Illywhacker - Tokushima Japan


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Author Peter Aston
Date 1999
Map Ref Japan, Shikoku, Inland Sea

A lucky break in our choice of destinations finds us dancing in the streets

Fun with Fumea

In 1999, illywhacker sailed from Nagasaki, Kyushu to Korea then around the Inland Sea of Japan and back to Nagasaki. This story tells of one fabulous port in that journey.

I have on my computer a series of started-but-not-finished cruising stories about our adventures in Japan. Having an Engineer’s mind means they are nearly ready and all in time sequence. But I also have a sailors’ attention span so I am easily diverted by people arriving at the boat with plastic bags full of cold containers and since it is a stinking hot and humid summer here these have to be dealt with asap. Whilst I can assure readers that I have every intention of completing these stories and posting them off to the Coastal Cruising Club "Mainsheet", I find on this occasion I am compelled to write immediately such is the impact of events only recently unfolded in this amazing town of Tokushima.

It is typhoon time in Japan at present so our plan of cruising the Inland Sea is to watch and wait in a safe anchorage then sail with all speed to the next. These hidey holes are marinas at the eastern end (Osaka Wan) and in the smaller fishing ports further west, ferry pontoons or seawalls. There are precious few places to drop a hook and if we do find a promising quiet bay it will have fish farms or traps covering it entirely; fishermen have first charge over the waterways here. Our stops in Osaka Wan are as you’d expect from an illywhacker - we have managed to find a series of marinas with a generous policy of 1 or 2 weeks free for foreign yachts.

It is when a typhoon is brewing (#’s 11 and 12 are to the east of Japan now) and our free time is running out that I get nervous since the cost for one overnight can be over AUD$200. So it was with great interest that we accepted the invitation of the Awa Cruising Club at Tokushima to spend some time with them during the famous festival known as Awa Odori.

The mooring is well-protected, a mile upriver, it is free for as long as we like, shared by 50 or so local yachts and alongside a homebuilt pontoon with water and electricity laid on. It is right in downtown Tokushima on the NE tip of Shikoku Island (to the south of the big island, Honshu). Tokushima is a city of 280,000 which has swelled to over 1 million with festival goers from all over Japan….and us. It is here that we have experienced Japanese hospitality at a staggering high. For a couple of quiet cruising grannies this is a rather embarrassing story.

On our arrival, I telephoned our host who immediately left work and came to the quay to assist in tying up by recruiting a work boat to lay out our stern anchor, a job I usually detest. He then broadcast our arrival to the 40 club members by e-mail, some of whom received the message on their "handiphones" and were down that afternoon offering help of all sorts. It was a week prior the festival and in that time we were;

  • Given maps and a guided tour of the city and shown the important shops (supermarkets and hardware stores), bars, bus and train stations, bars, Post Office…bars, you know it.
  • Helped to catch a bus (2 1/2hrs ea way) for a day trip to Osaka to fulfil our Immigration requirements.
  • Taken to various restaurants - okonomiaki style, soba noodle style, ramen noodles ..yum.
  • Given a welcome party at the clubhouse, an old waterfront warehouse recently acquired and renovated by the the members.
  • Interviewed by a delightful young lady from the Tokushima Shimbun, the local newspaper which resulted in a large article and a coloured photo of "the Australians who sailed all the way to come to our festival". It also resulted in crowds of people leaning over the seawall and many anxious to come aboard, curious to see how we lived.
  • Invited to appear on a night-time radio chat show where we answered the usual question sequence; "how old are you", "what hotel are you staying at", "how can you be living this lifestyle without working" and so on.
  • Taken on a Jazz Street crawl, there are several venues with many groups vying for time slots. The standard was high but it did seem strange seeing and hearing Blues and Dixie with a Japanese accent.
  • Taken to a Sushi Bar where the chef prepares the sushi in front of you. This included the famous matsusuke mushroom, raw fish, squid, octopus and shellfish washed down with excellent beer and sake.
  • Taken to a (eat your heart out guys) Geisha House where I was surrounded and pampered to excess according to Lyndall by beautiful, pale creatures from an era 100 years before. (No more details available)
  • Taken on a days outing to the local indigo dyeing factory, to a traditional pottery with wood-fired climbing kiln and to Bando village, a place built by German POW’s who were given free reign in WWII by the Japanese camp Commander. All interspersed with visits to eating houses and a coffee shop cum art gallery.
  • Taken to visit Naruto Narrows, a dramatic pass between Awaji Shima and Shikkoku Islands through which a substantial part of the Inland Sea flows to and from the Pacific Ocean. Standing on the viewing platform of the 1.6 km suspension bridge we had arrived at full ebb and if the view was wondrous for the tourists it was terrifying for us as we knew we had to negotiate it on the next leg of our trip. The tide was running at 10.6 knots that day and we could see the famous whirlpools which have been known to suck small craft to their doom. Big ships were scooting under the bridge, their bows pitching and spray flying as they rode the overfalls. New cruising plan?


