|28| More Tomodachi – 3

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The West Coast

If you want to sail across the North Pacific, it’s important to get the timing right. Leave too early — in early May, for example — you could get blasted by some of the major storms that sweep toward the Aleutians from Siberia. If you leave too late — let’s say, July — you might get caught in a summer typhoon as it sweeps north from the tropics. And, if you don’t plan to winter over in Alaska, you have a limited amount of time to transit the thousands of miles of remote islands, majestic fjords, imposing glaciers, towering volcanoes, beautiful inlets, etc. etc. etc. lining the route from the western end of the Aleutian Islands to Puget Sound near Seattle.

We were planning to leave Japan at the beginning of June… but we were still 700 NM from our intended departure point of Hakodate in northern Japan. And there are scores of fascinating ports to visit along Japan’s rural west coast.

Referring to the notes we’d made based on advice from friends at IYC and OBTYC, we selected the ports we would visit and made a plan that would include only a few overnight sails as we’d been warned of the danger of fishing nets along this coast.

We’d read about the small marina in Murotsushimo and, since we were just stopping overnight after our long day passing through the Kanmon Kaikyo, it was a convenient port. It was the actual holiday of Children’s Day and the marina office and sailing club were both closed. But soon a family, returning from an outing on their boat, came over to welcome us. They were members of the Hibiki Sailing Club and presented us with a burgee!

6 May
0645: Off the dock – Murotsushimo Marina. Motoring in rain & fog, then it cleared & fine sailing the last half of the day.
1620: On the wall – Hagi fishing port.

Hagi was the capital of the Chōshū Domain for over 250 years. The samurai who ruled the area were in great part responsible for the Meiji Restoration which brought Japan under a central government that embraced the new technologies of the Western world.

As soon as we had Migration settled on the wall, we headed for an onsen not too far away. Since everyone is nude in an onsen, photography is not allowed. However, the men’s side was empty, so I was able to take a few photos.

The old part of Hagi, close to the castle ruins, was where the samurai lived. There are still many beautiful old homes in the area; all with protective walls.

We were impressed by the elderly Japanese riding their bicycles all over town — usually with the seat very, very low.

Hagi had many nice historical edifices and some very pretty areas, but it also felt a bit run down and seedy. The casino didn’t add much to our impression of the less-interesting part of town.

Outside of town is the famous reverberatory furnace. After reading the plaque several times, we still don’t quite know what it was. But it was once important. And it makes a good backdrop for cartwheels.

Alene was planning to ride her bike to try to fill one of our propane tanks. Izumo-san, a local man who had come down to look at Migration, said it was too far on a bike and offered to give her a lift. Unfortunately, both propane shops in town rejected our tanks, saying the fittings were incompatible. We knew this was not true as we’d already filled our tanks several times in Japan. The problem was, it is actually illegal to fill a foreign tank and the proprietors, sometimes willing to break the rules for gaijin, were embarrassed to break the rules in front of a fellow Japanese.

As so often happened, meeting Izumo-san led to an unexpected adventure…

From Alene’s journal:

We had planned to leave Hagi but the forecast was for 30+ knots starting midday, so we chose to stay.

Izumo-san showed up to release our lines and wave goodbye. When we told him we were staying, he made it clear that he wanted to be our tour guide for the day. He spoke almost no English, but we managed to communicate with our broken Japanese and sign language. He took us to some viewpoints, to a dam, to a wind cave, and to a pond where we were supposed to feed the fish, but the birds were quicker. We drove all over the area — all in the pouring rain. Yet another thoughtful local who wanted us to see the best of their little piece of Japan.

We returned to Migration in time to watch the front arrive, and to put more lines on when the 40-knot gusts started to slam into us. Another very busy day.

10 May
0640: Off the wall – Hagi fishing port
1620: On the wall – Yunotsu fishing port after easy, fast downwind sail. Absolutely fabulous 10 hours of sailing today after waiting out the front which brought favorable winds that allowed us to sail DDW with sails wing & wing at an average of 6.5 knots. We surfed in the double digits several times throughout the day. The sailing was so fine that we didn’t mind the rainy grayness & fog. Sure wish we could sail all the way to Alaska in those conditions!

ADR’s Journal: We are in a very small village called Yunotsu. We’ll stay here a day, then continue on north. We hate to have to move so quickly through this beautiful & untouristed part of the country, but we know we’ll regret it if we don’t give ourselves ample time for Alaska.

