Gunkanjima (軍艦島) is a small island located about 20 kilometers from Nagasaki Port. Until 1974, the island served as a coal mine, and more than 5000 residents called the 480 meter long, 150 meter wide island home, resulting in the highest population density in history recorded worldwide.
To accommodate so many people in such a small area, every piece of land was built up so that the island came to resemble a massive battleship. In fact, "Gunkanjima" is a nickname that means "battleship island" in Japanese. The island's formal name is Hashima.
Coal was first discovered on Gunkanjima in 1810 by the feudal lord of Saga. Industrial mining began in the late 1800s, and soon after, the island was purchased by the Mitsubishi Corporation. As production increased, the island was expanded, and large residential and industrial buildings and high sea walls were constructed.
Managers, workers and their families all called the little island home. The residents of the island were able to live out a more or less typical life. Half of the island was devoted to the workings of the mine, the other to residential space, schools, restaurants, shops, a public bath and a hospital.
In April 1974, the mine was closed, and its residents had to leave Gunkanjima, abandoning the island with all its buildings. Over the years since then, direct exposure to typhoons has caused the residences and mining facilities to deteriorate, giving the island an eerie and haunting atmosphere. Due to the danger of collapsing structures, Gunkanjima was closed to the public, and for many years could only be seen from sightseeing cruises that circled the island.
In April 2009, however, a newly constructed boat dock made it possible for sightseeing tour boats to land on Gunkanjima. Tour participants are taken to three observation decks in a small part on the southern end of the island and spend about 45 minutes on the island with Japanese speaking tour guides. Tours do not involve getting too close to the buildings because of the risk of collapse.
The boat ride between Nagasaki and Gunkanjima is also enjoyable. Boats take about 50 minutes one way, and pass large Mitsubishi ship building factories and other islands along the way. The ride also allows for some nice views of the city of Nagasaki and its port from the water.
For those unable to get to Gunkanjima, an alternative is the Gunkanjima Digital Museum near the Oura Church in Nagasaki. This modern museum boasts an impressive amount of information about the island, including a simulated journey down a working mineshaft and a digital installation that recounts aspects of living through testimonials and photographs. Visitors can also take augmented reality tours of certain areas of the island as they exist today.
Tour boats to Gunkanjima are operated by multiple companies and depart from various locations in Nagasaki Port, including the Nagasaki Port Ferry Terminal near the Ohato tram stop (3 minutes by tram line 1 from Nagasaki Station) and the Tokiwa Terminal near the Ourakaikandori tram stop (15 minutes by tram line 1 and 5 from Nagasaki Station).
The Gunkanjima Digital Museum is located a short walk from the Oura Church and the Ouratenshudo tram stop on tram line number 5.
Multiple companies operate boat tours to Gunkanjima. Tours typically take about three hours, including close to an hour spent on the island itself, and cost around 3400-4500 yen per person. Note that in case of bad weather or high waves, landing on the island may not be possible or boats may not operate at all. Advance reservations are recommended especially on weekends and during holidays.
The Gunkanjima Digital Museum is open from 9:00 to 17:00 (entry until 16:30) with a small number of irregular closing days. Admission costs 1800 yen. The museum takes 45-90 minutes to explore and has a moderate level of English, which is contributed to by English headsets that follow the digital installation.