There are three vending machines at the Izuro Kosoku Bus Center, one block of storage lockers and four rows of seats. There is one night bus from Kagoshima to Osaka and it leaves the station every day at 7:30pm. Buying a ticket the day of travel poses no problem. The storage lockers take ¥400 in ¥100 coins.

No civilization builds impressive bus stations

There are three columns of seats running the length of the bus, two at the windows and one in the center with an aisle on either side. Thick curtains cover the windows. The bathroom is sunk half a stairwell below the level of the seats in the middle of the bus and smells like neither urine nor cigarettes. Across from the stairwell is a machine that dispenses hot water, and across from that is a cooler filled with complimentary boxes of bitter green tea. Each seat has a cup holder and a pair of slippers. Each seat reclines all the way back into the lap of the person sitting behind you.

There are two men in uniform at the front of the bus. One of them is driving. The other faces the passengers and speaks as we begin our trip. He speaks for a half an hour. Some time after 10:00pm the bus stops in a large parking lot half-filled with big trucks. In the middle of the parking lot is a gas station and a convenience store. Vending machines line the hallway between the convenience store and the bathrooms. We are there for twenty minutes. Then the men in the matching uniforms change places, and the talkative man starts to drive. The thick curtains stay closed. From the window there is nothing on the highway but headlights.


Our second stop in the morning is near Osaka Station. You will need to hand a man in a uniform your luggage ticket to get your luggage back. You will need to hand a man in a uniform your bus ticket. You will need to follow someone who knows where they are going to find Osaka Station.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Something that is quiet and requires no light, like listening to music with headphones or reading Braille.

A Line Smokestack

Every other day the A-line ferries run between Naha and Kagoshima, stopping at several of the Amami Islands along the way. Every other other day it is the Marix ferries that do the running. Both companies have their ticketing offices at the Naha-Ko Ferry Terminal Building. We leave Naha on an even-numbered day, so it’s the A-Line ferry we buy tickets for. It leaves at 7am. The ferry building opens at 6am. The ferry is a containerized cargo ship that carries passengers on its top three floors. At half past six we line up on the tarmac with our tickets and climb the rickety sea-stairs and enter the ship, where music is piped in and prints line the walls and an orange escalator invites us to the world of the Passenger Decks. We are taken aside and led to a desk where a woman stamps our tickets, and then we are pointed to our room.

Beds, such as there are

The room we sleep in holds 205 other people. It looks like a human baggage carousel, a large expanse of blue carpet in a U-shape traveling from the port to starboard entrance of foot traffic with squares cut out to leave your shoes in. The carpet is half-covered in rows of folded light blue mattresses, beige blankets with the A-line logo in red and a small square pillow the size of a tissue box. If all the mattresses were unfolded they would cover the carpet completely. The older people have put the beige blankets on their heads and gone to sleep. Families unfold their consecutive mattresses and organize picnics. We put our bags down against the wall at our own 4×6 footprint. Across the room there is a sense of being evacuated from a very genteel tragedy.

The lobby is arranged in rings. At the center two staircases lead to the next floor. Around those staircases is a circular planter filled with slight greenery and the men who sit here, smoking, and around them is ring of six ashtrays. There is a cafeteria, a bar and a restaurant, but only the cafeteria is open. The curry rice is about five dollars and not bad. The battered consignment shop sells sandwiches.

Watching from Safety

You can purchase a special ticket that allows you to travel for as long as one week, getting off and on the ferry where you wish. We get off at Tokunashima because Lonely Planet says nothing about it except that there are very many old people there, and beaches. We get off the ship at 4:30pm the day we board and we get back on the ship at 5:00 four days later. The next morning we reach Kagoshima.

Leaving Tokunoshima

Half of everyone gets their bags and stands around in the lobby much earlier than they need to. Everyone else sees them, gets nervous, and drags their bags to the lobby. Outside the terminal the taxis line up. After some standard issue miscommunication and pantomime, the lady at the terminal counter gives us a photocopied map. She circles our destination.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Watching the clouds and dreaming of vending machines.


