It is time to say Sayonara to this amazing country and its lovely people and we are left wondering how you can get a population of 149 million people to be so courteous, so polite, so helpful, so gracious, so happy to share their culture with travellers and to send them home with special memories. They are welcoming everywhere you go. There are people offering assistance everywhere you go. They thank you for coming, thank you for waiting and thank you for everything. The Japanese people do not like to touch each other as in hand-shaking or hugging so there is much bowing and we are so used to bowing it has become second nature. I might even bow to the one in charge of the bowing!
We remember the dolphins who swam alongside the ship one night as we were having dinner on a low deck with a window beside the water. We enjoyed seeing the highway of ships and fishing boats as we travelled the South China Sea and along the coast of Japan. We could have sat for hours and listened to the wonderful pianist onboard the Viking Orion and we were in awe of the people at every port who welcomed the ship and farewelled us when we sailed out of their city.
We will never forget the delicious and healthy food served up in special little colorful bowls and dishes (even if we didn’t know what we were eating at times!) We admired the cleanliness of everything and were surprised that you very seldom see rubbish bins anywhere so we think that the Japanese people take their rubbish home with them. We looked at the skyscrapers in absolute wonder and lauded the designers of these remarkable buildings who had the foresight to design something worth looking at and who created space around the buildings to provide trees and gardens in these busy cities. We loved seeing the magnificent parks and green spaces for people to enjoy away from the hustle and bustle of traffic noise. We couldn’t believe the number of power poles and power lines stretching right through every city everywhere but when you understand that there are geothermal areas everywhere and that Japan sits on four tectonic plates you understand that this is the way it must be. We enjoyed seeing long tree-lined roads with colorful azaleas decorating the sides of the pavements and we applauded the people who have put thought into making this highly populated country a place of beauty. We felt at home seeing the mountains, the bush, the lakes and the sea surrounding this country of so many islands.
We really have felt like a tourist in this country – we cannot speak the language, we cannot read Japanese but we have got by without the need to go to acting class to mime (but we have had to act a bit at times!) Everything is written in Japanese – signage, labels on food, street signs and maps but we have figured it out – mostly!
However, like every country we have visited there are still homeless people which is a sad sight to see. They are not evident during the day but at night they do line some streets with their cardboard boxes and worldly belongings tidily stored around their little sleeping huts. Come morning – they have packed up and gone.
The cherry blossom turned up for us on the last day and it was magnificent. We would recommend Japan to anyone but we would also recommend you do some guided tours where the lovely Japanese guides are keen to share their culture with you so you can learn more about the places you visit and the history behind them.
We go home now where there will not be a buffet breakfast for us to make healthy (or unhealthy) choices! There will be no entertainment shows every night for us to attend, no one coming into the room to clean the bathroom and change the towels, no schedules to look at or signs to try and translate! No immigration forms to fill in, no more Customs folk checking to see ze apple hasn’t fallen into ze bag! We go back to road cones, Auckland traffic and winter storms and cold toilet seats!
We have really felt the Zen in this country and have a profound feeling of being so grateful and thankful and absolutely thrilled that we have had the opportunity to learn more about the people of Japan, their long cultural history, their magnificent country of many many islands and their much admired courtesy.
Sayonara Japan and arigato to everyone of you who made this such a memorable trip and one we would not have missed for the world. If you have travelled with us by reading Golden Postcards we thank you. We love sharing our experiences – travel seems to enlighten the mind. When you visit a country you haven’t been to before you notice things that are different from what you are used to and you are introduced to new experiences you haven’t had before. You see the world in a different light and it gives you hope for the future.
It is a cloudy morning in Tokyo and we are off to Hakone National Park and Mt Fuji. Fortunately for us, our tour departs from Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku where we are staying so we go to the meeting point at the appointed time. This tour company has several buses going to Mt Fuji today and so we stand for Bus 5 where ze guide has told us to stand but there are also signs for the various bus numbers and one American guy who is, I think, a graduate of the Trump Academy of Zero Diplomacy (and is on our blimmin bus) appoints himself the tour leader and yells out to everyone on bus 5 to “come overrr herre bus 5 people”. Heaven forbid – we prefer the lovely Japanese Yuki who we have just met! Anyway, Yuki has done this before and she steps up to the mark and, besides, his seat is in the back of the bus and thank heavens for that!
We leave Shinjuku on what would be a very busy Monday morning but it is Golden Week here in Japan which is the second most important holiday (New Year being the most important). Golden Week is the last few days of April and first few of May where there are four bank holidays. We travel with relatively little traffic through the spiderweb of expressways. Yuki tells us that 14 million people live in Tokyo and that one third of the population of Japan (129m) live in Tokyo and the surrounding areas. We pass many stadiums and Government owned and run horse racing tracks – the Government controls all the horse racing in Japan. We also pass large breweries of Asahi, Santori and Sapporo. Yuki is excited because this is the first time she is revisiting Mt Fuji in three years. She managed to get a job in the Vaccination Call Centre during Covid but is so very happy that life is almost normal again. On we go through a mountainous area of dense bush in vibrant shades of green, through long tunnels and over long viaducts looking down on vast valleys where there are small settlements. We pass Lake Sagami, an artificial lake. There are many paddy fields on arable land – planting is just taking place in some and others are already flooded. There are huge plastic hot houses and many people are tending their gardens as we pass neighborhoods where there are lots of vegetables growing in garden plots.
