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Winter in Japan
Bosun Bird tied up at Suma Yacht Harbour (Kobe, Osaka Bay) on October 10 2011 (for details of our summer cruise see Japan - Inland Sea).

Bosun Bird in Suma Yacht Harbour Kobe waterfront

We had chosen Suma as a first stop in Osaka Bay on the recommendation of Ishii San of the yacht Skal, last met on the pontoon at Hirado (Kyushu) several months earlier. This was no casual recommendation; we had only been tied up for a couple of hours when Ishii San, with the regulation welcome pack of Japanese beer and sundry other goods, was over to see us and introducing us to his large circle of friends and contacts, as well as his very tolerant wife. But it wasn't high pressure either: before we committed to staying at Suma, Ishii San insisted on showing us the other marina options in the area and took us on a full day cruise of Osaka Bay, returning via a narrow channel deep inside Kobe harbour, past the dockyards, a recently commissioned submarine and plush waterfront hotels.

 
Ishii San takes us on a cruise of Osaka Bay Bosun Bird (Vancouver 27) and Maupiti (Vancouver 28)

Once we had confirmed our choice, Yamanaka San and Maekawa San, of the Suma Owners' Club and the Yacht Club itself took upon themselves to negotiate with the City of Kobe – owners of the Suma Yacht harbour - extremely favourable terms for a long-term stay, enthusiastically supported by Miyazaki San and his very friendly staff at the marina itself. Within a few days we felt ourselves extremely welcome and were being introduced every day to more and more of the local yachts people. Until now it had been our impression that Japanese sailors were almost exclusively men, and of a rather “traditional” variety that did not know how to cook, but we have been relieved to find that there are ladies who like to sail as well; and a friend on a neighbouring yacht, “The Dream World,” has several times pressed upon us his excellent home-prepared ramen, sashimi and other delicacies. In the marina there is the variety of yachts that you would find in a European or North American harbour, including a few wooden boats, but – at 30 years – Bosun Bird is surely one of the oldest at Suma and certain of her features, notably baggy-wrinkles in the rigging, attract much curious attention. Our particular class of yacht, the Vancouver 27, is not unknown here: we spent an enjoyable afternoon kibbitzing with a yachtie from a nearby marina who proudly brought over his Vancouver 28, “Maupiti” and tied up next to us. Many Japanese like to give their vessels western-style names, but there is one feature that an attentive observer might pick up on as he wanders around the pontoons: few have an anchor in place on their bow roller, or even any evidence that they have an anchor; mooring in Japan is almost always in artificial harbours and some local sailors have never anchored at all.

Sumadera temple, SumaSuma, ostensibly a suburb of Kobe, which itself is virtually continuous with Osaka, is modern and fronts a wide expanse of clean sandy beach, but harbours hidden, ancient temples, and has a history that dates back at least to the times of the fabled Prince Genji, who sought refuge here from the court intrigues of Kyoto over a thousand years ago. The beach, with its views over the bay and back westwards to the enormous suspension bridge from Honshu to Awaji Shima, illuminated in changing colours at night, has quickly become a favourite place for afternoon walks; signs warn that persons with tattoos are not welcome (not that we are tattooed, but they are associated in Japan with the mafia...). It is ten minutes' walk to the large Max Value supermarket, where signs, with a graphic of a cannonball and fuse, this time warn that bombs are not welcome either: here we can buy all the staples, notably French-style bread (to our mind far superior to the doorstep-style sliced white bread apparently favoured by most local consumers), every kind of seaweed, sashimi and fish, all exquisitely presented and packaged. Remindewrs of the Great Hanshin Earthquake (1995)It's also ten minutes to the nearest suburban station, where every few minutes there are trains to Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto and beyond.  As well as inspiring part of the world's first novel, Suma is the setting of the Beach Boys' hit Sumahama.

Our first tour with Ishii San was to Kobe itself. The city was devastated by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 but you would hardly know it: a small damaged section of the port has been preserved as a memorial, but the skyline is now dominated by flyovers and ultra-modern tower blocks. There remain some very solidly built edifices from the nineteenth century, including the site of the first American consulate, a reminder of the city's trading past and its key role in the “opening” of Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration; on the lower slopes of the hills that rise behind the city is the residential quarter of Kitano, with some well-preserved European-style houses and a favourite retreat of expats: the Kobe Club.