How right Alene was. Nearly everywhere we stopped, we were surprised by what we found and wanted to stay longer. The tiny town of Yunotsu was a perfect example.

But first, as was often the case, we spent several hours taking care that Migration would not be damaged by the wall we tied to.

ADR’S Journal: We’ve been on walls all along this coast (instead of on docks), & we hate it. It’s very stressful, what with the tide changes & the surging both from wave action & the local fishing fleet coming & going. Even the special giant fenders we bought for Japan are not big enough sometimes, & they are taking a beating. The walls are encrusted with mollusks & have big black vertical rub rails intended for fishing boats. It’s tough on our topsides.

We took the train to Nima where we’d read there was a museum with the largest hourglass in the world. It was interesting but all in Japanese so a bit frustrating — though we could speak a little, we knew only a few kanji characters (one of the 3 alphabets used in Japan), and so could read hardly anything unless it was written only in hiragana and katakana.

However, in a nearby park we found an incredible slide! No one was there, and it was free! We love Japan!

We love Japan!

ADR’S Journal: When we returned, the Coast Guard, Customs, & Police were waiting for us. We haven’t been bothered by officials for quite some time, so they made up for it by being especially officious, decidedly nosy, & not as ultra-polite as usual. They asked a million questions & stayed forever, clearly trying to think up more questions. But again, we can’t complain, because we haven’t had that many official visits; some boats do more position reporting & consequently have officials waiting for them at every port.

When they finally left, we took a nice walk on a beautiful mossy ridge above town. We stopped at the tourist office on the way back & were told that we were very lucky because there was to be a special showing of the Kagura traditional dance performance that is usually shown only on Saturdays. This was to be a free event because dignitaries from Hong Kong were in town. Wow! We had read about the Kagura & there were posters all over town; I had said how disappointed I was that we were a couple days too early…

… And it was spectacular. I wish I had taken a photo of BB with his mouth hanging open in astonishment, but I was too busy being astonished myself & trying to remember to snap a photo every so often. It was a snake dance, with 4 guys in giant snake costumes, & another man in traditional kabuki-style dress. The 4 musicians were children aged about 8-13, & we only discovered at the end that all the actors were also young— boys about 14-17. Remarkable. It was so well done, & so exceeded our expectations. We had thought it might be like Noh theater, which can be slow moving & rather boring; however this was enthralling. The snakes writhed all over the stage & intertwined their big paper bodies, & even flung their tails into the audience. There was quite a bit of audience interaction, the snakes with their red eyes coming off the stage & advancing on audience members, snapping their jaws. I might’ve been terrified if I was a child. We haven’t been to as many cultural events as I’d like in Japan, so it was a wonderful surprise & truly fortunate that we happened to be there for it.

12 May
0555: Off the wall – Yunotsu fishing co-op. This was the most uncomfortable wall we’ve been on since Yakushima. Not well protected from the west winds. Surgy. Took us 1.5 hours to set up lines & fenders. Then constant adjustments.
1720: On the pier – Sakaiminato ($20/nite)

We had quite a few gray and hazy days along the west coast although often the sailing was very good with a perfect breeze from astern. But we had to motor most of the day to Sakaiminato. The coast was rugged and green, with cliffs plunging into the sea, and there were more seabirds than we saw anywhere else in Japan.

Sakaiminato was a quick stop for us… we were only there for one night before moving on; such a short time that we didn’t even take a photo!

13 May
0805: Off the pier – Sakaiminato fishing co-op. Gray day, but fine DDW sailing most of the day. Beautiful sunset.
1740: On the wall – Tottori (best wall ever!)

From ADR’s Journal: Another grey day, but fine downwind sailing. Eight and a half hours brought us to another quick stop in Tottori where we found one of the easiest walls to tie up to. Some are so rough and difficult but this one was nicely designed with no lip or metal edges. Plus the waters were calm as we were far up a channel.

Shortly after we arrived a man came by to see Migration. It turned out that Kita-san was the mayor of the small community. He pulled a harmonica out of his pocket, and while we shared a drink on deck and admired the sunset, he played us a few songs.

Have we mentioned how much we love Japan?

14 May
0530: Off the wall – Tottori. Slow DDW sailing under sunny skies
1744: On the wall – Ine (OK wall)

Ine is a tiny fishing town on the north coast of the Kyoto Prefecture. Though only a 2-hour drive from the famous city of Kyoto, and 58 nautical miles due north of the Ichimonji Yacht Club where we stayed near Kobe, it feels like a different country.

