Setting foot on Gunkanjima

Another ruin-hopping dream achieved, albeit in touristy form

Gunkanjima is a dream island destination for people who prefer their holiday islands dark, forbidding, and a little scary. People like me. So one thing I had to do in Kyushu was visit Gunkanjima, or ‘Battleship Island’, about an hour off the west coast of Nagasaki.

Battleship Island -- you can see why

Again, a little backstory is necessary. The island’s real name is Hashima, but with its concrete buildings and 12 meter sea wall it really does look like a massive battleship on approach, so these days it’s more famous under its nickname. It was once a thriving coal mine with a resident colony of miners, managers and their families. So thriving, in fact, that in the 1960s it was the most densely populated piece of land in the world, with a population of around 5,000. On a 15-acre island. It wasn’t even all land–the island itself was a steep rock rising out of the ocean and the flat space was the concrete skirt they’d built up around it since the late 19th century.

Sea Wall

It wasn’t economical to ship workers there every day and landing conditions were unreliable, so they built a city for everyone to live. Almost every convenience you’d find in a regular city was there, in smaller form. There were shops and restaurants, schools, a movie theater, a hospital and even a swimming pool (though from the films I’ve seen, the local kids preferred to just dive off the other side of the sea wall and into the ocean. Read more…


City Review: Nagasaki, Part 2

continued: the Portuguese, the Dutch, and oh no the Americans


canal in Nagasaki

The Portuguese had set up shop on a tiny artificial island in the harbor called Dejima. After their expulsion, it made a convenient free trade base-slash-internment camp for the city’s Dutch traders, who were much better behaved and easier to manage when all confined to the same island. The Dutch got their money, the Japanese got their foreign goods without so much cultural influence and the only locals allowed to interact with the traders on the actual island were Nagasaki’s prostitutes on weekends, and despite the odd arrangement everyone was happy.

Japan shut itself off completely from the outside world during the Sakoku period (1639-1853). Nagasaki was the only place in Japan with token access to other places, and by most accounts it was a pretty cool place to be. Like so many other of history’s trading ports and international hubs, its residents ended up quite cosmopolitan and sophisticated. According to a display in my hotel, Nagasaki was responsible for introducing Japan to chocolate, coffee, steam trains, photography, badminton and gabardine.


Once the outer wall of Dejima Island

Dejima ceased to be relevant after the Meiji Revolution when Japan began reopening itself to the world in the 1850s. The island itself disappeared in land reclamations in the early 20th century and it’s actually a fair way from the water’s edge these days, another testament to the Japanese love of engineering and construction. In recent years they’ve excavated and reconstructed bits of the original Dejima, with every intention of restoring it to its Sakoku period stage someday. For a few hundred yen, you can go in and walk the streets just as the Dutch traders did. Read more…

City Review: Nagasaki, Part 1

My visit to an international trading port with a story of multiculturalism, Catholicism, crucifixions, massive industry, nuclear hellfire and sponge cake

Central Nagasaki - don't port cities always look nice at dusk?

Nagasaki is one of those sleepy little cities whose location got it shaken awake by the course of history more often that it should have. Sitting there at the mouth of a harbor on the far western edge of Japan, you could imagine it looking the same as some far-flung outpost at the edge of the world, like a Hobart or St John’s. But Nagasaki is not at the edge of the world, rather right in the thick of things, and since it got everyone’s attention it’s been through a lot.

More recently, history has left Nagasaki in peace once more and the population is around half a million. Most Japanese visited as junior high school students and then forgot all about it. Non-Japanese think of it wrongly as a giant peace memorial. The coal mines shut down years ago and there isn’t much traffic on the roads. Maybe it only feels sleepy compared to Tokyo, because it’s energetic enough around the port and there’s still a lot of industrial activity in the form of shipping and giant Mitsubishi plants. Read more…

Choosing a cemetery

The time has come to choose a cemetery for my late father-in-law’s final resting place. This is kind of good news for me, as lately it’s been my job to carry the porcelain urn containing his bones to and from the various Buddhist ceremonies to mark his transition. While I’m honored to play such a central role in things, I’m also pretty clumsy and the whole time I’m petrified I’ll trip over a doorstep or something and commit the biggest faux pas of my life. I’m not happy watching him sit on that rickety coffee table while aftershocks from the 11 March quake continue to rattle around, either. To see him secured somewhere in concrete beneath granite would put my mind at ease.

