Perhaps the most interesting way to access Yushima by kayak is from Wakamiya beach, a small public facility located in the town of Oniike on Amakusa Shimo Island. From here, the island lies about 15km to the ENE. Although by no means the closest, this access is convenient because it is roughly aligned with the direction of the tidal currents, which in this area are rather strong. Thus one can have the pleasure of progressing at double digit speeds while leisurely paddling along - if one could always move this fast, kayaking would be a completely different sport!
We imagined riding the current would be easy when we first set out on this tour a couple years ago. But we ended up struggling both ways and it took two more trips to figure a reasonable route to take maximum advantage of the flow, because its speed and direction varies considerably from place to place due to the influence of the surrounding coasts and the uneven profile of the seafloor.
On this map, we show the more or less optimal approach (blue) and return (red) tracks, along with the directions and speeds of the currents at intervals along each track (the scale for the current speed appears above the distance scale). The inbound leg should be done at mid-flood, and the return at mid-ebb tide. This gives one several hours to explore the island while waiting for the tide to turn. If the trip is attempted at spring tide, each leg will take an average paddler less than 2 hours to complete. However, if you deviate significantly from the tracks or time frames, you will end up fighting the current and spending much more time and energy than that. Take our word for it!
Climbing up on land, one can observe the currents around Yushima boil and swirl. This can easily intimidate a kayaker. In any case, this is clearly not a beginner's trip, involving as it does much open water and difficult navigation. And as the tide changes, depending on the wind, the sea may either suddenly calm or with little warning roil up with roaring tidal rapids.
Any locals that happen to see our chosen method of transport will be utterly unable to understand how a kayak could be made to navigate these waters. The farmers typically have no direct experience with the sea even living completely surrounded by it in a place such as this, and imagine it a great void filled with demons and other unfathomable terrors. This image is in fact prevalent nearly everywhere in Japan, a fact that surprised us when we first came into this land where the sea is never too far away. But in fact for the Japanese, the sea is the end of the world, and for hundreds of years in the past, when no one was allowed to leave the archipelago, this was literally so. Today, it is still quite incomprehensible to a foreigner that even here in the south of the country, many of the local childern have never even so much as waded into the beautiful sea that's right in their back yard.
A detailed map of the island, based on Japanese topographical maps as well as our own GPS explorations. The landing point shown is convenient both from the point of approach and departure, as well as offering more privacy than the beach in town to change out of one's wet clothes. There is a small pebble strand to land on and stairs through the concrete seawall; the boats can be carried up and dumped in the weeds on the inland side of the road.
We always have fun walking around the narrow steep paths of the village clinging to the hillside, with its numerous cats and bizarrely shaped banyan trees. Higher above, the path breaks through a band of forest and scrub that hugs the steepest parts of the hillside. Climbing steeply through this, we enjoy the wide views of the sea, now from a higher perspective. The town and port rest directly below.
A look at the Yushima Elementary School completes the tour. Japanese schools are, like in most other places, a concise look at the native society. What we see here are, most likely, all the kids of the island assembled in front of the spacious building which contains, well, about one classroom per student. Was the government anticipating some kind of population explosion here when they planned this colossus? No, in fact, this situation points only to the gross overspending, inefficiency, and corruption of the Japanese bureaucracy. (Consider also that Yushima, along with 40% of all Japanese towns, still does not have a sewer system per se, or a waste water treatment facility.) The school as well as the concrete seaport, seems to be in fact a thinly concealed buildup of the infrastructure for none other than military purposes. There is so much of this kind of stuff around now, as well as the roads crisscrossing the mountainsides, that to destroy it all would probably take more conventional explosives than even the Americans possess. Japan is currently militarizing even further (in spite of its constitution prohibiting the military, Japan has always had one), and fighter jets, helicopters, camo jeeps or troops in fatigues marching around the mountains are an increasingly common sight. These kids here too, all they need is a change in the color of the uniform. Where Canadian kids run around the playgound at recess, these ones are marched around the yard by their authoritarian teachers. A banner on the school, which rather reminds me of my own childhood spent in a Soviet-bloc communist country, reads, "Learn well, play well" when in fact, any playtime is nearly over for these kids who from junior high school till nearly the end of their lives will experience 12+ hour, 6+ day work weeks and virtually no meaningful free time. The peaceful, almost quaint, aspect of this scene only completes the Orwellian atmosphere here on an island barely a kilometer across, in rural southern Japan.
After a few hours on the island, we see that the tide has turned. We descend back to our boats, don our rubber suits, and set out on the sea again. The ebb current grabs us, and Yushima recedes quickly astern.