“Forgotten Planet”

The documentary “Forgotten Planet” was made by the Discovery Channel in 2011. In Michael Gakuran’s article, he explains that the crew was two full days of filming on the island and access to pretty much anywhere on it! Said crew consisted of several local filmmakers from Nagasaki, director Jim Hense, 3D cameraman Tom Collins, fixer Noriko Uchida, Michael Gakuran himself and of course, the passionate former resident of Hashima, Doutoku Sakamoto, who we previously saw in Nordanstad and von Haussewolff’s 2002 documentary.

The resume of the ‘Forgotten Island’ series is as follows: “Explore the cast-offs of humanity – buildings, compounds and even entire cities abandoned by humans for years. Fogotten Planet takes you to places forgotten by time eerie locations that once hummed with activity and now are desolate. Enter the eerie emptiness of the city of Chernobyl, walk the halls and streets of abandoned Hashima Island, the Old West ghost town of Bodie, the transplanted German village of Kolmanskop – abandoned in the Namibian desert. What happens when humans abandon a place? Tune-in to find out why people left.”

Hashima was featured in episode 6 of the series.

“The Bodies Left Behind”

“The Bodies Left Behind” is the pilot episode of the ‘Life After People’ series by the History Channel. The resume of the episode states:

“In the first episode of new series Life After People, we’ll see what happens to some of the bodies left behind. Most are embalmed and buried, some are mummified, while others have been cryogenically frozen. Will any of them truly achieve immortality? Or will they be outlived by other memorials to mankind, like the Statue of Liberty or the Sistine Chapel.

This is just part of a journey that will take us to the future of cities such as Boston and Houston, as well as haunting sites already devoid of man.”

The series is an exploration of what will happen to our planet – should the catastrophic happen and we all suddenly disappear a week from next Tuesday. As a concept, it’s thoroughly intriguing and the first episode certainly does a good job of teasing the audience with enough visuals and hypotheticals. But there’s a catch to it all. There’s a new aesthetic to documentaries – one which focuses on flashy transitions and quick-hit facts which tends to emphasize breadth, rather than depth. That is precisely the impact of this episode – which, unfortunately, doesn’t serve the overall concept as well as it might have otherwise.

The structure of the episode is to follow the fate of humanity’s quest for “immortality” from the mummies of Ancient Egypt, to our proudest architectural creations, to cryogenics, to the “Immortality Drive” (a computer representation of the human genetic code) in orbit on the international space station. The problem here is a bit of disconnect with the episode’s title – which implies a discussion of the human “bodies” that are left after the end of our species. Getting by that minor inconsistency, there’s quite a bit of intriguing information to be had.

Jumping from one day to months, years, decades and millennia into the future, the episode describes the fate of landmarks such as the Houston Astrodome, the Statue of Liberty, Boston’s Old North Church, and Michaelangelo’s frescoes. The emphasis, of course, is to detail just how long these relics of humanity will hang around. In case you’re wondering, most of these structure won’t last much more than two-hundred years after people are gone. And the episode convincingly portrays the ravages of time by way of computer-generated effects.

The centerpiece of the episode is an extended tour of Hashima Island, in Japan. Nicknamed “Battleship Island” (because of its shape), it was once a town of thousands built around a coal mine. But it was abruptly deserted thirty-five years ago and has been without humanity ever since. As a result, Hashima Island is a case study in how concrete and steel structures withstand the elements – particularly those of a marine environment.  If there’s a reason to watch the episode, it’s the Hashima Island segment.

The segment features Brian Burke-Gaffney and the way the documentary puts the story of the island (with his help) is a little bit like this:

