Friday, October 20, 2006

October in Amakusa

Fall has come to Amakusa, and with it a subtle change of colors, not to mention some of the best weather of the year. Dusting off our climbing and biking equipment, are making the best of it. Here are a few pictures snapped along the way going rock climbing, biking, kayaking...
Cosmos is Japan’s national fall flower. In many places, rice paddies drained and harvested earlier are heavily seeded with this ornamental, and by mid-fall the fields burst forth in delicate purplish colors. Though the Japanese call this flower kosumosu, when written, the kanji characters spell “autumn cherry blossom”. And so romancing couples, families in minivans, and groups of elderly folks again visit the countryside in search of these fleeting bursts of color.

Ojizou-sama, a land-protecting deity, has guarded these fields from his small rock-island ringed by higanbana flowers. He has done his duty well: the rice in the fields seems to have come undamaged through the season’s two typhoons.

Elsewhere, some of the fields have been roughed-up a bit, but overall, the storms came early and the young plants had resisted the winds well. Now the paddies have been drained, and the rice is rapidly drying on the stalk, ready to be harvested. Early October is the busiest rice harvest season here.

As the summer’s heat wanes, the nights are pleasantly cool and daytime temperatures hover near the 25-degree mark. Free from the heat, we have reinstated the Saturday morning MTB rides (all are welcome!).
Here, Kazuhisa displays speed and skill as he descends a twisty double-track in Sousaku, Kawaura Town.

Fall is also the best time for spear fishing, what with the calm seas, warm water, and brilliant sunny weather. Around twice a week, we set out on our kayaks for an hour’s paddle to one of the outlying rocks, where we dive for fish. Typically, within two hours our cooler is full and we return home with far more than we can eat. Students, fellow teachers, and friends are all delighted to receive presents of fresh, quality fish. Here, Leanne is ready to plunge into the sea off the rocks of Okinose in Amakusa’s southwest extremity.

On Saturday evenings, I make the 35-minute scenic drive to the west coast village of Shimoda, where we hold one English class a week for elementary school aged kids. I have always enjoyed teaching in Shimoda. Here the class of ’06 are seen dipping their feet in the sea just before the start of their lesson.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Amakusa Complete 1-day Circumnavigation

Start: Oct 8th, 1402h
Finish: Oct 9th, 1448h
Distance traveled: 176km
Average speed: 7.2km/h

The course of the complete Amakusa circumnavigation. The shortest possible course (not shown) is about 172km in length; it ought to be negotiable in less than 24 hours. My own track is colored according to speed of travel, and the red ticks indicate my hourly progress.

On the weekend of Oct. 8th, the weather and tides cooperated to create workable conditions for re-attempting a circumnavigation by kayak: 172km around the complete archipelago, including all outlying above-water and drying rocks. The idea to do this occurred to me when doing the circuit of Amakusa’s largest Shimo Island earlier this year: this 117km tour took 16hours. Re-checking the geography and nature of the sea currents, it then seemed that a 24-hour tour of the entire group was possible. My first attempt took place on September 10th; because of the prevailing winds I chose the somewhat less favorable counterclockwise route, with a pre-dawn start from the city of Ushibuka in the south. The attempt ended in a miserable failure, mostly due to stronger than expected winds, which made me 2 hours late at the strategic Misumi Strait in the north-east. “Time and Tide wait for no man”, it is said, and so it was: there was no point in continuing as I would encounter impossible currents later in the Hayasaki Strait. I had borrowed a friend’s lightweight kayak (thanks, Ushi-kun!), which I test-paddled to find 3 or 4% faster than mine, but in large waves and strong tailwind, the unstable boat became a liability as I beat a long and laborious retreat to my home port of Hondo, including a couple of unplanned baths in the still lukewarm sea. In retrospect I arrived home more exhausted than I would have been had I made good time and was able to finish the entire circuit.

Fishing boats crowd the Hayasaki Seto. The boats take advantage of the fast currents (somehow) to catch more fish.

So here I was in Ushi-kun’s boat again, this time at Amakusa’s north-west extremity of Cape Shikizaki, on a beautiful, sunny mid-afternoon. The sea was calm as I set an easterly course toward the inland seas. Porpoises and dolphins were seen here and there breaking the glassy sea surface. As it was Sunday, freight traffic was low and I had the whole Hayasaki Strait to myself as I caught the beginning flood current; soon I was moving at more than 10km/h toward the distinctive Yu-shima and Misumi mountain in the distance. I was on a strict schedule, which, if met, would complete the circuit in 22h 40min. Thus I had 1h 20min to spare for the 1-day tour. At Yushima, as the red sun sank beneath the horizon, I was 15minutes behind time; this was due to an apparent late start of the flood current at Hayasaki. Anyhow, it was nothing to worry about – yet.

