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Japan – Land of the Rising Sun

A culture as old and rich as Europe, with modern infrastructure that surpasses first world countries, combined with Southern Island beaches to rival the best of the Caribbean’s, and the Inland Sea that betters the best of the Mediterranean, makes Japan one of the most exciting cruising locations ever.

Captain’s Log by Captain Nigel Beatty

I first went to Japan in 2001 after a yacht owner asked me to fly down there and deal with a 37m yacht he had just bought from a Japanese owner. We organized a freighter to ship the yacht to the States, but it was going to be over two months before that left. At that point I struck on an idea. I called the owner and said to him “how often are you going to have a yacht in Japan? Let’s go cruising!” and by the end of that week I was at Narita Airport (Tokyo) waiting for him and his wife to step off the plane.

I joined the yacht in Japan; however when visiting, yachts generally approach the islands of Japan from one of two different directions.

From the North as they journey down to East Asia from Alaska, the first port of call is sometimes Hakkodate on the northern island of Honshu, although many yachts decide to journey an extra day and a half down to Yokohama and Tokyo to make preparations for arrival.

From the south as they make their way up via Micronesia from Australia and New Zealand, or from Hong Kong, the first port of call can be one of many, however most yachts prefer to base in Osaka, as it is easy for guests to fly in and for the yachts to get ready.
The best and most established cruising routes are between Tokyo and Okinawa in the southern islands, including the Inland Sea (Seto Nai Kai) which is a completely protected piece of waterway, around 250 NM long, with hundreds of islands in it. These routes afford guests the opportunity to see the best of Japan, with easy access to transportation for land excursions.

We were docked at Yokohama Bayside Marina which has a four to five metre depth, is well protected and can take yachts up to 65 metres. After two days I moved the yacht to a specially arranged berth called Pukarin Sanbashi outside of the Intercontinental Hotel in down town Yokohama. This is a spectacular place to dock and spend a few days. This area can accommodate yachts of up to 150m easily.

Japan’s cities are amazing. So many people and virtually no crime; it makes for a very comfortable environment for guests. While they were there I also arranged for them to take a trip to Nikko in the mountains. This is where there is a cluster of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that date back centuries; they spent two full days there. After Nikko we left Yokohama with our all Japanese crew to cruise the south coast of Japan towards the Inland Sea.

My first mate, Matsuda-san (and nick named Matchan) spoke some English and he was my lifeline to get things organised. Most people in Japan say “Hello”, “How are you”, “Welcome”, “Nice to meet you” in very good English; but venture into conversation and they just nod and smile and say “yes” in acknowledgment of what you’re saying, even though they do not understand a thing! They are far too polite to stop an English speaker in full babble. To tell someone that they do not understand them can be a mortal etiquette sin! Though the politeness at first is overwhelming, when you actually slide yourself into this culture you suddenly realise that it is one of the most civil societies on the planet.

Our first stop was on the western side of the Izu Peninsula. As you round the western side, Mount Fuji comes into view dominating the horizon even before the coastline of mainland Honshu is seen. You can see Fuji from the eastern side too, it is that tall! We anchored in Uchira Bay and the owner invited all crew to have dinner on the back deck as the sun went down by Mount Fuji.

The next day the owner went ashore early and took a trip to Hakone. Hakone is very famous in Japan and the old Samurai houses still stand there. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and stands in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Afterwards they went to pay their respects to “Fujisan” by going to the 5th station which is at the tree line, 7500 ft altitude, and observing the Shinto shrine dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the daughter of the God of the Mountain.

That night, we cruised to Wakayama at the entrance to the Inland Sea. Wakayama has great ‘onsen’ which is the Japanese name for volcanic hot springs. They are a little disconcerting sometimes for westerners as Japanese people all go in naked, but you can come by secluded areas to bathe. At Wakayama we docked at Marina City which can easily take yachts of 60m or more.

It is important to retain the services of an agent that understands yachts. The shipping industry is huge here, but shipping agents will treat yachts the same as a 300 meter cargo ship, so employ someone who has experience in the professional yachting world.
Paperwork to enter Japan can be complicated. Work with your agent a couple of months before you plan to arrive for submission of documents for pre-approval. He will need to have an understanding of the Japanese departments that this paperwork has to go to. With so much shipping in Japanese waters the government is very strict in all vessels following the correct procedures, however a good agent will get all of this done for you, keep you posted with the right information and it will not feel difficult.