To get into Taiwan you must have proof that you will be leaving Taiwan. The Arimura Sangyo company is the only company that runs ferries between Taiwan and Japan. But the Arimura Sangyo company’s offices are in Taiwan and Japan, and their website is in Japanese, and they don’t take credit cards, and they certainly don’t speak English. You will not get your ferry tickets until you arrive in Taiwan. So we buy two tickets to Okinawa on China Airlines. It’s an hour and a half flight. Mister Chen requests a Halal meal.

To get into Japan you must have proof that you will be leaving Japan. The Shanghai Ferry company has a web page with limited English. They do not accept credit cards, but will confirm your reservation over email and allow you to pay before boarding at the ferry terminal in Osaka. The Shanghai Ferry Company does not accept bookings more than two months in advance.

America to China by Sea

At Arimura Sangyo’s office in Taipei we hand over our confirmation from the Shanghai Ferry Company and they photocopy our passports and say they will call us when our paperwork has gone through. We don’t have a phone. They say to come back in two days. Four days later we are back, we have passed inspection and we pay for our tickets in cash. The ferry leaves at 10:00pm from Keelung, a port city on the northen tip of Taiwan. The man at the ferry office tells us to get to Keelung’s Passenger Terminal between 7:00 and 9:00pm. Don’t believe him.

Ferry Terminal

Trains from Taipei to Keelung leave several times an hour, and tickets need not be (and cannot be) purchased in advance. Shiny plastic benches line the walls of the train cars for minimum seating and maximum standing. At Keelung the map the man at the ferry company gave you will take you from the train station, over the highway and along the port to the International Ferry Terminal. Up the escalators and across the large empty expanse of waiting room is the ticket window. It’s 7:30, and the woman at the window exchanges our tickets for boarding passes and tells to catch the shuttle bus to the ferry in the parking lot. The bus leaves at 8:00.


The ship’s cafeteria, gift shop and vending machines only accept Yen. A 500ml can of Premium Kirin or Asahi is ¥300 from a vending machine if you can find a vending machine that is operational. On the deck is an empty hot tub, and inside is a small arcade. The cheapest tickets lead us to a clean, narrow, windowless room facing a television set. Against the walls are three bunk beds and a bathroom. There is a reading light above where the hard rectangular pillow has been placed on each bed. Heavy curtains hang at the walls and can be pulled completely around each bunk, leaving you in your own private pillow fort, or snow castle, or whatever you called the wombs you built and rebuilt in your childhood.

A middle aged lady comes in from next door and turns on our television. It’s a kung fu soap opera in Taiwanese. The lady returns with her mother, and parks her on a lower bunk and leaves her watching our television through the poor reception.

On Deck

In the morning we are given customs forms. Fill these out completely. When the ferry reaches Naha we follow everyone else to the carpeted ballroom, clutching our customs form and passport and leaving our bags against the wall. We don’t yet know where we’l be staying in Okinawa, so we leave that part of the form blank. But I believe it was Mister Chen’s decision to leave the Occupation field blank that led customs to call in the Coast Guard.

The Japanese Coast Guard questions Mister Chen for about fifteen minutes in the carpeted ballroom. A man in the white uniform of the ferry’s officers brings us the name of a hotel on a piece of paper. He tells us this is where we will stay. He makes it clear that this is not optional. The Coast Guard releases us to customs, where our three bags – two backpacks and a tote bag with a picture of a duck on it – are put through X-ray machines on a conveyer belt and then opened up and searched by more men in uniforms. Another bus takes us alone outside the port by about a block to what we assume is the hotel we were told to stay at. We hand our slip of paper to the ladies at the front desk. They have no idea what we are talking about.




