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Author Peter Aston
Date July 2001
Map Ref Japan

Here is an article which appeared in the UK magazine Yachting World in Nov 2001 -

  Sakura blooms at Hirado Castle

CRUISING JAPAN with Illywhacker

The chain of islands which make up the Japanese archipelago stretch 2000 miles roughly in a south-north direction from the tropical island of Ishigaka Shima to chilly Wakkanai at the top end of Hokkaido. illywhacker’s first port of entry was at 16N at Naha in Okinawa and being a tropical yacht with tropical owners had little trouble acclimatising to a humid 30C. But the climate was just about the only thing familiar to us. We had arrived in a truly FOREIGN country. It was time to cast aside many of our western precepts and to adapt, listen and learn. At the same time, we were planning to embark on a pretty much northerly passage and this meant the climate was about to change also and further awaken us from our tropical lassitude.

With a special finesse the Japanese celebrate the arrival of Spring and the flowering of the cherry blossom with the "sakura blossom festival". Very resourceful cruisers blessed with fine weather and a bountiful capacity for saki might enter Japan in the south in the month of April and sail north at a rate designed to keep track with the celebrations announcing each shower of pink. However, on our arrival May 1 1999 our planning was not so sophisticated and we blundered north without seeing, without hearing and without understanding. We were cruisers on a mission to sail north past Japan and across to North America in order to reach a familiar culture. It took a family emergency to keep us in Japan long enough for our minds to open and to become aware of the beautiful country we were in. Our Japan cruise really came alive when we managed to stay in tune with a countryside seemingly always unfolding to Spring and to the welcoming smiles of the inhabitants.

After a very courteous visit by officials to complete our arrival formalities in Okinawa we embarked on the usual search for information – to understand the banking system, making telephone calls, buying food and local charts and obtaining permissions to visit ports to our north. All simple tasks of course – provided one can speak Japanese. Luckily, plenty of harbourfront people were keen to practise their English and slowly, with much hilarity on both sides and generosity on theirs we prepared for our cruise. Our first objective though was to find a secure place to leave illywhacker and fly home to be with my ailing father.

We were given to understand that whilst the port of Naha in Okinawa had the most trustworthy and congenial sailors in Japan, the area was subject to many fierce typhoons and further north would be a safer proposition. So with some trepidation we set forth along the island chain to Kagoshima, the major city at the southern tip of Kyushu, one of the 4 main islands that make up Japan. Although Japan is an island country, many are linked by magnificent bridges or tunnels and all are connected by excellent ferry and indeed all communication services. The beauty of the Ryuku islands south of Kyushu is that despite this attempt to modernise, both the scenery and the people appear to be working to maintain a rural outlook. Our last port on Okinawa was the small, quiet fishing village of Ginima. Here we first heard the ubiquitous village loudspeaker system broadcasting public announcements which are introduced with a tinkling tune; "home, home on the range" was one. We found this a bit disconcerting when the music was a precursor to a typhoon warning. Families in such rural and island communities work in rice fields, cement factories or gardens and relax at the end of the day at the local "onsen" or village bath house. At the island of Takara we were met by a schoolteacher from Tokyo who sought his summer retreat there from the classroom and who insisted we accompany him to the onsen. It took a value jump to remove all our clothes and join the villagers that night. We were taught the etiquette of a thorough scrub first then an exquisite lowering of tired bones into hot heavenly bliss. This introduction to a truly civilised and very Japanese custom was a wonderful gift by this young schoolteacher. From then on we accepted further offers of a hot tub with alacrity and even sought them out ourselves.

Steam from the roof and the sign indicates an "onsen",  a hot spring bath at Unzen on Kyushu Volcanic area at Unzen, sulphurous and hot

At Amami O’shima, we found a small yacht club of perhaps 5 or 6 boats (owned by jointly by many more club members) tied stern-to with makeshift moorings in a partially used fishing harbour. It was to be our first taste in Japan of sailors’ hospitality. With wild enthusiasm they made room for our yachts and proceeded to entertain us in what seemed like shifts. Wave after wave of YC members descended on our decks armed with bottles of beer and saki, of food and offers to drive their island. It was a hectic 3 days and a wonderful way to wait out the stormy weather. We were joined here by 2 American yachts for the sail to Kagoshima. It was not until much later did we realise this to be a rare event as over the 2 year period we sailed Japan we only heard of perhaps 10 other foreign yachts cruising the country at the same time.

