Day 16.1: Nagasaki and Gunkanjima

Gunkanjima is one of the world's most famous abandoned islands.
Sunday, 26 May 2013

Continues from Day 15: Takachiho

We had a really packed schedule planned for today!

Kate spent some time reviewing all the different sights on offer in Nagasaki in order to cram in as much as possible so we could head south to Kagoshima early tomorrow morning.

Originally we had planned to spend two full days in the city but later realised that this would actually mean we’d have no time to see anything in Kagoshima.

So somehow Kate managed to squeeze two days’ worth of activates into one, including a half day trip out to Gunkanjima, which is  a famous abandoned island located off the coast of Nagasaki.

Our busy day started with getting up and ready before 6:30am, and then travelling down to enjoy an included buffet breakfast on the first floor of our hotel. It was pretty good!

We were not required to meet for our Gunkanjima tour until 9:00am which meant we had a good hour and a half in which to fit in whatever was nearby and open.

Bridges are always open (generally), so after breakfast we left the hotel and walked about one kilometre south east to the Meganebashi (眼鏡橋 = Spectacles (Eyeball + Mirror) + Bridge).

This bridge was constructed way back in 1634 (!) and is one of several stone bridges crossing the canal known as the Nakashima River.

It's regarded as the oldest stone arch bridge in Japan and was built by a monk from the Kofukuji Temple.

During a relatively recent flood in 1982 the bridge was badly damaged but was repaired using the original stones that washed away and it currently classified as an Important Cultural Property.

The name comes from the fact that the bridge’s twin arches reflect in the water below to create rings that resemble eyeglasses.

Monocle Bridge?
The canal looked pretty in the early morning and we admired the spectacle.

The Megane Bridge isn’t the only crossing over the Nakashima River and we could see a number of other old stone bridges.

Some Japanese enthusiasts have filled out the wikipedia page detailing all the crossings over the Nakashima River.

Apart from the bridge there were also heaps of really pretty flowers in the area set up for display.

While we were not the only ones checking out the bridge the streets were otherwise pretty quiet.

However, we started to see lots more people in the form of primary school children after leaving the canal area and walking up a nearby hill to check out some temples. It looked like they were gathering for some sort of sports day.

Hopefully not real lessons as it was a Sunday!

At the top of the street we found the historic Teramachi (寺町 = Temple + Town) street that was lined on one side by high walls enclosing many different temples that backed up onto a nearby hill.

Out of the dozen or so located in the area, the two temples known as Kōfukuji and Sōfukuji are particularly famous and we had just enough time to fit in both before we'd have to make our way down to the port for our Gunkanjima cruise.

We went to Kōfukuji first as it was the closest (400m) and is also apparently open from 6am.

When we arrived at 7:41am we found that we were the first visitors for today and that it wasn't yet properly open.

It seemed like it ought to have been though as the guy at the entrance took our payment (¥300) and then hurried ahead into the temple to open doors and set everything up.

Tōmeizan Kōfuku-ji belongs to the Ōbaku-shū school of Japanese Zen Buddhism and was built  in 1624 during the early Edo Period.

View through the gate with fence to keep pigs out
The temple was initially constructed by Chinese-Japanese residents as a place to pray for safe voyages and to prove they were Buddhist during the days of the government’s prohibition of Christianity.

The buildings are now designated as important cultural property assets and the items contained within the Daiyu treasure house are important cultural assets.

As mentioned earlier, one of the monks from Kōfuku-ji (Zen master Mokusunyoujo) was responsible for the construction of the nearby Meganebashi.

With our admission we received a pamphlet which Kate used to give me a tour of the complex.

It was actually pretty interesting and I learnt about the various structures such as the bell hall, the Maso-do (earliest building), and the Sanko Kaisho gate which is the only part left of a building used as a meeting place for people from different provinces.

The gate is also notable for having a special removable beam across the bottom that was used to keep pigs out.

The main hall had quite a few interesting items to look at, though photos were prohibited.

An interesting discovery was actually recently made in 2012 when the Shaka Budda inside Kōfukuji was found to contain metallic organs and a symbolic mirror.

The organs included the heart, lungs liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, intestines, gall/urinary bladder and an organ that does not actually exist called the San Jiao.

The mirror symbolises the Buddha's mind and was hung along with the organs in a compartment inside the statue's main body.

These inclusions mean that the statue was considered a living deity rather than a piece of art and it's actually one of only twelve statues found to contain such structures.

Beyond the fence to keep pigs out we found a nice little garden surroundings a carp pond.

Interestingly though whole garden was covered in a dense network of string!

It looked like something out of a bank vault security system.

