Tsunoshima, Hagi, and Izumo

Tsunoshima, Hagi, and Izumo

Our first stop after leaving the Inland Sea was an island named Tsunoshima. We arrived late in the afternoon after a long day underway. Eager to see what was around and stretch our legs, we set out for a walk.

We stumbled upon a lighthouse with a small museum. Ready for some extra exercise, I paid the 300 yen entrance fee and bounded to the top.

The Tsunoshima Lighthouse was built in 1876 and is one of the oldest lighthouses in Japan. It was designed by British engineer Richard Henry Brunton, who designed other lighthouses in Japan in that era. Japan had just reopened to foreign trade, and many lighthouses were constructed to make navigation by foreign ships safer and easier. The tower is made of stone and stands 26 meters tall. The lighthouse is still in operation today and its beam can be seen from 17 miles away.

We walked past several nice beaches and got the sense that this place might get crowded with tourists during the summer season. With gray skies and temperatures in the 50s, though, it was very quiet.

The beaches were depressingly full of trash. Plastic of all types, from single-use bottles to forklift pallets to abandoned fishing nets, were everywhere. Japan’s cities are among the cleanest we’ve encountered. Japanese beaches are not.

Tsunoshima is connected to the mainland by this bridge, which has just enough clearance for Starr to pass underneath. Most sailboats have to take the long way around.

When we returned to Starr, Japan Customs visited. They wanted to take pictures of our documents and asked where we were going. We’d not had a visit from Japanese officials the entire time we were in the Seto Inland Sea, so this was a slightly-unwelcome development. Given the proximity to North Korea and Russia, we kind of understand.

During dinner, more officials arrived. This time it was the Coast Guard. The wanted to see the same documents and asked the same questions. Our lack of schedule or itinerary seems genuinely baffling to authorities here–we have the distinct sense that spontaneity is not a strongly-held Japanese value!

We spent just one night at Tsunoshima before continuing to Hagi. The coast here is far more rugged and far less developed than along the Seto Inland Sea. The coastal freighters and tankers that were so prevalent inside are all but gone. The only other boats we see are fishing boats and the occasional ferry. We did hear an interesting radio exchange between the Japanese Navy and a North Korean tanker. Unsurprisingly, the North Korean ship was not particularly chatty on the radio!

We arrived in Hagi in pouring rain–Ketchikan-like rain–the kind that soaks through your pants in a few minutes. We geared up and walked a few blocks to the Yamaguchi Hagi Fish Market, which houses several restaurants. On such a rainy day it was nice to have a lazy lunch out.

The next day was much nicer. Several historic industrial sites were near our moorage, including the Hagi Reverberatory Furnace, pictured below. In the mid-1800s, Japan was falling behind European rivals in iron production–a key resource that Japanese leaders recognized could make the difference between being colonized and remaining independent.

Signs explained:

…developing a working furnace capable of creating wrought iron was a major priority for the Mori daimyo. Wrought iron would allow the Mori to build modern cannons and warships to defend itself against possible invasion by Western powers. The leaders of Saga domain used plans they had received from Dutch traders living on Dejima Island in Nagasaki to build the first such furnace in Japan. The Mori sent four retainers to Saga in 1855 to acquire the knowledge necessary to make their own reverberatory furnace, but the leaders of Saga refused to share the secrets of the technology. Although one of the Hagi retainers managed to return with rough sketches of the design, he did not receive detailed instructions on how to build or operate the furnace.

The Hagi Reverberatory Furnace was constructed in 1856, but hamstrung by incomplete design and inadequate local materials, never really worked. The sign continues, “…the furnace is a monument to the ‘trial-and-error’ spirit of Hagi’s proto-industrial past.”

Hagi is well-known for crafts, particularly pottery. We walked through a large pedestrian arcade, filled with shops selling crafts of all types, but we were too early in the morning for much to be open.

Hagi is also known for castles. One of the most famous castles is the Hagi Castle, also known as Shizuki Castle. The castle was built in 1604 by the Mori clan, who ruled the area for several centuries. The castle served as the center of political and military power in the region, and its towering walls and turrets were designed to intimidate any potential rivals. Much of the castle was destroyed following the Meiji Revolution, but some of the walls still stand.