Our log for this period is frequented with comments on the lousy weather and the desirability of a cottage in the country - strong headwinds and lumpy seas made the going slower than we would have liked. Under such conditions, reaching a calm anchorage is the paramount thought and on one memorable occasion took precedence over our daily check-in with "Sea Patrol". All 3 yachts were sheltering in the very small port of Kuchino when a dory with 10 or more uniformed Coastguard officers motored through the port entrance rolling and yawing to the heavy seas from outside. "Oh, they’ve come for us" one of us joked, but sure enough they had. With clipboards at the ready they jogged together along the wharf and broke into 3 groups to interview us. We dutifully filled out the usual set of forms, in triplicate and promised to be more diligent with our future reporting.

We were much relieved to be tied up in Kagoshima and absolutely delighted to meet Kyoko Imakire, the first Japanese woman to sail non-stop single-handed around the world. As we later travelled Japan we saw a variety of tributes to famous sailors, in many cases, the yacht itself had been purchased by the local council and was set in concrete in the town square as a memorial to the local hero. In 99% of cases however the hero was a man and this made Imakire San even more special to us but perhaps a little more difficult for Japanese culture to deal with. To help us though, she immediately began punching buttons on her "handiphone" and contacted seemingly every marina and likely port north of Kagoshima on the west coast of Kyushu to find us a home for illywhacker . During our stay at Kagoshima we were able to tour a superb Samurai village and to visit the famed Kamikaze museum dedicated to the WWII pilots who set off from the southern tip of Kyushu to fly south to dedicate their lives to the Emperor in the battle for Okinawa.

Imakire San found us a marina where the Manager was also a round-the-world cruising sailor and who would be sympathetic to our needs. By this time too, my father had rallied sufficiently to sternly admonish us for rushing home so we allowed ourselves a few quick stops over the remaining 200nm. Leaving Kagoshima we stopped at Ibuseki, famed for it’s steam bath in hot, black volcanic sand. An elegant hotel invited guests to strip and don a yukata, a light dressing gown, and proceed to the beach. After lying in a shallow depression, bonneted women with stainless steel shovels heaped sand on us warning that 10 minutes would result in a lobster hue. Glowing pink we scurried back to the hotel and entered a marked door to a room with a chute and an exit door. A picture indicated one should remove the sandy yukata, drop it down the chute and proceed naked through the next door. Unfortunately the door was marked in mysterious Japanese characters and it was with great relief that one entered a steam-filled onsen and not the hotel lobby.


Hot sand "burial" at Ibuseki, south of Kagoshima Warm hospitality was the norm in Japan for us

At Akune, after an exhausting tour of the countryside we were relaxing on deck late at night observing the last of the days’ harbourfront activities when a passerby turned then walked back after apparently deciding we were OK. Dr Fujio’s English needed more than the few hours a week conversation class could provide but he made up for it in so many ways. His hospital, a 1-doctor affair was situated at the town port of Saslie 30nm sailing away. We were cordially invited because there had never been a foreign yacht tie up before. When we arrived on a bleak and rainy morning we could see why, it was the smallest fishing harbour imaginable with just enough depth for us against the rough concrete inner seawall. The good Dr had seen us from the operating theatre and ran down to greet us and help with the tie-up. His white coat was flying in the wind and an attendant ran behind with an umbrella. He had a patient he said who was "urgent" and had to return but would send someone down. In fact he sent the entire Rotary Club and each member made it his business to drive us to a local landmark, school, new bridge and museum. "You are the first foreign yacht people to visit our small village and we would like to put you in it ( the museum)" they said. We convinced them to settle for a photo.

Nagasaki was a city we were to visit many times later but we tied up for one night at the very smart "Sunset" marina, home of Japan’s America’s Cup training centre. To date, we had tied up mainly in one of the many fishing ports spaced along the coastline and these were free, this was the first "posh" marina. Here we were to learn how expensive yachting in Japan could be. The charge was 200Yen per foot per day. This translated to $200 Australian for a night (2 days)! We were used to grumbling about $20 back home, how would be able to afford to leave the boat in this country? Luckily for us Japan is a country of negotiation and compromise and the friends one makes along the way can usually help a foreign yachtie strike a deal acceptable to all.

