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Adventures in Japan

Sunday, November 27, 2011
This is the first in a series of articles about my recent adventures in Japan.

Japan will be a trip of firsts.

It will be the first time leaving North America since a family trip to England when I was six years old.  In hindsight, due to youth, that trip almost feels like a dream that never happened.  In every way imaginable, going to Japan feels like the first continental adventure.

It will be the first time visiting a primarily non-English speaking country.  Curiosity begs an answer to the question of whether or not the power of body language can really overcome the crutch of linguistics.

At the apex of my thoughts is how the safety net will be truly absent for the first time.  Previous urban exploration adventures all had a fallback - readily available cell/web communications, similar languages and currencies, a group of travel companions to rely on - forms of control over the situations of "planned spontaneity" I would get myself (and fellow urban explorers) into.  But not this time.

The only real fallback will be Tong, who I’ll meet up with in Tokyo.  Tong is a well travelled, analytical thinker who can understand some characters of the Japanese language (I like to joke that he knows 18% Japanese due to his Asian heritage).  However, with our exact plans still somewhat undefined as we’re about to converge upon Japan, even he displays an air of uncertainty in our email exchanges leading up to the adventure.

The adventure will be simple, in theory: illegally land on an abandoned island 10km off the southwestern coast of Japan, evade being sighted by sea patrols and other vessels for (an unprecedented) eight continuous hours, then escape the island without being caught. Simple...in theory?

Hashima Island was a coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi from 1887 to 1974 and sits in the East China Sea, approximately 15km off the coast from Nagasaki, Japan.  Due to the island’s shape, derelict high-rise structures and sea walls it often goes by the nickname Battleship Island.  By 1959, Hashima Island had the highest population density in the world, housing 5,259 people (an average of 139,100 people/km2) in a multitude of concrete buildings on 15 acres of land.  After the island’s operations closed 37 years ago, it became off limits to the public and the slow process of dereliction commenced.


Hashima Island photographed from the East China Sea

Very few people have had the opportunity to explore Hashima Island. After our urban exploration adventures at the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans in June, Tong proposed the idea of exploring Hashima Island in November (he will already be in southeast Asia for work). I mentioned having an urban explorer contact on Twitter (@ikumi_urbex) hailing from Japan who had previously served as a guide to the island for a limited number of other urban explorers. I offered to initiate communications with her via email and see what happens. Ikumi responded immediately, in broken translated English, with a very positive, upbeat reply. And so the journey began.


Ikumi, our guide on Hashima Island

Four months later, after numerous email exchanges (some through a small network of friends providing intermediary translations), we're on our way to meet up in Japan. Arrangements for Hashima Island have been made on our behalf, with guidance from Tong and I on some available options. We've been informed to meet in Nagasaki at a specific hotel and time and prepare for the urban exploration adventure of a lifetime. But first...

Flying can be an excellent source of focus. The constrained environment forces you to concentrate on tasks or emotions on your mind (especially if you aren't comfortable sleeping on planes). During the long flight to Tokyo (with a layover in the beautiful Vancouver airport) I'll do some writing, read large portions of the Steve Jobs biography, and mentally prepare for the pending Japanese adventure.


An iPhone 4 photo of Narita Airport's international visitor's greeting sign

After landing at Narita Airport and getting through customs (a surprisingly easy task), the bottom of the airport’s concourse escalator becomes a temporary homebase for myself and my large green suitcase. Immediately, expectations of having no cell signal and no way to call Tong are confirmed. The airport’s wifi becomes too weak in the concourse, so the time arrives to test my instincts and intuition(1). I have to figure out how to meet up with Tong without the assistance of digital technology or any understanding of the Japanese language.

To be continued...

Footnotes:
1. I try to live a paperless life, so I have no printouts with me. Yes, I admit this tends to artificially enhance my adventures. ;)

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