Hakodate and Kushiro

Hakodate and Kushiro

Hakodate turned out to be one of our favorite stops in Japan. A big part of that was our moorage, which was right in town. It wasn’t at a marina–there was no power, no floating dock, no amenities at all, really. But it was in a charming neighborhood, touristy in a good way. The formerly-industrial area where we moored was full of historic brick buildings that had been carefully restored. Restaurants were just steps away. Groceries weren’t far. Interpretive signs on every block explained the history.

Hakodate played a significant role in the opening of Japan to the West. In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Hakodate Harbor, deemed it one of the best harbors in the world, and demanded that Japan open its ports to trade (this is a very abbreviated version of events). The Japanese government eventually agreed, and Hakodate became one of the first ports to be opened. Hakodate quickly became a major trading center.

The best part of our visit to Hakodate was a Japanese gentleman named Junichiro Taniguchi and his wife Kyoko. Don and Sharry met Jun-san back in 2010 in Yobuko (Don’s Story: Splicing an Anchor Cable in Yobuko, Japan and A Small Town of “Sea People” and Our New Friend and Don and Sharry are back in Ashiya). He and Kyoko have since moved to Hakodate and now live just a few blocks from where we were tied up. He was an invaluable source of information, fun to visit with, and incredibly patient with our nearly endless requests for help.

Junichiro Taniguchi and his wife Kyoko visiting Starr

Hakodate has about 265,000 residents, big enough to have everything, but small enough to feel manageable. Buildings tend to be low and the streets are wide. Restaurants are excellent and varied. Further from the boat, Jun-san took us to a shopping center with a huge sporting good store to buy some additional cold-weather clothing.

A few blocks from the boat, a morning fish market opened at 6:00 a.m. daily. This was a lively place, filled with all manner of fresh seafood and produce.

Starr, like any boat, has had a few mechanical issues in the last 6000 nautical miles. We’ve been able to deal with most of them, but one required hauling out.

Somewhere between Guam and Okinawa, the starboard stabilizer fin spun on its shaft. Center no longer has the fin parallel with the keel; instead, it is rotated by about 30 degrees, creating a list and inducing drag. We adjusted the potentiometer to trick the system into centering the fin and unplugged it a few thousand miles ago; we’ve been running on one fin ever since. This has been fine in the relatively calm waters of Japan, but as we head towards the Bering Sea, we think both fins would be nice to have. In order to fix this, we need a few hours with Starr out of the water. Jun-san took us to a boat yard to see if we could get lifted out of the water.

Unfortunately, the lift options weren’t acceptable. Japanese fishing boats lack the deep keel that Starr has. When they’re hauled on a marine railway, the boats rest on blocks either side of the keel, which works fine on a relatively flat-bottomed, hard chine boat. But on Starr, with her constantly-curving, soft-chined bottom, we need keel support. Additionally, the local boats are narrower than Starr. We worried that Starr’s hull would be crunched or she’d topple over on the lift, both of which are far worse than a slightly-rollier ride to Alaska. It was still fun to visit the boatyard!

One of the joys of being in Hakodate was long daily walks. I found a number of small fishing harbors as I meandered around town.

Up on the hill lies the old Russian embassy. Time has not been kind to it: windows are shattered, the brick facade is failing. It felt like a metaphor for Russia itself.

Elsewhere on the hillside, buildings are in better shape. This is the colorful, fully restored old public hall, originally built in 1910:

A long sandy beach faces Tsugaru Strait, which connects the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean. This beach was remarkably clean, almost entirely free of plastic debris. On one of my walks I saw why: dozens of volunteers scoured the beach with tongs and trash bags. Jun-san explained that plastic garbage from throughout Asia washes ashore and these kind of beach cleanups are common throughout Japan.

Japan is generally a very efficient country, but some things were mind-bogglingly difficult. Before heading to Alaska, we wanted to get about 50 gallons of gasoline for the dinghy outboard. Starr has a built-in 30 gallon dinghy gas tank, we have two five-gallon jerry cans, and we wanted to fill the 18-gallon dinghy tank.