Yesterday it was snowing on Mt Fuji but today we are in luck because the sun is shining and the bus winds its way up the switchbacks of the mountain road to the fifth station beside the glorious Mt Fuji which is 3,776 meters high or 12,365 feet. Mt Fuji has erupted nine times in 400 years and our ears are popping as we go up the mountain. Amazingly we see many cyclists riding the mountain today and the one in charge of the B’s (including bikes) sits reminiscing about the big mountains of Ventoux, col d’Abesque, col de Madeleine and others he rode in France and in Germany when he went to compete in the ITU Age Group World Champs and when we went to the Tour de France a few times. I think he would like to be riding Mt Fuji but those days are over and he is stuck in the bus with me!
The fifth station where we get off the bus is 2,300 m and it is rather chilly so those who donned sunfrocks today are shivering a tad. Luckily we packed layers so we are fine and enjoy the closeup view of the mountain as the cloud lifts and we are right there to enjoy it. There is also a little shrine we visit, make our offering, bow twice, clap twice and hope our wish comes true. We are all given a little bell at the souvenir shop which comes with a message that says they have been purified at the shrine on the summit of Mt Fuji and “you can also live for more than a hundred years in peace and happiness”. Thank goodness for that.
We all hop back on ze bus and wind our way back down ze mountain and drive on to a hotel where we have lunch in an enormous hall which is set up beautifully with tables ready for the tour groups coming in. Here we enjoy another delicious lunch with some entertainment.
Next stop is Hakone National Park which is a huge area of land with mountains and lakes and is enjoyed by many who come to go fishing, boating, tramping, skiing, playing golf and to enjoy the outdoors.
We get to Lake Ashinoko and we are going on a cable car to the top of Hakone Komagatake which is 1,327 m high. Now the one in charge of the B’s does not really like heights and I wonder about this but he is all good and ready to go. We are loaded into ze cable car which is going to take us to the summit and there is a sign that says the temperature at the top is 10 degrees Celsius. (There is no mention of the wind and cloud which is blowing a tad at this point and thank goodness for the Kathmandu jackets). Now, this is interesting because someone has decided to bring their poodle on this trip in the cable car and someone else arrives with what I thought was a cat in a cat cage but turns out to be a miniature dog in the pink carry-on and I am hoping that the cage is well insulated or this little critter is going to freeze to death! We get to the top and decide to do a loop walk on a nice track overlooking a golf course down the valley and the lake. The day finishes with a boat trip on the Lake Ashi to a stop further down the lake where the bus is waiting and there is even a cherry tree in full bloom waiting beside the bus – our lucky day! This was our final excursion on this amazing trip – a ten-hour day and we loved every minute of it.
Amazingly we got through this trip without too much trouble adjusting to the plumbing systems of this country which is just as well because we didn’t pack the “Bathrooms for Dummies” manual. Only two things happened – I tried to use the shower at ze hotel in Tokyo but had water coming out of every spout except the one I wanted so ze boss was called and eventually ze water came out of ze spout I needed so all good. And then today I went to use a bathroom but nowhere to put ze bag so I wiped the basin and popped ze bag in it. But everything in these bathrooms works automatically and to my horror ze tapped turned on and filled the side pocket of my bag with water! All minor compared to what has happened on other trips I can tell you for sure!
We are almost ready to come home but have some memories still to write – one last post will probably be written while we are waiting to board ze plane!
Viking Orion berths at Yokohama Port which is the last stop of our cruise and we are on an excursion to Tokyo which is 45 km away. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan with a population of 3.6 million. It was once a fishing village but with the introduction of the port it grew enormously. We cross Yokohama Bay Bridge which is a long suspension bridge and see thousands and thousands of new cars and trucks waiting to be shipped offshore. Our guide tells us that in order to buy a car in Japan you need to prove you have off-street parking for the car. If you haven’t you would need to rent it so we have seen these “car shelves” where you drive onto a pad and your car is moved up into a space and parked. We pass through several tunnels (one was 18 km long) on our way to Tokyo and are in awe of the masses of skyscrapers of interesting designs that are across the skyline. Apparently one tunnel here is 55 km long – another reason I need to email Wayne and I am also going to let him know that you do not see the road cones lining up like red and white stick figures all over the place.
Tokyo is the birthplace of sushi which, here in Japan, is typically sticky rice mixed with a vinegar and a little piece of raw fish on top. Our guide, Sato, tells us about the traditional Japanese breakfast and the one in charge of the B’s and I are pleased we have had ours. Typically the Japanese have raw fish, a raw egg which is mixed with soy sauce, and fermented soybeans called Natto. This is all very good for your digestion which we have no hesitation in agreeing with – but not trying!
We arrive in Tokyo (once called Edo) and there is a large area of reclaimed land along the Tokyo waterfront which is beautifully designed with parks, attractive gardens, walkways, hotels, stadiums, apartments and corporations. 12.9 million live in this city which is just 2000 square kilometers in size and stretches just 50 km from east to west. We are off to the Meiji Shrine and pass Meiji Park which was the stadium for the Tokyo Olympics. This shrine is dedicated to the great great grandfather of the present emperor and is spread over 170 acres. We wander down a lovely wide walkway with lush trees on either side passing men sweeping the falling leaves. We pass under the torii gate and walk towards the shrine and are thrilled to see there is a bridal couple there having photos taken. This is interesting because we do not see any guests – the couple seem to be here by themselves – well not entirely because there are hundreds of people here who would love to go to the wedding actually and they are all here clicking their photos! We have been told quite a lot about the weddings and we know they are happy occasions so take place at Shinto Shrines but a large number of Japanese have a desire to have a Christian wedding in a church. Now this all sounds fine until you hear that a lot of these couples are married by men who just dress up to look like a pastor or priest – they are not religious ministers at all but the couple are happy because the bride is dressed as a traditional bride in white with a veil and the wedding took place in a church.
