A pile of junk or a global treasure?

We had booked our flights to Japan almost nine months in advance.

It was only thanks to our alert travel agent, Daisuke Mizukoshi, of Pitt Travel in Sydney, that we discovered that our original itinerary would have meant travelling during one of the busiest times of the year: Golden Week.

Dai advised us to reconsider our travel plans to avoid the two weekends of Golden Week.  That was unless we were happy to stand for hours on trains.  We were not.

As we watched Kyoto fill up with visitors two days before the start of the first weekend, we were relieved to know that we would soon be in Nagasaki.  Even if it meant spending the day getting there, using two shinkansens and a local train for the last leg to Nagasaki.

For most visitors, Nagasaki is synonymous with the dropping of the second – and much larger – atomic bomb on a Japanese city on 9 August 1945.  And while one cannot visit Nagasaki without looking in on the affected sites and memorials to the devastation wreaked by the dropping of Fat Man, there is much more to this city and its environs than reminders of World War Two.

For much of its history, Nagasaki was Japan’s only link to the outside world, playing a significant role in Japan’s development as a modern nation.  Europeans began settling in the area from the mid sixteenth century and by 1570, Nagasaki was an active trading port with first Portuguese, then Dutch traders and finally British entrepreneurs making their mark.  Luckily, much of this European influence survived the atomic blast and evidence of its presence can be seen in the reclaimed island of Dejima and the restored buildings of the Dutch Slope.

But fine as these European accented treasures of the past are, it is on a rather more unusual piece of potential heritage that I wish to focus.  And you can find it on an island in the East China Sea about 40 minutes by boat from Nagasaki.


Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, is thus named for its outline when viewed from a distance.

The island’s real name is Hashima and its primary purpose was to harvest coal from underground mines.

The Hashima mine commenced operations in 1887 and closed in 1974. By 1916, the island’s population had reached 3,000 and the first of many reinforced concrete apartment blocks was built to address the shortage of housing space as well as to withstand cyclone damage.

Larger concrete apartment buildings followed suit, resulting in 30 such structures being crammed on the island.

Wartime demand for coal saw production peak at 410,000 tons in 1941.  The war effort was assisted by the forced participation of Korean and Chinese labourers, many of whom died as a result of harsh conditions and insufficient rations.  By the close of World War Two, 1,300 labourers had died on the island, some in mining related accidents and others from illnesses related to exhaustion and malnutrition.

After the war, production continued apace forging the tools for Japan’s recovery and later on the munitions required for the Korean War.

At its peak in 1959, the island was home to a community of over 5,000 people, living at densities of 835 people per hectare.  To put this in some context, Australia’s most densely populated suburb, Pyrmont, contained 139 persons per hectare in June 2012.

Jostling for space among Hashima’s high-rise apartments were all the activities associated with urban living: schools, kindergarten, gym, movie theatre, pinball parlour, restaurants and bars, supermarkets and other retail shops, hospital, sports grounds, Buddhist and Shinto temples.  Even a brothel.

The quality and size of living quarters – provided free of charge, along with electricity and water – mirrored the status of occupants.

Single miners and employees of sub-contracting companies lived in older, one-roomed apartments of less than 10 square metres, with a window, door and entrance foyer.  Occupants shared communal kitchen and bathroom facilities.  Married workers fared slightly better; they were allocated two rooms, but still with shared amenities.  High ranking office personnel and teachers could enjoy two bedroom apartments with kitchens and flush toilets.  The mine manager had the pick of the crop: a wood constructed residence with wide open views.

Some things weren’t available on Hashima.  Motor cars were non-existent, nor were they missed.  However, the absence of soil worked against the development of a sustainable food supply, with the resident community having to depend heavily on the outside world for food and other staples.

A hard-fought campaign to grow fresh produce on the island resulted in the importing of soil from the mainland in 1963 for rooftop gardens.  These not only gave residents fresh vegetables and flowers, but a semblance of “green space”.

The pleasure of being able to source locally grown produce, however, was short-lived.

As petrol replaced coal as an energy source in Japan in the 1960’s, coal mines began closing down throughout the country.  Hashima’s mine closed in January 1974 and the last resident left in April of that year.

