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Japan - Inland Sea

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

With Typhoon Ma-On having bounced off Japan to meander elsewhere in the northeastern Pacific, we studied various on-line weather sources to see how much breathing space we had before the next storm came our way. One of our favourite sources of weather prediction is the Joint Typhoon Warning Center out of Pearl Harbour, where the forecasters really come to love, even at times pity their storms. Analyses will speak of of typhoons “struggling to maintain their eye-wall”, or of “losing control of their high-level cloud” and you detect a twinge of sadness from the forecaster when systems finally start to “go extra-tropical” and die over land. In this instance, there were as usual developing storms near Yap and Palau that bore watching but it looked as though we had at least a week's leeway: we made preparations to move on from Fukuoka, east into the fabled Inland Sea (Seto Naikai in Japanese).

Our friend Maki San having taken us out for a final (and very late) night on the town, and Jaap and Nori having showered us with all sorts of gifts including a folding bicycle and a sack of rice, it was with moderate headaches and in some disorder that at dawn on July 24th we motored out of Odo Marina, our home for the past month, the course NNE.

The flood of gifts had, in fact, not yet dried up. It was a very hot, windless motor of 23 miles to O Shima island, during which we were surprised to see another yacht bearing down on us; they hailed us enthusiastically and, after edging closer than I would normally have liked, passed over a brown porcelain bottle, while making enthusiastic drinking gestures. We have no idea what it was, but it did say 45% at one place in the small print on the bottle, and the contents seemed to go down well with orange juice; we trust it was not in fact lighter fluid.

O Shima (one of dozens of Big Islands off the four Really Big Islands of Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido) is a pleasant resort island where, like so many other places, the locals are seeking to diversify from dependence on fishing (an industry which is dying on account of diminishing stocks, lack of interest from the younger generation and dietary changes). Here you could rent kayaks, go “fishing” in pre-stocked fish-farms or – as a yachtie – pay a high fee (USD $38) for the privilege of tying up alongside a floating pontoon rather than to a barnacle-encrusted wall.

Next day there was, as per Murphy's Law, initially no wind and then, by which time we had little room for tacking, it was on the nose: just south of east. By now we were approaching a famous and potentially difficult strait, the 12-mile long winding stretch of water that separates Honshu from Kyushu, known in Japanese as Kanmon Kaikyo (the Barrier Strait) but often called in English the Strait(s) of Shimonoseki. Ships of very large dimensions were converging from all directions, and our AIS (a radar-like monitor that uses VHF radio to monitor the movement of ships over 300 tonnes) was maxed out at 50-plus targets. On shore the green hills of Kyushu gave way to an ever-more industrialised and developed waterfront, with the growing smog in the air seeming to be pushed our way by enormous wind turbines rotating in the 15kt breeze.

Waterfront, KitakyushuMajor ports such as this are rarely friendly places for yachts and this was no exception. Relying on word-of-mouth and a Google Earth photo, we diverted a full five miles off course, down an ever-narrowing inlet that was lined with belching steelworks and busy container docks. This was a maritime version of what Sheffield (UK) or Pittsbugh were like in the sixties: huge clouds of noxious sulphur-smelling smoke belching everywhere from rusting complexes of tanks and pipes, unseen local train engines noisily shuttling back and forth, sirens and hooters going off. Nippon Steel seemed to be the biggest employer (and was no doubt the reason why this urban area, known as Kitakyushu, was the primary target for the second atomic bomb, saved only by heavy cloud on the day of the attack). We finally came to rest at an appropriately rusty pontoon off an amusement park that featured a full-size replica of the Space Shuttle; the floodlit container docks opposite continued functioning all night, with the crane driver issuing over a tannoy his commands (in Japanese) of “Stop”, “Down”, “Up”, “Back a little” and so on.

The reason why we chose this scenic spot rather than continuing directly to the Inland Sea is that the current in the Strait reaches up to 10 knots and reverses with each tide: as we are capable only of four knots under power (on a good day), we would have to choose our moment. So it was another dawn start, back past the steelworks again, and then into the large U-shaped Kanmon Kaikyo narrows, with Honshu on our left, Kyushu on the right, an elegant suspension bridge joining the two just before you exit into the Inland Sea. On shore, large illuminated “'scoreboards” indicate the current speed at the narrowest point, its direction, and whether the speed is increasing or decreasing, while Kanmon Martis - the dedicated radio station that controls movements hereabouts - gives constant updates on especially large ships entering or leaving the strait. We had the usual tense moments as tankers and LPG carriers ships appeared to be coming up our stern at an unstoppable rate, only to shift course and pass us with a safe margin, and this meant it was difficult to pay too much attention to the surroundings. Except to note on the Kyushu shore what seemed to be a half-size replica of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and which was probably a wedding chapel.