As a yacht cruises through different regions of Japan you must clear out of one area and into another. This can usually be done with a phone call and a fax of ships paperwork by your agent, so it is important to keep in contact with them on a daily basis as you cruise.
I enlisted the help of a yacht company called Creation Marine in Osaka to help me and they were brilliant. At that time there were no yacht agents in Japan. Creation did all of our shore-side work for us, checking us in and out of various regions with customs and coastguard as we moved about Japan.

From Wakayama we moved on into the Seto Nai Kai (the Inland Sea) to Kobe where we docked at Shin Nishinomiya Marina. Again this marina was massive with a large visitor pier and an average depth of five metres. Although full of smaller yachts, it can easily take yachts of 60 to 65 metres. The guests disembarked here for four days. First mate ‘Matchan’ had arranged for them to take a private tour of Kyoto, experiencing tea ceremonies, Geisha, and traditional theatre. Then he had arranged for them to go to Nara, a stunning mountainous countryside area, and stay in a luxury Ryokan (traditional Japanese house) for a few days before returning to the yacht to continue cruising.

This gave us some time off. We ventured into Kobe and had dinner out every night. Luckily of course my whole crew was Japanese and they knew the best places to go. The best restaurants were Izakaya, which is almost like Japanese Tapas, they serve all sorts of small dishes from a massive variety of Japanese foods. The prices were fabulous too. Four of us would eat and drink for three or four hours and generally the bill was around 30 or 40 US dollars equivalent, per head for some of the most exquisite food I have ever eaten. You’d pay thousands for this in New York, London or Paris!

After the guests returned we carried on cruising, now in the completely protected inland sea. Ships were everywhere and it was like rush hour in the Straits of Gibraltar in certain places! We cruised under the longest suspension bridge in the world, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, and on for about six hours to the island of Shoda Sima. All of the Islands in Japan are mountainous and Shoda Sima looms ahead from 30 miles away.

The Seto Inland Sea has a ‘warmer than Mediterranean’ climate and Shodasima’s olive groves along the hillsides are testament to this. We went to the large natural harbour on the south side of the island and docked at a commercial dock (which was the cleanest commercial dock I have ever seen). This is a very local island and in the village nearby, the owners visited a local restaurant that was almost unchanged for hundreds of years, enjoying REAL Japanese food, not western Japanese food, and sharing the experience with real local Japanese people – fantastic.

Our guests were quite fit and up for some exercise, so our next stop in the Inland Sea was on the northern side of the island of Shikoku. Takamatsu is a fairly large city,and close by is a shrine to seafarers. You have to climb more stone steps than you can shake a stick at mind you, however if you haven’t got the strength or fitness you can hire a porter who will carry you up there on his back! They must hate overweight western tourists. At the top you can pray (if you have any breath left) and clap your hands a few times and then pay the local priest some cash for a Japanese charm made of wood and handwritten, protecting your vessel from the dangers of the ocean.

I asked the priest “so this will protect us out there on the ocean, will it?” He said, “yes definitely”, I said (jokingly) “So if something does happen to us, do I get my money back” to which he roared with laughter and said, “If something happens to you, it would have been a lot worse if you hadn’t had my charm onboard!” I guess you can’t argue with that!
From Takamatsu we cruised to Hiroshima, somewhere where I planned to spend a few days. I had arranged to be here during the summer festival of Obon, when the Japanese welcome back the spirits of their ancestors for a few days and have all sorts of celebrations (and most of them get hilariously drunk). But first we took the opportunity to visit Hiroshima City and the Atom Bomb Dome in Peace Park. This is a structure that was just about the only thing left standing when the bomb was dropped and is probably the simplest and most evocative monument to a moment in time that changed the course of human history, and a truly humbling experience.

Across the water from Hiroshima is Miya Jima, an island with a very famous shrine out over the water with a massive “Tori Gate” out in the water. It is here they have one of the world’s largest firework displays and we anchored the yacht with hundreds of other boats and joined the locals eating great food and drinking plenty of sake.

