|27| Tomodachi

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Japan! (2016)

June 2016 – November 2016
Written in Mexico, February & April 2020

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As we discussed what to call our (much-delayed) Migrations about our journey through Japan, we both agreed that Tomodachi — the Japanese word for friend — is the most appropriate title we could think of. Why? The Japanese were the kindest, most generous, and most welcoming people we have met. And that is saying a lot since we have met kind, generous, and welcoming people in every one of the 26 countries we’ve sailed to. The Japanese who have honored us with their friendly spirit have stayed with us… their faces flowing through our memories and their words weaving in and out of our conversations.

Perhaps the friendships we made in Japan feel so significant to us because Japanese culture is so foreign to our Western-molded minds. This passage from The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict (written in 1946 but still a must-read for anyone interested in Japanese culture) gives some explanation to why this is so:

since Japan’s closed doors were opened, the Japanese have been described in the most fantastic series of ‘but also’s’ ever used for any nation of the world. When a serious observer is writing about people other than the Japanese and says they are unprecedentedly polite, he is not likely to add, ‘but also insolent and overbearing.’ When he says people of some nation are incomparably rigid in their behavior, he does not add, ‘But also they adapt themselves readily to extreme innovations.’ When he says a people are submissive, he does not explain too that they are not easily amenable to control from above. When he says they are loyal and generous, he does not declare, ‘But also treacherous and spiteful.’ When he says they are genuinely brave, he does not expatiate on their timidity. When he says they act out of concern for others’ opinion, he does not then go on to tell that they have a truly terrifying conscience. … When he describes a people who devote themselves with passion to Western learning, he does not also enlarge on their fervid conservatism. When he writes a book on a nation with a popular cult of aestheticism which gives high honor to actors and to artists and lavishes art upon the cultivation of chrysanthemums, that book does not ordinarily have to be supplemented by another which is devoted to the cult of the sword and the top prestige of the warrior.

Ruth Benedict – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

Japan truly was a land of “but-also’s” for us. We were continually amazed at the intricacies of the culture: some we started to understand a bit –- for example, bowing: to whom, when, how low? — and others we, as gaijin (foreigners) could, and will, never fathom.

Japan is not an easy place to visit by sailboat. Only 5 to 10 foreign boats arrive each year… and many of those pass through in only two or three months. For many years, we had talked about sailing to Japan and knew we would want to stay longer than a few months. Thus we felt it was important to prepare for our visit. Our daily ritual of listening to a Japanese language lesson during breakfast started when we were still in Indonesia – five months before our arrival in Japan (and that didn’t help with our learning Bahasa!). We read books by and about the Japanese… including some that dealt with World War II. Those books (for example, Three Came Home by Agnes Newton Keith), revealed in detail the brutality of the Japanese during the war as they occupied many of the countries of Asia.

One cannot continue to judge an entire nation by their actions seven decades ago – God knows we pray other people don’t judge all Americans by the actions of the U.S. during these last few decades – yet the Japanese attitude and atrocities we read about left a mark in our minds and a shadow on our hearts.

When the Japanese emperor declared Japan’s surrender in 1945, he said that Japan had failed in gaining the respect of the world through war. Now, he said, Japan must change and gain the respect of the world through peace. And this they did. Almost overnight. And they built an economic powerhouse from a country that had devastated its own people and resources.

Imagine for a moment that the USA had been defeated in WWII. What would have happened during the occupation? An underground guerilla movement attempting to disrupt the occupation would probably have developed; blowing up trains, cutting communication lines, murdering soldiers, fighting against the conquerors in every possible way.

However, following the occupation of Japan by U.S. Forces, a lone American soldier could travel in safety on a train crowded with Japanese. The cultural strength of mind to shift so significantly is boggling to our western minds – especially in the US where, even after more than 150 years, we still cannot quell the grudge the South holds for losing its war over slavery against the North.

This is how the but also’s of Japanese culture create an environment that the foreigner floats through… constantly looking, guessing, attempting to understand. Though we were literally in port, we often felt at sea. Yet, the friendship offered by the people we met was a constant throughout the country.

From the old man who purchased candy for us while we sat eating lunch at a table outside a supermarket in Fukuoka (handing it to us with a smile and a heavily accented “Japanese candy. For you. Welcome to Japan!”), to those who became long-lasting friends and who we know we’ll see again; these people erased the picture we’d formed of Japan… and redrew it in the subtle and bold way only the Japanese can. Our interactions with the Japanese changed so much of what we’d previously thought. That is why the best way we can document our travels in Japan is to tell you about our friends… our tomodachi.

And that is why we also say to our tomodachi…

ども ありがと ございます

Domo arigato gozaimasu

Welcome to our new Migrations.
Please read this.

As attention spans get shorter, we know few people will read everything we want to write about our time in Japan. So we’ve done two things that, we hope, will help make it easier for those who are interested. We’ve split our Japan travels into two Migrations updates (this is the first one), and we’ve added drop-down sections with more detail. As in our actual travels, you will find this Migrations punctuated by wonderful encounters with people who befriended us. Click on any of those names and you will find the story behind our friendship. We hope you will click often.