Ships lining up to enter Kanmon Kaikyo Japan's Venice

The worst part comes just when you think you are home free: just past the bridge, the current (which was now running in our favour at about five knots) hit a heavy chop set up by several days of strong easterly winds in the Inland Sea, creating turbulence that briefly had our bows dipping underwater; if you try to keep in the calmer water to starboard, however, you risk being taken backwards under the bridge again by a strong counter-current. So it was with frayed nerves that we emerged and, with the wind discouragingly still coming from dead ahead, dipped south, heading for the marina of Shin Moji.

We knew this would be expensive, and it was (about USD $60) but it was a safe refuge. Passenger ships from Osaka dock nearby, there is an airport on an artificial offshore island a mile or so south, but here all is quiet. The marina installations include what at first sight appears to be a chapel of some Christian denomination, with a cross in the bell tower and a Latin inscription; but just like the enormous white neo-gothic “cathedral” that graces the Fukuoka skyline and like the Piazza San Marco in Kitakyushu, this is a wedding chapel: very few Japanese are Christian, but they sure like the trappings of white western weddings, and catering to this is big business.

In the shipping lanes, Inland SeaThe western end of the Inland Sea is virtually devoid of islands and its northern shore is industrialised, so we had a long motor next day of 35 miles, much of it against a frustrating chop, to the small island of Hime Jima. Our track was parallel to the shipping lane and every few minutes we would be overtaken by a large freighter; we always took the trouble to stay well out of their way but this was of limited use when, as they sometimes did, they edged over to take a closer look at us.

At Hime Jima we found a not-too-rough wall to tie up to; as we were close to Spring tides, the main problem was adjusting the lines in such a way that we would not have to get up in the middle of the night to slacken or shorten them. Next day we assembled our new folding bicycle and, taking turns, set off to explore the island. The highlight was an hour in the Onsen (natural spa) at the east end of the island. Jenny's session in the baths – which have a beautiful outlook over the islands to the east - coincided with an outing by the local Old Folks' Home. A by-product of de-population and the falling birthrate, plus the longevity of the Japanese, is the crowds of Little Old Ladies everywhere you go in rural Japan.

A further 35 miles brought us to the southwestern corner of the very large Hiroshima Bay, and the beginning of the myriad islands that crowd the central sector of the Inland Sea. We had no chart, just a Google Earth picture, of Heigun To (To=Jima/Shima=Island) and we meandered slowly around the harbour before a friendly man in a diving suit indicated which patch of wall was most suitable for us (i.e. where we would not be in the way of the ferry or local fishing boats). Side-tied, Heigun ToAfter we'd tied up, Jun, his wife and little girl came around for tea: the first time they had been on a yacht (not that many seem to come here: only one in living memory). Jun was a retired teacher who now made some pocket money diving for octopus and urchins; in a few months his little girl would be of school age and the island would re-open the elementary school just for her (out of a population of 400, there was no-one between 5 and 16, and only three under-5s). Dinner with Jun and friends, Heigun ToNext day we went or dinner at his home and met an entertaining trio of brother-friends, who were also divers.

Heigun is a beautiful island: some ten miles long by one mile wide, with luxuriant mountains rising to 300m or 400m and many sandy beaches. There are just two villages, which are declining in size. It remains something of a mystery to us why such locations are not considered as desirable retirement destinations by city-dwellers from Tokyo and Osaka: in legendarily crowded Japan, places such as this are oases of tranquillity, where the pace of life is slow and everyone knows each other; and – for now at least – they do have regular communication with the mainland (in Heigun's case, two ferries a day).

When we moved on, it was in dense fog, and we had a too-close encounter with a large freighter before – a first for us in Japan – we anchored at Kodomari Wan, 12 miles on from Heigun. It is no exaggeration to say that every location with 360-degree protection from the wind in Japan already has a harbour, breakwater or other form of anchoring constraint; but because of the relative prevailing calms in the Inland Sea and the short fetches, you can risk anchoring in a few more exposed places – such as this. It was odd to be gently swinging around, rocking slightly, for the first time in nearly five months.

Entering Hiroshima BayWith the next typhoon now a few days away and steering itself erratically, we nosed northwards into the protected waters of Hiroshima Bay proper. Next stop was a tiny boatyard with rickety floating pontoons, on Kaze Noko on Kurahashi Island, recommended to us by Nick and Jan (Yawarra) who had last been here ten years ago. We were made most welcome – treated to iced coffee, showers and moorage at no charge – and Jenny was given a launch ride to the shops: the place's only disadvantage was that it was cut off from the island's road system.