The Matsumoto River runs through town and it is lined with waterfront houses. Many have fishing boats out front. This is one of the few places in Japan where we’ve seen waterfront residences; we’re not sure why they aren’t more popular.

After several nights in Hagi, we continued up the coast to Izumo. The fishing fleet here is very active and drying nets occupied much of the pier adjacent to our moorage.

Izumo is perhaps best known for Izumo Taisha, one of the oldest and most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The shrine is dedicated to the god of marriage and is famous for its massive wooden structure, which is said to be the largest Shinto shrine in the country. The shrine has beautiful, park-like grounds. I visited in the evening and they were all but deserted–a very peaceful experience.

The main hall, or honden, is over 24 meters tall and is supported by massive pillars made of cypress wood. The shrine’s unique architectural style, which features a thatched roof and open-air design, sets it apart from other Shinto shrines in Japan.

Izumo Taisha is also famous for its role in Japanese mythology and folklore. According to legend, every October, the gods from all over Japan gather at the shrine for a month-long meeting to discuss the fate of mortals. This event, known as the Kamiari Matsuri or “Meeting of the Gods,” draws pilgrims and visitors from all over Japan.

We got a laugh out of the Starbucks located directly across the street from Izumo Taisha. Japan seems to have fully embraced Starbucks. The presence of a Starbucks usually denotes a larger town.

Looking down main street in Izumo, from the entrance to Izumo Taisha:

The beaches in Izumo are sandy and beautiful. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset as we returned to Starr:

Our next stop was Sakaiminato, which turned into a bit of a fiasco. We arrived at a small marina and found an empty end-tie large enough for Starr. It was right in the middle of town. Our neighbor, Yasu, a former professional sailor, spoke excellent English. He thought it would be fine if we stayed for a few nights. Perfect!

The marina manager, however, said the slip was booked, and he called the Coast Guard, Customs, and seemingly every other agency he could think of. About 20 officials soon swarmed the dock. They told us we had to leave in the next 15 minutes and instructed us to go to a wall located far from everything. 

Out of options, we moved to the wall, where our new friends from the Coast Guard met us. Four of them insisted on coming aboard.

For the next 90 minutes, they grilled me about where we’d been, where we were going, who was onboard, and how much the boat cost (yes, they really asked!). They made me write down every stop we’d made in Japan. They explained that the closed port permit we’d been issued in Okinawa was no good in this part of Japan. They gave me a list of a few “open” ports we could visit and threatened me with two years in a labor camp and confiscation of Starr if we dared enter a closed port.

Finally, mercifully, they left.  Apparently they then called Kirk, our agent, to ask more questions. Kirk read them the riot act, told them they were wrong, and explained why. To the Coast Guard’s credit, they did return to apologize and confirmed that we are allowed to go to any port we want. Still, it was a frustrating evening.

I didn’t see much of Sakaiminato. The day after arriving, I flew to Tokyo for a week of R&R with my wife. I won’t detail that trip, other than to say that Tokyo is like an entirely different country from where we’ve been. It’s among the finest cities in the world–bustling yet orderly and clean, filled with world-class dining, and home to the best public transportation system I’ve ever used. We loved it.

More soon from Celeste about the week on Starr without me.

  • Chris Clothier
    Posted at 17:55h, 14 May Reply

    Another great article.

  • Andy Howard
    Posted at 18:12h, 14 May Reply

    Enjoyed the article Sam, hope you and your wife had fun in Tokyo. Looking forward to Celeste’s blog.

  • Luuk Oleson
    Posted at 19:13h, 14 May Reply

    Terrific story, again. The threatening officials would have sent me into a tailspin, but you are made of stronger stock. Can understand you needed R&R after that!
    Love the red cat supervising the gardener near the shrine. Fun catch in that photo.

  • Mary Ann Underwood
    Posted at 01:18h, 16 May Reply

    So interesting! And one section of your article–the boarding by numerous suspecious Japaneese officials–stand out in my mind. It reminds me that even with all of the planning and care we take to avoid the problems that you encountered, we are still subject to the laws or even whims of foreign officials in a foreign country.
    And when off the beaten path (or actually waters) which you always are, there are sure to be challanges. You handle them well. Such adventure!

  • Kimberley King
    Posted at 12:14h, 16 May Reply

    Oh my gosh! That last part sounded a
    I scary! I hope you could relax in Tokyo!

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