Visit Gunkanjima

Gunkanjima (the Battleship island), known under the official name of Hashima, is a small island located 18.5 km from Nagasaki port and south of Ioujima, Takajima and Nakanoshima islands. Registered as a World Heritage, Gunkanjima was part of Japan’s Meiji Industrial revolution sites. It is actually one of the numerous series of properties across the country, with 8 sites located only in Nagasaki.

All these sites are a proof of the rapid industrialization of Japan from 1850s to 1910s. An industrialization which was mainly founded on iron, steel, shipbuilding and coal mining, without colonization and in just a bit over 50 years, thanks to the technologies brought from the West. But, if several industrial sites took part in this process and Gunkanjima was just one of them, what makes it so special then?

Well, the coal was an essential energy resource for the industrial revolution in Japan, known often as the black diamond. But, even if coal mines has been developed in each region of the country, Hashima Coal Mine (Gunkanjima) had indeed something special among all. So let’s together what is all about.

From an uninhabited island to the most overcrowded place on Earth

Initially, Gunkanjima used to be a tiny island of natural reef until coal was first discovered. From 1810 Mr. Hidenoshin Koyama tried several times to develop a coal mine on the island but it failed because of the severe weather conditions like strong typhoons and ended bankrupt. Years later, Mr. Yanosuke Iwasaki, the second president of Mitsubishi Corporation, bought the mining rights from Mr. Hidenoshin which led to a radical change of the island. It launched the development of the mine in 1890, and from that moment onwards, things are completely changing.

The initially tiny island of about 2 hectares (1/3 of the surface we see today) got expanded to 6.3 hectares. It ended measuring 160 meters East to West and 480 meters North to South, with a total length of 1.2 km and 6.3 ha size. And from that moment on, Gunkanjima started to grow as an advanced city, where the latest technology of Japan gathered. Its maximum population of 5267 people in 1960, made it the most overcrowded place on Earth at that time, with a density 9 times higher than Tokyo of that day.

A new city was born

So, from a tiny reef island this place got converted into a real city. The electricity on the island was generated at Takashima Power station and transmitted by submarine cable. Drinkable water was available and produced after desalination. In fact, it is said that the salt produced was even more profitable than the coal itself. However, Mitsubishi stopped the salt business in 1935 and the drinking water was transported from the main island. But because the island population increased after the second world war, the transported water wasn’t enough anymore. As a result, Mitsubishi laid a submarine water supply facility from Nomo Peninsula to Gunkanjima. Which was a huge revolution, being the first submarine tap water facility in Japan, with only one exception worldwide, at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, UK.

Therefore, we can visualize a city that has all the necessities to function: electricity, drinkable water, supermarket, school, library, hospital, post office, barber shop, public bath, a shrine & temple, movie theater, entertainment facilities. Even more! They had apartments for bachelors, meeting and training rooms and even a track for running (on the corridor).

Still, were 2 exceptions. As the space was limited, they couldn’t afford to have a crematorium and a cemetery on the same island . That’s why these got installed on the nearby island of Nakanoshima. And with this solved, the new born city had everything to function to its fullest.

What to visit?

If you want to know more about Gunkanjima, there are two things you can do, apart from reading this article until the end. My first recommendation is to visit the Gunkanjima digital museum and the second is to take a boat tour and see the island with your eyes. Now, let’s deep dive into the details of each of them.

Gunkanjima Digital Museum

I recommend you to start your journey by visiting the Gunkanjima Digital Museum. This way you will learn so much about the island, that you’d be an expert once you’ll get there. The museum itself may not seem very big, but the amount of information is huge if you have the curiosity to explore. The price for the museum alone is a bit discouraging (as it’s expensive!), 1800¥. However, you can get a 50% discount if you book it together with the boat tour or about 500¥ off if you show your entry ticket to Glover’s garden from the same day. In any case, if you decide to pay a visit, you shouldn’t get disappointed. And please allocate at least half a day if you really want to explore it all.

Inside the museum

The museum is mainly digital and for English speakers they will provide you a free audio guide. You’ll find interactive areas where you have to use special VR glasses to view the island from the sky or get inside the buildings. Several areas are displaying videos with the life on the island from festival celebration to the daily working life in the mine.

There is also a lot to learn about the living conditions and the facilities on the island as well. For example, in the picture above you can see how a regular room used to look back in those days.

