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Japan - Kyushu
(For supplementary details, including GPS coordinates, see Notes for Cruisers)

We had guessed the passage from Guam to Japan, close reaching in north-easterlies from tropical Guam to temperate Japan, might be a difficult one, and certainly it was uncomfortable.

Three days out we began to traverse a shear zone that the grib files indicated would bring winds of 26 knots; in fact they were around 30 to 35 for the best part of three days, with unremitting 100% cloud cover and squalls; the only comfort was that the seawater that was constantly drenching us was still warm. Adding to our stress was uncertainty over a threatening depression near Palau, which the Guam forecaster, in his daily analysis, began calling “the elephant in the room”.

Barely were we through the shear zone, with the skies clearing, when the elephant began to move – to the northeast, along the very shear line that we had just left behind. At one point, as we made all possible speed to the NW, Guam upgraded the chances of its developing, within 24 hours, into the first typhoon of the season as “Good” (the scale being “Poor”, “Fair” and “Good”). But our luck held. The system continued on its track, which led to an intensification of the wind in the area we were now in – once again to 35 knots or so – but no more.

35 knots in a 27ft boat is quite a lot of wind, but the angle was such that we were able more or less to hold our course with four reefs in the mainsail and our storm jib hoisted; Mira, who were a little way ahead of us, suffered a knockdown and some damage in the same gale. In these circumstances the deck and coach-roof are constantly swept by breaking seas and it is impossible to stay dry; the area below the companionway, where you put on and take off your foul weather gear, is permanently wet. The crew prefers not to go to bed on her off-watch when it is like this and sleeps on the cabin floor in her boots and cumbersome foul-weather gear; but the supposed gain in reaction time is usually nullified when she finds she has to use the bathroom before coming on deck (a complicated operation with so much gear on). The captain remains sceptical. Later the crew claimed to be suffering from a migraine and took an entire day off; further scepticism.

By now we were beginning to encounter more shipping than we have ever seen, bound to and from Japan. Our newly-installed AIS system allowed us to plot almost every ship within 20 miles or so, and gave us a read-out on their speed and course; as and when the AIS further indicated that we were close to being on a collision course, we would call up the vessels by name on the VHF radio and assure ourselves that they could see us. Such conversations became routine, with the watch officers almost invariably replying courteously, even though they might have to go out onto the wet and windy bridge wing with their binoculars to make us out against the foam-flecked background of the ocean. At one point we had nearly twenty vessels on screen, with the alarm going every few minutes; it was tempting to turn it off .

Reaching north west to Japan Bulk carrier in heavy weather

We had a number of avian visitors, as we have had on all our recent passages. A Red-footed Booby spent a whole night perched awkwardly on the bow pulpit. More unusually, as we closed Japan, three swallows took up residence under the cockpit dodger: two males rather obviously competing for a female's attention. The competition resolved, the “winning” pair blithely flew below and set up home on the port bookshelf, just behind a book on meteorology. They stayed overnight; one died of causes unknown, the other flew off in the morning. We felt there was substance here for a Haiku and are working on it.

Visiting lovebirds Io Jima island

Our strategy for approaching Kyushu, the westernmost of Japan's four big islands was to head west until we picked up the fast-flowing Kurushio current, then ride it north to the island. A good plan, but to our consternation we found ourselves in a powerful south- flowing arm of the current, just as a northwesterly gale was building. Once again reefed down heavily, at one point we found we had steered 270 degrees for five hours, at great effort, only to be set due south – 180 degrees – by over ten miles. The crew began muttering despondently about making for Okinawa, two hundred miles down the island chain. But wind and current eased and, after a detour of nearly 100 miles, we were able to re-set our course, just as the first islands of Japan came into view, a heartening moment.

In light winds and/or dead calm we worked our way north. A highlight was passing close to the great volcanic outlier of Io Shima island, girdled by high cliffs and belching grey smoke from its fumarole. Closer to Kyushu, we started to encounter not only more heavy shipping but many smaller fishing boats with their bewildering arrays of unfamiliar lights, notably orange strobes indicating “keep clear”. We eased our way onto a northerly course as we entered the long bay at whose head lies the large city of Kagoshima. Hydrofoils buzzed past at forty knots, passenger ferries overtook us in both directions, an airforce surveillance plane buzzed us and dead ahead another active volcano – Sakurajima – let out great burps of smoke as if in welcome.