We weren't too sure how those pontoons would be in a real blow, either, so we soon headed still further into the Bay, threading our way past the large floating platforms that crowd these waters, and under which Hiroshima's speciality oysters are grown. Naval Academy, EtajimaAt Okinoshima Marina we found more secure mooring. As usual we were made most welcome. In another display of the almost incredible generosity and hospitality with which we have been welcomed in Japan, the marina manager and mechanic both spent nearly a full day on board, labouring in the sweltering sun to fix an increasingly severe problem we were having with our engine controls. They not only fixed the problem, but did so by cannibalising a key part from some other vessel – and would accept no payment whatsoever, brushing off our offers with the modest disclaimer “it was only service”.

From Okinoshima we made one of our more interesting land trips, to Japan's premier Naval Academy on neighbouring Etajima Island. This is very much in the tradition of Annapolis or Dartmouth: old brick-built buildings, vast manicured lawns, a hushed aura of history. Frustratingly (as in most Japanese museums/historic buildings) there was no English tour service available and hardly any printed material or labelling in English, but the visit to the base museum was nevertheless very interesting. There is much memorabilia of the towering figure of Japanese naval history, Admiral Togo, who famously crushed the Russian Imperial Fleet at Tsushima in 1905 and a full section on WW2. As we could not read the explanations, we could only guess at the significance of much of the material but it did seem that this particular museum, perhaps predictably, was decidedly respectful, even positive about the role of the the Special Attack Forces (kamikaze) that the institution supplied in the final year of the war (in contrast with the two former bases of such forces, Chiran and Tachiarai, where the approach is one of studied neutrality). One Vice-Admiral is implicitly lauded for having taken his last remaining eight pilots on such a mission, in Okinawa, even after the Emperor had ordered the surrender of all Japanese forces; and two former students are highlighted for the development of the Kaiten, an explosives-crammed midget submarine designed expressly as a suicide weapon. The A-Bomb Dome, HiroshimaAt the base gift shop you can buy models of the Yamato, Japan's largest battleship in WW2; we weren't quite sure what to make of that and would have liked to corner some young recruit to hear his views.

We also visited (of course) the location at which the first atomic bomb was dropped, at 08:15 a.m. on August 6th 1945. While most of the city centre was completely flattened, there remains the shell of the Hiroshima Industrial Promotion Hall, known now as the A-Bomb Dome: it is relatively intact because it was directly below the bomb, whose blast here went downwards, not sideways. Hiroshima after the bombThe surrounding area now consists of manicured park land, with a large Peace Memorial Museum. The exhibits are moving and thought-provoking, especially the clothing and personal possessions of the many schoolchildren who died. But, while reference is made to the years of militarism that preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, we felt that the context in which the American decision was made to proceed with the attack (notably the perception that Japan would defend the “home” islands to the last man, as the Emperor had publicly pledged) received insufficient attention.

On the opposite side of Hiroshima Bay from Okinoshima is the island of Miyajima, which has hosted a collection of temples (Buddhist) and Shrines (Shinto) for the best part of 1000 years. Most famous of all is the much-photographed vermilion “Tori” (archway, gateway), through which seaborne pilgrims would approach the Shinto shrine of Itsukushima; at high tide it seems to float on the water and is the very epitome of Japan. The romance faded for a moment when we observed a wet-suited young man on a Jet Ski roar through the gate as his friends commemorated the moment with their cameras....A little way inland from Itsukushima is the large Buddhist temple of Daishoin, which has many associations with the famous and peripatetic monk Kobo Daishi, who intoduced a new sect of Buddhism to Japan from Xian, China; here prayer-wheels co-exist with statues to Shinto spirits, a testimony of the easygoing, overlapping relationship between these two belief systems. Kobo Daishi has a sub-temple on the mountaintop, which we duly climbed to, in 40-degree sunshine, thus escaping the crowds that thronged the temples and shops on the shoreline; here a pot of tea is kept boiling with a flame that has supposedly not gone out in a millenium.

The Tori at Miyajima Baby Buddhas, Miyajima

Back at the marina we enjoyed small-town rural Japan. This was the time of the annual O-Bon festival, when deceased ancestors traditionally revisit their homes; they are welcomed with colourful lanterns on bamboo poles, which fill the cemeteries, and more-generous-than-usual offerings at graves. Small but distinctive features of Japanese life still caught our attention: the tradition of musical chimes at the end of each/working/school day, even the distinctive artistic manhole covers that each municipality commissions (in this case a steamer sailing on the Inland Sea, amid mountains and orange groves).