This is what the island looks like today.  If you’ve seen the movie, Skyfall, these images will be familiar to you.













A steady trickle of journalists started arriving in 2005 and the ensuing media exposure culminated in the opening up of Hashima – or Gunkanjima, as it is billed in the tourist material – to visitation in 2009.  Due to the dangerous condition of the island’s buildings – several of which have collapsed – visitors are restricted to a specially constructed walkway and viewing area where oen corner of the island can be inspected.

Apart from its Skyfall credentials, Hashima has featured in various documentaries such as the History Channel’s Life After People and the 3D production, Forgotten Planet, which discussed the island’s current state, history and unauthorized photo shoots by urban explorers.  It has been a magnet for photographers and a unique setting for commercials.

In 2013, Google sent an employee to the island with a Street View backpack to capture its condition in panoramic 360-degree views and allow users to take a virtual walk across the island from the safety of their desktop.

It was with some curiosity that I learned of a proposal to designate Hashima as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Yes, indeed.  A non-profit organisation, “The Way to World Heritage Gunkanjima” has nominated the island as one of the “Modern Industrial Heritage sites in Kyushi and Yamaguchi”.  The organisation is represented by a former island resident, Doutoko Sakamoto.

While the nomination is inching up the ladder of approvals and is currently on the Tentative List, Korea has objected on the grounds of ill-treatment of its citizens during World War Two.

But is Battleship Island really worthy of such high level order recognition?

The nomination for a World Heritage Listing was made under the following cultural criteria:

  • (ii) “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”
  • (iii) “bears a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  • (iv) “is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”

While the intent of these criteria is open to interpretation – could UNESCO not have chosen a simpler form of expression? – the general thrust of criteria (ii) and (iii) seems satisfied.

It is criterion (iv) that troubles me a little.

What constitutes “outstanding”?  Is it the appearance of the built form?  Its quality?  Functionality?  How it shaped its inhabitants’ way of life?  All of these things?

If this building is representative of apartment dwellings in their operational phase, then the test for architectural merit seems unlikely to be met.

50 years of abandonment and exposure to the elements have done little to retain whatever quality the buildings may once have had.

Designed well before the advent of energy efficiency ratings, the number of open windows and what appear to be retro-fitted air-conditioning units attest to uncomfortable living conditions in summer.  No doubt the reverse situation applied in winter, especially for those apartments which lacked direct sunlight access.

The highest living densities ever recorded in Japan must have tested neighbour relations to the limit, with up to five people sharing in a single room.

“Outstanding” it was not.

Yet despite its ruinous state, Hashima remains an endlessly and eerily fascinating place.  As I watched the tour guide rattle through the history of the island in the gentle breeze of an early summer, I wondered what it must have been like when the buildings were alive with people and the atmosphere buzzing with activity.

Several months on, I still carry memories of the desolate landscape and the scarred buildings.  Yes, Hashima certainly made an impression, even if not for all the reasons cited in the World Heritage bid.

It remains to be seen how the good adjudicators at UNESCO will handle this World Heritage nomination.

Watch this space.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Much of the history of Hashima is drawn from “Hashima: the ghost island” by Brian Burke-Gaffney 2002 http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/7/hashima.php


Torii, torii, torii!

You will not travel far in Japan before seeing a torii, a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine.

They first appeared in Japan over a thousand years ago, the oldest existing stone torii having been built in the 12th century and belonging to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture.

Torii were traditionally made from wood or stone, but these days you will also find them made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel.  Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate torii in gratitude to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. [1]

Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of torii, each bearing the donor’s name.This is the best place to get your fix of torii.

