This post was written on Wednesday 15th August 2007, 21:47 JST
Apologies if the images do not display correctly – TGW is being blocked by the people in power in this country, thus I’m not entirely sure I’ve picked the right ones off Flickr!
Voyage to Shanghai
Location: Dining room on the Shanghai-bound ferry, Xinjianzhen
Somewhere in the middle of the East China Sea.
Distance Travelled: a long way
Number of hours of sea-sickness: 12
Number of new friends: 20+
Photos taken: 300+
What an incredible start to this epic adventure. It started at Osaka Port 36 hours ago, with Simon and I sharing a taxi from the station to the International Ferry Terminal with Yoshi, whom we met when getting off the train – he had the appearance of an international traveller about him. Turns out that like myself he’s an amateur photographer, also making his way through China to Mongolia. Here he can be seen on the right, sitting on the front of our ferry with thingamijig, who’s also been a good companion.
Trouble at the border
Unfortunately Simon wasn’t allowed any further than the indoor viewing gallery, from where he did a superb job of photographing me on deck, and acting as an interpreter – using sign language – between myself and *Twinkle* who had just missed her last chance to speak to me on his phone. Our limited non-verbal communication skills weren’t sufficient for me to convey the trauma I’d just experienced on passing through immigration; I had almost been prevented from leaving thanks to a little law by which I was unable to abide. The thing is, is that every foreigner who stays in Japan for 3 months or more must carry an Alien Registration ID Card, which must be surrendered upon departure. For some reason, I got it into my head that I’d sent it back to the UK last week, when considering holding onto it as a kind of memento.
The immigration official was absolutely furious when I explained that I didn’t have it with me, telling me in a raised tone that there was no way that I could leave without surrendering the card in question. There wasn’t much I could do but apologise profusely, and reassure him that I’d send it back as soon as possible. Whilst he continued to berate me, his tone softened and he produced a form for me to fill in, which basically stated that I was a naughty boy unable to stick to the law, and that I would make every effort to rectify the situation.
It was only once I was on the ferry that I found the card in question in my wallet, where I always keep it…
The Voyage of Dreams
It was just over two years ago that I first fell in love with the Inland Sea, that section of water between Japan’s main island of Honshu and its fourth island, Shikoku. In the summer of 2005 I did some voluntary work on an organic mikan farm in Ehime prefecture, and thus crossed the Inland Sea via Japan’s longest bridge (I forget the length, but it’s a few kilometres at least). In the days leading up to that journey I’d read Donald Richie’s beautiful The Inland Sea, in which he recounts the tale of his time spent island hopping in the 1970s. He describes a spellbindingly picturesque part of Japan, a long way from the hustle and bustle of the big cities. Life proceeds at a relaxed pace under the vast blue sky; the sea, protected on all sides by islands remains calm throughout the year.
I’d been under the impression that our ferry would head south from Osaka, out into the open sea, skirting the bottom of both Shikoku and Kyushu on its passage across the East China Sea. It wasn’t long before I realised that this wasn’t the case; we were heading due West, and it wasn’t long before I could spot our friend’s apartment block in Kobe through my 200mm lens. Somewhat appropriately, we also passed by the last airport that I took a flight from, the flight that convinced me that flying was not the way to go, and helped me decide to make this surface trip.
I must admit, I was absolutely overjoyed when it clicked that we were going to travel the entire length of the Inland Sea, a journey which was to take over 15 hours. Wherever we looked we saw beauty. The deep blue of the mirror sea, dotted with islands rising to form feint horizons. It had a magical quality, drawing all passengers together to form a community of happy souls, free from mainland restraints, soaking up the freedom and breathing it back out through huge smiles. It was whilst we stood together on the bow of the boat that exchanges of “Wow! It’s so beautiful!” developed into name exchanges and longer conversations.
For the first few hours of the voyage the weather was absolutely beautiful, blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds, but this was not to last. As we neared the middle of the sea so dark clouds appeared on the horizon, giving birth to torrential waterfalls that smothered the ground below them. We seemed to be heading just to the right hand of the of the storm – would we be fortunate enough to miss it completely?
As the sun set so we retired to this gloriously tasteless dining room, complete with flower-petal curtains and fake velvet tablecloths. It also happens to be equipped with a tax-free beer vending machine – lethal for a Joseph in party mood. It was a fun night though, with all manner of characters providing amusement. There’s Yuka, whose 7 years in the US seem to not only have given her near-faultless English, but have also equipped her with a very outgoing personality! Then there’s Tatsuya, who also spent some time in America: three years from the age of 7 mean that his English is indistinguishable from that of a native speaker. There’s Harry and his friend (William?) from Hampshire (UK), who are four weeks into their 9-week trip around Asia. There’s Kan, a Chinese girl who wants me to take her laptop computer when we disembark so that she doesn’t have to pay import duty. I’ve had to turn her down, you never know what might be inside the hard-drive casing! There’s the Italian chap and his Chinese wife on their way home from a short summer holiday in Western Japan. There’s Kerry and Courtney, two American girls taking the long route home after a year working in Nagoya.
Finally, there’s Kaya, an extraordainary three-year-old Japanese girl who speaks with the thought and intelligence of a 40-year-old professor. She understands irony, and knows how to create a reaction, manipulating her audience. She is destined for greatness.
…and there are many more now familiar faces that one smiles at and says hello when one passes them in the corridor.
When I awoke at 5am to catch the sunrise, we were still passing by the southern coast of Honshu. With the wooded hills not all that far away, it was easy to lose oneself imagining what life was like in that isolated area of Japan. I promised myself I would visit someday – it looks so peaceful.
Today has been a lazy day. I chose not to partake in the gymnastics class in the karaoke room held by the crew – now dressed in the most startling skin-tight leotards you’ve ever seen. I chose instead to try and sleep off my sea-sickness. Once out in the ocean proper the waves were merciless – sick backs appeared, hanging from banisters all over the ship. At one point I ran from my comfortable 8-birth cabin to the side of the ship, sure that I was about to throw up. However, gazing at the waves that matched the motion in my body quelled my uneasiness; I grinned, and tried to remember that in case of emergency I wasn’t to get excited.
I’m feeling better now as the sea has calmed, and it’s hours since I had any of the restaurant food that makes plane-food seem like the kind of thing served in five-star hotels. I’ve slept quite a bit, chatted with new friends, listened to my backlog of podcasts. The sunset was just beautiful, setting the horizon on fire with its golden glow.
It’s now almost midnight. I plan to get up in about 5 hours in order to catch the sunrise, and the final 3 hours of our voyage as we approach the east coast of China.
From the middle of the East China Sea, this is Joseph saying “bye-bye” in Mandarin Chinese, which I seem to have forgotten…!