O-Bon lanterns, Fukae Manhole cover, Fukae

As in Fukuoka, our boating neighbours – Yoichi and Michiko - “adopted” us and we had a number of fascinating late-night discussions about things Japanese. Like many Japanese yacht owners they are doctors, and like many doctors in this country they work extremely hard, to the point at which they have hardly any time to enjoy their boat; but they try to get on the water every weekend, even if only for a few hours. Unlike most Japanese sailors we have met, they do this as a couple – it seems to be the more general rule that spouses/partners go shopping or do “other things” rather than go sailing.  At the marina Jenny also found a new friend – Hime the tabby cat, who lived in a red plastic shopping trolley but was otherwise spoiled by the local sailors and fishermen (Hime means “Princess”).

Machiko, Nick, Jenny and Yoichi Princess Hime relaxes after a rough day

Origami cranes(avian) and cruising permitBefore leaving Hiroshima we went through a well-practised but tedious routine: the obtaining of a cruising permit for the next leg of our voyage. This involves using all our charts and other available information so as to draw up a list of every possible stop we might wish to make before the next major port, assigning dates to each stop, working with the Ministry of Transport to transpose the list into kanji, then waiting several days while the Ministry contacts the various authorities into whose jurisdiction we will be entering. In this case Emi San, the young lady assigned to us, made the waiting a lot more pleasant by teaching us some basic origami: the making of paper cranes (of the avian kind). Only in Japan!

First stop as we made our way south and east out of Hiroshima Bay was the small village of Katsuragahama, on Kurahashi Island, where a pontoon is thoughtfully reserved for passing yachts. Here we were made welcome by Ryusei Idehata who, after inviting us out for a sashimi lunch, mentioned a few of his occupations: Volunteer Guide, City Councillor, part-time computer programmer, yacht owner and Buddhist Monk. Ryusei's professional career had been largely in Silicon Va;lley, where he worked in developing the software that allows kanji to be typed on a computer keyboard, but when his father died he decided to take up the family inheritance – a 1000-year old Shingon (Buddhist) temple on a leafy ledge high up above the village. Ryusei, who served a year's novitiate before taking up his responsibilities; showed us around his temple enthusiastically but could not let us see its main treasure: a several-hundred-year-old Buddha statue that is publicly displayed every 33 years. Ryusei: Buddhist monk and polymathWith the cicadas buzzing loudly, he walked us over to us a stream trickling down from the woods behind; graven on a slab of granite was a poem describing this very stream, and the sound of the cicadas in summer, dating from about the year 1200. Before we left Ryusei presented us with two small bottles of his temple's own proprietary sake and some incense sticks: we were able to reciprocate with a CD of Tibetan Buddhist chanting.

The winds in the Inland Sea were proving to be generally very light and/or easterly (i.e. contrary) but next day we had a rare following wind that took us 23 miles to the island of Mitarai, where we tied up in a tiny four-slip marina provided free by the municipality. Mitarai, with its excellent natural harbour that is just out of the strong currents that prevail here, was for centuries a favourite stop for sailing vessels plying up and down the Inland Sea, including diplomatic missions to and from Korea, and the frequent hundreds-strong processions of daimyos (regional lords) from Kyushu and the west who were required to pay homage in Kyoto and Edo (today's Tokyo). Here the “oiran” (“flower leaders”), ancestors of the geisha, catered to the daimyos and their senior attendants, out of four grand “houses,” one of which still survives. There are many colourful stories about the oiran – whom even today;'s Japanese would hesitate to describe as prostitutes - but their stories, recorded in the still-preserved record books of the houses, are sad ones. One tale has an oiran, who was having her teeth blackened by her maid prior to meeting a high-ranking client (black teeth being taken as a sign of beauty) losing patience with the clumsy girl and pouring a cup of black pitch down her throat; as the girl died in agony her pitch-smeared hand clutched at the wall – and a tiny hand-print can still be seen today. The main industry now on Mitarai is more prosaically the growing of mandarin oranges: groves climb high up the hillsides and the farmers tend them via ingenious miniature cog railways; traditional wooden orange-carrying boats fill the harbour, not fishing boats.

Mitarai's surviving pleasure house Edo era street, Mitarai

Some of the stories of the oiran – and of the mandarin growers – we learned from Jean, a long-time American resident on the island who showed us around for an afternoon, kindly invited us to her home for a bath in her cedarwood tub, and presented us with a carrier-bag full of paperback books. We also undertook a circumnavigation of the island and one of its neighbours by bicycle. Like many of the islands of the Inland Sea, Mitarai now has fabulous suspension bridges connecting it to the big island of Honshu, but like so many as well, this has not halted depopulation.

