Area: 377 972 square km
Population: 127 million people
Religion: Shintoism and Buddhism
Currency: Japanese yen
Political system: constitutional monarchy
On the 11-th day of our cruising, during which we crossed 1500 nautical miles over the ink-blue waters north of the equator, we find ourselves under the clear morning sky watching at the rocky coast – the surreal silhouette of Chichijima (translated as “the island of the father”). It is a part of the island group Ogasawara aka Bonin – translated as “the uninhabited islands”.
I have dreamt of visiting Japan since I was in the kindergarten. So it is another dream come true – Japan, Japan, Japan!!! I shiver from the ecstasy in this cool sub tropical morning. This island is around 1000 km from Tokyo.
Interesting to know…
The islands Chichijima and Hahajima were known to Japanese sailors since the 16-the century but were first inhabited in the 19-th century by a handful of Europeans and Micronesian. It became officially Japanese territory at the end of the 19-the century and around 7000 people came to live here, their means being whale hunting.
During the WWII everyone on the island was evacuated and it was occupied by the Americans until the 60s when they gave it back to Japan.
Nowadays around 2000 people live here permanently – most of them on Chichijima Island. Most of the other smaller islands (30 of them) are uninhabited. The area is listed as UNESCO heritage because of its endemic flora and fauna that followed its own evolution being very far from any other land.
Port Futami and the main town Omura
Docks in Japan are free and one can use them unlimited amount of time. We are allowed entrance by the port authorities and slowly sail in the deep bay of Omura/port Futami. We won’t need to drop the anchor or use the dinghy. After “Alabama” is tied to the dock the custom and immigration authorities come on board to legalize our status. They are very calm and polite. They come we exchange what seem to us like thousand bows and say the phrase arigato godzaimas (thank you very much) also around thousand times. Then the officers take their shoes off and start inspecting the ship without touching anything. The check is fast and then we are taken to the central office for fingerprints and photos.
Everything here is so clean but what really astonishes us are the high-tech toilets. They seem a little intimidating at first with all their sensors and buttons. Later we find out it is really fun figuring out which button does what. One is to automatically lift and lower the toilet seat, the other plays music, the third one is for spraying aroma, there is one to regulate the water temperature and so on. At the customs office the bows and the politeness continue for some more time and soon we are free to roam the small town Omura and the island itself.
There is a small park next to the central beach which covered in white sands. A jazz festival is being held here at the moment and there is a small fair with food and drink stalls. We are yet again thrown in ecstasy by the colors, sounds, smells – the result of being ten days in sea. The air is crisp and the temperature is 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). Living at temperatures no lower than 25-26 degrees (77-78 Fahrenheit) for the last 12 months, this is quite cold for us and we are shivering.
The plants are also quite different than what we are used to in the recent months – low bushes and pine trees. People are really intriguing. To us the Japanese has always been of high interest – their culture, psyche and their behavior in general.
There are many young mothers with their babies, dancing and drinking beer in front of the stage. We are surprised to see so many alternative people albeit the small population. There are Rastafarians, art people, hippies… We expected the town to be more traditional, as there are just 2000 people living here. Many of the people though came to live here from Tokyo and obviously this helped in creating the art atmosphere. Every young couple has one or two babies. Everywhere we see charming Japanese kids running around. They seem to be so beautiful and free.
A Japanese girl
Contrary to our expectations Japanese people are communicative, always smiling and very curious. Every one asks us where we come from – who are these strange, bare footed people, living on a pirate ship, cruising around the world? To celebrate our arrival we treat ourselves to Japanese delicacies. The cuisine turns out to be great – salty, slightly sweet with soy sauce aftertaste.
Japanese man cooking noodles
It will soon be dark so Mr. Shushtari and I go for a walk around Omura, to soon find ourselves for the first time in a Shintoist temple. Shintoism is the Japanese religion that honors tree, mountain and river spirits as well as the ancestors.
The red temple on the hill is surrounded by low grass, bamboo trees, stone platforms and walls. There is a stone water reservoir behind a wooden door at the entrance with a ladle in it, inviting visitors to wash their hands before entering. The place is quiet, far from the noise of the town. There is no one around here except maybe the spirits inhabiting the surrounding mountain. This is exactly how we imagined Japan to be – to us it can’t get more Japanese than this.
The road goes through the hills over the harbor. There are many paths, signs and platforms to view the surrounding area. We haven’t seen such things for long time and run around the park willing to see everything, to walk on every path, before it gets dark.