Left or right?   It doesn’t really matter.IMG_3884A bit of stone thrown in for diversity.IMG_3896

Komainu are a pair of guardian dogs or lions often found on each side of a shrine’s entrance.  In the case of the Inari Shrines, they are foxes (see picture below) rather than dogs.IMG_3894One of many torii gates at the World Heritage Listed site at Nikko.IMG_3249A timber torii at Nikko.IMG_3253This one in a Tokyo park seems purely for decoration.IMG_3301A utilitarian torii in central Matsumoto, overshadowed by the ugliest edifice in the town.IMG_3590

A modern take on the torii gate?  The Mitsubishi shipbuilding shrineyard in Nagasaki.IMG_4199

One of the three top rated scenic views – and possibly the most photographed torii gate in the world? – in Japan.  Itsukushima Shrine is another World Heritage Listed site built over water and its associated torii gate appears to be floating on the water at high tide.  It is less than an hour’s train and ferry commute from Hiroshima.IMG_4272


Lining up to take a photo of the torii.  As one does in Japan.  IMG_4277

Be patient, your turn will come.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1]               http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torii

The art of street covers


I often look down when I’m walking.  I don’t know whether it’s a function of above average height – it’s a fair way down there for me – or whether some hidden force seems to place obstacles in my path.  Either way, I prefer not to take my eyes off the ground for too long for fear that I might trip up.  Or worse, step into a pile of faeces.

Up until the time when multi-focals entered my life, I could get away with dipping my eyes downwards and know that they would adjust their focus automatically.  Presbyopia put an end to all that.  Now I incline my head as well as my eyes in order to survive the hazards of street and footpath travel.

There is not much to recommend looking down at Sydney roads and footpaths.  In fact,  if  you were to ask me to describe the sewer cover in the street outside my house – an object I have crossed both on foot and in the car probably more than a thousand times – I’d be hard pressed to describe its features to you, other than it is dark grey in colour.  I think.

But in Japan my visual circumstances unwittingly opened up a new interest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed: the beauty of the street and footpath.  Looking down suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

So what could be attractive about millions of kilometres of bitumen?  Quite a bit.  And this is yet another example of how Japan takes a universal concept and turns it into something special.

At home, street covers appear standard, mundane and forgettable.  Their primary purpose is to hide the waste that flows beneath them.  In Japan, however, they are neither standard nor mundane.  And you will never forget them.

The Japanese street covers of today are a relatively new addition to the urban fabric.  They were, however, a by-product of a separate, larger initiative: the desire to standardise the Japanese sewer system in the 1980’s.

The overhaul of the system was agreed to by municipalities on condition that each got its own custom designed sewer cover.

These custom designed covers became important to cities and towns because they presented an opportunity for them to turn a normally ordinary part of a town into something that could showcase local attractions, festivals, crafts, flora and fauna, even tell a story.[1]

All of Japan’s custom sewer and associated street covers are forged in the Nagashima Foundry, the second largest in Japan.  The foundry has made 6,000 different patterns and a carved wooden prototype of each design is saved in a central library.[2]

It wasn’t until we reached Kyoto – the fourth leg of our trip – that I really started noticing the detail in the street covers.  It was as if some subliminal reinforcement had been working on my consciousness and it needed a few days to take hold, to awaken my senses to the quirky art of the covers.

After that I could hardly take my eyes off the ground.  Here’s why.

A street cover in Nara.


Takamatsu, famous for (the remnants of) its castle by the sea.


Matsue, another town famous for its castle and its surrounding garden.


Pagoda and blossom motif, Osaka.




Nagasaki drain cover.


The beauty of these objects tends to overshadow their primary purpose, that is, to keep a lid on waste.  They have attracted the attention of numerous photographers far more competent than me and are the subject of a book by Remo Camerota, appropriately titled “Drainspotting”.

Looking down will never be the same for me again.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For the love of a cat

As we passed through one of Asakusa’s many shopping alleys, I was bemused to see four middle-aged men fawning over a tortoiseshell cat perched on some goods outside a shop.  The cat seemed quite accustomed to the attention of strangers and I soon found myself joining in.

I shall declare an interest here: I love cats.  We have three felines at home who are a big constant in our lives.  When travelling, I do miss them.

But on this trip, cat therapy was close at hand.  Japan is home to some 79 cat cafés and, for a fee, I could get my fix of felix.  While the cat café’s primary purpose is to give city apartment dwellers – often having to work long hours and unable to keep pets – the ability to pet a cat in a controlled environment, tourists are welcome to partake too.

For a background to the cat café culture in Japan, see here. 