Unfortunately, there are no fuel docks in Hakodate, so we couldn’t just pull Starr alongside a pump and top off. We inquired about having a truck deliver gasoline, like they deliver diesel. Not possible, they said. As a last resort, I figured I could load up a cart and take the five-gallon jerry cans to the local gas station. Alas, that wasn’t acceptable, either. Japanese law prohibits stations from filling plastic gas containers. Eventually we acquired a metal, Japanese-approved gas can. After nine trips to the local Eneos station, we had our dinghy gas. On the plus side, I built a friendly rapport with the local deliverymen, who similarly utilized pushcarts in their work.

Getting propane was challenging too. Propane is widely used throughout Japan–most homes have a propane tank or two outside, supplying gas to the stove and oven inside. Despite its prevalence, filling containers as a cruiser is impossible. Whether it’s law or simply company policy I do not know, but it seemed like propane companies were only willing to fill tanks that they had sold. Thankfully Japanese and USA propane connectors are identical, so we took the costly-but-easy route and bought new propane tanks.

One of the hopefully-not-important tasks was checking safety gear. We’ll be traveling in some very cold water between here and Seattle–sometimes as cold as 37 degrees–so survival gear is critically important if the worst were to occur. We practiced donning our immersion suits, refreshed our memories on how to launch the life raft, and so forth.

After several days in front of the red brick warehouses we moved half a mile down the quay to slightly deeper water. This move was necessitated by low tides which would have grounded us in our first spot. To our delight, this new spot was the practice venue for a group of youth dancers. Several evenings in a row, dozens of them arrived near sunset and practiced until well after dark. Their dedication was impressive. The lack of bicycle theft was also impressive!

Jun-san was incredibly patient with us. It seemed that each day we thought of some new request—a trip to “Mini-cos” (a tiny, expensive Costco), shopping for cold weather layers, getting propane tanks, arranging diesel fuel, and on and on. No matter our request, Jun-san was happy to help. In the evenings, we paused our chores and enjoyed excellent meals out:

Before leaving Japan we needed to get fuel, a more complicated task than simply motoring over to the fuel dock (remember, there is none). Before getting fuel, we needed to clear out of Japan. This would make us eligible for duty-free diesel, saving several thousand dollars.

The challenge was timing. Once we cleared out, we had to leave quickly and couldn’t legally make any additional stops in Japan. The run from Hakodate to Attu, the westernmost point in the USA and our first possible landfall, is about 7.5 days. We could shave a day off that by first moving north to the Japanese city of Kushiro. Throughout our nine days in Hakodate, we watched the weather and waffled between our options.

Eventually, the weather made our decision for us. We had a day of good weather, then a couple days of nasty head seas before a break that would let us continue to Alaska. Going to Kushiro, clearing out and fueling up, and the continuing on made the most sense.

The passage to Kushiro was easy and a good warm-up for our upcoming run back to the USA. We arrived in the morning and quickly found a spot to tie up in the river.

A couple of fishing boats were moored ahead of us. They were well-kept and different from what we’re used to seeing in Japan, beamier, with higher bows, and big harpoon guns out front. Whaling boats, it turns out.

Our primary tasks in Kushiro were clearing out of Japan and getting enough diesel to reach Dutch Harbor. Clearing out was easy, thanks to a local sailor named Seki-san. Seki was waiting on the pier when we arrived. He helped us fill out all the exit paperwork and drove it around to the necessary government offices.

Then he arranged for duty free diesel. Starr is larger than most cruising boats in Japan and we needed way more fuel–about 2800 gallons–than Seki-san was used to arranging for. We dreaded the thought of trickling in this much fuel from fuel trucks, like we did last month on the inland sea. If we fueled at that same rate, we’d be pumping for 11 hours.

Seki-san came through. At the appointed hour, a couple of fuel trucks arrived along with a bright yellow fuel barge. Seki-san was covering his bases, which we appreciated. The trucks had nozzles like at a normal automotive gas station. The barge had 2” camlock fittings. Seki-san wasn’t certain we could use the camlock, so he made sure the trucks were also available.

