Humbled not by the Sea but the Can

Alvah explores the boundaries of his own comfort zone in the Port of Naze in Japan. From "The Roger Henry Files" for March 13, 2008

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Diana seems to attract a lot of attention. Yet another admirer brings flowers. Kaison, from Koniya in Amami Oshima, meets every yacht at the dock and acts as interpreter and guide. Alvah Simon

As a sailor and seeker I aspire to taking myself to the limits of my endurance and experience, for I believe it is only in exploring the borders of human potential that we expand them. However, I have always envisioned that quest occurring in romantic settings such as the ship’s graveyard off Cape Horn or the crushing ice of the High Arctic, not in a public lavatory. But a challenge is a challenge, and Japan is presenting them at each turn.

A typical Japanese toilet is a very small booth with a door that opens inwardly. I still do not know where one is intended to stand to close the door once inside. I chose the top of the water tank. The commode itself consists of a porcelain slit in the floor with a higher tier in what I think is the front, dropping to a deeper basin in the rear. It is not as if one can take a teacher inside, so one focuses their native intelligence on the setting, and when they think they have the concept down, dives in. An unfortunate, but in my case accurate, choice of words.
I do not think our anatomy differs greatly from the Japanese. But, alas, it turns out that, recalcitrant old knees aside, there are critical distances to measure, angles of trajectory to calculate, and, most importantly, delicate points of balance to consider. I will spare you further detail by saying only that whatever lofty heights of personal potential I might one day achieve, I will remain humbled by the memory of that experience.

My first bath went only somewhat better. We entered the port of Naze in Amami O Shima at the same time as a Japanese yacht. After quick introductions, the five sailors onboard whisked us off for an “onsen” or public bath. Diana consented to join us only after she was assured there were separate facilities for her and the captain’s wife.


In this setting I could at least move a moment behind my hosts and imitate their behavior. Still I erred. Your shoes must never touch the onsen floor, but are surrendered at the entrance counter. This faux pas corrected, we proceeded to a locker-room and disrobed. The next room was a tiled hall with shower taps lining each side. Normal enough, except that they were at knee height! Before entering the hot tub at the end of the showers you must make a real show of scrubbing down to a new layer of skin. You sit on a short stool, fill a plastic tub from the tap, and with a rough short towel repeatedly lather, scrub, and rinse each part of your body as if piloting an airplane and following a checklist before take-off. Once hygienically antiseptic, I followed my hosts into the hot tub. I now share a deep empathy with the lobsters of Maine, for the water temperature bordered on cruel.

Diana glowed a rose red when I met her in the lobby. We set off with our friends for a traditional Amami O Shima dinner. In excellent English the youngest sailor explained that our restaurant had no menu, but served a traditional-set dinner for approximately $40 USD each. Was that all right? As we were already all sitting on the floor around a low table in our private room I could only assure him (falsely) that was well within our budget. He then explained that this price included all the alcohol we could drink. I said to Diana, “In that case Darling, we just have to sit here until we show a profit.”

You know you are on the cutting edge of culinary experience when even your hosts do not recognize the food presented. I assume each prefecture in Japan has its own unique tradition. But I think this is what we ate: gelled seaweed, bitter cucumber with tuna, cockle and sea slug soup, rice in an egg crepe, raw tuna, mackerel bonita, octopus tempura, boiled pigs feet, pork ribs, and squid ink soup.


All this washed down with an intemperate amount of beer and Sho-chu (a sugar cane distillate that should be outlawed). I need not have worried about the cost, for in the end the other captain absolutely refused to let my wallet see the light of day, or by now the deep dark of late night.

We retired to the salon of the Roger Henry where I became the host. My new friends absolutely beamed in delight while sipping Jack Daniels and listening to the blues. They were familiar with all the old artists, requesting John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Howlin Wolf. We talked boat designs and swapped sailing stories until the wee hours.

To the man, (for the girls had wisely retired) their dream was to one-day sail the world. They kept telling me how lucky I was to be able to do so. Based on experiences as rich and rewarding as these in Japan alone, I could only agree.


Alvah Simon

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