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Japan - Honshu

Bosun Bird cast off her winter moorings and set sail for Tannowa, 18 miles south across Osaka Bay, on April 17th 2012.  Although winter had lingered longer than we had expected, our first day out was hot, still and cloudless, and we had to motor much of the way across the Bay. Plumb in the middle, forcing dozens of ships out of their way, is a two-square-mile seaweed farm, its location here a testimony to the power and influence of the fishermen's associations.

Setting out after a long layup usually leads to one or two unexpected problems on board, and today was no exception. After we had been ghosting along for a couple of hours and had the Tannowa breakwater in view, we started the engine – only to be greeted by complete silence, not even the click of the starter motor. Fortunately the engine was warm and, at 20hp, is small enough (with the help of adrenaline) to be started by hand, but it took the crew much of the rest of the afternoon at the marina to track down the faulty wire leading from the ignition. Meanwhile, the captain found himself getting his hands rather dirty when the head (i.e. toilet) decided to cease functioning and demanded a messy rebuild.

We knew that Tannowa gave a great welcome to foreign yachties, and in fact had considered wintering over here. But today was Tuesday, everything was closed and we could not even leave the gated compound. With the weather set fair, we decided to continue. Next day, after three or four hours sailing beneath the Kansai International Airport flight path, with the morning flights from Europe coasting in one after another, it was a brisk sail south, through a narrow gap that separates Osaka Bay from more open waters. Here funnelling winds and a favourable tide had us zipping along at over seven knots, in bright sunshine.

Our destination was one which, like the vast artificial island on which Kansai airport is located, simply did not figure on the old paper charts we had borrowed: a large rectangle of reclaimed land containing two marinas, a funfair and a mock European village, known collectively as Wakayama Marina City.

Visitor berths at Wakayama Marina City Front L to R Hanna, Hayato, Rui Koura; Aayaka, Haruki Sakaguchi; Back L to R Yuu Imanishi, Jenny, Nick, Rihoko Sakaguchi

Here Tomoko San and her staff treated us like visiting royalty, plying us with sashimi and sushi and then inviting us for a wonderful evening at her home: a rare honour in Japan. We met her three lively children, her diving instructor husband, her best friend – who loaded us down with bags full of home baking – and another family friend who was a serious mountain biker, but who considered any and all Japanese beer as excellent “Energy Drinks”. Jenny learned some origami, and Tomoko San's friend's teenage daughter did us the great honour of presiding over a formal Japanese tea ceremony for us. The meal was of course sumptuous and many-coursed. After a full year we continued to be astounded at Japanese hospitality.

Daienin temple (our hotel); KoyasanVegan dinner at Daienin templeWe took advantage of a spate of poor weather to make a train trip away from Wakayama and up into the remote hills of the Kii peninsula. A combination of three ever more local trains followed by a brief spell on a funicular railway took us to Koya San, the headquarters of the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism: a monastery town and the resting place of the fabled itinerant monk Kobo Daishi, whose footsteps we seemed to have been following ever since we entered the Inland Sea. As is habitual here, we stayed the night in a Buddhist temple. The rooms, though Japanese-style (i.e. you sleep on the tatami floor) were not spartan in the least and the temple also had a very pleasant Onsen (spa). Dinner (strictly vegan) was about eight separate courses served in our own private dining room. In the morning we were invited to attend the dawn service in the temple's candle-lit Great Hall. We cannot say that we understood a great deal – much chanting and turning of ancient pages – but we could get the general sense of the Abbott's short sermon on the subject of Sakura (cherry blossom – inescapably associated with all things beautiful but transient).


The UCC coffee cup, Oku-no-in cemeteryThe highlight of Koya San is the Oku-no-in cemetery and mausoleum: thousands of tombs and grave markers scattered alongside a path that meanders through centuries-old cedars, atmospheric and mournful in the late afternoon mist. There are grand tombstones, and sponsored enclaves, the most famous of which was constructed by a pesticide company in expiation of the billions of ants whose death it caused. The UCC coffee company has put up an enormous granite coffee cup engraved with its logo, and there is a rocket commemorating a Japanese rocket scientist.