Coastal surveillance checking us out Sakurajima volcano, Kagoshima

Phil and Mel on Mira had beaten us to Kagoshima by several days and were able to give us detailed information on where to tie up: a narrow, well-protected cut in Taniyama Harbour, some five or six miles south of Kagoshima proper. On the calm, sunny morning of Thursday April 14th (seventeen days out from Guam) , with the smell of spruce wafting in from the east, we hoisted our yellow Quarantine flag and tied up: we were in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Stepping ashore at KagoshimaWithin minutes and in the politest possible manner, we were introduced to Japanese bureaucracy: a dozen smartly outfitted officials, all wearing white gloves, waited patiently to come aboard and present us with reams of paper to complete. Immigration, Customs, Agriculture, Coastguard, Police – and when we thought we had finished, Immigration invited us to come back with them to their office in downtown Kagoshima, half an hour's drive away, for yet more forms. Only one of the officials had more than a fractured word or two of English, and our Japanese was barely any better, but fortunately we were assisted by Nakamura San, Hagiwa San and a very energetic young lady called Mi-chan, who all worked at Kagoshima Marine Services, the boatyard associated (in a mysterious manner we never quite fathomed) with the adjacent moorings. The most important point to understand was that before moving on there would be a lot more paperwork to complete. For reasons that date way back to the first European contacts with Japan in the 16th century, at Nagasaki, all ports and harbours are deemed either “open” or “closed”; we would need specific permission to enter any of the “closed” ports, which are by far in the majority.

We had already been warned that Japanese hospitality towards foreign yachts-people is outstanding, and it wasn't long before we found this to be true. Care packages of Sapporo Beer, fruit, local delicacies, and the local hooch – a brew called Shochu, brewed from sweet potatoes – would appear almost daily on board. Maki San, a doctor who owned a little 24ft Cornish Crabber called Summertime (nearly all of the local sailors seemed to be doctors...) sat down with us for two hours, with charts, to review the route onwards to Fukuoka; Otta San, after presenting us with a solar powered lantern (“Mr Otta loves internet shopping”, Mi-chan explained) gave us folder of Google Earth photos for each harbour, pointing out where we might find pontoons to tie to, and where we would have to tie to harbour walls.

Mi-chan and her dictionaryMeanwhile Mi-chan had dragooned her friend Hiro San and a very amiable gentleman whom we all called Mr Bamboo (the literal translation of his name) and we set off for a full day's tour of the neighbourhood in Hiro's van, on whose TV he had thoughtfully installed English language movies lest we get bored. We took the car ferry over to the nearby Sakurajima volcano, then it was back to the mainland for a drive southwards to a small rural town called Chiran, famous for its street of “Samurai houses”, each featuring serene and delicately landscaped gardens that incorporated the surrounding mountains into their design (a technique known as “borrowed landscapes”).

Hiro and Mr Bamboo spoke almost no English, so most of the hard work fell to Mi-chan and her invaluable portable electronic dictionary. But even this was insufficient when, near Chiran, we visited our first “Jinja” (Shinto shrine): the rituals of hand-washing and bell-ringing were easy enough to follow, but after this much of the shrine seemed to be dedicated to various ingenious means by which the visitor is invited to part with his or her money so as to have their fortune read. And Mi-chan was again tested when we went for lunch to the neighbourhood's most famous restaurant. Here were seventy or eighty open-air tables, each with a small fountain at its centre which channelled the local (cold) spring water into a fast-circulating trough. A load of noodles would be dumped into the trough and, as they passed, the idea was to fish out a batch on your chopsticks and dunk them into the bowls of soup, soy and wasabe with which we had also been supplied; our chopstick technique still leaves something to be desired but, as Mr Bamboo enthusiastically demonstrated, “vacuuming” is a perfectly acceptable technique of dealing with noodles.

Sampling cold noodles Jenny gets her fortune told at a Shinto shrine

En passant we also learned certain taboos; never use your chopsticks as spears, never put them vertically into your rice bowl, and don't pass a food item from your chopsticks to a friends'. All of this activity, as is de rigueur with most things in the Kagoshima district, was washed down with copious quantities of Shochu.

Mi-chan, Jenny and Mel en route to the sand bathThe afternoon continued with a visit to a great Japanese institution: the “Onsen” or natural spring. In this case there was a twist: at Ibisuki, in the southwest corner of the great bay of Kagoshima, not only does hot water bubble up naturally, but it heats the black sand beach. We sensed that in the case of Onsen visits there is significant potential for cross-cultural catastrophe, so as Jenny followed Mi-chan into the ladies' section, I paid close attention to what Mr Bamboo did in the men's section. First it was shoes off, strip naked and put all your clothes in a locker (this being Japan, no-one seemed to bother securing the lockers); we were then given light cotton dressing gowns to don for the walk out to the beach. There was a good breeze blowing off the sea so it was important to follow Mr Bamboo's instructions as to how the hem of the dressing gown should be lightly and discreetly held in order to avoid it blowing apart. Ladies with face masks and shovels then firmly invited us to lie down and proceeded to bury us, leaving only the head showing; tiny parasols were thoughtfully provided. After some fifteen minutes of slowly baking, we were invited to rise – like zombies from the ground – and then proceed to the more traditional part of this spa, the hot spring.

