by Bryce Marley-Jarrett
Gunkanjima Island is located off the coast of Nagasaki on the southern island Kyushu. It was once a full working island city, with schools, movie theatres and more. It was once the most densely populated place on earth, and now you can tour and see the ghost town it has become. Today we are taking a look at it’s history and the easiest way for you to visit an island that few people have seen in the last 40 years.
It’s official name is Hashima Island but it is more commonly known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島 - Warship Island), due to its uncanny resemblance to a warship floating in the water. Gunkanjima’s history dates back to 1887, when coal was discovered on the island. By the end of the 1800’s, the island was populated and used as a seabed coal mining facility. In 1890 the Island was purchased by Mitsubishi (Yes, Mitsubishi) who further expanded the production and mining operation on the Island. Through land reclamation of the ocean, they were able to expand the very small space of the island to further increase their production ability.
All living and working building and facilities were built up to maximise the population capacity and therefore increase production output. The tall, densely placed buildings that covered the island edge-to-edge gave the island it’s signature battleship look. As the island is 17km from the Port of Nagasaki, and would not have been an insignificant trip to make, workers and their families all lived on the island. At the height of life on Gunkanjima, the island had apartment blocks, a school & kindergarten, a full hospital, town hall, and community centre. The island also provided many entertainment facilities, including a cinema, onsen, swimming pool, shopping centre, and a pachinko parlour.
During World War II, from the 1930’s until it’s end, the island was used to house Chinese prisoners of war and Korean conscripted civilians. It’s new inhabitants were forced to work under very harsh conditions at the Mitsubishi facility as slave labour under Japanese wartime policies.
Again manned by Japanese workers, after the conclusion of the war, the island continued to be used for coal mining, hitting it’s peak population numbers in 1959 with 5,259 people residing on the island. By the 1960s, as with most across the country, coal mines were rapidly closing due to petroleum replacing the needs of many of coal’s prior uses in Japan.
Mitsubishi permanently closed Gunkanjima’s coal mining facilities in January 1974, and within 4 months all those living on the island had left, leaving it deserted.
Mitsubishi handed the ownership of the island over to the City of Nagasaki in 2002, and Gunkanjima Island still sits uninhabited today. In 2009 a boat dock was built on the island to let tour groups get to the island for sightseeing purposes, spurred on with increased interest in the island from the mid 2000’s.
In 2015 Gunkanjima Island was officially marked as a UNESCO World Heritage site for it’s contributions to Japan’s Meiji industrial revolution.
Looking at Gunkanjima you may find it familiar, well, since the early 2000s the island has been used, and featured in various films. Most notable with western audiences would be the 2012 James Bond Film: Skyfall, where Gunkanjima is used as an abandoned island lair for the main villain in the film (exterior shots of Gunkanjima are used, however the filmed scenes were done on an island off Macau, and made to look like Gunkanjima). The latest film to actually film on the island was the recent live action film 2015’s Attack on Titan, where they filmed at several spots on the island.
Once on board the boat at Nagasaki Pier, you can either sit inside where there is televisions with videos on Gunkanjima playing, or you can go up to the roof and sit outside and watch Nagasaki go by. On modern vessels, a cruise out to the island takes about 45 minutes, and is quite scenic and beautiful. We would recommend sitting up to to take it all in. You will get a glimpse into Nagasaki, many of its industries as well as the vast amount of islands off it. You will see Gunkanjima approaching due to it’s built up size, it’s especially great on a misty morning cruise, with it appearing, looming in the distance like in a movie.
On arrival at Gunkanjima, the boat is tied up and anchored and then you disembark through some tunnels before you begin your guided tour on the island.
The tour takes you along a built-up walkway and through some observation areas and you will stop on three areas along the way, basically going from the back end and around. Due to the fragile state of the building and infrastructure left on the island, you cannot just freely walk around or through the island.
However the tour gives you some amazing looks at how the island once worked, where locations were and what it was like to work there.
The biggest issue for foreigners and non-Japanese speakers is that the tour is narrated entirely in Japanese. Your English pamphlet will help you spot out areas and buildings, and gives you information on what each was for, however you won’t get the in-depth narration that native speakers are receiving. On our tour however, an elderly volunteer on the island tour pulled us aside and between his broken English and my beginner Japanese, he did give us a personal narration around each stop and pointed out the key spots, which was fantastic, and a glimpse of the classic Japanese service and politeness you come to know.
