Gunkanjima: Japan’s Battleship Island

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"
Gunkanjima “Battleship Island”

Nagasaki’s World Heritage haikyo “ruin porn”

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.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

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.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

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.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

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.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

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.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

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.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"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.

Or, see the pictures in full-resolution glory on my Gunkanjima gallery at 500px.


Nagasaki Photo Drift

Nagasaki Harbour

Nagasaki’s long and complicated relationship with the outside world blends into the diorama of hillside houses that sweep back from the long harbour, and the distinctive, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of this small city. In fact, reminders of this vexed history make Nagasaki popular with tourists: Japan’s oldest Chinatown; the landlocked, newly reconstructed houses of fan-shaped, manmade Dejima island; the churches and monuments to Japan’s first and largest Christian population; the ruins of undersea mining colonies on islands such as Hashima in Nagasaki Bay; the memorials to the city’s H-bomb victims and survivors.

As far back as the 2nd century CE, before there was a unified country called Japan, The islands of Iki and Tsushima, near the site of present-day Nagasaki, appeared in classical texts as the earliest Japanese “kingdoms” to be in contact with China and mainland Asia.

Skip forward some 1200 years, to Japan’s first contact with Europeans and the “Christian century” — from 1550-1650 — which followed. By 1571, Nagasaki had been developed into a port city to handle all the traffic with the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, and the so-called Nanban, — “Southern barbarian” — trade commenced. The Portuguese introduced new technology and culture such as guns, Christianity, and popular food such as castella (sponge cake), and tempura — called in Portuguese “peixinho-da-horta” — as well as silk and other forbidden luxury goods from China.

After the initial culture shock wore off, many of these Portuguese imports were keenly embraced. Not least was Christianity; by 1580 Nagasaki had become a Jesuit colony. In 1587, however, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi nationalized the port as part of his campaign to unify Japan. Fearing the foreign influence of the Jesuits, a series of persecutions of Christians led to the crucifixion of 26 Christians in 1597, the “26 Martyrs of Japan,” and the banning of Catholicism in 1614. Where previously trade with the Portuguese had dominated, attention now shifted to the Dutch and English, who apparently acted more as merchants than missionaries. The Dutch introduced badminton, beer, billiards, chocolate, and coffee to an apparently receptive audience, since all of these things are still popular in Japan today.

Oura Catholic Church

Nevertheless, Nagasaki continued to be a hotbed of Christianity, and by 1637 ongoing religious persecution helped foster the Shimabara Rebellion and subsequent policy of national isolation, the subject of Shusako Endo’s historical fiction Silence — soon to be a feature film by Martin Scorsese. By 1641 the meddlesome Portuguese Catholics were expelled, and even the sober Dutch Protestants were confined to Dejima – the subject of David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The situation vis-a-vis foreign influence must have improved, as by 1720 the ban on Dutch books lifted, turning Nagasaki into a center for rangaku “Dutch learning.”

Nagasaki became the focal point for Japan’s foreign contact and modernization: in 1858 the port opened to foreign trade, and in 1859 the Scotsman Thomas Blake Glover – no relation I can detect to Crispin  or Danny Glover  – arrived from Shanghai in time to be an arms dealer to the Emperor’s army which defeated the Tokugawa shogunate and brought about the Meiji Restoration – a period of Japanese history captured in The Last Samurai. Glover went on to introduce steam locomotives and western-style warships and shipbuilding to Japan, as well as to develop the first coal mine in Japan at Takashima, and founded Kirin Brewing Company. Glover’s hillside estate overlooking the harbour is now a tourist attraction.

Nagasaki Peace Park

By the late 19th century Nagasaki had become a hub of western technology and industry, including such heavy industries as shipbuilding and railways. Thus, unlike Hiroshima, by the end of World War Two Nagasaki was very definitely a strategic target in the sights, so to speak, of Allied bombers. Nevertheless, the city was still only a secondary target on August 9, 1945, when an H-bomb was exploded over the city.

Unlike the flat, open river delta that Hiroshima was built on, Nagasaki is relatively sheltered by its setting among foothills and so many more buildings, including churches and the harbour, survived the bomb. It’s said that the residents of nearby Gunkanjima island saw the explosion from their apartments.