Cooking in the sand bath at IbusukiThe main point to remember at Onsens is that you must rinse before you step into the communal swimming-pool-like bath. Bowls are provided. Then into the main pool. In our limited experience these pools seem to be hotter than the average western bath, but the locals seem happy to spend long periods parboiling themselves. Most Onsens also have a cold pool into which you can sally if the heat really is too much, and/or another of rather murky water infused with some kind of seaweed or herb, whose function we have yet to fathom. After an appropriate period of soaking you then pick up a tiny stool, your bowl and your washcloth (towels not admitted) and park yourself in front of one of the dozen or so waist-high showers that line the room; showering standing up seems to be un-Japanese. After much scouring and rinsing with soap and shampoo, repeat the entire sequence as many times as you like.

Not to be outdone by his colleagues, Nakamura San, who works as a helicopter pilot for Kagoshima Marine Services - sailing is a very high-end activity in Japan – took us out for another day in the country. We spent most of the day hiking in the beautiful mountains of Kirishima National Park, guided by an elderly gentleman whom we had met while visiting the Samurai houses at Chiran (and who met us at the car park with, as gifts, large blow-ups of photos he had taken of us).

Meanwhile there was Kagoshima to be explored. This is a large, modern city but, in its way, we found it as foreign and as fascinating a place as we have ever been. First, 99% of the signs, posters and advertising you see in the streets is in kanji, the principal Japanese script. This makes boarding a suburban train train for the first time quite an adventure: there are timetables, of course, but you cannot read the destinations, let alone decipher the various fare structures. Everyone is most helpful, nodding and smiling all the time, but in our limited experience – and notwithstanding the fact that English is a compulsory subject at school – only those persons who have lived abroad for a substantial period are able and/or willing enough even to risk a “hello.” The supermarkets are vast, brightly lit and spotlessly clean and there is aisle upon aisle of exquisitely-prepared and presented fresh produce, fish and meat – but there are aisles too where you have no idea at all what that transparent gelatinous substance may be, or how you might want to prepare what looks like something we normally see when cleaning the bottom of Bosun Bird, or what those instructions on the package may be saying (in one shop we nearly bought what we thought was a thank-you card; just as well we didn't; it was for funeral condolences).

All you can drink; the girls cost extraIn restaurants we found we could usually guess what the smiling waiters or waitresses were saying by the context, but we did find ourselves taking the cowardly route of favouring those establishments that had pictures or clever plastic mock-ups of the dishes on display, and with the prices in Roman numerals. The schoolgirls, of course, all wear those cute “sailor girl” outfits and clutch bags adorned with words apparently plucked at random from an English dictionary, but the boys wear outfits that look as though they were designed for the Naval Academy in 1912, complete with high collars.

Particularly interesting was a visit to a massive Pachinko parlour. In smoky Vegas-like rows, punters feed dozens of silver balls into what are in essence upright pinball machines and – to accompanying flashing lights and a general din of music and miscellaneous clattering – seek to generate more balls then they put in. The catch is that “gambling” of this kind is illegal in Japan, so your winnings can only be exchanged for boring goods like cooking oil or soap. Then there are bars whose advertising signs indicate a span of hours and a price: “all you can drink” for the specified period. What at first sight looked like an apartment block might in fact house twenty or more of these bars, along with a few karaoke bars where you rent not only the open bar but the karaoke machine.

Kamikaze pilots, ChiranFor many westerners visiting Japan, one usually unspoken question is: what do they think today about the war? One day we ventured out on our own to Chiran again. With its southerly location, this had been the principal air base from which kamikaze (“Divine Wind”) pilots had taken off on their suicide missions in 1945, notably in attempts to stall the American landings on Okinawa. A large “peace museum” marks this fact. Its halls are lined with photographs or the more than 1000 young pilots who died in this way, and many of their final letters, poems and wills are preserved. The pictures are moving. One group photograph, which has become particularly well-known, is entitled The Happy Squadron. It shows four smiling young men, all in their flying uniforms, playing with a tiny puppy; one pilot, we learn, was only seventeen, the others eighteen and nineteen. The day after the picture was taken, all four took off in their explosives-laden Zeroes for Okinawa. Were they to be pitied? Or admired? The few explanatory captions carefully avoided making any judgement and it was very difficult to tell what the many Japanese visitors were thinking as they studiously pored over the short letters of farewell the pilots had sent to their mothers and old schoolmates.

