Return from Japan


You are receiving this because you registered for my ‘off season blog’ at

If you visited the site you know that I decided to experiment with doing my blog in a message board format. I did this because I thought the format might make it easier for everyone to participate in the discussion, and to start their own topics. Roberta and I won’t be on the boat for the next few months, and I really don’t have too much to say. Last year, I kept busy during the offseason getting the boat shipped home from Costa Rica and ready to go. However, this year, there are no major boat projects planned. The boat is in good shape and already positioned for next year’s run. The only major projects on my list are: clearing Shelby (our dog) into various countries, and trip planning for next year.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I experimented with an alternate format for the blog, and no one seems to love it, including myself. Thus, I’ll go back to doing the blog my old way. I’ll still do it on the website, which has the small list of just over 400 of you, as opposed to the website which has many thousands. Given that I won’t have much of interest to say, I’d rather bore the smallest group possible. Of course, I could do that by simply not writing anything, but, what fun would that be?


This is a brief recap of events since my last blog.

There isn’t much to say about our last few weeks in Japan. Roberta and I really didn’t do much more than just hang out on the boat, doing various boat-projects. We knew that getting the boat ready to be left alone for six months was going to be a lot of work, and were in the mood to get all our work done and go home. We woke up a few days and said, “Should we go find a temple? Go to a museum?” We always decided we’d go sight-seeing ‘tomorrow’ and focus on work today. And, tomorrow never came.

Amusingly, I did pass some time asking myself if Japan represented some of the best cruising in the world, or the worst, or somewhere in-between, and I couldn’t decide which it was. It’s a difficult question, and I won’t really know what I think until after next year. Japan is a beautiful country with wonderful people. However, I was very frustrated with the language issues. A few examples:

We were constantly being invited to various dinners and parties. We met people (Japanese) who spent thousands of dollars to entertain us! We were shocked by the generosity of those around us. However, at the dinners, we often wound up talking to each other. We would do what we could to mingle, but conversations between people who don’t speak the same language are rarely compelling. I’m not particularly good at small talk anyhow, and when I am further constrained by a total absence of shared vocabulary, I get much worse. Another example: Roberta and I took a train to nearby Kobe. We were in a wonderful district with 100s of great restaurants. It was clearly my kind of place, and both of us love Asian food. However, we walked for miles, and never saw an Asian restaurant with an English menu. 99.9% have menus that are 100% Japanese. Someone truly adventurous would enjoy the challenge, but we’re somewhat picky eaters. When we were in Hokkaido, I watched as Kirt, a crew member on Sans Souci, put a menu on a table, waved his finger in the air, and randomly plopped it down on the menu. That’s what he ordered. This is definitely not my style, but seems the only viable strategy. Most restaurants do have plastic food in the front window, which can be pointed at, and I have dragged waiters to the curb, to point at the food in the window, but even this strategy often fails. Sometimes, what looks like tofu in the window turns out to be something much weirder when it hits your plate. And, another more serious example of the problems: My focus the last couple of weeks was on getting the boat prepared for our departure. Without using an interpreter I couldn’t speak with the marina staff. I couldn’t go to marine stores. I couldn’t speak with other boat captains in the marina. Etc. I don’t like being in a position where I’m not self sufficient. It just isn’t my style.

And, of course there are cultural issues. The Japanese were so polite and nice to us, and I wanted to try to return the kindness, but always felt somewhat clunky. Almost all Japanese speak some English. It is taught in their schools, and English words appear everywhere. Few speak enough to actually carry on a conversation, but at least they try. I, on the other hand, did not learn Japanese in school. And, whereas we are on their turf, and they know their cultures and traditions, I had no idea what the rules of etiquette were. I was constantly worried that I’d do something horribly offensive, and not know it. It was important to me that we leave a good impression of Americans, and I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.

In dealing with the marina, I was never sure what they were willing to do for me, and what they weren’t. We’re in a ritzy private members-only marina. I’m not certain that the marina’s primary motivation for accepting us was financial. I think it was just kind of cool to them, and their members, to have the funny looking international boats in the marina. I’m thrilled to be there, and I had the feeling they would do almost anything I asked, but I really didn’t want to be annoying. When motivations are financial, the rules are simpler. I asked them to wax the boat, and thought I could see in their eyes that they weren’t delighted I’d asked, but that since I asked, they had to do it. I was willing to pay, so I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have been happy to get the business, or, perhaps they were happy to get the business. I really have no idea, and that in itself is part of what frustrated me. When dealing cross-culture, and through an interpreter, it’s tough to know when the other guy is happy, and as I said, I wanted to be a good ambassador for other cruisers from our corner of the planet.

And, I must say, there aren’t a lot of us cruising over there. We were in Japan for six weeks, cruised nearly the entire eastern coast of Honshu (mainland japan), and the southern coast of Hokkaido, and saw only one non-Japanese boat. Zero boats from Europe. Zero boats from the US. Zero from Canada, etc. We saw one large racing sailboat from Australia, and that’s it. One reason people were so nice to us is that we are so rare. I suspect that at some of the places we visited we were the first foreign private yachts ever to enter the port, in modern times.

