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Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007


Sitting on the dock of the . . . sea station

We were sailing through the Akinada island chain off Hiroshima Prefecture in the Seto Inland Sea looking for a place to drop anchor for the night. A secluded beach would be nice, or just a quiet cove.

As I studied the shorelines through binoculars, I saw something: Egads! Tetrapods!

But beyond that was a large concrete floating dock for boats to pull up to. No boats were tied up at the dock but there was a healthy crowd of one-poled fisherman sitting in chairs at the edges.

This is normal as fisherman are naturally attracted to concrete. You know all those sea walls along the roads in Japan? There are always fisherman on them.

Have you ever noticed the angle on the sea walls? I'm sure they were made for fisherman to lean on while fishing — true anglers. And the reason fishing from rocks is so popular in Japan is probably because rocks are the closest thing to concrete.

The fisherman on this concrete dock must have never witnessed a boat pull up to it before because as we neared them, I had to yell to them to get out of the way.

Upon realizing a nearly 14-meter yacht was bearing down upon them, they frantically reeled in their lines just in time as the bow grazed their poles.

We had landed on Kamagari Island, near Kure City, where the world's largest battle ship, the Yamato, was built and launched in 1940. What we didn't realize is that we had also pulled up to our very first-ever umi no eki.

I had heard of a michi no eki, before, a rest area along the road for those traveling by car. But umi no eki? A rest area for fish? Perhaps they meant uni no eki, (a rest area for sea urchins).

Looking at the sign, it was definitely the kanji for "sea" and the kanji for "station." The kanji for "eki," which you see on every train station in Japan, conjures up images of bustling transportation, people and eki ben lunches. But this station had no ferries and no other boats coming in and out. Perhaps in this case fishing off the dock is eki ben. Either that or eki ben is a type of station slang, like a branch of Hiroshima ben.

Upon closer look at the umi no eki sign, I noticed a picture of a boat with one person in it holding hands with two other people who were standing on land. How unusual, I thought, Japanese people don't hold hands. Not only that, but the figures were definitely men. What had we stumbled upon?

We quickly became friends with our dock mates as we distributed Corona beers with sudachi slices in them while saying "Ojama shimasu," to excuse ourselves from having run them off this dock for boats. We were careful to keep enough distance so that no one could hold our hands.

I learned later that there are over 40 of these registered "sea stations" in the inland sea, The "Umi no Eki" program was created in 2002 "to create a network of facilities for pleasure boats and to serve as a gateway between the land and the sea."

Unfortunately, these facilities are not widely known among the boating community because despite being sea stations, you can't see them at all.

There are no signs out in the middle of the sea saying "Sea station, next left." Nor are the stations marked on the sea charts.

But we were thrilled to find a government-sponsored pile of millions of yen dumped into one concreted spot, molded into shelters, a lodge, a protected clam digging pool, an onsen and a palm-lined beach that turned out to be one of Japan's top 100 beaches. It was as if it had been waiting there for years just for us to come and appreciate it. And we had it all to ourselves. Isn't sailing great?

I wonder though if Japan doesn't do all this construction for a different purpose. Some day, when the seas rise so much due to global warming that they engulf most of Japan's smaller islands, this will all make the most fantastic amusement park for fish. And it will look more like the bottom of a sculptured aquarium, with concrete reefs, palm trees and maybe even a sunken ship. Now that would be a real sea station!

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