- Produced with content from the following Magnesium members:
Photography © Ken Lee and Skorj / Magnesium All Rights Reserved
Text © Skorj / Magnesium All Rights Reserved
Along with two other photographers, I am sitting in a rented car. As we sit parked on a sparsely lit dock in the south of Japan, we are watching the sun rise. Even before our arrival it feels like a unique journey; short-hop commuter flights, business hotels, a rented Honda rep-mobile, plotted routes on topographical maps, ramen dinners and konbini breakfasts.
It is 04:30, and after having driven through the early hours from Nagasaki to a remote fishing village in search of our boatman, we are ready to embark on the final leg to our ultimate destination – Hashima. An abandoned island-city, Hashima remains untouched in the nearly forty years since its 5000 or so occupants vacated by boat, taking with them only a few scant possessions.
With mining operations established in 1810, on an island less than 500 metres long, Hashima’s well known legacy includes it once being the most densely populated place on earth, housing what was Japan’s tallest building, and its first large-scale reinforced concrete apartment block. The erroneous claim of this island city being shelled by the US Navy in World War Two, ‘as it looked like a battleship’, contributes to the legend of Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, evident in the popular local nickname for Hashima.
Coming across a few fishermen, who are enjoying their last cigarette before returning home, we are gruffly told our boatman is on the other side of the dock. Approaching him within earshot of his companions, he mumbles nothing more than our departure time, and walks off. At sea, our boatman’s demeanor changes immediately to a jovial, entertaining host arranged at the behest of our sponsors, telling us stories of the sea, and of his Hashima. Forty-five minutes later, he lands us on Hashima, and three of us scramble ashore with a day’s supplies, cameras, and more film than I have ever carried.
After giving us his promise to return before sunset, our boatman maneuvers off station, leaving us alone with the silence of Hashima, awed, and not really sure of what to do next.
Photography: Ken Lee / Magnesium. Nikon F3 20mm and XP2 Super.
The feeling of being in some far off post-apocalyptic land is immense. To experience a place where every way you turn is abandoned desolation, immediately overwhelms; you do not need to imagine what it would be like to stand in a once occupied city after a plague, The Bomb, or at the end of time.
Everything from the hospital, the school, factories, apartments, the bathhouse, the gymnasium, and the shrines stands vacant. Dark canyons of fallen lumber fill the streets, collapsed roofs abound, the detritus of a modern life is scattered under your feet as you walk – washed from the buildings by the wind, the rain, and the sea.
With little more to hear than a plaintive sea bird, and ominously the occasional clattering sound of falling masonry and concrete, we step over telephones, sake cups, toothbrushes, broken toys, milk bottles, and curiously, dental tools, all laying under foot as we scramble over what were once streets, and through the vacant buildings.
It is tempting to try and extract a man-against-nature message when coming to Hashima. The message here however is simply one of isolation, the feeling of vulnerability, and the opportunity to travel back in time to explore the lives of a coal mining island-city; to experience a snapshot of life in Japan from the 1960s and 1970s.
I cannot speak for my companions, but over the course of a day on Hashima as we document what we see, I go from being a photographer intent on making some serious commentary with my work, to gawking like an American tourist in Paris.
With the declining need for coal in the 1970s, Mitsubishi closed operations over a period of a few short months, ferrying the inhabitants back to the mainland with not much more than what they could carry. What they left behind in 1974, is the Hashima you see now.
Photography: Skorj / Magnesium. Polaroid Type-665.
With the passing of ownership and control from the Mitsubishi Mining Corporation to the local Prefecture Office, a 220 meter public walkway has now been opened on the south end of the island. Twice-daily tours, either as a stand-alone Hashima access ticket, or as part of a regional historic pass, are now available. Hashima, as we experienced it, will most likely disappear with the expected advent of the eager day tripper.
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