Elvis plays the Kobe ClubAt the Kobe Club, soon after our arrival, the Suma Yacht Owners' Club held its annual dinner to which, notwithstanding our lack of formal attire, we were very kindly invited. A live band, fronted by a Bono-lookalike in dark glasses, played sixties favourites and dance hits, but the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly a Japanese Elvis impersonator, fresh from a triumphant tour of Australia: he was not deterred even when his lavish sideburns detached themselves at the height of Blue Suede Shoes. More seriously, we find it interesting that the generation that grew up in the hard postwar years, under the American occupation – which lasted seven years – embraced US culture so quickly and enthusiastically, yet without abandoning the myriad traditions and festivals that make this country so fascinating.

Captain Onishi, a Licensed (maritime) Pilot for the Inland Sea (and Suma yachtsman) thoughtfully introduced us to another Kobe institution: Father John of the Kobe Mariners' Center (also known as the Mission to Seafarers). Here we were able to swap from our meager stock of English-language paperbacks, access the internet, have a drink at the bar, and rub shoulders with the Filipino and other sailors for whom these institutions are a home from home. This also seemed to be the only place in the area to stock Christmas cards, although Japanese postal regulations are such that only a few standards of envelopes are accepted, and we had to trim our cards with scissors, to official size.

Naruto RapidsThe indefatigable Ishii San took us next on an all-day tour of Awaji Shima, the large island that separates Osaka Bay from the Inland Sea (Seto Naikai) proper. At its southern tip is an awe-inspiring set of narrows (spanned by the inevitable suspension bridge) where massive whirlpools form on spring tides, and which is avoided even by big ships. There is also an interesting museum commemorating the Kobe earthquake: here you can sit in a typically-furnished apartment room while the obliging attendant presses a button...that simulates a major tremor, and which has you hanging on for dear life to your armchair.

Another day trip was to Osaka, Japan's second city, where we fulfilled a long-held desire: a visit to the covered arcade that specialises in restaurant supplies and where you can purchase the fantastically realistic plastic food displays that adorn the exterior displays of most Japanese restaurants (and that are the saviour of ignorant gaijin such as ourselves, who would otherwise have no idea of what they were ordering). Other specialty stores in Osaka include “Cosplay” (Costume Play) outlets that stock skimpy French Maid outfits and schoolgirl uniforms for adults but which at this time of the year were featuring equally brief Santa-themed miniskirts, with the background of a tinny Bing Crosby singing “I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas”. The Japanese economy has been more or less flat-lining for most of the past twenty years, but from the opulence of the retail outlets in downtown Osaka and other major cities, and from the well-dressed crowds that throng them, you would hardly suspect this.

 
Plastic ramen Jenny checks out the Santa outfits

Kyoto, barely ninety minutes away by train, beckoned. We have so far made two visits but have barely scratched the surface. Under Ishii San's expert guidance and that of an old resident friend of his who is now an accomplished abstract artist, Akiyosi Furukawa, we meandered through the old quarter of Gion – where Geishas may still be seen scuttling to lucrative evening appointments – and many ancient temples and shrines. One of our visits coincided with Shichi-go-san, the day when children of the age of three, five and seven are dressed in traditional clothing and taken out to the shrine, another with a Shinto wedding: the guests were all dressed in black, the ladies with their finest silk Obis (waist sashes) and the bride in a strange butterfly-like head-dress.

 
Golden Pavilion, Kyoto Proud mother and three year old, Shichi-go-san The groom, bride and matchmaker

Our first impression of Kyoto was frankly not that positive: you exit from an ultra-modern train station into modern, westernised city streets on a grid pattern. But appearances are deceptive: there are literally hundreds of exquisite temples and shrines tucked away at the end of quite side-streets or between the folds of the gentle hills that surround the plain. Some are world-famous, such as the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-Ji, and are thronged with tourists and visiting school groups from all over Japan, but others that are just as old and holy scarcely receive a visitor all day. School tour, KyotoWhen the buildings all become too much, you can always people-watch. School groups, the girls often in sailor suits and the boys in old-style naval academy outfits, mug for the camera at every available opportunity but are far better behaved in general than their western counterparts would be; it is said that you know you have been too long in Japan when you stop at every building and pose with a “V for Victory”. One shy schoolgirl, evidently egged on by her teacher, approached us at with a well-prepared series of questions in English, which she pronounced carefully, laboriously transcribed our responses into her exercise book, then presented us ceremonially with a brochure on Japan's top tourist sites.

