Enter the stairway to hell. Around 3 years ago, I was feeling dissatisfied with my office life (more on that later), so I decided to book a trip to the abandoned island where the live action Attack on Titan and Skyfall movies were filmed. Unlike other remote places I’ve ventured to, I didn’t come here because I was a huge fan of the movies. The reason I came here was to experience the eeriness of the desolate ruins and ponder on life while doing some photography. The island itself is quite small and requires you to book a tour in advance due to safety concerns, but the sights here will leave you with a haunting feeling—in a good way. You’ll also have the chance to learn about the unique history of Gunkanjima. From the surface it looks like a simple island that was used to mine coal, but the more you look into it, the darker the story gets.
Gunkanjima was originally a coal hot spot in the 1800s but was abandoned in 1974 after the need for petroleum became greater. After all the people left, nature took its course and many of the buildings gradually eroded away. Trees and flowers started growing through the cracks eventually making it on the way to become a UNESCO World Heritage Historical Site due to its supernatural beauty. However, during World War II many Korean and Chinese prisoners of war were sentenced to harsh labor here. It is estimated that over 1000 of them died. This is where the image of the island gets controversial.
Should it serve as a historical landmark or a haunting memorial?
When you first get off the boat, the island seems nothing more than a collage of broken wreckage. You can make out some of the buildings but you have no idea what they once were. As you look at the details closely, it’s wondrous to see what parts of the structures have collapsed and what parts are still standing. Then as you hear the explanation by the guide (which is in Japanese but they have a translated English brochure), you start to really wonder what went on here. Though there are no visible bloodstains or remains of corpses here, it becomes easier to imagine as you start to explore and think about it.
What makes it the spookiest is the way it was originally constructed. There are labyrinths of avenues and the infamous “stairway to hell”, which is a narrow staircase that has now somewhat caved in and looks deformed. Looking at these pictures, it’s hard to believe that this island once had a primary school and apartments that housed hundreds of residents then became a prison. But it’s all true. I don’t personally believe the ghost stories, but there are some interesting rumors on the net. If you would like to take a virtual tour of Gunkanjima Island and learn more, please The Forgotten World.
So what did I gain from coming here? A new perspective. A sight that I will forever remember. A lot to analyze and think about. A fun boat ride. A day off from work. Bragging rights that I made it all the way to a remote place. Some mindfuck (the usual).
Jokes aside, I am really happy that I came here. My heart goes out to all of the war victims. Remote and out of public eye, probably few people knew what actually happened here. Witnessing a rare part of history made me really made me more grateful for my own life.
Is the island safe to visit?
Yes. There are trained guides that will take you in groups of people. Most of the island is roped off, but you can still freely walk around and do photography to your heart’s content. You can’t climb the stairs or enter any eroded buildings, but you can get very close to the wreckage without worrying about it collapsing on you.
Booking a Tour
There are number of companies that run chartered group tours you can browse, but I chose the one by Yamasa that cost 4200 yen. They have both English and Japanese support and a lot of availability. The tour gives you roughly an hour to explore the island before they take you back to Nagasaki, but due to its small size that is plenty of time.
You cannot access this island by yourself. Remember to be respectful when you are here.
This island is in Nagasaki and is quite a long journey from Tokyo (about 7 hours), but it’s worth the trip if you’re a true explorer.
Take a flight to either Fukuoka or Nagasaki Airport, then a bus to Nagasaki Station. From there you can take a taxi or bus to Nagasaki Port and reach the island in 40 mins via boat (which needs to be booked in advance and is weather-dependent). This will cost minimum 20,000 yen but is overall worth it for the experience.
The weather was cloudy when I went which was perfect for the overall aesthetic. Please do not go if you are faint of heart.
If you are interested in other eerie islands stories I have, please see my Okunoshima article.