We are also told about the present Emperor Naruhito and his wife Masako. Masako was a Harvard graduate and married the present emperor in 1993 – they have one daughter 20 years old. Masako has been ill for some years and it is believed that she suffers from depression. The current law says that only a male can be emperor. Presently there is a debate taking place to determine if this law may change and many Japanese apparently would be happy with a female to be in the role. Conservatists, however, are against it. Our next stop is the Imperial Palace Plaza which has an attractive plaza and garden.
As I have mentioned before, everything is very clean and very tidy everywhere we go. Every park, sidewalk, road etc is spotlessly clean. There are hand sanitizers about every 50 m and on this trip our hands have honestly consumed more alcohol than our mouths! There are also vending machines everywhere – in fact one for every 30 people! There are so many drinks available you can almost die of thirst while you are trying to make the decision about what to choose! We haven’t used because we have no idea what they are. We have been here two weeks but still can’t read Japanese. In France I purchased sour milk thinking it was milk and kitchen paper when I thought it was toilet paper so I am forbidden to choose ze drink in case ze one in charge of ze beers blames me for ze bad choice!
After lunch on the top floor of the Asahi beer building our final stop for the day is to the Senso-ji temple built in 645 AD. The description of this was that it had a “lively temple precinct”. It should have read “expect to mingle with half the population of Tokyo while you squeeze past them to take ze photo and admire the magnificent grounds and meet hundreds of lovely young ladies who have rented kimonos from nearby rental shops to have photos taken at ze temple”. But it is still a lovely place to visit so we breathe in and squeeze past and get ze photos we want!
Tomorrow we get off this lovely ship and stay on another few days to go to Hakone National Park and Mt Fuji.
Viking Orion arrives in Shimizu on a glorious morning and the magnificent cone-shaped Mt Fuji is clear to see as we eat our breakfast. This 3000 foot high mountain last erupted 300 years ago and can be seen from miles around. We have a busy day in this city of 700,000 people. We set out in the bus to Mt Kuno to visit the lavish Kunozan Tosho-gu shrine which was founded in 1617 and was originally a Shinto Shrine. Someone obviously decided that today was the day we need to get the heart rate up because of the shrinking clothes so the day starts with a step class! Off we go to the cable car which takes us down the mountain we have just come up in the bus! Heaven forbid – what is this about? But then we arrive at ze bottom only to climb back up to ze top on the other side of the mountain so we must climb 120 high rise stone steps to get to the Tosho-gu shrine where there is much to admire (after we check we are still breathing). There are extravagant wood carvings with much gold leaf and colorful Japanese lacquer and it is stunning. There are several buildings and the gorgeous colors are enhanced by all the beautiful maple trees, camphor trees and cherry trees where we get to see the last of the blossoms which are about to fall off the trees. We get as many photos as we can of this disappearing blossom! And now, just to finish us off, we have another 60 stairs to climb as the cable car delivers us back to the top where we started!
Nearby is Nihondaira Park, a 1,000 foot plateau offering sweeping panoramic views of the city of Shizuoka (Shimizu), the mountains of Izu, Cape Omaezaki and the famous Mt Fuji. There is a nice walk through more lovely gardens to the viewing platform surrounding a lovely wooden building at the top. This is a mountainous country and wherever we have been there are mountains surrounding the cities along this southern coast.
We have been told by several of the guides that only 1% of Japanese people are Christians. The history behind this is that up until the 16th century there were many Christians but the feudal government prohibited it in the 17th century when Shinto took over and then Buddhism followed. Shinto is seen as a relaxed philosophy whereas Buddhism is seen as more serious. The two have now merged and live in harmony. People get married in Shinto Shrines and take their newborn babies there for a ceremony at the age of one month. Funerals are held in Buddhist Temples. They have a saying here – you are born a Shinto and die a Buddhist.
This city exports green tea, mandarins and wasabi. Yamaha and Honda motorbikes are also made here and many automobile parts. Shimizu imports huge quantities of frozen tuna for sashimi and also soccer balls! In this city and surrounding districts we have seen more houses than apartments but many of the suburban areas seem to also be sprinkled with businesses amongst the houses.
Off we go in the afternoon to visit Minho no Matsubara on the Minho Peninsula where we take an interesting walk down a wide boardwalk surrounded on either side by a grove of very old pine trees which are protected by UNESCO and we end up on a “sandy” (make that dark grainy) beach. On either side of this boardwalk are nice houses with pretty gardens.
We are welcomed back at the ship where we are given a glass of bubbles on the wharf and many of the crew are lined up with red umbrellas forming a guard of honor and dancing to the music in the sun. An hour later the ship departs the lovely Shimizu with many people lined up at the wharf to farewell us. This happens at every port and is so special to witness.
Something is going on today – maybe the boss has advertised me on Trade Me or something. There is a knock at the door which I answer and there is a tall man standing there holding up his stateroom entry card. He says to me (while looking down) “the keycard didn’t work”. I tell him “wrong wife”. He apologizes profusely and wanders off. Five minutes later, we go down to Deck 1 to disembark for ze tour and there is a man standing there obviously waiting to go ashore. A Viking crew member announces to this man as I arrive down the passage “here is your wife now Sir”. Once again – wrong wife! What is the boss trying to tell me here? The day finishes with a five-course dinner at the Chef’s Table because we have earned it after climbing ze stairs!