It is mind-boggling how clean and arranged everything here is. Even though there are no tall buildings, industrial zones or factories, or even an airport, the infrastructure is amazing – perfect roads, super clean toilets everywhere, original modern houses with various architectures, small shops with bio products, luxury looking cafes and restaurants, signs, parks, parkings, information centers and what not.
The only problem here is the high prices – compared to them the ones in Vanuatu and Micronesia seem laughable (back then we thought they were unbearable). The cheapest things here cost 200-300 yens (2-3) dollars and the prices of the fruits and vegetables are astronomical.
The main street of Omura
After dinner we go back to the festival and dance under the accompaniment of the surprisingly good Tokyo bands.
The jazz fest continues today too, but the stage is on the other side of the island inside a beautiful area with amazing nature. After cleaning and ordering the boat we leave to the other side of the island hitchhiking. The town there is called Kominato and is 15 minutes away by car. Almost immediately a friendly woman stops and takes all four of us and the skate board we carry. Soon we arrive at a beautiful spot located in a narrow valley next to a picturesque river. There are three different stages each with its own music band playing.
Before we start partying Mr. Shushtari and I go for a walk next to the river and reach the nearby beach. Watching the sunset at this place, surrounded by silence is so incredible. The only thing that suddenly breaks the silence and startles us is the music that starts playing from some hidden speaker installed on a tree. It turns out such speakers are being put even in the wildest places everywhere in Japan. Their purpose is to warn people in cases of emergency and declare the end of the working day at 5 p.m.
Back to the jazz festival to watch interesting Kiribati dances. Japanese people have still kept this tradition from the first Micronesian inhabitants and practice it today. Later there is an incredible performance on drums, didgeridoos, as well as yoga, alternative music and many other things. The festival is free to attend.
In the meantime the people from the crew sell hot chocolate for 400 yens (4 USD) the cup and it becomes so popular that there are people buying it all the time. We have more than 100 kg of organic raw cacao beans and during the months spent on “Alabama” we mastered many ways to prepare it. In few hours our people made 270 USD (2700 yens).
Later one of our new friends Yoshi takes us with his car back to Omura and even offers us to use his car whenever we want because he lives on the next island Hahajima. The trust and the generosity of the people here wins our hearts. The rest of the crew stay in a hotel where the owner offered them to sleep for free if the next day they help her clean her lawn where one of the stages is installed.
We continue exploring the island. Besides the Shintoist temple in Omura there is also a small Catholic church left by the Americans. The small shops, where they sell strange and new to us kinds of food, are also very interesting. After sending a letter from the nearby post office it is time to climb a low mountain. The plants along the pathway are enchanting – sub tropical bushes, endemic flowers, low trees and blooming hibiscuses.
Into the forest
In the afternoon Aska leaves on a ferry to Tokyo where she will attend her sister’s wedding. The departure of the ferry is a big event that needs to be described. This ferry is the only connection of these islands to the rest of Japan. It sails once a week so every departure is accompanied by strong emotions. Friends and relatives wave at each other. The speakers play heart-rending music. Before the ferry sails there is also a parade by the crew and the captain with drums and dances. After the ferry sets sails a group of motor boats sends it off till it exits the bay. Aska goes back to Tokyo with style and we go to our boat where new and old friends engage in chatting and drinking tea.
Chichijima island can be reached only by ferry as there is no airport. The ferry Ogaswara Maru travels between the island and Tokyo once a week and crosses the distance of thousand miles for 24 hours. The price for one way ticket is 250$.
28. – 30.11
During the next three days we are training kung-fu at the Shintoist temple, ride skateboard, practice martial arts movements with stick and embark on walks. Then we do a trek to Miyanohama Beach and then to Tsurihama Beach along the north coast. There is a viewing platform there and one can see the uninhabited close-by island Anijima. Views are breathtaking.
Views from the north coast of Chichijima
On the way back a truck full of workers pass by and stop to take us, which is quite lucky as we didn’t see any other vehicles on the road. In the evening there is a big party on “Alabama” and more than 20 people come – everyone brings homemade dishes and drinks. We on our side prepare hummus and bread, which are both very exotic for the Japanese people since no one here has an oven in their house and one can’t easily find bread in the shops too. Music and dances echo in the harbor till late.
01. – 03.12
The water pump of the engine breaks so the boat needs repairs and our departure is postponed. The new pump is supposed to arrive with the next ferry so we continue exploring Chichijima.