Another day we took the local ferry over to a neighbouring island and the old port of Kenoe; this settlement catered, like Mitarai, to passing ships in very much the same way, but right up until the 1950's, when prostitution was made illegal. The local girls (old b & w photos show them going out to ships in the bay, all dressed in their best kimonos) tried to circumvent the new law by declaring themselves geishas but the fiercely protective geisha associations would have none of it; Kenoe now depends on shipbuilding, as do a surprising number of islands in this part of the Inland Sea; in the most unlikely locations you can see vast steel stern or bow sections of supertankers being assembled by welders.

Stern sections of tankers under construction Seto Naikai suspension bridge

The shrine, OhmishimaCalculating the tidal currents carefully, we edged our way north and east, past shipyards incongruously located in wooded bays on tiny islands, to Ohmishima and its beautiful, wide bay at Miyaura. The pontoon here was not free, but at one yen per ton per night, our stay was hardly expensive (we weigh four tons; 80 Yen = USD $1). Miyaura is home to a major Shinto shrine, one of the three most important in Japan; notwithstanding its fame, its low wooden buildings, set around a courtyard in a wooded glade, were almost deserted. On the walls of one corridor are photographs of visiting dignitaries dating back to the earliest days of photography, many of them in military uniform; although they are not labelled, we were sure some of the pictures were from the thirties and forties, and likely included Tojo and his entourage. Adjoining the shrine is a museum with Japan's best collection of samurai armour: strange outfits of cloth, bamboo and leather, some of them 800 years old – like something out of Star Wars – that one would have thought no match for the awesome sword blades on show beside them.

At Yuge, we took advantage of a luxury Onsen overlooking the eastern portion of the Inland Sea, but the weather forecast was now indicating that another typhoon – Talas – was on its way and that we could be in its path. After careful consultation of the chart we headed north and took refuge at Onomichi, on the big island of Honshu and fronting a river-like stretch of water across which a high mountain would – we hoped - serve as a barrier to strong winds. Other yachts were looking at the same weather forecasts and within a day or so there were four of us tied up at the small marina downtown: the largest concentration of yachts we have come across in Japan outside the major marinas. We stripped the boat down, put on extra mooring lines and generally prepared for mayhem.

Onomichi Waiting for typhoon Talas, Onomichi

Jenny outside ladies' entrance of sentoAs it happened, all we got was heavy rain but Talas did inflict heavy damage on Shikoku Island and the Wakayama prefecture of Honshu, leaving over 50 dead. Meanwhile, we wondered around the quaint port town (”gritty” according to Lonely Planet), taking in a few Sentos (public baths) that cannot have been renovated since the 1930's. These usually have a single doorway with two curtains indicating, say, left side for men, right for women (it is important to have worked out the kanji characters in advance!). Inside, an old lady (age being a vital qualification...) usually sits in a kind of pulpit where she can supervise both sides of the operation and take your payment. You undress completely (trying to ignore the old lady's curious gaze), leave your clothes in a box and then, with a hand-towel and soap, go into the bath area. Here you must rinse completely before stepping into the piping-hot central “tub”, which comes up to your chest; most foreigners find the temperature very high so frequent sallies are necessary to the waist-high showers along the walls; where you wash while sitting on a little plastic stool.

Onomichi also had dozens of temples around which we wandered, a reflection of its glorious heyday as a wealthy port; in many of these a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine literally overlap, and it is difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. They are oases of quite and peace in the midst of the city, although visitors are encouraged to ring the great bronze bell at the gate, as a signal to the Lord Buddha that they have arrived.

Once the typhoon was past we meandered via the marina at Utsumi to the old port town of Tomo-no-Oura, where – a rarity, this – there was actually enough space to anchor in the bay. With houses tumbling down the hillside to the waterfront and the quayside crammed with flag-flying fishing boats, TomonouraTomo has an almost Mediterranean feel and – as in the Mediterranean – there are also tourists. In the eighteenth century a visiting Korean delegation described the view of the island-studded Inland Sea as “the finest in Japan”; today's Japanese visitors are drawn to that kind of rating (at Miyajima, in Hiroshima Bay, there is actually a monument that states that Miyajima is one of the three most-photographed spots in Japan; the monument itself is now a photo “must”...) A slightly deranged man who spoke good English insisted on telling us at great length about the morning when, as a young man, he met God, and another man in a restaurant turned out to have spent four years working at a restaurant in Dutch Harbour, in the Aleutians; such are the varied encounters of foreign travel...There were more temples to be visited and narrow streets to explore, but we liked Tomo less than some of the much quieter island ports we'd visited over the past few weeks: the skyline, ominously, is dominated by a highrise hotel and there is a plan to drive a four-lane highway right over the harbour so as to ease traffic congestion.