The town is known for its funaya wooden houses built over the water that incorporate a “garage” for the owners’ fishing boats. It’s wonderfully picturesque.

We bicycled around the coast and then hiked to the top of the the hill overlooking the town. There, we met Jun, a Chinese woman working in the tourist office.

Jun was fascinated when we told her we had sailed to Ine so we invited her to see Migration and she decided she would give us a tour of the town.

We departed that afternoon for an overnight sail to Wajima. Less than 24 hours in Ine, but, as usual, we were busy and had a great time.

15 May
1440: Off the wall – Ine. First overnight sail in 10 months.
Good sailing throughout the night. Motored less than half the way.

16 May
1700: On the wall – Wajima Marine Town. A low wall that looks like a dock. Expensive, but all money spent in Wajima is credited against the docking fee.

Many of our Japanese friends said we should not miss stopping at Wajima –a town known for its traditional lacquerware and beautiful neighboring rice fields.

While walking around town, we stumbled upon Juzou Shrine, one of the most beautiful we’d seen. Our visit was made more special thanks to Noto-san, the daughter of the priest in charge of the shrine. Though it was late in the day, she turned on all the lamps and invited us in.

When Noto-san asked where we came from, we told her about Migration and invited her to visit. Like her father, Noto-san is a Shinto priest. When she stopped at the boat the following morning on the way to her shrine, she was wearing her priest’s robes. After a tour of Migration, we walked together to her shrine: a beautiful modern building in the middle of town — the exact opposite of her father’s very traditional shrine. Then we went on to visit the Asa-Ichi morning market on the same street.

Just near the marina is the Kiriko Museum which contains Wajima’s floats used during the summertime festivals celebrated in many of the region’s towns.

Kiriko are huge lantern floats that are carried in a procession through the streets. They are stunning; this was one of the coolest museums we’d visited.

Noto-san wanted to show us the attractions of her hometown, so we arranged to meet the following day for a tour.

Our first stop was the Wajimanuri lacquerware factory, where we were given a private tour and learned about the complex process of creating lacquerware. This gave us a whole new appreciation for the utensils and plateware we’d been using all throughout Japan.

We visited the Senmaida terraced rice paddies before going to shop for sake and then to the supermarket for provisions.

As a thank you for the tour, we took Noto-san and her adorable daughter Chitose-chan to dinner. We couldn’t believe how well behaved her one-year old daughter was.

More beautiful sewer covers!

We were shocked at the mistreatment of the ocean by many Japanese mariners. It was common to see styrofoam fenders (styrofoam!) covered with cheap plastic. All deteriorating and adding to the garbage of the seas. It was so strange (and sad) since the Japanese are otherwise highly dedicated to keeping their country free of trash. Sailors, please don’t do this!

18 May
0515: Off the wall – Wajima Marine Town
Able to sail about half the distance offshore to Sadoshima
1630: On the wall – Sadoshima

Our 0515 early morning departure from Wajima allowed us enough time upon arrival in Sadoshima to run to the ferry terminal and arrange a rental car for the following day.

Sadoshima is big and very beautiful. We went to a sake brewery, found snow in the mountains as we hiked through ancient cedar forests (where hiking sticks are waiting in a rack at the beginning of the trail), visited a 19th century gold mine, walked along the rugged coast, and at sunset, found a beautiful temple with a 5-story pagoda which we had all to ourselves. Incredible.

From ADR’s journal:
For an early birthday gift, BB got me exactly what I wanted: a lesson in taiko drumming. This island is where the internationally-renowned Kodo performance group is based and they offer workshops at their school.


It is exhilarating beyond description. Both of us said, immediately after the workshop, that if we were in one place for a long time, we would both take up taiko.

It’s surprisingly physical!
It’s invigorating!
It’s powerful!
It’s super fun!
It’s a full-body workout!
It’s truly satisfying!
Hitting something as hard as you can, & getting such a gratifying noise as a result…. well, it’s just wonderful.

Our sensei for the class, a young man named Yonu, asked where we were from, so we explained that we live on a boat. He was fascinated, so we invited him for a visit. He came by Migration later that evening for dessert and o-cha (tea). Not only did he bring the o-cha, but he also brought his Japanese flutes, and performed a spontaneous flute and singing concert, just for us. I told Yonu-sensei that I loved the sound of the flute, so he gave it to me. I need to remember to not admire things too much so that people don’t feel obligated to gift them to us!

We rode our bikes around the area near the port. There’s a beautiful eco-park to walk around but the main entertainment is watching the tourists in the takaibune – little row boats that look like wash tubs.

