Why Solo Tourists Can't Visit One Of Nagasaki's Top Tourist Attractions

At one time, the coal-mining island of Hashima in Nagasaki, Japan, was the world's most densely populated community. Over 5,000 people were packed into a living space of 38,000 square meters, with the rest of the island consisting of an underwater mine. Colloquially known as Gunkanjima or "Battleship Island," the place is now a ghost town, which observed the 50th anniversary of its mine closing in January 2024. Despite being deserted, Gunkanjima remains a popular tourist draw and a UNESCO World Heritage Site connected to the Meiji Industrial Revolution. However, you may be disappointed if you hope to charter a private boat for a solo travel adventure on the island. Gunkanjima is only accessible to licensed tour operators, so you'll need to buy a ticket and join a guided tour like everyone else.

Assuming your tour boat can dock (which depends on favorable weather conditions), your guide will lead your group on a preset route to observation points on the island's southern edge. Its abandoned buildings can only be viewed from behind safety rails. These derelict structures were built in the early 20th century, and after being left unattended and exposed to the elements for 50 additional years, it's not surprising they're off-limits to visitors. One of them is Japan's oldest reinforced concrete apartment, but even repair crews can't venture inside due to the risk of it collapsing. This is why it's required that people stick with a tour group and not wander off to explore the island alone.

A Skyfall adventure on Battleship Island

An island of condemned buildings may seem like a strange vacation destination, but think of Gunkanjima as another stunning James Bond location. It appeared as the villain's lair in the billion-dollar blockbuster "Skyfall," which features a thank you in the closing credits to Nagasaki's mayor "for the use of Gunkanjima." The 2012 movie helped raise the island's international profile after Gunkanjima opened for tours in 2009. Yet the island only appears in brief establishing shots onscreen, and as noted by /Film, it's CGI-enhanced, with most of the on-island scenes filmed on a UK set.

In a way, that's appropriate since some tourists eager to play Bond may have a similar experience with Gunkanjima. If your boat cannot dock, you may be left to cruise around the island, post enhanced photos of it online, and vicariously experience the rest of it at the Gunkanjima Digital Museum on Nagasaki's mainland. This is where tours with Gunkanjima Concierge, which touts its 94% success rate for island landings, depart daily.

From a wind-swept tour boat deck, with seagulls flapping overhead, it's easy to see how Gunkanjima earned its nickname. Encircled by a high seawall, the island's decaying edifices are built to its edge, so it genuinely looks like every last inch of it was once occupied. It gives Gunkanjima the unnatural, almost geometric appearance of a floating fortress. From certain angles, it also resembles a battleship cutting through the water.

Accessing Gunkanjima

The waters around Gunkanjima can be choppy, and Nagasaki (otherwise just as fabulous as Tokyo) has strict regulations in place for safe docking. According to Yamasa Shipping Co., Ltd. — one of the licensed tour operators — there's a municipal ordinance that prevents boats from landing if visibility is compromised or the wind speed or wave height is too great. Yamasa offers Gunkanjima landing cruises with English guides on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. For an individual adult, the tour runs ¥4,200, plus a ¥310 landing fee. You'll be issued a partial refund if the captain makes the judgment call that conditions are unsafe for passengers to disembark on the island. Gunkanjima Concierge offers audio guides in English, but it's a Japanese-language tour with a more expensive, tiered price structure, which tops out at ¥10,000 for the "Super Premium" experience (with the digital museum ticket, a reserved window seat, and first dibs on the boat's deck for optimum photos).

In 2018, the Netflix docuseries "Dark Tourist" also featured Gunkanjima in its Japan episode. Besides its ghost-town nature, what gives the island the tinge of a dark tourist site is its history of forced labor during World War II. Like the atomic bomb ruins in Nagasaki, it's still very much possible to visit Battleship Island and explore this part of Nagasaki's history, however. You'll just need to link up with a group tour because, unlike James Bond, this is one place you can't visit alone.