Naito San (yes, another of Ishii San's many friends!) welcomed us to his home town of Nara, which was Japan's first capital (before Kyoto) and which is another vast historical depository. Nara is more relaxed and easy to know, with many of its principal attractions located inside a vast green park roamed by very cheeky deer who have become too accustomed to the picnic lunches of tourists. Here we marvelled at the Diabutsu, a gigantic seated Buddha inside an ancient wooden temple, dating from the year 746. The syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto fascinates us. Buddhism seems in some ways easier to understand, but Shinto – with its lack of guiding texts and/or moral prescriptions – is far more difficult to grasp. And then there is the question of the extent to which most Japanese “believe” in either Shinto and/or Buddhism: certainly there is widespread use of external rites and observance of traditional practices and festivals (more so than in average modern Christian or Muslim societies) but how to reconcile the fact that most Japanese prefer to get married with a Shinto ceremony but to be buried with Buddhist rites? Not to mention the growing popularity of adding on a western-style white wedding in a facsimile of a Christian church, to the strains of “My Heart Will Go On”?

 
Great Buddha, Nara Naito San feeds the locals, Nara

With Yamanaka San and his spouse Naoki San, Nick has also indulged some of his puzzlement over the manner in which the Japanese language is rendered in graphic form. A practical case in point arises when considering Japanese nautical charts, which considerately are usually in both Kanji (traditional ideograms) as well as Romaiji (western style script): how is it that the ideogram for “Island” is sometimes rendered in Romaiji (and pronounced) as “To”, but more usually as “Shima”? We wonder in particular what impact modern forms of communication - eg text messaging – will have over the evolution of graphic representation of the language. Such questions go to the heart of Japanese culture and history and – with only a few words and phrases of spoken Japanese at our command – we are scarcely in a position to defend any stance definitively or even credibly. But our hosts have unfailingly been more than tolerant: day by day we feel we have understood a little more of this enigmatic place. 

In December 2011 we took a busman's holiday and flew to Port Stanley (Falkland Islands) where we picked up the MV Plancius for a cruise to the remote South Atlantic island of South Georgia; we had long wanted to visit this spectacular location and had earlier been in the vicinity but adverse weather and ice conditions deterred us.  For photographs of the glaciers and wildlife of South Georgia please see our South Georgia Gallery.  On our return to the Falkland Islands we revisited old haunts including Saunders Island, with its massive colonies of albatrosses and penguins; see Falklands Gallery.

When we returned to Kobe in late December, winter was starting to bite: with highs around 7 or 8 degrees, lows close to freezing, it was surprisingly cold for this latitude, but the mountains of Honshu shielded us from the heavy snow that was by now blanketing much of the Sea of Japan coast.

With the newspapers showing photographs of the timeless temples of Kyoto looking ethereal in lightly falling snow, we made out third outing to the ancient Imperial City with friends Mari and Asako....to see the Japanese-language version of the Abba musical Mamma Mia! It was strange hearing all those familiar oldies in a foreign language (with only the odd line or two - “Money, money, money!” - in English). And if you thought the Japanese were by nature a restrained, impassive people then you would have been amazed at the curtain call, as middle-aged businessmen in suits and ties, their wives in twinsets, stood up and enthusiastically waved their illuminated iPhones in time with “Dancing Queen”.

In January Ishii-San and his wife Hiroko-San took us on an immaculately-programmed visit to their second home at Misasa, in Tottori Prefecture close to the Sea of Japan: every move was listed on the hand-written schedule Ishii-San handed to us at the outset (nothing is done here without a schedule). As we drove north from Kobe it was sunny, dry and cold but within an hour, and with no great altitude difference, we were driving past great piles of snow by the sides of the road and every rooftop looked to be sagging under a meter or more of snow. But Ishii-San's and Hiroko-San's place was comfortable, with a several-person onsen supplied with water from a nearby hot spring, and when we went to bed at night we beheld a hitherto unfamiliar Japanese invention called a Hot Wind-O: you insert a body-sized nylon bag between the blankets of your futon on the tatami floor, and a specially designed fan heater then blows hot air in, inflating the bed so that it looks to be inhabited by a very fat sleeping person, and heating it thoroughly. Next day we beheld another Japanese invention, this one not so intuitive: in the surface of the road were embedded sprinklers that coated the road with water from the hot springs that prevail in the area, thus keeping it clear from snow and ice.
 