21 May
0515: Off the wall – Sadoshima
Delightful beam reach all the way across to west coast of Honshu. Sunny, warm, flat water sailing. Can we please sail like this all the way to Attu?
1455: On the wall – Niigata

We were only stopping in Niigata because it offered a mildly convenient point to rent a car for some important inland travel.

In 1979 my sister, Marcie, was working as a belly dancer at a resort hotel at Lake Shirakaba in Japan. She died there in a fire at the age of 23. I knew I couldn’t leave Japan without visiting the hotel.

Niigata is a large busy port and we had a long 2-mile motor through the channel to an abandoned wharf we had heard about.

It took us hours to tie Migration to the very rough wall and put out enough fenders and chafe gear to keep her safe while we would be gone.

Our all-important Pactor modem — which allows us to receive weather forecasts and send email via our HAM radio when far out at sea — had stopped working. The manufacturer said the problem was caused by a bad capacitor and it was an easy fix… provided we could find the capacitor.

Sometimes things just work out wonderfully…

Searching the internet (not always easy given the language issues), we were able to find a tiny electronics shop in the town of Nagaoka that was actually on the way to Lake Shirakaba. We left early to be there when they opened. The owner had the correct part and soldered it in place for us!

We drove on, sighting the Japanese Alps through the haze and arrived at the Ikenotaira Resort Hotel in the afternoon.

We only stayed one night… that was enough. It was an emotional visit. Afterwards, I put together a web page for my family to share my experience. If you are interested, you are welcome to visit.

One last note: The aloe plant that hangs above Migration’s nav station was grown from a shoot of an aloe plant that belonged to Marcie. That aloe has traveled many thousands of sea miles with us.

On our way back to Niigata, we stopped at the small town of Obuse where the great artist Hokusai lived for several years. We visited the museum dedicated to his art.

A quick stop at the supermarket (much easier to provision with a car) before returning to find Migration just as we left her.

The next morning, emotionally exhausted, we headed back out the long channel.

24 May
0938: Off the wall – Niigata
Fine sailing but autopilot failure meant hand-steering much of the way.
Calm in the a.m., so motoring after a very black night.
25 May
1700: On the wall – Fukaura

As had happened at several of the ports on the west coast, the police visited immediately upon our arrival.

The previous year we’d been able to avoid most of these time-consuming official visits because, when asked for our next port, we told the officials that we weren’t sure as it depended on the weather — which was true. However, on the west coast we had a schedule to keep and there were far fewer ports to visit. The officials at one port would call ahead to the officials at our next port to make sure they were ready to ask the same questions we’d just been asked at the previous port. But the redundant questioning was usually done politely.

Our gooseneck broke during the overnight sail from Niigata so we spent part of our time in Fukaura having it rewelded and working on our autopilot problem. We were still able to do a bit of sightseeing — which, as was so often the case, was fascinating.

28 May
0400: Off the wall – Fukaura
Very fast – 10+ knots because of current — beam and aft quarter sailing in fog & 2m seas. Hit 13.2 kts in Hokkaido channel!
1700: On the wall – Hakodate, Hokkaido

Honshu to Hokkaido: Officially in the North

We set sail from Fukaura very early as we were 80NM from our destination of Hakodate, across the Tsugaru Strait, on the northern island of Hokkaido. Usually 80 miles would be too far to sail during daylight hours, but the currents rip in this part of the Sea of Japan and we timed our passage to make good use of them.

Those currents had us zooming at 11+ knots and we made great time under the (fairly typical) grey skies. We found a spot on the wall of the quay just ahead of s/y Bulle — a French boat with a family aboard who were also heading across the Pacific.

Being on the wall at a very touristy spot in Hakodate, and flying our US flag, meant we received a lot of attention. When we weren’t in the middle of a project, we’d invite anyone aboard who was interested in Migration.

Preparations, Projects, Russians, & a Birthday

Most of our time in Hakodate was spent preparing the boat for the serious voyage across the North Pacific to the Aleutians. We needed to deal with the HAM radio and autopilot issues that had recently cropped up, plus we wanted to make sure Migration was well provisioned and shipshape.

This could not have been accomplished without the helpful assistance of Mizuno-san.

Mizuno-san and his wife, Sachiko-san, are talented jewelers and have a store in the shopping arcade built into the historic warehouse buildings right next to where Migration was moored. All boats that arrive in Hakodate know–through the grapevine–about Mizuno-san. He is the ambassador to all sailors; he speaks perfect English, is on excellent terms with the officials, and knows where to get most anything fixed. He helped us extend our visa, receive packages of parts, fix our HAM radio, and much, much more. We could not thank him enough.