Jizos, Oku-no-in cemeteryScattered around everywhere are tiny “jizos” - miniature sculptures of the Buddha as a child, often coiffed in a red woolly hat and/or a red apron, although the red has usually turned to green with years of fog and rain. The jizos commemorate dead children and, it is said (more controversially) aborted foetuses. At the end of the gradually climbing trail is the vast Lantern Hall, where two particular lanterns are said to have been burning for 900 years, and behind it (no cameras allowed) the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi himself. Kokai, as he is also called, is actually said not to have been dead these past 1200 years but only meditating, awaiting the arrival of the future Buddha; accordingly, food is left for him twice a day.

Sailing ever south, we stopped next at the quiet fishing village of Ao (pronounced Ow). After so long in marinas it took us some time to get back into the special routine of tying to barnacle-encrusted harbour walls, with a tidal range of up to two metres. But the weather was peaceful, the fishing harbour still. We wandered around town and were touched when, as we later sat in the cockpit to watch the sun go down, an elderly couple drew up in their car and, with no fuss at all and waving away our thanks, presented us with two cold beers and a bag full of cakes.

Eighteen miles on, with the great island of Shikoku now barely visible to starboard, the Pacific opening up, we came to Shirahama. Entry here required some caution: many rocks in the bay and seaweed and oyster farms blocking most of the obvious channels. But Sho, an e-mail sailing contact, had given us a set of precise GPS waypoints and we were able to work our way in to a very secure and tranquil corner, tying up to a pontoon literally at the foot of an Onsen. In season Shirahama is a very popular resort town but, like everything else, the season in Japan is highly regulated – July and August – and although the temperature was well into the 20s and the pristine sand beach looked tempting, there was nary a tourist to be seen. Actually the beach was not entirely pristine; it was being “rearranged” by a pair of bulldozers, who were redistributing sand blown into inconvenient locations by winter storms (only in Japan, we suspect...) and our guidebook informed us that the beach had periodically to be replenished by shiploads brought in from Australia.. Everywhere there are Onsens and we favoured one outdoors, with a fine view over the ocean; a series of pools of gradually decreasing heat descended through the rocks towards the sea, the ladies' side discreetly boarded off but the men's openly visible from a pair of clifftop hotels. 


Bosun Bird and Joanna at Shirahama pontoon Rearranging the beach for summer, Shirahama

At the pontoon, meanwhile, there was socialising: with the intrepid single-handed captain of Joanna, making the annual pilgrimage many Japanese yachties undertake from Yokohama to the more scenic Inland Sea, and with various passers-by. One put us in contact by phone with Ken San whom – although we have yet to meet – immediately made arrangements for us to be visited and hosted further down the road.

The weather pattern was by now typical for Spring: two or three days of drizzly, rainy but warm easterlies, followed by the same period of westerlies, with brilliant sunshine. The forecast called for the next spell of westerlies to start at thirty knots; it was hard work powering out of Shirahama into the seas these winds generated, with rocks and seaweed farms lurking upon all sides, but once we were able to turn the corner we romped down the Pacific swells and put in over forty miles, at speeds of up to seven knots, turning the Cape at the south of the Kii peninsula: Shio No Misaki.

This means Cape of Currents, because the Kurushio Current normally strikes it head on at speeds of up to four knots, but we experienced no current at all. Instead, we found ourselves dodging maybe a hundred ships of all sizes during the course of the day, all converging on this, the southernmost tip of the great island of Honshu.

Approaching Kushimoto from the open Pacific Coastline near Kushimoto

Sunburned, but pleased with our mileage, we turned into the quiet lee of Shio-no-Misaki and spent the night wall-tied at the perfect natural anchorage of Kushimoto. Next day, with the coastline to port becoming ever more rugged, we turned to the northeast but, having lost the wind, had to motor most of the sixteen miles on to Katsuura (Bonito Harbour – a famous fishing port). This was another well-protected location: an inlet running north-south, closed off at its northern head with a natural pool, and protected to seawards by a line of rugged pinnacles, atop one of which there incongruously sits a large hotel. It was only two hundred meters from our quiet wall (where the crew thought the street lamp shining into the cabin all night was the moon) to the nearest of many onsens. In many parts of Japan, the humbler spas and public baths are falling into disuse as almost everyone now has western-style bathrooms at home, but this one was packed (and extremely hot). As in many of the older establishments, a high partition separates the men from the ladies, and the captain was able to hear the crew explaining herself to half a dozen naked ladies on the other side, while their similarly naked but more taciturn spouses eyed the captain with increasing interest.

