Kasasa Ebisu hotel & sightseeing

From Makurazaki, we made our way to Kasasa along the west coast of Kyushu. We did not go there for the tiny town, but rather to experience some luxury for a change in the form of a floating pontoon (made for sailboats rather than work boats) and a proper shower! We had read about a hotel called Kasasa Ebisu which is sailboat friendly, and in fact has a pontoon specifically dedicated to sailors (you can just pay to moor, no need to get a hotel room). When we entered the small bay in question (for which there were no details on our C-Map chart plotter or anywhere else), we could see the hotel on the port side, and also a concrete pier which was “T-shaped” as the pontoon was meant to be. Lo and behold, it was not a floating pontoon at all though! It was extremely shallow around the pier, and we also could not manage to see any cleats onto which we could tie our lines, so we were rather puzzled as to how we should be able to secure the boat onto the pier. Just when we started to discuss our plan B for the night, a lady came running from the hotel and yelled that it was the wrong pier, and we should continue further around the corner. There was indeed a floating pontoon there, and one of the three spaces for boats was free. Later, we saw that the concrete pier that we had tried to tie ourselves onto first was almost completely submerged at high tide. Talk about mistakes!

While the cost of the mooring was rather high, it did include access to a Japanese onsen at the hotel. Not only did we have a shower, but we were also able to experience a hot spring bath with a lovely sunset view over the sea. We wanted to rent a car, and an employee of the hotel, Yamasaki-san, said the hotel would drive us to the rental shop the following morning and pick us up in the evening. At exactly 9 am as agreed, there was a nice car waiting for us, and Yamasaki-san himself drove us to the rental shop. It was much farther to drive than we had expected – 30 minutes from the hotel, meaning that Yamasaki-san had to spend 2 hours in total for the drop-off/pick-up service. When we tried to compensate him – and the hotel – for the ride, he refused to accept any payment. Knowing that we might be thirsty when we return, he had even bought us a bottle of peach water each. Such a lovely gesture, and such a kind man. When we left the Ebisu hotel the following morning, he came to the pier to wave us goodbye.

With our rental car, we first drove to Chiran where there are seven perfectly preserved samurai gardens that can be accessed in the old samurai quarters. After that, we visited the nearby site of the former airfield and training area for kamikaze pilots (or “tokko” pilots as the Japanese say). There is a museum at the site with, among other things, a very touching display of last letters (with their English translations) written by the kamikaze pilots. There were people crying when reading the letters, and we do not wonder why. To us, the visit not only highlighted one historical aspect of World War 2, but also gave us a very interesting glimpse into the Japanese culture and character. Finally, we drove to an observation area in Kagoshima City that has great views over the city and onto the Sakurajima volcano. It was a perfect day, naturally finished off by a visit to the hotel’s luxurious onsen.

Kasasa Ebisu hotel. This is NOT the pier to moor onto!
Now this is more like it – a floating pontoon. Fortunately there was still space for us.
We reserved a table for dinner at the Ebisu, and were given a fantastic Japanese style private room. The food was very good.
One of the seven Samurai gardens.
Kamikaze plane which had been lifted from the sea.
Kamikaze pilot barracks. The pilots spent their last night in such quarters.
View over Kagoshima City with the Sakurajima volcano in the background.


Waterspout scare on our way to Kyushu

As detailed in our last post, we had to leave Yakushima on Monday morning due to the spring tide during which our boat would have hit the bottom of the port basin. The wind forecasts promised a nice 15-knot wind from the southwest, which was great, and the Japanese marine forecast called for fair weather with “isolated thunderstorms”, which is pretty much the normal forecast on most days in this subtropical area during the summer. As we’ve mentioned in a previous post, while nobody likes these isolated thunderstorms, with some alert helmsmanship we are mostly able to sail around them. That is what we expected to be able to do also on Monday, and even though the skies seemed gray, we took off a bit after 6 am in the morning having first waited out one rain shower.