“35 years after the disappearence of people, homes, offices and factories are cracking and subsiding, as nature takes over. It’s a future that has already come to pass in one remote corner of the world. Several miles off the southwest coast of Japan a forsaken island stands lifeless and decaying. Hashima Island was once a thriving coal-mining town and homes to thousands of people. Now it’s abandoned offices and residcential buildings are literally exploding under nature’s relentless hands. Because of the unsafe conditions Hashima is strictly off limits to visitors. In the 1890s Japan’s Mitsubishi company began mining coal from the seafloor beneath Hashima. At its peak in 1959 the 15 acre island was home to more than 5000 workers and their families, the highest population density recorded on Earth. In 1974 as Japan began favouring petrloium over coal Mitsubishi closed the mine and relocated the entire population to the mainland. 35 years later, nothing remains but decayed buildings and ghostly memories. These rooms once echoed with the laughter of children playing, now all that remains is the corroded remains of their toys. Overgrown and forgotton the school playground in now rusting scrap metal. Hashima is a laboratory for showing what happens to reinforced concrete in a savage environment. Every year the typhoon season delivers rains and winds up to 100mph, wlilst huge ocean waves smash into buildings. Scienctific studies of concrete core samples reveal that the buildings most exposed to the ocean had a salt content 15 times greater than the others. The concrete buildings themselves gave the island a warlike profile and even a new nickname “Battleship Island”. The wooden fasades of balconies were quickly destroyed, the many passageways and stairs that connected the buildings are now falling apart.”

You can watch this here – “Life After People: The Bodies Left Behind”. The segment starts at roughly 19 minutes and 37 seconds.

‘Hashima’: A Documentary by Thomas Nordanstad and CM von Hausswolff

This week I’m looking at documentaries about Gunkanjima and the first official one I got my hands on was by Thomas Nordanstad and CM von Hausswolff in 2002.

The official resume of the documentary is the following: “In the crazy ruins of a 20th century civilisation, walks one of the men who grew up, and was forced to leave in 1970. He tells his story among the almost untouched buildings, where remnants of daily life sits as symbols for a sociey much like our own. The man wants to make it into a museum, but painfully realizes that decay cannot be frozen, and even less restored…”

Nordanstad explains the history of the island as such: “The deserted island of Gunkanjima, as it is most often called, was a coal mining colony based on an island roughly the size of a football field. This was the most densely populated place on earth before Mitsubishi, the company who owned the island, closed the operation in 1974. Upon closing they offered the population to apply for jobs on the mainland, leading to a mass-exodus within only a few days of closing its mines. Thus, the island was left as if a neutron bomb had gone through it, with people´s breakfasts remaining on the tables, bicycles leaning on the walls, and beds still unmade. It is a harrowing place.”

You can watch the documentary here: “Hashima: Part 1 and 2”

Ten years ago Nordanstad and CM von Hausswolff became interested in Hashima’s history, and wanted to make a documentary about the island. The filmmakers went to Japan, but found that the Japanese weren’t interested in talking about it.

“We met a lot of embarrassment. We met a lot of hushed faces, a lot of people who would turn away as soon as we started speaking about the island, almost like it was a leper colony or something.”

Norandstad and Hausswolff eventually found someone to take them out to the island. The short film they made follows Doutoku Sakamato, whose family moved to Hashima when he was four. In one scene, Sakamoto returns to the apartment where he lived with his family 30 years ago.

“My mother’s decorations are still up here,” Sakamoto says. A few seconds later, he finds the marks on the walls that recorded his sister’s height through the years.

“They left coffee cups on the tables, and bicycles leaning against the walls. And I think very few people had been back out there when we went there. It was practically untouched.”

The film follows Sakamoto as he finds a schoolhouse with the teachers’ names still written on the blackboard. Sakamoto reflects on the people who once lived there and risked their lives in the mines below.

“It’s like the souls of the dead linger on down here,” Sakamoto says. “So many people who died, so unnecessarily… but these are things I probably shouldn’t talk about.”

The occasion marked the first time that Dotokou had been on the island as an adult, and his experience is nothing short of harrowing. Throughout his visit, the former Hashima resident excavated memories from his childhood, gazing at the decorations his mother hung on their apartment walls, and paying homage to a deceased friend with whom he grew up.

(To be continued: with an interview from Thomas Nordanstad!)

Explorer Profile: Hector García

Hector García is the author of “A Geek in Japan” and creator of the website by the same name. Born in Spain, Hector is a software engineer and a self-proclaimed geek, who lives in Japan. His blog is one of the most-read blogs in the world in the Spanish language. He’s now working on his third book about his experiences in Japan and he loves taking pictures.

Although Hector has never visited Gunkanjima, he has been to other haikyo, such as an abandoned hospital in the outskirts of Tokyo. Still, he did write an article about the island, so I wanted to find out what his motivations are to visit and why he hasn’t done so yet.