Tied up at Katsuura Bonito boat, Katsuura

Tourist posters for Katsuura feature young girls riding dolphins, and friendly whale logos abound. But within sight of the town is the small bay of Taiji, sadly infamous worldwide for the annual killing of dolphins and pilot whales that takes place here, literally turning the bay red. Japanese friends are aware of the controversy caused by this and, indeed, by the country's international whaling fleets; they are aware too, that the idea that Japanese whaling is for “scientific purposes” is a fiction; whale meat is freely available and children are often served it for school lunch. But most shrug when the topic is raised and ask rhetorically: “How is it different from killing cows?”. We didn't call in at Taiji.

A short run north took us next to the fishing port of Miwasaki. As we have been throughout Japan, we were relying largely on word-of-mouth, combined with Google Earth photos, for an idea of places that are “good” for yachts to tie up: either a pontoon or a non-overhanging wall, with a reasonable amount of space. Here, unfortunately, the reported owner of a pontoon had passed away and his pontoon was no more either; we spent an hour or so on one wall, then moved further in when some swell seemed to be working its way in. We'd only been tied up for a couple of hours, when Ken San's friend Hamabata San showed up: his yacht, Adventurers, was moored a few miles away; he kindly took Jenny shopping and then took us out to his own favourite rustic Onsen, a family affair tucked away in the hills near Katsuura. You can meet interesting people in onsens: Jenny's tub-mate was a woman who had come with her husband to pray at the shrine where, exactly one month ago, they had buried the family dog. The local fishermen were similarly friendly: one stopped by and pressed two fresh mackerel on us.

Daimon Zaka pilgrims' way, Kii peninsulaNachi pagoda and falls, Kii peninsulaWith a major and very wet front coming our way, we lingered in Miwasaki but took a day off for some tourism: you are never far in Japan from some 1000-year old shrine (Shinto) or temple (Buddhist). We took a train and bus into the hills behind Nachi and, in gradually intensifying mist and drizzle, hiked up a magnificent ancient trail called the Daimon-zaka: a paved way, lined with enormous cedars, up to Nachi Taisha, one of the three great shrines of the Kii peninsula. Its location is on account of the Nachi-no-Taki falls, the highest – at 133m – in Japan; remarkable natural features such as waterfalls or conspicuous trees are said, in Shinto, to embody “kami”, or gods. Painted in the classic bright vermilion and ornamented with gold, the shrine was busy even on this increasingly wet day, with the usual sellers of amulets and fortunes doing brisk business; in Japan there seems to be no aversion whatsoever from associating money-making with spirituality. Next door, in a manifestation of the similarly pragmatic Japanese instinct to take Pascal's wager and bet on every possible option, was a much less gaudy Buddhist temple of ancient, unpainted timber, its interior smoke-blackened; but even here there were semi-official personages ensconced on thrones, taking in large quantities of yen in return for dispensing hand-written fortunes.


The pontoon at KukiOnce the front had passed, we had a gusty sail northeast up the peninsula to the very snug, tree-lined and tranquil inlet of Kuki (a neighbouring inlet is Kata – the neighbourhood is thus Kuki-Kata, pronounced Cookie Cutter....). We had a recommendation for Kuki that dates back nearly forty years, to when legendary American cruiser Hal Roth and his wife Margaret cruised these waters in their yacht Whisper; the women no longer wear kimonos and the local runabouts have outboards, but we sensed the place could not have changed that much. We were waved in to tie up at a pontoon cluttered with nets and obscure fishing paraphernalia, and spent a couple of days here; unusually, we had the company of several Japanese yachts, for this was Golden Week, one of Japan's two major holiday periods. There was one small shop where the friendly owner, who had spied our flag, informed us that this municipality was twinned with Prince Rupert, in British Columbia. The fishing connection was obvious, but there had also once been a great deal of logging on the Kii peninsula; all of the substantial trees were long gone, but shiploads of trees and wood-chips still came in from Canada and Chile (respectively) to unload at mills on this coast; we now realised what that distinctive smell was: paper milling.

