Illywhacker - Japan - Simply the Best


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Author Peter Aston
Date 01-April-2001
Map Ref Japan

This article was published in the April 2001 issue of the Australian Cruising Helmsman

An island nation, there are many bridges and
narrow passes to negotiate

Illywhacker yearns for JAPAN –The Best Cruising Destination – EVER

Many cruising yachties nurture the impression that Japan as a cruising destination is hard to reach, difficult to navigate, plagued by typhoons and expensive. In the 2 years illywhacker sailed Japan we either met or heard about less than 10 other foreign yachts cruising this amazing country. For us, it is the best kept secret and rates tops on our list of cruising destinations.

We built illywhacker to maximise liveaboard comfort and as permanent yachties our style of cruising is all about finding new and exotic places to tie up, to join local sailors in coastal cruising, see and learn as much as we can and to absorb a different culture. For us, Japan fulfilled these criteria and more. To tell the truth, I would still be there now except for Lyndall’s pressing desire to "see it all" before the clock stops ticking!

illywhacker has no timetable other than that imposed by the weather or the rules that govern the Customs and Immigration policy of a country. We initially saw Japan as a stopover on the way from Australia to the US west coast, a route that uses the winds and currents of the North Pacific to best effect. However once the lure of Japan caught us, our desire to stay longer lead us to research our options to extend our stay and see more. There are a number of ways described below to do this.

The timing of our voyage to Japan was shaped largely by seasonal winds and an overwhelming fear of being caught in a typhoon/cyclone! We sailed from Townsville to PNG (Louisades) then from the northern Solomon Islands to the Micronesian chain, west to Guam then on to Okinawa in the southern (Ryukyu) islands of Japan.

illywhacker entered the Okinawa port of Naha at 0200 on 1st May 1998. We had a few photocopied charts, almost no fuel and no Japanese. We were not sure what to expect. Our first visitors were Customs and Immigration at 0600 - in the polite Japanese way they had waited for us to wake up! There were no charges and in broken English over a cup of tea they laid out the rules for cruising yachts. Our interpretation of these rules are included here.

We found no cruising guides for Japan but were soon introduced to a booklet set of harbour charts, of which about a dozen or so cover the whole country. As the coast of Japan has a port of some sort seemingly every few miles these are an important source of navigation data. The trick is though they are in Japanese … except for the Lat/Long of each primary entrance beacon. This is not as bad as it seems since when used with coastal charts BA, NOAA or Japanese, (more recent versions of the latter have English place names) the harbour can then be identified from these co-ordinates. A further bonus was that our new friends at each port took much delight in translating the place names of the harbours ahead for us. illywhacker ‘s chart inventory grew rapidly with every stop; poring over them, scribbling notes and spilling beer on them were all part of a great social occasion since a foreign yacht is a rare event in out-of-the-way ports.

Navigation is hazardous at night, especially in heavily populated areas. Most bays are covered by floating cages of the aquaculture industry, by seaweed nets, oyster leases, pearl farms, shellfish pilings etc. At night also, fishing boats abound often in busy shipping lanes where super-tankers block the view for several minutes as they glide by. On the few occasions we ventured an overnighter we were thankful for our full keel which can overrun a net usually without incident. On 4 occasions though, I had to dive to clear debris from the prop, another hazardous operation especially in a busy shipping lane, let alone in the freezing waters around Hokkaido!

Large super-tanker passes under 2 storey Kotura bridge between Shikkoku and Kobe A pilgrimage along the Hachi - sakura walk

Sailing is a popular sport all over the country and we were met with great enthusiasm by local cruising yachties ranging from those with sadly neglected boats tied to home-built facilities to 65’ Swans’ in the poshest marinas we’ve ever been in. In many cases, boats are owned corporately, or by groups and clubs. Council-owned fleets of dinghies are used every day by schools and universities in the larger towns too. Japanese people work a 6-day week with only a few short holidays each year so individual yacht ownership in major cities is the province of the very wealthy, their yachts spending most of the time tied up. For all sailors, visiting the yacht on that rare day off is a team activity and always a social one. When we appeared in a yacht harbour, we represented the reality of adventure in foreign places that 99% of them could only dream of and to come aboard and share stories was a great event. They made us feel very privileged.

Sailing the Inland Sea, our 42’ illywhacker was quoted up to 200Yen/ft per day at some of the more expensive marinas. This translates to roughly AUD277 per night (= 2 days). So you thought Australian marinas were exxy? Contrary to some countries’ attitude toward Japanese tourists however, Japanese marina managers understand our exchange rate problem and will usually go out of their way to reduce the cost. The Japanese word for poor is bimbo so we delighted in calling ourselves bimbo yachties which they thought was hilarious – how could you sail a big yacht from Australia and not go to work, and still be poor? Easy we thought, but they weren’t convinced.

So being true illywhackers we tied up at fishing ports (free), took advantage of a generous 2 weeks free policy from many marinas or made a "deal" ( 2 weeks stay for 2 days charge for example).

Fuel is untaxed for fishermen and foreign vessels which brought the price down to Aussie levels. Food is a subject worthy of detailed discussion but suffice to say here one can live well (with a change in diet) at perhaps 15% more than in Australia. The food is a big part of the Japanese experience, one we enjoyed immensely.

Famous Miajima floating Tori or temple gate

Streamers for 70 year-old Korassa San before he
departs on a non-stop circumnavigation

The Rewards

We have never been treated so well before in our humble lives. On arrival in a new port we always invited interested onlookers aboard for an "Australian Tea Ceremony" ( Billy tea and home-baked chocolate cake) and this meant making new sailing or fishermen friends who enthusiastically drove us to local sites, presented gifts to us, helped us with boat repairs, presented more gifts to us, gave us a welcome party, a getting-to-know-us party and a farewell party then arranged for their friends at the next port to do the same! They were extremely polite, generous to fault and consumed with hilarious laughter over our attempts to speak their language and likewise we were too.

Japanese culture is very different from ours and living there is a wonderful experience. The architecture and history of old Japan is filled with excitement and adventure and learning about it and the basics of the language help to understand where Japan is today. Imagine leaving your wallet in a bus and having someone get off with it and run after you. We could safely leave our boat open at any port and children are safe in the streets at night. All this stems from a sense of national pride based on past culture. We will always be gaijin (foreigners) but to arrive by yacht and live there for a while has been an important influence in our lives.


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