Jenny with Ishii-San and Hiroko-San at their Misasa home Hot Wind-o in action

Our main excursion was to one of Japan's three most important shrines, at Izumo; here, once a year, the 800 (or maybe 8 million...) Shinto gods all come on holiday, staying in special holiday chalets (really!) that ring the shrine. As it was still early January, the shrine was packed with visitors anxious to make their first visit of 2012 (tradition says that this must occur before January 14th), all eager to part with their yen on the multitude of lucky-charm shops and fortune-telling devices that, as always, lined the shrine precincts. The first European to be allowed to see Izumo was the Anglo-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who spent most of his life in Japan, a small part of it at nearby Matsue; his books (which include Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan), are now perhaps more well-known in Japan than in the west, and his Matsue home, which we visited and which includes an immaculately-kept bonsai garden receives many Japanese literary pilgrims. Perhaps more atmospheric than Izumo was another much smaller temple closer to Misasa: perched several hundred meters up in a shallow recess in a cliff-face, the main temple of Nageiro-do was for the moment inaccessible on account of snow on its precipitous access path, but the lower buildings were beautiful as the snow settled on the surrounding pines and their steep, ornately-decorated eaves. We were reminded of another of our favourite locations, just as atmospheric in winter: the fastness of Hunza, in Pakistan's far north.

 
Jizo-sans (baby Buddhas) Nageiro-do temple

Tundra swansThe snow and cold on the Sea of Japan coastline are a consequence of the massive high pressure area that develops over Siberia in winter: it drives a wide variety of bird life to Japan; for the season. Ishii-San and Hiroko-San took us to see hundreds of Tundra Swans mooching in the fallow rice paddies behind the sea shore. And in a nearby location is a fine facility built by volunteers where the much rarer Oriental White Storks have been bred back from the edge of extinction in Japan, to the point at which a few have now been set free in the wild again; we were lucky enough to see one such wild specimen, preening high on a telephone pool.

Oriental white storkAlthough we have now been nine months in Japan, we continue to excavate nuggets of exoticism. The Japanese penchant for T-shirts emblazoned with nonsense English is well-known. But idiosyncratic English is a daily sight in the streets and shops of urban Japan. You might, for example, take a Shiteseeing Tour on a Kinki Kanto bus, get more than you bargained for at Kobe's Clap Cafe, take in a game of pachinko (Japanese pinball) at the Tomato de Tomato Salon and then stop by for lunch at the hot dog stand on Suma Beach; here you can choose between a Christian Dog and a Marist Dog. If you drop in at a convenience store (Lawson's or Family Mart), you might be drawn by the many magazines with English-sounding names, but disappointed to find that other than the masthead they do not contain one further word of English. Titles of women's magazines include Jelly and Blenda, while young urban men will want to pick up a copy of Men's Egg (perhaps the Hairs special edition) or Potato. Feel like a bottle of drinking water? You could try Pocari Sweat or Calpis. If you are lost, there is no lack of signs with the large heading “Information”; just don't expect anything other than kanji (Japanese ideograms) below.

The cycle of festivities continued in Kobe. One frigid evening Ishii-San took us to the large Ebisu shrine in the suburb of Nishinomiya. Its precincts were packed with vendors of everything imaginable, stands where you could try to win a teddy bear or Pokemon character with a no doubt crooked air rifle, even a Tunnel of Terror; the slightly hard, sharp faces of the hawkers were the same as you might have seen at travelling fairs in Europe thirty or more years ago. All but blocking the entrance to the temple were stacks of offerings to Ebisu (an always-smiling native god of bounty, who shifts back and forth between the Shinto and Buddhist pantheons with mystifying ease): cases of cooking oil, soap, sake, tinned food, and a 500kg tuna. Each display bore the name of its donor, often a local supermarket or other commercial enterprise; while these offerings are evidently designed to bring earthly and heavenly credit to their donors, we are still not entirely sure what happens to them afterwards. Then came Chinese New Year. The three or four narrow streets that make up the Chinese quarter of Kobe city were festooned with bright red and gold lanterns, and every imaginable Chinese foodstuff was on sale. In the small square that is the center of the block, there was colourful dancing, the highlight being the traditional Lion Dance, culminating in the “lions” spitting out mouth-fulls of wrapped candies into the crowd. 

 
Lion Dance, Kobe Chinese New Year, Kobe
 
Takatori Fort, near NaraWith snow now blanketing most of the hilltops in Kansai, Naito-San invited us on a hike to the ancient, hilltop fortress of Takatori, in the mountains south of his home at Nara. Both Naito-San and Ishii-San are old friends from the Okayama University Sailing Club, and this hike doubled as another reunion for their group. University clubs in Japan are famous for the long-lasting bonds that are typically formed, akin to US college fraternities: these friends have been meeting casually for some forty years or so.

