Sunday, June 10, 2007

Strangers in a Strange Land: Gaijin in the the Ryukyu Islands of Southern Japan

Strangers in a Strange Land: Gaijin in the the Ryukyu
Islands of Southern Japan

As we worked our way northward from Taiwan the weather
became notably cooler, with cloudy skies. The weather
changed notably at the Tropic of Cancer as though it
were a barrier, and we saw a wall of low clouds
awaiting us in the distance as we approached 23
degrees north. We were very conscious that we were
emigrating from the tropics where we've been living
for the last 6 years and felt the drop in temperature.
We noted the water temperature on the depth sounder
as an indicator of whether we were in the Kuroshio
current that runs north. Sometimes we saw temperature
swings as much as 9 degrees and the current swept us
more than 30 degrees from our magnetic course.

A sprinkling of islands, also called Nansei-Shoto
(south west islands in Japanese), form stepping stones
that nearly link Taiwan to the main islands of Japan.
The Ryukyu Islands were once their own kingdom,
experiencing a golden age during the 15-17th
centuries, maintaining strong links to China, until
the Satsuma kingdom invaded in 1609. In 1879 Japan
dethroned the ruler of the islands and annexed the
islands. Okinawa is the most well known of these
islands, due to the bitter battle which became the
last great amphibious operation of World War II,
lasting 82 days. Following the war, the United States
occupied and administered the islands until the last
of the U.S. occupied islands were returned to Japanese
ownership in 1972, though the US Military still leases
land in Okinawa. The local islanders feel separate
from "Mainland" Japan, and the islands function as a
vacation spot for mainlanders. The climate in these
southern islands is warmer than that of mainland Japan
with pretty turquoise waters and white sandy beaches,
and a vacation atmosphere pervades. But compared to
the Philippines, it's frigging cold! We're definitely
not in the tropics anymore!


After a rainy light wind 3 day sail from Lan Yu,
Taiwan, finishing with a windy beat in steep waves, we
cleared into Japan in Ishigaki, the largest island in
the southernmost group. We were quite surprised as we
beat into the choppy waters of Ishigaki at the vast
number of ships that we encountered. We weren't
expecting such a busy port in a remote island so far
from mainland Japan. We later learned that the
friction between mainland China and Taiwan, makes
Ishigaki an attractive stop between Shanghai and
Taiwan, serving as a neutral third country. As we
entered a formidable series of breakwaters, we didn't
quite know where we needed to go. We encountered a
number of enclaves within the confines of the exterior
breakwater - smaller sea walls housing various
groupings of boats, which we later realized is
designed to minimize the surge in the event of a
typhoon, which the area commonly experiences. We
looked inside several before finding a haven for a few
sailboats among the many fishing and dive boats. As
we pulled up to a metal pontoon we noted Coast Guard,
Customs, Immigration, officials heading down the dock
to meet us. (We were required to email or fax our ETA
24 hours prior to arrival - always a challenge to
guess for a sailboat that could easily bob for hours
with no wind as we found ourselves doing one day out
of Lan Yu. While our radio call went unanswered,
evidently it was duly noted and served as notice to
rally the troops for our imminent arrival.) The
officials came aboard in functional groups and were
extremely efficient and thorough and we were cleared
in in short order. We were embarrassed at the state
of ourselves and the boat after a very wet passage,
still salt encrusted with piles of wet laundry
beginning to ferment. The officials requested a list
of all the ports we expected to visit, another tough
question as everything we do depends on the weather
and our timing. When the health quarantine officials
came aboard we tried very hard to ignore the colds we
had caught just before we left Taiwan and resist the
urge to cough while we indicated that we had no
communicable diseases. The plant inspection officers
wanted to see our "grains" and vegetables, but did not
take anything, to our surprise, given the restrictions
I've encountered trying to export products to this