Japanese graves

Japanese graves - names blurred because it felt better that way

I have to make a confession though: modern cemeteries do not thrill me. I find them bland, cookie-cutter places full of ostentatious stone monuments made by machine that people pay thousands of dollars for, and which are ignored by everyone other than the family concerned. One of those things, standing alone in the middle of an empty field, weathered by a century of storms and leaning at a precarious angle, fine. But a whole hundred square meter battery hen cage of the things, no emotional effect. I’ve made it clear to my wife that, should I die first, I want to be dressed in a clown suit and fired off a cruise liner into the ocean with a giant trebuchet. But I know they won’t do it for me. Funerals, burials, cremation, offerings and prayers are to satisfy the still-living and not the departed, no matter what everyone says. I’ll probably have a funeral just like everyone else’s with flowers and black suits and a stone with my name on it in a park full of others like it (maybe they’ll at least promise let me write the epitaph, and renege after I’m gone).

As far as I know my father-in-law had no such wishes and neither does anyone else in the family, so in the end we found a nice-enough place on a hillside, close enough to visit regularly. Because really that’s all it needs to be. Somewhere quiet-ish for people to keep a physical reminder of you and come to visit every so often. And as one of the still-living for whom this is really all for, I’ve always been grateful to have my deceased friends and relatives interred in decent places where I can honor their memories whether it’s what they would’ve wanted or not (in fact I’m damn sure some of them would not have wanted it).

I sat and watched while the guy showed us samples of granite, demonstrated the various shape and color combinations, and pointed out which plots were available. We chose one right near the edge with a view. It’ll be pretty lonely all by itself in the newer section, though I’m sure it won’t stay that way for long. Contracts were signed and prices discussed that made me even more determined to go through with my trebuchet idea, or maybe donate my body to science and gross out some first-year med students. No-one dares to scrimp on a stone memorial and land just ain’t cheap in Tokyo, even a square meter of it.

choices, choices

I can see why some people prefer to keep their loved ones’ remains at home, or scatter the ashes into the sea or in the goalsquare of a football pitch. As long as they’re cremated first, that is. It gives a personal touch that even a customized tombstone probably won’t and to me, a humble but personal touch is more valuable than the largest stone tower in the graveyard. But like people say to me when I tell them my own funeral plan, I’m probably in a minority there.

grave with MR2 tombstone

He probably wanted to be buried IN the MR2. But nice touch anyway

Not your father’s cyberpunk

It’s back to someone else’s past as Tokyo goes dark

So this is Neo-Tokyo. Despite being the inspiration, the city still exists as a kind of homage to the 80s cyberpunk imagery we saw in Akira and Los Angeles 2019. Long after those styles and even Japan itself went out of vogue, Tokyo shrugged and went about business in all its oversaturated neon glory. There was good reason for this: it wasn’t actually futuristic, it just looked that way to everyone outside Asia. It was the way Tokyo appeared on a normal day, and the rest of the world could make whatever it wanted of that.

In April 2011 Tokyo, things are not normal. Power shortages have provided ample excuse for everyone not to party or carry on as usual in the face of tragedy. Whether it’s a genuine attempt to save scarce electricity or a gesture of solidarity to those suffering the effects of last month’s earthquake and tsunami, or both, 21st century Tokyo has become a very different and even un-Tokyo-like place. The neon, jumbo TV screens and billboards are switched off. Crowds trudge up stairs instead of queueing for escalators, which are roped off as well as deactivated. Convenience stores and supermarkets have empty shelves where the toilet paper and bottled water used to be, and in most public buildings lighting has been halved. Even pachinko parlors, those temples of tacky overload, have been reduced to just annoying.

