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Sailing to the heart of Japan

by Nick Coghlan 9 Jun 22:58 UTC

A Cruising Adventure and How-To Guide

Canadian diplomat and long-distance cruiser Nick Coghlan had been curious about Japan ever since his father, a veteran of infantry fighting in Italy and Greece, confessed to him a dread of being sent to the Japanese front when the war in Europe ended in the Spring of 1945.

Sailing to the Heart of Japan is a voyage of personal discovery as the author's preconceptions are challenged. It's also a unique account of one of the world's least-known but most attractive cruising destinations.

Starting from New Zealand, Nick and his partner Jenny navigate Bosun Bird, their Vancouver 27, north through Pacific Island nations where memories of war linger. They make their landfall on Kyushu, in southwestern Japan. Over a period of fifteen months, they venture to the remote and depopulated archipelago of Goto Retto in the East China Sea, through Kanmon Kaikyo narrows and into the island-studded Inland Sea.

Everywhere - from Kagoshima to Tokyo Bay - Bosun Bird and her crew are met with astonishing kindness and thoughtful conversation. Travel by 'yotto' allows them glimpses of an enigmatic land that are rarely offered to more conventional visitors.

Setting the scene

Nick wrote in to us saying, "Many of those who set off from the west coast of North America to cruise the South Pacific under sail fret about how they will return."

"The logical route is one that is rarely taken: via Japan and Alaska. Sailing to the Heart of Japan - just published - is an account of such a voyage: north from New Zealand through the islands of the western Pacific, fifteen months in Japan, then the long haul in westerlies to Alaska."

A detailed appendix to the main narrative includes a wealth of practical advice, notably the GPS coordinates of 60+ anchorages/mooring locations visited by Nick and Jenny Coghlan.

Ed: So that would be tick, tick, tick, and here below is a an excerpt to get any cruiser inspired!

Bosun Bird's last call before making landfall in Japan was the US territory of Guam. Nick and Jenny had been warned that cruising in Japan would involve an inordinate amount of bureaucracy. The paperwork began here: they had to spend a whole day tracking down a fax machine (who has faxes these days?) so that they could advise the Japanese authorities of their exact arrival time in Kyushu - 1425 miles on.

Bosun Bird departed Guam in company with Phil and Mel on the US-registered yacht Mira, but soon fell behind. At night on watch, Nick and Jenny struggled to master some basic Japanese but consoled themselves with the advice of a friend, who said that the phrase "Sou Desu Ka" ("That is so") would cover most eventualities.

They chose as their landfall the port city of Kagoshima on the basis of the only other account they had read of cruising in Japan: Hal Roth's Two on a Big Ocean (1972).

Excerpt: Chapter Four - Kagoshima and Kamikazes (Southern Kyushu)

Massive Sakurajima volcano almost blocks off the head of Kagoshima Bay. Beyond the narrows, between its slopes and the city of Kagoshima on the western shore, the water becomes shallow.

In 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, noticed a superficial resemblance between the strait and the lagoon behind it, and the main anchorage of the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Oahu.

Realizing that the key to a successful attack on Pearl would be ensuring that his air-carried torpedoes did not bury themselves in the unusually shallow muddy bottom before hitting their targets, he had his torpedo bombers practice for weeks at Kagoshima until they chanced on the perfect modification that allowed for shallow running.

Jenny wasn't impressed that I'd been boning up on my history. She was looking anxiously ahead through the binoculars.

"Do shut up! We need somewhere to tie up."

We scanned the heavily built-up shoreline south of the narrows. There were miles and miles of dockyards at the foot of high, green hills and no obviously friendly place for a small yacht to moor. The giveaway would be a cluster of masts. I took the binoculars from Jenny, but there were none to be seen. We slowed down.

"Why don't we try Mira on the radio?" I said. "They've been here a couple of days already. They must have sorted things out."

Jenny went below, grumbling that we never keep our radio on in port, so why would Phil? But he came up almost immediately once she made a hailing call on Channel 16. There were advantages to buddy-boating after all, I had to admit. Phil read out to us his precise GPS position, Jenny wrote it down and quickly located the spot on both our chart plotter and the paper chart I was following in the cockpit.