Ten miles to the East of Tomo is Kitagi Shima, long known as an island of stone-cutters. And it is in a disused stone-cutters' warehouse that Canadian Colin Ferrel and his wife Mika have set up in business as sail-makers and ship's chandlers. They kindly allowed us to tie up next to their fishing boat, lent us bikes and were our enthusiastic hosts for the next two weeks.

View from summit of Kitagi ShimaWhile Colin's team was busy stitching repairs into our tired sails, we explored the island thoroughly, as well as briefly hunkering down for yet another typhoon. Nakamura San and Kinari San, two of Colin's retired friends who have made it their mission to welcome strangers, took us round first by car, arranging private visits to two of the remaining stone factories. Where there used to be sixty, now there are only twenty or so such establishments, all operating at reduced capacity. “It's the Chinese”, we were told; Chinese granite is cheaper, labour is cheaper, and much of the business has moved offshore; some of the still-functioning workshops even find it economical to import Chinese stone, although there is no lack of good rock on Kitagi. Stone factory proprietors, Kitagi ShimaA complete set of tombstone and related masonry for a family grave, we learned, will put you back about USD $20,000; the good news is that you can put as many sets of ashes inside the tomb as you wish, and it should do for several generations. We learned that those beautiful kanji characters are no longer engraved by hand, but sand-blasted through stencils. And why, on some stones, are there a few characters in red, rather than the normal white, black or gold? Those are family members who are not dead yet – the red is simply effaced at the appropriate time.

Nakamura San invited us not only to lunch at his home but to a tea ceremony, with Kinari San stepping in to translate when Nakamura's considerable enthusiasm as a stand-in geisha was not matched by his English skills; Lunch at Nakamura San's homehis home is a veritable museum of models of sailing ships and nautical memorabilia (including a life-ring emblazoned with “Welcome! Have Fan!”), 1950's and 60's collectors' vinyls of Japanese recording stars, and coffee-making machines from all over the world, the latter usually obtained by rummaging around in 100-Yen stores.

Two other island residents are Kiwi yachtie Fenton Hamlin and his Japanese friend Kojima. Kojima San, as well as having us over to her home for baths in her cedar tub and a slap-up dinner, bombarded us almost daily with bags of fresh vegetables from her garden as well as one bag full of small but delicious fish. Japanese ladies, as a rule, seem not greatly to like sailing, which means that nearly all the Japanese yachts we encounter are sailed single-handed, but Fenton has persuaded Kojima to come along with him several times with him on his beautiful home-built Lyle Hess wooden cutter, Pateke, so that when he eventually decides to leave Kitagi, the island may be depopulated by two, not one.

Colin and Mika live in a rather unusual house on a hilltop, that used to be a helicopter hangar – this from the days when the stone-cutting business was far more lucrative. They share their home with two locally-adopted Kitagi cats; like many of the islands of the Seto Naikai, Kitagi seems almost to be overrun with cats, who do surprisingly well on the scraps left for them by fishermen, as well as furtive feeding sessions at the hands of ubiquitous Little Old Ladies.

Nakmura San explains why this Buddha has so many arms Kojima and Jenny on board Fenton's yacht Pateke

Only three or four miles to the North is Shiraishi Jima, where we found a secure berth on a pontoon in the island's New Harbour. Here we made yet more friends. In a rare exception to the Japanese singlehanders' rule, Maruo had recruited a friend to crew for him on his yacht – a voice-coach for would-be baritone opera singers from Himeji, near Kobe (!). Now Ryozo, as a lover of all things Italian (a must in his profession, presumably) liked his home-cooking, so together they dished up for us a fine meal on board – another unusual occurrence in that all those single-handers almost invariably prefer to eat on shore and are barely capable of making coffee. Moo Bar, Shiraishi ShimaWe also met Tomio, aboard his home-built wooden ketch; in his youth Tomio had cruised the Pacific, losing his mast en route to San Francisco, but now he was keen to go again and – in yet another exception to the rule – his petite wife would be his crew and admiral.