The fortress, of which only the massive stone foundations still exist, was spectacular in the heavy snow, the more so in that it appears to be very much off the tourist circuit and thus free of the shopping and amulet-selling infrastructure that seems to surround so many points of interest in Japan. Old sepia photographs on display in the village below showed that this was once a thriving village, and the castle as large as the famous one at Himeji.
 
We were soon back at Nara with Naito-San and Furokawa-San (our abstract artist friend from Kyoto) for yet another important Japanese festival: Setsubun. Every February 3rd, which is rather optimistically determined to be the first day of Spring, roast soy beans are scattered in temples, shrines and homes, to the cry: “Devils out of the house! Happiness into the house!”. Once the ceremony is complete, family members (or, in the case of places of worship, assembled members of the public) scramble to pick up the beans; they then eat one bean for each year of their life, plus one for the next year. We attended the ceremony at a very ancient temple of a relatively obscure Buddhist sect, where it was preceded by a set of additional rituals, including the firing of arrows to the four points of the compass and the building of a huge pyre of greenery onto which prayers written on wooden staves are cast; once the pyre has burned smokily out, the ashes are scattered and the public are invited to walk on the ashes, with the guiding hand of the senior priest. Walking on fire was not as testing as we had anticipated: the trick seems to be to stand briefly in a bucket of salt, and then not to linger too long (when the wind looked likely to make the ashes glow excessively, the priest tactfully rearranged them).
 
Rotting sardine head: gods keep away The captain walks on fire

That evening we attended further ceremonies at one of the ancient city's biggest tempes. The park at the center of Nara was lit, as it is only twice a year, with votive candles, most of them in old stone lanterns, with the name of the benefactor written in kanji on thin paper screens that protect the candle from the wind; on one or two of the older buildings we spotted the heads of sardines impaled on stakes by the doorway – another ploy to drive away devils (who apparently dislike rotting fish). Half of the town was out strolling, this despite the temperatures that were way below zero. The climax came when three not-very-evil looking devils appeared onto a specially-erected stage, leering and brandishing axes; after fifteen minutes of threatening the not-very-frightened crowd, they were dutifully driven away and a cast of local celebrities, apparently including Miss Nara, cast more packets of soy beans into the scrambling crowds.

 
At Setsubun, Nara Stoking the pyre, Setsubun


The shinkansen at TokyoIn February we bought Japan Rail passes and set off on a week long odyssey to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four big islands. The first thrill was riding the legendary shinkansens (bullet trains): white space-age engines with eerie long noses hurtle you towards Tokyo and onwards at up to 300 kph, and we were in Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital, by the evening (1500km). The shinkansens have not had one fatal accident in fifty years. We were impressed not just by their speed and safety, but by the efficiency of the network. Shinkansens leave Osaka for Tokyo every fifteen minutes or so, and are punctual to the second, as are nearly all Japanese trains; signs on the platform indicate exactly where the doorway to your coach will be, and that is where it pulls in – to the centimeter. And only in Japan would the lady members of the cleaning crew, waiting to board as you arrive at your final destination, bow to the outgoing passengers.

We spent only a night in Sapporo, venturing out briefly in the heavy snow and minus-six temperatures to see the massive snow sculptures gracing the main avenues, then caught a train on to Abashiri, on the Sea of Okhotsk. Abashiri is famous in Japan the way Alcatraz is in the US: for its prison. The modern prison cannot be visited, of course, but the old one – on a classic Victorian-era design with long corridors radiating from a central guard post, is set up as a museum. It is built in wood, which at first sight seems an odd material for a prison, until you recall how isolated Abashiri was at the turn of the 19th/20th century and the Siberia-like conditions that prevail for at least half the year.

A second museum in Abashiri is an imaginatively designed one, centered on Northern Peoples. We had hoped to learn more about the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, but it is our impression that it is only relatively recently that Japanese people have come to take any pride or great interest in this ancient people. Precious little now remains to commemorate their all-but-vanished world; in fact the museum had many more artefacts and much more information about the native Indians of Canada than of Japan. An interesting text in this regard is the wonderful account by Isabella Bird - “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” - of her solo trek through Honshu and Hokkaido in 1878, the last portion of which concentrates on the Ainu.
 
