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Fukuoka & Busan (Korea)

Fukuoka, with a population of 1.5m, is the largest city on the big island of Kyushu, and the biggest place that Bosun Bird has yet visited in the Pacific.

Odo Marina, Fukuoka Fukuoka skyline

We holed up at the municipal marina at Odo, on the edge of the city: a quiet location, where we were the only live-aboards, but with an active dinghy-racing scene in the late afternoons and on weekends. Many marinas in Japan used to offer foreign yachts free space for extended periods, but economic times have been had of late. Here the deal was a slightly odd one: pay for the first twelve days and get the rest of the month free.

Nori at TanabataWe were promptly adopted, not only by Hiro-San and his friendly marina staff but by our neighbour, a 70-yr old gentleman called Nori, who has a 32-ft yacht called “Lei”. He made sure that we would want for absolutely nothing, bringing us regular care packages (with a different kind of cold Japanese beer each time), taking us sightseeing for the day to the old temple complex at nearby Dozaifu, donating two bicycles to us and generally answering and/or researching for us a host of questions we continue to have about Japan and the culture. Nori grew up as a small boy in rural Kumamotu at the beginning of the war; as he wryly told us, “I was too young to stop Pearl Harbour.” But his family suffered a great tragedy in 1945; more than any Japanese we have met, Nori – a self-confessed “anti-militarist,” was willing to discuss this dark period of Japanese history freely, as well as more modern issues such as the Japanese whale-hunt and its controversial dolphin fishery.

We were by now entering the Japanese summer. In fact one day in early June the newspapers calmly announced that the rainy season was officially over and that summer had therefore started; swimming was accordingly permissible; such is the way of things in this rule-based society. Jenny at TanabataWith summer comes a series of festivals across Japan. Nori helped us celebrate one of these, called Tanabata. It marks the time of year at which the stars Vega and Altair, who represent two mythological lovers in Japanese legend, appear to come closest together. We carefully copied out, in Kanji characters, our wishes for the coming year on slips of paper, then suspended them on a bamboo shoot in our rigging; Nori also posted one for a sailing friend who had recently died, which echoed his friend's last wish: no solemn Haiku as we had half-expected but rather “Cold Beer and Blue Skies”. Copying the Kanji characters was of course testing, but there was a light moment when we realised we had carefully imitated one character that Nori had emphatically crossed out....complete with the crossing-out, of course.

Then, in the days leading up to the dawn of July 15th, came Fukuoka's main festival of the year, the Yamakasa. Each of seven wards of the old port city of Hakata (now absorbed by Fukuoka) forms an association or nagare, and each constructs two portable floats. One is exceptionally lavish, up to 20m high, and usually decorated with extravagantly costumed life-size Shoguns, Samurai and other great figures of Japanese history; these are displayed in each ward and – on account of their fragility – make only brief sorties.

Yamakasa floatBut they also prepare a more portable version and, starting at 04:59 a.m. On the 15th, these smaller floats are raced around the streets along a traditional 5km course, temple to temple, with hundreds of men from each association spelling their comrades off as the float careers around; hundreds of thousands of townspeople cheer them on and spray them with water to keep them cool. Injuries are frequent as the men under the float emerge and are replaced, all at full speed and in a cacophony of shouting. The men wear a short white linen jacket and a tight loincloth that is little more than a male thong, so that thousands of male buttocks are on view (some more attractive than others, the Captain was told by the Crew). The race is conducted to vigorous choruses of “Oisa! Oisa! Oisa!” - which has no meaning other than in the context of the Yamakasa, and which is an all-purpose cry of encouragement. We were joined for this memorable day by our old friend Mi-Chan from Kagoshima, who had driven up to see us, along with Jaap and Marijke, Fukuoka's resident foreign yachties (“Alishan”).


Waiting for the start, Yamakasa Nagare supporters preceding their float
They're off! Oisa, oisa...

Meanwhile our first three-month spell in Japan was up and it was time to renew our visa. Nori ran us down to the port one morning and we boarded the Camellia ferry to Busan, Korea: a six-hour run. Although the outward trip was in daylight, even our “economy class” tickets entitled us to a fair degree of comfort: a futon to spread out, along with a pillow, in a large airy cabin that we had to ourselves. Strangely, the return trip took twelve hours: the ship dawdles deliberately so as not to arrive before the Japanese customs are on duty (more rules....).

Jenny on the Camellia Busan harbour

Temple at Gyeong-JoAlthough it is so close to Fukuoka, Busan is quite a contrast: more chaotic, noisy, dirty but perhaps more go-ahead; although Japan's city centres are ultra-modern, clean and safe, they sometimes seem a little sterile, Japanese society more convention-bound and “disciplined”. Thanks to Nori's detailed instructions, culled from the Internet and translated for us, we spent a long but enjoyable day at the Korean Kyoto, a complex of ancient temples and other buildings at Gyeong-Jo, about an hour away by bus. Love hotelThe temples were duly impressive, and we were lucky to have a cool day that kept the crowds away; but the Crew earned herself several millenia of bad Karma by inadvertently entering the main temple not only in shoes (a real no-no) but in shoes that turned out to belong to the Nun supervising the temple; another cultural disaster, but much is forgiven of ignorant “Gai-Jin” (foreigners). We were puzzled to find that Gyeong-Jo also seems to be the “Love Hotel” capital of Korea, with half a dozen of these no-doubt useful but garish institutions advertising their facilities within sight of the bus station; unfortunately we were not in Korea for long enough to be able to account for this interesting sociological phenomenon, which we had thought was restricted largely to conservative Latin American countries.

We took advantage of cheap movies in Korea (USD $8, compared with at least $22 in Japan) to see our first “real” (i.e. Not DVD) movie in eighteen months, and spent several hours wandering around Busan's fascinating fish market, reputedly the largest in Asia. Staffed entirely by middle-aged ladies (the men do the actual fishing), this covered such a huge area and was so lavishly stocked that we wandered – as we have done in Japan – how there can be any live fish left in these waters. There were many creatures we have never seen before, not all of them appetising to our conventional western tastes (the Koreans pride themselves on eating live octopus).


At the fish market, Busan Yummy seafood

Nori and underwater webcam
Back in Fukuoka, we delayed our departure eastwards for several days to allow for the passage past Japan of Typhoon Ma-On (the names seem to become more peculiar year by year), packing winds of 110 knots. This was the second really big storm of 2011, and seemed to presage a bad year: we were still six weeks away from what is normally regarded as the most dangerous month, September. While waiting we decided to take advantage of the ever-warmer water to clean Bosun Bird's bottom; Nori weighed in with a Heath-Robinson contraption that allowed us an underwater viewing via webcam, and then produced two even more rickety-looking but effective mops on the end of long and curved poles, that allowed us to do much of the scrubbing without actually going in.

More: Japan - Inland Sea

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