Rebuilding focused on foreign trade, shipbuilding, and fishing. Memorials to the bomb victims were created from the rubble, such as the one-legged torii gate at Sanno Shrine, and in new buildings such as the Atomic Bomb Museum – the counterpart to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum.

Gunkanjima “Battleship Island”

Today, the city is popular with tourists from China and further abroad, as well as with expats looking for an alternative to Japan’s drab urban sprawl. Nagasaki’s newest “attraction” lies just offshore: the abandoned coal mining facility on Hashima, so-called Gunkanjima “Battleship Island.” But that is the stuff of another story…


Shinjuku North Side Drift: Red Lights to Skyscrapers


Shinjuku North Side: Kabukicho; Golden Gai; Hanazono Shrine; Skyscraper District

Almost two decades ago, I landed in Japan on what was to be a three-year overseas adventure from my home in Canada. I’m still here, but that’s another story…. Those first days in-country, while my then-partner — I’ll call her Achan — attended orientation training at the Keio Park Plaza hotel before being posted to rural Hokkaido to help “internationalize” the countryside (but that’s still another story…) I spun out a jet-lagged fugue through the neon canyonlands and narrow sidestreets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood. You know: the setting for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray? That was me. Minus the hair. And Scarlett Johansson.

After three years Achan returned to her family in suburban Calgary. After another year, in central Hokkaido this time, I relocated to Tokyo for some big-city adventure.

Now, thirteen years later, I live in a comfortable if un-cinematic neighbourhood in west Tokyo. Every day, on the commute, I pass through labyrinthian Shinjuku Station.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” to paraphrase The Naked City. And more than three million of them pass through Shinjuku each day. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Shinjuku Station as the“world’s busiest station”. Channel5’s recent documentary “World’s Busiest: Station” gets it right: “a perfect storm of busy-ness.”

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Shinjuku’s Golden Gai: Down the Rabbit Hole in Tokyo’s Best Nightlife District

An introduction and Brief Guide to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai

(Update: I’ve posted an updated version of ‘Down the Rabbit Hole,’ with pictures, at my other blog on

Tokyo has more than its share of popular nightlife areas. Shibuya draws the club kids. Roppongi caters to the international crowd. Kabukicho is the largest blue-light district in Asia, a disconcerting mix of hostess clubs, brothels, and straight-up bars and restaurants.

Still, in the twelve-plus years I’ve lived in Tokyo, it’s to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai I go to meet interesting locals and, increasingly often, tuned-in travellers.

Since the 60’s and 70’s, writers and filmmakers such as Yukio Mishima and Yasujiro Ozu have haunted these narrow alleys. In the 1980’s, Wim Wenders shot scenes for Tokyo Ga in La Jetee, a bar devoted to movies, and still a favourite of cinephiles.

In fact, most of Golden Gai’s bars have a theme. There’s karaoke, of course, most visible at Champions, a popular first — and last — stop for many visitors. They start to spill onto the flagstone path by nine, and some stay until the first trains pull out of the nearby stations around dawn. At other places jazz remains popular, while Hair of the Dog has an extensive collection of punk and ska from the 80s. Still others cater to patrons with a passion for photography, exploitation films, or plastic models. At Tachibana shinryoushitsu, “Tachibana’s diagnosis room,” a cosplay nurse serves drinks with names such as “enema” and “speculum” from beakers amidst a cabinet of curiosities of medical charts and anatomical models. Another, the two-storey Albatross, has kept the red plush walls and chandeliers of its former incarnation as a brothel.

Maybe the setting explains Golden Gai’s unique fuinke, “atmosphere.” To enter the Gai is a little like discovering a secret garden or falling down a rabbit hole. A treed path lined with Peter Pan-like statues of cherubs riding dolphins and snails leads off neon-lit Yasukuni-dori and the red lights of Kabukicho. This isn’t Kansas Shinjuku any more, Dorothy-san.

