Gunkanjima, the Battleship Island

Tuesday morning we were up early for a traditional ryokan breakfast. Not nearly quite as terrifying as our previous ryokan experience, a much more homely Japanese breakfast of saba (mackerel), rice, miso, tofu, pickles and green tea, the meal was delicious and satisfying. Fujiwara-san, the owner of the ryokan, is so cute, and his family are equally so. He speaks a little English, but not much, and his wife is about four and a half feet tall. When we got up to leave the beautiful breakfast room she commented on how big all the kids are. They towered over her as they were thanking her for the meal.

We set off for Starbucks and then the information office at the station to work out how to visit Gunkanjima. Only accessible on a tour, this was a priority of a number of our party for different reasons. I didn’t know a lot about it before we went, apart from the fact it was abandoned, it looks like a battleship and they filmed the live action of Attack on Titan there. There was a tour available, in English, that afternoon. We booked and got ourselves organised. Kombini (convenience store) lunch and withdrawing cash, which is harder than it sounds. Foreigners in Japan can only access cash through ATMs at 7-Eleven or Japan Post.

We arrived at the terminal just in time to eat and board. The boat takes around 45 minutes and it was a bit choppy. We sat upstairs and watched the very industrial views of Nagasaki. It is a city nestled around a harbour and is very mountainous and historical. Being the only point of trade for hundreds of years for the Dutch, as well as the Chinese and Koreans, the buildings reflect the European influence, and there are many churches, as it was also the city that the Portuguese chose to base themselves and the missionary activities.

The tour of Hashima Island, the true name of Gunkanjima, (the later literally means “battleship island”) is precisely timed and very strict. You are only allowed within the barriers and the Japanese government have mandated that 60 minutes is the maximum amount of time you may stay on the island. Children under 6 are not allowed to visit, and I had to hand my Birki’s over in exchange for Crocs, as you must have closed toe shoes on. We all had to sign a safety waiver, kids included, and it was not until now, days later, I have read that it is usually only around 100 days a year that the tours can actually run due to the danger of the waters and the landing. So, I feel very lucky that we had this experience and the tour itself and then the information we learned afterwards, has been the absolute highlight of Nagasaki for me. It is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.

My initial impression of Hashima was that it was a mining island, that became superfluous when coal stopped being used in Japan in the 70s. That the inhabitants had moved away and it had been left to decay. I learned while on the island that coal was first discovered in 1810, and in 1890 Mitsubishi opened a seabed coal mine that operated until 1974. By the early 20th century, Hashima was the most populated land area in the world. The population peaked at 5,259 in 1959, on an island 480 metres long and 160 metres wide. The highest density population in the world, ever. It was home to the first ever concrete reinforced apartment building in Japan. It had a school, a hospital and a pool. And the miner’s lives were pretty rough. The cage, that dropped them down the shaft, under the ocean moved at 8 metres per second, around 8 times faster than an average elevator, and slightly slower than falling speed.

The island has a very strange, spooky kind of energy about it. Mya commented that it made her feel really sad, but she wasn’t sure why. I found it so interesting and I think all of the kids enjoyed the tour very much. Super Sake Boy was as intrigued and interested as me, and we wanted to learn more.

However, upon landing back in Nagasaki, we found ourselves in the middle of Dejima. A manmade (reclaimed) island, 120 metres x 70 metres, which was the captive home of the Dutch during sakoku, the closing of the country to any foreign visitors. Read more about the shogunate closing Japan’s borders, in and out, here. The Dutch were the only people allowed to stay in Japan during this time as they were not pushing the religious agenda that the Portuguese had, and the Japanese wanted to maintain a connection to the Western learning and technology. Two Dutch ships were permitted into Nagasaki each year. The island of Dejima has been reconstructed, pretty well to scale of what it was, with the interesting East meets West style buildings. We walked around for quite some time, but by this stage, everyone was pretty tired, so we headed back for a rest.

A pretty basic Indian dinner and an early night was in order. It had been a huge day and we were on a pretty tight time schedule for Nagasaki.

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