Here is his answer:

Gunkanjima is probably the most expectacular one of the Japanese haikyos, that is why I have interest in going there. The problem is that it is very expensive to go to Gunkanjima from Tokyo, and also it seems there are so many restrictions on the visit that it is not a very enjoyable experience. I like the freedom of “exploring” as I want.  – Hector García

He brings up a very good point. One of the attractions of urbex is to go and leave as you please, but transportation to the island takes money; also, Gunkanjima is accessible only during 100 days in a year, which are reaching weather standards. These are the standards that would prevent from using the landing pier:

1. When the wind blows over than 5 meters/second.
2. When the waves are higher than 50cm.
3. When visibility is under than 500 meters around.
*Even though upper standards would be achieved, the landing on the island would be canceled in case the ship commander judged it too risky for passengers, according to http://www.gunkanjima-concierge.com/en

Explorer Profile: Jordy Meow

Jordy Meow is a French software engineer, who lives in Japan. He has strong artistic inspirations and likes to create new software concepts, along with web design and photography.

He has a few websites both in English and French, including Totoro Times, Haikyo and Mapkraft.

Jordy has been involved seriously in urban exploration in Japan since 2009, and his series of articles on Gunkanjima – “Gunkanjima Odyssey” are the best thing I have seen online about our favourite Ghost island. The photographs in the articles have been featured in several Top 5/10/20/100 lists on haikyo whenever Gunkanjima is mentioned and the information provided in them has been used in some of my posts as well.

You can imagine how excited I was to ask him about his visits to the island – yes, multiple visits!

MK: How did you learn about Gunkanjima? How many times have you visited the island?

JT: I don’t really remember where I discovered Gunkanjima for the first time, but it was on some haikyo website for sure, or maybe in the book called “Nippon No Haikyo”. I’ve been to the island 3 times in total.

MK: Why did you vist Gunkanjima? What were your motivations for visiting?
JM: I was in love with amazing-looking architectures and japanese ruins (haikyo) before and Gunkanjima seemed like a godsend combination of both. This is certainly one of the the most wonderful subjects for photography one can find, and that was my main motivation at the time.
MK: If you’ve visited the island more than once, why did you go back? Did the experience differ from your first visit?

JM: My first time was too short, and during the early morning only, so I couldn’t get any good photos. It was a real adventure however! I was alone with another french friend who didn’t knew the island at all, we only had one hour and we basically ran all around it. It was awesome!
The second time, I was able to take a wide range of interesting photos and visit most places I wanted to see. The adventure mood was completely gone but of course I enjoyed a lot exploring the island more into details.
I had to go a third time to visit the spots I didn’t have time to visit the second time, and now I pretty much went everywhere and visited every building. I would love to go back again to take arty shots and maybe less journalistic.
MK: Have you visited any similar sites or attractions like Gunkanjima?
JM: I have never visited anything close to this. I cannot think of any equivalent of Gunkanjima neither.
MK: Do you actively seek to understand or have knowledge about the island?
JM: I bought many books, try to read them even though I can’t read Japanese. Of course, I also spent a long time online looking at articles about it, maybe every single of them 😉
MK: What was the main attractor to the island?

JM: In parallel to this amazing architecture, I became more and more curious about what was the life once was on the island.  Nowadays, I really want to see this island alive again and I am a running a project with a friend that is supposed to do that. Let’s see where it goes !
MK: Did you feel empathetic to the people who have previously lived on the island during your visit? Did you experience any feelings or emotions whilst at the site?
JM: When walking on island, you can’t really feel or imagine how life was. The place is dead, the scenes of the past have completely vanished, the buildings are collapsing, everything is turning into dust. Apparently there aren’t many ghosts there neither, a friend who can see them told me so 😉 The Gunkanjima we know now is certainly not the Gunkanjima that it once was. It’s two different places that share a piece of rock in common. Now I would like to make an attempt to merge this two space-times together.
MK: Do you see Gunkanjima as unique or unusual?

