24. Kagoshima to Okinawa
The archipelago that extends from the main Japanese island of Kyushu in a southwesterly arc all the way to Yonaguni Island, just 60NM from Taiwan, covers a distance of 650 nautical miles. From the 15th to the 19th century it was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Although the Ryukyuan people once fended off a demand by Kublai Khan to submit to Mongol suzerainty, over time they became increasingly under the influence of China. This changed in 1609 when the Shimazu clan from Satsuma, Kyushu, successfully invaded the islands. Throughout all of this, people successfully travelled and traded back and forth amongst the islands. A strong current flows north along the coast of Taiwan and then peels off north east and flows along the island chain and past the east side of Kyushu. This is called the Kuroshio, or black current, and is the second strongest current on the planet, after the Gulf Stream. A few years ago I was paddling off the coast of Okinawa, which is the largest island in the archipelago, with a number of Japanese friends and we were talking about the Ryukyuan people. I wondered how they had managed to sail south, against the current. It was during fall and there was a strong northerly blowing at the time. I think that it was Kasahara-san who said something like “well, the wind blows north east for most of the year but reverses in the fall and blows to the south west, like this. We could do it.” For centuries and centuries the Chinese, Japanese, Ryukyuan and all the other people in the area used this knowledge. Sail north in summer, south in winter. And that is how the idea was born that we would sail and paddle all the way from Kyushu to Taiwan in the fall, with the wind, hopefully, but always against the current.
October 8, 2007, Camp 1, Ohama Beach, east side of Kagoshima Bay
Daisuke Akatsu dropped us off here from the airport. It’s been a whirlwind. Literally too, as Typhoon Krosa is supposed to be bouncing off China and heading our way. Category 4 or 5 could delay us quite some time. Matsomoto-san and Okusan drove here from Fukuoka with Shiro-Ose. Dan is still raving about his yakisoba. Today we drove to Sata and walked to the lighthouse in driving wind and rain. Looks typhoon ish.
October 11, 2007
Still here. Matsamoto’s dog, Rocky, is such a horny dog. He tries to mount all our legs, but Shiro is his true love. Incessant, unstoppable. Today we packed the kayaks, organized, threw the disc in the water, swam, ate a great lunch at Taka’s family restaurant buffet. Right now, Rocky is trying to mount Taka’s arm.
Plans change. Nakamura-san’s mom is getting better, and he will be joining us with Jun Saito on the 13th. This made me happy. I first met Nakamura-san ten years ago in Kerama, Okinawa. He is a compact man with a quiet, almost saintly disposition. For years he has run a popular kayak touring business out of Naha, including with our double kayaks and sail rigs. He is also a master Sabani sailor. Sabani is a small paddling/sailing craft developed in the Okinawa Prefecture consisting of a thick timber bottom scraped out of a single log, and cedar side planking. With its curved, rockered bottom and high stern it handles large following swells with ease. It can be tippy and tricky to sail. If fitted with an outrigger a large sail can be deployed. These are based on Chinese junk designs and are both efficient and elegant. For his Feathercraft fleet Nakamura-san had designed and sewn by hand some smaller junk sails. I had brought a batwing-style sail designed by a Vancouver sail maker and was interested in comparing its performance with Naky’s. I learned early in Kerama that this gentle man was deadly with a fish spear. He never missed.
Everyone is talking about the Kuroshio (black current that swoops up in a north easterly direction from Taiwan, past Kagoshima and north up the coast of Japan) but nobody seems to know how strong it is.
October 13, 2007
Campsite beside highway near Nagasaki Hana. Oddly quiet beside the road, we are not supposed to be here, so we pitched tents after dark. Commando camping.
This is our first night without hearing the fake happy tones emanating from speakers all over the place. At our first campsite at Ohama it was Edelweiss every 6 am. Also, bright lights in campsite all night long. That’s why sleeping near the highway is better.
A few nights ago a Canadian (Derek), who owns an English school in, I think, Taramizu (sounds like the dessert) and two Americans came up to our camp to visit, at night. One of the Americans is renting a 150-year-old wood house near the campsite. He talked about the bugs in the house, about spiders, bigger than an open hand, bigger than Tarantulas (true, I think) and about foot-long centipedes, big suckers (also true). He carried on. “They bite. It’s the most painful thing you could (hopefully) endure. They are the most agile insect, they attack birds.” On and on. (Mukade wari des)
Meanwhile Evan was drinking this in, as well as his beer, imagination in overdrive. The visitors left and Evan and Dan went back to our cabin. When Evan picked up a bag an 8-inch-long centipede squirted out. I arrived to find him swinging furiously but ineffectively with a mop while Dan was laughing uproariously. I managed to impale it repeatedly with the mop handle against the log wall of the cabin and after a while it stopped writhing. Whew. What timing. The guy also said that when you kill one, its mate comes looking for revenge. Evan had to be reassured about that.
