Legs Stretched (Friday 17 January)
Weather: mostly sunny, mild
Today's primary mission, to organise the necessary approval to proceed on the next leg of our voyage, has, somewhat to my surprise, been achieved. My initial intention was to sit down this morning and work out an itinerary from here to the next open port, Kugoshima on Kyushu. However, as I pondered over breakfast the preliminary work I had already completed prior to sailing from Australia, I decided there was not a lot more I could do without more information. What I needed was more detailed charts of the small closed ports that I wished to visit, and the Coast Guard people had told me yesterday where I needed to go to get it, a chandlery and chart agent about two kilometres away. Armed with the rudimentary map that they had provided me, and with my backpack loaded with everything I thought I might need for the day (of course I missed one essential thing), I topped up RC's food and water bowl, locked up the boat, and started the day's trek.
First stop was the post office, for ironically while Japan would be one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, the Lonely Planet guide advises that it is still very much a cash economy, so I needed to obtain some Yen. Another little oddity is that while there is a plethora of ATMs all over the city, most of them do not accept foreign debit or credit cards, but for some reason all the post offices have ATMs which do accept foreign debit cards. This essential preliminary requirement of today's plan was achieved without a hitch, apart from having a little difficulty pin pointing the location of the nearest post office using the very small scale and vague map I had been provided with.
So the next step was to get to the map shop. This was a bit of a hike but was not too difficult to find. Along the way I perused my surroundings. Certainly Naha can make no claims to charm or beauty. It is essentially nothing more than concrete, steel, and black tarred roads. Most of the buildings are blockish, of medium level height, and with nothing in the way of artistic architectural aspirations whatsoever. Perhaps earthquakes discourage city planners from reaching for the skies, the dominant primitive Babel-like ambition of most cities.
Yesterday my first observation was the number of people wearing dust masks. In fact the first person I came into contact with was wearing one, the quarantine officer. Initially I assumed this was simply part of the protective clothing worn by officers of his profession while carrying out their front line duties, namely coming into contact with potential disease carrying threats such as myself. However, last night when I went for my leg stretch, I realised that probably close to thirty per cent of people here
wear them. And later that night after I had gone to bed I awoke around two o'clock with my sinuses almost entirely clogged up, barely able to breathe through my nose. I am sure that after the last several weeks in the near dust free environment of the open ocean that I might be a little more sensitive to airborne particulates than usual, but I am inclined to think the dust masks worn by a significant percentage of Naha's populations and the response of my own respiratory system to the local environment is perhaps not entirely coincidental.
Another minor shock that my senses experienced in my short walk last night was an encounter with a store selling domestic appliances. I came across its brightly lit multi-floored facade, complete with a large red smiley face emblazoned bold and high, which I thought might be a symbol for a large supermarket, and, so thinking that the knowing of the whereabouts of a supermarket nearby to the boat might be useful, despite the fact that I had nothing fungible upon my person, I went inside to investigate. However I very quickly realised it was a store devoted to domestic electrical and electronic goods. The barrage of sights and sounds was jarring. A multiplicity of images emanated from video screens of one description or another. Even the static domestic appliances with their highly polished brightly lit surfaces glared, screaming for attention, and everything was emitting its own discordant sound. Again I am sure that after several weeks of little more than the sound of wind and waves, mostly a soft noise like lying on a cushion, that my mildly introverted nature was excessively sensitised to the dramatic change in its environment. Nonetheless I have never been to a shop where so many different noises, from stereos, from television sets, DVD players, computer screens, and indeed even the household appliances, including electric kettles and bread makers, all seemed to have a voice of their own, which, on top of the numerous repetitive promotional announcements, were all adding to the overall chaos of sound. Of course the fact that all of these sounds were in a foreign language must have exaggerated the chaotic effect, for, not being able to understand any of it, I was unable to focus my mind on any one stream of information, as we usually do in a noisy environment, so filtering out the extraneous noise.
This morning, as I opened the doors of the chandler's shop however, no such cacophony met my ears, only that dusty silence of a small well stocked shop, all sound absorbed and deadened by the numerous shelves cluttered with the still fascinating stock in trade of the seaman, separated by a narrow labyrinth of dimly lit alleys, adding to a sense of quiet and peace. Here I felt much more at home, my two favourite places outside of a well found yacht or ship are a well stocked traditional chandlery and an eclectic used book store.
Unsurprisingly, no one in the shop spoke any English so it took a while to get the salesperson to understand what it was that I was after. For a while I even thought that they did not stock the “S series” chart booklets that I needed. I think the confusion came about because the salesperson assumed I wanted something in English, whereas these chart booklets are in Japanese. The chartlets themselves however are in the international language of cartography, so they still have the most important information in them comprehensible by anyone who can read a chart. With the assistance of the salesperson's cousin on the end of the phone, who could speak English, this next step in the day's proceedings was also brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
My next thought was to find somewhere comfortable, preferable with an internet connection, to pore over the chartlets, and armed with the additional information that they provided to validate and refine the plan that I had roughed out several months earlier. But now it was getting on to one o'clock, and I knew that if I did not get to the Department of Transport with a few hours to spare before they closed that there was no way that the necessary paperwork would be completed. I decided therefore to proceed directly to the government building marked on my rough map and try and cobble the plan together from there.