Eastern entrance to the Inland Sea, Naruto Narrows
Whirlpools with the ebb tide


The festival is held in the midsummer period of Obon during which time the more recently departed are honoured at family shrines with offerings and prayer. After a first rate send-off (by Awa Odori dancers in Tokushima) lanterns are set afloat one evening at sunset and the ancestors take their leave, disappearing off to the horizon where the 2 worlds meet. In our travels we have been privileged to visit many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, co-existing Japanese philosophies from where much of their world view derives. This area was claimed by the Awa clan after a battle for territory in the 16th century and the peasants danced in the streets for 4 nights hoping for continued peace, a tradition which continues to this day.


Elegant dining, geisha style Crass Australian attempts at Awa odori


On the first night of the festival we were given seats in an important stand where we were to study the dance steps. It is truly a magnificent sight so typically Japanese. In traditional costumes the orderly lines of dancers, from toddlers to stiff-jointed octogenarians swing to the rhythm of the heavy taiko drums, flutes and tinkling percussion. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the girls in traditional dress including geta, the wooden flat top shoes, I’m sure they were hell to walk in. Each group is announced, work, school, clubs are all given polite applause, "the team" and participation are everything. By the end of the night the roadside vendors of beer have made a fortune and along with many of the spectators have joined in the dancing which becomes "unrestrained" (but still orderly!)

On night # 2 we were presented with a costume each and told we were part of the 50 or so Chukyo University (some 100km away near Nagoya) team. With some trepidation we were dressed by willing yachties in yukata, a loose sort of dressing gown with an obi, a belt tied in a special way and a headband. We were given special dispensation and allowed to wear sneakers instead of the usual tabe, white socks with a thin sole as we would be expected to be still dancing after 4 hours or so!

At around 7pm and after some liquid reinforcement we marched through crowded streets, cleared of traffic behind our lantern banners towards the sound of the drums and the ever so bright lights. Much to our horror Lyndall and I were lined up in row # 2 as we were "special guests". There was no way we were going to remain hidden in the crowd, what a couple of dorks we’re going to look like! Then our turn came, those lights were so BRIGHT cameras didn’t need a flashlight but the order was to DANCE and SMILE…so we did and we only vaguely heard the lady on the PA system scream out that we were visitors from Australia which removed the last trace of our imagined anonymity…all we could do was to SMILE again and bow as deeply as we could to the excessively generous spectators!

Another round of reinforcements and off we marched to another of our 5 venues through streets rocking with revellers. This wasn’t so bad after all. But as can be imagined, by midnight we couldn’t feel our feet and our heads were reeling with the drumbeat, the coloured lights, the pretty girls (I was anyway) and well, it was very thirsty work so we were… reeling…What a night.

Up early next morning for the Awa Yacht race. Over 100 yachts from all over Japan competed in a rare day of 20 knots, sunshine and smooth seas. Why can’t we get that when cruising? The raft up and party afterwards was an opportunity for us to be shown on national TV and presented with a gift of a box of nachi pears, the crisp variety, a specialty of this area. More dancing, more beer, we’ll never last the pace and one more night to go!

Somehow we made it and this week has been quieter. We have taken the opportunity to lift our mast and replace the mastep, something I’ve been waiting to do since it was temporarily repaired after a fracture in the Solomons. We could be here another week, or a month…or maybe we’ll wait until the next festival?


Dancers in traditional costume note the wooden gaiters A rice paddy high in Shikkoku

Rumi playing the koto in traditional tatami mat room in her Fukuoka home

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