The journey started well, as it seemed that we would be able to follow a course that would see us duck the imminent rain clouds. However, only an hour into the journey, the skies grew darker and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find a way around the gray clouds. We did our very best, but the sky nevertheless offered us bucketloads of water and some excitement in the form of lightning and thunder. We threw our handheld GPS, two of our three handheld VHF radios, two of our mobile phones and our satellite phone into the microwave just to be on the safe side – even though everything and everyone inside our boat should in theory be safe from lightning as our boat acts as one big Faraday cage, boat electronics are notoriously very vulnerable to breakage due to lightning and we wanted to ensure we had backup systems still functional in case lightning struck (the microwave acts as a further Faraday cage keeping the smaller equipment intact – or so the theory goes).

We had already endured several hours of on and off thunder, lightning and rain – not to mention minimal visibility, so our radios were in full use that day – when we noticed a strange formation beneath one of the storm clouds. It was one of the scariest natural phenomena to witness from a boat at sea, a waterspout! Waterspouts are tornado-like formations reaching down from a cloud and stirring up the water that they touch. Fortunately the “waterspout cloud” was some way away from us and we were going in a different direction. However, as the conditions for the formation of waterspouts appeared to exist in the area, we kept a worried eye on the sky for the rest of the way. It was a very stressed-out and exhausted crew who finally arrived in Makurazaki on the Kyushu island in the evening!

Due to the terror of that day, we would have liked to stay in Makurazaki for one full day and get some rest. We tied onto the only floating pontoon in the port (due to the tides, floating pontoons are hugely better than being tied up to a concrete wall) and secured our lines and fenders in the right position, only to then be told to move onto the concrete wall because fishing vessels would use the floating pontoon to unload their catch during the night. This request was of course understandable, and working boats naturally always should have priority, but somewhat to our surprise, we were also told that despite the space all around us, we could stay tied up to the concrete wall for “one night”. Makurazaki has been the only place so far where we have not felt welcome. We slept there for the promised one night, and said goodbye to the port the next morning.

Gray skies looming over us…
…and here comes the rain.
This we did not want to see…
…a waterspout!


Yakushima island

Events are completely overtaking our blog writing again. We are currently already three port stops from Yakushima, but we’ll try to write in chronological order now, so let’s start with our three-day stop in Miyanoura port on beautiful Yakushima island.

We arrived in Miyanoura port after a lovely overnight sail from Naze. The wind was fresh and from an angle that is very comfortable for our boat (broad reach), so apart from the heat and humidity that we cannot get away from, the conditions were fantastic. Big Sis was on watch until 2 am, so Mr Finn and I had plenty of sleep that night too (thanks Big Sis!). The Miyanoura port, as most ports that we stop at, is a working port but a quiet one. We knew from the sail blogs of those other rare sailors that have ventured to Japan in earlier years that they had stopped in Miaynoura, so we had a bit of a shock when we made our way into port as our depth sounder showed that it was almost too shallow for our boat (none of the many charts we have showed the depth of the port). In fact, we soon realised that it would indeed be too shallow three days later at spring tide! However, we had no choice but to stay at that port, as that was the only port that we had permission for from the Ministry of Transport (having driven around the island, we later realised that there weren’t any better locations to moor anyway). We quickly decided that we would use the spring tide as our “deadline” to leave Yakushima, since the forecast was for good weather too. The other option would have been to sail out of the port before the low tide, and wait around for the water level to rise again, but we didn’t fancy having to dock in the port again, as it was a bit tricky the first time around.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Yakushima island – a World Heritage Site – is extremely beautiful. Its natural wonders include the “Yakusugi” cedar trees, which at best are 3000 years old. These trees grow in the mountains, and as the island cannot really be appreciated from the towns dotting the coastline, we rented a car and drove up to the mountains. The vegetation in the mountains reminded us of New Zealand with its moss-covered trees and rocks, streams, waterfalls and the smell of lush greenery. It was also 5 degrees cooler in the mountains than at the seaside, something we truly enjoyed!

We were also lucky enough to encounter lots of wildlife on Yakushima. A sea snake (Banded Sea Krait) decided to take a liking to our boat and kept swimming around it for a couple of hours. A land snake (Tiger Keelback) also chose to show itself on our way around the island. We saw several monkeys (Yakushima macaque) and deer (Yakushika) up in the mountains. The monkeys on this island apparently sometimes ride on the backs of the deer, but that is something we did not manage to witness. In the evening, on our way back to Miyanoura port, we stumbled upon the magical sight of hundreds of crabs crossing the road on their way to the beach – Mr Finn had a hard time trying to avoid crushing them!