It is an incredibly cool feeling just to be in Japan. When people say to me, “Isn’t boating expensive?”, I respond by saying, “What do you think a portable waterfront home should cost?” There is a huge difference in living somewhere, and staying at a hotel. I’ve been going to Japan for over 20 years, mostly on business, and have learned more about Japan by living there on my boat, in just six weeks, than I did during those 20 years. When you are on a boat you see a side of Japan, or whatever country, that tourists never see. I’m not a good enough writer to explain the difference, but being on the boat forces us to deal with a lot of the basic ‘blocking and tackling’ issues of life that you don’t encounter when staying in a hotel, such as: buying groceries, hiring someone to wash the boat, going to the vet, getting a haircut, reading the subway map, etc. Whereas this can be intimidating at times, it can also be fun and educational. This is a little off the subject, but one of the reasons we moved our prior boat to France was that I’m what some would call a Francophile. I have a disproportionate affection for France. I can honestly say that living in France, as opposed to being a tourist, was a real eye-opener. I’m still a Francophile, but the France we lived in is a much different France than I had envisioned, and visited as a tourist. Personally, there’s something compelling about the whole notion of owning a home that allows me to ‘sample’ different cultures around the world, and that can be moved once I’m ready for a new experience. I would think that a portable home must be worth more than a house that is nailed to the ground.

I am SERIOUSLY looking forward to cruising Japan next year. I’ve cruised enough to know what I like best. Anyone who follows my blog knows I enjoy trying to discover and understand cultural differences. However, when it comes right down to it, my primary motivation is the time we spend at anchor. I’m seeking warm blue water and white sand beaches, preferably somewhere close to a series of 5-star resorts, world-class golf courses and great restaurants. And of course, a high-speed internet connection! Nothing beats surfing on a remote beach (I mean the kind of surfing you do with a computer…). As you can imagine, we didn’t see a lot of that this year in Alaska, the Aleutians, Russia or even the parts of Japan we’ve been cruising. However, I’ve heard the islands of southern Japan (Okinawa) are referred to as Japan’s version of Hawaii. We’ll be on a much more relaxed pace, and anchoring/swimming/relaxing will all be part of the plan. A fun fact: US Coastline – 12,380 miles. Japan – 18,486 miles. Japan is a series of thousands of islands, many of them with awesome anchorages, just waiting for us to find them.

And, on a completely different topic…

Roberta and I are now at home in Seattle! Our trip home from Japan went quite smoothly, which really did surprise me. When we first planned the GSSR I had serious doubts we would get Shelby into Japan, and if we did, that we’d get her back out. It just didn’t seem possible.

To get Shelby out of Japan we needed a health certificate. Above is Shelby’s health certificate. I have no idea whether or not it says she is healthy. The good news is that this gave us what we needed to get an export permit. It was quite an experience to obtain the actual permission to export Shelby. We took Shelby to the airport, the day before departure, to visit Animal Quarantine. This meant a two hour train ride, each way, with Shelby. Once at the airport, the Animal Quarantine office was buried deep within the airport, in a secure area that few people ever see. We wandered through hallways, and behind doors, that had us feeling like we were in a very strange place. At Animal Quarantine, they gave Shelby far more of a physical than she had received from the vet. It was quite an experience.

We were worried about Shelby being stuck in the cargo hold of an airplane for a long flight. She’s not a young dog, and refuses to eat or drink when we’re not around. To keep it easy on Shelby, we split the flight home into two legs, stopping in Hawaii. This added a huge amount of complexity, because Hawaii is also difficult to get a dog into. We worked with the Humane Shelter in Hawaii to have Shelby go to their facility, just long enough to change planes. We were able to meet her at their office to give her water and food. The people in Hawaii, particularly the humane society, were easy and friendly to deal with, and made the whole experience as enjoyable as it could possibly be.

And, on another completely different topic…

It was very strange leaving Sans Souci alone in Japan. We have dealt with this issue a couple times before. First, when we left her in France, and second, when we left her in Costa Rica. I wasn’t worried in France, because prior to leaving I was able to hire a local mechanic to watch the boat. In Costa Rica, I would have been worried, had I known Sans Souci would be staying for six months, but at the time I thought Sans Souci would be leaving Costa Rica within a few weeks. This is the first time I have knowingly left Sans Souci alone, in a strange country, with huge unknowns as to who would oversee her. I do have a plan in place that I feel good about, but it does contain risk. We are working with an American interpreter, who lives in Japan, who is our ‘point of contact’ in Japan. We’re only a couple weeks in, and he is doing a fantastic job, but the fact of the matter is that he knows very little about boats. He’s a super-smart, very capable person, and someone we are all impressed with, but boats are not simple. I’ve green-lighted him to bring in professionals, as he can find them, but still, there is no doubt in my mind that it would be better if I were there, and could speak the language. I’m sure all is fine, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry. Everyone does something well, and worrying is what I do best.

So, anyway…

In closing…

I’ve decided to go back to my old style of doing the blog, but will be posting my blog entries on the new website ( I’m not sure how often I’ll post. Not much is happening, so I’ll be writing randomly. I’ll go back to my normal website, and its’ huge mailing list, once we get closer to being back on the boat. The current message board will still be on the website, so feel free to use it. Over the next few months, each blog entry I write will be sent via email, and posted on, where all of you are invited, and encouraged, to post your comments at the end of each entry. The comments on my blog are usually better than the blog, so keep them coming!

If you haven’t been visiting the website, those of you who enjoy technical issues might want to read the following postings on the message board:

LED lighting on Sans Souci
– Rocna Anchors
Bulbous bows
– Rudder Design

And, those of you who are curious about Nordhavn boats may want to download the latest copy of Nordhavn’s magazine, Circumnavigator. Lots of great articles, and a look at their latest boats:

Thank you!

Ken Williams
Nordhavn 68, Sans Souci, and

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Credits     |     Video produced by: Rock Steady Media     |     Teletype photo: Arnold Reinhold     |     PDP-11 photo: Trammell Hudson