by Francois, staff writer of japan-guide.com
2009/06/01 - Gunkanjima
Nagasaki is a city with many attractions. Because of its long history as a point of interaction between Japan and the rest of the world, the city has a wealth of interesting sights, such as its Chinatown, former Dutch district, and Christian churches. To be added to these is Gunkanjima, (Japanese for battleship island), which has just recently been made open to the public.
Gunkanjima gets its name from its appearance. With its high sea walls and large concrete buildings, the island does indeed resemble a massive battleship more than a natural island. This appearance developed over the course of the island's history as a coal mine.
Coal was first discovered on the island in the early 1800s, but it wasn't until industrial mining began that the small island began its gradual transformation. By the 1970s, when the mine finally closed, the island had been completely built up to accommodate the 5000 residents who both worked and lived on the tiny island. This resulted in the highest recorded population density in history.
The island has had considerable interest among tourists from some time. Boat tours have long been available that would pass by the island, allowing tourists to admire it from the water. However, actually landing on the island and exploring it by foot was prohibited until April of this year. I myself went to visit the island a short time after its public opening, in May.
The tour of the island begins with an hour boat ride from Nagasaki Port. I almost always enjoy the fresh air and view of the city from out on the water, so was looking forward to beginning the trip. The boat ride out to Gunkanjima was no exception, and proved to be quite enjoyable. On the way we passed by a number of ship construction sites, and were able to see some of Nagasaki's Catholic Churches. I was even able to catch sight of a flying fish that leapt out of the water for a few seconds just beside the boat.
It took a while between docking and stepping ashore. Once on land, everyone assembled in a large square where we were separated into groups. There are three sites to which tour guides lead the groups of visitors. At each one the tour guide explains the buildings and their history. Since it was in Japanese, I had some trouble following what was being said, but nonetheless my enjoyment of the tour was hardly deterred. The strange haunting look of the massive buildings, completely worn away by time, did not need to be put into words.
When doing initial research for my trip to Gunkanjima, I became quite excited to walk among the abandoned buildings. I imagined walking between the towering structures as if finding a modern city that had been forgotten for years. The actual tour did not quite meet my expectations. The tour leads around the periphery of the southern end of the island, whereas the larger buildings are located at the northern end. One is never immersed by the buildings as I had imagined. Though if one considers the likely structural integrity of the buildings, perhaps it would be rather irresponsible to lead tour groups right through them.
Despite not being quite as I had imagined, the trip was very enjoyable. It is truly a unique site, and I would have no hesitation recommending it to visitors of Nagasaki. The vast majority of the other people on my tour were Japanese, but there were two other foreigners. From their expressions and eagerness to capture photos, it seemed to me as if the other participants of the tour had enjoyed the trip just as much as I had.