A few minutes after the fuel barge arrived we were pumping 65 gallons of diesel a minute onboard. An hour later, we were full. All we needed now was the right weather window, which appeared imminent, and a departure stamp in our passports.

We had a bit of spare time to explore Kushiro and do some final provisioning. Kushiro feels smaller and a little more weather-beaten than Hakodate, but lots of flowers brightened things up.

The weather has, unsurprisingly, gotten colder as we’ve headed north. Here in Kushiro, we’ve seen nighttime lows in the 30s. Walking around town, we saw small snowblowers outside many buildings and this tracked snowplow machine. This place must see some snow!

Our weather window seemed to be materializing. Among our final tasks was walking a few blocks to the immigration office, where we presented our passports and had them stamped for exiting the country.

It was a bittersweet moment: Japan has been a wonderful country to visit, filled with warm, helpful, honest people. The cuisine and culture is second to none. There’s so much of Japan that we’d love to bring home with us. Just before leaving, Seki-san drove up to Starr to wish us a safe voyage and take the last of our garbage away. Thank you Seki-san, we are so grateful for all of your help!!

  • Valerie Creighton
    Posted at 20:38h, 03 June Reply

    Another fine post. Stan and Steve spent some time in Hakodate on the Buffalo last year, and loved it like you did. Keep your eyes and AIS peeled for us if you have time to come into Prince William Sound!

  • Nellie Lee
    Posted at 21:59h, 03 June Reply

    Your latest post brings me joy. I visited Tokyo for 11 days last month – learning more about the Japanese culture, enjoying the sights and sounds and re-acquainted with friend Yumi. Also did day hikes – 5 different trails outside of Tokyo. Hope you’re “fully fin” by now. Safe travels and keep holding hands!

  • Andrew E. Howard
    Posted at 00:32h, 04 June Reply

    Interesting and enjoyable comments and pictures Sam. Enjoy heading back the the USA.

  • Frank Buty
    Posted at 08:17h, 04 June Reply

    Thanks for the interesting commentary. Rural coastal Japan looks very comfortable. Safe travels across the Pacific. C&F

  • Steven Argosy
    Posted at 09:50h, 04 June Reply

    Hi Don and Sharry,

    Carol and I have been following your trip closely. We had so much fun in 2010 cruising with you in Japan. Have a great voyage to Attu. It’s a gorgeous well protected anchorage. Make sure you visit the monument that the Japanese donated on top of the mountain. It’s made of pure Titanium and looks like it was dropped there by aliens!

    Steven and Carol Argosy

    • Don
      Posted at 18:58h, 04 June Reply

      Hi Steve & Carol

      It’s nice to hear from you.
      What is life like for you both?
      We are anchored up in a tiny basin in Adak waiting out a small blow.
      Unfortunately we didn’t see memorial because the weather dictated we anchor on the north side .
      Our intent is to take our time exploring the small niches between Dutch and Seward/PWS.

      Thanks for reaching out to us.

      Don & Sharry

  • graham pugh
    Posted at 13:22h, 04 June Reply

    You’ve taken us all on a very cultural trip, thanks very much and a safe trip back home.

  • graham pugh
    Posted at 13:28h, 04 June Reply

    You’ve taken us all on a very cultural trip, thanks very much, a safe trip back home.

  • Sharon Porter
    Posted at 15:21h, 04 June Reply

    I feel a sadness as the end of your posts about Japan occurs. Have a safe trip home to the USA

  • Yasuko
    Posted at 20:28h, 04 June Reply

    Dear Starr,
    Thank you so much for another beautiful travelogue and gorgeous pictures. I am glad to know that you escaped the recent storm safely. I have had an amazing voyage with you and am so sad to leave Japan. It has been delightful to see Japan from the ocean and through your insightful eyes. Thank you.
    Have a safe and smooth sailing back home.

  • Geoff and Candace Daigle
    Posted at 10:53h, 05 June Reply

    Well written and enjoyable stories. It’s so impressive how all the decisions and coordination of cruising in a foreign land are handled so well by the Starr team. You all are just amazing!

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