A few revs of the deep, throaty engine powering our sturdy sailing ship, and we launch out into the Naruto Strait off the southern tip of Awaji Island, leaving a frothy trail behind. We’re on our way out to the Naruto whirlpools and today, the three-deck, three-masted Kanrinmaru is doing the honors.
Cruising at a casual 10 knots or so, the cool ocean winds whip strands of hair across our faces, and the salty air seasons the tips of our tongues as we stand on deck, gazing in anticipation at the Onaruto Bridge arcing across our horizon.
We know what’s under it. In this narrow strait connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Seto Inland Sea, powerful whirlpools swirl and churn, created by the large volumes of water carried by strong currents moving between the two sections of ocean. This natural phenomenon is influenced by high and low tides, and the unique underwater geography of the narrow strait.
Accompanying the thick, deep whirr of our vessel’s motor are the high-pitched screeches of excited seagulls. Gliding centimetres above the water, a second later they zoom high up into the air, having seemingly no trouble keeping up with the almost 50-meter-long and 10-meter-wide Kanrinmaru.
I soon understand their motivation, spotting the breadcrumb-clad palms of 33-year-old crew member Jiro Kurume.
“Sometimes they get really confident and eat the bread out of your hand,” he smiled. “But today they are shy. They’re only around in winter, so soon we won’t see them on our daily trips.”
With the last of the breadcrumbs, disappeared our satiated feathery friends, just in time for us to be met face-to-face with the postcard image of the Onaruto Bridge. The job of this grand structure is to connect Tokushima to Awaji Island, providing safe passage over the moody, swelling seas below.
After a wave and a salute to the pint-sized people hovering high above us behind glass windows on Uzu no Michi, the bridge’s whirlpool-viewing platform, we turn our attention overboard to find ourselves amongst the revered spirals of seawater we came to find.
Whirling and whipping around like giant plugs have been pulled from the sand of the ocean floor, water appears to be draining through to the unknown depths below. Groups of camera-equipped whirlpool watchers gather at the side of the deck, vying for that enviable whirlpool money shot, oohing and aahing and giggling like children.
Elusive on some days and ever-present on others, the whirlpools vary in size, depending on the intensity of the tides. We’re told the below-average swell on our trip is typical of a winter’s day.
Still, the crowd seemed pleased and so were we. Twice round the whirlpools on the deck of the Kanrinmaru had our hands sufficiently frozen, and our memory cards full, so we dropped below deck to cruise back to port in the warmth of the tatami (Japanese straw mat) saloon.
Disembarking the boat, we learn our whirlpool experience is not quite done. Near the boarding area, in front of the Uzushio Dome Nanairo building, is the Ashiyu Uzunoyu hot spring – a free, 100-percent-natural, hot-spring foot bath, where the water actually swirls around like its own gentle, mini whirlpool. The perfect antidote to my chilled fingers and toes, I thought. I decide to unzip my boots, cast my socks aside, and give it a whirl.
Addess： Uzushio Dome Nanairo Bldg, Fukurako, Minami-Awaji, Hyogo
Access: Express bus from JR Sannomiya Station to Fukura (90 minutes)
Open Hours： Daily departures from the Port of Fukura between 9:30am and 4:10pm
*Departure schedule is subject to tides, weather conditions, and availability.
Ring ahead or make contact via the website to check times and conditions.
Words by Celia Polkinghorne
Photos by Jason Haidar
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