Evan with local man
During that night Shiro shared a story about when he was in Mongolia. He has a strong, broad forehead and powerful, stocky body. He told us that when he was riding a horse there, people kept asking him for directions. They thought he was a local. He is Japanese but jokes that he is Mongolian. He’s a character and natural born leader. (I first met him years ago when he worked for our distributor in Tokyo, but once he was married, he and his wife bought a 150 year old traditional house near Lake Biwa. It has cedar sides that are burnt to preserve them and an original inside area for farm animals. Now he has a thriving business selling, repairing, and touring with our kayaks.)
Ose,-san, Evan, Nakamura-san, Doug, Saito-san. Photo by Dan
October 14, 2007, At sea at last!
We’ve been out from Kaimon Mountain for all of a couple of hours, left at 7:25 am, up at 5, good for us. Light, 8-knot breeze, down from 12 knots. Still moving over 3 kn, feels slow compared to the 4.8 we were doing initially. Mondanai. I’m scribbling these notes in the bow, Nakamura-san is steering, running before the breeze with Sabani sail, a junk design that Nakamura-san downsized to fit with our little boats.
This morning Naky was raring to go, we shot off the beach like a cannon. So here we have the only guy in the group who doesn’t know how to use a GPS in the lead. But with me using my GPS and him setting a corresponding compass course we actually set a pretty straight line. I think, also, that Naky could find his way to our destination, though sight unseen, without any of these aids, just like the old days. He’s a really good sailor.
Dan’s now ahead, he’s thrown up a spinnaker, always wants to be ahead. We are gaining on him now with a jib up. I think that our junk sail may be faster than his bat sail type that we’ve been using up till now. You can also reef it to any size you want.
I like Jun Saito, the new guy (to me). 40, looks younger, short, fit, big arms, a writer/journalist. He’s hiked around Shikoku two times, visiting all the Buddhist temples along the way, it’s a classic hike. He’s also hiked a lot along the west side of South America, from Peru to Patagonia.
Nakamura-san, Ose-san, Saito-san
October 15, 2007, Io Shima
Yesterday we had a fair breeze for about three hours and then it died. As we paddled, we kept hoping that the wind would pick up and eventually it did, but in the wrong direction, directly in our faces. We paddled for another seven hours. We were slowed down by a current averaging maybe 1.9 knots, not good. At that rate we would have arrived here at around 11 PM. But slowly the wind backed until it was westerly, on our beam and we were flying. I reefed the sail one bar, and this seemed to work better. Shiro was out of control some of the time, his sail seemed hauled in too close. When we finally rounded the west cape on Io Shima, in the final twilight of the day a flood tide surged out to greet our incoming wind and created huge waves, which threatened to swallow us whole. Shiro said later that he thought he was going to die! Naky and I cut the point too close, I think that we had language issues on what to do. In the pitch black we had to make our way through a bunch of reefs. I hate arriving in the dark. Better to leave in the dark and arrive in the morning.
Higashi Hotsprings on Io Shima
Now I know why these guys wanted to come here, despite the longer crossing. This place is a jewel. Big smoking volcano, we had a great swim and bath at the Higashi Hotsprings overlooking the sea and dived into the sea to cool off. Tremendous. Roads through bamboo forests.
Our camp is right at the foot of a great cliff face, with the ubiquitous highway stapled to the top, going: nowhere? To the cape for a view, I guess, from a town of just 30 at present. All the young ones gone.
This was, 200 years ago, a penal place for samurai. Many famous warriors were interned here as the government increasingly broke the old guard down. It was also a fishing village, but most of the fish are gone and with high fuel costs, casting a line or net is uneconomic. There are a few lonely fishing boats here, but they catch mostly for local consumption.
Now it is 5:33 pm, the sun has been below the west cliff for some time, it’s just on the volcano. We have toilets, a shower, a cooking area, it’s total.
Dan and Shiro Ose enjoying the local food.
Our group posed for a photo for a Kagoshima newspaper. The coast guard saw it and have become very concerned, phoning Shiro many times. They are warning us that the Kuroshio is very strong right now, running at 4 knots. A fisherman who went to an island near here couldn’t get back against it, they said. On the other hand, there was supposed to be a lesser Kuroshio yesterday and wasn’t. Certainly, our Japanese hosts are conservative and tend to mull over these things endlessly.