Soon, we were heading into a narrow concrete cut, deep in the harbor, with sailboats moored to the vertical walls bows-in. The harbor walls were so high, a precaution against typhoons, that their masts could not be seen from outside.

Phil hailed us and guided us into a slot formed by large foam buoys while simultaneously asking about our passage and telling us about Mira's. Distracted as I was by his chitchat and the perplexing mooring arrangements, it was ten minutes before I noticed a line of ten or a dozen smartly dressed men on top of the harbor wall. Some were in uniform with peaked caps, some in bright blue blazers, all wore white gloves.

"Looks like the Toyota sales team's here!" I said to Jenny, in poor taste.

Then, more seriously, I wondered if we were interrupting some sort of civic parade. Finally, I recalled that by an amazing coincidence we had arrived in Kagoshima exactly when we had randomly indicated we would in that fax, sent so long ago from Guam. This must be the official reception committee.

They all came aboard in pairs, as if boarding the Ark: two from Immigration; two from Customs; two from Agriculture; two from Health... and two from the Police. All were exquisitely polite but serious. Their English was rudimentary but comprehensible. All had multiple forms for us to fill in.

One of these, the appropriately named General Declaration (with which we would later become excessively familiar), was put before us three or four times. Several people wanted to photograph our passports, then us, and then the boat. Lightheartedly I asked:

"Can I photograph you as well?"

There was immediate consternation, that stereotypical indrawn breath, and quizzical glances were exchanged. The answer was obviously no. Japanese officials had to be taken seriously. We became worried when one pair, whom we had deduced to be from Immigration, politely gestured us towards their car, waiting on the quayside; the officers' English did not run to explaining what this was about. We looked to Phil, who just shrugged with a smile.

We were whisked into Kagoshima, clearly a very large, modern city. The half-hour ride was exotic and foreign, not so much because of the modern buildings but because we could not understand a single word on the street or shop signs. Our guides in white gloves pointed out landmarks, looking at us questioningly when not sure of the English word:

"Here is train. Here is convenience store. McDonalds. Sento. You know Sento?"

We shook our heads negatively. More consternation.

"Is bus."

Another silence on our part. There were no buses anywhere in sight.

"Sento? Hot water!"

Ah! Bath! A public bath! The Japanese obviously had problems with the "th" sound.

More paperwork at the office, more General Declarations to be filled in. One question, written in both kanji16 characters and English, asked for my mother's unmarried name. The official's finger lingered on my written response; he looked up at me and, speaking in Japanese, asked what seemed to be a question. Jenny caught my eye and shrugged almost imperceptibly.

"Sou desu ka," I said after a pause, with more firmness than I felt.

He frowned, looked stern then nodded. I smiled triumphantly at Jenny. There were low bows; a "Welcome to Japan!" and we had officially arrived.

We had a surprise when we got back. Sitting in the cockpit was a six pack (cold) of Asahi beer, a small package of assorted sushi, a watermelon, and a bag full of chocolate chip rolls. There was still a price-tag on the watermelon: we weren't yet sure of the exact value of the yen, but it seemed to be the equivalent of at least USD20.

Phil smiled: "It's just passers-by... The word was out that there were new arrivals... It was the same for us."

About the author

Nick and Jenny Coghlan have covered 70,000 miles at sea in two successive Canadian-registered 27-footers: Tarka the Otter (an Albin Vega 27) and Bosun Bird (Vancouver 27). In between voyages, Nick worked first as a teacher, then as a diplomat; his final posting was as the first Canadian Ambassador to the new Republic of South Sudan.

Nick is the author of three books covering his diplomatic career, and a fourth - Winter in Fireland: A Patagonian Sailing Adventure - that follows Bosun Bird through stormy waters off Cape Horn. January 2025 will see the publication of a further sailing book by Nick: Under Wide and Starry Skies - Fifty Sailing Destinations in Seas Less Travelled (Adlard Coles, UK).

More information and contact - Website and Twitter: @NicholasCoghlan

Sailing to the Heart of Japan is available in hard copy and as an e-book at all the usual outlets, including Amazon.

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