I promised that we would write a proper report about our arrival in Japan, so here goes. Be forewarned, this is a very long post basically all about the port clearance process here in Ishigaki.
Japanese law requires foreign boats to inform the Coast Guard of their arrival at least 24 hours in advance of landfall. The penalty for not doing so may be imprisonment, and we have spoken to one Russian sailor who actually did end up being arrested. We were therefore very careful to inform the Coast Guard of our planned arrival already at the time when we left Aparri in the Philippines. We had little idea what to expect to happen in Ishigaki, and only knew that there would be lots of paperwork to be filled in. We had been told that the Quarantine, Customs and Immigration officials would finish work “at sunset”, and since we were arriving on a Friday (not due to choice, but because the Philippine authorities could not clear us out until Tuesday despite us having arrived in Aparri on Sunday), we worried that we would be stuck in quarantine on the boat for the whole weekend unless we got to Ishigaki on time. The last night at sea was rough, and we ended up being in a mad scramble to get to Ishigaki port on time. Ishigaki is surrounded by coral reefs, and there is nothing more frustrating than having to take your time going around a large island when you know that you had already been within a stone’s throw of the port but could not take the direct route for fear of hitting the coral. We arrived finally around 5 pm, not sure if we were too late already – in true Hitchcock style, a thunderstorm broke out right when we entered the port, and to say that we were nervous is an understatement.
When we got to the coordinates given by the Coast Guard, we were looking around for a good spot to tie up when we noticed an official-looking man standing on one side of the port. A few seconds later we realised there was also another man standing some 15 metres away to the left, and yet a third man standing some metres in the other direction. They did not seem to be waiting for a boat to pick them up, and it soon became clear that the Coast Guard had been very efficiently following us on AIS (a tracking and collision-prevention system for vessels), and all four administrative departments were at the dock waiting for us. We were obviously more than pleased about such punctuality and efficiency!
The officials took our lines and helped tie our boat onto the concrete dock. An elderly lady appeared from a car that had been waiting further away, and announced that she worked for the Quarantine department. She very politely asked if she could step on board, and whether she needed to take off her shoes. She did not speak a lot of English, but she was extremely friendly, and helped us fill in the many documents which were partly only in Japanese. Once she declared us free of diseases, we invited the other officials to board the boat, but they made a point of asking us to first lower the yellow “quarantine flag” that we had hoisted according to old maritime tradition. We lowered the flag, and hoisted the Japanese courtesy flag instead. Only once that was done, did the rest of the authorities board our boat.
We dealt with the Coast Guard questions and documents first. Where were we going? How long did we intend to stay in the country? Did we have a crew list? All Coast Guard officials were very friendly, something that we had already got a glimpse of when they cheerfully congratulated us for successfully making the long journey over to Japan in their response to our email when we were nearing land. However, they also made it very clear that we needed to obtain pre-approval to stop at most ports in Japan, and provided us with the information for how to apply for such approval from the Ministry of Transport.
Secondly, we dealt with two teams of customs officials. One team was clearly there to make sure that we would not be bringing any harmful germs to Japan. They wanted to know which footwear we had been wearing in the Philippines, and when we identified those, they politely asked us whether they could disinfect them. We had no problem with an extra shoe cleaning, of course! They asked questions about food products that we had imported and gave us instructions for how to store those (nothing was actually taken away, perhaps because we had made sure that we ate the last of any Philippine fruits before we got to Japan). The other team made us fill in a whole lot of documents, listing ship’s stores, medications and personal items that we were bringing into the country. Lastly, both teams wanted to inspect the boat. Somewhat to our amusement, one official swiped some surface dust off of a couple of places on the boat, and carefully sealed it into zip-lock bags. We have no idea what they were looking for, but it was obvious that the sample would be checked in a laboratory for either some germs or substances, or both!
Once the customs check was finished, it was already well past 6 pm. By this time, Mr Finn had been whisked off with an immigration official for fingerprinting at the nearby immigration office. We have not heard of many places where customs officials will drive you to their office to do a clearance that is your own responsibility! I was expecting that the customs officials would be in a hurry to leave once all the official work had been concluded. They had informed us that we could apply with Customs to change the status of our boat to “coastal ship”, a special category of ship that does not require further customs and immigration checks when in Japan (otherwise all of this procedure would have to be repeated in every port), and we were expecting to have to go to the customs office on Monday to fill in the paperwork. However, the customs officer offered to drive me to the building housing both the customs and immigration offices, so that I could also first be fingerprinted by Immigration, and then could fill in the “coastal ship” application. When I said I did not want to leave the girls on the boat alone and felt that I needed to wait for Mr Finn to return first, he happily chose to wait with me despite already being on overtime. While waiting for Mr Finn’s and the immigration officer’s return, he gave me restaurant recommendations and some other local information about Ishigaki. When Mr Finn returned, I was duly taken to the immigration office and then to the customs office, and my newly-made “coastal ship” application was promptly approved. In addition, I was given a local map (Mr Finn had also been given local maps by Immigration!) and many further recommendations for what to see. Not only that, but I was also driven back to the boat by a sweet, young customs officer. And it was already 2 hours past the official working hours for all of these officials! When we were finally alone on the boat, we marveled at everything that had been accomplished by these four government departments in the two hours we had been with them, and how efficiently they had handled everything. Even more so, we were in awe of their friendliness and will to help us out.
This was also not a one-off incident. Yesterday we visited the Ministry of Transport office with our “closed ports” application. The office is quite a bit from town, and we took a taxi there. Again, the officials were very efficient but also very friendly. When we were finished at the office, one official noted that it was quite far to town and asked us if we were going back to the port. When we said we were, he said he would drive us there. And so he did! There was absolutely no need for him to do so, and he went completely out of his way to do a favour for us.
All in all, there is a lot of bureaucracy in Japan and the Japanese officials take things very seriously (it is a very different approach to what we were used to from the Philippines – and, although not everyone might agree, to us the Japanese approach is much preferred). However, our experience is that if you are prepared for the paperwork and play by the Japanese rules, things proceed smoothly and you may end up getting far more from the encounter than you would have ever expected. We don’t of course know if what we have experienced would happen elsewhere in Japan, or whether the people in Ishigaki are particularly friendly, but needless to say that we currently feel very welcome in Japan and are more than happy to be here!