(yes, I know it's actually set in Chiba)

Many years ago, when I still thought stumbling out of clubs and trudging through the main drag of Shibuya at 4AM was a decent way to live, I was amazed how exanimate the place looked with its lights off. The only light and movement in ‘scramble crossing’ outside Shibuya station was a street sweeper, its orange hazards bouncing off streets of dark glass and concrete. Shibuya could have been any neighborhood in any big city, anywhere.  Read more…

Tokyo still standing as expats flee

On the news tonight, we we saw images of long lines of foreign residents at Narita Airport; people who’d finally decided Tokyo was too far outside their comfort zone and were waiting for the first available flights out. Earlier this week, the European CEO of my wife’s company fled the country while the rest of the company continued on at work. Many other professional expats joined him, many likely cabbing it to the airport and saving the receipts for their employers to reimburse them the 15,000 yen fare.

Out the window, I see the buildings of Tokyo still standing, people walking past with dogs and strollers. There’s a team of workers lopping trees and making a righteous racket with their chainsaws. Apart from one old woman carrying a bulk packet of toilet paper in each hand, there’s no hint of any panic in the air. Or radiation, for that matter.

At first I thought the knee-jerk evacuations might be another example of the cultural divide in Japan between Benefited Expat community, with their lucrative perks to compensate for the struggle of daily life overseas, and those of us who make just enough to get by. That all changed as the various foreign affairs departments of the UK, USA and Australia began advising their citizens to leave the city if they were able (France chartered planes to evacuate its own people; the UK is considering it). The decision to flee finally had some legitimacy, at least at the diplomatic level, relieving many of the duty to appear brave in front of their Japanese friends and colleagues. Read more…

Weeks from hell: choose your level

I’m thinking of taking my wife and wrapping her in cotton wool for the next couple of months. Already pregnant with what we’re hoping will become our first child, she was diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time and has spent the past month in medical limbo as doctors waited for the more stable second trimester to begin before launching any surgical intervention.
That was just for starters. Then last week, her father passed away and we spent the next few days performing funeral duties. By the end of it she was emotionally drained and even looking forward to relaxing for a few days of forced hospital recuperation away from the rest of the world.

On Friday afternoon she’d just come out of the operating theater and was working the anesthetic out of her system when the 9.0 earthquake rocked the east coast of Japan. I’m never that sure where to run when the building starts shaking, but even that confusion must be better than lying on a hospital gurney attached to all sorts of wires and tubes to inject and remove fluids. For the terrifying four minutes or so that the quake shook the building and objects flew about the place she could only lie there and hope it stopped. I was ready to throw myself across the bed railings if anything looked like falling on top of it, though I knew deep down it wouldn’t have done much good.

Bent Tokyo Tower

the very tip of Tokyo Tower was bent in the quake

I’m happy to report that this week from hell ended with all three of us intact. My wife’s surgery went without any other hitch and we can hear the baby’s little heart still pounding away on the ultrasound. I don’t even feel very good about calling it a week from hell when thousands of people to the north of me had lives, families, homes, even whole towns wiped out by the tsunamis that carried on the earthquake’s mayhem. I can only speak from the perspective of one man who wants to protect his own loved ones from harm and, even though I can claim no credit for the result, I’ll accept it, respecting the forces of nature that randomly select some for destruction and others for longevity. Railing at the unfairness of it all, at the innocents killed and villains spared. From funerals to ultrasound videos I’ve seen life at both ends this week, and realize the only answer is that old cliche after all: appreciate what you have, while you have it.

As I write this, those same natural forces rock our building with hourly aftershocks, and are still deciding whether to add nuclear disaster to poor Honshu’s string of misfortune. Declaring an end to the week from hell would be premature. My wife’s ordeal hasn’t finished yet and neither has Japan’s. Fingers well crossed.