While we were wondering what the hell the wires were for a cat appeared!

A cute cat.

He looked a bit troubled by the string but I don't think it would have really stopped him making a meal out of the fish.

It would probably work against birds though I guess.


Apart from the cat we also saw a cute Shiba Doge!

Around the back of the temple we had a quick look at the graveyard and the returned to the front to exit.

It was around 8am by this time and we made sure to quickly run the 850m around the hill to our next destination, Sōfukuji.

Like Kōfukuji, Sōfukuji belongs to the Ōbaku-shū school of Zen Buddism and was built only a few years later in 1629.

There is a stronger Chinese style in the design of Sōfukuji as the residents from the Chinese Fujiian Prefecture who constructed the temple did so with their home country in mind.

In fact, many of the buildings are rare examples of Ming Dynasty architecture from the south china area.

Sōfukuji is home to over twenty different cultural assets, including two buildings classified as national treasures which puts it up amongst Japan's most cultural asset dense properties.

When we arrived the temple had only just opened and the guy waved us through without collecting any admission (¥300) as he was busy trimming trees.

When it was time to leave he was back in the office and told us not to worry about it when we tried to pay!

The Sōfukuji Buddha Hall is one of Japan’s National Treasures and is the oldest building in Nagasaki, having been constructed in China and brought to Sōfukuji in 1646.

The other treasure is the Daiippōmon (第一峰門 = No. + 1 + Peak + Gate) which was also constructed in China and brought to Nagasaki in 1696.

Sōfukuji Buddha Hall

Some of the other assets we saw included the Sōfukuji Temple Bell, cast in 1647 and the Great Cauldron at Sōfukuji.

This cauldron was used to boil porridge for three to five thousand people during the great famine of 1681, caused by a failed rice crop.

The complex was quite large and we spent our dwindling time admiring the many other buildings and artefacts as best we could.

Like a lot of temples, we found a graveyard extending up the hill at the back from which we could get a view of Nagasaki down over the temple roofs.

It was around 8:26am by this time, which meant we really needed to get going to the Gunkanjima tour meeting location.

The small Gunkanjima Cruise office
Walk or tram?

We took the tram as it was a 1.3km walk but unfortunately managed to hop on the wrong one.

We realised our error when it diverged before our stop (Ōhato) and were somehow able to get off, change, and make it to the tiny office meeting place in time.

We found two staff members standing outside and inside we paid (¥3,000), had our names marked off a list, and received boat and landing tickets.

The Black Diamond moored a later dock
This tour was something we had to book in advance and it's possible to do so online.

There's at least two different tour/cruise companies that travel to Gunkanjima though I think they all offer essentially the same service.

There is also one that only circles and doesn’t actually land.

The main companies also don't on the island at times as rough sea conditions often make docking at the Gunkanjima pier too dangerous.

In fact, the tour companies website states that only 100 days (27%) of the year are suitable for landing on average and otherwise the boat just visits a museum on another nearby island.

So there was a huge chance we would miss out on actually visiting Gunkanjima!

Also- the boat ticket was the main cost and we'd be refunded the three hundred yen landing fee if it turned out we couldn't dock.

Even as we made our way down to the Black Diamond boat we were not sure if we'd be landing today though we were feeling pretty confident as it was a wonderfully clear and calm day.

The Black Diamond boat had two passenger decks and we decided to sit on the upper open air level, though we did find it a bit hot in the direct sunlight.

The seats also didn't have backs so ours got a bit sore.

Before departing the caption came around to introduce himself and warned us to watch out for our hats which would depart without warning if we were not careful.

Once we took off the hat displacing wind cooled us down and we were able to enjoy the city and sparkling ocean.

As we left Nagasaki port we were able to see some bridges and the Mitsubishi ship building docks. There were lots of ships and it was interesting seeing some half built.

Commentary on the boat was in Japanese, and apart from the aforementioned sights the narrator also pointed out a statue of Mary a church and a few other islands.

As we powered under the cable-stayed Megami Bridge we passed a Hydrofoil boat!

It's flying up on it's foil!
Gunkanjima's official name is Hashima (端島 = Edge + Island) and it's currently famous as a large abandoned island located off the coast of the Nagasaki Peninsula.

The island was first populated in 1887 and seabed coal mining began a few years later when Mitsubishi purchased the island. With the ramping up of mining operations during the industrialisation of Japan the island rapidly grew in both population and physical size as more of the sea was reclaimed.

As the population sprouted so did large concrete buildings (including the first in Japan) that were densely packed in on every available speck of land such that the island eventually came to resemble a battleship.

Hence the nickname Gunkanjima (軍艦, = Army + Warship + Island).

