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Hashima: Sojourning with ghosts on deserted Japanese island

Hashima's waves can make it almost impossible to dock at the concrete fortress. In the summer, only about half of the boats who go out make it to the island. In the winter, the number is higher, about 80-90 percent are successful. Former Mitsubishi management housing is located on the hill above in the background.

In April 1974, the lights went out on tiny Hashima Island and the last of its coal mining inhabitants made for the Japanese mainland.

They left behind a lot more than a spider web of mine shafts extending well below the ocean floor. They left reinforced concrete apartment blocks — complete with televisions in their living rooms. They left a hospital, a movie theater, a gymnasium, a dance hall and a school, with the children’s books still strewn about the desks and floors.

Nature has begun to reclaim the island, but as long as the buildings stand, the ghosts of Hashima will remain, their whispers echoing amidst a sea of seemingly post-apocalyptic rubble.

For those who enjoy a game of chance and a bit of an adventure, you can visit Hashima and see one of the world’s most striking ghost towns — located only an hour and a half from Sasebo Naval Base by car or bus. The island, now referred to as “Ghost Island,” and “Battleship Island” (Gunkanjima in Japanese) for its shape, was the inspiration for the villain’s hideout in the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall.”

At its peak in the 1950s, Hashima was home to about 5,300 people, according to Nagasaki scholar and tour guide Hiro Takahashi. That amounted to a population density nine times greater than Tokyo during the same period.

Coal was first discovered in 1810, but full-scale seabed coal mining didn’t begin until 80 years later when Hashima came under the control of Mitsubishi.

Coal mining was extremely dangerous work and a little more than 200 people “officially” perished in the mines, Takahashi said. However, the real number is not known.

During World War II, hundreds of Korean and Chinese slave laborers were forced to toil in the mines. Their deaths were also most likely underreported.

Miners on Hashima journeyed more than 1,000 meters below sea level, braved incredible heat and humidity and the threat of gas explosions, and churned out 15.7 million tons of coal in an 84 year span. The small, barren shelf of aqueous rock grew six times through land reclamation projects and embankment construction, and the island was transformed into the concrete fortress it is today.

Throught the years, the mineshafts were picked clean and had to stretch longer and longer for coal, Takahashi said. Eventually, it took so long to get the coal, the price went up. That, coupled with society’s switch to oil power, led to the closing of the mine in January 1974. A few months later, the island was abandoned.

The journey to Hashima begins at the Nagasaki seaport in downtown Nagasaki. Gunkanjima Cruise Co. is the cheapest of several tour companies that go there; its tours are in Japanese, but provide English language brochures and maps to help Americans follow along.

The company offers two daily three-hour tours with about an hour dedicated to Hashima for those lucky enough to make it there.

In the summer there is only a 50-percent chance of stepping foot on the island due to rough seas that make docking impossible. The captain must make the decision as he approaches the Hashima dock, and the price to roll the dice is not refundable. In the winter, chances improve drastically, at about 80-90 percent.

On an overcast day at the end of July, the sea angrily smashed against the concrete embankments of Hashima. It didn’t seem possible to dock, but the captain inched the boat closer and closer. The passengers breathed a sigh of relief when lines were tossed ashore.

The boat was pulled in close and groaned as the waves thrust it up and down violently. Passengers were then forced to time their jump to the dock — with the help of the tour employees — so they were not crushed between the boat and the embankment.

Then they went through a small tunnel to Hashima and three fenced-in observation posts. The decaying island is very dangerous, so going off on one’s own is prohibited, and visitors are not allowed access to the buildings outside the fence. It might seem like a tease, but it’s well worth the journey.

From the observation points, onlookers can glimpse the crumbling staircase that led the men to the second mine shaft where they were searched for matches or any other hazardous materials before going to work for an eight-hour shift, Takahashi said.

The lanes from the old outdoor swimming pool were visible, as was a brick wall that had been Mitsubishi’s general office, the nerve center for mining operations on the island.

The miners and their families said goodbye in 1974 and left the island as it was. When looking into the bowels of the decrepit structures, you can not only see what a world would look like without mankind, you also can feel their gaze looking back.

burke.matt@stripes.com

Getting there

Hashima (Gunkanjima) is an hour and a half from Sasebo Naval Base by car.
Several tour companies leave for the island from Nagasaki seaport in downtown Nagasaki. Gunkanjima Cruise Co. is located across the street from its boat, the Black Diamond, on the right side at 2708 Takashima-cho, Nagasaki-City, Nagasaki Prefecture 851-1315 Japan. Map at www.gunkanjima-cruise.jp/map.php.

Times

Three-hour tours by Gunkanjima Cruise Co.  leave at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Be sure to arrive 15 minutes early.

Costs

Tour fees are 3,000 yen for adults; 3,000 yen for high school students (up to age 18); 2,400 yen for junior high students (up to age 15); 1,500 yen for children up to age 12; no charge for infants.
Translation and guide services can be procured for anything in Nagasaki from Hiro Takahashi by emailing:
takahashi-kizan@hotmail.co.jp. Prices vary depending on time and trip.

Information

Gunkanjima Cruise Co.: Phone: 095-827-2470; email: info@gunkanjima- cruise.jp; website: gunkanjima-cruise.jp/index.php. An English language link is available.
Find a video tour of the island by the Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association  at www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5kmKO_gGsc.

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