Tears of Gunkanjima is an illustration of the island currently collapsing. The harsh conditions on the island like typhoons and the concrete deterioration itself, are inevitably leading Gunkanjima to an end. The costs for preservations are huge, and for some building would be even too late to intervene. Geidai Factory Lab from Tokyo University of Art created an installation called “Tears of Gunkanjima”, based on the remaining life of each building. It is beautiful and sad in the same time.

And continuing on the same theme, there is a dark room where the main buildings of the islands are displayed with the estimated time left until collapsing. Heartbreaking, especially for the people that once used to live there.

And last but not least, don’t miss the drawing “Wonder island”, which has been executed with coal powder from Gunkanjima itself.

Gunkanjima Boat Tour

Once you finish the museum, you should continue your journey to Gunkanjima with a boat tour. You’ll have to book in advance, so don’t expect to jump on the first boat available. Are only a few companies offering the tour and are all requiring advanced booking. A few even offer English tours. However, this doesn’t guarantee you’ll get an English speaker guide on board. The good part is that they do provide you some English materials to read as a minimum. But overall you’ll have to figure out alone what is going on. Especially when the captain is explaining the points of interest along your way to the island. Just ensure you understand the location name and then read the description in English. Not the easiest way, but the pictures should help.

Gunkanjima Concierge

The company I used is called Gunkanjima Concierge and here’s their website for more information. They offer two tours per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon for the same price – about 5000¥ per adult. The prices will vary based on the days (weekdays or weekends, bank holidays) and if you want or not to visit the museum. Overall it was good, but way too expensive for a 2 x 40 minutes ride and a 40 minutes tour.

Also, you’ll have to consider that the arrival on the island is not guarantee. It will be based on the captain’s decision depending on the waves around the pier. But if you get lucky and put your feet on the island, have the right expectations. Basically, don’t expect a free walking tour. You will be restricted to 200 meters of pedestrian area only, with 3 observation points along the way. And with this in mind, let’s see what you’re actually able to see (even if it’s still from far away).

1st Observation Point

From the first observation point you’ll be able to see the largest apartment building on the island, No.65. It is far away so you won’t be able to see any details, but the guide will provide information while showing some pictures to help you visualize. This building used to be a 9 story building designed in an U-shape. It used to host 317 households, making about 1500 people calling it home.

Its inner part used to be an open space used as a playground and the basement was the biggest shopping area on the island. Facilities like beauty parlor, a barber shop and an ice cream shop were available, while on the 10th floor was a nursery school. Can you imagine how hard it must have been to use the facilities around without any elevators on the island, only with some connected corridors? They must have all been in a very good shape. In front of the building there was even a gym, built a few years before the closure of the mine. So as you can see, the diversity of the things and their proximity is fascinating, as they had to build so many facilities on such a tiny island.


In 1964 a big accident occurred in the mine, a gas explosion. 30 workers got wounded and one person died. As seawater was available in the pit the fire was extinguished, but unfortunately the water itself couldn’t be removed from the pit. That’s why many workers thought this will be the end of the mine. However, Mitsubishi tried to get rid of these negative atmosphere and as a consequence started to improve the living conditions of the islanders. They built a gym, renovated accommodations and contracted new entertainment facilities.

Closing the mine

But in the end, the rumors became true. On 15th of January 1974 a closure ceremony took place in the gym. The Labour Union proposed to Mitshubishi the closure of the mine not because of the accident, but because of the depletion of coal. The conditions for coal extractions became harsh, in the sense that it required almost 2h for the workers to get to the extraction point. So at this point it wasn’t efficient anymore to keep the work on-going, so it was a win-win situation to everybody. And that’s one important thing to be remembered about Gunkanjima, that it wasn’t closed because of coal deficit as other sites.

2nd Observation Point

Today, there are almost no mining related facilities on the island. In order to receive a subsidy from the government, Mitsubishi had to demolished all the related machines. But imagine, in the past all this area you’re walking on today it was fully equipped with machineries, so walking wasn’t possible. Even the employees came to work through a 200 meters tunnel connected to the residential area.

Working conditions

The workers had to come to work with 30 minutes in advance, before reaching their final working destination about 1000 meters below sea level. They were using this time to put on their equipment (helmets and mining gear) but also to pass a a cigarettes’ & matches check. As some people tried to take some underground, this could have caused an explosion and put people’s life in danger. So this was mandatory to ensure everybody’s safety.

