A mania for manga
In the Japanese port city of Sakaiminato, Detlev, a German tourist, stands with a perplexed look on his face. Behind him a train has pulled in, emblazoned in cartoon creatures.
All around him are sculptures of the same, strange characters, perched on tables and standing on stilts and striking poses on great stands of black granite.
Detlev is a fellow cruiser on the French ship Le Soleal and, like me, has caught a shuttle bus into the town centre to kill a few hours between the end of a shore excursion and the ship's departure, never expecting such a tableau of strangeness in this place we've never heard of.
"This town is very childish," says Detlev. He looks to a waiting taxi that has a giant eyeball on its roof, while overhead are eyeball streetlights, similar to the eyeball rice-paste popsicle I've just eaten, and the tumescent eyeball water bottles on sale in a nearby shop.
"I was going to buy something for my grandchildren, but I don't think they would understand it."
It turns out there is a lot to grasp about this town, nearly 300 kilometres north-west of Osaka with a population less than 40,000.
Information on the ground is scant. The ship's daily program has blandly described the city as the base for the fishing industry in western Japan; "marine produce processing is also a major industry in the city", it has added.
The program's "photo of the day" is of Matsue Castle, a winged, wooden, 17th-century edifice that is stunning for sure, and a one-hour drive away. We head there on a shore excursion, skirting Sakaiminato and driving through a landscape of lagoons and market gardens and tea crops.
A 300-year-old samurai residence is also on the program, plus the opportunity to try our hand at the ancient art of making "washi" paper.
It's an excursion with a focus on a distant past, while what awaits without warning in Sakaiminato is a latter-day Japanese tale that unspools before us, one bizarre bronze sculpture at a time, down Mizuki Shigeru Road.
To my eye, as I cast around for a reference point, some of the creatures have a touch of the Maurice Sendak and Dr Seuss about them. Yet while Sakaiminato might tell a modern story, it comes, in typical Japanese fashion, with layers of history and culture, and, at its heart, the fascinating story of the creatures' creator.
Sakaiminato, we discover when we eventually get to the Mizuki Shigeru Museum at the end of the sculpture way, is the home town of manga artist Shigeru Mizuki.
Now aged 92, he is a household name in Japan, but neither he nor his characters have made a dent in Western popular culture in the way of, say, Astro Boy or the anime films of Studio Ghibli. The 130 or so sculptures that line Mizuki Shigeru Road are characters in Mizuki's manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro, created in 1959 and depicting the world of the yokai, spirit-monsters, or phantoms, of Japanese folklore.
I don't yet know any of this when I decline the English audio guide on offer at the museum. This may be the wrong move, given there is no English interpretation on the displays, nor anywhere else in town for that matter.
I'm just not a fan of audio guides, and right now, especially, I'm enjoying the slow reveal of what this curious town is about and how it got to this, like a home where no surface has been left uncluttered, victim to a decorator who didn't know when to stop when it came to arranging the knick-knacks.
Take the train station, where Mizuki's yokai have been painted onto the benches and above the ticket office and hang suspended from the ceiling; the shops full of T-shirts, pens, masks and any other merchandise you care to imagine; and the market in which every foodstuff on the shelves, down to the last packet of instant noodles, is in yokai-branded packaging.
I initially think the key character of Kitaro, a boy with his hair perpetually over one eye, is cute - until I see a picture in the museum where his long, long tongue is wrapped around another creature.
His hair is covering not an eye but an eye socket, while the eyeball motif so prevalent in the town represents Kitaro's dead father, Medama Oyaji, who was reborn as a version of his own eyeball.
An o-mouthed, big-eyed girl in a red dress with a yellow bow in her hair is a pretty little thing until you come across her with hands curled into claws and fangs bared. She is Neko-Musume, or Catgirl.
In the excellent museum, which as well as models of Shigeru's endless fantastical creations features tribal art he collected from around the world, I spot an artificial arm among the displays, and notice in photographs that Shigeru indeed has only one arm. At the exit, fellow cruiser Julien and I try to find out from museum staff why this is so. Somehow, through the language barrier, we come to understand that it is to do with war and Papua New Guinea.
Filling in the gaps later, it emerges that Shigeru, a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army in WWII, lost his arm in an Allied bombing raid in PNG; he became a prisoner of war in Rabaul and befriended a local tribe who offered him land and a bride. When he returned to PNG in 2003, a road had been named in his honour.
A few days later, in Osaka, night has fallen and Julien and I are lost. When we ask a local where the underground is, he insists on walking us to the station. A conversation of sorts unfolds between us, during which we tell him we've been cruising and name the ports we've visited.
At the mention of Sakaiminato, he starts to laugh. "Very small town," he says. "Manga," I say. "Yes, manga," he replies, still laughing.
Sarah Maguire travelled courtesy of Compagnie du Ponant.
GETTING THERE Singapore Airlines has a fare to Miho-Yonago Airport (10 kilometres from the centre of Sakaiminato) Fly to Singapore then to Tokyo Haneda (6hr 30min) and then to Miho-Yonago Airport (1hr 25min with All Nippon Airways). See singaporeair.com.
CRUISING THERE Compagnie du Ponant's L'Austral cruises Asia from October to April. The Best of Japan cruise from Maizuru to Osaka, from April 14-22, 2015, has berths from about $3480. See en.ponant.com.
MORE INFORMATION sakaiminato.net.