Our recommended marina was in the Dutch village of Huis Ten Bosch which lies on the shores of Omura Wan, a large saltwater lake with a narrow entrance via the port of Sasebo. Unlikely as it seems this Dutch village is a magnificent theme park where Japanese tourists receive a taste of Europe without leaving home. Of course in thorough Japanese fashion the cobbled streets, the canals, buildings, hotels, the palace, Domtoren tower and the windmills are immaculately clean with superb service. Even the tulips dare not wilt under the attentions of the bent-over gardening women. The Dutch/Japanese connection goes back to the mid 17th century when Dutch traders provided the sole window to the outside world during Japan’s 200 years of isolation. Merchants lived on the tiny island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour and trading Japanese crossed the narrow walkway under strict supervision. Today, foreigners are very welcome as we found when tying up at the Huis Ten Bosch marina. This was a truly amazing stop for us to which we returned several times. The marina facilities were exceptional and we were able to stroll the park and enjoy the continuous street entertainment and at night time watch a magnificent sound, laser-light and firework show overhead from our decks. It was here that we safely and economically left our yacht whilst we flew home.


Huis Ten Bosch - really Dutch HTB Marina was the centre of the complex

It was a sad period for us but we took the opportunity to improve our knowledge of Japan and to make an attempt to learn the language. We returned determined to spend more time in the cultural heart of the country. What better way than to sail Japan’s Inland Sea known as Seto Nakai. Donald Ritchie’s inspiring classic, "Inland Sea" portrays travelling this misty body of water of 2000 islands known as "The Aegean of the East", as a perfect way to experience Japan’s ancient heritage. We planned a voyage of 1000nm extended over a comfortable period of 5 months, our kind of cruising with plenty of time to enjoy each new port.

A 100nm sail west from Sasebo brought us to South Korea and the harbour cities of Tong Yong and Pusan. Korea provides an interesting contrast to Japan and importantly allowed us to obtain a further 3 month immigration visa (see sidebar). Our return to Japan was at night to the island of Tsushima where the sea was ablaze with millions of candlepower from fishing boats seeking Japan’s classic delicacy, squid known as "ika", from the rich north-flowing currents in the Sea of Japan. Discerning the comparatively weak channel entrance light from the endless lineup of trawlers with a brisk nor’wester on illywhacker ‘s beam was the day’s challenge.

Fukuoka is a large west coast city and one of our favourites for it’s unusual architecture, a result of a booming economy in the 80’s. We liked the clean, busy streets and the thousands of bicycles and appreciated the 2 weeks free for foreign yachts at the council-owned Odo marina. 50nm north from Fukuoka is the entrance to the Inland Sea via a narrow entrance known as Kanmon Kaikyo. Navigating these straits provides a complete dose of maritime hazards in one day. They mark the Sea’s only western entrance to access a large component of Japan’s marine industry and the dense one-way shipping traffic is controlled by signals indicating tidal direction. Strong currents flow in the narrower sections which are usually spanned by a bridge or power lines and floating debris also was a problem for us. Our return passage through Kanmon Kaikyo followed a serious typhoon and we picked up some netting on our prop necessitating a dive in the not so succulent waters after drifting/sailing away from the most congested area. Waiting for the tide in a side canal, our little white yacht seemed so out of place surrounded by rusting black steel, heavy chain, huge black tyres and broken concrete. We were grateful for the advice in Okinawa to obtain some really solid, oversize fenders, ugly though they were. We found it best to sail only during the day in the Inland Sea due to the numerous ships and fishing boats looming out of the haze mid-channel and the fish farms and nets inshore. Despite such hazards we sailed many enjoyable legs and learned not to be surprised when white sails emerged from an industrial coastline indicating a presence of one of the many yachting communities.

Tying up at the small marina of Okinoshima allowed the opportunity to visit Hiroshima and the home of a Japanese yachtsman with a remarkable story. A visit to "ground zero", the target zone site of the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in WWII is a humbling experience as is a visit to the museum. Photographs and samples of molten structures, concrete walls with human shadows of carbon and evidence of the devastating effects of radiation were enough to appreciate the chances of survival in such a holocaust would be grim. We were astonished and moved to be warmly welcomed into the traditional Japanese house in the city centre by the 92 year-old father of our friend. He had been almost at the epicentre of the blast and seen not only his colleagues but the entire government building demolished around him. His wife and children had been advised to move to the country a day or 2 beforehand. Thus the whole family survived to rebuild and prosper on the original site.