Entering Kaohsiung

When the ship approaches land the water turns from dark blue to blue-green. It is brown when we dock in Kaohsiung. We stand out on the E Deck stretching our last minutes aboard. We watch as flats of tools are lifted from ship to shore and men in mismatched hard hats climb aboard with specialty tools and lunch pails. We watch a fish jump onto the dock and we watch the man who catches it, so surprised that he shouts out loud. We head inside. The door is locked. We head down the exterior staircase, trying the door of the Tween deck, we climb up, and then down again, and then up. All the doors are locked. It’s a hot day and a long climb and we feel like idiots. After about twenty minutes we run into a man in a blue jumpsuit who knocks on a window, and a man out of uniform emerges sleepily behind an opening door. In the ship’s office the Captain is talking to a short man in a cheap uniform. The captain gives him five cartons of Brooklyn cigarettes.

Mister Chen's Tips

You don’t, it turns out, just get off a ship. It’s not like an airline. There’s no line to stand in made for people like you. The customs officers have already checked the box marked weirdo. The man in the cheap uniform asks us how we will be leaving Taiwan. He wants to know where we will be spending the night. I am prepared for this. I have the receipt for our airline tickets. I have a piece of paper with the address and phone number of Kaohsiung’s youth hostel, the exchange rate (100NTD = 3.07USD), tipping customs (No) and the phone number of Mister Chen’s aunt, because believing we may contact relatives makes Mister Chen’s father happy. I hand our paper to the customs man.

We have nothing. The customs man needs to know which flight we are taking out and what airline it is on and what time it leaves, the kind of information you would write down if you were planning on taking your flight. This information is somewhere in the bowels of Expedia, but it is not on our receipt. The customs man needs us to leave the ship and our bags and passports to use the internet at the customs office by the dock, an eight by eight foot room of four chain smoking men, some promotional calendars, one computer and a pink, ineffectual fan. The internet gets to Yahoo! before putting down its bags and refusing to go any further. The chain-smoking customs man gets on his scooter and motions us to a golf cart. The driver of the golf cart follows the scooter deeper into the port, away from the ship and our bags and passports. For the first time on our trip Mister Chen is convinced he is going to die.

One of the mismatched cranes

We are taken to the third floor of a larger customs office. The warehouse of cubicles is reassuring. Pecking uncertainly at the keyboard of another character set, I get our flight information. The customs man calls the youth hostel, which he says is full. The customs man calls Mister Chen’s aunt and hands the phone off to Mister Chen, who apologizes to her, and then Mister Chen’s aunt invites us to dinner. Then back to the ship on the golf cart we go. We go back to our cabin, zip up our bags, and sit down.

Two hours later the customs man returns. He leads us off the boat. He leads us to his car. No thank you, we try say. He motions to us to get in his car. No, we will find a taxi. But won’t we get in the car? The customs man is as frustrated as we are absolutely terrified. We have no money and we don’t understand the street signs but please, just let us wander lost. We do not want to get into your car. He calls Mister Chen’s aunt. “There, you see? You are scared? I call your Auntie, she know I am driving you. You call her again when we get there.” So we get in his car. He turns on his stereo and Carly Simon joins us. Loudly. We drive outside the port, past jerry-rigged homes of plastic siding. “I’ve been to paradise,” she sings. “But I’ve never been to me.”

Intermediary train station

When you arrive in Kaohsiung, tell the customs official you are taking the next train to Taipei. When you get to the train station get in the line for day-of tickets. Present your ticket at the checkpoint and keep it with you until you have exited the train station in Taipei.

We have asked the customs man to drive us to the youth hostel. The customs man drives us to the youth hostel. It’s closed. We dither. The customs man calls Mister Chen’s aunt. She will meet us in front of the back of train station. The customs man drives us to the train station.

Inside the train

The trains are neat and comfortable, with large windows. There are convenience stores at the train station, and there are certified railroad employees who wander the aisles of the train selling food at appropriate mealtimes and snacks at all others. Between the tile and neon cities are mountains and windmills, rice paddies and statues of large red gods.


Time for Large Books

We are on the ship for eleven days before our first port of call. We play ping-pong. Time is not precious. For the first time in my life I floss daily. On sunny days we wander the deck of the ship. Look over the side and you can see fish leap up as the ship passes, flying for two or three yards like little passenger airplanes, wings and tail and everything, before knifing cleanly back into the water. Stick your head out the bays that the rope goes in when we to tie down in port and stare directly at the water rushing under you. Pelicans loop in the air after each other around the nose of the ship. Whales spout and turn over, keeping the threatening enormity of the natural world close.


