Gunkanjima – Hashima OR Battleship Island, Nagasaki
If you find yourself in Nagasaki in Japan, Gunkanjima (or Hashima Island) is a must visit. A remnant from coal mining in the 60's the island shot to fame when it was used in the Bond movie Skyfall. It is only a half day tour from the centre of Nagasaki to the island and back and is really worth it. If you are wondering if you should go, read on for all the info about the island, how to do a tour and what you can expect to see.
Why does Battleship Island have 3 names?
When I was looking to visit the island it seemed to have 3 different names. Hashima Island, Gunkanjima Island and of course Battleship Island. The battleship part was easy enough, but my Japanese was bad enough that I couldn't seem to work out why it had 2 other Japanese names. I'm embarrased to say that I was well into Korea before I remembered to research it.
The island is called Hashima Island. Gunkanjima is the Japanese word for Battleship – so really its got is actual name (Hashima) and then the reference to its shape in both English and Japanese. Of course then I went down the rabbit hole of “what if I speak German? Is it then Hashima, Gunkanjima, Battleship or Schlachtschiff island?” Sometimes my brain just works weird. Anyway, back to the abandonded battleship island off Nagasaki!
As I moved south through Japan I started to see much better weather and the beautiful days I got in Nagasaki was clearly the start of spring in Japan. It was still only March but the advice that a colleague gave me about working my way south was right on the money it seems.
Nagasaki is a bustling port city in the south west of Japan. Despite the fact that it is built around trade it's a lovely city and has some really cool things to see.
How did the abandoned Hasima Island get to be a tourist destination?
Have you seen Skyfall, the Bond movie where Javier Bartem is the villain? His mysterious base is on an abandonded island that is falling down and in horrific disrepair. They filmed that on Hashima Island. It was Bardem's character Raoul Silva's base.
Hashima is referred to as Gunkanjima or Battleship Island because from the sea the structures give it a perfect battleship silhouette. It's quite uncanny. I'm sure that before Skyfall it was probably a tourist attraction already, however the movie can't have done it any harm that's for sure.
Gunkanjima – Hashima Island History
Coal Mining On Hashima Island
The island was always there, however it was just a rocky outcrop until coal was discovered beneath the ocean in the area. After being purchased by Mitsubishi in the late 1800s, the island was built out to service the undersea coal pocket and the workers that mined it. The land that was reclaimed trippled the island in size and it ended up around 16 acres in size. While the mine was operational as early as 1887, it wasn't until 1916 that Mitsubishi built a 7 story apartment block to house the miners. Over the years more and more facilities were added with Battleship Island ending up a thriving community of workers and their families.
A sea wall was built to protect from typhoons (hurricanes or cyclones), and over the next 50 years facilities built on the island included:
- more apartment buildings
- a school and kindergarten,
- a town hall and post office,
- a community center and cinema,
- a public bath house and a swimming pool.
Shops, gardens and public spaces were added to complete Hashima Island as an attractive option for many unskilled workers. Decent pay and a good family life meant that at one point the island reached a population of just over 5200 people in the late 1950s. The population density was nine times higher than Tokyo at the time.
Battleship Islands Disturbing Past
During the second world war the island saw Korean civilians and Chinese prisoners of war forced to work the mine under terrible conditons. It's estimated that over 1000 of these workers died during this period due to exhaustion, extemely unsafe working conditions and malnutrition.
While there was no information or memorial to these POW's at the time I visited, I have since heard that there is a plan to construct one.
The demise of Gunkanjima Island as a working coal mine
While the coal mined was of decent quality the pit eventually reached almost a kilometre below the surface meaning that the cost to pull the coal out overrode the profit from the ore. The mine was closed in 1974, everyone was removed from the island and it just started to decay. Even though the island was no longer an operating coal mine, Mitsubishi retained its ownership until 2002 when they transferred it to Takashima which was later included in the greater Nagasaki area.
33 years later in 2009 boat tours were established to visit the island and almost 80% of tourists to Nagasaki now visit this abandoned ghost town.
Battleship Island – Hashima Island Tour
Due to the total visitor ban the island lay abandoned and virtually untouched for decades. Local fisherman were known to tie their small boats up alongside and sleep on the island overnight, however this was the only real human interaction with the island for years. While the tours started as early as 2009, Skyfall exposed the island to a global market and unregulated visits were clamped down on and paths were cleared for the visitors to safely visit the island.
Things to know before you visit Hashima (Gunkanjima) Island
If you would like to visit Battleship Island there are a few things to be aware of before you go.