We also had the unexpected pleasure of witnessing a live space rocket launch in the area. We got a warning about the launch on our Navtex boat messaging system, and of course then wanted to see the rocket, as we had never seen a live launch before. Apparently, it was a big thing for the Japanese too.

We also got a great send-off from Yakushima. The evening before we were due to leave, we returned late to our boat and slightly wondered why there were cars parked everywhere in the otherwise quiet port. We showered and were ready to go to bed (we had a 5 am wake-up the next day) when we suddenly started to hear the sound of fireworks. We went up into the cockpit and enjoyed a fantastic 20-minute fireworks show for which we had an absolute prime view. We later learnt that the fireworks marked the end of the Goshinzan festival, and the Japanese take their fireworks very seriously. The fireworks we saw in Okinawa a few weeks back paled in comparison with the Miaynoura display. When the fireworks ended and the cars started to leave the port, we felt very privileged to have been able to watch the show from our very own boat-home!

Depth sounder shows 2.2 metres of water, and we draw a bit over 2.1 metres. The next day low tide would have been 10 cm lower, so time to leave!
Sea snake next to our boat.
The Tiger Keelback snake, which gets its venom from the toads it preys on!
Yaku macaques seemed to all be either sleeping or picking lice off each other.
The island is the habitat of a variety of sika deer, the Yakushika.
Mountain vegetation.
Navtex warning of rocket launch.
Space rocket successfully launched!
Fireworks seen from our cockpit in Miyanoura port.



Quick update

We didn’t write an update from Naze on Amami O-Shima island as expected, because we ended up only staying there for the night. After a long and fairly tiring day spent sailing there, we arrived only to find that there was no good spot to dock the boat. The fishing harbour was absolutely full (apart from the bit of the harbour area that was too shallow for us) and the commercial port we could not dock in as it is in active commercial use. We had to retreat back from the designated small boat harbour into a separate basin inside the main breakwater. None of our maps showed the depth of the basin and there were no boats in it, so it was with great trepidation that we made our way inside, moving as slowly as possible. The depth was sufficient, but it was otherwise a difficult spot as the wall was not even and we had to keep adjusting our fenders and fender plank during the night as the tide changed. It was out of the question to leave the boat for any longer period. What little we could see of Naze didn’t particularly appeal to us (but it may be because we mainly saw the industrial area next to which we were docked), so we were not too sad to leave again early in the morning.

After two days and one night at sea, we then landed on Yakushima island. This island is absolutely stunning. Apart from the narrow coastal belt, the island is all mountains. It rains a lot here (the island was surrounded by clouds when we arrived even though there were clouds nowhere else) and the vegetation in the mountains is therefore lush and green. I could write a really long post the delights of Yakushima, but unfortunately it is late and we need to wake up at 5 am tomorrow morning to continue our journey onwards (partly because the port here is so shallow that we would hit the bottom tomorrow due to the extreme low tide), so I will need to leave it for next time.

Yakushima island
Miyanoura port town on Yakushima



Lovely Oshima Kaikyo area

The three typhoons passed without incident although Typhoon Noru, zigzagging across the Pacific in an unpredictable manner, did have us on our toes until the last moment when it finally took a more northerly turn. We are now on our journey onwards, hoping that there will be no more close calls with typhoons. We arrived in Koniya port on the southern side of the Amami Oshima island a few days ago, having sailed from Okinawa for two days and one night. The journey here was otherwise uneventful, but two heavy thunderstorms that we passed on the way did give us some chills. It is one thing to be in a marina surrounded by other boats (particularly as there are always boat with taller masts than ours) in a thunderstorm, but quite another to witness one at nighttime when alone in the middle of the ocean. Both times, we took evasive action since we could see the lightning miles away in the dark, managing to stay out of the way of the storm, but it cost us dearly in terms of nautical miles and time. Also, we were more tired than normal after an overnight sail when we got to Amami Oshima, since we didn’t really manage to sleep due to the roar of the thunder. Well, apart from Lil Sis who slept like a log and probably wouldn’t wake up even if we were actually struck by lightning.

