I am very pleased to report that the GSSR fleet has successfully reached our first, of many stops, in Japan. We are now at port, in Tomakomai, on the island of Hokkaido.
Our five day passage from Petropavlovsk Russia was as calm as they get. Our biggest problem was fighting boredom. On the last day we had problems with sea gulls, with as many as twenty on the bow at one time. We kept a bowl of cherries next to the helm with which to chase them away.
Until the last night, before arrival in Japan.
We had been warned that there would be fishing boats and nets in Japan, and that these could make navigation difficult. This was certainly true, and our last 12 hours into port was quite difficult.
Roberta and I were at the helm, around midnight, with the other two boats trailing slightly. We were in thick fog and the water was dead calm. I started seeing dots on the radar. At first I thought they were just clutter on the radar. Then, when we really studied them, we decided they were either crab pots, or birds. There weren’t many, so I just steered around them. I called to the other boats, but they were far enough behind me that they weren’t picking them up on radar. I suggested we form a single file line, and that they follow my track, which they did.
The number of unknown targets started rising, until I had 15 or 20 of the targets on screen at any time, and was starting to zigzag a lot. The other boats were not picking them up, or were barely picking them up. I tried to get close enough to one of the targets, to see if it was actually there, but could not find one. I was chatting back and forth, on the radio, with Grey Pearl and Seabird, who only half-believed I was seeing all these targets on the radar.
At 3am, Roberta and I went off-shift. At the end of each shift, the outgoing crew gives a report to the next shift. I showed them the targets on the radar, and I went to sleep, knowing that with Bill and Jeff in control, I would sleep fine regardless of what the targets were.
While Roberta and I slept, the occasional blip on the radar, had become a massive number of blips. The guys were zigzagging through a mine field of radar blips. They were able to get close enough to one to identify that it was a marker for fishing gear. We were running about 10 miles off the coast of Hokkaido at the time, and they made the decision to head to deeper water, to get out of the fishing zone. This worked. A few miles farther out at sea, they still had occasional targets, but they were easily avoided. In addition to all the markers we were seeing, Jeff and Bill passed a squid fishing fleet, which looked like an entire well-lit city at sea.
When Roberta and I came on shift, we had only about three hours to go to reach port. Above is what we saw on the radar. The radar above is at three mile range, and the port is about 15 miles to our right. As you can see, to reach shore, we were going to have to weave our way through the mess. Tomakomai is a busy port. I kept moving forward, thinking that sooner or later there would be a break in the targets, but either I didn’t go far enough, or there wasn’t one.
The good news is that the fog lifted. I could now see the targets, and they were plenty far enough apart to drive between. Unfortunately though, I had no idea what the targets represented. Were there nets connecting them? Were there fishing lines? Were these just crab pots? None of us knew, but all of us were of the same opinion (which could well be wrong). Our theory was that these were linked together by long lines holding fish hooks, but that the fishing gear was lying on the bottom hundreds of feet below. We “thought” we would be fine to pass between them.
Whether we were right or not, we were able to pass through all the targets easily. If there were nets, we missed them. I stood outside and watched the water as we moved through, and saw nothing. And, to our surprise, the field of floating targets was only about a half mile thick. Once we poked through to the inside, we were in open water. There were still some random crab pots, but we could move again at full speed.
As we approached the port, we saw a jet ski. It came to us, and started indicating that we should follow it. We were being guided into port! I had sent an email to our agent in Japan, saying we would arrive at 8am, five days later, and we hit our arrival time within minutes. I still can’t believe we were able to time it that exactly. The Japanese, of course, assumed that if we said we would arrive at 8am, that we would arrive at 8am, and were standing on the dock to greet us.
Tying up to the dock was simple, and we were unbelievably happy to have arrived!
We were boarded by a horde of customs and immigrations people, who went from boat to boat. We had prepared a thick set of documents prior to arrival and emailed them to our agent. Within an hour, all three boats were cleared into Japan. All that remained was a bus ride to the immigration office for all of us, to get our passports checked and stamped.
Except, there was one more step for Sans Souci. We are traveling with our dog, Shelby, and we needed to get her imported into Japan. We started the process nearly a year ago. At first our agent thought it was impossible, but then we discovered the process, and educated him to it. He was a bit skeptical, but agreed to work on it. The process involved LOTS of medical tests for Shelby, lab work, and lots of paperwork, all of which we did.
