Journey through the Ryukyu Islands of Japan – a taste of the tropics!

Starting on the Island of Kyushu in the city of Nagasaki…where we laid over for almost three weeks in a sweet little marina/wharf smack in the center of town.

Nagasaki – a rich history of contact and interaction with Europe, its tragic fate as victim of the second atomic bomb, and miraculous resurgence since the war have made Nagasaki one of the most cosmopolitian and eclectic cities in Japan. After the Portuguese were expelled from the country in 1638, the Dutch, confined to the tiny island (and, I mean tiny!) of Dejima, were the only foreigners permitted to remain throughout Japan’s long period of self-imposed isolation. After 2 ½ centuries of seclusion, Japan gradually opened its doors to foreign trade in 1854, and Nagasaki thrived once more as a center of Western trade and culture. The Nagasaki tourist brochure sums up the city nicely…”Welcome to Nagasaki…historic, romantic and exotic”.

Exotic perhaps, Nagasaki was the backdrop for Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.

We did take some time while our guest, Pierce Klemmt was on board to travel inland to a popular area. We visited Unzen National Park and Spa Resort. Sounds pretty good, huh? Well, it was…an hour and half bus ride from Nagasaki through lush green hills of the Shimabara Peninsula. One attraction is an active volcano, Jigoku (Hell) – last eruption was in 1990. We took the ropeway tram (3,900ft) and viewed clouds of steam that could easily be spotted from its peak.

In relation to the volcano there are the numerous onsens – ‘hot springs’ located in the small town of Unzen. We stayed in a wonderful European-style hotel of wood and stone construction covered with ivy.

Water from the hot springs is pumped into the hotel. Typically, the common baths are segregated – one for men and one for women. To give you some background, there’s a basic set of rules that need to be followed – Japanese spa etiquette. I learned early on when Braun introduced me to an “onsen” last summer. First off – you CANNOT be shy cuz’ you’re gonna be buck naked most of the time. You’re given a ‘yakata’ which is a kind of a gown which the Japanese people have worn since the Edo period (1600s).You go to your designated and nicely appointed locker room, slip off your shoes and slip on the Japanese zori slippers as the floor is a highly polished wood and then undress leaving your yakata in the locker. Shuffle on over, buck naked, to where there is a door leading to the shower area and two or three onsens (hot baths). You see a stack of wash cloths which when in the hot spring you (they) drape on their heads – never in the water! I glance over and see mini-like stalls with handheld shower heads, soap & shampoo bottles, loffa-type towel for washing, a bowl/ladle and a stool…6” from the ground. There are several women milling around – all Japanese – I have yet to see any western women in an onsen (is there something I don’t know?). Everyone is cleaning with vengeance. I take their cue…clean, scrub, rinse, scrub and rinse again and, try gracefully to get up off the stool without my legs cramping up! Let’s face it…I may be limber but I’m certainly not accustomed to this kind of squatting! I saunter over to the first onsen, slip in and just try to blend in…the Japanese women know I’m there but they are too polite to stare. It’s some kind of wonderful. After a moment, I open my eyes and three ladies have flanked me…they want to practice their EnglishJ they are inquisitive and it seems they always want to know how old you are?? No matter…I slip from one onsen to another, get out and scrub again(!) Grab my towel (wash rag), dry off, put my yakata on and shuffle my way out to the relaxation room where I see my blond gaijin husband blissfully sleeping in his undersized yakata in a recliner…after I cover it/him up I slip into the recliner next to him and drift off to classical music. It was a delightful retreat. I think the good Rector enjoyed “relaxation” Japanese style, too… 

Picture of a typical onsen shower

A legendary Japanese character that we find fascinating is tanuki. In Japanese folklore weird looking badgers (similar to our raccoons) are celebrated as congenial mischievous tricksters and fun loving rascals. This is one of the reasons why the ceramic likeness of the tanuki is often found at the entrance of small restaurants and other drinking places advertising a good time inside. Sound like anyone we know??

From Nagasaki we set off southwest for the Ryukyu Islands. A chain of subtropical islands known for their lush vegetation, paradise beaches and beautiful coral reefs. It feels more like Hawaii then Japan. The largest island of the group is Okinawa-Honto, usually referred to simply as Okinawa. It’s a place where cultures collide: Ryukyu, Japanese, American, Chinese, and a growing number of Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong tourists. We enjoyed Okinawa but, we weren’t a novelty there, because Okinawa is home to numerous American bases (33 out of a total of 85 US bases on Japanese soil) with an estimated 24,000+ military personnel. For many years the Okinawans believe that by having the bulk of American forces in Japan on their island, they are once again being sacrificed by Tokyo. The original sacrifice came when Tokyo used Okinawa as a buffer to slow the American invasion of Japan (Battle of Okinawa). Various Okinawan government officials and citizens groups have pleaded with the national government to remove the bases. As a side note – Okinawa remains one of the poorest prefectures in Japan, despite the vast sums of money the Americans contribute to the local economy as well as the thousands of jobs the bases provide. As of last month, a decision was made to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less crowded, northern part of the island. Bottom line – the bases seem set to remain a part of Okinawa life for the foreseeable future. Now attitudes are possibly changing given the rising tensions on the nearby Korean peninsula. A continued American presence might be in Japan’s best interest. Disregarding this recent development is Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama who was newly elected last summer partly on his campaign promise to take a harder stance in getting the American bases removed from Okinawa altogether. Well, as a result of this recent decision for the bases to remain but perhaps be relocated to another part of the island…he has resigned! How REFRESHING!

We respect Japan as a nation. We enjoy the people, the culture and in these last few months we have learned so much history from the origins of the Japanese race and isolation to its military behavior, Pacific Wars with China, Korea and, of course, WWII.

We set off from Okinawa with good friends, Pat & Wayne Davis on board to help us with extended passages to Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Davis’ were such a BIG help to us last year on the GSSR run. They are very experienced boaters and we had the pleasure of meeting them when we all participated in the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally in 2004. They crossed in their 46’ Nordhavn, ‘Envoy’.

Presently, we’re enjoying some island time. We spent a few days anchored off the island of Zamami. Diving, snorkeling and beachcombing have been the recently scheduled activities…we’ve come a LONG way from Dutch harbor in the Aleutians where we were last year at this time!

Sake San decked out in island attire

We will leave the island of Miyako (water temps – 85 degrees!) soon and make way for Ishigaki. It’s heatin’ up and it’s time to skedaddle as no doubt, the typhoon season will heat up as well.

Strolling along the beaches of Miyako Island

Love the harbor caution signs…I wonder…does that say, “Oh F*@#!!” in Japanese?!? 

On that note…we hope your summer is off to a good start.

Until next time…from the bridge of the Grey Pearl…over and out –

Tina & Braun