Konnichiwa – We arrive in the sprawling city of Osaka early on Anzac Day morning which would have been Dad’s 101st birthday. Viking have acknowledged this day by supplying poppies for the Kiwis and Aussies to wear and they have a beautiful display on the large screen in the atrium on the ship. We are making our way to Kyoto today to enjoy some ancient traditions of that city which used to be the capital of Japan until 150 years ago. At the port here in Osaka there is a huge garbage incineration centre which was designed by Hunterwasser so the building is colorful and interesting and we recently visited the Hunterwasser Museum in Whangarei. He has designed many buildings in this city. There are many very interesting bridges and our bus drives onto a spaghetti junction that has many layers to it. 400 years ago this city of Osaka was under the sea and was a fishing village. Now on this huge area of reclaimed land is a bustling city with a population of 2.7 million and motorway systems going in every direction. On large parts of the motorways you cannot see the traffic on the other side because of high screens.
Eko is our lovely Japanese guide today and she, like others, talk about the pandemic. On the subject of that it may interest many of you to know that many many people we have spoken to here from the US, Canada, Australia, UK, Scotland and Ireland have huge admiration of Jacinda Arden and what NZ did to protect its citizens during the past three years. Without exception they are all sorry she has stepped down. You may not all agree but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that she is admired as a world leader by people from other countries.
Onto Kyoto we go and it is interesting that Osaka just merges into Kyoto as we pass suburban houses and large agricultural plots growing rice and vegetables. There are also high crescent shaped screens at the sides of the motorway by the suburban areas to stop the pollution. It is interesting to note that Osaka is the home of the 2-minute noodles because they were founded here by a man named Mamofuku Ando who owned a company called Nissan Food Products and passed away in 2007. The HQ of Panasonic is also here in Osaka and the HQ of Nintendo is in Kyoto. Eko tells us she is friendly with the boss of Panasonic and she recently asked him how many people worked there. His answer was “about half”!
Kyoto is a very old city where the ancient traditions are still part of everyday life. For example, we see many women in kimonos (which, by the way, add 8 kg of weight to these slim women) and men wearing the hakama pants and the haori shorter kimono tops and the wooden geta flip flops.
Our first stop is at the Kinkaku-Ji Golden Pavilion which is a Zen Buddhist Temple set over water in the most beautiful gardens. When this golden palace was founded it was the centre of politics and culture and was used to welcome the Emperors of Japan and trading partners. It is covered with 2 million pieces of gold leaf measuring 10 cm square and even some of the interior rooms are lined with gold leaf. It is exquisite and the reflections in the pool beneath it are glistening. The garden has wide paths where you can admire the trees and flowers and quietly trickling water from the waterfalls. There is also a 100 year old pine tree known as the “yacht” which is a bonsai – not all that small but definitely small for a 100 year old pine!
On this tour I got a promotion to Tour Leader (some of my relatives will not be surprised because they actually call me TL) but basically all this meant was I got to hold the sign for Eko for a short time for the less than obedient bunch that we are with today!
Next stop is the lunch stop at a lovely resort a little further on where we are welcomed in the lightly falling rain to the restaurant which is located down a cobbled path through a bamboo forest. Here we are served another beautiful lunch all set out in the bento box with other little dishes either side. Once more, everything is exceptionally tasty little bites. This is followed by the arrival of two Maiko – trainee Geishas. One is 17 years old and the other is 20 and they are beautifully dressed in the kimonos with their hair decorated with symbols of the season – spring and so the decorations resemble wisteria and cherry blossom. After their performance there is question time and they tell us they have their hair done once a week and it must stay like that until the next appointment with the hairdresser! So how do they sleep – well it is almost sitting up actually. They are very disciplined – it costs $US100,000 to train a geisha. The cost goes towards their education where they must learn to sing, dance and converse on all sorts of subjects and, of course, their kimonos and hair. You can start to train at 15 when you are an apprentice and you can leave, if you wish, after you turn 20. Firstly, you are an apprentice, then a Maiko and then a Geisha. You are interviewed, along with your parents, to see if they approve (often they don’t) and at the end of your training you are either retained or it is suggested you look for something else to do! The oldest geisha here in Kyoto is 95 – can you believe that she still works.
It is back on ze Number 14 bus to visit Ryozen Kannon, a somber temple topped with an 80-foot statue of the Goddess of Mercy commemorating those who died in World War II. Here we observed the “Way of Tea” – a ceremony involving the preparation and presentation of a Matcha – a powdered green tea. This is followed by the traditional tea ceremony where we are given the bowl of tea which, interestingly, is frothy. After this we get to experience Zazen, a form of Japanese meditation. We are sitting on little stools and the master informs us that yesterday, during the meditation, a person fell right off ze stool! Heaven forbid – let us hope that ze deep breathing with ze eyes half closed does not cause the boss or I to end up on ze tatami mat! The meditation finishes with us almost floating back to ze bus – but first we visit the souvenir shop and some are eager to walk in the drizzle to the shopping street. This daily event results in two ladies not making it back to the bus and we wait and we wait. Dear Eko trots off to find them, a man trots off because he saw them in a shop, Eko comes back without them, the man comes back without them, Eko goes again and finally after about 25 minutes the two ladies climb onboard but Eko is missing! Heaven forbid – who would want to be a tour guide – and, by the way, the two ladies were carrying the bags full of the shopping and said not one word of apology for holding up ze bus which is now going to get caught up in the rush hour traffic on its way back to ze boat! Unbelievable.