My question to my Japanese friends was always: how, without motors, did the Ryukyuan people do this? And why not just try? My point was that if the current is too strong, you’ll just end up close to where you started. O.K. Maybe a little farther east. As long as you avoid the tropical storms and typhoons that pop up with increasing regularity, what’s the problem? Read the weather forecasts and go. They didn’t see it that way.
For thousands of years seafarers along Asia’s eastern shores have known that prevailing winds blow north in summer and turn south sometime in September or October. Sure, we were trying, as planned, to go against the north-flowing Kuroshio current. And we knew that if we had strong winds from the north filling our sails, we would likely encounter some big seas as the wind worked against the current. But that is what I thought we signed up for.
Of course, I didn’t, as a gaishin (foreigner) have the coast guard breathing down my neck. And I was ignorant of local conditions. In the end we paddled to Kuchinoerabu shima and then over to Yaku shima where we took a ferry first back to Kagoshima and then on to Amami shima. Then we paddled to the big island of Okinawa.
At Kuchinoerabu we were invited aboard a research ship by the captain. The crew offered us a great feast and endless shochu and whisky. They just kept pouring. While the young guys were doing their thing, I asked the captain about the Kuroshio. He took me up to the bridge and showed me a graph of the currents that they had recently logged. Finally, some real data. I took a photo of his screen. Not so strong, these currents.
Meanwhile my two boys got drunk. Really plastered. As we were leaving, Dan tried to steady Evan as they staggered along the gangplank. I stood, helplessly, below the gangplank, meaning to catch Evan if he fell off. All 240 pounds of him. As if.
Yaku shima gyoku. Photo by Nakamura-san
At Yaku Shima we landed at a gyoku (fishermen’s wharf). These have concrete ramps for pulling up your boats that are as slippery as a sheet of ice. I fell as soon as I stepped out of the kayak and smashed my groin against the kayak cockpit rim. My crocs were useless, so I took them off. That’s when I cut the balls of my feet as I slid down into the water over shells. Shiro has found that the only effective footwear for this are neoprene boots with felt soles. He sells these. They are not particularly good for rocks, mud, or wet grass, though.
My cuts are healing, which is a sign of good health, as are Dan’s. Evan remains, as always, unscathed.
Some of the locals at Yaku Shima told me that the coral is surviving locally much better than at Kerama, where I have been before. The water is a little cooler and hasn’t been inundated repeatedly yet with super warm water. Maybe there is hope for coral at slightly higher latitudes, at least until rising acidity gets it. It is wonderful to be paddling this beautiful water, but we haven’t seen any sharks, whales, or fish yet. Barren. It is easy to not notice what you don’t see.
October 20, 2007, Near Ukejima 28.04, 129.3
Left Amami, approaching Ukejima, sailing today for Tokunoshima, about 24 NM. Naky steering. I can see the other two Sabani sails, behind. Do they ever look great! Sailing in a double folding kayak of my own design quite similar in shape to the large Aleut baidarkas of old. Polynesian style outriggers. Chinese junk sail adapted by Tadaki Nakamura-san. Beautiful fusion.
Amami is much more tropical. Evan is concerned about the extremely poisonous snakes, and yes, a bite will kill you if left untreated. They have sticks placed against the shell rock walls in case you come across one. Better not to hike in tall grass.
It’s cloudy, but the water still has a more azure tinge, even when it is deep, as it now is. Seems to run purple. Yes, that’s closer.
On the ferry from Kagoshima the wind was strong-predicted NW 25, gusts above that. Pretty good seas, we all wondered how our new rigs would take that. Tadaki said that his Sabani wood mast would have broken. Why did I find that reassuring? In any event, we would run up a small jib with a backstay and hope to ride it out.
10:22: Shiro and Jun are some ways behind us. They’ve thrown up their spinnaker, good idea, we’ll see if they can close in on us. Better to be together. Dan and Evan are just a little way back, Evan steering. Dan is paddling, to catch up. Naky’s the best sailor in our group.
October 22, 2007, Okino-erabu-shima 27.37, 128.6
17:44: getting dark. Gyoko. good day today. Yesterday Tadaki Nakamura steered, today my turn. About 30 NM in moderate winds with some gusts to near 20. Main and spinnakers most of the way.
October 23, 2007
Approaching Yoron-jima. 27.08, 128.43. 2 NM. This morning, leaving, we met heavy chop rounding the jetty. Broke the leeside leeboard, screws pulled out of wood, which split. We were able to fix it using 5-yen coins, which have holes, as washers. Most of today running off wind with junk main sail and small yellow jib. Very helpful, the jib makes for easier steering.
