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Exploring the Olympic destination of Japan by superyacht

26 July 2021• Written by Risa Merl

As the 2020 Olympic Games get underway in Tokyo, Risa Merl discovers why Japan's 30,000 kilometres of naturally and culturally rich coastline should be on your yachting radar... 

The red temple gate appears like a mirage rising out of the sea, its form reflected in the serene waters off Itsukushima island. At high tide, the tender slips easily through the Torii gate, also known as “the floating gate”. Such a sight is perhaps the last thing you would expect to find at sea, yet the sacred Shinto gate is a reminder that I am indeed cruising in Japan – a destination that blends ancient wonders, unspoilt islands and the buzz of modern cities, all of which, it turns out, are best experienced by boat.

Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.
Image credit: Kelly Cheng Travel Photography via Getty Images

All eyes are currently set on Japan with the 2020 Summer Olympic Games finally being able to take place in Tokyo after being postponed last year. The major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto might be the main draw for first-time visitors, but going further afield and exploring the country’s 7,000 islands is the best way to get a taste of Japan’s unique culture and unadulterated natural beauty.

The country is a fairly new superyacht cruising ground, which is exactly what makes it so compelling. “Off the beaten track and rich in history going back 2,500 years, Japan offers excellent year-round cruising from its temperate north to the sub-tropical south,” says Carol Harris, from the yacht agent Super Yacht Logistics Japan. “Vessels can dock at centrally located city berths or anchor in peaceful bays and visit local villages and temples, away from the hustle and bustle.”

The Seto Inland Sea separates the islands of Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū.
Image credit: Ippei Naoi via Getty Images

Harris helped the team on 37-metre Dr No, then helmed by Northern Sun captain John Maas, to plan its visit to Japan in 2017. When Dr No visited Japan, they went to the western Sea of Japan and the Seto Inland Sea on the south-east coast. “We took the boat there for five months, cruising all the way north to Hokkaido,” Maas says. “The Seto Inland Sea is an amazing cruising destination in itself – you could easily spend a month there. There are tropical-looking areas with white-sand beaches and incredible temples.”

The Seto Inland Sea is where you can motor through the red Torii gate – this 12th-century monument to the Shinto religion is part of the onshore Itsukushima-jinja Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stretching more than 400 kilometres, the sea is protected by the islands of Honshū (considered mainland Japan) to the west, Shikoku to the east and Kyūshū to the south. Known as the Setouchi Region, the area is often compared with the Mediterranean for its mild weather and relaxed way of life. “The water is usually calm here – you would think you are cruising on a lake and not a sea,” says Setouchi Islands guide Kayoko Mimura as we navigate away from Kagawa.

Shōdoshima island.
Image credit: Makafushigi via Getty Images

We are bound for Naoshima and Shōdoshima, two of the sea’s nearly 3,000 islands. It is a perfect bluebird winter day – sunny with clear skies and a chill in the air. The captain lets me take the helm of the Princess motor yacht and I delight in the fact that we are the only craft of its kind to be seen. Instead, we pass enormous tankers and tiny Japanese fishing boats with distinctive triangular sails affixed to the stern.

The fact that we are the only yacht is not entirely surprising. Logistically, Japan is not the simplest place to cruise but suitable preparation and assistance make it possible. “We brought on a local steward who was also an interpreter,” Maas says. “She spent three hours per day filling out forms and negotiating. One day we took the dinghy ashore and five coastguards surrounded us, asking for passports and ship registration. The stew stood up to them, and they backed down quickly.”

Yayoi Kusama’s giant Yellow Pumpkin sculpture on Naoshima island.
Image credit: Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma Rapho via Getty Images

Approaching the small island of Naoshima, the peaked roofs of Japanese houses come into view. This unassuming spot is better known as “art island” for the museums and famous works found on shore. It is also the hub of the triennial Art Setouchi festival and Mimura whispers to me that celebrities such as Keanu Reeves have visited to bask in the art scene. We tour the island’s many art installations, including Yayoi Kusama’s giant Yellow Pumpkin sculpture, which sits on a jetty along a golden strip of sand such as you might find in the Caribbean. On the hillside above the beach are the modernist concrete buildings housing the Chichu Art Museum, home to James Turrell’s Open Sky installation, best experienced with a private sunset viewing.

For lunch, we motor the eight nautical miles to Shōdoshima and dine at the waterfront Koyomi restaurant. A sister island to Greece’s Milos, Shōdoshima is home to a century-long experiment to grow olive trees in Japan. As testament to the Setouchi Region’s mild weather, more than 1,000 varieties of olive tree now thrive here alongside a smattering of whitewashed buildings. I sample olive-oil ice cream – sweet yet earthy green ice cream is dribbled in the most exquisite olive oil I’ve ever tasted. Gourmands who visit Shōdoshima should also take time to tour the premises of Yamaroku Soy Sauce, one of the last traditional soy-sauce makers in Japan. It takes more than two years to brew a batch in two-metre-high handmade wooden barrels.