Abashir iprison, Hokkaido In the Sea of Okhotsk

Down at the Abashiri waterfront, it wasn't exactly your usual harbour cruise on offer. Having checked the weather forecast for the right conditions, we boarded the icebreaker Aurora a one hour round-trip, that took us straight into drift-ice; this forms off the Amur River, in nearby Russian Siberia, and is carried into the Sea of Okhotsk over the first quarter of each year, rendering the whole area unnavigable except by icebreaker. Rather discordantly, Mantovani-like music tinkled over the ship's PA system as we crackled and boomed through the ice, but it was a powerful experience all the same.

On to another port city, Kushiro, which seemed to have more than its fair share of seedy bars and clubs than the average Japanese city. Here we rented a car; it was of course equipped with a GPS and – of course – all the instructions, both written and oral, were in Japanese; the perky-sounding synthetic lady who was no doubt telling us turn right at the next lights was probably very nice but we thought it wiser to rely on the paper map. We spent a day criss-crossing snow-covered marshland and low hills in search of that famous symbol of Japan: the Japanese Crane, or Tancho as it is known locally.
 
Japanese cranes, Hokkaido Japanese crane, Hokkaido

These once-endangered birds nest in inaccessible locations in the swamps in spring and summer but in winter, encouraged by enlightened farmers who used to hunt them but now put out grain for them instead, congregate in eight or ten more-or-less predictable locations. They are a beautiful sight as they sink elegantly to the ground in flights of two or three, their frail-looking spindly legs groping for the ground. Tall, black and white but a brilliant deep red flash on their heads, they stalk around carefully but periodically indulge in their famous courtship dance: leaping up to two metres into the air, using both legs, wings outspread. As we watched (and clicked), deer ventured out from the treeline, and even a cheeky red fox.

At Otaru, on the Sea of Japan, there were three or four meters of snow piled up on the sidewalks, huge icicles dangling dangerously from the eaves, and there seemed always to be snow in the air. Down by the old canal, we wandered along a towpath opposite huge 150-year-old warehouses; some are still used to store dried fish, or shoyu (soy sauce), a few have been converted to fashionable restaurants. At night there was a homegrown festival: a sign pointed us intriguingly to “Gleaming Snow”. In the deep snowbanks bordering the canal, individuals had spent all day carving out cavities and snow-sculptures into which, at sunset, they inserted flickering candle; candles on tiny boats had also somehow been positioned on the ice on the canal. It was all very picturesque and for once did not seem to have any religious significance. The same day, in the national news, we had read how Shinto priests in their ceremonial were scrutinising a sub-surface crack in the ice of a particular lake in Honshu, and had determined that it was a rare manifestation of the Gods, marking the track a God had taken from one side of the lake to the other, where a She-God lived. Such is life in modern Japan.
 
Old warehouses on the canal, Otaru Gleaming snow, Otaru

Municipal Hall, HakodateOur final stop on Hokkaido was the fine natural harbour at Hakodate. When Commodore Perry's famous Black Ships forced Japan to open up to international trade and contact in the 19th Century, Hakodate was his second stop after Shimoda (near Yokohama) and there are many reminders of his visit and its consequences. In the Foreigners' Cemetery, all but obscured in the deep snow, were the graves of Americans, a Danish Consul, and many Russians. The old Russian Consulate is in good condition but empty, while the British Consulate, where Isabella Bird stayed, is now a museum, complete with a gift shop called Queenie's, where you can but plastic models of Buckingham Palace and tiny red double-decker buses. Dominating the steep hillsides of the Motomachi district is a magnificent Municipal Hall, lovingly restored in gold and grey paint, strangely reminiscent of St Petersburg; old black and white photos show a concert in 1900 and a visit by the Emperor; the special toilet and bath constructed for the Emperor can also be solemnly viewed. Nearby is a small Russian Orthodox Church with characteristic onion-domes: we were reminded that the Russian sphere of influence once reached all the way from here to Sitka, barely a stone's throw from British Columbia.
 

 
Russian Orthodox Church, Hakodate Trams, Hakodate

Back on board in Suma (where it snowed the day after we got back), we decided to anticipate our planned haul out, bringing Bosun Bird on to the hard. We had some evidence that our stuffing box (where the propeller shaft enters the stern tube) could be on the verge of failing, with possibly disastrous consequences (an inflow of water).  After a foray by air to the UK, to visit family and pick up spare parts, we returned to Bosun Bird on March 8th.

