Tsugaru Channel, Japan 2011

Part 1
Wednesday 14th September, our departure date for Japan came around a little quicker than most of our ‘swimming destination holidays’.

July, August and September is Chris’ busiest time at work, so whilst a swim trip/holiday was something great to look forward to during this busy period and a good reason to set the alarm for a little after 4am each morning there wasn’t much time left in the day to think about our upcoming adventure.

For me, Penny, the Cayman Islands swim and experiences were so huge I found it difficult to get my mind around another big challenge swim so quickly. My mind and body needed some time to recover. When we booked our Tsugaru Strait crossings over a year ago my Cayman Island swim was unknown to us, I’d booked the double crossing as one of my major challenges for 2011. My approach over the past few months has been a balance between recovery and preparation.

Upon our arrival into Tokyo Chris and I were met by Ishii Haruyuki and Junko Arakawa we stayed in a hotel close to Narita Airport.

The following morning we visited Naritassan Temple which was both beautiful and fascinating before taking the train to Haneda airport for our flight to Hakodate airport.

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Once in the ground in Hakodate we were met by government officials and a television crew. Following our interviews Chris and I enjoyed our first authentic Japanese experience, dinner at a Sushi Bar accompanied by Ishii and Junko. Wow, the stack of plates we accumulated was extraordinary, I was grateful not to be doing the dishes that night!

The weather the first two days was a lot warmer than Chris and I had expected and the sea temperature was in the 20’s, which we were quite happy about since we’d expected it to be around 15C.

September 16, 17 and 18th 2011 were spent with short training swims, talking to the local media, visiting our pilot boats and pilots, meeting our crew members Eri Utsunomiya and Naoko Nojiri and stocking up with supplies needed for our swims and at our accommodation. [singlepic id=1132 w=320 h=240 float=]

On the third day though there was a significant change, the weather cooled, it was windy and the rain fell heavily. We felt the difference on our next training swim which was much colder in patches as water from the rivers flowed into the sea from the surrounding mountains.

Our accommodations were right next-door to a Japanese hot springs bath; we spoiled ourselves there once or twice and remembered to look forward to returning after our swims were done.

Monday 19th September was a busy day. Early that morning Chris & I along with our crew members, Naoko and Junko for Chris and Ishii and Eri for me went for a practise swim with Chris’ boat and pilot, this was a great opportunity for us to have a swim together and practise our feeds with our new team members.

Chris rested with Naoko and Junko for the remainder of the day while Ishii, Eri and I met my boat and pilot and made the four hour boat ride to Cape Shirkama, Hokkaido to find a safe starting place from dry land ready for my swim start the following morning then backtracked to the town of Fukushima for a meal and short sleep in a Japanese style hotel, setting our alarm clocks for 2am.

Part 2
The swim, Tuesday 20th September 2011

2am – wake up, 3am – leave the hotel, 4am – jump. That was the plan.

It’s always a busy time in the last hours before a swim; I woke, stretched, then tip-toed through the common room to cook my porridge in the microwave.

I’d brought my pre-swim porridge with me from Australia to make sure I could eat my usual food before my swim. Chris had picked up some long life milk for me at the supermarket so I thought I was well organised until I tasted my porridge. Ugh, sour, bitter, disgusting! I asked Eri what was wrong with the milk I’d put on my porridge, since she’s Japanese and could read the label. It turned out the milk was not milk but a yogurt drink concentrate! Bummer! Back to the microwave….with my spare pack of porridge, this time I made it with water. Ok not quite as I’d like it but it was a nice warm carbohydrate start to the day. Though by now I was running late and had to rush getting my things together for the 3am hotel departure.

As I left my room I noticed a pile of lunch boxes at our bedroom door. The owners of the hotel had woken at 2am to prepare a takeaway breakfast/lunch for my crew, and then they stood at the front door and waved us off with many good wishes for the swim. I don’t think there are many places in the world that would do that!

The boat journey to the start took about half an hour, just enough time for me to apply my sunscreen, grease up and prepare to start my swim. The captain lowered the ladder for me and look surprised when I jumped from the side of the boat into the inky black water. I swam to shore, exited the water, raised my arms to signal I was ready to start, then re-entered to commence my swim at 4.08am from Cape Shirakami. The first half hour or so of the swim was beautiful, the water wasn’t cold, there was a gentle swell rolling with a calm surface, and a gentle breeze.

I was perfectly happy and relaxed in the dark water. My boat stayed nicely beside me and my crew Ishii and Eri were happy.