Leaving Kuki the crew snagged her palm on a fish-hook and, too squeamish to pull it out, declared herself hors de combat for the rest of the day, leaving the captain to singlehand to Gokasho Ura and the Vivre Ocean Club (VOC) marina, about 30 miles on. Approaching the fine, multi-armed inlet inside which VOC is snugly located, squalls of thunder, lightning and hail had us alternately becalmed and rail under, the wind direction switching 180 degrees in a few seconds; later we learned that the line of squalls had travelled onwards to Tokyo and inflicted severe tornado-like damage, which is most unusual for Japan.

By e-mail, we had alerted our friend Ken-San to the hook dangling from the crew's hand, and he had kindly arranged – already – for Tommy, the marina manager, to run her into the local hospital by car and have the hook removed. With such a warm welcome and in another very tranquil setting where the only sounds were the twittering of birds and the buzz of cicadas – a sign of approaching summer – we decided to stay a few days and get on with preparations for our impending trans-Pacific passage.

Shrine rooftop, Ise-jingu Schoolgirls cycling home, Ise

Again, there was a shrine handy, this time the most important of all: Ise-Jingu. Tommy investigated the bus timetables for us, ran us into town, and we made the one-hour ride to the city of Ise, on the large bay of the same name. The shrine (or shrines: there are dozens) of Ise-Jingu dates back to the 3rd century and is the most venerated in the Shinto tradition. Every twenty years, the main buildings are taken down and replicas built on specially designated adjoining sites: 2013 will be the 62nd time this will happen, and the new shrines are already taking shape under vast all-concealing white canvas canopies. The shrines are in two main groupings – Geku and Naiku – both in beautiful ancient forest land. Unlike so many Shinto shrines, which can border on the gaudy, these are austere and unpainted, the only ornamentation being the golden tips of the roof timbers. As far as you can see, that is.....For the main shrine compounds are all fenced off behind two-meter high wooden fences and are accessible only to the Emperor and other very senior dignitaries. Shinto must be the only major world religion whose holiest place is thus made so inaccessible to its adherents.

Ise is atmospheric, there is no doubt, perhaps as much for its sylvan setting as anything. And it seemed refreshing to us that, in Shinto, the age of physical structures is considered to be irrelevant. Fires, earthquakes and other catastrophic natural phenomena with which Japan has always been plagued have made a virtue of necessity: what is treasured is the age of the tradition or practise, not its physical manifestation.

Maruyama San and Shigeko San sign Bosun Bird's visitors' book Shima Yacht Harbour (VOC), Gokasho Ura

Although the VOC marina is in the quietest of settings – with birds and cicadas the only noise to be heard – we made two sets of friends. Nakashima San and his Romanian-born wife Lily are the proud owners of a near sister-ship of ours, a Vancouver 28. Like most Japanese, they work so hard that they barely have any time left for cruising – the more so in that they run their own business of setting up shop displays in Nagoya, and often need to work at night or on weekends. But unlike most Japanese yachties (who bought their boats at the height of their careers, which happened to coincide with the Japanese Bubble, some 20 years ago) they are still young enough to plan on doing some serious cruising later on: although Nakashima San is in his early fifties he estimated he was the youngest yacht-owner at this marina. Maruyama San and Shigeko San, meanwhile, are of that older generation; they own a condo at the marina and a Cabo Rico 38 but by their own confession have now probably left it too late for long distance cruising. Well into his seventies, Maruyama San (by his own avowal, Japan's number one fan of diva Sarah Brightman) continues to work as a GP part-time. They kindly took us to a spectacular Onsen nearby where, from steaming hot exterior pools, on a clear but cool evening, we watched the sun sink behind the mountains of the Kii peninsula.

East of here there is a long stretch of barren, exposed coastline with no secure harbours so, for the first time in a year, we were forced to make an overnight passage, of some 125 miles. The captain passed away the hours by composing two haikus that give something of the flavour of this passage:

Shimoda by sail:
All those ships, how black the night,
My hair turned quite white.


By yacht past Fuji:
Alas it was all hazy,
With nothing to see.

Aficionados of Japanese culture and history will appreciate the clever (!) punning of the first Haiku. Shimoda, our destination, is famous in Japanese history for what is known as the episode of the Black Ships. In 1854, US Commodore Matthew Perry, much to the consternation of the Shogun in nearby Edo (the old name for Tokyo) appeared at Shimoda literally out of the blue, with several powerful, modern warships, to demand that Japan end its 200-year-old policy of isolation, and permit commerce with the USA. Subsequently, a Treaty of Amity was signed at Shimoda and the first western consul of the modern era, Townsend Harris, was installed in a convenient Buddhist Temple.