Part of the crew takes Yoshi’s car and embarks on a journey around the island, which is not more than 20 km long. At some point we find ourselves next to some paths, that are not displayed on the tourist maps. One can go on them only with a special guide after going through training as the paths go through some vulnerable zones with rare animals and plants.
Before entering these zones one needs to take precautions. In the beginning of every trek there are detailed instructions what to do: one needs to brush out all the soil from their soles and then one needs to spray the soles with vinegar – all this to avoid introducing new types of microorganisms in this environment. Then you need to use a special sticky roll to take any seeds off your clothes. When done you need to put a pebble in a cup and write where exactly you are going. In the evening the forest rangers count the pebbles and write down how many people have entered and where they went. We have never seen such an advanced ecological techniques up to now.
Cleaning procedures before going into the park
Further down the road there is a huge area surrounded with wire fence that is so tall that no human or animal could go over. It is quite a solid investment to protect the Japanese forest pigeon.
Our walk continues to a small Gyogyoji Buddhist temple with a massive bell at the entrance. It is situated in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by bamboo trees. This is such a classic Japanese view. We slide the doors and our jaws drop – perfect zen style with simplicity, perfectionism and cleanness. Small pillows are arranged in front of the altar where there is a statue of Buddha and some strange ritualistic objects next to them and books with prayers. The ceiling is painted in traditional style and there are a few paintings of samurai. This is exactly how we imagined Japan should be.
Our walk comes to an end at a small picturesque beach called Kopepe. Many years ago Kiribati people used to live here. We then go back to return to our friends and they invite us to dinner. It is the first time we will visit a Japanese home. The apartment has a dining room, a bedroom and a kitchen all in one space. It is so clean. The furniture and everything is very modern and so hi-tech that it takes us some time to figure out how to turn on the water in the bathroom 🙂
Dinner with Yoshi and Hasumi
Hasumi, who is Yoshi’s girlfriend, serves us tea and soon dinner is ready. We eat white rice served with many small plates with different dishes inside: fish, vegetables and miso soup (miso is fermented soy paste). Everything is very delicious and we learn some new recipes.
The next day Yoshi and Hasumi come to visit us on “Alabama” where the crew organizes baking workshop for them and other people who want to learn how to bake bread. In the afternoon Marchelo leaves to Tokyo as there is a new order for a yacht that needs to be delivered from Japan to Korea. Aska and him will do the job and we will meet them in Korea.
Kiribati dances before the ferry leaves to Tokyo
04. – 07.12
Days go by in training kung-fu and walking around the island. Suddenly one day the custom authorities come to “Alabama” with a motor boat. At this moment “Alabama” is anchored in the bay as the dock is used by other ships. The officers have heard that we are selling cacao around the island and come to warn is that this is absolutely illegal as the whole island is protected area and it is forbidden to bring any plants or animals on it. They are friendly and ask us to give them a list of all people we have sold cacao to so that they can confiscate it.
Fortunately they don’t want to fine us or take our cacao but otherwise sound quite serious. They also tell us to not throw any garbage as it may be contaminated with foreign seeds or microorganisms.
It is raining all day and the weather is cool. In the evening there is a long announcement broadcast via the speakers around the island. Later we understand that it is a warning to all citizens to NOT buy cacao from us. We are famous here now. One friend even told her that he heard some kids in the school talking about the “pirates” in the bay and how they want to become pirates when they grow up 🙂
The next few days keeps raining and Tom must to continue dealing with the customs as they want to know who bought cacao from us. The thing is we don’t know most of the people who did.
Later we meet Dan – an incredible guy teaching English at the local school. He has broad specter of interests starting with his studying religion at the university, then living in India, continuing with his praying in Greek Orthodox manner, writing a novel, singing Spanish songs on a ukulele. He has also studied Japanese, practices kendo (Japanese martial art with swords originating in Samurai times) and so on…
We become friends quickly and he comes every day on the boat. One of the days we visit a small party in some restaurant with him and then witness some pretty impressive Kendo practice: people are dressed in Samurai clothes and shout really wildly while hitting each other on the helmets they wear with bamboo swords. At the end we are invited to practice with them and show our respect to the 70 years old sensei.
Another interesting activity, we get engaged into during the rainy days, is shuffling through items in an incredible second hand shop located in a library – a cozy place to shop and read traditional Japanese books. Everything they sell is so cheap and of quality. They have amazing clothes, tea-pots, traditional objects, kites, plates, wooden swords, kimonos – each thing with the prices of 100 yens ( 1$). If you buy more than 10-15 things you pay 10 $. “Alabama’s” inventory is replenished – new speakers, amplifiers and vinyls. People also bought new winter clothes and there was no place left where to put the new cutlery.
