Off the coast of Nagasaki, the bustling city on Kyushu in the south of Japan, a mere one-hour boatride from the harbor, time seems to have come to a complete standstill, as I set my foot on the pier of Gunkanjima.
An urban explorer's dream, I had read and heard a lot about the island, which once had the highest population density in the world, and today, some 36 years after all its inhabitants were evacuated, is only a cluster of ruins atop of a rock that's hardly bigger than a modern super tanker.
Talking about ships: The shape of the island indeed resembles a battleship, hence its name. During World War II, Battleship Island even came under attack by an American submarine commander, who fired a torpedo at the rock - very much to the surprise of the inhabitants, who thought the island would be invaded and repelled the attacker with some rounds of gunfire.
Today, the island is a peaceful place. Too peaceful, as some former citizens say, who had to leave Gunkanjima in 1974 - within just two weeks. Mitsubishi Electric, the company that ran the underwater coalmine beneath the island, had decided to shut down the mine, when it eventually became unprofitable. "No work, no money, no reason to stay." This is how Yuka Tsushida, 44, remembers how her father, who worked as an engineer for the company, told the family, why they had to pack their belongings and board the ferry to Nagasaki, for the last time. In other words: No perspective. Thus, the once praised model city was abandoned, its destiny left to the vagaries of the sea.
Yuka's family lived in a cosy apartment block on the cliff. She would have liked to see her former home again, but the Nagasaki Prefectural Authorities have set up strict rules for visitors of the island - no matter if they once were inhabitants or not: There's a small perimeter of paved and fenced walkway that's accessible from the pier. And there's no chance to get to the inner district of the city from here, since the official tour guides won't let anyone leave the group. Says Yuka: "It's ridiculous. Under the guise of alleged health risks the authorities prevent me from seeing my family's home. But Hashima (the island's original name, before it was dubbed Gunkanjima; ed.) is not Chernobyl!"
She may be right in her comparison with the wasteland around the nuclear reactor in the Ukraine. Still, venturing in the ghost city of Gunkanjima is not without risk, as I learn from talking to a fisherman, who happens to sit on the pier of the island. "I witnessed at least four people who had accidents here", says the guy who doesn't want to tell me his name, since fishing on the island is illegal. Crumbling concrete walls, cracking wooden floors, slippery surfaces - there are many ways to get injured in the ruins of the city.
On the other hand, after three and a half decades of uninhabited isolation there's not much left to see in a rotten flat, as Michael Gakuran's pictures clearly show. So I wonder, what Yuka is expecting to find here. Or is it just her melancholic mood that drives her back to the place of childhood? For one, the island's fame mostly stems from the fact that it has been the blueprint for a mediocre video game and the set of a Japanese B-movie. What's more?
"Gunkanjima is a treasure of our cultural history", says a representative of Nagasaki Prefecture. He is pointing out that, some 100 years ago, Japan's first multi-storey concrete apartment block was built on the island. As such, "we are putting a lot of effort into obtaining the status of World Cultural Heritage for the site." However, this project is still pending. Yet for the moment, visitors are not allowed beyond the fence: "We don't want anybody to manipulate the original condition of the ruins", the official says in a strict voice.
So much for urban exploration romance - and about time to mount the tele-lens on the camera, in order to be not too disappointed at the end of the day. Here are some pictures I took on Gunkanjima, for your viewing pleasure:
The good thing about the recent efforts to make the island accessible for tourists is that you don't have to find a daring fisherman anymore who would be willing to let you come on board, chug to the forbidden city and cast anchor at a remote place that is likely to be out of view for the Japanese coast guard. But then, that's what a good part of the adventure was, when people like Michael Gakuran or Yuji Saiga, whose photo documentation and story are simply brilliant, set sail to Gunkanjima a few years ago.