Shiraishi is the part-time home of expats Amy and Paul (American and Australian), who in the summer season run the Moo Bar, on Shiraishi's fine sandy beach. It was the last weekend of the season, so we went along to a grand closing barbecue, and found ourselves with more foreigners (expat English teachers, mainly) than we have seen in Japan so far (i.e. about a dozen). Amy speaks excellent Japanese and was able to enlighten us on various esoteric questions regarding Buddhism and Shintoism; she had recently run the length of a famous pilgrimage circuit on Shikoku island, that takes in 88 shrines, and is about to publish a book about her experiences. Shiraishi has its own large temple/shrine and also some wonderful mountain walks, with views over the central Seto Naikai.

Under the bridge, Yo ShimaIt was time to move east yet again. Timing our passage to take maximum advantage of the currents (which in the often windless summer are more significant than wind strength/direction) our next stop was at Yo Shima, right underneath the middle one of the three enormous sets of bridge spans that cross the Seto Nakai from Honshu to Shikoku. These engineering marvels all date from the nineties, just before the Japanese economy began to tank: we doubt they would make it through the budget process today. Sento (public bath), Nao ShimaYo Shima was a little bizarre: it is no more than an islet on which a massive pier stands, but where some entrepreneur decided the public might like to stop off for lunch; there is a nearly-deserted restaurant and video-games complex, a vast but empty gift shop and in the late evening and early morning trains rumble some eighty meters above your head.

Nao Shima was even more unworldly, but in a more positive way. Until twenty or so years ago, this was another dying island, with the population leaving in droves. Then the Benesse Foundation, whose wealth is derived from health and education services, decided to make Nao Shima the site of an all-island museum of contemporary art. Monets, Warhols and Hockneys adorn the modernistic hotel, and in the main village six houses have been taken over and restored as standalone exhibits: one has a Statue of Liberty breaking through two floors; another has submerged and coloured LED displays ticking over the numbers one to nine in a pool in a darkened room, while another has you sit in apparently total darkness for ten minutes before the faintest of visions appears eerily before your straining eyes. The traditional Japanese “sento” (public bath) has been given a makeover in one village: a life-size African elephant stands astride the wall dividing the male and female sections, while the floor of the baths is a mosaic of old postcards, pictures of 50's movie stars and semi-pornographic woodcuts from 16th century tomes of Edo erotica. On one jetty stands an enormous yellow and black pumpkin, while at the ferry terminal there's a similar black and red squash. The result of it all has been a rejuvenated island: tourists now flock in from all over Japan and internationally, and the sinking population is soaring again.

Catching up on the news, Nao Shima Nao Shima's emblematic giant pumpkin

We were now nearing the eastern end of the Seto Naikai, and approaching its second largest island, Shodo Shima. Here the theme isn't modern art, but olives, introduced from the USA a hundred years ago. But California hasn't quite got the aura of Greece and Italy, so the Welcome to Shodoshima sign at the main ferry port is executed in Greek characters, there's a fake Greek windmill nearby, and Greek and Italian flags fly. The stores sell everything from olive-flavoured chocolate and ice cream, to olive-shaped Hello Kitties, olive-coloured bathroom linen and olive soap; olives plain and simple are surprisingly hard to come by. 

Japanese garbage 101Before exploring the island we had a perennial cruising chore to complete, which is particularly challenging in Japan: disposing of our garbage. In the first place, shopping here generates an inordinate amount of plastic, and in the second garbage disposal is tightly regulated, with complicated sorting and separation required. The few garbage cans that exist in public places are very small and cunningly designed to take only one aluminum can at a time; neighbourhood garbage is collected by designated category (all items to be carefully sorted) on different days, and usually from locked cages to which only the residents have access; often special bags (which must be paid for) are required but these are of course non-transferable from one municipality to the next. We are sometimes obliged to make clandestine late-night runs to find an unlocked cage, or to smuggle small packages of garbage into likely places like ferry terminals, making repeated trips.

The old school, Shodo ShimaWith autumn now approaching and just the slightest hint of yellow and red in the leaves, we took a long hike one clear day to the 800m-high summit of Shodo Shima. The next day, with the first rain in months teeming down, we then made an interesting literary pilgrimage. Sakae Tsuboi's novel “Twenty Four Eyes,” set over a twenty year span starting in 1928, tells the stories of an untried woman teacher and her twelve charges at a tiny rural school on the island; after they move on to high school they keep in touch but then the war intervenes; few of the boys return. The book was made into an award-winning black and white movie in 1954; it remains a firm favourite with the older generation in Japan, but perhaps more for reasons of nostalgia than its underlying pacifist message. The school that inspired Ms Tsuboi still stands; built in 1902, it fell into disuse in 1972 but has now been preserved; all in wood, its two classrooms have tiny chairs and desks, an old harmonium and historical charts that end about 1960.