We needed to top up our diesel tank, so Mizuno-san made the arrangements. Fueling in Japan was almost always wonderful and easy. The truck shows up at the quay, the operator — wearing white gloves — makes sure there are no spills and, when finished, presents you with a gift! Alene usually does our fueling, but in Japan, they could be trusted to do the job right.

Since we planned to be in the remote Aleutians for some time, we provisioned up… including many of our favorite Japanese foods and beverages.

In between projects, we’d often walk across to the arcade to buy croissants or ice cream. It was a great place for people watching.

Because Hakodate is only about 400 nautical miles from Vladivostok, it makes a good cruising destination for Russians. We had a little party with some Russian sailors on a neighboring boat.

When Kodama-san of IYC shared information with us about sailing the coast of Japan, he’d told us to contact his friends Moto-san and Yumiko-san in Hakodate. When we called them, they immediately invited us for a day of touring the area.

Moto-san and Yumiko-san had sailed their boat across the Pacific in 2007; over 4,000 miles non-stop from Japan to San Francisco! They are very impressive sailors.

We had a great day together visiting all the tourist sites and sampling the excellent local ramen. A couple of days later they invited us to a delicious dinner (with incredible Hokkaido-brewed sake) at their home. What a wonderful couple!

Alene’s birthday is June 10th. Since we would be at sea on that date, I asked Mizuno-san to make a reservation at a nice restaurant so we could celebrate early. Mizuno-san, Sachiko-san, Moto-san, and Yumiko-san joined us for the celebration. They even brought gifts and a beautiful cake. And, in typical Japanese gifting fashion, when I went to pay the bill, Mizuno-san said it had been taken care of. He “allowed” me to pay for the drinks. Again, the generosity of our Japanese friends was overwhelming.

Waiting for a Window

We were finally ready, but the weather wasn’t. It’s important to leave Japan with the best possible forecast as the last thing we wanted was to get slammed by a low pressure system coming down from Siberia.

Mata ne… or Sayonara

When children study Japan in grade school, they almost always learn that konnichiwa means hello and sayonara means goodbye. However, you rarely hear sayonara used in Japan.

If you are saying goodbye to a friend you might say mata ne or jaa nu (see you soon). Sayonara is only used when you will not see someone for a very, very long time. There is a strong sense of finality to the word.

Unfortunately, the time had come for us to say sayonara.

5 June
1134: Off the wall – Hakodate
Departing Japan after exactly one year. Moto-san & Yumiko-san waved until we were out of sight…

On June 5th, we cast off the lines and headed out into the Tsugaru Strait, turning our bows westward to face the North Pacific. We were nervous as the North Pacific has a fierce reputation, yet excited as the Aleutian Islands and Alaska were our destination.

We were cold, too. Summer in the North Pacific is not warm.

But mostly, we were grateful. Japan and her people had touched us like no other country we’ve visited. Our decision to sail there was one of the best we’d ever made.

Less than a dozen sailboats visit Japan each year. Why do they stay away?

One hears that it is expensive, bureaucratic, prone to typhoons, difficult due to the language, and simply not an easy place to cruise. And it’s not exactly on the way to anywhere else that most sailors want to go.

I admit much of that is true.

Yet the power of Japanese hospitality and the persistent (and often insistent) generosity of those we met made the challenges melt away.

The country is exquisitely beautiful. The culture, captivating and rich. The cuisine, certainly one of the most interesting and delicious in the world.

But more than anything, the good-natured force of friendships offered to us gave our nine months in Japan a dream-like quality… as if we were being lifted and carried on an adventure by thousands of kind and caring hands.

And indeed, we were.

Thank you, Japan.
Nihonjin no tomodachi, domo arigato gozaimashita.


Mata ne… we hope.

Be good. Be safe. Have fun.

Kindness will never be wasted in any way.
-Japanese Proverb

1,125 nautical miles traveled this period
46,115 nautical miles aboard Migration since leaving Long Beach in June 2005

Do Good

This update we’re highlighting something that will not only do the world good, but may improve your personal life as well.

Watch these two films — both available on Netflix.

My Octopus Teacher will remind you of the beauty, richness, and intelligence found in nature.
The Social Dilemma will, we hope, inspire you to change and protect the world, and preserve our mental health.

Please watch, and think hard about the decisions we make and how they affect our future.

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