Gunkanjima (軍艦島, real name Hashima 端島) is a tiny island off the coast of Nagasaki.
From the 19th century through to the late 20th century, it was heavily populated - apparently in 1959 it hit 3460 people per square kilometre, which was the highest population density ever recorded - because Mitsubishi had a coal mine on the island. Eventually a school, a hospital, and some huge apartment blocks grew up to support the mine (even though it is less than an hour by hydrofoil - probably not available back then - from Nagasaki Port). So basically, you had this tiny, massively dense island society that existed for the sole purpose of extracting coal.
In the 70s, coal became less and less useful thanks to the good ol' boys who pump out Middle East petrol, and it closed down in 1974. Every last person left the island, often not bothering to clean up before they said goodbye. Now, Gunkanjima is a ghost island, with all the infrastructure of a city, but not a living soul. I'm sure you are now thinking the same thing I was when I found this out...
I MUST GET ON THAT ISLAND.
Unfortunately, getting on Gunkan is rather difficult. In the first place, there is no wharf, so on rough days you have no chance of getting a boat close enough without being smashed to pieces. More importantly, it is now illegal to go on the island, ostensibly because of the danger in doing so - were something to collapse on you, you would be as good as dead. Still, I had an idea in my head.
I MUST GET ON THAT ISLAND.
I did my research and found some accounts written by other people who had been on the island. One Japanese person had slapped some cash down in the hand of a fisherman on nearby Takashima Island (less than 10 minutes by motorboat) and made it out there, so I figured we could do the same, if we tried hard enough and looked inconspicuous enough. Nice idea, you white redhead.
We got to Nagasaki by bus in the early afternoon, planning to challenge the island the day after. However, the weather the day we arrived was awesome, and we found out the next day would be rough, so we hastily changed our plans and headed for Nagasaki wharf at about 2. The next ferry to Takashima wasn't leaving until 5:30, so we took a bus for half an hour to a port farther south, where there was another ferry leaving at 3:30, but we ended up arriving just as it was pulling away. The next one? 5:30. Fuck. The area we were in was technically part of Nagasaki, but it was such a dead-end hole that... wait for it.... it didn't even have a convenience store! Shock, horror. Well, in fact, it did, but I think the old cretin who ran it just stole the sign from somewhere else, because it was basically just the kind of general store you might find in Cowaramup or some other tiny town.
We made some surreptitious enquiries to some old men about getting a ride out to Gunkan, but the answer was a resounding FUCK OFF. One old man just ignored us. The geezer who drove the ferry told us that until recently people would take you out there for some cash under the table, but recently the island was under a new jurisdiction and the mayor of Nagasaki had explicitly ordered people to stay the hell off or face the consequences. So no go... but we did get the phone number of some old guy on the southernmost tip of Nagasaki who would take us to Gunkan anyway! Awesome!
But... we had failed to take into account that fisherman only go out in the mornings, and it was already almost 5 in the evening. We gave him a call and tried to sort something out for the next day, but he said he doubted that he would be heading out due to the weather, but that if we wanted to go, we should come to where he leaves from by 6am.
If we wanted to make it there by 6, we would have to take a taxi (no buses that early) from Nagasaki, where our hotel was by around 4:30, pay the huge charge, and pay the dude to ferry us out there. And even if we made it to his boat, we might still not be able to go thanks to the weather. Tough choice, but we decided we would head to Takashima ourselves on the dawn ferry the next day and make our own way from there. We caught the bus back to Nagasaki, and you'll have to wait 'til next time for the gunkan story.
Incidentally, this was our route down from Fukuoka. I highly recommend the Kyushu Kosoku Bus Service. It was cheap, fast, and comfortable.
Getting back to town, we went up to the Glover Gardens in the Holland Hills area. Nagasaki is a unique place in Japan in that it was the only port that was open to foreign trade during Japan's long period as a closed country - and even then, pretty much only to trade from Holland and China. There are still a lot of remnants from this heritage, making Nagasaki not just a beautiful port town, but one rich in history too.
View over Nagasaki
Parts of the Glover Gardens
We spent the evening eating at sit-down street stalls (yatai 屋台), which were, as usual, awesome and bizarre. If you're not friendly, it seems you don't go to yatai. Went to bed fairly early because we wanted to be on the 5:50 ferry the next day.
Nagasaki was the only place we stayed for 2 nights, and we beautifully ended up with the shittiest hotel of the trip. I'd like to make a point here not to stay at the Ebisu Youth Hostel. We made a booking there because it was close to Nagasaki station and looked quirky, but when we got there we found we would actually be staying in a business hotel down the road. The hotel itself was not terrible, but it wasn't what we booked, and the staff at both places were inexperienced and unhelpful. I haven't stayed at many places in Japan that I didn't like, but this was one of them. Avoid it.