Skip to main content

Dark history: A visit to Japan's creepiest island

By Diana Magnay, CNN
June 13, 2013 -- Updated 2136 GMT (0536 HKT)
Made famous in the latest James Bond movie, "Skyfall," Hashima Island is home to a ghostly uninhabited collection of apartment blocks -- all are ruined and crumbling. Made famous in the latest James Bond movie, "Skyfall," Hashima Island is home to a ghostly uninhabited collection of apartment blocks -- all are ruined and crumbling.
HIDE CAPTION
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
Exploring 'James Bond' island
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Japan's abandoned Hashima Island was the inspiration for the villain's lair in "Skyfall"
  • Tour operators have been offering trips from Nagasaki to Hashima since 2009, but access is limited
  • The ruins are spectacular and dangerous, and come with a dark history

(CNN) -- Nicknamed Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, because of its shape, Hashima island has an eerie, sinister look, perfect for, say, a villain's lair in an action movie.

The inspiration for villain Raoul Silva's deserted hideout in the James Bond movie "Skyfall," the island figures in one of the most dramatic shots of the film.

Its industrial ruins loom slowly into view as Bond and yet another ill-fated Bond girl speed toward the island in a luxury boat.

In real life, a trip to the island is less dramatic.

In 2009, tour operators began offering trips from Nagasaki to Hashima.

A standard trip entails a 40-minute boat ride and then an hour on the island, depending on weather conditions -- often the weather is so poor that boats don't even try to land.

Those hoping to pick their way through the rubble in Bond's footsteps, or take a photo at building number 65, where Bond babe Severine meets a gruesome end, will be disappointed.

The tourist route is a clearly defined path skirting just a quarter of the island.

While there's a good view of the ruins, visitors can't get anywhere close.

For that they need special permission from the Nagasaki City Council, and a compelling reason for going inside.

There's a simple explanation for all the security -- the ruins are extremely dangerous.

Read more: Hashima Island's wartime past

Hashima Island\'s real history is darker than any movie.
Hashima Island's real history is darker than any movie.

Boom and bust history

For almost 100 years, Hashima was a mining facility run by corporate giant Mitsubishi.

The mining community was housed in some of Japan's and the world's earliest concrete high-rises.

On this tiny 16-acre plot of land, high-rises were the best option for housing.

By 1959, the island was one of the most densely populated places on earth, with 5,259 people living on just 18 acres.

But by 1974, gas had replaced coal as Japan's major fuel source, Mitsubishi pulled out of the island, workers found jobs elsewhere and Hashima was left to rot.

According to the Nagasaki City Council, location scouts from Skyfall's production team spent several days on the island but decided it was too dangerous to film there.

Instead, sets duplicating Hashima's eerie wreckage were built in Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom.

Security for visitors

Visitors who are given permission must wear hard hats and have an escort from Nagasaki's city council.

Additional caution is necessary -- balconies and railings are long gone and a wrong turn up the "stairway to hell" to the rooftop can lead the unwary visitor to narrow pathways between buildings with perilous drops on either side.

Those who think they remember the way down from a climb to the top of the structure -- a small, wind-blown shrine remains there -- can find themselves in rooms with gaping holes in the floorboards and sheer drops to floors below.

Ghost town

Although Hashima was by no means abandoned overnight, it feels as though it might have been.

In the school, exercise books and broken abacuses lie in corners where sea winds have blown them.

Sheets of X-rays scatter the floor in the hospital, with faded imprints of miners' lungs still visible.

Children's shoes dot ruined pathways, as though their owners lost them while running to evacuate.

It feels a bit like Pripyat, the town adjoining Chernobyl, where residents really did leave in a hurry after the town's nuclear reactor exploded in 1986.

Weird stories

There are plenty of tales of weirdness surrounding everyday life on the island.

A guide who works at Gunkanjima Concierge, Tomoji Kobata is one of the three tour operators who lead trips to the island.

Although Kobata lived on the island for only a year in 1961, he's full of stories.

From the water, he points out spots where lovers would climb onto the island walls to watch the sunset, seeking out the smallest bit of privacy in a place where privacy was a rarity.

"It reminded me of Hong Kong," he says. "Cooking hours were quite noisy. Wives would borrow seasoning and exchange food they couldn't eat.

"No one would lock the door. There was an old woman called 'Watchdog' who checked on everyone who came in and out and would know everyone's business."

Kobata also talks about the darker side of Hashima's past.

Before and during World War II, Hashima, like many industrial sites in Japan, was a location for forced labor.

Korean and Chinese prisoners of war were kept here, enduring varying degrees of hardship.

Conditions in the mines were grueling.

Workers were subjected to heat and humidity with very little to eat and beatings if they slacked.

According to local records, 123 Koreans and 15 Chinese died on the island between 1925 and 1945.

Hashima is one of several industrial sites awaiting inclusion on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. South Korea, however, has formally objected to the island's petition for recognition due to its association with wartime slave laborers.

See also: 'Slave trade ghost town': The dark history of Bunce Island

Former Chinese laborers are still trying to gain compensation and an official apology from Mitsubishi for their enslavement at sites across the empire during World War II.

To Japan's neighbors, the island, in its ruined eeriness, is a symbol of a war wound that won't heal.

To most Japanese, it's a decaying remnant from a forgotten time.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0556 GMT (1356 HKT)
From Maastricht to Melbourne, these itineraries make bookish travelers look stylish.
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
Good cocktails combine with spectacular views across rivers, cityscapes and oceans at these bird-level drinkeries.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
A California homeowner's nightmare has become a cautionary tale for those who rent their homes to strangers.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 0226 GMT (1026 HKT)
Cinema loves portraying the lives of expats. Sometimes it gets it right. Sometimes it casts Nick Nolte as a jungle king.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 0117 GMT (0917 HKT)
Don't be intimidated, says a local expert. Here's how to do China without the hassles
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
When your city has an unenviable reputation for insulting tourists and fleecing them for every cent, inviting hotel guests to pay what they want could be a risky move.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 0710 GMT (1510 HKT)
1937 Auto Union V16 Streamliner, Audi Museum, Germany
With factory tours and collections of stunning vintage prototypes, southern Germany is petrolhead paradise.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1344 GMT (2144 HKT)
Every tourist destination has a flip side, a season when prices go down and savvy, flexible travelers can score big savings.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 0711 GMT (1511 HKT)
A Marrakech lamp bazaar
Morocco's Red City is crammed with stunning gardens, shaded souks and steamy bath houses.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
Santo Stefano Island, Italy
Pristine beaches, unspoiled nature and few tourists -- a stretch on these former penal colonies is no longer a punishment.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0749 GMT (1549 HKT)
Life in Joburg can be stressful. Luckily there are some exceedingly non-stressful places close by.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 0907 GMT (1707 HKT)
Istanbul skyline
CNN's Ivan Watson pays homage to the city he's called home for the past 12 years.
China notches up another superlative achievement as a Nanjing-based artist creates the world's largest and longest anamorphic painting.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 2002 GMT (0402 HKT)
In what is undoubtedly the world's "coolest" surf video, photographer Chris Burkhard endures freezing temperatures, blizzards and injury to capture Arctic waves and their riders.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0339 GMT (1139 HKT)
Few airline routes are as cutthroat as the one that travels between London and New York. It is the world's busiest route and there are few lengths airlines won't go to in the hopes of getting a piece of the action.
ADVERTISEMENT