Ship loading limestone, Ie JimaThere is one final island group to the east of Shodo Shima, where we intended to stop before touching the shore of Honshu again at Himeji and making the final run east into Osaka Bay. But Ie Jima and its neighbours are now little more than vast open-air quarries, the once-wooded steep mountainsides stripped bare and zigzagged with precipitous tracks from which limestone is quarried and then dumped into ships that tie up directly to the shoreline. This is to feed Japan's seemingly insatiable appetite for concrete; it is ironic that while some islands like these have been almost quarried away, others are encircled with concrete reinforcement and wave-breaking structures, all in the name of conservation. By this time of year, too, the seaweed-cultivation industry was replacing fishing as the mainstay, meaning that nearly all of the most enticing-looking bays on the chart were blocked with complicated arrangements of floating rafts and ropes, with strange flat-bottomed craft that harvest the kelp buzzing back and forth at all hours.

So we bypassed Ie Jima and tied up at a small marina called Kiba, where the sunsets over the adjoining petrochemical plant are especially spectacular (largely on account of particles in the atmosphere, one suspects). But we had a pleasant surprise when a friendly local sailor recommended that next day we stop by in one of the suburbs to see “something interesting”.

In a tight side street by a nondescript suburban station we found great throngs of men assembling, many in tight loincloths and loose brightly-coloured jackets, others in the traditional baggy pantaloons of rural Japan. All wore the colours and symbols of one of the twelve city wards, and their rallying points were enormous bamboo poles topped in the same colours by artificial flowers made of crepe paper. But the focal point of each contingent was their amazingly ornate gilded float, built around a large,canopied drum. Four seated drummers in the gaudy garb of Shinto acolytes maintained a steady rhythm, though most of the floats were so ornately decorated with gilded flaps and cushions that they could not see their three partners. At some unseen signal the men belonging to the first float began to gather and position themselves around its long wooden carrying arms, while noisy crowds of camp followers lined up ahead and astern. With a violent fore-and-aft rocking motion the first float was lifted, and they were off – some of the men visibly wilting under the 2000kg weight of the float, but there were eager volunteers always ready to spell them off. One by one, each with a slightly different chant and with many pauses for recovery, the floats followed each other on a complicated route through narrow streets. Young boys with long poles were ready to lift overhead electrical cables when a conflagration looked imminent, but several pauses were necessary as and when the level-crossing on the railway line was reached and, with the usual siren and bells, barriers came down to halt the entire affair. Other young boys followed with carts full of water and other emergency supplies (including sake).

Ready for the start, Himeji They're off!

We watched for more than two hours. It was clear that few of those participating were devout adherents of the Shinto faith, but this was nonetheless a neighbourhood tradition which it was felt important to maintain. Among the float carriers were overweight and bespectacled businessmen and punks with wild hair-dos, who would make the most of breathing spaces to check their i-Phones and hang out with their girlfriends. It was quite clear as well that this parade was not mounted for tourists: we were the only evident outsiders in sight, and there was little publicity for the event. Such happenings, we sensed, play an important part in holding Japan together today, in keeping alive the difficult-to-define sense of community that distinguishes this country from so many developed nations in the west.

Drummer Taking a breather

Himeji CastleIn Himeji the main attraction is a vast mediaeval castle, the best-preserved in all of Japan, we were told, featured in The Last Samurai . Unfortunately for us, preserving and maintaining such treasures meant that in this case the great donjon or keep was entirely swathed in tarpaulins and scaffolding (and will be so for several years more). But parts of the complex remain visible and visitable: there was relatively much heavier use of wood than in European castles of the same vintage (16th C) , which has made the Japanese fortresses all the more vulnerable to fire and lightning strikes; but most are also undeniably more elegant.

Akashi Kaikyo suspension bridgeSailing due east, we now headed for the narrow gap that separates Awaji Shima and Honshu, and which is crossed by the longest single span (1991 m) in the world, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. To our left the shoreline was ever-more industrialised, yet fringed with fish and seaweed-farms, which means that the water cannot be as polluted as one might think; to our right ships of all sizes and shapes converged on the narrows. With some 90 meters to spare above our heads, and with a favourable current rushing us through at nearly seven knots, we surged into Osaka Bay, those ships now complemented by low-flying aircraft bound for Kansai International.

With the Inland Sea – with its quiet bucolic beauty - now all but behind us, we tied up at Suma Yacht Harbour, in a suburb of Kobe. To our great pleasure, Taizo Ishii of Skal, last met at rainy Hirado some four months earlier on his yacht Skal, was there to greet us with a warm Japanese welcome to his home port.... and a large bottle of Shochu.

More: Winter in Japan

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