Replacing the stuffing box (shaft seal) turned out to be something of an ordeal: it can only be reached by lying on top of the engine, then reaching down and towards the stern of the boat, at which point you can just about touch it with the fingertips of one hand. Adding to the challenge was the instruction with the new shaft seal (a PSS) to the effect that considerable compression must be achieved before two tiny grub screws holding it in place are tightened. Predictably, various pieces of equipment fell to an oily, wet fate in the even more inaccessible bilge, but we were able successfully to fish for a few of the non-stainless items with a large magnet attached to a line.

 
Bosun Bird on the hard, Suma Bosun Bird going back into the water, Suma

We took advantage of our exit from the water to repaint the bottom, attach new zinc anodes and paint the propeller with a special Japanese-patented anti-fouling paint by which the local sailors swear; we will see how it lasts. Meanwhile, we lived and cooked on board, climbing up and down a ladder to wash up, answer calls of nature and so on. An unexpected benefit of being “on the hard” was that we were within a few meters of a large set of very powerful security lights that came on at dusk every night, the effect being that we we lived in bright sunshine all night, every night.

Back in the water in mid-March we began a small multitude of other tasks associated with fitting out, all in preparation for the long crossing of the North Pacific that we have planned for the late Spring/early summer of 2012.

As of late March, winter was still hanging on but the gusty winds associated with the break-up of the High that sits over Siberia all winter were making themselves felt, with many days of 25 to 30 knot westerlies. One weekend, Ishii San invited us for a cruise aboard Skal to Tajiri, fifteen miles away, on the other side of Osaka Bay; winds briefly reached forty knots and we spent an hour hovering in the lee of Kansai International's Runway Number One, waiting for the wind to abate sufficiently to allow for a safe entry to Tajiri.
 
Ishii San and Jenny dining on Skal Storm damage, Suma Yacht Harbour

Gale force winds rock SumaStrong winds struck again in early April: this time a very fast developing low in the Sea of Japan brought us a full day of sustained winds of 50 knots, with the yacht harbour office recording gusts of up to 70 knots (typhoon strength). The wind caught the roller-furlers of half a dozen yachts, ripping the sails to shreds, and overturned a 32-ft racing boat in its cradle on land. As a precaution, we had already removed our furling sail and attached extra mooring lines, so all we could do was sit and worry as we heeled and the wind shrieked. In lulls we sallied out to tend to damage on other boats; a neighbour was heeling at almost sixty degrees from vertical and sustained damage to his hull where it rode up on the pontoon.

Hinami (cherry blossom viewing), Kobe zooAlthough everyone agreed that such gusty weather was more typical of February and March, the Sakura (cherry blossoms) came exactly on schedule, as does everything in Japan. With friends we visited a “Hanami” (Sakura viewing) spot, as listed in Japan's “100 best places for Hanami”: the Kobe Zoo. And a week later, with the blossoms at their maximum, the Kansai chapter of the Oxford and Cambridge Society organised its own potluck Hanami Party. Some twenty or so Oxonians/Cantabrigians gathered for an afternoon of reminiscences and nostalgia, but the centerpiece was a very Japanese “Rakugo” performance: a traditional form of comic monologue, in this instance performed (in English...) by a lady guest from Osaka. As in many Rakugo performances, the story combined folk wisdom and characters – a crafty, rascally raccoon – with light satire on current issues: the Japanese love of gambling and the upcoming Olympic games.

We wanted to see some Japanese theatre, but friends counselled us that two of the most well-known (and distinctively Japanese) formats – Noh and Kabuki – might be rather heavy going for us; in fact, privately, they all seemed to agree that Noh was quite inaccessible to all but experts and fanatics. Instead we went to a session of Bunraku (puppets) at the National Bunraku theatre in Osaka. Bunraku are about half life-size, and are operated by three men; all are visible on stage, but by tradition the “master” is in plain clothes, his two assistants all in black and hoods. Initially the presence of the three manipulators is distracting, but such are their skill and studious impassivity that you soon learn to ignore them and focus on the sumptuously dressed and skilfully handled puppets. The story is moved along by a male narrator and a Samisen (a kind of stringed instrument) player: the narrator plays all the parts, while his musical companion looses off the odd plangent twang to set the pace. All Bunraku stories are several hundred years old – at least – and are read from standard texts; they usually relate colourful episodes from Japanese history and mythology and can last eight or ten hours. We attended a two-hour segment which alternated periods of inactivity – with two of the protagonists playing Go – with frenetic activity, fighting, climbing of Sakura trees and treachery. In our play, heroine Princess Yuki frees herself from her bonds by tracing – with her toe – the outline of rats in the carpet of cherry blossoms that have fallen from the tree to which she is bound; so lifelike are her efforts that the rats come to life and gnaw through her bonds, thus ensuring a happy ending for all.

