Vintage Sailing in the Amakusa

Swimming prawns and sub-tropical islands

By Bonson Lam    - 4 min read

Want to savor super fresh swimming prawns while eating alfresco style surrounded by still quiet seas, surrounded by green mountains and graced by birds and fairy floss like clouds above? Or would you prefer some homemade tempera whole prawn crackers and miso soup from a cook with over thirty years’ experience?

Today I am aboard a historic Utase sailing ship, which is an icon of the Amakusa Islands in Kumamoto. When they are in full sail they resemble a noble woman in a white cotton dress. The friendly but discreet crew of Ashikita town took us out on a relaxing charter for a few hours out to sea, with beautiful views of the islands that dot this area.

Utase boats started more 400 years ago though now they have motors as well, which gently take us for a 30 minute ride from the shore before we set anchor. Once the motor is off, all you hear is the sound of lapping water and the occasional flapping of the sails. It is a gentle cruise and none of the eight guests got seasick. Breathe in the ocean breeze and take in the scenery of the surrounding islands and the distant blue green mountains framing the distant shores.

These ships, which are unique to Kumamoto and Kagoshima, are authentic working fishing boats, taking in prawns and other fish during the week, while on the weekends they take visitors for fishing tours during the day. They operate summer and winter but the fish you catch vary between seasons with bottom crawling fish more common in winter using nets that drop more than 40 meters below the water line.Today we caught some long silver fish called tachiuo or hairtail while the fishermen caught tai bream fish and prawns with their nets. The tachiuo is like brilliant silver ties with a magnificent shimmer that reflected the sunlight on this autumn afternoon.

In the afternoon, you can see eagles and crows near the harbor and seagulls following the boat with careless abandon as the crew pull in their catch.The fisherwoman was only 24, with her second child being only 6 months old when she first worked on the boat. It was tiring and difficult learning everything at first. Now 68 years old the husband and wife team work together without saying a word, setting the sails and working the nets effortlessly as us novices got out of their way. Watching them work together, in perfect harmony and without a word, it reminded me of the Kumamoto folk song or minyo called Otemoyan, which goes something like this:

“Hey Otemoyan dear, you’ve just got married, right?

Yes, I was. But as my husband's face was pockmarked,

So we haven't had a full ceremony.

The mayor, boss, and go-betweeners,

They would come through Kawabata town,

What would become of us, I wonder?

Let's go and see the many ripe pumpkins

And flowers flowing in the fields.

Larks twittering, birds singing

They’ve produced nice eggplants at last”

If you are around in summer, you may even hear this song played in the street festivals in Kumamoto.

The chartered cruise today was 42000 yen for 12 people for 3 hours including a scrumptious homemade lunch banquet, sailing, all fishing gear and training. This works out to less than 4,000 yen per person, giving us a unique experience and insight to this 400 year old tradition.What a relaxing day to enjoy nature just off the coast of Kumamoto.

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Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric lane ways of Kyoto last century. From the skies above Sapporo to the old charm of Naha's alleyways, I have been enchanted by the beauty and variety on every island. I am humbled to have met many distinguished people in my role as Regional Partner, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperial Family. From sushi cooking classes to Ninja training grounds I welcome your ideas on what you like from Please visit us in Kyoto or Osaka and have some green tea or sake with us. 

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Bonson Lam Author 5 years ago
There is something about the effervescence of the sea in summer that brings a joy to your heart. The lapping waves coming back and forth in a rhythmic lullaby, the almost unreal aquamarine and azure blue of the water, brighter than any impressionist painting. Then there's the seagulls playing in the skies above. All this and more from the hammock like sway of an vintage sailing ship, far from all the cares of the world.