On a Wing and a Prayer by Jeff Allen

Some things in life are just meant to happen. Paddle Japan was one such thing. From an idle comment over a cup of tea with `Hadas’ came a whole Japanese Odyssey. It all started at a kayak Dealers Meet in September `03, “Where would you most like to paddle, Hadas?” was the idle comment. “Hokkaido” was her reply. That was it. Some kind of karmic agreement had been settled upon, and after very little planning `Hadas’ and I found ourselves meeting up in Narita airport and beginning a six-month journey by kayak around the four main Islands of Japan.


Legend has it than when God was designing the surface of our planet He came to Japan and, after painting the four main islands, He accidentally knocked his brush, thereby showering over two thousand tiny droplets in and around the coast. It looked so pretty, God decided to leave the droplets as they lay. This became “Yamato”, “A Place of Mountains,” the traditional name for Japan. The Chinese call Japan. `Nihon’ – “Land of the Rising Sun”. I had always dreamed of visiting Japan. Studying Karate as a young lad, I spent my late night reading stories of noble Samurai and beautiful Geisha; these filled the fertile imagination of my young boy’s mind. To me, Japan was a place of mystery. It is also very much a land of extremes. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanoes have affected this land and its people, moulding both shape and character over thousands of years.


We left from a small Marina called Casa Zima. When we arrived in Japan we had no contacts or local support. This was soon to change when we had the good fortune to meet with a man called Otake-San. Hearing of our plans he took it upon himself to become our guardian angel and asked a chap called Edo-San to act as our Japanese contact, calling us daily, giving us information on the coastline ahead, as well as providing us with regular weather reports. Together they followed our progress from start to finish, Edo-San also set up a web site for the expedition, monitoring our progress throughout the journey.
For the first couple of weeks we paddled within the gaze of Mount Fuji, Japan’s largest Mountain, across Sagami Bay, rounding Izu Hanto and across Suruga Bay to Omae Zaki. Here we were caught out by some very strong winds that threatened to blow us well off shore. We had over an hour of head down, grit your teeth, forward paddling. We had been warned about the sudden change in weather that can occur in the winter months, when, before we left Casa Zima the Coastguard had requested an interview with us. `Are you mad? Allen-San’ was the coastguard’s response when I told him of our plans, “you cannot paddle on the sea in the winter months!” These words rang out in my ears now. We knew we had a hard task ahead of us. The first half of our journey was a constant battle against head wind after head wind.


From Omae Zaki we paddled down the coast towards Atsemi Point and across Nagoya Bay to Toba. Here we were to meet up with a man called Kawaterou San, alias `Kappa’.


The `Kappa is’ a Japanese creature that has the body of a tortoise, the head of a monkey and limbs that are lined with scales. Some believe of Ainu origin, others that it is descended from the monkey messenger of the river God.
It was early the following morning that Kawaterou-San arrived to take us into Nagoya. I had first made contact with Kawaterou-San back in England, whilst researching for the trip. I had emailed the Japanese National Tourist Organization asking for information on Kayakers that had paddled around Japan. They forwarded to me Kappa-San’s web site address, so I contacted him to let him know what I was planning. Kappa doesn’t speak very good English (although 100% better than my Japanese) but the man who had set up his web site did, and he told me to get in touch when I arrived in Japan. In all the activity surrounding our departure I had forgotten but just before we had left from Casazima I had given Edo-San the contact details, so between them it was arranged for us to meet up when we were near to Nagoya. I say near, it was still a three hour drive away for Kappa-San and to get the whole day with us he had left home at about 3 a.m. that morning.