At port in Tokyo all doors to the outside decks lock, and we pin our assigned Photo IDs to our shirts. Shore leave in Tokyo is five hours long. On Odaiba we walk out to the Telecom Building, a beacon leading us out of the container yards past people in uniforms on bicycles, truckers asleep in their cabs with their small longhaired dogs. At Osaka we stay on the deck of the ship and watch the containers unload.

Cargo on Board

Two days before we arrive in Kaohsiung it is Mister Chen’s birthday. At breakfast the Captain hands him a piece of laminated paper and shakes his hand. The computer printout says that Mister Chen has spent his 29th birthday on the Punjab Senator. There is a picture of the ship and a picture of the American flag and a clip art illustration of pink roses. Everyone in the officer’s mess hall shakes his hand. A German officer at the next table asks if Mister Chen has enjoyed being on the ship. Mister Chen answers with enthusiasm. We settle down to another day’s egg, toast and meat, and the officer is friendly, but serious. “Maybe,” he says, “you should be a seafarer.”

SUGGESTED PREPARATION: Bring books and a sandwich.

Tween Deck

In the stairwell, near the menu and next to every light switch is a list of everyone on the ship; their nationalities, ages and jobs. For your traveling convenience the ship’s crew and officers have been color-coded along traditional colonialist lines. The officers are German and Russian. The crew is Kiribati. The captain is German and looks like Santa Claus. On our second day he takes us on a tour of the ship.

Places of Interest aboard the Punjab Senator

It’s overcast and windy and the decks are wet with ocean. Standing under the wooden slats of four damp and dripping containers, the Captain tells us they are packed with untreated cow hides that will be made into leather in Japan. And that is where that smell is coming from. Inside on the D deck is a room with a pool that is never filled. This is the pool room. The activity room next door has the ping-pong table, dart board, exercise bike and sauna. Up on the E deck between the stairwell and our cabin is the officer’s lounge. In the far corner an end table has disappeared beneath out of date German newsmagazines and issues of Maxim. Against the wall the bookcases are stacked two deep with hefty paperbacks, some in Russian, more in German and a quarter of them written by Tom Clancy. Three shelves hold the ship’s movie collection, hand-labeled VHS cassettes of movies dubbed into German and Russian and taped off of television. We watch Goldeneye in German. Crossroads in Russian gets turned off five minutes in.

Engine Room

On our third day the Chief Engineer takes us on a tour of the engine room. The engine is loud and clanging and everyone in the engine room wears noise-canceling headphones. Two pairs of guest headphones are by the engine room door next to the industrial warning sign that says, in pictograms, that we had better use them. As we walk through the pipes past the turbines and switches the chief engineer takes great pains to explain the engine to us. The Chief Engineer has a thick German accent. Inside our headphones we smile and nod.

Smoke on the water

We are heading north from Oakland to Alaska, along the Aleutian Islands to Russia before going back south towards Japan. We are drowning in daylight. The water is ice blue and too cold to pump into the small pool on the D deck. The laminated notice that clocks will be set back one hour this evening is posted outside the mess hall. Every third day it is joined by a notice that the stores will be open for a half an hour after dinner. There are two stores on the ship, two closets next door to one another and across from the mess hall. The bonded store sells hard liquor and cigarettes and the other store sells everything else. The utility shelves lining the right wall of the second closet are stacked with twenty-four can flats of Fanta, Diet Coke or Rostocker, cans of potato chips and peanuts and chocolate. You can pay at the end of your trip with cash, American dollars or euros. The men leaving the first closet carry bottles of red wine and cartons of cigarettes. The most expensive brand is Marlboro, and this is what the officers buy. The least expensive brand is Brooklyn. We stare at the stacks of Brooklyn cartons in the bonded store. “That’s where we’re from,” Mister Chen says to the Captain. “Those cigarettes,” says the Captain, “are maybe not so good.”