At it's peak in 1959 the island had grown to three times its original size and had a population of 5 259; which made Hashima the most population dense urban area of all time, a record that still stands today.

Eventually, in 1974, as demand for coal weakened with the rise of petroleum, the mine was closed by Mitsubishi.

After the closure, the rapid exodus from the island occurred over space of only a couple of months and the residents simply left behind whatever they could not carry or no longer wanted.

For the next thirty years the island slowly decayed and was forgotten until only quite recently when access was opened to journalists in 2005, and then with the building of a pier and some walkways, tourists in 2009.

Interest in Gunkanjima has greatly increased since then and it has been featured in many lists of abandoned cities and was even featured in the recent James Bond movie, Skyfall.

After about twenty minutes we arrived at Ioujima port and stopped briefly to pick up a few more passengers, and once they were all aboard the boat was pretty crowded at full capacity.

We then embarked on another twent minute journey before docking at Takashima (高島 = Tall + Island), which is a small island located a few kilometres to the north of Gunkanjima.

Although small and home to only around seven hundred people, the island is still much bigger in area than Gunkanjima.

We were stopping in to have a look at the island's coal mine museum.

We were a bit worried this meant we’d miss out on landing at Hashima because on our itinerary it looked like you only came here as a consolation trip.

Once everyone was off the boat and had made their way to the museum we were split into two groups with the first half venturing into the museum and the other half remaining outside.

We were part of the first group and spent some time looking at all the displays in the small building.

What surprised me most was how extensive the undersea mine was- it spread out under the ocean bed far from the island such that Gunkanjima was really just the tip of an iceberg of mining enterprise.

Apart from that, the museum also contained lots of old mining equipment, photographs, explanations and samples of the coal (and country rock) mined under the ocean.

The entire museum was in Japanese so we mainly just looked at the displays and pictures without reading the explanations.

After we'd had a good look it was time to swap places with the other group and gather around a big model of Gunkanjima that one of our guides was standing on.

An explanation in Japanese followed and I did my best to understand and translate for Kate.

As far as I could work out he pointed out the area we would land at and walk along and then explained the functions of various buildings.

I remember him pointing out the school, a shrine and some movie theatres as well as the residential buildings and where kids used to play.

He also explained that there is one building on the island that is not on the model, a modern automatic lighthouse.

Finally, our guide mentioned that Gunkanjima was featured in the latest James bond flick, Skyfall.

Although all the explanations were in Japanese, we had received a pretty informative brochure with our ticket that contained a wealth of information.

After the tour guide's explanations had ended we all marched back to the boat and headed for Gunkanjima Island!

It looked like we would be landing after all!

On this final leg from Takashima we had found different seats and I was seated next to some young guy.

He talked to me in Japanese and asked me things like where we were from, where we had been and the difficult question of what our favourite place was.

I replied that the Kujū mountains had been a highlight and I also showed him our route in The Japan Book.

As soon as we could see the abandoned hulk of the island in the distance everyone's cameras furiously started clicking away!

It really did look like a battleship!

It took us only about ten minutes to reach Hashima however we had to wait a little while longer for another boat to depart.

We had a bit of a rough landing as there was a fair bit of swell along the wall, which made disembarking tricky.

However, everyone was able to safely climb off onto the island.

From the wharf area we walked through the islands sea wall via a narrow tunnel and came out on a wide, well-built concrete walkway.

This walkway was fenced on each side, located far from any buildings, and was the only part of the island we were allowed to visit.

Although it would be cool to have been given free rein to explore the dilapidated buildings it's perfectly understandable why there are such restriction as the whole island was in a state of collapse and very dangerous.

There were a few eagle like birds flying around adding a bit of creepy atmosphere feeling to the island.

Along the route we stopped at various points to be given brief talks in Japanese.

I had a trouble understanding most of it but I do remember him talking about what it was like going to work, and he pointed out the stairs in the main building that led to the mine shaft elevator.

Actually I wonder what state the actual mine is currently in?

Probably filled with water I suppose.

We could sort of see inside some buildings

At a later point our guide also talked about what home life was like for those that lived here and explained that it was very hard for anyone to get any privacy, especially from noise.

The island was only abandoned in 1974 so it's actually a bit surprising to see it in such a decayed state; there's many buildings from that time that are perfectly fine and still standing in other cities.

While it does show how important maintenance is and how quickly things fall apart without humans, most of the destruction was probably caused by the frequent storms and typhoons that lash the island.

The high salt content in the air's moisture likely didn't help preserve any iron structures either.

Most of the tall buildings were located on the other side of the island, though we were able to see a couple of high apartment blocks.