I have to finish by reporting on a piece of Japanese design that takes my fancy. It is to do with the bathroom and the fact that all the toilet seats are heated. Now frankly I could sit there for an hour, enjoy a cuppa, contemplate, do meditation or whatever but it is very nice indeed. A few years ago we visited some friends in LA and when I entered the bathroom the seat lifted to welcome me. I got the fright of my life actually. Anyway, I was there for some time because it was the first time I had seen the menu selection panel on the side of a toilet and I thought I would try the variety on offer. I tried to get the one in charge of the bathrooms to go and have an experience but he wasn’t keen on the idea but I can tell you that I came out of that bathroom with a new lease on life. But in Japan I have not dared to press any button in case I get a surprise I do not want because I cannot read the menu!
As I write this we are sailing now in the Pacific Ocean. It is blowing 30 knots and the seas a a tiny bit rough with a 3-4 meter swell and we are headed for Shimizu.
The walk to the restaurant was through mature stands of bamboo
It is a beautiful morning to arrive in Hiroshima and we have a free morning so decide to use the shuttle provided by Viking to go into the City for a quick walk before our tour this afternoon. The map has little symbols of cherry blossoms where you are meant to be able to find the trees. The trees are there, of course, but the cherry blossoms are now blooming one month early because of global warming. Seems that in a few years the cherry blossoms may bloom in Alaska! In fact they start in parts of Japan in January now and many areas are done and dusted by the end of March. However, the dogwood trees are in bloom and they are a sight to see. We do a quick walk to the Hiroshima Castle built in the 16th century and admire the lovely grounds.
Our afternoon excursion is to the island of Itsukushima to visit its “floating” Shinto shrine and we are taken by ferry to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built on pillars, the shrine complex consists of multiple buildings connected by boardwalks and appears to be floating when the tide is in. Its dramatic 50 foot tall, red-orange torii gate is distinctive because it is built over water. We are very fortunate to witness a wedding taking place within the shrine and a formal tea ceremony for the bride and groom. This is followed by a photo of the group and there is a ritual to this photo shoot (the boss would never put up with it!) Two attendants wearing white gloves are positioning everyone with precision. The beautiful kimonos of the bride and groom’s mothers seem to be being taped so they sit correctly for the photo and one guest’s hair is being sprayed to keep it in place. After this excitement we take a quiet stroll (actually not so quiet because it is Sunday and there are many people taking the “quiet” stroll with us) through the shopping and residential area of the island which is only 30 square kilometers in size with a population of 1400. Three million tourists visit this little island every year. The ship is in Hiroshima for two days – by the way “shima” is pronounced “sheema” and means island.
We start day 2 in Hiroshima very early because we are going to the Hiroshima Peace Park. This is one of the most emotional places we have experienced as our lovely guide takes us on a quiet and contemplative stroll through this most beautiful of places which has so many very sad elements to it. We are here at around 7.45 am on a Monday morning – it is early but it is a huge advantage because it is very quiet. Our guide tells us that in August 1945 Tokyo and other cities had been attacked and no one expected a bomb to be dropped in Hiroshima – people seemed relaxed in a way. The bomb dropped at precisely 8.15 am on 9 August 1945 – the hypocentre was 160 meters from where we are standing. The ground temperature rose to between 3000 and 4000 degrees Celsius and 220,000 people lost their lives. The Peace Park has a beautiful concrete arch where the names of every one of those victims is inscribed. Just beyond this is a flame of peace which will burn until our world has no atomic bombs at all. Standing there watching this flame flickering you hope so much that one day it will be extinguished and that it is not an eternal flame – but you wonder.
We move on past the long pond where the water trickles serenely and come to an area which is a monument to a young girl called Sadako Sasaki and the story of the paper cranes – a little bird made out of paper that, after the death of Sadako in 1955 her story and the paper cranes became a symbol for world peace. It is a beautiful story of a brave young girl which you can Google and read. After her death her many many friends raised money for a memorial to her and for peace.
We come to a paved area where the ashes of around 70,000 unidentified victims are buried and as we stand there with leaking eyes a bell rings out in the distance – it is precisely 8.15 am and the bell rings every day at this time. We are told that there are still around 130,000 bomb survivors alive today.
We walk on further beside the river and see the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The hall’s hollowed dome, appropriately called the Atomic Bomb Dome, was intentionally left in ruins as a stark visual reminder of the bomb’s destruction and was the only building that was left standing close to the hypocenter of the blast.
This city has risen from the ashes of that terrible day and it seems a miraculous recovery which has taken decades. The restoration has seen well-designed buildings, bridges and parks built which have helped to heal a broken city but the human scars still remain. Our last visit is to the Museum in the park where we see accounts of that day written by young survivors who lost parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins. It is difficult to take it in and it literally makes your heart ache to be here and yet we must never forget these events even though it is so sad to recount them. Tomorrow is Anzac Day where we all remember and pay tribute to the Anzacs so, although this has been sad to write, we are so very grateful to have visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima and to be able to pay our own tribute to the people who suffered terribly and lost so much.
On a brighter note, we went to dinner last night with a couple from Wisconsin and their names were Ron and Jerry. They wanted to know about our travels, where we have been, our family etc. I kept going to call him “Tom” actually! We chatted and laughed our way through the three courses before going to a great concert before we fell into bed!
We have just left Hiroshima and are sailing on to Osaka and it is very similar to the Marlborough Sounds with islands surrounding us everywhere. Hiroshima is a city of islands, rivers and by the sea. The main crop grown here is rice. Oyster farms are are everywhere around the islands here and the oysters are huge. They tell us that rugby is very popular and there is a big stadium built especially for their famous baseball team called the Toyo Carps (I thought the lady said “Cops” to be honest). She also taught us to count on the bus and I got the hang of it quite quickly. Apparently I am nanajuugo and the one in charge of the B’s is nanajuuroku. It would be much easier if we were juu which is 20 – in fact everything including climbing stairs, walking 10 km a day, having a body that would fit neatly into lycra and being able to dance the night away would be easier if we were 20!