On meeting I asked him how he would like to be called, assuming that he had a first name he might prefer. `Kappa’ was his reply. I asked him if this was his knick-name to which he replied that he was a `Kappa’, going on to say that he had transformed himself several years previously from a human being into this creature of myth. He then proceeded to give up his job and his girlfriend and started to build himself a twenty-one foot kayak out of plywood, after which he started to paddle around Japan. You need to bear in mind at this stage that he had never paddled before and although he had some experience of sailing on the sea he couldn’t roll and even if he could, the kayak probably wouldn’t, as it weighed so much. Kappa had all sorts of equipment on board such as a generator and a folding bicycle. Whenever he came to areas that proved to be too difficult or dangerous he would get out and portage. On his journey around he made many contacts and he was now offering to give us any support that he could. His journey came to an end in the North of Hokkaido when an earthquake struck, creating a one metre tidal surge, so he returned home and put his kayak into storage, hoping to complete the journey at a later stage.
Kappa wished to take us sight seeing for the day so took us to the Jingu in Ise. This was considered to be the spiritual home for the Shinto religion of Japan. Since ancient times the Japanese people had lived in accordance with nature and throughout Japan there are consecrated rocks and evergreen trees in which reside `Kami’ (powerful spirits). Believing that all things have a spirit; Shinto now walks hand in hand with Buddhism in Japan. We spent most of the day wandering through the grounds. These shrines receive more than six million pilgrims a year and we felt very honoured to be having `Kappa-san’ as our very own personal guide. Seeing that we were taking a genuine interest he talked us through the purification ceremony before we entered, and also explained how, when passing through the Torii gateway (Shinto arch), you stand to the side, allowing God to walk freely through the centre. Every twenty years the Jingu is dismantled and rebuilt from new, marking the renewal or rebirth in life. The dismantled buildings are then distributed to other shrines around the country.


We spent the afternoon looking around the nearby tourist shops and eating houses There are all kinds of seafood shops selling fresh fish, dried fish, and live fish which, in fact, are the staple diet in Japan. With the highest life expectancy on the planet, they must be eating something right.
On the way back to the kayaks we visited a local sea kayak guide to get some information on Shiono Misaki, which was the next prominent headland we needed to paddle around. Here the Kuroshio Current would still be running in close to shore. The guide also had information on some dangerous currents along this next stretch of coastline. As he had paddled extensively in both Shikoku and Kyushu and shared time with us going over charts and pointing out possible hazards that we may encounter on the way. We were really looking forward to the next couple of hundred kilometres. NameIse National Park is famous for its female pearl divers. I remembered seeing the James Bond film with these maidens of the deep and I couldn’t wait to meet some. We returned to the grounds of the hotel and said goodbye to `Kappa-San’. He left us with some road-type maps that we would be able to use for the next few weeks, and then he was gone.


We decided to paddle along the Pacific coast of Shikoku, and it wasn’t long before we were crossing over to Kyushu. We had seen no other sea kayakers since leaving the Tokyo area, but now things were to change. In Kochi we met up with members of the Sealion club, and in Nagasaki we spent a day paddling with the Sazanami Rangers and had the good fortune to meet with `Jogo San’, who was the Japanese surf kayak champion and a very keen sea paddler. Just as we were about to leave Kyushu to cross back over to Honshu we found ourselves being entertained by the Mombassa sea kayak club. All of the paddlers we met were great people, and we were treated like honoured guests. Ichimaru San, the club’s Captain, had received a request from the local coast guard asking us to get the ferry back over to the mainland due to the heavy shipping in the area. However, we were committed to paddling across as we had been making numerous open crossings on almost a daily basis. Japan has almost thirty thousand kilometres of coast, and, although we estimated our journey would only take in about seven thousand kilometres, it gives you an indication of just how many headlands and bays we would be passing. We were about to cross the Straits of Shimonoseki, only ten miles or so wide at its narrowest point, but here the current runs at around ten knots at its maximum rate. It is also a no-go area as far as sea kayakers are concerned, as there are approximately 6-700 ships a day passing through this narrow stretch of water as well as numerous smaller commercial vessels, so we decided to cross further out. Although a much bigger crossing, it gave us time to react to the numerous number of ships which threatened to run us down. We felt like a couple of mice playing chicken with a herd of elephants, and by the time we landed back on Honshu it was dark and we were shattered. The nervous tension of passing so many ships and trying to judge all their headings at once had taken its toll.




We were now in the Typhoon season. The Cherry Blossom or Sakura had passed, blown away by the heavy tropical winds which generated up from the Philippines. 2004 was to prove to be the worst year on record for typhoon activity. Niigata, Kodomari, Shakatan, Kushiro, Muroran and Sanriku were all destinations where we were to meet and feel the effects of this amazing wind. Shakatan was the most memorable. It was whilst standing in the local post office waiting to mail letters home that I watched as the wind quickly picked up from a force four to full storm force in a matter of minutes. Taken by surprise at the sudden violence a lady across the street was struggling with the shutters of her small shop front, the wind was threatening to tear them away. I ran across and helped to get them under control. Behind me I heard a massive ripping sound, and when I looked over my shoulder as I wrestled with the shutters the street resembled a war zone. Whole buildings were gradually being torn apart, roofs were peeling off, sirens were wailing and bits of debris went hurtling past, threatening to annihilate anyone in its path. After several hours of complete mayhem the winds gradually died down and Shakatan was left to lick its wounds.



