We’ve made our way to Kushiro, on Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan, where we have been fixing a few things on the boat in preparation for the next leg of our journey. Though we had hoped that our next stop would be Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, we had a bit of trouble pulling together all the pieces and, in the end, were unable to get visas in time. That means no Russia. Instead, we have a 1,200 mile passage to the Aleutians ahead of us. We’re not terribly excited about that, as that’s a long time to expect the North Pacific to be cooperative, and it’s a long time to be on the boat in colder weather. On our way to Kushiro, it dropped to 35 degrees one night as we sat on deck in oozing fog so thick it drips from the dodger and the rigging. But, people hopped across the Aleutians in skin umiaks for centuries, so we ours is a cushy trip with hot chocolate and warm beds, right?
We’re not ready to leave yet, though, so we’re planning one last Japanese hurrah, which means we’re pestering the ladies at the tourist information counter with lots of questions they don’t understand. They respond in kind with lots of helpful information that we don’t understand.
We play this game a lot in Japan. I’ve had many deep conversations with the ladies at the grocery store check out. I think they are mostly asking me whether I have various discount cards, reciting prices so I know (or would know, if I could understand the numbers) that they are not cheating me, trying to convince me I need more plastic bags, and thanking me profusely and politely at every possible opportunity. I smile, nod, and say thank you.
Sometimes, I try a few carefully crafted questions designed to elicit “yes” or “no” responses when I want to buy something I’ve never seen before but don’t know how to cook it. Important questions like, “Is this a fruit? Vegetable? Do I boil it?” The nice ladies usually look a bit confused at my incompetence (linguistic and culinary) and continue to jabber away at hyper speed. I have mostly given up asking these questions now, but have continued to enjoy meaningful conversations with the chatty check-out ladies. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that in three years of food experimentation, I have only almost killed us once. We were saved from eating poisonous nuts by a chief in Vanuatu, who couldn’t understand why we paid 200 Vatu ($2.00) for a beautiful basket full of the nuts, which he thought were thoroughly overpriced. We thought they were green mangoes, and explained that we thought they were a bargain and couldn’t resist. He had his wife cook them correctly for us. Other than that and a few stinging taro incidents, my record for obtaining cooking information in languages I barely speak is sublime.
Rob plays the same language game with all the old men wandering the docks. We meet a lot of old men while we are sailing. They like boats, and they are retired and free to spend their days wandering the docks. They seem to be afraid to talk to me, but they love to chat with Rob. They stand inspecting the boat, and Rob tells them, in his very best Japanese, “I’m from America. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.” Not the least bit flustered, they blast him with rapid-fire Japanese. As it turns out, most old men, all over the Pacific, and probably the world, want to know the same things: “Where are you from? How long did it take to get here? Really? That long? Where else did you go? How many of you are there? How big is your engine? What is that you’re fixing?” Consequently, Rob simply answers one of the standard questions without regard to what the person is actually saying, which usually satisfies them. I, on the other hand, usually just smile or give them a quizzical look until I can pick out a word I know and give them a relevant answer. This probably says something about our personalities. It may also explain why they like Rob so much better.
Since my last post, we have continued to find the actual sailing in Japan a bit challenging, but that’s kind of what you get outside of the tradewinds. Making progress has been hard, as we tend to get about 2 or three days of light and fitful winds, followed by a gale (or at least a forecast for a gale—they don’t always turn out to pack much punch). That has forced us to do a lot of overnight sailing to try to make up some distance. At night, however, boat-dodging gets a bit exhausting. Japan’s seas are highways, with cargo ships and fishing boats everywhere. As we have sailed further north, there have been fewer cargo ships, but more fishing boats, and a lot more fishing gear. I spent two hours hand-steering to dodge fishing buoys one night. Near Kushiro, the entire coastline is fringed with set nets. All of these things are very hard to see in the fog, and potentially dangerous. We had thick, clammy fog dripping from the boat all the way from northern Honshu to Kushiro, and you could only see about a dozen yards past the nose of the boat, and you couldn’t see the huge boats blowing their fog horns a couple of miles away. Flashing buoys would occasionally appear at the fringe of our visible range, but it’s almost too late to dodge them at that point. We are kind of amazed there are any fish left in Japan after seeing all the fishing boats and gear out here. The weather looks like it’s starting to improve, though, so we are feeling a bit more hopeful about our next passage.