Amami Oshima differs greatly from the other, rather flat islands that we have visited in Japan in that the terrain here is very hilly. The southern end of the island runs parallel to the northern end of another island, Kakeroma-jima, and the sheltered fjord-like water area in between called “Oshima Kaikyo” is a fantastic location for sailing. It is also an astonishingly beautiful and lush area. Koniya town has a very welcoming “visitor’s berth” in the harbour area for boats like ours despite the fact that it is a small, very non-touristy town. There is no fee to berth, and boats can get water from the park next to the concrete berth. A supermarket and some small local restaurants are within walking distance. The only thing missing from the setup is a place for rubbish disposal. We asked the town’s information centre where we can leave our rubbish, and they said there is no place to leave the rubbish and that we would have to take ours with us. Hopefully there is a place to dispose rubbish in the next port of Naze! This is not the first time that we have been surprised by the total lack of rubbish bins, let alone larger rubbish disposal areas, in Japan, but it is the first time that we truly have been unable to find any place to leave our rubbish bags.

We loved our previous location Okinawa for the convenience that it afforded in terms of shopping, boat repair and entertainment. We also met some lovely people in the marina with whom we will for sure stay in contact going forward. However, Naha and its surroundings were also very modern, and as a relatively sizeable place (not to mention its huge American army population), it didn’t have as much the feel of Japan as the other places we have visited. Well, in Koniya we are back to (what to us feels like) Japan proper. People greet us with a happy “konnichiwa” in the streets and children call out to us with a “hello” to try out their English. Here in Koniya, we have also once again experienced the astonishing friendliness of ordinary locals. Lil Sis has just finished reading the sixth book in the Harry Potter series, and when the girls saw a DVD rental shop in town, they asked us for a Harry Potter movie night on the boat. We told them that we would not be able to rent a DVD since we don’t have a local address, but they begged us to at least try, and so into the shop we went with absolutely no expectation of actually being able to rent the film. The shopkeeper soon realised that we did not speak Japanese, and that we did not have a rental membership card as required. We also managed to explain to him by way of the few Japanese words that we know, and some miming efforts, that we had arrived in town by boat. Instead of telling us the obvious fact that we did not fulfill even the smallest requirements of a rental customer, the shopkeeper slid the DVD into the box and handed it over to us without asking for any kind of documentation, and without even knowing our names. Not only that, but he completely refused to accept payment for the DVD! He just happily said “free service” and gave Mr Finn a high-five. So the girls got their movie night, and Mr Finn and I were smiling all evening too. In the morning, we returned the DVD to the shopkeeper together with some bags of sweets – and a high-five from Mr Finn – which we hope in turn made him smile.

Today, another unexpected thing happened. We woke up to someone knocking on the hull, and when Mr Finn stuck his head out of the companionway, he saw a cheerful Japanese gentleman who handed him a bag of fresh mangoes and then told Mr Finn that he would pick us up in an hour for some sightseeing. And so he did! He drove us up to a viewpoint from where we had a fantastic view over Koniya, and could also see the whole beautiful strait between Amami Oshima and Kakeroma-jima. He had brought along some ice creams in an ice box, and we stopped by a picnic area to enjoy the sweet snack. He drove us back, and refused our offers to refuel the car. He then left just as quickly as he had first appeared, but at least we had had the chance to give him some vendance or “muikku” fish that we had brought along from Finland as a tiny thank-you for the wonderful sightseeing tour and local information. Once again, we are overwhelmed by the friendliness of the locals.

The police and Coast Guard have visited us here (this is now becoming routine), and we’ve told them we are off tomorrow, so as long as the weather forecast doesn’t change overnight, we had better be on our way. We’ll try to find time to give an update next from Naze, located on the other side of Amami Oshima and a day’s sail away.

Visitor’s berth in Koniya.
Panorama of the amazingly beautiful Oshima Kaikyo. Koniya town can be seen to the left.
“Free service” with a high-five to boot!
Our wonderful surprise host laying out ice creams for us.