No neon or — at least until recently — touts accost the visitor. Japan’s bubble economy, which transformed the surrounding area into an international-style city of wide roads and highrises, skipped this warren of six narrow lanes. In fact, the locals fought to keep it that way. Back in the 80′s, when developers razed the student ghetto and working neighbourhood of nearby west Shinjuku, locals took turns guarding Golden Gai from developers.

Maybe that’s why Golden Gai has a reputation for being closed to outsiders.

Times are a’changin’, however. Now visiting pop culture luminaries such asTim Burton and Quentin Tarantino have been spotted in the area. Whither go our pop stars, so follow we: Golden Gai has earned entries in recent editions of Fodors, Lonely Planet, and a plethora of websites. Heck, even CNN ran a service piece on “the five best bars in Golden Gai.”

“Down the rabbit hole,” maybe, but not exactly off the beaten path any more…

Truth is, the scene in Golden Gai has changed a lot in the last couple of years. More visitors have discovered the place and some, at least, of the establishments in the area are courting new clientele. Tokyobling, a popular blogger, recently called it “One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo”, which sounds about right. This hasn’t “ruined” the place in my opinion, though twenty-year regulars may disagree.

What this means is that you should feel totally comfortable and confident visiting Golden Gai. While there are still many establishments that still cater to regulars, others are happy to host the international crowd.

Golden Gai may now be on the itinerary of every hipster visiting Tokyo, but it still offers a unique Japan experience. Perhaps not for much longer, though: a recent story on suggests that redevelopment plans for the area might once again be in the works… maybe in time for the 2020 Olympics.

Check out my most recent gallery of pics from Golden Gai on the post!

Continue reading “Shinjuku’s Golden Gai: Down the Rabbit Hole in Tokyo’s Best Nightlife District”

Japan Photo Drift: Niigata Snow Country

Niigata Dec. '14

Yukiguni “Snow Country”

Tokyo may be generally mild, dry, and sunny in winter, but it comes at a cost to its neighbours: much of the snow that crosses from continental Asia bumps up against the mountains of central Honshu and dump their burden on the Sea of Japan side of the island. Niigata, where R. is from, lies within this yuki guni,”snow country.” In fact, the novel Snow Country by KAWABATA Yasunari is set in the mountain resort area of Yuzawa. Each New Year, R. and I pass through on our way by Shinkansen to coastal Niigata. The change from the balmy Kanto plain to yukiguni is always dramatic as the shinkansen exits a tunnel from Kanto and enters mountainous Gunma prefecture. The photos taken from the train are of Gunma and Niigata, both coming from and returning to Tokyo.

This year, 2014, Niigata has had a particularly hard spell of snowfall. In fact, the day after we arrived blizzard conditions kept us holed up for most of the day at the home of R.’s parents. We did manage a walk later in the day, however, and these are the town and castle pictures in this set.

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Japan Photo Drift: Mount Mitakesan, Okutama


Views from Mount Mitakesan

At least twice a year for the last eleven years, usually in December and May, R. and I make a pilgrimage to Mount Mitakesan in the Okutama mountains west of Tokyo. It’s our power spot, one of them, and it’s where we chose to exchange vows when we got married almost five years ago.

I’ve taken many, many pictures from Mitakesan and surrounding mountains in those 11 years, and a gallery is on the way… On our most recent trip, we were struck by the unkai sea of clouds on the first night – and the summit-top sunrise on the second.

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Japan Photo Drift: Ishigaki jima Island


Ishigaki jima, Yaeyama Islands Japan

My first winter break in Japan seventeen(!) years ago, while all my friends went off to Thailand, I spent a couple of weeks sleeping wild on Okinawa and Iriomote jima in the off season. Trip of a lifetime! One of I’ve written about elsewhere, and may soon also tell here on Big Sushi…

Meantime, in the spring of 2013, I finally made it back to the Yaeyama islands, this time to Ishigaki jima – with a day trip to Taketomi jima. While it was spring this time and not winter, we still hit it in the off season – which is how I like it anyway. Fewer crowds. More unstable = more interesting weather.

I shot most of these pictures with the Olympus E-P1 and – for reasons that escape me now, since I already owned a couple of fine prime lenses – the 14 – 42 kit zoom lens.

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