More happily, before we left Kagoshima and jointly with Phil and Mel on Mira, we hosted our new friends for dinner aboard our two boats. Mel and Jenny try on kimonosA hilarious time was had, and Mi-chan had brought kimonos for Jenny and Mel to try on, one of them belonging to her grandmother. Jenny learned how to tie her own “obi” (the broad sash with which a kimono is secured around the waist) and also confirmed, in passing, that the kimono is designed for the stereotypical desirable woman of Japan, who has very small breasts (having said this, Japanese comic-form pornography, which is ubiquitous, seems definitely to favour the contrary western stereotype).

When the time came to move on, we could find no consensus on how to deal with the bureaucracy. Customs said they must approve our itinerary, which they duly did, and volunteered their opinion that we need see no-one else. But then Immigration said they must give approval too – why, we had no idea. Curiously, no-one mentioned the Department of Transport, whose officials had yet to visit us, but whom we understood from other foreign yachties to be a key player. After much to-ing and fro-ing, most of it at the beginning of a marathon of national holidays (four in eight days) known as Golden Week, it emerged that Transport was indeed the key player, but Transport Fukuoka (300km away), not Kagoshima. With much help from Mi-chan and Nakamura San the correct piece of paper was finally obtained and on May 3rd we disengaged from our mooring and motored out into Kagoshima Wan.

Kagoshima to Nagasaki

We had identified a set of possible stops from a booklet of harbour charts produced by the Japanese Hydrographic Office – one of eight such books that cover the entire coast. Although their entire text is in Japanese, including the names of the harbours, the position coordinates are in western script and the navigational aids (lights, buoys) are shown conventionally, with English as the base language. Unlike in the typical cruising ground where the challenge is finding well-protected and appropriately deep/shallow bays for spending the night, a reasonable distance apart, in Japan almost every likely or even possible nook in the coastline is already occupied by an artificial harbour or a fish farm. Indeed our friend Maki San had described his anchor as “for emergencies only”. The harbours are typically very heavily fortified with massive breakwaters and the technique favoured by the local fishing boats is to stern-tie to the inner walls: bows on a mooring, stern lines led ashore. This posed challenges for us, as the moorings are all privately-owned, there was often little room to lay out an anchor, the bottom was likely foul, and running those stern-lines ashore would involve launching the dinghy each time. So, whenever possible, we looked for floating pontoons to tie to, and once side-tied to a wall (awkward to get on and off with a tidal range of over 2m).

First stop was a quite fishing port still in Kagoshima Bay, called Yamagawa, where we tied to the pale green pontoon that the fishboats use for loading and unloading. At exactly five o'clock in the evening the town's loudspeakers crackled into life: a few chimes of “Love is Blue”, marking the end of the working day; every small harbour has such a tradition, although the tunes of course vary; clocking-on time is also marked, as are lunch-time and teatime.

From Yamagawa we headed out into the open ocean and to the west, along the south coast of the Big island of Kyushu, passing the perfectly conical Kaimon volcano to starboard. That night it was another fishing port, Makurazaki, and another pontoon. Prawn fishers at KasasaThe national holidays were now in full swing, so the street adjoining the port had been closed off by the local fishermen's union for a street party, with huge coloured “koi” (carp) flags fluttering in the wind: the koi is associated with youthful vigour and boys, and is flown to bring good fortune to parents who have or wish for young boy children. Makurazaki is Mi-chan's home town, so she took us out on the town for the evening, first to her favourite local restaurant where we sampled all manner of delicacies that would have otherwise been unknown to us (Jenny passed on the barnacles but was game for everything else) and ended the day with an hour's wallow at the local Onsen.

Mi-chan joined us at dawn next day for the run around the southwestern corner of Kyushu and up to the tiny and perfectly-protected inlet at Kasasa. The wind was favourable but the seas were confused, the motion uncomfortable and the drizzle did not let up. We suspect Mi-chan did not greatly enjoy her sail, but she was game about it. At Kasasa we tied up, in gale-force gusts rocketing down the hillside, to the floating pontoon of a luxury hotel, the Ebisu. Mi-chan enjoying her sailThis ultra-modern but discreet resort had its own large museum featuring traditional local craft and had also made exhibits of two cruising yachts – one now mounted on dry land, the other tied to the pontoon and with an explanatory plaque (it would presumably be bad form to raft to a museum exhibit). The Japanese revere long-distance sailors but to us it seemed a little odd to be tied up next to a relatively ordinary cruising yacht of 1990's vintage, less well-travelled than Bosun Bird, and yet a museum piece.