Fortuitously, we tied up at the very location where Perry had first landed and even more fortuitously we found that we had arrived at the start of the annual three-day Black Ship Festival. There were Japanese and American warships at anchor, and the place was flooded with shore-leave sailors in their best whites; American and Japanese flags festooned the streets; there were marching bands, majorettes; parading Boy Scout troops from American forces high schools; and a civic delegation from Newport (Rhode Island), Perry's home town. It seemed to us a little odd that Japan had no qualms about celebrating what was in effect an outrageous act of gunboat diplomacy by the USA, but we know by now that the Japanese people are nothing if not pragmatic. And, bearing in mind what was happening seventy years ago in this part of the world, it was actually quite moving to see the Stars and Stripes being hoisted by Japanese sailors, and the once-ominous Rising Sun ensign of the Japanese navy saluted by Americans.

Dancer; Shimoda Black Ships Festival Dancers; Shimoda Black Ships Festival

But the Black Ship Festival was much more than this: it was the excuse for the annual bash that every Japanese community loves to have, usually in spring or summer. One night there was a spectacular fireworks display that we watched from the cockpit of Bosun Bird, and the next a different display of “traditional” (Edo era) fireworks: macho young men dressed only in loincloths rushed around madly in the dark with what looked like outsize fire-extinguishers, but which gushed great showers of sparks over them for two or three minutes apiece. In the streets, traditional dancers from many parts of Japan paraded and performed daily. Most evocative of all were two ethereal ladies from Okinawa who wore ungainly lampshade-like hats and who gyrated in slow-motion to plink-plink notes from an accompanying stringed instrument, and a quite different – and awesome – night-time display of drumming that was not just music but theatre, with the powerfully-muscled young performers moving in synch like trained gymnasts. There was even a Japanese-Brazilian samba school troupe from nearby Shizuoka, with the customary extravagant – and sometimes very skimpy – costumes – and a Brazilian-Japanese man singing live samba as they gyrated around downtown.

Stag dancer from Northern Japan; Shimoda Black Ships Festival Dancers; Shimoda Black Ships Festival

Enigmatic Okinawan Lady of the LampshadeOkinawan drummersOn our pontoon we made more friends – Dutch/Japanese couple Sytze and Sae, and a pair of young reporters from Kazi sailing magazine, who travelled here from Tokyo to interview us – and we had lunch with Australian/Japanese Graeme and Kazumi, who live at Izu Kogen, one hour north of Shimoda by train and sustain seven stray cats. By chance, as we have come close to the end of our stay in Japan, we seem to have bumped into more and more expats doing business here. Many are actually rather gloomy about Japan's economic prospects – they foresee a perfect storm of an ageing, diminishing work force, very high internal debt and ever-intensifying competition from Korea and China – but all continue to find this a fascinating place (as we do) and are reluctant to move on (also like us).

Leaving Shimoda was not as easy as we had hoped..... A long stretch of easterly winds set in; there were a couple of early-season typhoons that passed to the south of us and made us glad that we had not rushed to sea. What we were now waiting for was the annual phenomenon by which the “Baiu” or “Tsuyu” (a wet front) is pushed up by the expanding Pacific High, reaches the Japanese archipelago and gradually drifts northwards over it; the front brings three weeks or so of rain with it, before summer proper arrives. As long as the front remains to the south it provides a convenient low-pressure alley for typhoons to wheel to the NE, directly across our path; but once north of us it would (in theory) give us more southerly and westerly winds.


Toshogu shrine, near Shimizu Toshogu shrine, near Shimizu

Jenny with Terao San and friend, holding HagoitaThe enforced delay entailed a three-hour trip by rail to Shizuoka, where we renewed our about-to-expire visas. But our friends Ishii San and Naito San, who had taken under their wings for the winter in Kobe, conveniently had a close friend here – Terao San, a City Councillor for the Communist Party - so we made a day of it. We “oohed” and “aahed” at an ethereal Mount Fuji, paid a quick visit to the marina at Shimizu to see the yacht that Terao co-owns with another friend (autographed by NZ yachting legend Peter Gilmour), then they took us up into the mountains to the very spectacular Toshogu Shrine, where one of the great Tokugawa Shoguns is buried. Just restored, this was a riot of gold leaf and vermilion, with many intricate wooden carvings of dragons and less mythical beasts. As a departure present they shyly gave us a Hagoita, an implement in a traditional game of shuttlecock, consisting of a beautifully embroidered and decorated paddle; the more successfully you play this game, they say, the greater protection you will have against mosquitoes (we shall see). After over a year here, Japanese hospitality and generosity continues to astound us.

