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S.S. Chitral in 1965 ..... Japan redux

Michael Frost - Reflects


s.s. Chitral Built: 1956 by Penhoet, St Nazaire, France

Gross tons: 13821 Length: 558ft (170m)Speed: 16.5kn

Width: 70ft (21m)Depth: 28ft (9m)Power: 12500 shp

Propulsion: Steam turbines twin screw

Passengers: 240 in First Class


I joined Chitral in London’s Victoria Docks as 4th Mate in 1965. This was the first of 2 ships (Jadotville and Baudouvinville – each of 13,800 tons - the latter soon to become Cathay) sold by Compagnie Maritime Belge to P&O in 1961. It was an opportune moment for these vessels to become available because the company’s Corfu and Canton were obsolescent and these two vessels, both one class with accommodation for 300 passengers, were ideally suited to the Far East run; P&O was doubly fortunate in the timing, as both Greek and Italian interests were also immediately interested in their acquisition. Their suitability arose because of being virtually new (they were launched in 1957), and had become available because of Belgium’s political catastrophe when it left Congo hastily and “with extreme prejudice”.


Jadotville became ss. Chitral

It should be said that the two vessels were unmistakably of a continental passenger liner design, and topped by a ‘lascroux’ designed funnel: they were visually attractive ships, perhaps rather ‘unbritish’ in appearance, but their speed of 17 knots was well suited to P&O’s Far East service to Hong Kong and Japan. For the most part, this passenger service suited overseas civil servants; the Commonwealth was in those days a substantial presence along the route through the Mediterranean, across the Indian Ocean to Malaysia (as four political entities in South-East Asia had recently collectively renamed themselves), on to Hong Kong – then still subject to British suzerainty, at least until the lease ran out - and a route that concluded with a reliable fast cargo service to and from Japan. Additionally, it was a useful facility for transporting such persons as HSBC employees to what was then that Bank’s international base in Hong Kong.


Upon signing on, I was pleased to find that the ship was very well maintained, that there was a ‘1st class ambiance’ about the amenities and that Captain Nowell was just the sort of Captain whom I should try to emulate. As my previous appointment had been to Oriana (41,900 tons) it was also comparatively easy to become reasonably well acquainted with most of the features of the ship’s layout: an essential part of any deck officer’s knowledge.


As most of the voyage included ports that I had previously visited on P&O’s tankers and cargo ships, I was particularly interested in visiting Japan. However, en route there were incidental pleasures not hitherto known to me: our crew was entirely Chinese, though leading hands and officers were uniformly British, and I quickly learned that they were denizens of a culture that had much to teach us … particularly with respect to their cuisine!


The ship's senior officers and passesngers enjoying the crew's

Chinese New Year Lion Dance


And their New Year celebrations (apart from the Mooncakes, to me with a texture comparable to half-set cement – but I had been to English boarding-school, so this was a texture with which I was actually well acquainted) with its Lion Dance and associated high jinks adding spice to the mixture, all served to render this a very happy ship.


Eventually, we arrived in Yokohama. An immediate surprise was the sheer modernity of it all. I saw new docks, high-tech cranes and cargo-handling gear that was way more efficient than anything that I had witnessed in London’s Royal Docks. This point I noted particularly because my recent home was in Woolwich, a tired and badly bombed suburb of London that was ‘new’ only inasmuch as the older equipment (cargo cranes etc.) had long since been sold off to such desperate places as Karachi and Colombo, ports which I had earlier visited.


I make this point because this visit to Yokohama was made in 1965, less than 20 years after the end of World War II: pictures that I had seen of the devastation visited upon Tokyo prior to 1945 gave credence to the theory that the atomic bombs delivered to Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been directed against the capital because in Tokyo there was simply nothing left to destroy. And that afternoon, because I was able to exchange watches with the 3rd mate, I sought the company of Cora, one of our FAPs, to go ashore to see something of the big city, and these observations were quickly confirmed when, on the suburban train into the central station, we saw modernity (and a big sign “Suntory, Genuine Scotch Whisky”!) so much more impressive than one would ever see on the train ride from Woolwich Arsenal to Charing Cross, a journey of comparable time and distance.


Arriving in the glittering centre of the city (brilliantly lit, resplendent with camera/electronic/record/chinoiserie shops, and alive with shoppers) we walked a little and decided that we would best occupy our time by taking a short train trip: at the station we estimated that we had about 6 hours of free time, and with some difficulty (given the significant role of the Americans in the country in the 1945 to 1965 period, English signage was remarkably deficient) decided that we could manage Tokyo to Shizuoka and back, at least half of which would be in the daylight.