Our steep mooring fee (all the other harbours were free) gave us access to the hotel's Onsen – and here the feared cultural disaster, which we thought could only happen to Gaijin even more foolish than ourselves, occurred. On Day One all went well. Mi-chan accompanied Jenny into the ladies' section and pointed me in the direction of the men's. I spent an enjoyable hour contemplating the East China Sea through the foggy plate-glass window while steaming myself. Next day, when Mi-chan had gone home, we went again. All was well to begin with. There was no-one else around. But as I was dropping off in the pool, an unmistakeably female naked figure appeared at the door. Harbour at KasasaPutting her hand to her face in a shocked “Oh!”, she rapidly withdrew. Almost simultaneously, I later learned, Jenny walked from one half of her Onsen to the other to find a man wallowing there quietly. Outside, we deduce, there was much consternation. Finally, in my half and Jenny's half there appeared, respectively, uniformed male and female hotel staff to apologise to us profusely and explain to us that on alternate days the men's and women's sides were switched....

From Kasasa it was a pleasant sail north to an offshore island and the resort/port of Sato Ne. With the permission of the local hotel we tied up on their floating pontoon, went shopping and then were adopted for most of the afternoon by three Japanese office-workers who were well into a day-long drinking and barbecue session. We tried barbecued squid, green beans and Shochu mixed with green tea as we engaged in enthusiastic if largely fruitless efforts at communication. Finally the self-appointed leader of the group got out his phone a summoned his “sensei” (a word we recognised - “teacher”). The young and very tolerant sensei, whose weekend of relaxation we had no doubt just wrecked, soon appeared and clarified a number of important points; when we had asked the men what they did for a living the answer was a word sounding like “stim”, accompanied by much puffing and blowing. Train drivers? Dry-cleaners? Friends and sensei (far right) at Sato NeMystifying. It turned out that they worked in the Civil Engineering Department of the local government (?). Eventually the wife of our leading friend appeared in her car and briskly, wordlessly but politely began to clear everything away; we had the feeling she was used to this pattern; pledges of undying friendship were sworn and photos ceremonially taken.

Back on the mainland we stopped at a large harbour called Akune, finding a pontoon after some thirty minutes of motoring around in circles. Ashore the highlight of the town was the shutters on the stores – all painted in imaginative “murals” - and another massive supermarket, where discovered yet another new Japanese delicacy known as Choco Chip Melon Pan (don't ask...). From here, after the obligatory 06:30 a.m. check of the Japanese weather forecast, it was only 18 miles north to Ushibuka. No pontoons here, so we tied up to what seemed to be a relatively smooth wall inside the very snug innermost harbour; unfortunately, you can't tell if the wall really is sheer until the tide goes down, and this one had an annoying overhang that soon emerged, threatening to trap our fenders; periodic “watches” were thus necessary during the night.

Coastline of western Kyushu Bosun Bird on a pontoon at Sato Ne

Next morning the weather forecast was for 25 knots from the SE, and there was a red flag flying at the harbour entrance – which we deduced to mean “Nobody goes out”. However, the direction was favourable for us and we decided the directive surely did not apply to Gaijin; more to the point we needed to move on to good shelter before the wind turned to the NW and against us, as it was due to in a day or so.

So it was a fast sail to Nomaike. This inlet on a headland just south of Nagasaki is reached through a narrow gap in the cliffs that would be intimidating in an onshore wind, but the wind was still southerly, if very gusty, and once inside we found ourselves in a calm and absolutely perfect haven: a bay about a mile long and 100m to 200m wide, lined with walls. In pouring rain we found yet another pontoon, hunted around to find someone official who gave us permission, and settled in for a very wet afternoon.

Next morning it was wet and foggy again. As we motored out the fog lifted briefly and we saw a bizarre, ghostly, sight: a wave-beaten Alcatraz-like island emerging from the gloom to starboard, a barren black rock topped with evidently abandoned, decaying blocks of flats. Mystified, we consulted the chart and found it said “colliery” - what a spooky location, the perfect setting for a post-apocalyptic horror movie. As we neared Nagasaki the fog began to clear – it was nerve-wracking to be hearing engines approaching then receding, but seeing nothing – but the wind was picking up sharply. In gale-force gusts that kept putting Bosun Bird's rail under, we dodged jetfoils, ferries and a massive car-carrier before coasting more gently under the silver/grey suspension bridge that marks the entrance to Nagasaki Bay.

Colliery island, Nagasaki Gateway to Nagasaki

For the past sixty years, of course, Nagasaki has meant to most outsiders only one thing: the site where the second and last atomic bomb was detonated.