I had put M on notice that we were not allowed to leave Japan without visiting at least one cat café.  As we ticked off various destinations on our itinerary, I mentally charted lost opportunities, from the sixth floor cat café near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from our hotel, to the cat café in Kyoto near the Nishiki markets.


I did turn off the flash, honest!


We will probably never get to pet Liz, Chocolat, Pen or Karin in Kyoto.  M felt that 1200 Yen (about A$12 at the time) was a bit steep for 30 minutes.  Skinflint.


During some down time in Nagasaki we found ourselves near the city’s sole cat café, Neko Fuku Fuku.  We agree that “it’s time”.  I argue for an hour, at 800 Yen, but am beaten down by M to half an hour at 500 yen.  It’s still a bargain compared to Kyoto and Tokyo prices.

With its four metre frontage and see through front window, Neko (meaning cat) Fuku Fuku doesn’t  look like the kind of flash cat café we’ve read about in the bigger cities.  Those which serve tea, coffee, cakes and snacks.  Fuku Fuku has a sort of utilitarian feel to it.  We get the feeling that one comes here strictly to pet the cats.

There are two doors which separate the street from the cats, one at the public entry behind which is a vestibule and the other at the end of the vestibule.  This is obviously for security purposes, as an escapee cat would stand no chance in the Nagasaki traffic.

We take off our shoes and don slippers.  The female proprietor speaks enough English to ask us how much time we want, take our cash and start the clock.  We are even given a “five-minute bell” to remind us not to overstay.  She is friendly enough, but does not engage.  If I have any questions about cat cafés – and I do – then I’m not going to get them answered here.


There are nine cats in all, five in the room fronting onto the street and four in a room at the back.  Two are in a cage for some reason.  All but one younger cat are fast asleep.  Now I know that cats sleep a fair bit, but these barely twitch an ear on our arrival.  Have we come at siesta time?

I set to and pat the tortoiseshell in the doll’s house.  It curls its paws, but does not purr.


I move to the tabby on the orange shag pile and get a similar reaction, then to the tabby with white markings in the window.  And so it continues.

The room at the back has a couple of tables and chairs on raised tatami mats, suggesting the possibility of refreshments.  None is offered.  Perhaps we need to stay an hour to qualify for that.


The cats are obviously well fed and well looked after.  Their coats are smooth and sleek to the touch, a sure sign of good health.  They may be a bit dopey, but they are not unfriendly.  Each one responds in some way to our ministrations, the youngest quite playful at times.  The establishment is neat and tidy, and spotlessly clean.  If there are cat toilets anywhere, they have been discreetly placed out of sight and there is no smell of cat urine inside.

As we stood there, I wondered where these cats might have come from.  Apparently some 200,000 abandoned cats are destroyed in Japan every year, so there is a role for cat cafés – in a small way – to do their bit by taking in rescue animals.

Questions have been asked about the welfare of the cats.  There is a view that large numbers of cats do not thrive in confined spaces and that they might find such an environment stressful.  This was not evident in Neko Fuku Fuku when we visited, but it may be at other times and in other cat cafés.  Cat cafés are also required to obtain a licence to operate and to comply with strict regulations governing the protection of animals.

What about the health of the cats?  Do the Nagasaki cats ever see the sun?  Does the proprietor take them somewhere where they can run and play?  Can they have a good life without going outside?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that indoor cats can live longer than their “free to roam” counterparts.  The home is free of both natural (e.g. dogs) and artificial threats (e.g. cars), although indoor cats generally need more stimulus and are more demanding of humans.

My thoughts returned to the Nagasaki cats, cooped up in what I reckoned was less than 50 square metres.  Would a few cat trees, toys and the stimulus of passing humans be enough to promote longevity in their case?


A week later, we were on the island of Naoshima.  Despite the island’s tiny population – it has fewer than 4,000 inhabitants – it supports a cat café.  This is a very charming venue in a lovely garden setting and if it had been the first cat café I’d seen in Japan, I’d have found it hard not to venture inside.

But by now I was over it.  I wanted the company of my own cats and I particularly wanted to tell them how lucky they were to live in our home.

Not that they would know anything different.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.