NAGASAKI – A tiny island housing Japan’s only decommissioned coal mine that visitors can walk around in has struck the tourism lode amid rising public interest in industrial heritage.
The island of Ikeshima in the city of Nagasaki is about 4 km in circumference. The mine there, which opened in 1959, was one of the last two in the nation before it closed in 2001.
At its peak, during Japan’s postwar growth spurt, the island was home to some 8,000 men, women and children living in vast apartment complexes.
But it lost the fight in an era of cheaper imported coal. Most families left, and the population plunged to about 160.
In 2011, the island revived the mine carts for guided tours inside the mine.
A three-car train carries up to 27 passengers 300 meters inside. Visitors then get off the train and walk further inside the pit. Ikeshima is the only former coal mine in Japan that permits tourists to enter on foot.
“We would like to create an environment which encourages tourists to visit repeatedly,” said Hidemi Kondo, 65, who runs a souvenir store near the mine entrance. “This island has no other choice but to survive on tourism.”
Some visitors were clearly impressed with the tour.
“Pipes remain as they were,” said visitor Daichi Inoue, 19, from Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. “The tour was a rare experience for me.”
Increasing interest in Japan’s industrial heritage has been a boon to Ikeshima. Other sites enjoying the attention of tourists include the isle’s more famous sibling Hashima Island, commonly called Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), also in Nagasaki, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2015. It is part of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining,” a cluster of locations in varying states of preservation.
About 4,500 tourists took trains into the Ikeshima mine in 2014 and the total for 2015 is estimated to have topped 7,000.
Tours were added in 2015 to include such locations as the miners’ now-vacant apartment complexes to develop tourism further.