„絆 池しま 大スキ“ – „Kizuna Ikeshima daisuki“ – „I / We like Ikeshima a lot“
That’s what’s written with huge, colorful characters in the sand of the breakwater at the Ikeshima harbor. A last pledge of allegiance from about 300 remaining inhabitants of an island once the home to several thousand people – miners and their families, shop owners, restaurateurs, …
When I arrived on Ikeshima I can’t say I agreed with the bold statement at the harbor. The weather changed from sunny to overcast with a serious risk of rain and the humidity rose to levels you usually experience during the long, excruciating Japanese summers. Though the previous day was pretty long, exploring the *Imari Kawaminami Shipyard* and the *Mukaiyama Mine*, I had to get up again before 6 a.m. to make it to the ferry on time and my landlubber slugabed stomach wasn’t a big fan of the early morning breakfast, although the ferry ride itself was really enjoyable.
In addition to that I felt a pressure right from the beginning I hadn’t felt in years. Back in my days as a journalist in Germany (10+ years ago) I was writing about all kinds of topics. Most of the stuff was trivial and routine, but once in a while I dealt with a project close to my heart – and in those cases of course I wanted to rise to the occasion and write an article that did justice to the topic.
So while I tried to calm down my slightly upset stomach I was worried if I would be able to take pictures that represent Ikeshima properly, if I could come up with interesting stories to write about – if I was able to experience this island that is on its way to become an urbex legend; some people already call it Gunkanjima’s little brother (although Ikeshima is way bigger…). And since Ikeshima is in way better shape and way easier to access than *Gunkanjima* it is actually on its way to become more popular amongst urban explorers – a trend that seems to be appreciated and supported by the remaining inhabitants of the island, at least to some degree.
The first thing I saw getting off the ferry were two maps of the Ikeshima right at the pier – one being an aerial shot of the island from 1982, highlighting 9 points of interest; the other being a typically Japanese manga tourist map with a hiking guide, pointing out restrooms, bus stops, areas off-limit and buildings you shouldn’t miss. Sadly (for for the locals) Ikeshima wasn’t a tourist attraction (yet), at least not during Golden Week 2011: I was not only the sole foreigner on board, I was also the only person carrying photography equipment. The other half a dozen passengers were elderly Japanese guys looking for a relaxing day of fishing.
I took a few quick photos at the harbor to calm my stomach, get used to the humidity and make sure that the settings of my camera were how they should be – and somehow I got the feeling that the few locals I met weren’t really happy about it. As a rather big, tall non-Asian foreigner in Japan I’m used to being stared at, but maybe I was overly sensitive because of the uncomfortable situation I felt I was in, so I didn’t like Ikeshima a lot at that point…
I passed by four of five people trying to get one of the omnipresent cats from an electricity pole and left the harbor area to follow the street uphill. Down to the right was a little settlement, several dozen houses, once the homes of the non-mining population on Ikeshima. I saw some big apartment buildings on the top of the hill, so I decided to follow the street and maybe have a look down there later.
Reaching the top I passed by the post office which, to my surprise, actually had one or two customers while I was looking around that area. Although nowadays most people seemed to live down by the harbor the uphill apartment section was surprisingly busy. Within the first hour I spent there I saw maybe two dozen pedestrians and at least half a dozen cars, including the local shuttle bus which seemed to pass by me every 5 minutes – and in the background a recycling company caused quite some noise.
At that point I felt like a kid in a candy store – extremely excited, looking at dozens of opportunities, each one of them usually worth a day-trip on its own, and no idea where to start. But this was Ikeshima, Little Gunkanjima, so I had to take some spectacular shots! Just how? Especially since all buildings seemed to be boarded up, the doors bolted or welded. And the industrial areas were all off-limits, “No Trespassing!” signs everywhere in Japanese (kanji) and Bahasa Indonesia (Latin alphabet and katakana). Still under irrational pressure I felt like I had to make a move – and when I saw an open balcony door I jumped the railing and got inside. Finally what I was looking for? Not at all! I felt more uncomfortable than ever. I’m into urban exploration for the unique esthetics, for the quiet time in the middle of nowhere, for interesting angles and the amazing atmosphere really spectacular places provide. I’m not doing it for the thrill of being in buildings I’m not supposed to be. Quite the opposite in fact, I really dislike that aspect. So I took a few quick shots while hearing cars and voices everywhere outside – I could have gotten to the staircase and maybe to other apartments from there, but instead I decided to leave the building. Seconds later another car passed by, followed by two senior citizens, greeting me with a smile. Maybe it was about time to change my approach. So I put down my tripod and my backpack at one of the crossroads, grabbed my video camera and started to tape a walking tour of the housing area, wondering what the people I met were still doing on Ikeshima.
It was not until World War II that coal was discovered under Ikeshima. At that time about 300 people lived on the island while the huge corporate conglomerate (keiretsu, 系列) Mitsui Matsushima (三井松島) started to buy large parts. The development of the coal deposits started in 1952 and in 1959 mining finally began – the last colliery to open in Japan. In 1970 about 8,000 people lived on the island (although one source throws out a number as high as 20,000…), but like in all Western industrialized countries coal became less and less important; oil was the new coal. In summer of 1999, long after most Japanese coal mines were closed for good, a technology transfer program was proposed and as if it was a sign that the days of the Ikeshima Coal Mine (池島炭鉱) were numbered a fire broke out in the mine in February of 2000. On November 28th of 2001 the last shift left the Ikeshima Coal Mine, about 3000 people living on the island at that time – making Ikeshima the second to last Japanese coal mine to be closed. On April 18th of 2002 the technology transfer program started, training students from Indonesia about mining – hence the multi-language warning signs all over the island. The trainee program ran out by the end of March 2007, a year after 77 miners won a lawsuit against Mitsui Matsushima; suing them for negligence, related to coal worker’s pneumoconiosis. Around that time the number of people living on Ikeshima dropped to about 300 – as it was before coal was discovered. (The name Ikeshima means “pond island”, because until the 1950s a large pond was the main feature of the island – it was turned into the harbor by Mitsui Matsushima… Please *click here* to be taken to a Japanese homepage with before and after shots next to each other.)
Did the two old ladies know any of those 77 miners? Were they maybe even sons or husbands? And why were they still living on Ikeshima? I never found out. But I talked to several other people on the island later that day – so don’t miss *part 2* and part 3 of my Ikeshima exploration…
(Since the inhabitants of Ikeshima consider their island a tourist attraction I added it to the *Map Of Demolished Places And Tourist Spots* and created *a new map just for Ikeshima*. If you don’t want to miss the latest postings you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* - and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)