But now night had fallen and the wind and waves picked up. Ushi-kun’s boat is not so bad so long as one heads into the wind, which is what I was now doing. The strong currents opposed to the wind kicked up higher and higher waves; I was now soaked but quick checks of the GPS showed I was flying forward. Busy with the waves, I nevertheless noticed a light quickly moving toward me; checking we were not on a collision course, I focused again on the waves. It was the “Marinview”, a high speed ferry connecting Kumamoto and Hondo, on its final run. Around this time I wandered a little too far to the south; perhaps I was subconsciously being pulled away from the rough waves toward the shores of Oyano Island to starboard. Anyhow, suddenly I was in calm water but alas, my speed had dropped also! I contemplated whether to go back into the high-speed maelstrom or sacrifice some time in relative safety. I chose the latter option and by the time I reached the Misumi and Zozo Straits, I had tacked on another 25 minutes to my tardiness. I would have to work extra hard in the next 8 hours to make the Nagashima Strait before the current turned against me there and stopped me in my tracks.

For sustenance, I carried a large bag in my cockpit which contained: 2 liters of sports drink, 3 liters of Coke, 3 uniquely Japanese ‘energy drinks’ (noxious concoctions which overworked businessmen guzzle in the belief they will be somehow energized; they are actually the main source of revenue for Japanese pharmaceutical companies, who seem to have a monopoly on their manufacture), 15 jell-packs (at 170 calories each and about a 10-second consumption time, these are one of the fastest ways of ingesting nourishment), 5 Snickers bars, 5 tubes of sweetened condensed milk, one pre-made spaghetti-salad. All this amounted to about 7000 calories and though I didn’t feel particularly hungry or thirsty at any time, I force-fed myself at regular intervals to maintain an adequate energy level. (Incidentally, though I partook amply of McDonalds, KFC, and pizza the night before, and inhaled all the above food and drink, I lost 1.5kg during the trip.) Calls of nature were satisfied using the usual bilge sponge, though through careful rationing of liquid I only had to go twice.

Sucking up a jell-pack or two, I tried not to stop paddling for long. A long stretch of the Yatsushiro Sea now presented itself beyond the bow. I tried to allay boredom by listening to the radio, but the music only seemed noisy and the best moments occurred between the songs when the quieter sounds of the sea again reached my ears. So I put the earphones away and paddled on. A full moon climbed high into the sky, and there was no problem seeing where to go. When my energy again began to wane, I tried an energy drink, but all it did was give me an upset stomach. A slug or two of Coke, on the other hand, and the speed indicated on the GPS jumped up so suddenly I had to stop and make sure I did not hit a current. Coke is it!

In the pre-dawn hours I rode the ebb tide through the Gannoshiri, Hachiman and Nagashima Straits. This is normally a busy shipping route; I was now criss-crossing it at will to cut distance and to ride the fastest currents. At night the lack of freighters gives one this freedom. At Nagashima Strait I had shrunk my delay to only 25 minutes, but even so the flood current had already started, slowing me down considerably for the next 15km.

The sun is about to rise over the hills of Nagashima island; the day's first freight ship heads for the Nagashima Strait, probably bound for the port city of Yatsushiro.

At sunrise, at the tour’s southernmost point and ostensibly in the open sea, I was amazed at the sucking power of the straits I had just left behind: I was barely avoiding being drawn back in. The sea was lurching and bubbling all around me, as if possessed by demons. Eager to be free of this unexpected phenomenon, I dipped a little too deep into my remaining stores of energy and soon my elbow began to hurt.

At Katashima, an isolated island and the southwest extremity of Amakusa, I surmised I was a whole hour behind schedule. That left only 20 minutes to spare. I wasted further time seeing if using the spare paddle would relieve my elbow pain; it wouldn’t so I re-stowed it laboriously, barely avoiding capsize. Eventually I found that concentrating on paddling form helped the pain the most. It was full speed ahead once more and the elbow, amazingly, would not bother me again.

At Amakusa's southwest extremity are small islets, rocks and numerous shoals. They face the open sea and storm waves roll in during much of the summer and winter seasons Gongen-yama, the conical hill in the background on Shimo Island, is a landmark for local fishermen in the offing.

Things went smoothly the next 20km. It was easiest to just stare at the bow of the kayak, at the water just ahead, or at the speed readout of the GPS, and concentrate on form. Subtle changes in paddling stroke reflected clearly in the indicated speed. Hours slipped by, and my delay too was shrinking. Then, just before the landmark Ogase rocks, I suddenly saw some scum being sucked under deep by a small eddy in otherwise calm water. As soon as I went over this, my speed dropped by 15%. Oh great, the tide had changed! Looking ahead, the previously calm sea was now becoming crowded with small, dancing waves. The countercurrent became stronger and stronger, and soon I had to give up on making the 24-hour mark. After some moments of frustration, I resigned to my fate and paddled on. But this current took me by surprise; I didn’t know that such strong movement occurs here along the open seacoast. Clearly I don’t yet know enough about the Amakusa sea.

