Sunday, January 19, 2014

Glover Garden and Gunkanjima (軍艦島)

Heart-shaped charms at Glover Garden in Nagasaki.
I left the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum subdued and pensive, but there was still much to do on our itinerary, so I shelved my thoughts for later. Erik and I walked over to Nagasaki's Chinatown and munched on the Japanese version of gua bao, then headed up into the hills to tour Glover Garden, a cute little neighborhood of lavish Western-style houses built by merchants and businessmen in the late nineteenth century. The higher we went, the more magnificent the view of the harbor city became. At the top, I took a panorama photo with my cell phone; excuse the lazy stitching job and poor quality, but you can sort of get the idea.
All the hills have Nagasaki reminding me of San Francisco.
Christian martyrs' fountain in Glover Garden, Nagasaki.
The gardens themselves are nice enough to walk around, but what Erik and I noticed the most was the eerie lack of other tourists. Erik blamed the winter and the cold weather; in all other seasons, he said, these gardens were packed with people. This continued to be a theme on our travels. I chose a remarkably low-traffic time of the year to visit Kyushu!

The photo at left is of a fountain that was built to commemorate Christian martyrs in Japan. The history of Christianity in this country is very interesting. It was introduced by Francis Xavier, a Basque Jesuit missionary, when he landed in Kagoshima in 1549. Thanks to early missionary work, northern Kyushu is where "all the churches are" in Japan. But in the 17th century, Christianity was forced underground, and many believers were martyred. Japan opened up to the West again in 1853 at the start of the Meiji period, and in 1871, freedom of religion was restored in the country. Christian communities that had been in hiding for hundreds of years have been slowly growing ever since.
Glover House of Glover Garden in Nagasaki.
A model of the 1.2-meter sundae.
As evening approached, Erik and I met up with a friend of his from the area named Fumi, and we had dinner at an izakaya (居酒屋), which is essentially a pub, but the one we went to was very classy. We had a feast that included sashimi, tempura, delicious grilled meats of some sort, and Japanese beer.

For dessert, we went to a diner called Cafe Olympic, which is famous for... how else can I say it? American-sized portions of everything. You can get a steak as big as your head here. But for our dessert, we ordered a super-tall sundae. The largest ice cream sundae offered at the cafe is a ridiculous 1.2 meters tall. It's a glass as long as your arm filled with four or five different flavors, topped with several more cones and various other random items. I mean, ice cream is ice cream, but you really come here for the novelty of eating your way through a four-foot tower of deliciousness. Fumi said he wanted us to experience a "funny dessert", and sure enough, we had our laughs.

The next morning, Erik and I set out for Gunkanjima (軍艦島), or Battleship Island. Its actual name is Hashima, but when you see it you can easily understand why it was given the militaresque moniker. It took half an hour for our ferry to reach the island; it's not that far out to sea, and from it you can easily see the mainland's coast. From the mainland, though, I don't think it's possible to see this:
Gunkanjima, Battleship Island.
So, yeah, holy cow, what is that? Hashima was a coal mining facility operated by Mitsubishi from 1887 to 1974. The miners and their families lived on the rock itself, having expanded it over the years to become a nearly self-sustained community. At its peak, over five thousand people lived on the island of 0.025 square miles. When Japan began to shift toward petroleum instead of coal, Hashima was abandoned, and it has fallen into extreme disrepair in just forty years.

Ruins on an island in the middle of the sea.
The island used to have dozens of high-rise apartment buildings up to seven stories tall, as well as a large school, a shrine, a hospital, a saltwater swimming pool, and of course, a large mining facility and its offices. Many of these buildings have already crumbled into nothing, but our tour took us around a corner of the island to see what was left. As Erik translated our guides' words, I began to get the picture of a small but lively and tight-knit community that worked extremely hard to make their lives livable. They brought soil in from the mainland and carried it to their rooftops to make rooftop gardens. They faced rough waves from typhoons with nothing protecting them besides the concrete seawall. They made do with very little fresh water and limited electricity. Obviously, the men employed in the mine risked their lives every day to dig coal out from beneath the ocean. But after just a few generations, they left. And all that remains is concrete and brick rubble that the waves continue to erode.

A documentary was screened on the ferry on the way back; I was captivated by the "then and now" photos that were shown: a barbershop busy with customers then, a row of rusting barber chairs now; an alley filled with women and children then, an alley overgrown with weeds and vines now.

Gunkanjima was the inspiration for the island where Javier Bardem's psychopath villain in Skyfall gambles with James Bond for the life of Severine. I remember the scene quite clearly, but Silva's island is much larger and apparently more structurally sound than the real island; it's actually just an elaborate set. I doubt any film can be filmed here now, although, amazingly, you can Google Street View a tour of the island. Anyway, visiting Battleship Island was still a great experience; it definitely stirred a bit of the thirst for haikyo, or urban exploration, in me. I wonder what abandoned marvels I can find in Korea?
First glimpses of Battleship Island.
Remains of the brick wall of the mine office, and a recently constructed lighthouse up on the hill.
Erik and me on the boat by Gunkanjima. It was extremely cold.
After returning from the island and lunch, Erik and I chilled around the shopping area by Nagasaki Station, killed some time at an arcade, and then boarded a train for our next stop: Kumamoto!


  1. Francis Xavier was Basque, one of the co-founders of the Jesuits with Ignatius of Loyola.

    ...Jesuit nerdiness aside, looks like a lovely trip with Erik!

    1. My mistake! Most of the first missionaries in Japan were Portuguese, but not all of them, and you are correct about Francis Xavier.

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