Back in Shimoda, Itoh San, who runs Shimoda Yacht Services and is one of the City Fathers, plied us with many cups of green tea as we mused over the weather and was kind enough to introduce us to some of his many friends in town. Nakamura San runs a coffee shop called Okawaya Fruits, that has been in Shimoda since 1811, but is also an accomplished translator/interpreter and Elementary School teacher. She introduced us to her Grade 5 and 6 English students (English has only just been brought in at this level) and we gave a number of talks about our sailing experiences.

Contrary to the stereotype, the boys and girls were lively, eager and as inquisitive as any, with a particular interest in sharks! We were very impressed with the careful preparations made by the teachers in case of natural disasters: tsunami and earthquake drills are held regularly, and the children must always have their white helmets at hand. In one of the schools, the Grade 5s are responsible for looking after the school's rice paddy, seeing the whole cultivation process right through from planting to the annual production of some 60kg of prime rice.

Ogamo Elementary School Principal Tonoka San with Jenny, home room teacher, Nakamura San and Grade 5 class School lunch at Ogamo Elementary School

Nakamura San and wasabi (horseradish) ice creamAt all the schools (as elsewhere in Japan), cleaning of the premises (including the bathrooms) is done by the children themselves, with only minimal adult supervision. School lunches, at least around Shimoda, are centrally cooked then distributed by van; the children eat at their desks, and take responsibility for serving and cleaning up, as well as saying prayers before and after; white smocks and hair-caps are obligatory at lunch time (to which we were invited....). At Ogamo Elementary the Principal, Tonoka San, insisted on breaking his busy schedule to take us for an afternoon drive in the nearby countryside, complete with a treat of Wasabi (horseradish...) ice cream; odd-seeming flavours are the norm in Japan, and include Green Tea and Azuchi Bean. Thank You poster from Ogamo studentsNext day, as rain and wind lashed Bosun Bird, one of the young teachers from Ogamo knocked tentatively on our hull: he had brought a carefully-lettered Thank You poster for us, with whales, sharks and dolphins drawn around tiny pictures of a little yacht en route to Alaska.

Another evening, Nakamura San's mother gave Jenny a lesson on how to make sashimi (more work still required: the rice sticks to everything but itself) and we all then enjoyed a sumptuous Japanese dinner. While Japanese sushi and sashimi are justly famous, what impresses us as much is the enormous care taken to present the food in an attractive, colourful manner: you almost feel guilty when you break the symmetry by taking that first piece of sashimi.

More friends we have made include the Director of the Shimoda History Museum, his wife and their son Yasu, as well as Yasu's “Sensei” (mentor/teacher), whom we met at the Gasshou Folk Museum that the latter runs. This is a giant four-storey house of wood and thatch transferred here from the Gifu region of Japan in 1964; it was used in its heyday, some 200 years ago, for the raising of silk worms and is now packed with a fascinating clutter of smoke-encrusted farm and domestic junk. Chatting in the eye-watering and dark interior, the polymath Sensei corrected our impression that tranquil Shimoda must have escaped the horrors of the war: B29s returning from raids over Tokyo often dumped what was left of their loads here, and he lost close family in the ensuing firestorms. You don't meet many offshore sailors in Japan, but here in Shimoda we were delighted to be approached in the street by Shu, who had seen our boat and found herself immediately nostalgic for the time she and her husband Hiro went cruising to Australia and New Caledonia aboard “Charm”: over a hot foot-bath and cups of tea we encouraged her to set off again, before it's too late.

Drummers, Shimoda Dinner with Nakamura San and family

Although the town's annual Kurufune festival was over, we were surprised to find even more festivals on the calendar: with fishing on the wane, Shimoda's only real source of income is tourism. Just up the hill from our mooring there began the self-explanatory month-long Hydrangea Festival, and one quiet Wednesday night there was a dress rehearsal for the next Big Folklore Festival: some dozen or so ornate drum carts were wheeled out from their sacred parking places at shrines and, with each cart trailed by a party of faithful in summer yukatas and kimonos and accompanied by flautists and samizen players, made their way round the darkened streets, the young bloods periodically engaging in energetic “Battle of the Bands” drumming duels.