To make their way to the mining site, the workers had to first ride a cage for about 600 meters below in approximately 3 minutes. After reaching this level, they had to continue their journey horizontally via handcars and then finally walk a few hundred meters more until their working area. It was a long and dangerous path that workers were exposed to every single day.

And it’s not just the journey itself that was risky, but also the working conditions. The temperatures were about 37C and the humidity at 95%. That’s why after 8h at work they were all black and unrecognizable. So the first stop was mandatory the public bath, where they could clean themselves and relax before heading home.

Losing human lives

Unfortunately, the tough working conditions did make a man lose his life after being caught between two trolleys. It was a sad event not only for the family but for all the workers, as they were all a big family on the island. The records mention a total of 215 victims during the 84 years of the mine operation. These human sacrifices are the ones that built the modern Japan.

During its period of glory, Hashima coal mine operated 24h with 3 shifts. So with a 24/7 operation time, no lighthouse was necessary as the island was always illuminated. However, today there is one installed.

Between the 2nd and 3rd Observation Point

There is a big hole you can see between the 2nd and the 3rd observation point. It was built for drainage, part of the sewage duct. Also, as burnable and non-burnable garbage were tossed in the sea and not recycled as today, the water around the island was polluted. That’s one of the reasons excepting security that children weren’t allowed to swim directly in the ocean. But they had a swimming pool on the island for compensation. However, some children were definitely ignoring the rules, as we could see them in the pictures, jumping straight into the open ocean.

3rd Observation Point

At the final viewing point, you can see a few more building apartments, a bit closer than from the 1st observation point. One of them is called No.30, the oldest reinforced concrete in Japan. This was a 7 story building with 20 apartments at each floor. At its busiest time in 1950, each household had a 6 tatami mat room shared by 4-5 people. With such a small place to share, a worker even claimed that he slept in the closet when he was young.


One thing I read and it seemed funny was about the building security. As you can imagine nobody was there to steal, so the apartments were never locked. However, they talk about a lady that used to ask the visitors their name, where are they heading to, by whom were invited, to ensure nobody is coming for no reason. She must have acted even better than a modern security cam! However, there were two policeman on the island as well. Even if there was no crime, they still had a small jail to put the drank people in it till recovery.

No Privacy

Another funny fact is that it was almost no privacy on the island. For example, if you wanted to give a call everybody could hear your conversation. That’s because it was only one post office and one set of public phones for 5000 people. So there was always a line for it. On the other hand, if people wanted to date on the island there wasn’t too much intimacy either. The only dating spot was on the top of the harbor wall, shared with the kids as their playing ground.

No greenary

If you’re trying to imagine how was the island at that time, remove any color of green from your projection, as there was no vegetation. The only time some greenery existed there, was during a school grown rice project. It took place for about 3 years on a building roof, to learn kids about agriculture. But as the water started to leak to the lower floors, it got canceled. Today, we can see some greenery thanks to the birds migrating on the island, which brought seeds of plants with them.

Embracing the daily life

People on the island were really embracing the life out there, even when the conditions were harsh. For example, women enjoyed watching the typhoons from the upper floors. There was no space for fear when being surrounded by waters. Actually, there is a beautiful picture you can see in the museum related to this.

A technologically advanced island

In 1955 the island was so much technologically advanced, that 99% of the resident were having a black and white television compared to the 9.5% in the rest of the country. And the majority of them had as a well a fridge and washing machine. And that’s because the electricity bill was cheap so everybody could afford it, but also because the salaries were high. In the end, when living on such a tiny island you need to have some advantages to worth in the effort.


In the museum you can see a model of Yugao-Maru. This liner operated between the mainland, Takashima and Hashima island for 75 years of existence. It was launched in 1887 and its last operation took place in 1962. The people living on Gunkanjima were very much attached to it and its final trip was very emotional for many of them.

The end of Gunkanjima

And after Yugao-Maru, Gunkanjima also seen its end in 1974. The energy policy conversation of the Japanese government from coal to petroleum, caused the closure of the mine. It left it abandoned and uninhabited. But even in these conditions, the island is still a place full of emotions. And not only for the new visitors, but also for its past inhabitants. During the 84 years of the mine operations this tiny place made a huge impact on the Japanese modernization and on peoples life. That’s why it should always be remembered.

The end!

Well, that’s it from my side. I hope you enjoyed the article and one day you’ll visit Gunkanjima by yourself. Meanwhile, get inspired from more articles across Japan and not only, here.

A like or a comment are highly appreciated. And don’t forget to subscribe to be the first one reading the next article!