Culture shock!

Sun 6 Jun 2004 17:10
6th June 2004. From the island of Shikoku in southern Japan

Dear All

'Hundreds of thousands of people who arrive in Japan each year go through an
experience that is the equivalent of suddenly being struck deaf and dumb.
They go from being literate - even brilliant - in their own culture to not
being able to speak, understand, read, or write the language of their host
country, and to being equally ignorant of the nonverbal language of Japan as
well. If this situation continues for any length of time, the experience
results in a trauma known as culture shock - which in extreme cases can
cause serious mental and physical damage; sometimes even death.'

A stern warning indeed, given in the introduction of our Japanese phrase
book. And probably one to which the readers of our that book would do well
to pay attention to, since it is virtually useless. Happily however, we are
able to announce that we are obviously made of sterner stuff and so far have
not shown any of the obvious signs of trauma or death.

Our introduction to Japan has been pleasant in the extreme and we are
enjoying every moment of it. Strangely, it all feels rather like home, with
the scenery very reminiscent of southwest England, and all the trimmings of
a developed society. The language barrier is nothing more than delightful
when people are so friendly and it is surprising what great conversations
can be had by simply bowing and laughing in equal measure.

We arrived at Naha in Okinawa Shima in good condition after the six day
passage from the Philippines. The famous Kuro Shio current, reputed to be
one of strongest and most constant ocean currents in the world, varied from
its usual pattern and headed us at up to two knots for the last part of the
trip, which has since become par for the course. Okinawa contains the last
remnants of the US occupation of Japan after the war, in the form of several
huge US military bases and, as it is also a top Japanese tourist
destination, the city airport handles about ten jumbos and forty F-16's per
hour. The noise is indescribable. By contrast, once in town, the silence is
striking. Even as the masses of scooters and taxis purr passed the
beautifully engineered exhausts reduce the traffic noise to a murmur. In
comparison to the Philippines, it was like being transported to a space city
with gleaming high rises, immaculate streets and the silent monorail
whirring people from place to place.

Everyone was extremely friendly and the customs officer even turned up after
hours with all the pilotage information he could find on Tokyo Bay and the
marina there. In fact it seems that gift giving is the Japanese equivalent
of a hand shake. We were presented with Japanese biscuits, Japanese alcohol
(very like ready mixed gin and tonic) and a strange Japanese hot delicacy
which seem to be spam sushi. But the crown of all gifts came from an
onlooker whom Peter happened to ask if he knew where we could fill our gas
cylinder, which he did not. About half an hour later the man reappeared with
a bag of fruit and veg and a camping gas stove with six cylinders of gas.
It must have cost him about £50 and he did not stop long enough for us even
to say thank you. He arrived, handed me the two bags, and left almost
without a word as if afraid we might not accept them. We never saw him
again and didn't even know his name.

We left Okinawa bound for Amami O-shima, carefully watching the progress of
typhoon Nida which was over the Philippines and looked likely to re-curve
and head for Japan. Oshima Kaikyo (the strait to the south of Amami O-shima)
has endless nooks and crannies and we had a lovely time exploring three of
them looking for a good place to hide from Nida, which seemed likely to
track uncomfortable close. In Koniya (the local fishing port) we met Kasai
Yasuo who not only arrived bearing flowers, but also had a storm mooring
which needed a bit of work but would be safe for us to lie on during the
typhoon. We spent a day retying the three risers and generally improving
the mooring and then sat and waited. In fact Nida tracked about 150 miles
south of us and in our incredibly cosy protected hole we felt nothing more
than zephyr. Still better to be safe than sorry.

Amami O Shima is (like everywhere else) volcanic with dense forest covering
its peaks, but near the coast it is farmed and we set off around the country
lanes in the drizzle looking at such familiar things as farmyards, cattle,
wild goats and orchards. We could almost have been at home. The national
parks make it possible to head into the interior and do some hiking through
the woodland. In Amami we climbed Mount Yawan (694m) through the advertised
"stifling crowded subtropical forest," absolutely alive with outsized
spiders and insects, to the pretty shrine on the top.

Yakushima, an overnight passage north, is a very majestic towering volcanic
island rising to nearly 2000m and home to the huge Yakusugi cedar tree, many
of which are over 1000 years old and some over 3000 years. Before we set off
up the mountains we decided it was really time to try an onsen (Japanese hot
spring bath) which, unlike hot baths we are used to, are primarily for
washing and (certainly in the ladies) gossip. Although it was all in
Japanese, it was unmistakably the Japanese equivalent of a mother's meeting.
But lovely, relaxing and impeccably clean. The next day we caught the early
bus into the interior and spent the day in the mountain mist and heavy rain
hiking through the spectacular forest in the Yakusugi Land National Park.
The swirling mist and cloud chased around the ancient cedars and the roaring
rivers smashed their way underneath the hi-tech rope bridges. We climbed to
the top of Mount Techu (1497m) whose summit is a vast peaked granite bolder.
Although we could sense there must be a spectacular view beyond the sheeting
rain and thick cloud, we only got to see the wonderful flowering wild
rhododendrons and stunted trees. As we sailed north the next day the cloud
cleared momentarily and we saw Mount Techu's unmistakable peak.

Walking around Isso village on Yakushima's north coast was much more sedate
and we headed down the coast road to find a shrine in a cave on the Yahazu
peninsular and a waterfall which was perfect for showering.

We left for the trip up to mainland Japan after a morning spent topping up
with food and water in the nearby fishing harbour. The weatherfaxes showed
nothing more exciting than a large high moving slowly over us from China and
pushing the remnants of a frontal system ahead of it, so we headed off
expecting a fair breeze and then increasing calm. The wind held good all day
and overnight we made excellent progress but by dawn we'd been headed and
the wind picked up. We pushed offshore hoping to find the elusive Kuro Shio
current and as the wind continued to rise we made tracks towards South
America rather then Honshu. The next two days were spent hard on the wind in
25 to 35 knots flipping into and out of the Kuro Shio, which runs rather
like a meandering river. The three knot stream is like an escalator but it
is only about sixty miles wide and flanked by equally strong counter
currents. Given a strong wind in opposition, the choice was either
exceptionally slow progress in the wrong direction when outside the current,
or a flat out rollercoaster ride over huge seas and in almost the wrong
direction when in the current. We alternated between the two, and spent a
good deal of time hove to when cooking, eating, bailing or taking a
breather. The wind picked up further and held from the bow as a surprising
new low formed on the old weather front, and gradually more and more bailing
was called for. The months of tropical heat and sun had taken their toll on
the window caulking and other fittings and the unprecedented beat to
windward was allowing a lot of water below through the heads sink drain.
Katharine was suddenly surprised to hear water sloshing around in the bilges
and a crisis emerged when we discovered water appearing above the sole
boards. A change of tack and some pumping solved the problem but as the wind
was forecast to continue we altered course for Shikoku where we arrived,
typically, in bright sunshine.

Thus we have spent the last three days cleaning the bilges and all the tools
that are stowed nearby, fixing the fresh water pump (again) and re-bedding
all the forward windows and the forehatch. Some laundry still remains to be
done tomorrow and I am intending to finally getting round to fitting a
high-level bilge alarm, but after that we should be ready to continue north
towards Tokyo. We have heard that the new heater has arrived there, which is
just as well since we are expecting the sea temperature to drop fifteen
degrees over the next two weeks as we head up to Hokkaido.

But otherwise all is very very well and we send our love to everyone at

Take care and take it easy,


Pete & Katharine