The entire tour takes about an hour and you have plenty of time to take pictures and really take it all in.
On the return cruise back to port, they take the long way and take you all the way around Gunkanjima Island so you can get a close-up look of the whole island and its layout in relation to its borders. It’s a great time to get amazing photos of the island as a whole and see why it’s called ‘Warship Island’
In April this year Japlanning visited Nagasaki, and we did one of the tours on offer to Gunkanjima, so you don’t have to do the searching and translating of Japanese sites to get you there yourself!
Follow our guide to getting tickets, and getting on the boat below!
Currently, there are several official tour operators that can take you by boat to Gunkanjima. The tour, including the ride out and return is about 2.5 hours. This includes the boat ride out, your admission onto the island, guided tour, and also return boat which will take you for a scenic tour around the island.
You can book online with all three operators with English websites:
In April, after looking at a few operators’ English websites, we went with Yamasa Kaiun - Gunkanjima Landing and Cruise as they had the most central departure point at Nagasaki Pier.
Booking online is tricky as operators appear to have English sites, but their reservations are all in Japanese. If possible, try using Chrome to open the site and using Google Translate to get you through. Here is a step by step guide to booking with Yamasa Kaiun.
Once you click the red button for reservations, a new window in Japanese opens. Select the date you wish to sale on the calendar on the left hand side.
On the next page click the picture to the left with ‘軍艦島クルーズ’ written over it. This is the cruise to Gunkanjima. Do not press the right picture, this is a cruise around Nagasaki.
On this page the central Table with blue, yellow and orange is the cruise times for that day. Select your tour time by pressing the light blue button in column 5. If it has a red 満 this means it is a sold out cruise. (Column 3 is the fare - 4,200¥)
This page has a summary of your booking selection, the location you need to go to for your tour (We tell you where below!) and you select how many people (English in Green next to the dropdown). After you select the number of participants a box to fill out will appear below.
Name - Fill out the name of the booker, not every name going
Address - Select the second bullet point, and from the dropdown select one of the last three (in descending order - America アメリカ/Europe ヨーロッパ/Other Countyその地国)
Age - Select the first bullet point and pick a number from the drop down closest to one of the participants age (20+)
Sex - First bullet point is Male Second Bullet point is Female, again use the bookers sex.
Phone Number - Put in your Mobile number, this is so they can contact you if it is cancelled, due to weather. If your mobile will not be in use, put in the hotel you're staying at in Nagasaki’s number.
Email - Put in your most used email address, for confirmations to be sent and also any updates to your cruise.
After it is all completed press the blue button on the right outside the table.
Next page is your review page, with your details, the information below informs you if the cruise is cancelled, due to weather, you will get a full refund, if the cruise can go ahead, however weather is too bad to disembark on the island you will receive a 10% refund (the admission portion to the island). If you are happy with the information press the reserve button mid page to the left.
Last page is your confirmation page, print this and keep it. This is what will hand in on the day to the tour office to pay for your tickets. You will also receive an email confirmation.
* Note: These instructions were correct at the time of posting
* Note: When you pay at the ticket office it is cash only
How to get to the cruise
Depending where you are staying in Nagasaki it will vary, for central reasons we will guide you from Nagasaki Station
Exit the station towards the Nagasakiekimae Station (Tram Station directly outside the train station)
Take the Nagasaki Denki No.1 (Blue Sign) towards Shokakujishita (South).
Disembark at the second station - Ohato Station.
Walk back slightly to the main intersection that the station sits just next to.
From the station in the middle of the road cross the road to your left and walk straight down, towards the large Shopping Mall, with the Starbucks on the right of it (with a big ‘You me’ sign on the complex).
When you reach the road with the Shopping mall cross the road to be on the same side and turn left and walk along to the end of the Shopping mall.
Walk between the shopping mall and the building on the left towards the silver pier complex building.
Cross the road in front of the silver building and follow up the side (behind) the pier complex until you get to the automatic doors to enter.
Walk in and go straight ahead (staying on ground floor) and turn left when you see chairs and a waiting hall. Walk to Office 7. This is the ticket office for Yamasa Kaiun, your cruise provider. (Photo above).
At the ticket office, hand over your confirmation, and pay for your ticket/s. You will be required to fill out a safety form (in English) and hand back. They will give you an English translation pamphlet which has extensive information on Gunkanjima and they will direct you to the pier for boarding (They disembark from Docks 7 and 9.)