Fish-head teddy bear, Japan Railways trainApple-head teddy bear, Japan RailwaysOur highly amateur investigations into the Japanese psyche continue. We have interrogated all our friends over the Japanese love for all things cute (“kawaii”): no Japanese schoolgirl's knapsack is complete without a collection of soft and fuzzy toys dangling from it, and a wide variety of public service ads (exhortations not to allow your dog to poop in public, not to feed the stray cats, not to use your cellphone on the train) are delivered by means of cute little animals and cartoon characters. Often such characters – in ancient Japanese fashion – resort to the kinds of plays on words and double meanings that Japanese ideograms permit, but these are frequently beyond our understanding. After taking several photos on the train, for example, and mailing the results to Japanese friends, we have worked out that the angry teddy bear with a large fish on his head is telling obnoxious teenagers not to use their phones and listen to music on the train: the fish is a pun on the word for “please”. But we have yet to fathom the message of the same bear, one with an apple on his head, another crying and garlanded with green grapes.

One of our (unresearched...) theories is that the love of fuzzy toys is a direct continuation of the ancient tradition of Netsukes, by which people fastened their kimonos with cute little devices – brass owls, monkeys, raccoons – as long as a thousand years ago; alternatively, this could all be postwar, and is thanks to Mickey Mouse and American troops....As to why so many public service messages are delivered by lovable animals, a friends suggests that (a) the Japanese love to be told what to do; and (b) it's difficult to refuse and engage in civil disobedience when its a teddy bear who's telling you what to do. But more work needs to be done here.

Ero-kawaiiMan of Iron #28, Shin Nagata, KobeHand-in-hand with appreciation for all that is “kawaii”, the Japanese are of course also famous for their attachment to the comic-book (manga) form and to comic-book superheroes. We made a pilgrimage to nearby Shin Nagata to view the imposing 30m-high statue of “Man of Iron #28”, complete with a giant rocket pack on his back: friends who grew up in the fifties and sixties grew misty-eyed as they recalled reading of Man of Iron (who was – so the story goes – built by a mad scientist out of the ruins of bombed Kobe) and his adventures. “Porno-mangas”, we are assured, are however a recent development and are to be viewed in the same context as “Ero-kawaii” - the craze for cafes staffed entirely by young women outfitted as saucy French maids – and perhaps even as bubblegum pop group AKB48, whose members are exclusively late teens, female, and love to wear skimpy school uniforms.

Back at the Yacht Harbour, the time for our departure was at last approaching. Ishii-San invited his two old sailing buddies over for a farewell session in a local restaurant and on board Skal, and Yamanaka-San and Maika-San (officials of the Suma Owners Club) hosted a memorable evening session at the Yacht Club, at the climax of which we were ceremonially presented with the custom-designed flag of the SOC. Its logo reflects the ancient history of this place – which has been on record for well over a thousand years - and refers to a particular combination of wood-smokes known as “Suma,” one of fifty-two such combinations that figure in an ancient game of “Guess that Smell,” by which idle Emperors and their consorts would while away the hours (when not contemplating falling Sakura petals). We can safely say that this is a pretty unique flag.


Ishii san brings us farewell lunch Maeka san (centre) and Yamanaka san (centre right) with SOC flag

There were also the usual arcane pre-departure formalities to be followed by foreigners sailing in Japan: two visits to the Department of Transport for the procurement of impressive-looking but (to us) unintelligible permissions to visit a long list of Closed Ports on the south coast of Honshu. Adachi San, of the neighbouring yacht More, kindly accompanied us to the Coastguard where, with his help, we were able to have a useful discussion on the vagaries of the powerful Kurushio Current that grazes Japan on its path eastwards (a kind of Pacific Gulf Stream), But the Coastguard were apologetic when we asked who was tracking the vast array of garbage generated by last year's tsunami, now at least half way to North America, with its vanguard (an abandoned 65m fishing boat) already sighted off Haida Gwaii: no-one, it seems. Adachi San has also presented us with some CDs to listen to during the long watches across the Pacific; one is Kate Bush's Greatest Hits; we had no idea her fame had made it to Japan (and in fact had not heard her for nigh on 30 years....).

It was with real sadness that on April 17th we loosed our lines, motored out of the breakwater and set our course southwards across Osaka Bay. Our cold winter had been more than offset by the spontaneous, warm way in which we had been adopted as friends by so many people in Suma and we shall not easily forget their kindness. 


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