Day-sailing with renewed enthusiasm, we sought out quiet fishing harbours seeking permission to tie up for the night from the port captain, usually found doubling as the fish co-op manager. We thought we had our phrasing correct but came to realise the look of amused astonishment came from our rotten Japanese; "Excuse me, this is our yacht, are you OK?" A friend finally saved the day by presenting us with a letter neatly inscribed in Japanese characters explaining our needs. We enjoyed wandering the back alleys in these small island villages where ancient shrines and temples are in constant everyday use. Almost as a ritual, fishermen would peer at the boat in amazement and be delighted with our offer to inspect below and enjoy some tea. There would be some scurrying back and forth and frequent use of handiphones and soon the schoolteacher would appear with hesitant English. After work there would be a party on board then off to inspect the town and dine at the local yakatori bar. All this with much humour and questions about our age, our family and do we get on living so close together. Never was there the slightest doubt about the safety or security of ourselves or the boat.

At the eastern end of Seto Nakai the marinas of Shin Nishi Nomiya and Hokko provided us with the opportunity to leave the boat each day and travel inland to absorb what we could of a fascinating history and culture. Himeji Castle near Kobe is constructed of timber 500 years ago, perhaps the only original timber fort not set ablaze in the countless wars for supremacy. One can wander the ramparts, treading the well-worn steps and finger the ancient swords and oil barrels used to repel invaders. The old capitals of Kyoto and Nara also provided us with a stunning collection of memories of ancient Japan, providing a glimpse of elegant lifestyles in such contrast to our brief visits to Osaka, where we gawked at the electronics stores, massaging recliner chairs and electronic toilets.

Making our way south illywhacker spent time at Tannowa and Suntopia, each time hiding from passing typhoons which by mid summer were beginning to track further east. It was clear that as we were now about to head west we could expect at last one direct hit. Our aim was to be in a safe anchorage when it happened. Mid-August found us in Tokushima at the eastern end of Shikkoku, just the right time for the famous Awa Odori. Our tie-up was typhoon-proof, courtesy of the Awa Cruising Club on a home-built pontoon in downtown Tokushima. Hospitality of every kind was lavishly heaped upon us and when the town swelled by over 1 million visitors we were invited to take to the streets and dance an ancient step (odori) to the beat of taiko drums and the tinkling shamisen in the festival of Awa.

Sure enough, our time came at a small boatyard south of Hiroshima on the return leg when typhoon #18, Bart had a predicted path only several miles to our west. The yard was in a small bay well protected by high hills and the predicted arrival time of 0900 the next morning gave us ample opportunity to tie up securely and to inspect the chains and heavy ropes that fastened our pontoon to the land. They seemed adequate and the owner appeared confident, assuring us it was just routine and he and his staff continued working as normal. After a good night’s sleep the typhoon eye was at 935mb and winds at the boatyard increased to around 50kts, the main force passing over our heads, deflected by the surrounding topography. However as the eye crept forward the winds suddenly became katabatic and severe bullets shot downward, raking the boatyard. Boats and paraphernalia exploded. We were laid over, away from the pontoon fortunately though the 2 large cruisers tied to windward of us rolled over it. The force of the blast tore the pontoon and it’s cargo loose from all moorings and away from the ramp and terra firma. illywhacker found herself the meat in a sandwich, drifting sideways towards the adjacent pontoon. We threw off what lines we could, cut the rest and motored out into the maelstrom praying that our prop would not tangle in what was by then a mess of floating debris. We were quickly swept to the head of the bay where moored boats and an oyster lease were racing madly to their tethers. Anchoring was not possible for perhaps 20 minutes so we attempted to jog head to wind until the worst had passed. The following day was given over to boatyard repairs, all hands sunk new piles, rebuilt and attached the ramp and re-anchored the pontoon. "See, I told you everything would be all right" said the boatyard owner.


Repairing the pontoon at Kaze-Noko boatyard, Kurahasi Shima, after typhoon Sometimes a barge like this is all there is to tie up to - Wakamatsu, Kanmon Kaikyo

We had settled in well to cruising in Japan and when we made our final departure from Sasebo in the Spring of 2000 the cherry blossoms were opening as we made our way north. We were no longer tropical cruisers when the snow-covered peaks of Hokkaido appeared. By then, the sun awnings were stowed below and illywhacker had all-round cockpit protection, heating below decks and a crew determined to return to a wonderful country.


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