A black marble obelisk, in a leafy residential quarter of the city marks the “hypocenter”: the point above which “Fat Man” was dropped from an American B-29 at 11:00 a.m. on August 9th 1945, killing 75,000 persons. The day we visited, the surrounding park was crowded with uniformed schoolchildren. An old man sitting on a bench asked us in fractured English what we thought and nodded thoughtfully when we replied how sad a place it seemed but how good it was to see it thronged with young people. Nearby is a larger “Peace Park” with a grandiose Soviet-style sculpture of a muscled man pointing to the sky, a more modern Memorial Hall listing the names of all those who died, and a museum. The museum does not evade describing the build-up to WW2 – there are references to Japanese “militarism” - and nor does it suggest that the use of the bomb was universally condemned: one of a series of videotaped interviews with survivors is with an Australian POW who unhesitatingly described August 9th as the best day of his life, “because we knew the war was over”. It is suggested, however, that the Allies had decided in 1944, with the bomb still under development, that Japan would be the only target, not Germany.

Schoolchildren at the Hypocentre, Nagasaki Nagasaki; Dejima Wharf centre right

There is in fact much more to Nagasaki than this tragic moment in history. Starting in 1543, for over three hundred years the city was the principal conduit for Japan's relations with the outside world and, with the arrival of St Francis Xavier, the centre of a small but significant Christian community. Even when, in 1638, the decision was made to “close Japan down” once again (for over two hundred years), the tiny Dutch East India Company post at Dejima – Nagasaki harbour – was allowed to remain open and trade to continue under restrictive rules.

Pachinko parlour, Nagasaki Men in Black not welcome

Dejima has now been fully reconstructed, although following much land reclamation it is no longer an island and lies a hundred meters or so inland from the current yacht marina of the same name, where we were tied up. Nineteenth century European house, NagasakiA number of Christian churches can be visited, too; none of these is more than a hundred years or so old, for in 1614 Christianity was completely banned; indeed some 26 professing Christians were martyred by crucifixion in an earlier crackdown in 1597. A few of the churches have mementoes of the 200 years during which the Christian community went underground. And on a hillside tumbling down to the water's edge a selection of 19th-century European-style buildings, each of which has been lovingly reconstructed and refurnished, are a reminder of the period when – following the Meiji restoration – Japan once again opened up to the west and began an amazingly rapid period of industrial and scientific development (one result of which was the construction of the still thriving Mitsubishi dockyard).

At the international cemeteryA slightly unusual suggestion made by the genial Tanaka San, manager of the marina, was that we should visit the International Cemetery, across the bay. Here we found a tiny onion-domed Russian orthodox church and dozens of graves, marked with the characteristic crooked cross, of sailors drowned at the massive Russo-Japanese naval engagement of 1905 in the nearby Straits of Tsushima (won by Japan).

To the Gotto Retto Archipelago

From Nagasaki we made a quiet overnight sail eastwards for some fifty miles to the southernmost island of the large archipelago known as Gotto Retto, tying up – for the princely sum of 140 Yen (just under USD $2) - at the municipal ferry terminal in Fukue. There was much coming and going here, including a fast jetfoil powered by aircraft engines, and for much of the day announcements echoed out of imminent departures and arrivals; an advantage of our location, however, was free wi-fi in the terminal and a large supermarket only 200 meters away.

Jetfoil en route to Gotto RettoTwo (i.e. 66%) of the local yachting community took us under their respective wings. Matsumoto San, who sails “Micawber” and is a vet, treated us to a full, multi-course Japanese-style blow-out, served as we sat on tatami mats by kimono-clad ladies, at the poshest hotel in town; Yoshi and Taeko took us out to dinner with the local baker (who had trained in France) where one of those international travel coincidences occurred – a fellow guest was a retired Swiss diplomat who had served in Sudan, and with whom we shared many mutual friendships. We were showered with gifts, ranging from ever-welcome cold Sapporo beer (we have no fridge) to luxury food items such as Borsch and pickles. Matsumoto cannily picked up on another unspoken wish, and breezed us into the rooftop spa of the same posh hotel for a free, luxurious bathe in the Onsen. As always, we found it very difficult to know how to reciprocate such hospitality.

Yoshi and family, FukueYoshi told us that when he was a boy at school in Fukue, there were seven classes in his grade; now there are only two. Fukue, the main town and the point of our arrival, is sadly dying on its feet as overfishing and the cost of fuel combine to kill off the once vital fishing industry, the birth rate continues to fall and young people depart for the large mainland cities of Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Fukuoka. Although summer had begun in this town that is supposedly redirecting its efforts towards tourism, after 19:30 it was as quiet as the grave; tourism of course has suffered catastrophically this year on account of the Fukushima disaster, but even in good years many Japanese prefer to fly to Hawaii or Guam than visit their own archipelagos.