Unfortunately these ideal conditions were short lived, as I entered the shipping lanes and away from the protection of land things changes quickly. The wind was blowing from the North East at about 10 knots, which was a headwind and the sea was standing up in a nasty chop with the wind against the current.

Two hours into my swim at 6am I thought about Chris who would be starting his swim from Aormori Prefecture, Honshu. I knew he wouldn’t be happy with the headwind and worried about his problematic shoulder holding up. (The swim start locations being different because I was hoping for a double crossing, Aormori Prefecture was expected to be my turn around point).

Meanwhile for the first six hours I was making relatively good progress through the patchy conditions. Though was told I was only half way at the six hour mark which was when I was expecting to be at my turn around point. This was not good news.

The currents were against me, I swam on one spot for over three hours looking at the same landmark in the distance. This was frustrating to say the least, I stopped to discuss the situation with my pilots and crew who only had bad news for me, they said that the tide had changed and the current I’d been swimming against was only going to become stronger.

I asked about heading towards the headland I’d been looking at for the past three hours to the right of me and was told if we went there I couldn’t do a double because the currents would be against me.

Hmm I had little choice since I wasn’t making any headway where I was. We change our course and starting swimming towards the closest land. The problem we faced now was that it was in a huge bay and with the change of tide masses of water was ebbing out of the bay making forward progress very difficult.

I swam for another five and a half hours before finally reaching shore and walking up the beach at Agami Saki 14 hours and 26 minutes after I’d begun my swim early that morning. I raised my arms and swam back out the my support boat and said ok lets swim back!

Of course I knew there was no chance of a double crossing for me today. There was no option anyway; swimmers are not allowed to swim at night due to the many, many squid fishermen with long lines and many hooks. After starting at 4am in the dark and finishing in the dark I was relieved to have completed the single crossing.

I thanked my pilots and crew Ishii and Eri for doing a wonderful job under trying conditions and for their patience throughout my swim. The currents simply didn’t do what was expected of them that day. We settled in for the three hour boat trip back to harbour.

After climbing aboard my support boat I asked how Chris’ swim went, I was told that he too had swum on the spot for five hours but had abandoned his swim after seven hours of swimming, though not before diving under the boat to unravel some fishing line which had been caught up around the boats propeller. Chris was happy with his effort, his fabulous support team and is looking forward to attempting to swim the Tsugaru Strait another day.

Part 3
Typhoon Roke arrived the day after our swims. As with any big storm we battened down for a day that was extremely wet and windy. It was nice to have our swims behind us and to chill out with our crew at our accommodations for the day and visit the Japanese hot spring baths next door.

In the evening I was asked to abandon my plans to cook a large spaghetti bolognaise for the team since Hakodate government officials had invited us to a celebration dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. It was a wonderful evening, filled with speeches, presentations and sampling many of the local dishes.

There was a congratulation banner hung above our table, our crew and pilots were there along with many government officials from Hakodate City. I was presented with a large and beautiful bouquet of flowers and a wonderful Japanese work of art set in a picture frame.

The next morning Chris and I were eager to go for a swim, we headed to our local training beach along with Ishii and crew members Eri and Junko. There was a huge surf pounding onto the shore thanks to typhoon Rokes presence the day before, we had to be very careful going in and out through the surf, then enjoyed a short swim in the huge rolling swells once we were through the break. We marvelled at the large cargo ships rocking and rolling in the massive waves in the shipping channels.

That afternoon Naoko left for the airport and the rest of us drove into Hakodate City and took the cable car to the top of the mountain to view the city lights at night. This was followed by dinner with our boat pilots and the hotel manageress.[singlepic id=1136 w=320 h=240 float=]

Thursday morning we were asked to gather in reception at 9am where we were met by two Hakodate City government officials and practically given the keys to the city for the day.[singlepic id=1186 w=320 h=240 float=] We were treated like royalty and escorted to many of the Cities major attractions including driving back up to the top of the mountain to enjoy the city views in daylight, we visited the old British consulate, the magistrate’s court, Goryokaku Tower, the local markets and many of the Hakodate City sights.

There was so much to do and so much ground covered in one day, but we were not done yet. We had promised to meet Chris’ pilot back at Toi were our accommodations were. There was a plan in place for us to visit an outdoor ocean hot springs, but we were hours behind schedule and finally found our way there well after dark. The night was cool and so was the sea, I do believe I was the one to get fully wet while Chris and Ishii had a quick dunk the others didn’t go in at all. It was soon decided we all go to the nearby indoor hot springs instead. Dinner was late, it was a big day, we all went to bed exhausted and happy.