JM: Unusual is an ersatz of what Gunkanjima is, and unique is merely a term to describe it. But certainly this island will remain one of the most striking memories I will ever have.
MK: Is there anything else you would like to share about Gunkanjima?
JM: My summary article about it, of course! 🙂 This one: http://www.totorotimes.com/urban-exploration/the-gunkanjima-odyssey/. I share everything I have to say on that island on my website 🙂 Thanks for interviewing me.

Explorer Profile: Brian MacDuckston

Brian MacDuckston is an English teacher from San Francisco. When he’s not eating ramen, writing about ramen on his blog Ramen Adventures, organizing ramen tours or fun one-day ramen classes for English speakers in Tokyo, Japan, he records his experiences of everything else in Japan that is awesome in his other blog – Japan Bash.

In his blog article “Haikyo! Gunkanjima”, Brian talks about his experience of visiting the island as a tourist.

MK:How did you learn about Gunkanjima? How many times have you visited it?

BM: I just visited once. I knew about it for a while from the haikyo (urban exploration) blogs in Japan.

MK: Why did you vist Gunkanjima? What were your motivations for visiting?

BM: I was in town for work, and had some free time. It was just something interesting to do for me.

MK: Have you visited any similar sites or attractions like Gunkanjima?

BM: I have explored some haikyo in Japan now and then. Mainly abandoned hotels and theme parks; leftovers from the 1980s economic bubble.

MK: Do you actively seek to understand or have knowledge about the island?

BM: No. I only knew that it was an abandoned coal mine on a completely industrialized island.

MK: What was the main attractor to the island?

BM: Just to see it with my own eyes.

MK: Did you feel empathetic to the people who have previously lived on the island during your visit? Did you experience any feelings or emotions whilst at the site?

BM: I didn’t know about the history before I went. The tour graced over the use of Gunkanjima as a forced labor site, and it just seemed like a place where people would go to work when they couldn’t find anything better.

MK: Do you see Gunkanjima as unique or unusual?

BM: Very unique. Japan is covered with over-industrialized spots, but this was on a whole other level.

MK: Is there anything else you would like to share about Gunkanjima?

BM: If anyone has a free afternoon, it is well worth it to visit.

Urban Exploration – The World, Japan, Gunkanjima

We live in a post-industrial world, and our connection to the modes of production, our infrastructure, and the cogs of society is becoming more and more disembodied from day-to-day life. This guide is meant to be an introduction to one of the fastest growing hobbies our modern time: Urban Exploration.

Urban Exploration

Urban Exploration (Photo credit: tj.blackwell)

The World of Urbex
The definition of Urban Exploration may be different for every adherent, but most urban explorers call themselves modern historians, discoverers, archivers, documentarians, and architecture buffs. Some explore for simple aesthetic reasons because they find the crumbling edifices of society to be perfect artistic subjects. Others find a certain level of adventure and excitement in exploring off-limits areas or skirting the law to reach places that most people can’t see. Still others have a purely historical interest in a specific building or complex.

Whatever the reason, Urban Exploration is something that can be traced back hundreds of years, even back to 1793, when an oft-cited “explorer,” Parisian cataphile Philibert Aspairt, became famous for his untimely death in the Catacombs under Paris. To this day, the Paris Catacombs attracts a subculture that descends underground for regular socializing and fraternizing.

Urban explorers are not such by profession, they’re just like you and me – they have jobs, go to school, watch tv and go to pubs over the weekend. However, every now and then if they feel like it, they sometimes choose to spend their time wading in sewers, climbing skyscrapers, accessing abandoned buildings and infiltrating infrastructures. There isn’t a single main reason why they explore. Some do it as a quest for knowledge, others like the idea of exploring the unknown and forgotten and others just do it for fun. There is no right and wrong approach. Silent UK state that as long as you feel you are getting something positive from the experience, you’re doing it correctly. Thats really all there is to it. Many explorers find decay of uninhabited space to be profoundly beautiful, and some are also proficient freelance photographers who document what they see. Abandoned sites are also popular among historians, preservationists, architects, archaeologists, industrial archaeologists, and ghost hunters.

Several writers on urbex have discussed the personal meaning of such acts of “infiltration” — or “invasions”. Simon Cornwell, in his discussions of the Cane Hill Cult (in Croydon, South London), has emphasized the element of danger in recording the experiences — physically, emotionally and photographically. This element of danger serves to heighten the existential anxiety of exploration.

