In this "Kirk's Take," I kick off a multipart series on my favourite Japanese ports for overnight moorage. Each cruiser has their own criteria about what makes a good moorage spot, but, for me, "favourite" is determined by a combination of being well protected from weather (especially storms and typhoons); local history and culture; proximity to shopping, restaurants, and other services; and cost (free is good!). I also prefer places off the beaten track.
Although Japan has some excellent anchorage spots, I don't include them in this series because what makes cruising Japan unique is only available on land. Just a few marinas are included – especially in areas where there are not many other moorage options – because information on them is readily available elsewhere.
Apologies in advance for those who are not history/culture buffs. For each port, I start by introducing what makes the port and its environs worth a visit, and that inevitably involves talking about history and culture.
To start, I introduce three ports in northwest Kyushu, where I live. For information on Fukuoka City moorage options, see the Fukuoka port reports.
Gonoura, Iki Island, Nagasaki
Off the northwest corner of Kyushu lies Iki Island, which has a long, rich history going back to paleolithic times. One of Japan's original eight islands in ancient mythology, Iki was an independent kingdom for about 500 years before being incorporated into Japan in the late 7th century. A stepping stone on the route linking the Asian mainland to Japan, Iki was one of the first places in Japan to experience Buddhism but it was also on the path of the Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, in which many of its residents were slaughtered, and frequently raided by marauding Wako pirates.
Tsukiyomi Shrine is said to be one of the birthplaces of Shintoism and of traditional gagaku court music and dance. Signs of Iki's history are scattered throughout the island, but one can get an introduction to Iki past and present at the excellent Ikikoku Museum.
Iki is also famous for its beautiful scenery, white-sand beaches, delicious seafood, and sake and barley shochu (distilled beverage).
For all these reasons, a stop at Iki Island can be a memorable, once-in-a lifetime experience.
Although there are several moorage options on Iki, the best is at Gonoura on the southern end of the island (33. °44.8604'N, 129°40.7265'E). It's well protected, except for weather from the south. There are three large visitor-only concrete pontoons in a manmade basin to the west of town; it's a bit shallow at the inner-most pontoon, so that's reserved for powerboats (and occasionally catamarans).
Boats up to about 20 meters (65') can be accommodated, with the moorage charge set at ¥20 ($0.20)/meter + 10% tax (so less than $9/night for a 40' boat!). No water or power on the pontoons. There is a washroom nearby, with an onsen hot-spring bath available at the View Hotel Iki a 10-minute walk away; shops and restaurants are a 15-20-minute walk away. The island is quite large and hilly so exploring by bicycle is not recommended, but there quite a few rental car companies in Gonoura.
To reserve a moorage spot at Gonoura, call City Hall at 0920-44-6114. If calling on the weekend or if you can't speak Japanese, you can also call Mr. Hayashida, the very friendly and knowledgeable manager of the facility, at 090-1979-2578.
Just a half-day sail from Iki is Hirado Island (connected by a bridge to the Kyushu mainland). It is my No. 1 favourite moorage spot in all of Japan.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Hirado was a vibrant trading centre, perhaps one of the world's most international ports at the time. For 1,000 years, it was a key embarkation point for Japanese traders going to Korea, China, the Ryukyu (Okinawa) Islands, and beyond. Then, in 1550, the Portuguese established a trading post in Hirado, and they were followed by the Dutch and the English. Among them was William Adams, upon whom James Clavell based the character John Blackthorne in his novel Shogun; Adams' grave is in Hirado.
With the traders came the missionaries, notably Saint Francis Xavier, who were very successful in converting many Japanese to Christianity and to training local priests to spread the faith throughout much of western Japan.
Afraid of the challenge to his power by Christianity and by the trade wealth accumulated by lords in western Japan, the Shogun gradually cut the country off from the outside world. Christianity was banned (Japanese Christians had to renounce their faith or be killed, forcing many to become "Hidden Christians"; the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo or the movie by Martin Scorsese based on the novel are highly recommended). All Europeans were prohibited from entering the country, except for the Dutch, who were allowed to maintain a small trading post on Dejima Island off of Nagasaki City. And with that Hirado disappeared into obscurity. (This was also the time – 1635 – that Japan's Closed Port system was established; it still exists, largely unchanged, today and is one of the complicating factors for foreigners cruising Japan.)
Japan ended its international isolation in 1868. Although Hirado never returned to its Golden Age, the Hidden Christians (slowly) came out of hiding and built many beautiful churches, including the inspiring Saint Francis Xavier Memorial Church, high on a hill overlooking Hirado Harbor and next to a Buddhist Temple, a sign of peaceful religious co-existence.
In short, Hirado is a fascinating place. One can spend several days walking around the town, encountering history around every corner. The (reconstructed) Dutch trading house is now a fascinating museum.
Cruisers heading to Hirado Harbor should time their arrival to arrive near slack water at Hirado Strait, where the current can reach six knots. The Harbor itself is very well-protected, with steep, high hills on three sides and an island at the entrance. It's a good typhoon hole. Hirado Castle, perched on the Harbor's south side, welcomes visitors.
There is a designated visitor dock on the north side of the Harbor, easily identified by its white peaked roof (33°22.2712'N, 129°33.2927'E). The dock's western side is preferred because it has large fenders to keep a boat away from the dock, preventing a swaying mast from hitting the roof (the fenders do, however, require the disembarking crew member to make a rather courageous "leap of faith" when tying up!). The eastern side is also fine in calmish weather, especially if one can deploy one's own large fenders.
If that dock is full, another dock at the far end of the Harbor is also an option. Although privately owned and sometimes used by local fishing boats, cruisers can usually find room there.
After tying up, cruisers should register at the Tourism Information Office, which is in the ferry terminal right in front of the main visitor dock. Moorage is free and limited to three days; reservations are not possible. The Office can also provide good English-language information on Hirado sightseeing, including highly recommended guided walking and bus tours.
No water or power on either dock. There are toilets in the ferry terminal, and hot-spring baths are available in two hotels about a 10-minute walk away (one of the baths is circular and surrounded by a large fish tank!). There are several good restaurants in town, including an excellent Mexican restaurant (!), and a supermarket near the back-up dock.
Taira, Ukujima, Nagasaki
Ukujima is the northernmost of the Goto Islands, a chain of islands off the west coast of Kyushu. It is a beautiful island, with lovely beaches and rolling hills. Very quiet. A great place to chill out for a few days and soak in slow island life.
The main port of Taira gets its name from the members of the Taira Clan who escaped to the island after the Clan lost the decisive Dan-no-Ura sea battle in 1185 (the winners, the Minamoto Clan, established Japan's first shogunate).
Fisherina Uku (a fisherina is typically a small marina operated by the local fishing co-operative) is a cozy, well-protected facility that can accommodate boats up to about 16 meters (50') and that is about a 15-minute walk from town (33°15.3812'N, 129°7.7552'E). Power and water on the docks. There is a toilet nearby, and on the hill above the marina is a hot-spring bath, from which one has a panoramic view of the harbour entrance.
Reservations at the Fisherina can be made by calling the Fishing Co-op at 0959-57-2003 (open year-end, except over the New Year's holiday), but best to have a Japanese speaker make the call. Moorage is ¥1,100 ($11) per night, regardless of boat size.
At the Tourist Information Office at the ferry terminal, one can get sightseeing information and rent electric bicycles to explore the island.