At Tokuno-shima a guy who owns a Chinese restaurant saw us come into the gyoko, offered us his tatami room above the restaurant. That evening, all smiling in his dirty white cook outfit, he brought up some beer and sashimi: mackerel caught that same day. Dan, who doesn’t really like fish remarked that this was one of the very best parts of the journey: meeting local people, enjoying food and beer together. Even fish.
October 26, 2007, Izena-shima 26.913, 127.94
Yesterday was quite a ride. Winds forecast to be 17 NE were actually east at 20, gusts to 30. Reported 3.5 m seas. Shiro steered, as did Evan most of the way. Dan puked, poor guy. Our foot pedals slip, so Shiro steered with Sabani steering oar. We maxed out at 9.8 kn, averaged over 5. Good handling with the Sabani oars for steering, not possible with just rudder. Nakamura-san and Saito-san took a ferry from Yoron on to Naha. Maybe see them soon.
It is morning. I am sitting beneath a large, outcropped rock, in the shade, at this beautiful beach. On one side of me is a large rock towering over the beach. It is called Riku Gita ra, or “landrock” in the traditional Ryukyuan language. On the other side is the Uume Gita ra, or “searock”. In the old days, before even the Shinto Shrine came, there were gods in these rocks.
Uuma Gita (sea rock)
Good talk in the blazing sun with Shiro. For him it’s been a good trip so far, he’s impressed with the reality of sailing kayaks. He would rather do the longer crossings on another trip. He’s learned so much so far, as have I. Dan also needs to get a grip on his seasickness before we go on. He’s been puking his brains out. Yellow bile, dehydrated.
Now the water has drained from our beautiful world, no diving, reefs dry. But then I saw Shiro heading out, walking on the dead coral, so I followed, though I was able to swim through the channels, sandals on my hands, wearing flippers and mask. Lots of depth past the first reefs, cavernous. Sadly, most of the coral is dead. Still a few fish, but how many more there would be if the coral was alive!
The cicadas buzz loud here, just like the Bahamas. It’s incessant. In the distance I can see the big island of Okinawa. Nearest, Bise, is 12.5 kn away. Looks farther. Strong winds blowing across our path.
October 27, 2007, Izena Shima
Followed a whole raft of butterflies up a trail. Lots of different kinds. Took some photos. At the road saw cyclists and joggers practicing for tomorrow’s triathlon. Then I found myself wandering along old lanes, amongst Chinese graves with distinctively shaped curved tombs. Eventually down one particularly obscure lane I stumbled onto a cave opening that had been partially protected by a coral rock wall. Inside were human bones, a number of generations of family, I guess.
October 30, 2007, At Nakamura-san’s home, Naha
The day before yesterday, from Izena Shima to Bise, was calm, hot and a lot of work for just 13 NM.
We toured the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium at Motobu. It was an amazing place with huge, 2 storey tanks full of an astounding variety of fish, big and small. All of this is at great risk with the decline of coral. I was hoping to see something on the death of so much coral right outside the aquarium, but nothing. I asked Shiro if I had missed something, I couldn’t read much of the displays after all, but “no”, he said, “There’s nothing about that here.” “How could that be?” I asked several people. I was met by a wall of polite agreeableness.
Here we have threats to this vast orchestra of fish, coral, crustaceans, mammals, plankton and plants, an underwater symphony of interconnected organisms in danger of coming crashing down, and the answer was calm silence. I’m ranting. No apologies.
Yesterday we were all, of course, hoping for a favorable wind. It was our last day on the water, it was hot, and the energy seemed to have been sucked out of us. The day started with a fine breeze, and it lasted all morning, building momentum at Zanpa Point. There the tide turned against us and big slurpy waves came at us just as we surged over the dead, but still dangerous coral reefs. Once past the reefs, coming towards the beach, we could see Naky 4000 and his van. Dan immediately dove into the water and started shaking and trying to swamp our boat, so I dove and got into his. Then we both swam ashore.
Once ashore Dan and Shiro did what they do best: they wrestled. It was Shiro’s savvy judo technique against Dan’s brawn. They went at it hard, straining, rolling on the sand over and over. After a while two people dressed immaculately in white tuxedos came down and politely asked the two sand-encrusted pugilists to please stop. There was a formal wedding going on in a building overlooking the beach directly above us.
During the trip Nakamura-san became known as the Naky 4000 paddling robot. He was the most up-to-date paddling robot available, the one that never looks back. He and I were almost always in the lead, whether paddling or sailing. We were moving along as only two older guys who have lost a lot of brain cells to the sun and sea can do. We were known as kuso jijis (fogies is a polite description) and the others were Kuso gakis (punks).