In awe of modern history at Nagasaki's Gunkanjima island

It takes 30 minutes by high-speed boat from Nagasaki Port to Hashima Coal Mine, commonly called Gunkanjima island. As the island appeared, cheers arose from passengers on a fully booked vessel, saying such things as, "I can see it!" and "It's wonderful!" Concrete seawalls and bare iron skeletons of many old buildings lined up on the island could be seen over the blue sea.

The island is about 20 kilometers from the port. The island's nickname, Gunkanjima, literally means "battleship island" because of its shape. On this small island, with a shoreline about 1.2 kilometers long, there are remains of high-rise apartment buildings built during the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989) eras, when the island thrived on undersea coal mining. On July 8, the island was registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list as part of the Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution.

Though the mine was closed in 1974, the Nagasaki municipal government and other organisations later built a visitor walkway on the island, allowing tourists to access limited areas since 2009. Thanks to the World Heritage registration, the popularity of Gunkanjima cruising tours have steadily risen. When I visited the island in mid-July, the 49-ton high-speed vessel Mercury, which can hold up to 140 passengers, was crowded with Japanese families and foreign tourists.

The vessel reduced its speed and cruised around the island for about 15 minutes. While I was overawed by the battleship shape of the island, Tsuyoshi Hamaguchi, the guide, started explaining about the island.

"There were primary and middle schools as well as a post office, hospital, hair salon, movie theatre and even a pachinko parlour on the island," he said.

At its peak around 1960, about 5,300 people lived on the island, and its population density was nine times higher than that of Tokyo at the time, according to Hamaguchi. I imagined the prosperity of the island in those days.

Hailing from Nagasaki, Hamaguchi, an operator of juku cram schools, started working as a guide in March. From 2012, he studied Japan's modern history for a master's programme at a university in Nagasaki. When he learned about the important role Gunkanjima island played, he applied to be a guide.

"Thanks to the hard work of residents on the island, we can live our current comfortable life. I'm very happy that this island that is so historically significant has gained global recognition," he said proudly.

After landing on the island, tourists took an hour-long tour. A brick office building, supporting pillars of a conveyor belt that carried coal, and other remains are so impressive that tourists have hardly enough time to take it all in.

"Attracted by the unique landscape, many people come to the island two or three times," said Ryuji Kuon, the president of Gunkanjima Concierge, which operates the tour.

I'm not surprised. I want to see different things on the island in different seasons or different hours. I also hope to look at the remains in more detail. After the 2½-hour cruise ended, I promised I would return someday soon.

Access

Gunkanjima landing tours are offered by five agencies in Nagasaki. Gunkanjima Concierge operates two round-trip cruises daily from Nagasaki Port Tokiwa terminal, a one-minute walk from the Ourakaigan-dori stop on the Nagasaki Electric Tramway. On both outward and return routes, the vessel stops at the resort island of Iojima. Reservations are required. The tour costs ¥3,900 (S$46) (tax included) per adult during summer, winter and spring vacations, weekends and national holidays, and ¥3,600 (tax included) on weekdays. Each tour participant needs to pay an additional ¥300 as a city facility fee. For further inquiries, call Gunkanjima Concierge at (095) 895-9300.

Cruising to other sites

Shiretoko (Hokkaido): Tour participants can observe whales, dolphins, brown bears, wild birds and oddly shaped rocks from a vessel. For inquiries, call Shiretoko Shari-cho Tourist Association at (0152) 22-2125 (in Japanese) or Shiretoko Rausu Tourism Association at (0153) 87-3360.

Ogasawara Islands (Tokyo): Tour participants can observe subtropical plants on the Ogasawara Islands. Tours departing from and arriving at such cities as Yokohama and Kobe are offered. For inquiries, call Mitsui O.S.K. Passenger Line, Ltd., (0120) 791-211 and Japan Cruise Line Ltd., (0120) 017-383 (in Japanese).

Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Itsukushima Shrine (Hiroshima): Hiroshima-based Aqua Net Hiroshima Co. operates a sightseeing boat. For inquiries, call (082) 297-4288.