‘How Japan 002wonderful,’ my elderly aunt had said when I told her I’d be going to sea for a few months with my husband and three-year-old daughter. ‘You’re going on a cruise…’

I knew she’d got it wrong, but didn’t feel I could shift her fixed ideas of tea on the boat-deck and waiters in white tuxedos. Travelling as a guest aboard merchant ships is rather different, and trips ashore can be an education.

I’d heard so much about Japan – I’d seen pictures of geishas, cherry blossom and exotic temples – but being there was like nothing I’d imagined. After the unfortunate incident in Kakogawa (‘Don’t drink the Water’) the ship moved out of dry-dock to anchor in Osaka Bay.

Since we were awaiting orders and our next cargo, my husband Peter was able to take a rare day off.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘you want to see a bit of traditional Japan, so why don’t we take the train up to Kyoto? Lots of ancient temples there, and it’s only about an hour away.’

The 3rd Engineer and his wife planned to go into Osaka shopping, so we booked a launch to take us ashore, and arranged to meet up by the quay later in the day.

If it was hot by the coast, inland it was breathless with heat and humidity. It was long past cherry blossom time and even the trees were wilting. Having our daughter Louise with us, we took it easy, wandering the streets of ancient Kyoto, peering down alleyways as we made our way towards the heart of the old capital of Japan.

In my light cotton dress, I gazed in awe at kimono-clad ladies in silken finery, wondering how they managed to look so cool. We found respite in an air-conditioned restaurant, and toured one of the temples in the afternoon. The perfectly manicured gardens were exquisite, and the carved wood, deep eaves and tiered pagodas were a feast for the eyes. I longed to know more about them, their age and history, but sadly, I learned very little – all the information was in Japanese.

After an hour or so, our little daughter was flagging, so reluctantly we headed back to the station for the train.

At the quay in Osaka-Ko, Ray and Diane were waiting. The wind had sprung up and was threatening a storm, while out in the Bay it looked alarmingly choppy. When the launch returned, it seemed conditions were not good. The two men mulled it over. They would have chanced it, but neither was willing to risk our lives getting back on board.

‘I think we’d better start looking for a hotel…’

Port areas are rarely the stuff of tourist brochures, but nor are they as lurid as books and films would suggest. The streets of Osaka-Ko were clean, the buildings a mix of traditional and modern. We found a place to eat, and as twilight fell searched for somewhere suitable to stay. Since most of the signs were in Japanese, it wasn’t easy, but we spotted one in the end, a traditional hotel, with a tiled roof and wooden walls. It looked clean and bright and welcoming.

Clad in a plain dark kimono, Mama-san – the middle-aged lady in charge – came out to greet us. Her face lit up when she saw our daughter. Louise’s fair curly hair and winning smile worked their usual magic. At once Mama-san couldn’t do enough for us.

While a young woman took Ray and Diane upstairs, Mama-san escorted us personally to a room with a western-style bed and a futon for the little one. She turned on the TV, indicated the fridge-bar, fully stocked, and in broken English said anything else we needed, we must come down and let her know…

Louise, meanwhile, was mesmerised by the television – something she hadn’t seen for a quite a while. I sat with her, thinking how good she’d been during a hot and tiring day. An old cowboy-film was flickering on the small screen, a Mexican in a sombrero riding down the main street of a ramshackle town. He hitched his horse to the rails, flung back his poncho and pushed open the swing doors of the bar. He sat down, ordered a drink and something to eat.

It was when the bowl of rice appeared and he picked up his chopsticks that my jaw dropped.

Suddenly it was so hysterically funny, I could barely speak. ‘Well, I’ve heard of spaghetti westerns,’ I managed at last, ‘but what do we call this?’

‘Sukiyaki?’ my husband offered.

Still laughing, I opened the fridge-bar, but saw it had little in the way of soft drinks. ‘I’ll pop downstairs,’ I said to Peter, ‘and see if Mama-san’s got orange or lemonade for Louise.’

She had, handing the softies over with much bowing and smiling. I bowed in return, thanked her and turned for the stairs.  Coming down were a young couple – he a westerner, she a pretty Japanese girl. I smiled and said good evening. He seemed startled, but smiled and returned the greeting. For a split-second his companion froze. Her glance travelled over me, down and back up again. It took in my height, my colouring, my mini-dress and my shoes. That look would have withered nettles.

‘Well,’ I declared when I reached our room, ‘that wasn’t very nice…’

I was barely through my explanation when Peter started laughing. ‘You probably gave her a shock,’ he said at last. ‘Seeing a westerner in a place like this.’

‘Place like this? What do you mean?’

With a lop-sided grin, my other half said, ‘Haven’t you got it yet? She was probably wondering what Mama-san’s up to, letting western girls in…’

Slowly, the penny dropped. ‘You mean… a brothel?’

‘Well, it is a port area,’ he reminded me with a smile. ‘Sorry, love, I thought you’d realised?’

I shook my head. ‘No, it never crossed my mind…’

But then I saw the funny side, putting myself in Mama-san’s place. ‘She must have been delighted,’ I giggled, ‘when she saw us arriving. Imagine – a real live family – respectability at last!’

‘Quite a change from the usual trade!’

I couldn’t help wondering what auntie would say…