One day Afra (the Taiwanese girl) goes to do some voluntary work in a farm and they give her tons of free vegetables, but to our horror she also brings a pea-cock and says she will kill it on the boat. Half the crew are vegetarians of vegans so finally we manage to persuade her to do her deeds on the nearby rocks. I feel really bad that I couldn’t save the animal and cry for several hours.
The custom officers, this time together with naval police representatives, come again on board because some woman gave back her cacao and she had quite a lot. This time they are more serious and ask us to write a letter to excuse ourselves and confirm that we had sold the cacao before they first warned us. They also told Tom that if we continue doing this he can be punished with a sentence of up to 3 years and 100 000 $ fine (1 million yens) as he is the captain. So our life as cacao barons is over… for now at least 🙂
The water pump arrives today. Instead of installing it and leaving the next day, as was the plan, things were postponed again. The forecast is scary with expected winds up to 30-40 knots. There is no reason to risk everything, especially with the condition the boat is in now. We will wait for one more week hoping the weather will get better. The only problem is that every time we delay our departure Tom needs to go to the immigration office and extend our stay. Rules here are pretty strict so we have to specify every time how long we plan to stay. In addition the decision to grant permission is made in Tokyo as the island is under its prefecture.
Interesting fish on the quay
Guests keep visiting us and everyone brings something – vegetables, bread or some interesting items. Our friends Yoshi and Hasumi offer us to use their bathroom and even launder our clothes. It is so good to have such amazing friends!
08. – 11.12
Finally the rain days are over and we pack our rucksacks as there are still some paths on the island that still need to be explored. After walking out of the town and waving for 10 minutes nobody stops so we continue on foot. In the area there are some very modern tunnels and not many cars. We see a small Shintoist temple in the forest, built by the Japanese discoverer of the island named Sadoiri Ogaswara.
Without even noticing we arrive at Kominato Beach where the longest path on the island starts. It goes through pine and pandanus trees and is quite picturesque with views towards the white sand beaches of Chichijima. After climbing a mountain the path continues to John beach where we plan to stay for the night. Everywhere along the path there are signs, staircases and rails. Before the beach there is a table for picnic with a plastic first aid kid, bottle of water, shovels, tent, blanket and even a portable toilet!
The beaches of Chichijima
The beach is beautiful but it is windy so we stay in the forest behind it. Camping on the island is prohibited but we will not pitch our tent and will sleep in the open. Mr. Shushtari notices a camera with movement censors for wild animals. He puts a t-shirt over it so we can walk freely around. It is cold so we set carefully set a fire a little worried because of our status of cacao bandits 🙂
The dinner is noodles in tomato sauce. Not long after it starts raining heavily and we go under the shelter. Soon all is wet. Mr. Shushtari fusses about while I sleep in a puddle dressed with a raincoat and being relatively dry. Soon rain stops and we go back to the fire to dry the sleeping bags. They don’t dry fully but we are grateful to be home again – in the forest.
In the morning Mr. Shushtari hides all traces of us being here. Suddenly Seba (the French pirate) shows up. It turns out he also did trekking in the evening and slept in the tent near the picnic table. There is no water around so we eat some bread and head back.
Around the island
Our trip continues on another pathway leading to Kopepe Beach where we decide to stay. There are toilets, water and nice pavilions. The afternoon is spent napping while some local surfers ride the rocky sea. In the evening it starts raining again and we hide in the toilets that are not only clean but even cozy in some way.
Then this happens: small black worms start coming from everywhere. We try to sweep them away but they are attracted to us for some reason. This makes our sleeping options tricky. Soon it is obvious that the invasion won’t stop, no matter what we do, so we move to the pavilion which has broken roof. After setting the upper layer of the tent under the roof the place stays relatively dry.
Pathway on the rocks
It rains till noon. Breakfast is rice and lentils and this is the last food we bring on us. It is time to return to “Alabama”. Back to Omura in the library. Inside it there is Christmas bazaar and the crew buys even more stuff. We spend the evening with Yoshi and Hasumi and bake brownies and bread.
It is our last day on Chichijima. After some cleaning and securing the boat we are ready. There are 700 nautical miles left to Kyushu, one of the four big islands of Japan. In the evening there are many guests who bring awesome vegetarian dishes. Tears are shed when we say goodbye to the island people. 17 days went so fast on this amazing Japanese island…