We have also had many very pleasant stops along the way, and it was starting to feel like summer again until about three days before we got to Kushiro. We have continued our tour of shrines and temples. We were searching for seafaring good luck charms, but, as far as we can tell, most of the charms at the shrines are aimed at fertility, childbirth, and luck with school exams. Two out of three of those seemed like bad luck, and the third irrelevant, so we’ve stuck to tossing coins and shells and asking the kamis for a pleasant sail home.
We spent a week in Shimoda, the first Japanese port opened (kind of by force) to the west. Our boat batteries died on us, and we had to replace them there, which was a bit of a challenge as no one seemed to understand what we wanted. Fortunately, a very helpful guy at the Department of Transportation, where we had to go for a permit, took us to the right store and a woman there who spoke some English found us exactly what we were looking for. We’re back in business now with half the batteries we used to have, but just as much power.
While we waited for the batteries, we did some bike touring on our speedy, new, yellow bike and visited a few monkeys at the monkey park. We’re not so sure about the monkey park (it’s less of a preserve than we’d hoped, and more of a tourism scheme), but we do love monkeys. One spunky little guy tried to fight Rob. He made lots of very intimidating Scream faces and slapped the ground with his front paw. Rob tried very hard to take him seriously, all 10 pounds of him, but he was just too cute to be threatening.
From Shimoda, we began the Fukushima hop. Locals confirm the plant is still leaking, so we wanted to keep some distance between ourselves and the toxics. The weather was not terribly cooperative, so we stopped in Suma Ko, about 30 miles north of Fukushima, to wait for a nasty storm to pass. It proved to be an interesting stop. A long stretch of the Honshu coastline near Fukushima, including Suma, was hit hard by the 2011 tsunami and the area is still recovering. In Suma, they had a 30-foot wave. The coastal area that used to be homes is now gravel and weeds. Teacup shards in the gravel are eerie mementos of people’s lives. A twisted metal swingset still stands on the beach next to a monument to the victims, and the harbor and town are under major reconstruction. Some people are still living in temporary housing.
We stopped again another 70 miles north in Miyako, a much larger town. Here, the entire town sits behind 25-foot high breakwaters, but shattered electrical poles atop the breakwater and massive, mangled flood gates are a sobering reminder of the force of the wave. It swept right over the top of the breakwater and demolished the houses on the plain behind it. There is still much left to clean up as they begin building the breakwater another 10 feet taller. It’s hard to imagine the scale of destruction—every town along this coastline was devastated, despite all the massive concrete that lines the coast. But all that concrete also seemed a bit oppressive. In Miyako, you could only see the bay from a couple of spots, so everyone is fenced in behind a massive wall of concrete.
After Miyako, we sailed directly to Kushiro. The wind was light, so it took us 3 days to cover the 230 miles. It was a relatively easy sail, just a bit dreary with all the fog and cold. You can’t gauge your progress very well when you can’t see anything, so it feels very slow. We cut our watches back to 3 hours, Captain’s orders, as 35 degrees is just a bit too chilly for long night watches.
But when we finally arrived, after navigating the busy harbor by radar and squinting through the fog, we found the best sento (public bath) we’ve been to in Japan. It had 3 hot tubs, a sauna, and even a coin-operated massage chair. Sento, admittedly, feel a bit awkward at first. They really are public baths. One for the men, one for the women. You strip down and head in to the tubs. And frequently, the old lady who takes the money gets to watch the men strip down from her perch between the two changing areas. Then you shower with a bucket and a stool (I got this wrong the first time, of course—who knew these were indispensable showering tools?), and then you can soak in the hot tubs to your heart’s content. Sometimes the tubs are a bit scuzzy, as sentos are the cheap, public baths rather than the tourist-oriented onsens (we always go for high class). But this time, it was brilliant. It was a veritable spa. A nice long soak in all of the tubs, and finally, the fog was but a bad dream as I snuggled under my sleeping bag for a long sleep.