The morning after the festival we weighed anchor and cruised around to Kure, a smaller city only 30 minutes away. Here we docked at a small marina with one long pier. We were only supposed to stay for one night, but the owners loved the place so much we stayed for three. They had discovered a small restaurant district that they were just blown away with so they had to go back for the next two nights, much to the delight of the chef who had three nights off in a row!

From Kure we cruised on through the Kanmon Kaikyo straights between the Island of Honsho and Kyshu, a very busy shipping lane with ripping currents, and out of the Seto Nai Kai to Hakata, Fukouka and the marina at Marinoa. We only stayed here one night as the owners wanted to see more nature, but the marina is brilliant and the staff is wonderful. The marina can definitely take large yachts. We cruised on to some stunning islands on the western side of Kyshu called Goto Retto. Here we discovered some marvelous anchorages and the guests snorkeled and dived and made good use of the watersports gear. The water here is warm with coral reefs and the climate is not unlike Florida.

After two days on anchor we did a long overnight run to Kagoshima. I had meant to stop in Nagasaki and explore more of the coastline, but time was running out for our guests and they had to get back. I think I could have spent another two weeks on the western side of Kyshu and in Kagoshima, and, after looking at the charts more, I could spend months exploring the Inland Sea, the cruising potential is incredible.

The owners flew from Kagoshima to Tokyo where they spent a night before flying back to the States.

On the way back to Kobe, we stopped and waited until shipping time at Creation (our agents) own little marina in Osaka. The marina was old wooden floating docks and pretty junky, but when we arrived they threw us a massive barbecue party and opened the Tiki bar that they built on one of their docks. A decade on and they are totally renovating the marina there to be a superyacht facility in its own right. I have told the owner to make enough electricity available for one or two large yachts and he has promised me he would, so large boats can come in the future.

While in Japan we used pre-paid mobile phones for our communications, mobile phones will work here if they have 3G (WCDMA/UMTS 2100) capability and your mobile provider allows international roaming. GSM does not work here. Pre-paid phones/SIM packages are the next choice. SIM cards alone are not available in Japan.

V-SAT Internet is available through MTN. Also air cards are available through yacht agents that work at broadband speeds and through the mobile networks, and can be rented for unlimited use for the equivalent of around US$100 per month.

Bunkering can be arranged through your agent for any part of Japan, however best prices are in Yokohama/Tokyo and Osaka. Fuel is tax free for foreign registered yachts. We used a fuel barge in Yokohama, and then topped up again from a fuel barge in Osaka, both arranged by Creation.

As mentioned, Japan has a very modern marina infrastructure that can cater to vessels of up to 150 metres for dockage. They do not, however, have electrical installations for the large yachts so 99-100 per cent of the time you will be on generator. Water is often free at marinas and other docks. There are literally thousands of anchorages all over Japan throughout the thousands of islands. One captain described it as “Croatia on acid!!”

A huge shipping industry in Japan means that navigation is definitely exciting! Although it is protected from the Pacific Ocean, tidal flows can rip through the islands of the Inland Sea with amazing ferocity and forming good sized vortexes so caution is necessary. These areas are well charted and documented and navigation aids, including massive electrically-lighted signs usually show current speed, direction, increasing/decreasing, etc. Navigational aids are outstanding and always working. English speaking guides and experienced pilots are available. Charts are available through a local navigational supplier, Cornes & Co. in Yokohama and Kobe.

Tip: buy the Japanese Coastguard charts, they are cheaper than Admiralty and are identical.

The charts have English and Japanese on them.

Just before we were about to ship the yacht, Typhoon Pabuk hit Japan. Creation had everything on hand however and had us in a flooded dry dock, roped off in all directions and about four miles up a river in Osaka. We hardly knew that a Typhoon was on us!
Since that first time in Japan I have been back 15 times in eight years and usually spend my summers here working and cruising on Japanese owned yachts, and even now have a Japanese wife! The country is still mesmerising to me even now that I speak a certain amount of Japanese and know the place well. It is without doubt one of the greatest cruising experiences I have ever had; Culture, rich scenery, and so much to do!