To see the sea

You have to get used to the ocean. I spend the first day lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling. But the water’s churn and sway induces not just nausea, but sleep. So we sleep soundly at night, and nap after breakfast, and sometimes we nap again after dinner. By the second day my stomach allows me free reign of my senses. And for all our time onboard sleep will follow us as an ever-ready friend.

The Cabin

They warned us. They warned us about the food. The freighter agency literature mentions several times that the food may not be what Americans are accustomed to – “for example,” it says, “there may not be dessert.” The first morning’s breakfast is called “Hunter’s Toast,” which turns out to be toast smothered in something like liverwurst and topped by a fried egg. Breakfast is usually one part egg, one part meat, and one part toast except when it is sausage and a puddle of tomato sauce. Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 8:00am, which means arrive at 7:30 and leave at eight. One pot of coffee and one pot of hot water sit on the table next to the basket of tea bags and peanut gallery of condiments.


Meals are our only scheduled events and they form the backbone of our days. There are four meals, the three you would expect and coffee, which is served at 4pm for the officers and at 10am for passengers. And when I say passengers I mean us, because we are the only two passengers on the ship. We are also the only two people on the ship who speak English. There are four tables in the Officer’s Mess Hall and we sit alone at the four person table against the back left wall. It feels like attending summer camp entirely by yourself.


Dinner is at 11:30am, a bowl of soup followed by a hunk of meat covered in white sauce and served with potato or rice. Like most institutional menus the ship’s menu has a clear pattern, and three times a week this includes dessert. Twice a week, when ice cream is served after lunch, supper will be “cold buffet.” If there is pudding, supper is anyone’s guess. Food on the ship, of course, can be supplemented by purchases at the Ship’s store.

Punjab Senator at the Port of Oakland

The turnstile is at the far corner of the parking lot where two barbed wire fences meet. Pass the turnstile and enter the cage, where the security guard checks passports against a list and then directs us past him to wait at a curb. Now we are inside the container yard, two yokels with backpacks among the heavy lifting of industry. Trucks grind by along tight yellow lines. There is a reason why everyone else is wearing a hard hat.

Scylla and Charybdis

A van picks us up and drives us past the stacked containers and the whizzing, skeletal machines that stack them. We are let out along the straight shoreline of the port, the Punjab Senator rising above us from the water and the cranes dwarfing the ship from the shore. The cranes are lifting containers from the ship and swinging them above our heads to the beds of the trucks parked underneath the cranes. A longshoreman offers to take our picture with the ship, several times.

The only way to the freighter is up a long shaking staircase more rope than metal. We climb, gripping the handrail and the slick black wetness that coats it. At the top of the stairs a short brown man in a paint-splattered blue jumpsuit writes our names down very slowly. An impatient white man in a clean tan jumpsuit with the name of the ship on the back in red comes along to correct him and leads us to the ship’s office, where we surrender our passports. Then he takes us to our passenger cabin on the E deck. We listen to a brief summary of safety procedures in broken English, and then we sign a form saying it is our fault if we die.

Passenger Cabin

Our new living room has two portholes, a couch, and a love seat. Against the far wall a desk and a chair sit under a clock set to no time in particular. A web of bungee cords tie the television and stereo to the top of the cabinets. The mini-fridge holds a few cans of Fanta, a few cans of Diet Coke, Rostocker Beer and a bottle of champagne. These are gifts from the captain. The cabinets hold a single glass. To the left of the loveseat, underneath the plastic plant, are our two full-body water immersion safety suits, size extra large.

The Cranes of Oakland

Since buying our passage aboard the Punjab Senator seven months ago the departure date has swung from July 17th to the 16th and then back again, only three days before departure, while we slept on the living room futon of a very understanding friend. When we call the terminal the morning of our departure the time has changed again, from morning to evening, and we are told to arrive any time after six. We arrive a little after seven. The Punjab Senator is now scheduled to depart at five the next morning. We are glad we bought Vietnamese sandwiches, and we split a can of Fanta.

Leaving California

At five in the morning the ship groans and we are on our way, peering out the window past the cranes, then Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge and the ferries and freighters until we are alone on the sea.