This is where you will find stories of our tomodachi.

Our Travels in Japan

Ishigaki Shima

Ishigaki Shima is Japan’s most southerly port of entry. Per regulations, we notified the Japanese Coast Guard before our departure from Taiwan, and then, toward the end of our 250-mile voyage, we made contact via VHF radio and were directed to a high concrete wharf where our arrival entourage (Coast Guard, Port Authority, Customs, Immigration, Health, and Bio-security) was waiting.

Several hours later, once the formalities were completed, we went ashore and immersed ourselves in this very foreign culture. There was so much to learn: our ATM cards wouldn’t work at banks but did work at 7-Eleven ATMs. Getting a mobile phone SIM took hours of research, long bike rides to electronics stores, and lots of conversations using Google Translate. We could only purchase a SIM that provided SMS and data as foreigners were not allowed to purchase a plan that included voice calls.

But in between all of this, there was the food…!

Japan has thousands of ports. All are closed except for about 100 — a left-over policy from Japan’s closed border policy in the 17th to 19th centuries. We were required to apply for permission to enter any closed port. That policy has now changed, but when we were there we had to present a list of all the ports we wanted to visit in each prefecture. It was a bit of a complicated process, especially since we didn’t even know which ports we wanted to go to. We ended up providing huge lists with every conceivable destination.

Page 1 of Japanese bureaucracy…

We felt sorry for the poor bureaucrat who had to translate our long documents into Japanese.

But once the paperwork was finished, we were ready to have fun!

We rode bikes, hiked, and climbed all over beautiful Ishigaki

Tarama Jima

As summer heat increased, we needed to keep moving north and out of the typical path of typhoons. We sailed to neighboring Tarama Jima, a small, untouristed island, mostly covered by farmland, about 18 miles from the north tip of Ishigaki Shima. It was here we met our first tomodachi, Yoshi.

After anchoring in the small harbor, we walked into town in our perennial search for ice cream–-the southern islands of Japan are just north of the Tropic of Cancer and thus very hot in the summer.

Yoshi was probably the only other tourist on the island, but, since he’s Japanese, we took him for a local. We asked where we could get an ice cream and were surprised when he answered in English. We learned he was visiting from Kobe and would be taking the ferry to the neighboring island of Miyako Jima–about 30 miles to the northeast–in two days. We told him we planned to sail to Miyako Jima in a couple of days and asked if he would like to sail with us. He literally jumped up and down like an excited kid exclaiming Sugoi! Sugoi! (Amazing! Amazing!) — a word we would hear constantly throughout our year in Japan. This introduction to Yoshi endeared us to his honest and very genuine enthusiasm for life and willingness to take chances and be spontaneous.

We told Yoshi that his fare for passage would be to help us with our Japanese. Since all of our study of the language had been through podcasts, we had a list of burning questions.

We had a boisterous 35-nautical-mile sail to Ikema Shima, the island next to Miyako Jima. It was Yoshi’s first trip at sea on a sailboat and unfortunately he did get seasick. But after losing his lunch over the side, he continued answering our grammar questions as though nothing at all had happened. In spite of the seasickness, he was having a great time.

After securing Migration, we crossed the bridge to Miyako Jima to meet Yoshi’s friends Masuni-san and Gina-san, who run a pension right on the beach. Yoshi visits them regularly as he loves Miyako Jima and the islands of Okinawa province. We were invited to a barbecue planned for that evening, but little did we know it was to be much more than that.

During our sail, Yoshi learned that Alene had recently celebrated a birthday. After a delicious meal of various grilled meats and free-flowing sake and beer, he and his friends surprised her with a cake, and a rousing and somewhat drunken version of Happy Birthday.

This was our introduction to the unexpected kindness of the Japanese. This man we’d known only a few hours, and his friends whom we’d never met, made us feel so welcome, and (in keeping with Migration tradition!) made Alene’s birthday continue long past its actual date.

Ikema Shima & Miyako Jima

We sailed north (with Yoshi aboard) to Ikema Shima and neighboring Miyako Jima. In Japan, one often has to tie the boat alongside a big concrete wall; sometimes difficult with the high tides and potentially perilous to new topside paint. When we arrived, we discovered a floating dock owned by the fishing cooperative — floating docks are much easier to tie to since they go up and down with the tides. Though the co-op boss started out with a definitive ‘no!’, Yoshi helped us sort things out; the boss suddenly changed his tune and welcomed us with a magnum-sized bottle of sake. But this sake was not for us to drink. We were instructed to pour it into the sea when we exited the port to honor the Dragon God.

We were then whisked off to meet Yoshi’s friends at a pension on Miyako Jima. Why? Yoshi had arranged a surprise birthday party for Alene complete with drunken singing and puppies galore. (See the Yoshi Section above.)

The following day we had a music party onboard Migration. Yoshi brought his sanshin (an Okinawan 3-stringed instrument). Kaduko and Yoshibou Kageyama — a wonderful couple who had been instrumental in the birthday surprise — also brought their guitar and keyboard and provided entertainment on deck in the balmy air, with Bruce as guest musician on his concertina.