Hokkaido Wa Dekaido’

Hokkaido is to the Japanese, what Alaska is to Americans. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido and much of their artwork resembles that of Native American Indians. The waters around Hokkaido are rich in Salmon and the mountains full of wildlife with many bears, both black and brown, especially along the Shirotoko Peninsular. Shirotoko is an Ainu word that translates to `The end of the Earth’, and it has scenery to match this bold statement, a seventy kilometre stretch of land, topped by a string of five volcanoes. This was the area we had both looked forward to paddling most and we slowed our pace to take in the amazing scenery and to watch the bears taking Salmon from the river mouths whilst eagles flew overhead. This area is under ice during the winter months. The seas freeze over and the area is almost totally uninhabited. Now, however, it was busy with Salmon fishermen on the sea and Grizzly’s on the land. At almost every river mouth we passed we saw Bears or signs of Bear, so we wouldn’t be able to just camp on the beach as we had been used to. Eventually we found a small fishing station where the captain allowed us to put up our tent in the barn. Waking early the next morning we had a visit from a large Grizzly. Sniffing our kayaks he ambled on, just pausing occasionally to sniff the air. We all stood in silence, avoiding a direct gaze but trying to film him at the same time. Because there had been so many typhoons this season, a lot of bears had been forced down from the mountains in search of food and this had bought about quite a number of bear attacks.


Before leaving my home in Cornwall I had been emailing `Paul Caffin’, who had first circumnavigated Japan some 15 years previously. He had suggested that, whilst in Hokkaido if I had the chance, to try and meet up with a man called `Akio Shinya’. `Shinya san’ is a well-known sea kayak guide and used to be one of Japan’s top mountaineers. We had just arrived in a town called Muroran, where we had been told to take shelter from a Super Typhoon that was heading our way. `Shinya San’ knew we were in the area and had made contact, offering us shelter at his home in the Niseko Mountains. It came at a welcome time, and it was a magical few days. Nicknamed `The Bear’, after an argument he had had with a Grizzly over camping rights on a stretch of beach, he had become somewhat of a legend in his home country. He was a very warm and friendly man and we enjoyed immensely our time spent with him and his lovely family.
Time was running out for us and we couldn’t stay. We needed to be moving on. Our crossing over to Hokkaido, across the infamous Tsugaru Kaiko had been sandwiched between two typhoons. We had a very large sea to paddle, as well as having to contend with the very strong placeTsushima current.
This time, however, the crossing back was in perfect conditions, and before we knew it we were speeding back down the Honshu coastline towards home. Another typhoon struck in Sanriku, where, in 1898 they had the largest tidal wave or tsunami ever recorded. Then shortly afterwards, in Niigata, an earthquake struck. Although on the other side of the Japanese Mainland, the typhoon was still only a short distance away and the effects were felt across the countryside. We were paddling at the time and experienced some very weird wave action, as well as some exceptionally strong winds, so we chose to land on a remote headland and call it a day.


These obstacles delayed us for a few days but then quite suddenly we were into Chiba Prefecture. These last few days were a lesson in frustration. First of all we had a very strong gale come through from the North which left behind an extremely large swell, followed by thick fog. We were navigating with a very large-scale tourist map, which had little detail of the coastline ahead, and we had to contend with some extremely large surf on the land side of us and some very fast fishing boats flying past us on the outside, (regardless of the visibility). It was like paddling on a tight rope, with the possibility of disaster lying on either side of us.


The penultimate days’ paddling still saw us over 80 kilometres away from our finish point ,and we decided the best way to avoid the fog was to paddle at night. A couple of hours of rest and we launched the kayaks for the last time. It was two in the morning, but an electrical storm miles out to sea kept the skies illuminated until dawn. We rounded our last headland and set out across Tokyo Bay towards Casa Zima, where we were met half way across by `Edo San’ and `Jogo San’. After handing us a couple of bottles of Guinness to celebrate, they left, and together Hadas and I closed the gap on a journey which had taken six months to the day to complete. We had battled with strong monsoon-driven head winds during the winter months and hidden from raging typhoons in the summer, but none of the hardships we had endured to complete this venture could outweigh our greatest gift – the hospitality and friendship we received from the Japanese people we had met along the way and without whom the journey may not have been possible.