We did hit one problem, just as we were leaving Seattle. There is a form, which needs to be stamped by the USDA, in Olympia Washington, that indicates that they believe Shelby is in good health. We were able to obtain this form, and get it stamped by the USDA. We had to wait until the last moment, so that her health certificate would still be valid when we arrived in Japan. Unfortunately, I left one date blank on the form. It was the date that indicates when Shelby was micro-chipped (back in 2003). I goofed and missed writing in the date. I did put her microchip number. The animal quarantine office in Japan noticed this, and sent me an email, but by then, we were at sea, and it was too late to go back to Olympia to get a new form stamped. Instead, I contacted the Microchip company and got a letter from them verifying the date she was stamped.
Upon arrival in Japan, this was not acceptable to the animal quarantine officer. We had plenty of proof that Shelby had been microchipped back in 2003, and the form was completely filled out, and stamped, except for that one blank. However, he simply could not let her into the country without that blank filled in. I offered to write in the date myself, which got me an extremely dirty look. ARGH! He brought out a steel cable, attached it to Shelby, affixed it to a barstool in the boat’s salon, and said she would have to stay chained until we could get an original form, from Olympia Washington, properly filled in and stamped. Roberta said, “How is she supposed to go outside to go to the bathroom?” He didn’t understand her, and our agent cut her off. “Do not ask questions.”
As you can imagine, this was not a fortunate turn of events.
About this time, a large group of people showed up at the boats. It was the Port Authority Master for the city of Tomakomai. This is a major shipping port for Japan, so I assume he is an important person, and certainly seemed to be. He said that it was the first visit to Tomakomai by American boats, and he wanted to welcome us. Each boat was presented with a large, beautiful, flower arrangement. Lots of people took pictures, including journalists, who wanted an interview.
While two-thirds of our group went off to the immigration office, I stayed behind to meet with our agent, Mr. Furuno-san, as well as a ‘local agent’ from Tomakomai.
They had a long list of questions for me, most of which centered around their wanting to know our plans. They wanted to know when we would leave, and where we would go. This was complicated by the fact that they spoke very little English, and I speak no Japanese. I have corresponded with our agent many times by email, and his written comprehension is good, but face to face, neither of us could understand the other.
I explained that we had no plans. Our plan was to randomly explore the country over the next couple months, and then return to the US for six months, then return to Japan, and go to some other country.
I could tell that this explanation wasn’t working, and it wasn’t just the language barrier. They needed a schedule. They explained that we could change the schedule, but that they must have a schedule.
After much more discussion, they said “You should become a domestic boat.” Assuming I understood them, I have the option of becoming a Japanese boat, and being able to explore with a minimum of bureaucracy, or continuing as a foreign boat, and requiring agents and huge amounts of paperwork every time we move the boats. I have spoken with several other boats that have been to Japan and never heard this issue. I asked the downside, and they said that as a Japanese boat I would need to pay $5 per gallon for fuel instead of $4. This seemed a great exchange. Unfortunately they said we would have to clear back into the country again, and would need to have customs come back. Argh.
I asked how far of a walk it was to town. They said, “Impossible. Must drive.” Ouch. “What about the subway?,” I asked. “No subway here. We are not near anything. Must take taxi.” Double-ouch. “How much does it cost for a taxi into town?,” I asked. “$40 each way,” came the response. Uh-oh. We have 14 people, and we are a half hour drive into the nearest town. Not good. I have been to Japan many times, but always to Honshu, the big island, where Tokyo is located. We are now on Hokkaido, also a big island, but much more remote. In Tokyo, it is easy to move between any two points. The Japanese have mastered mass transportation. It never occurred to me that we could be in Japan and not be able to get into town.
Tokyo is not comparable to any city in the United States, although the closest would be Manhattan, except on a MUCH larger scale. Here on Hokkaido, or at least in Tomakomai, the city is laid out more like a large suburban American city. Everyone has cars, and there are parking lots. We think we can rent a car, although it requires an international drivers license, which I do not have. And, driving would be difficult. The steering wheel is on the right side, and they drive on the left side of the road. $40 for a taxi is sounding better, except that this will add to a lot of money very quickly.
I was starting to realize that this was going to be a long day, and that things were going to get worse before they got better.
Our agent took all of us to a bank to change currency, which went smoothly, but slowly. It took an hour to change money. Our group was split between two vans, and we had asked if they could help Steven (Seabird) and I get Japanese cell phones, and internet cards. I do have good internet on the boat, but it would be cheaper and faster if I could have a Japanese 3g card for my computer. Thus, after the bank we split to two groups. Steven, Carol, Roberta and I loaded into one van, while the others loaded into another. The first group wanted to go get lunch, and we were heading shopping.