After a nap and a bit of clean up, we began to explore
the town of Ishigaki, which we found to be compact and
easy to get around on foot, though bikes are common.
The town is mostly modern, architecturally and
culturally unremarkable, except for the signs in
kanji. Numerous plain concrete apartment blocks of
about 6 stories and low level hotels, shops and
offices give the town a rather stark look, but
gorgeous flowers planted everywhere: marigolds,
bouganvillea, impaciens, hibicus, orchids . . . added
color and charm. Vending machines everywhere sell
various types of drinks, including cold or warm coffee
in cans, though where one disposes of an empty can or
bottle is most perplexing as trash cans are scarce to
non-existent on the street. We never saw anyone
carrying an empty bottle or can around, so perhaps we
missed something obvious. We discovered later that a
complex recycling program requires careful trash
sorting and close attention to various pick up days.
Along the main streets we encountered countless
tourist souvenir shops, selling the usual t-shirts and
aloha style vacation wear, but also blown glass and a
wide variety of interesting foods, for which they
offered samples so we could try portions of these
mysterious things. Many of these foods were unlike
anything we've tried before and we were clueless what
was in them since we could not read the Kanji on the
packaging and few offered additional visual clues.
We most enjoyed the sake sampling - with all kinds of
tropical fruit flavors to choose from - mango, papaya,
passionfruit, banana, guava, etc. When we stopped for
a quick bite at the A & W burger chain (yes, they are
all over the place in Ishigaki and Okinawa, some
complete with the 60's style drive in), we were behind
a woman dressed in a full everyday kimono. We have
come across a number of older women wearing kimonos as
we wandered around town. We visited during Golden
Week, which includes childrens day, during which
families with young boys celebrate with carp streamers
(Koinbori) and we saw these flying everywhere outside
people's homes. We did see children shopping for
little trinkets with their parents on children's day.

What immediately impressed us is how peaceful, clean
and orderly Japan is after the constant noise and
chaos of the Philippines. Such a pleasure! We were
delighted with the selection available at hardware and
grocery stores. Though certainly prices were higher
than in the Philippines, the quality was far superior
and prices were not necessarily unreasonable. (And
prices were clearly marked and were the same for
everyone!) We were ecstatic to find perfect avocados
for far less than they typically cost in the States.
We learned that there are cheap days to buy produce
and other groceries if we time our purchases right,
and in Ishigaki, Wednesdays were discount days. Japan
has a reputation for being astronomically expensive
and we were worried about blowing our budget. But in
Ishigaki, we were granted a free slip for a week,
while the usual occupant was away for a sailboat race.
We had free internet access at the library, though it
was read only, and people have been very kind and
generous. One fellow sailboat owner brought by a big
plate of sushi, some fresh strawberries and bananas
(perfect, of course), then a few days later he brought
over some local sake. He remarked that he thought
Garth looked like Bill Clinton and we got a good laugh
out of that (but he's justvone of many that have made
that remark since). While his English was limited, we
really enjoyed talking with him all the same. Another
couple, Kure and Fusa, who own the boat across from
where we moored has cruised many of the same countries
that we have and we were excited to learn that we know
a number of cruisers in common. Their English was
excellent. They came over for coffee and we enjoyed
talking about the countries we've both visited and our
cruising friends in common. They brought fresh
lettuce and herbs from their garden and their yachtie
book to sign. We shared with them the magazine
article about us that was printed in a glossy Japanese
Magazine called Kazi (rudder) in November 2002, when
we were first thinking of sailing to Japan. Someone
that really helped make our arrival in Ishigaki nice
and gave us a good understanding of cruising in Japan,
Ishigaki and Japanese culture was Mike Quinn, who has
been charged with the task of being the point of
contact between arriving yachties and the officials.
We contacted Mike by email before we arrived and we
sure appreciated having a contact upon our arrival.
He was someone we enjoyed talking with and was a great
help when we wanted to buy a new battery or make other
purchases for the boat. He speaks pretty fluent
Japanese despite being from Texas.

