As the boat leaves Nagasaki port, heading for the ‘Ghost Island’ of Hashima, I’m finding it hard to keep calm. I keep scanning the horizon for the unmistakable ship-like silhouette that gives the place its nickname: Battleship Island. We leave the shoreline, passing boats, barges and uninhabited small islands, then someone calls: ‘There it is!’ Sure enough, just like a naval warship, the island seems to float on the surface of the water, faded yet unmistakable. Visiting Hashima had been on my bucket list for years, first while living in Japan in the ’90s, then later again as photos of this wasteland cityscape began to surface in popular culture. Most famously, it was used as the villain’s lair in the 2012 James Bond film, Skyfall. Ironically, Hashima, owned by a coal company, was once the most densely populated place in Japan. When the coal mine closed in 1974, however, it took only four months for the island to be abandoned. Its dormitories, equipment, schools, clinics and temples were all left behind like something out of a post-apocalyptic dream. Now buildings have sloughed away, revealing forgotten dolls, televisions and kitchen appliances. Vinechoked alleyways are strewn with rubble from the evocative, artful decay. As we arrive and clamber out onto walkways, I feel like I’m being escorted into a world of science fiction. Rusted iron spikes are twisted into claw-like fingers. The mineshaft seems like a gaping mouth. I blink and see ghosts of miners coming up from the depths, blackened from head to toe. We stop at a safe distance away from the structures, in case of sudden collapses. The group, a chatty bunch of mainly Japanese tourists, has fallen silent, sombre. I imagine spending a night on the island, watching as the sun soaks the cement. It’s impressively bleak, devoid of not just human life, but any life at all. I’m hard-pressed to spot even a seagull wheeling around in the sky. As we return to the boat, I think of the Inca, the Maya, the Anasazi, the Egyptian pharaohs. Will Tokyo and New York and Paris look like this some day? Who lived here? People will wonder, as they pass along marked paths. What caused them to leave? Where did they go? When the boat finally docks, the throngs of people around me seem more precious, and more fragile. It’s a feeling that takes a long time to fade. By Ray Bartlett
Access is only via guided tour from Nagasaki’s O port. See gunkanjima-concierge.com.