We spent longer in Fukue than we had planned, for a day or two after our arrival a Supertyphoon began to develop far to our south, with a projected course over Kyushu. We assured ourselves that we were in as well-protected a corner of the harbour as any, stripped the boat down, reinforced our mooring lines – and waited. Winds did hit some 40 knots for a couple of hours, but the eye remained well to the south and we were barely brushed; however, the waters off Kagoshima that we had left a few weeks earlier saw 70 knots and seas of 12m, a far more serious prospect. We took advantage of the enforced stay to take a bus over to another Onsen at the quiet town of Arikawa on the island's east coast, and to visit a beautiful brick-built Christian church at Dozaki, the oldest in the archipelago. Among the exhibits on display was a “Kannon”, an effigy of the Buddhist God of Mercy that clandestine Christians worshipped as the Virgin Mary.

Our next stop was only a few miles north: the tiny island of Kabashima, where we found another welcoming pontoon in a securely-protected bay. At the head of the bay are three very large, modern buildings, that turned out to to be the local elementary school, the junior high school and their shared gymnasium. All are well equipped with the latest in visual aids, sports equipment and so on, and there is a complement of fourteen mainly young, enthusiastic staff and helpers. Astoundingly, however, the complement of students is....two! One at the elementary school, one at the junior high. Hideki, the Elementary School special needs teacher, came to visit us with his pupil, a delightful developmentally-challenged boy called Yuuki, and we later had fun helping Yuuki make a pair of cardboard cut-out masks; Yuuki lives with his 77-year-old grandmother, who is a fortune-teller (!) at the Shinto shrine on top of the mountain. We were told that the total population of the island is about two hundred but, the teachers and the two children excepted, there are very few people aged under 70.

Hideki and Yuuki, Kabashima Bosun Bird and elementary school, Kabashima

At Narao, ten miles on, another somnolent fishing port and another Onsen, this time in an otherwise defunct 60-s era hotel on top of the hill. We were up at 04:30 the next morning for a long run, including a passage through a tidal race that it was critical to time correctly, or face 5 knots against us. All went well and by noon we were tied up behind claustrophobically-high anti-typhoon walls at a spanking new marina on the island of Uku Shima, the northernmost of the Gotto Retto archipelago. Gotto Retto coastlineWe had the forty-berth small-boat harbour to ourselves and it seemed to us typical of Japan that we were trusted to track down the correct harbour official and pay our fee. Again we were adopted by locals, this time by Katsuko Kawamata, who seized upon us as we exited the town's one and only shop: she worked for the municipality and was a wonderful source of advice, tips and information, presenting us as well with a bottle of the island's special “shochu” brew. We had noted before that most Japanese who speak good English seem to have spent time abroad, and Katsuko was no exception: she had been on a home-stay programme to Penticton, BC.

One day, for an outing, we took the local ferry over to Ojika island. One of the frustrations of Japan's arcane system of permits for cruisers is that you cannot, on a whim, just divert somewhere because you like the look of it – because it will not be on your list of “approved closed ports;” hence the trip by ferry rather than on Bosun Bird. Katsuko had been busy activating her network; barely had we sat down to “champon” (the local noodle speciality) in the island's one and only restaurant, Interior of the church, Nozakithan we were accosted by her friend Myori and the latter's daughter Liza, who had come out just to find us. They took us on a short but comprehensive tour of the island, including a beautifully restored old samurai house.

Another day we took a ferry combination to a different island: Nozaki. The last permanent inhabitant, the priest at the shrine, left in 2002 and now the only permanent locals are deer that roam wild through the abandoned houses and terraces. Here is the most beautiful of all the churches in Gotto, which the caretaker at a seasonally-open hostel (the old school) opened up for us so that we could see the stained glass in all its glory. Stained glass window, NozakiWe walked briskly to the abandoned village of Funamori at one end of the island and then doubled back for a much tougher walk up and down steep hillsides to the “jinja” where the old priest used to live: an eerie place with lichen and creepers having now overrun almost everything.

Gotto Retto to Fukuoka

Leaving Uku Shima at dawn, we now headed back over to the mainland and made another potentially difficult tidal passage between the island of Hirado and the big island of Kyushu, beneath a magnificent Golden Gate-lookalike suspension bridge. Such fabulous bridges seem to be commonplace in Japan, although they often lead almost nowhere; along with the concrete used to build the ubiquitous and massive harbour fortifications, bridges are clearly a good line of business in this country. At old Hirado town (the first point of entry of Europeans, before Nagasaki) we tied up at another municipal pontoon beneath a spectacular pagoda-like fortress that from the 11th century onwards was the fief of the powerful Matsura clan. Hirado reeks of history: the old Dutch trading house is currently being restored; there are walls and steps from the same period and up the hill is the tomb of William “Anjin”: Adams, the hero of James Clavell's “Shogun”. Coxinga's birthplace, near HiradoAnd three or four miles south, at the similarly old port of Kawachi, is another interesting sight: a rock on the beach where one morning in 1624 a local woman who was out collecting limpets. Her offspring would later become known by a plethora of names from Cheng Sen to Kuo-Sing-Yeh and – to the Dutch – as Coxinga. Coxinga was probably the most powerful and ferocious pirate who ever lived, commanding at one point a fleet of 3000 junks and a land army of over 200,000 men, loosely in the service of the Ming dynasty. In Taiwan (where he was responsible for the expulsion of the Dutch colonists) he is revered as a deity and there is a shrine in Kawachi where thousands of Taiwanese come to pray every year.