Being suddenly completely illiterate is a challenge.
Few universal symbols exist here to help one get
around the language - If you don't read Kanji you are
out of luck, even if you are fluent, much to Mike's
chagrin. The recycle bins, written only in Kanji are a
mystery unless we can see what kind of trash is
already in them, but even then figuring it out is
often a challenge. Everywhere else even when I
couldn't pronounce things properly or make complete
sentences, I could at least read the signs! Street
signs and place names are usually only written in
Kanji, so I have found myself closely comparing shapes
to cross check against a map, a brochure or a ticket
machine - a tedious process. I recognize the Kanji
characters for entrance, exit and the ladies/mens room
from our time in Chinese places (since Chinese and
Japanese share many of the same character meanings)
and that's a start. Even Japanese who have lived
their whole lives in Japan are at a loss when they
encounter some characters that they memorized when
they were in school but no longer can recall. We have
encountered very few people that speak English in this
region so our interaction with locals has been limited
by that. I remember the Japanese pleasantries that I
learned for business travel to the country some time
ago, but that doesn't get me very far - mostly into
trouble since I seem to have the accent down, but
quickly reach my limit just as they shift into high
gear thinking that I know the language. Often we can
just ask our question in English, point and gesture
and they reply in Japanese with gestures and often we
are able to communicate effectively enough to get by.
Beginning our cruise in the smaller town of Ishigaki
helped us ease into Japan without too much of a shock.
We have begun to recognize words when they are
written in our alphabet (called romanji) that are
common with Chinese, such as wan (bay) and notice
patterns such as: shima/jima means island; sone means
shoal; ko means harbor; and seto means strait. But we
have been frustrated by our lack of language when we
want to have conversations with the many kind people
that we have met.

Most building construction in Ishigaki is modern and
without character and few historical relics remain, so
we mostly just enjoyed the amenities of a first world
culture once again rather than doing much siteseeing,
though we saw a few sites. We visited a peaceful old
buddhist temple and garden. We also have come across
a number of graveyards full of family tombs, cement
monuments shaped like a womb in a fashion unique to
these islands, and featuring an alter and vases for
placing flowers and sustenance for departed spirits.
We took a day trip by ferry to the nearby sleepy
island of Takitomi, featuring an older town of
preserved traditional wooden structures with heavy
tile roofs. We saw a house construction underway so
had the opportunity to see how the traditional frame
and roof supports are created before walls are added.
The style is quite different than US construction and
features complex fitted tongue and groove supports,
with a lathe type layer inserted between the roof
supports and exterior clay tiles. We watched a group
of workers carefully spreading cement into the gaps
between tiles, working painstakingly hard to fill all
the gaps; The inefficiency of such a design was
evident in only a few minutes and the shear weight of
the roof after all this cement filler was added is
incredible to contemplate. Sitting atop tile roofs
everywhere are Shiisa (guardian lions). According to
Ryuku legend, a predatory sea dragon tormented
villages and dined on villagers until a ceramic charm
in the shape of a fierce lion dog chased the serpent
away. Ever since, charicatures of the charm are
placed at entrances of dwellings for their protection
from evil spirits and these Shiisa are everywhere and
have become a symbol of the Ryukyu islands. While
many shiisas are fierce and intimidating, others are
more comical. And we saw them everywhere. Throughout
the islands, tourists can by t-shirts, clay models,
salt and pepper shakers - you-name-it - in the shape
of the Shiisa. Water buffalo pulled carts of
tourists, while they are serenaded by a lone voice
accompanying the traditional shamisen, a 3 string
instrument resembling a banjo with an extended neck,
that shares a similar sound to a poorly tuned ukele.
(While we know that the Asian scale is different than
the western scale, to us it still just sounds out of
tune to our ears!) This traditional town sits in the
centre of tiny, natural Takitomi island, surrounded by
beautiful white sandy beaches. Even though the day we
visited was cloudy and cool, we were struck by how
brightly the turquoise water reflected even a gloomy
sky. The cool weather deterred us from swimming, but
we had a lovely picnic and enjoyed watching toddlers
play in the sand and water. I imagine a bright sunny
day would offer a stunning view of the same scene
during the peak season. Postcards showed the beaches
and water in all their splendor. As a vacation spot
for mainland Japanese with crystal clear water, dive
operators are prolific, though we could hardly imagine
wanting to swim in such a cold environment since our
blood has gotten so thin after being in the tropics
for so long.