We arrive in Beppu on a sunny morning with music playing on the pier. There is a group of High School students waving flags welcoming us to Beppu and they take turns on the microphone giving us interesting information about the region which is like the Rotorua of Japan. This is followed by a dance performance with musicians. It is great to see the young people of Japan so involved in tourism and taking great pride in welcoming the world back for a visit. All the students we have encountered have been spontaneously friendly and so courteous.
The day starts with a bus tour in the usual way except that 45 people have made their way onto the #18 bus and the Japanese lady does three counts because there are only supposed to be 40 and one couple who arrived a little late to the bus sees the gentleman complaining because he cannot sit by his wife! But the lovely Japanese guide deals with it all with grace and patience.
It is Saturday and it is a little busy with families having outings and taking their children to play in the parks and ride their bikes. Beppu’s population is only 113,000 in an area of 125 square kilometers. It is a geothermal area famous for its Onsens which are hot springs. There are 28,000 Onsen pools in Japan and 2,300 here in Beppu. There are ten different kinds of Onsens and the idea is that you firstly wash in the shower and then hop naked into the Onsen to let your body soak in the minerals which are very good for health and the skin. You are warned to cover all tattoos so that you do not offend anyone. I am relieved that the one in charge of the B’s and bathrooms is not in the mood to strip off today and soak in ze Onsen because I am not feeling like joining the Saturday throng to join him and it is too hot anyway. Mind you, it is possible to book private pools if they are available. The water and steam from the Onsen is also used to cook food.
Apparently when we arrive at the Onsen we can get a tasting of Saki (just what we need at 11 am but then we have had a morning tea of whiskey in Scotland, Guinness in Ireland and Cassis in France – we will just go with the flow!!!)
There is the smell of sulphur in the air as our bus makes its way up the hill passing through residential areas where steam is pouring out of the ground through dozens of vents. We arrive at the Myoban Yunosato Onsen where the lady tells us her family is the 6th generation to run the business. The ground beneath our feet is very warm to touch and the thatched huts are there to allow the mineral content to develop and be extracted to make skin products. The thatched huts allow the steam to escape.
As we walk down the path to go back to the bus a Japanese lady asks me to take a photo of her man and herself – I oblige. But as I said, the Japanese always repay a favor so she says she will “take photo of you.” The boss begrudgingly agrees to having one photo taken a day and apparently this has already been ticked off but he agrees. Now this dear lady wants the perfect photo – she tells us where to stand – how far apart, where to look – landscape, portrait and then she moves us to take more! While all this is going on there are about ten people also wanting a photo at that spot but they understand what is going on and joke with us about the photo shoot!
On we go to Chinoike Jigoku which is a blood-red hot spring, one of the city’s famed “Hells” which is rich in iron oxide. The sign says “Bloody Hot Pool”. Adjacent to the Bloody Hot Pool was a lovely waterfall and garden. The sun was shining on the beautiful specimens of Japanese red Maple trees which were glistening in the light. Down the road from this and on the side of the hill is a huge display of azalea bushes in different colored hues and it is magnificent.
It is a beautiful afternoon here in this area rich in geysers, mud pools and hot springs and we have a walk in the park after lunch and relax on the verandah watching families having fun together in the lovely grassy area at the port. I am thinking of sending Wayne another email about how great it would be to have a well designed cruise ship port in Auckland. Music is playing outside the Customs Hall where the friendly immaculately dressed men are checking our passports and making sure an apple hasn’t fallen into the bag! We move on to Hiroshima tomorrow and we have a big day ahead. Right now Taylor Swift is Shaking It Up on the pier and I feel like dancing! The boss has just gone to a lecture on astronomy but honestly, my brain just won’t cope with that after my day in this steaming place. I guess he will come back seeing stars!
Finally, I want to tell you something that came up in the lecture last evening on Japanese Culture. The word for city is “Shi-ti” which is a little unfortunate. The lecturer, an American guy married to a Japanese lady has been living here for many years and involved hosting business delegations from overseas and he told the story of hosting some Americans and the Japanese business speaker was talking about the Shi-ti parks, the Shi-ti builders and buildings and so on it went. At the end of the presentation the Americans were dumbfounded that this guy would speak like that about things going on in his City!! But he wasn’t being disrespectful because places were named “Shi-ti Towers” and “Shi-ti Hotel”. You do have to listen very carefully at times and get your brain into gear to figure out what is being said which is why you do not need Saki for morning tea!
The evening finishes with a concert “Saturday Night at the Movies” and I send the boss to the theatre to save a seat while I go elsewhere. On entering the dimly lit theatre I am searching for a grey-haired man with a spare seat beside him but there about 500 such men to choose from which tells you the age group of travelers on this ship!
Kagoshima is made up of two peninsulas – Satsuma and Osumi and is often compared to the Italian city of Naples. This is an area of active volcanic activity and just across the peninsula from where we are docked is the active volcano of Sakurajima. During 2022 there were 235 explosions from this volcano and so far this year there have been 80. Sakurajima has two peaks – the North Peak is now inactive but the South Peak continues to erupt. Because of the presence of volcanic ash, the main industry is agriculture. Rice cannot be harvested in this region but the local speciality is sweet potato which is, of course eaten, but also made into Sochi or spirits as in saki. Black pork is also a local speciality. The pigs are fed on the sweet potato and it was discovered many years ago that people from this region were taller than other Japanese. This was put down to the primary diet of pork with less rice being eaten. Interesting! Daikon radish is grown widely and they are the biggest in the world weighing up to 30 kg. How on earth would you hold that to peel or cut it! The Satsuma mandarin originated here and the trees produce up to 1000 lbs of fruit.