You can't visit the island by yourself
Can you go to Hashima Island by yourself. No sorry you can't. Likewise have you been wondering how to get to Hashima Island? Again – you can't just hire a local boat and go out to the island. It is closed to the public unless you are on a registered operator.
While seeing this abandoned location is very much worth it, you do have to go on a tour. The Japanese government has mandated that solo visitors are not allowed onto the island and unless you have arranged a specific private visit, you should not try to do so. I'm not sure how you would even go about that, but while the island is amazing to see it is still full of derelict buildings and rubble and is wildly unsafe if you don't know where to walk. Stick with the tours and don't risk it yourself.
The sea around Nagasaki can be rough
Nagasaki is a port town which means access to the port is via a natural deep water harbour. Being on the western coast of Japan the ocean around Nagasaki can get very rough and its not unusual for tours to be cancelled due to rough weather. If you have a few days I would recommend booking Battleship Island on the first day so you have options should the weather come up and the company cancels. There is also the possibility that you may not be able to get off on the island if the weather worsens suddenly. The day prior to my trip the company got out there OK and the swell wasn't due to get any bigger until late afternoon, however it started to get pretty rugged pretty early so they turned around and went back to Nagasaki. The tour companies don't guarantee that you can get off on the island so please don't get angry with them if they decide that its not safe to dock.
You have to be physically able to do the tour
Neither the boats or the island are wheelchair accessible unfortunately. You are walking over cleared paths, however you do have to be able to climb a few stairs and getting off the boat and back onto the boat isn't possible with a wheelchair.
Prams are also not allowed however I've heard that different companies have different policies for this. The company I went with did allow a Japanese couple with a toddler on board, however they did have to leave the pram at the tour office. They were very strict about that. There are also no animals allowed which includes assitance animals. That does seem strict but honestly I'm not sure how you would navigate the island even with a seeing eye dog. If you had someone with you I'm sure you would be fine, however I would check first that they will allow you to go.
You will have to sign a waiver
The tour company will ask you to sign a waiver that includes what you can and cannot do. Its pretty much common sense, however once we were on the island I saw the reason for it. People just don't listen! Immediately we were off the boat and some young couple climbed under a railing onto some very unstable rocks to take what I can only assume was a photo for Instagram. OMG people are stupid! A lady next to me that spoke Japanese told me that the guide told them that if they stepped one more foot wrong, they would be escorted back to the boat and they would have to wait there for the rest of the group.
Your time on Hashima Island is only an hour long
The total tour takes about 3 hours. An hour out to the island, an hour on the island and the trip back. The trip back in our case was a little longer because they idle offshore so you can get the “battleship island” photo. Even though it was a pretty cool day, getting a spot to take a decent photo of the battleship silhouette was a bit of a challenge. Lets just say that me being 6 feet tall enabled me to get at least one. A good example of some people thinking it's OK for them to monopolise the view and get 45 photo's but won't let you through for even one.
Tour Companies for Gunkanjima – Battleship Island Tour
There are morning and afternoon boat tours to Gunkanjima Island, but I would recommend the afternoon one. The morning is often a lot of group tours I was told and even though there were a lot of people on my tour, no-one was walking holding flags at least! The exception to this would be if the weather is rough. Morning is always a better option for windy days and it almost always gets worse as the day goes on. If you might get the slightest bit seasick, go in the morning.
I booked online through Viator (which ended up being Nagasaki Travel) and it was great. It was just easier for me to book online and know I had secured a spot in advance. It doesn't seem to be able to be booked online now. Try any of the providers below as they may be able to help you.
Sadly Daniel Craig never showed, but I did enjoy the boat trip to the island very much.
NB: Make sure you check the websites for arrival times for these tours below. Often you do have to be there a full half hour before the tour starts and the check in location isn't always the dock. So just check that before you book.
Your Options for a Gunkanjima Tour
|Company||Morning Trip||Afternoon Trip||Cost|
|Yamasa Shipping||Yes 9am||Yes 1pm||￥4,200 + ￥310 (CIty Landing Fee)|
|Gunkanjima Concierge||Yes 10:30 am||Yes 1:15pm||￥4,000 – ￥4,500 + ￥310 (CIty Landing Fee)|
|Gunkanjima Cruise||Yes 9:10am||Yes 2:00pm||¥3,600 + ¥310 (City Landing Fee)|
Conclusion: Gunkanjima, Hashima or Battleship Island (you choose!)
I really enjoyed the trip out to and the hour I spent on the island. I was really interesting to learn the history of the island and how many people had actually lived there. I must admit I found it because of the Bond movie but I was glad I had. It was a great morning out and we were blessed with decent sea conditions as well.