While we were in Ishigaki, we experienced a lot of
cloudy, rainy weather. Unfortunately, during the
transitional season, rain is more common than during
the peak tourist months of March, July, August,
September and October. But the cruising season in
Japan is short, and unless one wanted to stay through
typhoon and cold winter seasons, we are limited to a
brief time to see as much of the country as possible
before peak typhoon time begins in August. We watched
the weather closely for the right conditions to work
our way north. Once a low pressure system, accompanied
by rain and wind, passes, we have a brief period of
light or favorable winds and sunny skies during the
high pressure system when we had ideal sailing
conditions for heading northwards. A boat called
Indra, with New Zealanders Margie and Rob aboard,
arrived just before our departure and we had a great
time swapping stories and cruising information. As we
talked we discovered they raced the Coconut Cup,
against some of our Kwaj friends, in Majuro, Marshall
Islands this past March. We were disappointed not to
have more time with one of the few cruisers we've
encountered in ages and hoped to meet up with them
again, though we knew they planned to move at a slower
pace since they were staying for a year. We had a
pleasant sail on to Okinawa, 200 miles north, with
light westerly wind and sunny skies until the morning
we arrived in a steady downpour.


Okinawa is often known for its role in WWII, when it
took 82 days to capture the island, incurring large
casualties, mostly of local civilians who leapt to
their deaths or soldiers and officers who committed
Seppeku (ritual suicide) in the closing days of
battle, fearing capture by US forces. Okinawa remains
a US base and retains a strong military presence,
though we did hear that Japan is paying to relocate
Marines to Guam after a marine reputedly raped a young
girl, angering locals. While people had suggested we
skip visiting Okinawa, my father had indicated he
wanted to fly in here to see us, so we planned a brief
stop just to meet up with him.

In the pouring rain, we pulled into a military marina
at Kadeena Air Force Base. We got a warm welcome from
a number of very friendly Americans, the first we'd
seen in ages except for Mike Quinn, but we couldn't
stay due to restrictions. The folks offered a bit of
advice and contact information and we carried on to
public Ginowan Marina, which we knew was expensive,
but offered a convenient spot to meet up with my
father. (Unfortunately he wasn't able to come after
all.) When we pulled into Ginowan Marina, we saw a
Japanese boat, Sarah La Noire, that we met in New
Zealand 4 years ago and again in the Solomon Islands.
Small world. After our warm welcome in Ishigaki, we
were disappointed to pull into a large, mostly empty,
anonymous marina, for which we had to fill out tons of
paperwork; Dock keys, showers, parking and dock water
were all extra, despite the fees being a bit steep.
(Though we hope never to surpass being ripped off like
we were in Subic Bay where we paid the most we've
*ever* paid for putting Velella at a (crummy) dock
(including the finest docks we've encountered in the
USA and Canada). At least Ginowan marina had nice
docks, security, was clean and tidy and the bathrooms
worked unlike the dilapidated ones in Subic. Ginowan
Marina was far from town with no bus service nearby,
though a supermarket was within a block. Definitely a
car town.

Dying to get off the boat in the rain, we walked
towards town, hoping eventually we'd come across a bus
stop into the center of town. Someone who spoke some
English helped us get on the right bus heading into
the touristy area of Naha. Buses are priced based on
zone. As we boarded the bus, we took a ticket from a
machine with a zone printed upon it. Above the
driver's head a reader board indicates the current
price for each zone and changes as the bus travels its
route. The buses are not cheap, but are nice and
efficient. For each of us, a typical ride was about
$5. (I accidentally got on the wrong bus and that
mistake cost me nearly $10 and a bit of frustration by
the time I got straightened out. Again, nothing was
in English and the route map is quite difficult to
discern. And asking someone is what got me into
trouble in the first place.) We wandered all around
Kokusai-dori, a tourist, shopping and restaurant
district which we'd be able to enjoy despite the rain.
As in Ishigaki, we noticed an obsession with Hawaii.
Clearly the Japanese strongly associate Hawaii with
vacation, and we saw Aloha wear for sale everywhere
and clubs advertising Hawaiian musical revues, and
Hawaiian named tropical drinks and businesses. We
also noticed a certain fascination with large kitschy
figurine statues, such as Godzilla, Ronald MacDonald,
hot dog man, etc., probably due to a combination of
general Japanese theme park obsession, and this being
a vacation spot with an American influence due to the
military presence. The number of steak houses was
about one per block, but we went for something
significantly cheaper - a passable taco, which was
widely available. Other great quick and cheap eats
include noodles or good quality sushi and sashimi is
available in all the grocery stores at reasonable