We planned to leave the following morning, so our friends asked us for our departure time. Unless there is a tidal or weather reason for a timed departure, our schedule is usually pretty loose, so we were fairly non-committal and gave them a 2-hour range. Long before we were out of bed, we began to hear voices on the dock. Our new friends had pre-empted our departure time well in advance in order to not miss saying goodbye. It was then we realized that most Japanese take farewells very seriously.

Our friends continued to wave enthusiastically until they were sure that we were completely out of sight which, on a slow-moving sailboat, can take a while! And after we had left the harbor, they piled into their cars and followed Migration around the southern point of the island to continue to wave as we headed northward.

Kerama Retto & Okinawa

We sailed northward to the stunning Kerama Retto. We were surprised how tropical the islands are — both above and below the water.

Then on to the big island of Okinawa. The culture of the Ryuku islands is very distinct from that of the rest of Japan and Okinawa is the center of that culture.

Kakeroma Shima

And northwards still. On to Kakeroma Shima where we met more wonderful tomodachi.

Kakeroma Shima, about 90 nautical miles northeast of Okinawa, is separated by a narrow channel from the much larger Amami-O Shima. The channel is punctuated by dozens of inlets. We anchored in one of these and were well protected from wind and waves, with beautiful rock formations, interesting snorkeling, and a lovely beach.

We dropped anchor and sorted out the boat after our overnight sail, then swam ashore for a walk. The beach was empty except for two Japanese couples having a picnic. Nobsan spoke good English, but we had to strain our brains to practice our Japanese with Kei-chan, Kiyoshi-san and Mieko-san. Fortunately, dogs are forgiving so we were able to communicate fairly easily with Chacha.

We learned that the two couples — friends for many decades — were from Yokohama. They visit Kakeroma Shima regularly because Mieko-san was born there. They’d rented a van and immediately invited us to a picnic and snorkel on the south side of the island the following day.

On the way to the picnic, Nobsan insisted we stop at a small Shinto shrine where he taught us some of the customs associated with visiting a shrine. (There are thousands and thousands of shrines throughout Japan and his lessons served us well.) We brought some goodies to the picnic, but the food they made was much more interesting to us – we had our first taste of delicious homemade o-nigiri (rice wrapped in seaweed).

Everyone was so patient of our poor Japanese and with Nobsan’s translation, we were able to have interesting discussions about our histories, Japan, the U.S., and, of course, language. Meiko-san and Kei-chan were so kind and made sure we tasted everything they had made and had plenty to eat.

The tide was so low it was clear the snorkeling wasn’t going to happen, so we suggested sailing Migration somewhere else for a snorkel…. Everyone was thrilled with the idea. 

It was a perfect sailing day. We headed to an intriguing spot that Nobsan had identified on Google Earth. Poor Mieko-san was a bit queasy, but she was a real trooper and we all enjoyed the outing, even Chacha.

We met the following day for drinks and a late afternoon meal at a little pension on shore right in front of the anchorage. If they hadn’t been leaving for Yokohama that evening, we no doubt would have spent more time together, as we all felt an immediate affinity for each other and enjoyed the cultural exchange immensely. We parted promising to visit them in Yokohama, and offered a reciprocal invitation to join us aboard Migration.

While saying goodbye we learned another cultural lesson about Japan. Japanese are quintessential gift-givers. Of course, we always try to reciprocate whenever possible; however, the Japanese gifting passion cannot be equaled. As our friends had given us several gifts and meals, we decided to bring a gift to them when we dinghied in to say goodbye. That way, we thought, they would have no time to give us something else. As we said farewell, we presented our gift. Visibly distressed at having no gift in return, Nobsan reached into his pocket and pulled out his very nice Spyderco pocketknife and a small flashlight and presented both to us.

Because Nobsan spoke excellent English, we had gotten to know him better than the others. We appreciated his quick mind and his wit. He loved intellectual and philosphical discussion but also was always ready with his welcoming smile and laugh. This final gift episode made us love him that much more. And it also taught us that, with regard to Japanese gift-giving, a gaijin (foreigner) will never be the one to give the last gift.


We sailed overnight from Kakeroma Shima to Yakushima – a gorgeous island covered in giant cedars and rainforest. For Anime fans, the island is the inspiration for Princess Mononoke. It had been a very windy passage and the weather was forecast to get worse. Tying up to the barnacle-encrusted wall in the little fishing port of Isso Ko was not easy.

More tomodachi: There was a catamaran moored in the inner harbor. Shortly after our arrival, delivery skipper Choichi-san and his crew Ken-san stopped by with a bag of bread they’d walked into town to get – just for us. They asked if we wanted to tour the island as they were renting a car the following day. We had a great time driving along the coast and, as would so often be the case, we were treated to lunch.

We thought the weather had settled a bit, so we departed for the main town of Miyanoura on the north side of Yakushima. After we left the harbor, we were surprised to find 45 knots of wind wrapping around the island. Luckily it was only a few miles and the wind was following. There was good protection at our new anchorage and we were able to get ashore for some touring and very soggy hiking.

Next: North to the “Mainland” >