But the biggest treat on the island is a feast for the soul rather than the taste buds. A winding stairway leads up a mountain to the Goishizan temple, concealed within a candlelit cave. Here the resident monk, draped in brown and orange robes, leads me through what’s known as a Goma Fire Ritual. I am instructed to write my wish on a wooden stick, which he submerges into fire while chanting a prayer of protection. “We are leaving unpredictable events up to the deity and making an effort for what we can do,” the monk explains afterwards.

As the sun sets, the boat cruises back to Kagawa on the north-east of Shikoku island. It’s an ideal place for those wishing to partake of Japanese traditions, such as tea ceremonies or learning the art of bonsai from master Kitadani Ryuichi, without beating through the throngs of American and Chinese tourists that can often overrun the nearby city of Kyoto.

Image credit: Ippei Naoi via Getty Images

There are also signs of tourism starting to spread further south in the Seto Inland Sea. The five-star Ana InterContinental Beppu Resort & Spa has recently opened on Kyushu island, the first luxury resort in the Oita Prefecture. As well as 89 rooms, featuring private open-air baths and bamboo work created by local artists, the hotel has a 28-metre Horizon yacht. I head out the next day to explore Beppu Bay’s rocky coastline, which is punctuated by villages, beaches and protected coves. “Beppu is a hidden gem,” says the hotel’s general manager Stéphane Massarini. “You can hike a volcano, swim with wild dolphins or play on a PGA golf course.” The blooming of cherry blossom, which occurs later here (from April to May) thanks to Kyūshū’s warmer weather, is also a big draw.

There is a tendency to think of Japanese food as just sushi and ramen but I quickly learn at the hotel’s Atelier restaurant that there is much more to modern Japanese cuisine. Head chef Kenji Kudo talks me through the seasonally inspired, locally derived six-course tasting menu, starting off with a blue-crab bisque, followed by delicacies such as local spiny lobster and a Wagyu filet mignon so tender a knife is hardly needed. “I like to call it hyper-local cooking,” says Kudo. “We use 90 per cent local products, such as the saffron that’s grown here.”

To leave the Seto Inland Sea for the Sea of Japan, yachts transit through the Kanmon Straits, dividing Kyūshū and Honshu islands.  “It is a thrilling experience going through the straits,” says Captain Maas. “There are 10 knots of current, and you’re going 15 knots. It’s one of the few places I had to seriously use signal flags.” On the Sea of Japan, I visit Kinosaki Onsen, a traditional spa town whose main attraction is spa hopping between the seven natural hot springs. Japanese couples clad in matching yukata robes and wooden sandals clip-clop down the narrow streets, posing for pictures along the creek that is bordered by vibrant pink cherry blossoms. The Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei blends the Japanese aesthetic of tatami floors with grand rooms and the chance to use a private hot spring, which I do, followed by a rejuvenating massage.

After a week in Japan, I’ve barely scratched the surface, not getting as far north as the rugged, volcanic Hokkaido (which boasts excellent skiing) nor south to the tropical Okinawa, a haven for surfers and scuba divers – islands where yachts are still very much in the minority. “Japan has been bypassed because it’s such a long way from everything, but that’s been its saviour – unlike the Med and Caribbean, it hasn’t been jaded by massive charter exposure,” says Captain Maas. “It’s truly off the beaten track, but well worth the effort.”

Okinawa is known for its broad beaches and tropical climate.
Image credit: Sam Spicer via Getty Images

Yachting in Japan: Everything you need to know

Carol Harris of Super Yacht Logistics Japan explains the ins and outs of cruising in the East Asian island nation

Chartering

Yachting is still a grey area – yachts are treated as commercial vessels, and cabotage permission is required to pick up and drop off a charter within the country. Another option is to enter the country with charter guests already on board, collecting them in Taiwan or South Korea’s Busan then cruising to Japan, where guests may depart by plane. (Or arrive by plane and depart by yacht.)

Clearance

Paperwork is required seven days prior to a vessel’s arrival. Expect about three hours for clearance, although this can vary port to port. Japan is made up of Open Ports and Closed Ports. A Blanket Closed Port Permit – with a one-off fee – is now in place to allow vessels to enter Closed Ports with less than seven days’ notice. All ports (Closed and Open) require regional clearances, which SYL Japan can secure.

Hokkaido is known for its volcanoes and hot springs.
Image credit: Mitja Kobal via Getty Images

Itinerary

Superyachts are highly advised to stick to a pre-determined itinerary with as few changes as possible. Authorities can become agitated and difficult when last-minute changes are requested. However, weather-related change requests are not an issue.

Expert help

Super Yacht Logistics Japan recommends taking one of its staff as a translator to assist with day-to-day operations, from restaurant reservations to arranging rubbish collection. Outside of cosmopolitan areas, English is rarely spoken or written, and this coupled with cultural differences can make communication difficult. superyachtlogistics.com

This feature is taken from the September 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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