After a full day of wandering, we returned to the
grocery store near the boat to buy something for
dinner. Supermarkets offer a good selection of pasta
and sauce and a number of recognizeable imported
foods. But a vast majority of items on the grocery
store shelves are a complete mystery to us, with only
Kanji writing and no visual clues: "Is it sweet or
sour and does it need to be cooked or eaten raw?", we
wonder. The snack aisles are filled with a wide
variety of salty and sweet items, though we have been
surprised a number of times to find something we
expected to be salty was sweet or vice versa. A
number of the vegetables are foreign to us. One that
we hadn't encountered before but noticed in the
grocery store and have tasted in a number of recipes
is the goya. The goya, also known as nigauri or in
the west as the Chinese bitter gourd, looks like a
long cucumber but with a bubbled, ridged skin as
though it suffered from some sort of skin disease. The
taste is bitter, but this vegetable is widely used in
many recipes, and has a very high nutritional value.
The goya has a higher vitamin C content than citrus
fruit, more potassium than a banana, double the beta
carotene than broccoli, and twice as much calcium as
spinach, plus high iron, B1, B2, and B3, phosphorus
and dietary fiber! Coffee is widely available and
sizeable sections of the refridgerated section are
devoted to instant coffee beverages and coffee
flavored desert puddings, tiramisu, or flan. While
beef is expensive and full of marbelized fat, chicken
and lean cuts of pork are quite inexpensive.
Significant sections of the store are filled with
instant and ready to eat meals for one or two people,
such as meat kebobs, pot stickers, instant noodles and
such. We understand that kitchens are miniscule and
many people work long hours, so people often opt for
these kinds of quick meals. And so did we! We were in
heaven with all the new food options and fine
ingredients to add variety to our diet.

Our second day in Okinawa dawned bright and sunny and
I set off to see the Shuri Castle, a castle from the
16th century when the Ryukyu Islands became a unified
kingdom. The castle was destroyed in WWII and since
reconstructed, though the original castle walls and
some of the gates remain. The castle sits within a
hilltop park enclosed by imposing stone walls,
surrounded by buddhist temples. The castle complex,
consists of a number of courtyards formed by a series
of high wooden gates and outbuildings constructed of
wood many painted bright red. The Royal court would
entertain and receive visitors in the inner sanctum.
Shamisen music filled the courtyard. I enjoyed an
outdoor picnic and being outdoors in this peaceful,
regal setting with beautiful views overlooking Okinawa
on a gorgeous sunny day.

We had an ideal sail on to Amami-Oshima and we found
there a beautiful natural surrounding where we could
be at anchor and explore the pretty sandy and rocky
beaches nearby. The island group formed a nearly
completely enclosed inner bay and the scenery from the
boat was very pretty with few buildings in view and a
town in the distance. Initially we thought we had
anchored near a beach resort when we heard music 4
times a day, followed by announcements. The music
reminded us of the ice cream truck back in the US and
we assumed they were special announcements for
visiting tourists of upcoming activities, especially
as we saw a group of tourists flood along the beach
our first day, clearly a tour bus unloading we
thought. We were told later that the announcements
encourage people to stop for lunch at noon, remind
children to return home to help their mother prepare
for the evening meal at 6pm and remind everyone that
it time to put the little ones to sleep at 8pm. (I
remember with amusement the announcements my
colleagues and I ignored when we had meetings with
government officials during my trading days that urged
people to go home instead of working late.)

Initially we explored a small private beach near the
boat and enjoyed strolling along the pristine sand,
and skipping amongst the clay and coral rocks. We
were amazed to notice that the red clay cliffs behind
this beach could be broken off and crumbled with our
fingers. The crystal clear water looked so inviting,
so Garth jumped in for a swim, though it was chilly.
We were pretty impressed with the water clarity: From
our cockpit we could see the bottom 40 feet below,
with millions of tiny translucent jellyfish. We could
see excellent coral clearly while rowing around in the
dinghy. The setting was incredibly peaceful with
lovely pine trees with horizontal branches surrounding
the water.