As we made our final preparations before undertaking the long crossing of the North Pacific, Shimoda seemed to be an apt culmination of our adventure in Japan. We were to end our own discovery of this land at the very spot where foreigners first “rediscovered” Japan . And in the course of only a short time here many of the paradoxes that had puzzled us for so long were again brought home to us: the relationship with America; the real vigour of traditional culture in the midst of dazzling modernity; imaginative and dedicated teachers seeking to build the country's future in ever-shrinking classrooms; unimaginable hospitality and friendliness in a society famously steeped in rigid etiquette and protocol. At least we would have a lot to think about during those lonely night watches.

Shimoda Shimoda's Queen of Samba

Time was pressing. “Quiver”, a Canadian Vancouver 27 that had last year sailed from Japan to British Columbia, had a favourable weather window in early June. But in 2012 all of May and most of June passed and the Pacific High – which we were hoping would strengthen sufficiently so as to graze Japan and give us some favourable westerly winds – remained weak and distant. Instead, the trough of low pressure that gives Japan its annual rainy season before summer itself begins, was firmly located to the south of Honshu, giving us relentless easterlies and providing a tempting alleyway for early season typhoons.

Fishing boats pack into Shimoda ahead of typhoon GucholThe first couple of typhoons of the year swept past us, well to the south, but wrecking the separate attempts of two British adventurers respectively to kayak and row across the North Pacific: both had to be rescued by the Japan Coastguard, whose vessels were typically moored just astern of Bosun Bird in Shimoda. Then came word a Super typhoon called Guchol was on its way (typhoons these days are allocated names from a roster supplied by countries likely to be affected – we understand Guchol means Turmeric in the language of Yap....). Fishing boats from all over South Central Honshu streamed into Shimoda, for the tight, safe river moorings it provides. For two or three days the place was a hive of activity as lines were led across the river in huge spiders' webs, in such a way that when arrangements were finally complete, you could not have left if you had wanted to. An air of tension filled the town, and everything went eerily quiet as the skies darkened, the rain began and the winds built up; the fishermen all went home to watch TV and see where Guchol would make landfall, leaving every vessel except ours deserted, left to fend for itself. There was nobody on the streets, everything was closed. The storm struck early on the evening of June 19th at Kushimoto, one of the favourite stops we had made on the Kii peninsula and thus became the first typhoon to hit Honshu in June in a decade. But in Shimoda we dodged the eye by some seventy miles. The winds rose to maybe 50 or 60 knots for several hours, causing the pontoon to which we were lashed to snake uneasily and – as swells in the outer bay increased – to begin undulating gently. We didn't sleep much as our lines strained and creaked, the wind howled, we heeled violently from one side to the other, and even the town street lamps briefly went out, adding to the sense of doom.

By morning all was quiet, the river turbid and full of debris. A second storm – Talim – followed two or three days later. We reconsidered our options. The Pacific High was still distant. We would face moderate easterlies for several days after we left Japan, but it looked as though we now had at least a week to spare before another typhoon might start cartwheeling towards us – sufficient time, we hoped, to cross the typical SW to NE paths the storms follow. It was time to take the plunge before another Guchol came our way.

Nakamura San (R), Jenny and priest's wife at the tea ceremonyThe friends we had made were reluctant to let us go. Nakamura San took us to a special private tea ceremony at one of the town's oldest temple, where the wife of the temple priest presided; here, the Shogun himself had once rested while waiting for a favourable wind to take him to Edo (modern day Tokyo/Yokohama). We were presented with a beautiful hand-made tea bowl in memory of our own visit. On Friday June 22nd we hopped on to the first available train for the three-hour ride to see our friend Hamada San at the Japanese Immigration Office and rushed back with the necessary stamps in our passports. We said sad goodbyes to Itoh San and his wife of of Shimoda Boat Services, who had been so kind to us for the past five weeks, and to Nakamura San, wrestled with a last minute problem that inconveniently made the head (toilet) unusable, bought up half the fresh produce section of the Max Value supermarket and, on the grey morning on Saturday June 23rd, motored out into the open Pacific. Destination: Alaska.

More: Japan to Alaska




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