The next day we met in reception again for a 10am departure. There were many goodbyes to the many new friends we’d made over the past week. We drove to Hakodate train station and caught the bullet train to Sendai City, Miyagi. Followed by more trains and busses through the earthquake disrupted landscape to visit Ishinomaki City where the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit and devastated local communities.

It was a sad and sobering sight to see so many communities affected by this recent catastrophe. Chris and I had been in Hawaii when the Japanese earthquake hit earlier this year. We’d been evacuated from our beachfront hotel in the middle of the night due to the tsunami warnings there and my Molokai swim had been affected by the tsunami which travelled thousands of kilometres across the globe. Now we were doing a taxi tour of the town most affected, looking at the devastation that had occurred and hearing of the thousands of people who had been swept to their deaths.

It was all very sad and a stark reminder of how precious life is. The journey back to Sendai was slow, train, bus, and then train due to the earthquake affected railway lines. My thoughts went to those who had lost so much, yet who lived on and had to make this long journey to and from work every day.

We checked into our hotel at midnight.

Sunday 25th September. Wake up early – get up!

Just enough time for a quick breakfast in the hotel restaurant before setting off to the station to catch the bullet train to Tokyo.

Once in Tokyo we bade farewell to Eri who left us to catch her flight back to New York.

Now there was just Ishii, Chris and I. But there was to be no slowing down, Ishii had many plans for us before putting us on our plan home to Australia in a few days time. Today would be jam packed full with a visit to Japanese temples, Japanese gardens, markets and Tokyo city.

That night was a truly Japanese experience staying with Ishii’s friends, a Japanese family, Mr & Mrs Abe’s and their son Hitoshi home, after dinner which somehow went for six hours it was late, Ishii had planned to go home but was persuaded to stay the night since we had another big day planned ahead of us.

By now I was close to exhaustion! But with only two sleeps to go before we returned to Australia and so much still to do there was no slowing down.

This morning Ishii and the Abe family had planned a traditional Japanese tea ceremony for us. Chris and I were given Japanese kimonos to wear and to bring back home to Australia with us. It was fun dressing up Japanese style and the tea ceremony was quite interesting, though I must admit Chris was far better than I at drinking the bitter, lime green tea we were offered.

In the afternoon we were off to the Tokyo underground railway station again, this time with our new friend and Tokyo underground rail system expert Hitoshi Abe. We caught the lift to the top of one of Tokyo’s very tall buildings and admired the view of the massive city sprawl.

Chris mentioned that the population of Tokyo was not too far different to the entire population of Australia. This was followed by more sightseeing from ground level which included Japanese markets, another Japanese temple and dinner with the Ade family at a traditional Japanese restaurant. The wonderful thing about this restaurant is we would never have gone there without local knowledge, the restaurant was filled with Japanese locals, the meal was four courses including two with Japanese pancakes, I loved this place!

The six of us caught the train together back to Mr and Mrs Abe’s home, we laughed so hard on the journey back my stomach and cheeks ached. So much for the language barrier, all of our vocabularies were increasing dramatically, with Chris and I picking up words and phrases in Japanese and the Japanese improving and practising their English.

Our last full day – this morning we would visit another beautiful Japanese garden, the Hama-rikyu Gardens, then we enjoyed a cruise of Tokyo in a water bus, followed by lunch, Japanese style naturally, after lunch we went to visit the Edo-Tokyo museum. In the evening we were invited to a dinner party Ishii had arranged with some of his Japanese channel swimming friends and colleagues.

9am was our agreed meeting time in the lobby of our hotel, yes this was our last day in Tokyo but since we didn’t fly our until the evening there was no time to rest up now….there was still so much more to do! Ishii, Hitoshi, Chris and I set off back to the underground station and took the Ginza line. More sightseeing was on our menu for today, we went to Ginza to ‘people watch’ and for people watching this is the place to do just that. We visited an amusement arcade and made some crazy photos together, then enjoyed our last lunch together at a very nice Chinees restaurant before catching the train back to the hotel and make our booking on the bus back to Narita airport. Ishi joined Chris and I for the two hour bus ride and Junko joined us at the airport, they stayed with us while we haggled with the check in staff over our excess luggage and could still be seen waving goodbye even after we’d passed through security.

Ishii promised us a quality Japanese experience and that’s exactly what he delivered.

Chris and I would sincerely like to thank Ishii, Eri, Junka, Naoko, our pilots, the government officials and people of Hakodate City, the township of Toi, and the Abe family for their wonderful hospitality and making our trip to Japan such a memorable one.




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Open water swimming crossings and races in Australia and around the world. Stories and reports of our adventures in and out of the water.