Wending our way to the station platform, we were faced with a bullet-like LEX (Limited Express: it stopped at all stations, as opposed to going all the way to Kobe, the task of the SEX, which is to say, Super…), and I noted how comfortable was the seating fabric, it being untarnished (something about which BritRail travelers had much to bewail), and the ride, at least as we started, being as smooth as silk. And as we passed the setting sun reflected upon Mount Fujiyama I contentedly gazed upon a sight of which I had until then only read inadequate descriptions.


I make the point because I was something of a fan of railways, as indeed was Cora, who lived on England’s South Coast. I, having attended boarding school in Folkestone, seen the Golden Arrow off to France on many evenings, visited on one occasion the Ashford Railway Works because my history teacher was a train buff, and had the privilege on a previous voyage of having enjoyed a streamlined and most commodious night train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, it was beginning to dawn on me that we just might not have actually won the war, at least with respect to the commonalities of daily life.


Mt Fuji is split between Yamanashi Prefecture on the north side and Shizuoka Prefecture on the south. The Shizuoka side is the most common departure point for mountaineers.


Night was creeping in when we arrived in Shizuoka, but it was a lovely bright and warm evening, so we walked down the main street until we found a suitable restaurant. In fact, all the establishments looked suitable: clean as whistles, well lit, indeed almost garishly so, and all with the splendid idea of windows facing the street displaying plastic models of the dishes available (why had the British not thought of this?). We enjoyed a perfect meal, only slightly delayed because Cora was not enthused about chopsticks: our waiter had to run down the street to find a knife and fork. After the sake (definitely an acquired taste!) we enjoyed our ride back to Tokyo; on our way a very polite elderly Japanese man discussed with me the excellence of the Aquascutum raincoat that I was wearing, and one of which he hoped soon to buy. (It was notable that every Japanese person whom I met on the trip was unfailingly polite and almost deferential … I couldn’t see this sort of exchange happening on British Rail!).


Happy memories of Tokyo behind us, we made a quick call at Shimizu (where we loaded what seemed like 10,000 mopeds, at the time becoming very popular in UK, but hardly any of which, of course, would be made by the established British bike manufacturers, who seemed to favour ankle-cracking kick-starts, high fuel consumption, and deafening noise levels). Then on to Kobe, before heading back to the cacophonous Hong Kong.



Within P&O officer ranks, Kobe held a special reputation. It was a renowned for its high energy, economic success, all manner of unusual culinary delights, and, of course, many pleasures of the flesh. Even approaching it from seawards, the place oozed vigour and excess, the evening sun bathing the smoke and steam with a preternatural KOBE Night Life 1960's vitality.


One of the younger engineers whose company I enjoyed told me of an establishment of which he was particularly fond, apparently very clean (like everywhere else in this country!) with untold delights in the general ‘massage’ arena. Having no idea about such things (my Mother was very knowledgeable about many things in life, but some arenas were definitely outside her ken) I understood that we were to enjoy an evening of mild carnality. It began, of course, with some sake (with which I was still having some difficulty), following which a couple of young ladies came in to provide some ‘delights’ to each of us. I noted that both were quite small, unilingual and very well-muscled. The experience, however, was unexpected: my masseuse climbed onto my back and began walking up and down my spine, dividing my ribs from my backbone with the adroit use of her unusually robust toes. This I found more painful than sybaritic … Eros failed to visit me that evening!


But Kobe was not finished; after my rather eye-popping evening’s experience, I felt the need to engage in some acculturation. Given that Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, was but a short train ride away, I journeyed there to take in the sights. And, indeed, I was not disappointed. While the rest of Japan was being bombed into history, President Roosevelt had ordered that the cultural treasure that was Kyoto should be preserved intact. Thus, I saw temples, statues and relics that bore testament to the superb craftsmanship of the ancient pre-westernized civilization that owed nothing to the Western ideas brought in by itinerant and rapacious 16th-century European scroungers. The visit did much to raise my esteem of this ancient civilization.



One of the many ancient temple of Kyoto


Homeward, I could not but feel that I had seen in a few days a great deal that supplied much food for thought and modified many of my earlier preconceptions. Later I returned there on a few occasions, but, unsurprisingly, no visit was as significant as the first.













Michael Frost






‘Voyages to Maturity Seven Years


before the Mast with P&O’




Available from AMAZON


www.michaelfrostauthor.com






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