Nagasaki was originally the only place in Japan to trade with westerners. It is a pretty city with many green spaces with perfectly formed trees and trimmed shrubs for people to enjoy. There is an order to everything. Our lovely guide Michiko tells us that her name comes from Mi meaning beautiful, Chi meaning intelligent and Ko meaning girl. She speaks English very well and tells us about her family of twin boys, husband, daughter-in-law and grandson and shows us photos with great pride. Kagoshima is on the island of Kyushu in the southernmost part and has seven prefectures. (Japan is made up of 1500 islands). The population of Japan is 127 million and 12.7 million or one tenth live in Tokyo. 25% of the population is over the age of 65 which is when you can get a pension.
Michiko warns us about the bathrooms in Kagoshima – let’s just say they are not what we are used to and it would be wise to go to the gym regularly to train for it!
We learn a few interesting facts from our lovely Michiko. This year or 2023 is known as Year 5 in Japan because this relates to the Emperor’s reign and he has been the Emperor now for five years. There is a commitment to cleanliness and it applies everywhere. The streets of Kagoshima are often covered with volcanic ash – but briefly because everyone comes out to clean them immediately. No kindness goes unrecognized and there is a massive amount of gift giving – the gifts are often items of food delicately packaged.
There is some interesting signage – “Slip carefully”, “Because you are dangerous you cannot enter”, and on an escalator “Go down carefully, turn left and follow your behind”. Mmmmmm……….
We board the bus and there is the usual chatter going on in the back where no one hears what channel the Quietvox needs to be on. Some can’t connect their device so the tour starts off with the usual excitement of some knowing exactly what they are doing and some not having a clue but today things settle quite quickly as we drive the palm-lined streets and up to the hilltop haven of Shiroyama Park (where I can report that the bathrooms are exactly as she warned us they would be!) From here we get a great view of the volcanic mountain but we see no ash because there is cloud covering the top. This is good and the rescue remedy is not required! There are little souvenir shops selling everything from combs to a towel with an image of a dressed lady which remarkably turns to a naked lady when the towel is wet. I am so relieved the one in charge of the bathroom is not wanting to purchase one or several of those!
We go on to the Reimeikan museum located within the walls of the old city castle ruins and browse a fascinating display of remarkably preserved artifacts – we can tell they are old because the only piece of information belonging to each one that we can understand is the year. Sadly we cannot read the description in Japanese!
We drive through the city past schools with large well planned playgrounds (but no grass), past apartment blocks and businesses and you cannot help but get the sense that everything is meticulously planned and well cared for. All the buses, trams and trucks are clean and shiny as are the hundreds of very small cars. The cars are tiny little oblong boxes actually and you see them reversed into the tiny parking spaces at their houses.
We have now just left the port of Kagoshima and are on our way to Beppu – the upscaled Rotorua of Japan and another very active volcanic region. I think it is fair to say that in Japan you really do feel like a tourist because there is minimal signage or descriptions in English. You can pick up a lovely item of fabric in a shop which is beautifully packaged but you have no idea if it is a handkerchief, a scarf, a table napkin, a tea towel or a table runner. Most countries we have visited you can always ask a young person a question because almost always they speak English but this is not the case here. Some people have been critical of the tour guides and say they cannot understand them but we must remember that Japan has been shut down for about three years so these lovely people have not had an opportunity to keep speaking English and they are so very happy to be welcoming people back and doing the job they love.
We arrive into Nagasaki on a sunny morning and proceed ashore. The welcome from these immaculately attired Immigration and Customs Officers is warm and courteous and as the day goes on it is easy to see that Japan is at long last welcoming tourists back. Mask wearing, however, is common everywhere. The port area is beautifully landscaped and scrupulously clean and the air is clear with no smog. Our Japanese tour guide is standing there holding the Viking sign for our bus and she is happy to see all 38 of us – this may change as the day goes on I can tell you with certainty.
As we drive to get to the Nagasaki Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum we pass well maintained buildings of apartments. All the window coverings are neat and tidy, the blocks have either bricked or tiled exteriors and even the older buildings are well kept. There are little flower pots at the main entrances and there are tidy clotheslines on every verandah but they are almost hidden by the height of the wall that runs the length of the verandahs. The tree lined avenue has many flower boxes that form a border along the pavements. Everything is clean and tidy. We are told that a three-room apartment with bathroom costs 30 million Japanese Yen which is about $NZ380,000. We pass 15 cranes working on a new railway station (that should be done and dusted in a few months!) and power poles everywhere with many lines attached but in an orderly way unlike what we saw in Taipei.
We arrive at the Atomic Bomb Museum where the first thing we see is a clock that is set at 11.02 am – the precise time that the atomic bomb was dropped on this city on 9 August 1945. We see photos of the utter devastation caused by “Fat Man” – the bomb. It is extremely sad to see photos and accounts written by survivors – where they were, what they saw, what they lost. It is a very sobering experience and we can only hope and pray that this never happens anywhere in the world ever again. We move on to the Peace Park where there are monuments marking this terrible event and we are told that on the 9th day of every month at precisely 11.02 am people ring little bells in remembrance of those who suffered and lost their lives. There is absolutely nothing to smile about in this historic place. We have visited Arlington National Cemetery and the battlefields and cemeteries in Normandy dedicated to fallen soldiers and visited the grave in Amsterdam New Eastern Cemetery where Vern’s uncle is buried after he was killed in action on 26 July 1940 when his RAF plane was shot down over the Netherlands and it moves you to tears to see what war does to young men, to families and to countries.