When we went ashore to explore further afield, we
discovered instead that we'd anchored off a small
farming community though the nearest building to where
we anchored was actually a small hotel as we'd
suspected. As we walked by on the road, a fellow from
the hotel staff welcomed and chatted with us briefly
and then suggested we could use the shower house next
to the hotel if we wanted. When we continued our
walk, we were surprised to see sugar cane fields
alongside the road. We ventured out along a footpath
to a shrine in the woods overlooking the bay and
nearby islands. We made our way to the sleepy port
nearby where we noticed was a regular ferry service to
the town across the bay. We noticed an aluminum race
boat undergoing major refitting, though no one was
there at the time and continued walking across the
isthmus of the island to the outside.

As we returned along the road, a fellow stopped and
invited us to his house for coffee. Pat was from
Switzerland and his wife, Monica, is Japanese and they
have two children. We so enjoyed talking with them
and as we chatted we discovered that he used to own
the boat, Kuroshio, that our friends Clement and Sarah
now own and our charts of Japan are his old charts.
They welcomed us into their home as though we were old
friends. We slipped off our shoes, as is traditional
before entering any Japanese home, and left them
outside on the porch. Inside, as is typical in
Japanese homes, the interior area was subdivided by
internal walls with sliding paper screen doors and
tatami (bamboo) mats covering the floor. The
aesthetics of Japanese architecture and decor
impresses us with its clean simple lines and the
quality of woodworking in the ceiling and roofing
joists. The warmth of the wood and tatami mats and
sparse furniture in Japanese architecture soothes the
eye in a unique way.
We enjoyed several days with Pat and Monica and they
let us use their computer to catch up on email and
their washer/dryer to do laundry, and gave us
vegetables from their garden. We enjoyed relaxing in
a Japanese style wood heated soaking tub (ofuro),
after soaping up and scrubbing down with a cool
shower. After sampling some smoked salmon from the
Pacific Northwest, they were hooked and determined to
immediately order some online. Pat was keen to drive
us back to the boat after dark so we'd avoid
encountering deadly habu snakes without a light. Habu
snakes are part of the pit viper family and are
extremely venomous and most active at night. He said
they came out onto the roadway at night in that area
and suggested we never go out at night without a
torch/flashlight. We had a delightful visit aboard
Velella during our short stay. They loved our boat
and wanted to build a 2 part nesting sailing dinghy
like ours. We were sad to say goodbye so soon, but the
short season in Japan forced us to press on northward
to see as much of the country as we could.


As we have toured so far in Japan, we've noticed some
interesting things. Baseball is incredibly popular in
Japan. When people learn we are from Seattle, often
the first thing they say is "Ichiro", the name of a
baseball player for the Seattle Mariners who has
become a national hero as a result of his ascension to
Major League baseball. We were amazed to learn that
baseball was introduced to Japan in 1873, through a US
teacher at Tokyo University. Japan has had
professional leagues since the 30's, as well as little
league and local teams, and televised games are now
big business, just as in the States. Garth saw the
opening of one game which featured the team captains
bowing to each other, then playing Rock, Paper,
Scissors, the old childhood game, to determine who
would bat first. Also at the start of a newscast, we
saw the newscaster bow to the camera - his audience -
before beginning his news presentation. Pachinko
parlors are everywhere in the city and are associated
with gambling, though I fondly remember the innocent
pinball style pachinko machine that I grew up with
after my father brought one home for us from one of
his many trips to Japan when we were kids. Gaming
centers, offering carnival style games and prizes in
vending machines geared towards children, are brightly
lit and loudly play electronic music. Comic books and
cartoons in magazines are hugely popular and are
geared to different audiences and subject matter.
Beautiful parks filled with flowers, trees and shrubs
and benches is a welcome feature of the first world
that we have so missed. The parks are filled with the
elderly playing croquet or chess during the weekdays
and with families and dogs on the evenings and
weekends and make for some great people watching.
People are very conscious to protect their fair
complexions and most people wear hats or ladies carry
pretty silk, lace trimmed parasols to keep the sun off
thier skin. We've even seen people wearing white
gloves and arm warmers to cover up on warm sunny days.
Few people wear sunglasses, though.

