microscope include those which have suffered at the hands of massive man-made or natural disasters, Pripyat in the Ukraine – the city next to Chernobyl – being an obvious example.

    Each episode looks at two locations, and others include Picher, Namibia, Hunters Point, Salton Sea, Detroit, Chile, Hashima, and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum of Weston, West Virginia, which is reputedly haunted.
    “In the course of six episodes, Discovery has brought together more than thirty experts to explain the reasons why places come are abandoned, and explore up close how nature adapts and evolves in our wake.”

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