At the electronics store, we discovered there was only one “pre-paid” USB internet adapter. Steven paid for it, and the store said that it would take an hour to activate. I wasn’t that worried about being able to buy one. I have decent internet on the boat, and was trying to improve my situation, but am fine without the 3g card. We then went to a store called “SunKus” which looks exactly like a 7-11. Apparently, foreigners cannot buy cell phones in Japan. Our Japanese agent was going to buy a phone, and then we would use it. My American phone works here, but it will be cheaper over the next couple of months to have a Japanese phone. Our agent said that he was restricted to buying only one phone a day, so we would have to buy a phone for Steven, and come back another day for me. A half hour of paperwork later, and with Steven $100 poorer, we returned to the electronics store.
The store had realized Steven was a foreigner, and had voided Steven’s transaction (we think). They will not let foreigners buy their internet cards. We were not happy.
We got back in the van and were taken to a huge shopping mall. I asked if we were going to try again to buy an internet card. “No. Shop,” came the reply. I explained, as best I could, that we did not want to shop. This did not go over well. We had hit a language barrier. I assumed our friends had gone downtown to eat, so I asked the driver to take us downtown. He apparently did not have authorization to do this, and needed to phone his boss. He said “Wait 15 minutes.” After five days at sea, we were exhausted and grumpy. We hadn’t eaten for 12 hours, and 15 minutes sounded like an eternity.
I saw a taxi driving by and jumped out of the van to chase it. This led our driver to chase me down and say, “OK. Downtown.”
Once downtown, we realized no restaurants were open. It was only 4:30pm. There had been a four hour time change since Russia. Our bodies thought it was 8:30pm, and we hadn’t eaten for over 12 hours, but not much was open. We didn’t see our friends, and picked the largest hotel we could, and had some terrific Chinese food. We then taxied back to the boats.
The rest of our crew was there, and told us the part of the story we had missed. Their driver had taken them to the shopping mall and dropped them off. They weren’t sure what to do, or why they were there. They had no idea how they were going to get back to the boat, but thought we would be coming there, so they shopped while waiting for us. Ultimately, they gave up, grabbed some food in the food court at the mall, and took a taxi to the boat.
Our vision of wandering the streets of Japan, finding a cute little pub, and having some sushi hadn’t gone as planned.
I then spent the rest of the evening working on getting someone in Seattle to drive to Olympia, to work on my Shelby problem.
And on a different topic…
Our next destination is Yokohama. It is a three day passage south from Hokkaido. The weather between here and there can be very difficult, and we will need to watch for a good window. We had wanted to stay here in Hokkaido for a week or two, and travel around, but the transportation issue is making things difficult. Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is nearby, but not being able to take Shelby off the boat is a huge complication. We think we will solve all this by Monday. My guess is that if we have good weather, we will start our run to Yokohama at that time.
As confusing as all of this sounds, we are very happy to be here, and know that after a few days getting oriented, this is going to be a very cool, once in a lifetime, experience. We need to figure out the whole “foreign versus domestic boat” issue, and understand the bureaucracy involved in moving our boats around Japan. I’m confident we’ll solve all of this, and ordinarily I would not bog down a blog with all of this logistical discussion. However, dealing with clearing in and out of countries is a huge piece of world cruising, and it wouldn’t be right not to give you a taste of it through my blog.
I have mentioned in the past that world cruisers, are a unique group of people. There’s a certain personality it takes to do what we’re doing. There are some people who would be driven crazy by the challenges of arriving in a new country, with a language you don’t speak, bureaucracy you don’t understand, and the worst: surprise costs and regulations that you didn’t plan for. Then there is our group which has smiled through it all. Our day yesterday was not what we expected, but last night we were all celebrating, and it was a party atmosphere. This group seems to thrive on overcoming challenges. We grumbled a few times yesterday, but overall it was a very good day, and things are going to be great soon.
I would like to thank our agents, and the local agent, who worked very hard to make our arrival as smooth as possible. As you just read, there were a few road bumps along the way, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Foreign boats, of our size, traveling in Japan, are extremely rare. The marinas aren’t sized to accommodate our boats, and people aren’t sure what to do with us. They are working very hard to make us happy, and ensure that all of our needs are met, but the language barrier is really being a tough one. Roberta’s and my son, Chris, arrives from the U.S. on Saturday, hopefully carrying the paperwork we need to get Shelby out of jail. Chris went to college in Japan. Having Chris here, who speaks Japanese, for even a few days, will be very good.
And, I’m happy to share with you this email I just received from the President of Nordhavn, Dan Streech:
That’s it for today!
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— Ken Williams