There are a few unwritten rules in Urban Exploration, and one should be cognizant of the protocol in order to be fully accepted and trusted as a new member of the sub-culture. The most common and oft-quoted rule follows the mantra of the Sierra Club: “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.” Though not all urban explorers follow this directive, the vast majority do. Many abandonments possess a treasure trove of esoteric objects, unique contraptions, rare industrial components, or special antique items that could sell for a handsome profit on eBay. Despite all this, the community has decided to officially condem taking any object from a building. Graffiti and vandalism are generally condemned, but there are exceptions. It should be noted that urban explorers are a diverse group of tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands. The diversity of opinions falls in both extremes, but the moderate and mean consensus generally follows the rule of law except for the very notable exception of Trespass. As of now, there is no officially sanctioned urban exploration moral codex. In fact, “following the rules” would run counter to the central principle of exploring. For this reason, urban explorers have a general understanding of the community’s moral compass and make of it what they will.

I would recommend “The Hazards of Haikyo and Urban Exploration” which explains much better than I ever could the details about the safety issues and needed gear for urban exploration.

The Haikyo and Ruins of Japan

“I’ve always been interested in ruins, ever since seeing movies like Goonies and Indiana Jones as a kid,” says Michael John Grist, who lives in Tokyo and has been going on haikyo expeditions for around three years now. “I did a few haikyo in Japan by happenstance in my early years here—places that I had stumbled across and thought I would check out. One was an apartment block and one an old air base.” Not long after, an article on haikyo caught his eye, and now Grist heads out on an expedition once every few weeks.

For Florian, a Kansai-based haikyoist, studying history kick-started his interest in exploring industrial ruins. Looking to blogs, online maps, magazine articles and books, he completed his first haikyo only six months ago, but now heads out on such expeditions as often as he can. “It has strengthened my interest in Japanese history,” says Florian. “Haikyo to me is a part of social history, as it allows a glimpse of how people lived or worked in past times.”

Yet up until recently, before the low birth rate and the aging population started wreaking havoc on Japan’s inhabitants, population and where to put that population was such an issue that in some areas, the government began to reclaim land from the sea. So why are abandoned places left relatively untouched in a place where space is so hard to come by?

“In a country that has prided itself on the rate in which it has moved on and pushed forward since the end of World War II, it was incredible to being a part of Japan that seemed to be standing still.”

Grist supports a notion discussed by Alex Kerr in his 2001 novel Dogs and Demons, which states that it is an “after-effect of the 80s bubble economy, which was built around real estate.”

“The [property] was a toxic asset,” Grist explains, “and doing anything with it all, [whether it was] reworking, selling, or buying, would be to sink further money into a black hole.” Essentially, the property is worth more as is—meaning on paper—than it would be to get rid of or do anything with it. And as a result, haikyo has not only been enabled, but locations for such expeditions have proliferated the Japanese countryside. This is, of course, good news for haikyoists.

Grist has explored a range of sites around Tokyo and Japan, including capsule and love hotels, hospitals, museums, the ruins of a kaiten suicide boat base, and the Kawaminami POW Shipyard. He has parlayed this hobby into a fantastic website, where he shares his photographs and site descriptions with readers from around the world.

‘Gunkanjima – The Holy Grail of Haikyo’

I have interviewed a few urban explorers for this week’s task. It has been quite hard to pin some of them down – they might have their own websites, which they update regularly with new scoops on their haikyo trips, but they’re always away on adventures!

No matter their nationality – French, American, British, Russian, Spanish – they all have written articles on Gunkanjima, some of which I have already referenced in previous posts. Some of them have visited the island – some more than once – and some can only dream and plan about their trip to this abandoned paradise of ruins. With the questions I’ve asked them, and which they’ve graciously agreed to answer, I am trying to find out not only what are their motivations to visit Gunkanjima, but what makes Battleship island so unique or popular compared to other modern ruins in Japan and in the world.

Reference:


“The Art of Urban Exploration”
“Haikyo – Urban Exploration in Japan”

“Haikyo/Ruins”
“The Urban Exploration Resource”