This in fact turned out to be an excellent decision. It was a further couple of kilometres from the chandlery to the government building, and it was not easy to find. The roads were a maze of arcs and bends, and none of my maps were large enough to include street names, not that they would have done any good because most of the street signs were written in kanji. The only large scale map I had of the building's location was more of a schematic than a map, and I was later to realise that it barely accorded with the other two maps I had at all. I ended up sitting on a bench on a wide boulevard passing over a major road, surrounded by big named arcade style shops; Toys-R-Us, Babies-R-Us (good greif!), MacDonalds, and numerous shops I had never heard of, comparing my maps and trying to work out where I was and where I needed to go. For some reason sitting at that vantage point a building caught my eye. It was not a shop, it had in some way an inexplicable resemblance to the child-like scratchings on my schematic, and it smelled of government bureaucracy, with its numerous windows, unadorned exterior, and surrounded by purposeless covered walkways. Something unconscious in me recognised this as non-commercial. I found a way down from the high flying boulevard to the building in question, and was almost shocked to find that this was exactly where I needed to be.
The appropriate department was on level five of building 5F, and here I was to enjoy the best part of my day. The man who looked after me was Kinjo Isamu. His English was fair, and together we sat at a large table and went through my draft itinerary, comparing it with the chartlets I had purchased (in fact Isamu had his own marked up copies of these wonderful little books), along with my netbook opened to its electronic charts to help work out distances and the overview of my plan. From my perspective, while it took up a couple of hours of Isamu's time, and about an hour of one of his lady colleagues who joined us because of her excellent English skills, it was an efficient and relatively speedy process. Within a couple of hours we had worked out what I think will be an interesting and workable itinerary that gets me to the next open port of Kagoshima. I walked out of their office at a little after four with the necessary approval in my bag. I thought this a very credible achievement.
My secondary mission met with less success. It was to try and get the problems with my netbook fixed and to investigate options for getting a reliable mobile internet connection. Isamu's colleague (I never did find out her name) suggested that I go to a tourist information office located on the Naha's famous International Boulevard. Of course famous is a relative word. Seeing as I had never heard of Naha until a few months ago I would hardly describe one of its streets as famous, but then there is a whole world of people unknown to me for whom it is undoubtedly famous. according to Lonely Planet its fame springs from the fact that Okinawa was essentially demolished during World War Two, but after the war, within a very short time, this particular mile of street had become an entrepreneurial hot spot, with small businesses flourishing like wild flowers in spring. Perhaps the fact that Okinawa had become a major US military base had something to do with this dramatic recovery. Unfortunately this particular tourist bureau proved more elusive than the rest of my quarry for the day. Despite asking directions from several different people, a couple of whom seem to know exactly what I was talkng about about and where it was, I was just not able to unearth its existence. However, on the plus side, Naha city does have a public wifi system so I was able to ensconce myself in a Starbucks coffee shop and catch up on some news and emails over a long drawn out cup of bitter American coffee.
After this it was a long walk back to Sylph. I had contemplated eating in one of the numerous restaurants along International Boulevard's gaudy noisy strip of long time tourism, but I recollected a couple of quieter more authentic local places closer to home and opted to get the long walk out of the way before dining. It took me over an hour and a half to find my way back to the port area where Sylph lies alongside, and I felt very grateful when I was eventually able to sit upon a stool at a counter in a local restaurant, its menu on display in the window in the form of plastic replicas of the real dishes. While such displays amongst many people might not be considered terribly high class it was certainly useful when I needed to order. Apart from the display in the window the only menu was written in kanji on long strips all over the walls, of course completely indecipherable to me. So to order the waitress and I simply walked outside where I pointed to the dish that I wanted, a prawn and vegetable stir fry over rice. At 750 Yen, after a long tiring but ultimately successful day, it seemed very reasonable indeed.
After my meal I backtracked a little to a small supermarket next door to the restaurant, purchased a bottle of Chilean wine, an apple, and some eggs, being about the only food items that I could confidently recognise as being palatable and gluten free. The wine has no doubt helped lubricate my typing fingers (without I hope inducing too many typos), hence the detailed account of today's proceedings, and here we are. Other cruisers who have blazed the trail to Japanese waters have warned of the bureaucracy that must be accepted here, but have also highlighted the courtesy, patience, and hospitality of the Japanese people that make it more than worthwhile. My experience of today has done nothing to subvert these claims.
All is well.