Old conveyer belt supports
Closer to the path was the remains of a swimming pool.

On the way back we had a good look at the nearby remains of a conveyer belt that was used to transport coal to a storage location.

Behind the former supports we could see another couple of tall buildings that were formally a school and a housing block.

Inside the school building I managed to make out what looked to be collapsing ceiling fans!

We could see a few other buildings up on the hill too, including the modern automatic lighthouse.

Red brick of the former central office
After a pretty short stay, during which we'd seen all there was to see from the path, the tour guides ushered us all back onto the boat and we were soon saying goodbye to Hashima. 

The restrictions and large crowd were not fantastic though overall the trip and history of Gunkanjima was fascinating and it was pretty cool that we were even allowed onto the island at all.

I’d defintely highly recommend a trip out to the island for anyone considering visiting Nagasaki!
More interiors
Are those ceiling fans?

The fomer pool
On the way back, the Black Diamond headed straight for Ioujima and we secured a seat inside on the lower deck as we had been thoroughly sunned out.

There was a subtitled video about the island playing down here and I was interested to learn a bit more about the historic life and death of Gunkanjima.

Towards the end there was also a section where an ex-resident showed viewers parts of the island and the insides of buildings that are inaccessible to tourists.

After unloading some passengers at Ioujima we continued on and then finally arrived back in Nagasaki at Motohuna pier.

It was almost one post meridian by this point and we were absolutely starved!

We had a look around the area for some food and managed to locate a couple of restaurants in a nearby shopping centre. I say a couple because Kate wanted one and I wanted another and so we decided to split up for today's meal.

Kate really wanted champon, which is a local speciality of Nagasaki and something she'd tried a bit of already in Tsuetate.

There wasn't any English menu for Kate to use but she reported that things went well and was able to just point at the picture of the dish she wanted.

Apparently the seafood noodles were really delicious and Kate was very happy that she had thus far been able to try many different specialities during our trip.

For my meal I went to a katsu restaurant and asked if I could get a nice looking meal that had cheese and other things stuffed inside the pork cutlet.

Unfortunately, one of those other things happened to be onion so I had to just settle for plain chicken katsu with rice instead.

Honestly, my cardiovascular system thanked me.


Over ninety photo's were uploaded for this blog entry!

That's a bit much for one post so please continue reading Day 16.2: Nagasaki.


  1. Seems like a very interesting island to visit. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. :)

    Btw, I am new to your blog, mind if I ask if you are proficient in Japanese?

    1. Thank you very much for your comment!

      Yes it was very interesting :D


      Yes, I've been learning Japanese the past few years and passed the N2 level Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) at the end of 2013. I'm quite ok at reading, and listening, but I'm quite shy so find speaking much more difficult. The JLPT doesn't test speaking, or writing.

      Knowing Japanese in Japan certainly makes things easier, but for the vast majority of time you can get by just fine with English- especially in cities.

      I'm not proficient enough that I get much extra out of knowing Japanese beyond ease of planning (e.g. I can book things on Japanese website) and finding my way around/reading instructional signs. I wouldn't waste time trying to read Japanese explanations of museum exhibits for example and I tune out of long Japanese audio explanations.

      I hope that helps!

  2. Thanks for explaining! I heard from others that not understanding Japanese would put us tourists at a great disadvantage, but I guess with the Internet, I can do my homework in advance. Btw, I'm planning to make my reservation for the Gunkanjima tour soon :)

    One more question (hope you don't mind):
    Do you find the JR Kyushu trains crowded (generally)? Thanks for the help! :)

    1. Hi Christel, No worries!

      I'm very sorry for my late reply, but we're in Japan again (!!)- on my mobile phone so apologies.

      Realistically most people who travel to Japan do not understand the language, so I think you'll be fine. In fact I think being outgoing, friendly and not shy is perhaps more helpful than actually knowing the language. I'm a pretty big introvert and very shy so yeah.

      Feel free to ask as many questions are you like :-) I'll do my best to answer! Don't just rely on me though, just as another perspective.

      Hmm, well, went we went the JR Kyushu trains were not very crowded, but we were only there for a few days so it's hard to say generally. In general for Japan (especially long distance) the trains are not crowded and it's easy to get a seat. However New Year, Cherry blossom and Autumn colors are some examples of peak times. We have yet to go to Japan during these times.

      I have found the shinkansen trains on Honshu to be quite crowded at times (once or twice) For a train with reserved seats, we've so far found that when those are booked out the unreserved section was still mostly empty. But ultimately I guess it depends! You wouldn't expect anything like Tokyo peak hour however.

  3. I love your photos in this post!