Wed 17 Jul – day 67 Having failed to get a taxi at the hotel, I walked back to the station and asked one of the ladies at the information centre to write Kagoshima New Port in Japanese so that I could show it to the driver. Why take a taxi she said, go on the shuttle bus that leaves bay 5 at 16:45hrs. Why not indeed, so that is what I did and it was a lot cheaper.
I was a bit troubled at first as the bus headed off in the wrong direction, but it made three stops before it reached the tram terminal where it turned back on itself and then headed off along the waterfront road to the port. We arrived a few minutes after my info pack said that I should be checked it by, but it didn’t matter as there was still crowds of people waiting to get their tickets.
The ferry company had a strange procedure for getting tickets as you had to fill out a request for boarding form which required you to say who you where, where you were going and what cabin you wanted even if you had a pre-booked ticket. Then when you got your boarding pass all this information was already on it – very strange.
The first class passengers, just five cabins, had already boarded and the rest of the passengers waited until 17:30hrs. When the door opened the rush started, so I waited until most people had gone through and this included a whole school baseball team, before I made a move. It was just a short walk and then up the very steep gangway onto the ferry; no one offered to help me with my bags, then through a door and up the escalator. The staff at the top checked my boarding card and I was escorted over to the information desk where he got my room key; up more stairs and then forward on the starboard side. I had the outside of the three single cabins, but it had no window. If this cabin was tiny, it was better than the berths back down the passageway as these were reminiscent of the capsule hotels in the big cities.
Having stowed all my bags as best as I could, I got changed into shorts and flip-flops and went on deck to watch the ship depart at the start of its 25 hour journey to Okinawa.
The Sakurajima volcano loomed large over the bay as we set sail, right on time at 18:00hrs as you would expect, and the shoreline was soon receding behind us. I then set off to explore and found the toilets, then the vending area and dining area (not posh enough to be called a restaurant) where dinner was being served. There were pictures of what was on offer; I choose meat and rice covered in a sauce for ¥700 and put my money in a machine which then issued me with a ticket which I handed to the serving staff.
Once I had been handed my meal I found a place to sit and then got a beer from the vending machine and settled down to eat what was a good filling meal. The shutters came down promptly at 19:00hrs, but I took my time to finish my food and beer, that was until a very noisy group came in with their own food, so I decided that it was time to leave.
It was now dark and as there was nothing to do except watch Japanese television, which I didn’t understand a word of what was being said, I decided to go to bed even though it was only 19:30hrs. Time doesn’t real matter when you were feeling tired.
There were no sheets and a box like object for a pillow, so I dug out my laundry bag and laid my head on that and then covered myself with the blanket. It was not the most comfortable of beds, but certainly better than the one in the hotel in Vladivostok.
And so I dropped off to sleep.
Thu 18 Jul – day 68 I awoke, switched on the light and looked at my watch, it was 00:30hrs, so watch down, light off and back to sleep.
The next thing I knew was that the noise from the ships engines had changed, so I opened the door and it was still dark; but then the engines went into reverse. So I dressed and it was 04:30hrs as I went up on to the deck just as the ship arrived at Naze, the first stop.
For the rest of the trip this was just like the Hurtigruten, the Norwegian Coastal voyage, on which I did the round trip, Bergen to Kirkenes and back in 1999. The ship docked, the ramp went down, cargo was unloaded and passengers disembarked; then cargo was loaded and more passengers boarded. It was interesting to watch the operation as it was highly efficient; as the cargo came off there were lorries and vans to take it away as a great deal was fresh produce and so would be on the shelves in a few hours time. Forklifts were driven as if they were on piece-work, but the turn-round schedule was everything. Mooring lines were cast off and the ship made its way back into the open sea, but now it was broad daylight.
I went and did my ablutions and was now set up for the day.
We had been sailing in the South China Sea since sailing from Kagoshima late yesterday afternoon, but after we had departed from Naze and rounded the southernmost point of the island we moved into the Pacific Ocean, so I could now say that I had sailed on both sides of the world’s largest expanse of water. It was flat calm and a fantastic shade of blue.
At Naze the passengers leaving and boarding the ship had used an airport style airbridge, but at all the other ports the steep gangway was lowered.
The baseball team disembarked at Okinoerabu-jima to applause from people on the quayside, but I was not sure whether it was to welcome them, welcome them home or well done.
The port at Yoron the facilities were very basic and even the check-in was a converted ISO container. The Lonely Planet guide described the island as being a beach with an airport on top, so a bit like RAF Gan which was the bottom island in Addu Atoll at the southernmost end of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and where I was stationed during 1973 / 74.
The beach that I could see from the ship looked fantastic with its yellow sands and not a sun-bather in sight.The twice daily visit of the ship were probably the highlights of the day as crowds would come just to see what was happening, or collect goods being delivered.
When I was planning my round the world trip I had hoped to be able to go from Okinawa to Taiwan by passenger ship, but unfortunately the ferry company went bust in the recession and so the closest you can get without flying was Naha, the principal city on Okinawa. There were ferries between the next group of islands 300km further on, but no way to reach them by passenger ferry; the southernmost group were another 100km away and just 110km from Taiwan
I was not able to ascertain whether freight ships sailed to these islands as my Japanese was limited to hello, goodbye, thank you plus a beer please and the staff on the ships didn’t speak enough English to engage in a conversation like that.
When the staff at Inside Japan received my proposed schedule they were amazed and queried whether I actually wanted to go to Okinawa by ship as everyone normally flies. But when you were sat on the deck with a beer in hand and the Pacific Ocean was flat calm and a deep shade of blue, what could be a better way to spend a few hours. This was certainly a much more pleasant way to reach the islands rather than being crammed in a metal tube at 30000ft.
The ship was spotlessly cleaned and once an hour the cleaning staff would go around and empty all the bins.
As I had skipped breakfast I had the similar meal and rice dish for lunch that I had eaten last night for dinner, this time however I added some microwaved chips.
We had now switched back to sailing down the west of the islands and were back in the South China Sea.
At Motobu a port in the northwest of Okinawa-hontō the smaller local ferry was waiting for passengers; these were transferred by bus from one gangway to the other and the ship was then quickly away. On the quayside cattle were unloaded from trucks and then out into an ISO sized open container ready for shipment north on the ferry tomorrow morning, fresh meat on the hoof!!
On the way to Naha the large hotels all the way along the coast were clearly visible and this was a prime holiday destination for the Japanese as this was more like a south sea island than mainland Japan; they were somewhere exotic, but still in their own country and so could spend their yen. Lots of honeymooning couples came here from South Korea as well as Japan.
Apart from myself the only other passengers (and only other westerners) who had travelled all the way from Kagoshima were Dan and Joanna, an Irish couple who now lived and worked in Sweden and we had quite a talk about our various travels. They had been in the country for five weeks and had just come down from Hokkaido; Dan described the flight to Tokyo as an interesting experience because although there were nearly 600 people on the 747-400, it had only a light fuel load and so took off like a rocket. Tomorrow they were flying down to the furthest group of islands for a few days before heading back home.
We docked in Naha Port rather than the Shin (New) Port and so are almost in the centre of town. On the other side of the harbour was a naval base where a Japanese Coastguard vessel was moored, with a USN ship and a large catamaran ferry further along.
I waited until virtually everyone had disembarked before heading down the gangway and my shoulder was holding up well under the weight of my suitcase.