At the pontoon, HiradoIn Hirado we encountered another Japanese yacht: Sakiu and his crew, aboard Skal, engaged upon a circumnavigation of Kyushu. More lavish gifts were bestowed upon us, Sakiu's friend Palo composed an impressive looking two-meter long scroll of calligraphy in our honour (precise meaning to be deciphered in due course...), while simultaneously performing a traditional Japanese folk dance concerning eels, and Sakiu presented us with a chart of his home port of Kobe. We can only hope that Palo has by now recovered from what must have been a major headache the following morning.

Leaving Hirado we sailed a few miles north to the tiny community of Azuchi-o-Shima. There was no pontoon here, just a nice smooth wall and not too much passing traffic to cause wake. Japan's monsoon season had by now (mid-June) set in with a vengeance: when it was not raining it was about to do so. Main street, Azuchi-o-ShimaSo Azuchi's quiet and narrow streets of overhanging wooden house-fronts were even quieter than ever; we made another Onsen expedition, finding another otherwise-unoccupied hotel on top of a hill and were allowed – for the first time – to have the whole place to ourselves (gender separation is more normal, but business was not exactly booming).

We were now north of Kyushu and could start a gradual turn to the east, across the top of the big island. Next stop was the liveliest place by far that we have been: the squid-fishing port of Yobuko. During the day things would be relatively calm but by night the dazzlingly-lit forty-foot squid boats were coming and going hectically, and by early morning the streets were full of squid, squid, squid....many of them whirling around on ingeniously-devised drying implements like miniature merry-go-rounds. We stayed one night on a pontoon belonging to a restaurant, but they were uneasy about the responsibility of having us there for a second night (!) so we moved under the suspension bridge (another one) and into the main harbour. Unfortunately, space here was so limited that the only wall we could find had an ugly overhang that began to open up at half-tide. Near TakashimaWe spent much of one day fending off, and left Yobuko earlier than we had intended.

Next stop was an obscure little island called Takashima, just off the much larger port of Karatsu. Over a year earlier, in New Zealand, a Japanese friend (who was later to disappear in the Southern Ocean) had left us a handwritten note with a diagram, some characters in kanji, and the English notation: Mr Nozaki. Nozaki-San, his wife Hideki and 83-year-old mother Matsura treated us as if we were returning Messiahs. First he arranged a safe place for us to tie up, alongside a friend's fishing boat. Then it was two successive evenings of lavish dinners at his home, preceded by private Onsen sessions in his miniature Chinese-constructed bath in the outhouse. Nozaki San is a former Bosun in the Japanese Imperial Navy and, though we shared little language in common, he was able to tell us some of his adventures as we sat below the Rising Sun naval insignia presented to him on retirement by his colleagues: a round-the-world training cruise in the sixties, a trip to Antarctica on the Fuji icebreaker, and his own trip around Japan on his yacht (moored down in the Takashima harbour). With Matsura San, TakashimaMatsura San dressed Jenny up in her own kimono, while Hideki San served us banquets, including a traditional Okonomiyaki (barbecue style) with sizzled squid.

On Takashima we were puzzled by the number of cats we saw roaming the quiet streets, and the loud caterwauling at night. They were, it seemed, a promotional gimmick for the local shrine and its associated industries, the main one of which was selling you fancy silk bags in which you could place your lottery tickets and/or cash and have them “blessed” at the shrine. Beckoning cats, TakashimaCats are bringers of good fortune in Japan, this arising from the story of an impoverished shrine with a sick monk, saved from ruin by a cat that went into the street and beckoned money-laden pilgrims inwards. So an enterprising local business lady stocked up not only on silk bags but beckoning plaster cats cats of all varieties and a few real live ones, which she taught to pray and beckon with the aid of liberal doses of catnip, and which have repeatedly been featured in the papers and on TV; when not praying they have bred prolifically.

It was with some sadness that we left this unusual place with its wonderful hospitality and, on the first sunny day in more than two weeks we now made the final run to Kyushu's biggest city: Fukuoka.

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