The only thing that lands on Hashima Island is the shit of passing seagulls. An hour or so’s sail from the port of Nagasaki, the abandoned island silently crumbles. A former coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi Motors, it was once the most densely populated place on earth, packing over 13,000 people into each square kilometer of its residential high-rises. It operated from 1887 until 1974, after which the coal industry fell into decline and the mines were shut for good. With their jobs gone and no other reason to stay in this mini urban nightmare, almost overnight the entire population fled back to the mainland, leaving most of their stuff behind to rot.
Since the exodus it was illegal to go anywhere near the place as it’s beyond restoration and totally unsafe. The Japanese government isn’t keen to draw unwanted attention to this testament to the hardship of the country’s post-war industrial revolution; the punishment for being caught visiting Hashima Island is 30 days in prison followed by immediate deportation. But the other week, after getting up before sunrise and cutting a secret deal with a local fisherman, some friends and I went there.
The port of Nagasaki is an international affair, though you’re less likely to find buck-toothed fisherman willing to break the law for a few extra bob than granny-laden cruise ships and large oil tankers filling the docks. We took the early morning ferry to the still-inhabited Takashima, the nearest island. After asking around–and being politely turned away by everyone to whom we mentioned Hashima Island– finally we found our man. A former patrolman of the island, this guy either took a liking to us or thought we were so stupid that we deserved to get crushed beneath a collapsed apartment block. He also said that apparently the electricity to the island is still working if they choose to switch it on.Though we were committing a crime, we knew the likelihood of getting caught or penalized was in fact incredibly slim, and I didn't think about it much. Japanese people are not a troublesome bunch on the whole so they don't deem it necessary to have anyone guarding the island or anything. As far as they are concerned, why would anyone want to go there in the first place?
The rules of Japanese politeness dictate you never say what you want directly, so even once we were aboard the boat we weren’t sure we were actually going to set foot on Hashima–we’d only agreed for our fisherman to take us close enough to see it.
Bobbing into view, the grey seawall’s artificial angling of the island gives it the shape of a battleship, hence its Japanese name in popular mythology, “Gunkanjima.”
Getting closer, talks with the fisherman continued slowly–it was only as we were actually setting foot on the landing jetty that he finally agreed to give us a couple of hours to explore before returning to pick us up.
In some areas the entire façades of buildings had fallen to the ground, revealing grids of homes, each exposed with their 70s television sets smashed after the TV stands had eroded away. It was difficult to gauge exactly what it might have been like to live here, although with the complete lack of outdoors space and the prison-like seawall keeping you in, I can’t imagine it to have been anything other than claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and a bit like living in an ant farm.
Personal artifacts lay littered everywhere: old shoes, bottles of shampoo, newspapers, even posters left on teenagers’ walls.
We explored the empty classrooms of the island’s huge school. The rusted carcasses of desks and chairs lay in front of blackboards displaying the dusty marks of the last class to have taken place there 30 years before.
From the top floor gymnasium we looked down into the main auditorium, the roof of which had caved in long before. It was clearly structurally unsafe–we were walking over large slabs of wall that had fallen from the ceilings above us.
On roughly the ninth floor of an apartment block, I stepped into one of the rooms to admire the view of the sea. The traditional woven tatami floor beneath my feet, unused to human contact, gave way, sending a tremendous ripping sound through the building’s shell. I fell…
…about one meter, but it was enough to freak us out and from here on we took more care where we trod.
At less than a square mile, the island is tiny, but you never can quite grasp this when you’re winding through its warping high-risers. To get a better overall look we scaled the central watchtower, a precarious venture since its old access paths was now overgrown beyond usability.
It never crossed our minds that the fisherman wouldn't come back. We were more worried that we only had those two hours on the island, an arbitrary frame of time my friend picked in the moment of excitement when we got the green light for transport. There was enough stuff there to keep us busy there for an entire day, so we spent our two hours running about in a mad state of neurosis, aware that this once-in-a-lifetime experience was slipping away before us faster than it would be possible to experience all of it.
And then just a couple days ago they reopened it to the public.