From the crowded second-story deck of a tour boat, the distinctive profile of Gunkanjima, so-called “Battleship Island,” hoves into view in the crisp blue Sea of Japan off Nagasaki. The long, streamlined seawall and tiered superstructure so closely resemble the Japanese battleship Tosa that a story went around during World War Two that the Americans tried to torpedo the island. The Yanks actually sank a coal barge, but the story has taken on a life of its own. Gunkanjima looks THAT ship-like.
Stories cling to the island like seaweed to a coral reef. The coal that came out of the undersea mines fuelled the engine of Meiji-era Japan’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion. Hundreds of Chinese and Korean forced labourers worked the mines from the 1930s to the end of World War Two. By 1959 the reinforced concrete apartment buildings clustered on the north and west sides of the island housed 5,259 miners and family members, the highest population density on Earth at the time. Yet within a few months of the mine closing in 1974 the island was completely abandoned until rediscovered by urbex adventurers drawn to explore the half-preserved ruins.
What it must have been like to live on such an exposed and crowded place just boggles the imagination. A treeless island of coal slag built around bare rock, enclosed within in a seawall and concrete buildings. One-room apartments for the miners and their families, with communal bathing, cooking, and toilets. The community had bars, shops, schools, a hospital, restaurants, even a brothel – everything needed for sustenance except for food and water which was still brought from the mainland. A labyrinth of underground corridors connected everything. Still, when winter storms and typhoons blew in from the Sea of Japan it must have been an wind-lashed, salt-rimed nightmare.
Recently, Gunkanjima has gone prime time. After years appearing as the photogenic subject of photo books, and TV and YouTube documentaries, the island made its Hollywood debut as the evil lair of Raoul Silva, James Bond’s nemesis in 2012’s Skyfall. Then, In 2013, Google sent their Street View camera rig to the island. Most recently, in 2015 Gunkanjima was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The media spotlight has not arrived without some controversy, however, as opponents of the UNESCO bid insisted that Japan must recognize the tens of thousands of Korean and Chinese labourers conscripted to work here and in other difficult and dangerous locations during Japan’s imperial years leading to its defeat in World War Two.
Today tour boats make the half-hour trip from Nagasaki and deposit tourists in a designated safe zone at the stern-end of the island. A short tunnel and concrete path workshops and a factory once stood, for a panoramic view of apartment buildings and a school: all the services and facilities to sustain a population of 5,259 miners and their families.
Even now, however, Gunkanjima remains a ways off the beaten path for most tourists. First, you have to visit with a tour group, and stick to the designated safe area: those luscious photos of weeds in empty courtyards, of so-called “stairways to hell,” and abandoned 70s-era TV sets are only available to photographers who receive special permission from the Nagasaki prefectural government. Even so, you must still sign a waiver releasing the tour company from liability from injury or death. And signing on with an approved group is no guarantee: boats turn away from the dock if the wind and waves are too rough for a landing.
Fortunately, on the day I visited the sea and wind stayed calm, and our ferry – full of mostly Japanese visitors – successfully unloaded at the pier. Despite having browsed picture books and Google Images, and watched videos on YouTube, the complex of ruins made an immediate impression. From the moment you step onto the pier and see the tumbledown ruin of the mine entrance and the glassless windows of the managers’ quarters perched sentinel-like at the the island’s high point, tombi black-eared kites wheeling and shrieking overhead, it’s clear that this is no Disneyland. Immediately in front of you lie the tumbledown ruin of the mine complex. To the left, following the newly laid concrete walking path into the tourist zone, the rubble remains of the island’s industrial zone, the mine’s offices, workshops, and the shell of one former residential outpost, the notorious Building 30, a 9-storey residential structure erected in 1916 which started the whole development of the island which led directly to the island reaching the highest population density of anywhere in the world at the time.
Tourists are limited to the concrete path that cuts through the rubble of the industrial zone. The tour only lasts about an hour — just enough time to take in the rubble foreground, and let your imagination stretch its sea legs down the narrow roads between the vacant concrete buildings. Still, it’s enough for Gunkanjima to work a little haikyo magic. We visitors from the post-industrial present travel back forty years, seventy years, a hundred, to an earlier time when generations sacrificed themselves daily in the dangerous, claustrophobic mines which tunnel under the sea and the concrete apartments which rise like a coral reef above the high tide line in order to build the world we live in today: the wealthiest period in human history.
花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”
A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido — Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada, foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.
Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.
But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.
Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:
Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.
Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.
We took a chance and travelled to one of Japan’s premiere holiday spots during the busy “Golden Week” national holiday – and managed to have a good time doing it. The crowds thinned out the further we strayed from hotspots such as Kappa-bashi Bridge, and be arriving a day late and leaving a day early missed the worst of the crowded buses and trains. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring crampons and trekking poles to climb the still snow-laden trails into the mountains, but we managed to have a great two-day trek along the Azusagawa River which runs through the valley surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of Japan’s North Alps.
The bus into Kamikochi makes a stop at Taisho-ike Pond. The pond formed in 1915 after the eruption of Mount Yakedake, and even now under the clear shallow water of the pond you can see metallic browns and greens and blue sediments on the bottom. Unfortunately, glare from a cloudy sky made it difficult to get good pictures of the pond bottom without a polarizing filter. Still, the clear water, multi-colored pond bottom, and dead timber of the flooded forest at the base of snow-capped Mount Yakedake form a striking composition.