As a foreign visitor, we are gaijin (outside person)
and as such are an object of interest. When I am
covered up with my hat and glasses, being of a small,
fairly typical Japanese size, I can sometimes be
anonymous, but when they can see my hair or eyes,
people often stop and stare. Sometimes people will
appear completely absorbed in what they are doing and
not look at us, but often after we pass, if we turn
around we catch them staring. School children cannot
help but break into giggles when they see us and shout
"Hello!". When we reply in kind, they break into
giggles again. We often hear snippets of conversation
and catch the word "Gaijin" or "Canadian" or
"American" or notice a conversation cease once they
spot us. We've had many people come to the boat
bringing gifts and not being able to speak English
immediately leave or trying hard to talk with us
though frustrated with thier inability to communicate
as they'd prefer. We often wish we could speak with
them and find it such a pleasure when we encounter a
Japanese who can speak English well enough that we can
have a conversation. Usually they are dumfounded at
the distance we've traveled and the length of our
journey. They marvel at the boat, which in Japan is
not considered all that small. And when we share the
article that was written about us in the top Japanese
glossy magazine (in Kanji), they are thrilled. The
article has proved quite handy, along with a map of
our route to help conversation and answer their many
questions when we cannot communicate very well. We
also share food snacks, expanding each other's
culinary experience. We have found some delightful
treats and we've tasted some pretty foul things as

Ports with impressive breakwaters have filled numerous
bays since our charts were last updated in 1986 as
have fish farms and pearl farms. Sometimes we
identify a promising bay on the chart only to find it
has become a small fishing port or is filled with rows
of buoys marking nets, traps or pearl growing lines.
(The Japanese have been farming pearls for hundreds of
years.) New bridges reach across narrow inlets;
landfill and new marinas reach out into other bays and
bights near population centers; and modern high-tech
windmills for generating power sit atop the hills or
on islets. The pace of progress in Japan has been
relentless and modernization continues unabated. Old
buildings stand little chance unless they are
designated to be of historical significance, though
for many it is too late: What the war did not destroy
has been overtaken by the march towards progress.

After visiting Amami-Oshima, we later found out that
it was a closed port, meaning that we should have
gotten special permission in advance to visit there,
though no one had told us until afterwards, despite
informing customs officials in Okinawa that the
islands were our next planned stop. Basically Japan
treats yachts like ships, and only the largest ports
are actually considered to be open ports, where we
could visit freely without advance permission. We've
learned that Japanese customs officials expect to be
notified of all our movements in the country and at
each location where customs officials have offices, we
fill out paperwork for each arrival and departure as
though we were checking in and out of the country
every time we move the boat. And all the forms
require the same information as if no information were
yet on file for us. The process is cumbersome, taking
a significant share of time out of what we might
intend to be only a brief stop, though the customs
officials have all been very friendly. The officials
always want to know our expected time of arrival at
our next port before we even depart the current port
and know the actual wind and wave conditions we were
facing. The problem with this system is that sailing
yachts move at such variable speeds. We might sail at
6 knots for 2 hours and then 5 knots for an hour, 3
knots for 3 hours and so on. We despise motoring and
don't carry enough fuel to effectively motor even if
we wanted to. So we have difficulty anticipating how
far we might get in a day and subsequently all the
possible ports where we might need to stop due to the
inability to reach our originally planned destination
by dark, equipment failure or inclement weather. So
we do our best and beg for forgiveness for our
transgressions after the fact. Everyone has been so
friendly and helpful, our experiences are usually
quite pleasant though our cruising style is affected
by these issues, making us prefer to stop fewer places
for a little longer than we might otherwise. One
could easily cruise in Japan for years. We've met
several cruisers who are planning to stay for a year
or more, though they'll have to face hot humid
weather, typhoons, and icy cold to do it. Not a
choice we've decided to make. So we carry on to the
northern islands of mainland Japan - Kyushu, Shikoku
and Honshu and see as much as we can.

Wendy Hinman and Garth Wilcox
S/V Velella (Wylie 31)
Skype name: atomicsalsa or wendy.hinman

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