I made the goal 24h and 46min after my departure yesterday. Still in surprisingly good shape after such an ordeal, I didn’t feel sleepy or especially tired, though my back muscles were sore. Needless to say my legs didn’t work very well when I got out of the kayak; I had been sitting in the same position for more than a day! Therafter for another day, my butt would hurt just to sit on. Leanne had biked to Tomioka and had met me; presently we drove down the coast to the Shimoda hot spring, where I finally began losing consciousness in the hot bath. I hardly reacted as Leanne poured cold water over me to wake me up. I was flying high on endorphins.

Is a 24-hour circuit possible? By someone stronger than myself, certainly yes. For a while I wondered if doing it during the spring tide was a good idea; at neap tide one would only have to paddle steadily at 7.2km/h to make it. While the current may speed one’s progress, there seemed to be many times where I was also slowed down. At these times I was also obliged to deviate from my set course, adding further distance to the trip. But when I later subjected my trajectory to careful study, I found that although total course deviations added to 8km extra distance, the current still saved me 65 minutes overall. It was rather surprising that even though I tried to take only minimal breaks, my total de-powered time was 118 minutes! Clearly, breaks have to be better organized. Perhaps it’s possible to cut this time down by half. Finally, with the new, hard-earned hydrographic information, a few minor adjustments to the trajectory and timing could save another hour. Thus, at the same power output, maybe a 23-hour traverse is even possible, and by none other than scrawny Yours Truly. To be continued…

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Okinawa Kayak trip, Summer 2006, Part 6

Map of the trip.
That night, the heat is unbearable. Inside the tent the air is so thick and heavy as to be suffocating. Outside the tent the swarms of mosquitos devower my body. There is nothing one can do but give up on everything and set out to sea in the middle of the night. Navigating in the dark is okay with the GPS, but dealing with waves and gusts of wind is a challenge. Once we leave the wind shadow of the island, we are hit with fairly large waves and wind from behind. Staying together is challenging, but very important. A lot of my energy is focused on keeping together and staying right side up. With practice your body becomes adept at retaining its balance not through visual cues but rather from the feel of the water on your boat. Before we know it the sun has risen and we have made great progress. For once conditions are favorable, and as it is our final crossing I feel comfortable overextending my energy, knowing that the days ahead will give me plenty of opportunity for recovery. We reach our final destination in the morning, having made record time in our last crossing. At the port in Yoron various workers greet us and share our excitement in our achievement. Cell phones instantly bring a string of onlookers, even the local English teacher is summoned, and paraded in front of us. As if all being foreigners meant that we somehow have something in common. We are happy to be at our final goal with a few days even to spare. We can now for a few days pretend we are normal tourists on a romantic holiday on a tropical island!
That evening we go and see the Kariyushi Band, a local band that performs every night at their own personal bar. Last year while on a kayak trip from Okinawa to Amami Oshima, we were first introduced to this dynamic band. Seeing them again is wonderful. Their lead singer is a stunning sanshin player and their mix of Okinawa music local traditional music is a unique blend of styles. By the end of the night all guest are friends and we join together dancing and singing.
The next day we spend the morning kayaking (surprise, surprise). We have already grown tired of the land and long for the sea. On a tourist map we find a strange tourists attraction for scuba diving enthusiasts- an underwater marriage ceremony chapel. In our kayaks we set out to find this structure. For hours we kayak around the outside of the reef, flipping over every few meters with our diving goggles on, looking for the chapel. For hours we perfect our rolling technique and finally after almost giving up, we come upon the chapel. After anchoring our boats we take turns diving down the 18 meters to the chapel and take goofy pictures.
Engrossed in our silliness we hardly notice a kayak coming toward us. This is the first time on the entire trip that we would meet a kayaker. As it turns out the buffed and carefully tanned Mr.Sakae works for the local B&G club, which has a supply of sea kayaks. He had heard about our arrival to the Island, and had been on the lookout for us. He kindly invites us back to their head quarters, but as we have spent most of the day playing at the underwater chapel we now have to get going if we want to circumnavigate the island and go snorkeling before the sun goes down. Yoron Island is almost completely surrounded by a coral reef. Once you are inside you are basically trapped. Upon inquiring to Mr. Sakae about the best possible route, he encourages us to take the inside route. Mr.Sakae offers us an escort part of the way around the island. The inside route ends up being quite exciting as we surf waves that are breaking over the reef. Mr.Sakae is no slouch, and is obviously an experienced sea kayaker.

Finally rounding the northwest corner we are protected from the waves and enjoy one last snorkel before the sun goes down. The next morning we hang out on the pier talking with the local people fishing and finally drag our kayaks over the tetrapods and up to the ferry terminal. We are not eager to be leaving this magical island. All of our struggles and hardships are over and we should feel relieved but instead we find ourselves accustomed to this way of life and relaxed.

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