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Saturday, May 9, 2009


It's the season of karaoke sailing

Spring on Shiraishi Island means yachts. All kinds of yachts stop by our island — from 6.5-meter day sailers to 15-meter cruisers that can sleep eight people.

Half of these yachts are Japanese people cruising the Inland Sea. The other half are foreigners, mostly couples sailing around the world.

Foreigners inevitably come through the Seto Inland Sea, lured by the tranquil waters, protected islands and a chance to see a part of Japan that most foreign tourists never get to see.

So when I answered my telephone the other day, it was not surprising that there was a panicked voice on the other end from one of the islanders, "Amy-san, some foreigners are headed to Shiraishi Island on a 13-meter catamaran. They don't speak any Japanese! Will you take care of them?"

This is just one of the many roles a foreigner plays if he or she is the only foreigner in the community. You are the English-speaking welcome party-ambassador of your community. And you have to be ready to jump into action at any moment as an on-call translator, interpreter, welcomer, and tourist guide.

It's surprising there isn't a budget in the Japanese Land, Infrastructure Transportation and Tourism Ministry for those of us who fill this role, as it can almost be a full-time job. Perhaps someday I will send them a bill.

But this is how I spend much of the springtime every year, aboard Dutch, French, and Swiss people's boats being wined and dined while hearing about their sailing adventures around the world.

We also pore over sea charts of Japan and they pick my brain about the best places to sail in the Inland Sea. They ask questions about the culture, such as "Why does everyone bring us gifts?"

Most of them have been sailing already for several years. They make frequent trips back to their home countries for a month or two during the winter and come back when the weather gets nice again to continue their journey. Others stay in warmer climes such as the Philippines for the winter and head to Japan during the spring.

But being a yacht-oriented island, it is not just foreigners we welcome here. There are many Japanese yachties sailing around the Inland Sea as well. The other day I noticed a 10-meter yacht off the beach and sure enough, a couple hours later three Japanese sailors showed up at my house. "Remember us? We met you three years ago when we sailed here. You brought us beer!"

After smiles and hearty handshakes, the party had nearly begun. In another hour my husband and I were on their yacht "Tokimo" being served tempura and beers.

Over more and more beers, some facts came out about their actual sailing experience. These three men own three yachts between them. They all have their boats in the same yacht harbor in Osaka where they have kept their boats for many years.

Although they see each other on weekends at the yacht harbor, they seldom sail their boats. Instead, they cook, drink whisky and sing karaoke on them. They probably own the most expensive private karaoke bars in Japan!

They are just a step above the two floating karaoke bars on our island where some Japanese friends come out on Sundays to spend time on their yachts. They happily use the yachts as places to drink, sing karaoke and sleep overnight. I call it "karaoke sailing."

It doesn't mean the Japanese people don't sail. They just do it less often. Most sailors go out once a year on a weeklong trip over Golden Week, the only time they have a few days in a row free. The rest of the time they have a free Sunday here and there and they'd rather go karaoke sailing — just relax with no responsibilities.

When you look at it this way, there are many advantages to karaoke sailing, in which you never leave the port. First, you never need to worry about the weather because you can karaoke sail even in the most adverse conditions.

On these boats, you're more likely to drown in liquor than in the sea. Furthermore, you can invite as many people on board as you like. My experience is that a good half of Japanese people get sea-sick anyway, so these people could still enjoy karaoke sailing while singing Rod Stewart's "We are sailing stormy waters . . ."

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