Our tour moves on to the man made island that operated as the only port of trade that connected Japan to the outside world for more than 200 years. It is then onto the lunch stop at a beautiful hotel up a windy road on a hillside with lovely views out over Nagasaki. We are greeted with a very warm welcome and seated where at each place setting there is a beautifully laid out tray of with miso soup, sushimi, sushi, rice and other little delicacies and we haven’t a clue what they are – but they are tasty!
Tour groups are interesting – the guides do their count and they know exactly how many are on ze bus and they give very precise times to meet so we can all hop back on ze bus! All very well, but some people forget to look at ze time, some go to ze souvenir shop, some leave it to the last minute to get to ze bathroom (and then find that the bathroom has many options to choose from on ze panel at ze side of ze seat and they play around with every option!) So the guide starts counting those who have managed to turn up at the appointed time – and we wait – and we wait. She counts again but people move around during the count – some have gone to sit down, some have joined another group! Unbelievable but it happens every day!
At last everyone is aboard and we proceed on to Oura Catholic Church – the oldest wooden church in the whole of Japan which was built for the foreign merchants who settled in the area more than a century ago. It seems that this tour today was designed for us all to lose some weight because of the shrinking clothes. Every place we visit has stairs – many many stairs and I now understand why these lovely Japanese people are slender – they climb stairs. Elevators are not plentiful – there is usually only one in the buildings we visit but there are literally hundreds of stairs. The Catholic Church is no exception and you just about need an oxygen mask by the time you reach the altar!
The final stop for the day is Glover Park and garden which is the former estate of Scottish merchant Thomas Glover who contributed to developing modern industry in Japan. This is all magnificently set out on a hillside overlooking the port where Viking Orion docked. The sensible people running this have had the very good sense to install an outdoor escalator and three travelators to get us to the top which is a relief to many I can tell you because we didn’t pack crampons! It is a beautiful estate with lovely gardens which are very serene with waterfalls and wide pathways. At the end of this hot afternoon we make our way from Glover Park back to the boat and the smiling Japanese Customs men and women. The evening finishes with another lovely dinner and a concert by a Malaysian harmonica player called Aidan Soon – he is a World Champion Harmonica player and if you get the chance to find him on YouTube he is utterly remarkable. The evening before we went to an Abba Concert by four singers from the UK who gave a wonderful performance of a number of Abba hits and this dancing queen and king were rocking it!
Viking Orion sailed out of Nagasaki at 6 pm and we were farewelled by a most amazing sight. An orchestra of High School students came to give us a concert on the pier. It was magical and the passengers applauded this great gesture and appreciated the music they played. The whole group stayed until the ship pulled away from the pier. They waved and held up farewell signs.
Before I tell you about Taipei I want to report that the five-course dinner was superb – five small courses with matching wine. The boss matched his course with Coke Zero! We were at a table for two beside a table for two and there was loud chatter going on beside us. The loud chatter was coming from the lady who was planning all the future cruises she wanted to do – my goodness they covered half of Europe and New Zealand even got a smidgeon of a mention! At one stage she said to her partner that he might want to go some other place – “yes I do” he said. “Well tell me – tell me now!” Nup – he was definitely going to put thought into this if she hadn’t emptied the bank account first so he sipped on his wine quietly while she told him he was definitely no wine connoisseur! I have wondered if he maybe finished ze wine and went to the Guest Services to book another stateroom for the night! Now if I had started this exact same conversation with my buddy, I can tell you for sure it would have been over in five minutes because the one in charge of the B’s would have told me to b………… off!
On to the port of Keelung and our visit to Taipei where, we had been told many times, “do not take any item of food or drink ashore other than the bottled water the ship handed out.” Right – we got the memo! We proceed ashore through Emigration after passing a line of small Chinese men and women holding large signs with images of an apple, a banana and an orange. Every single one of them said to us as we passed by “no banana, no apple” and we nod to confirm we haven’t dared let anything slip into the bag which is confirmed by the X-ray machine. Whew! The fine is $US6000 and we do not want to spend the day in a cell! We make our way out of the terminal but not before every single person is photographed by a guy sitting in a chair at the exit! Oh well – we are in Taiwan which is part of China so I guess our photo is stored away in some data bank for ever!
We hop on the bus and I must say that there are many people with mobility and health challenges on this trip. We admire their determination to explore the world and make the most of every day and we are full of praise for their travelling partners who support them to do so. It is inspirational to witness.
On we go to do the 40 minute drive to Taipei City where we watch a sea of motorcycles moving like colonies of ants to get to work – it is rush hour and there are thousands and thousands of motorbikes due to the fact that the Government has imposed a huge tax on imported cars. Taiwan stretches only 180 km from east to west and has a population of 23 million people. We pass very old run down apartment blocks and basic residential shacks raised on spindly stilts. Many of the residential blocks look neglected and grubby from the smog. They are so very basic and it is sad to see the conditions that some people live in. On the opposite side of the motorway there are substantial commercial buildings of some global companies and, in complete contrast, some very old rusty looking factories that I do not think would get one tick on a building inspection checklist back home. Many of the commercial buildings are built with Feng Shui principles in their design which is extremely important for health and prosperity. There are dozens and dozens of cranes on the horizon and many workers laboring away. It is a bustling place for sure. Apartments are horrendously expensive at $US10,000 per square foot – you heard me right! We are told that the main languages are Mandarin and Taiwanese of which there are 16 dialects. English is widely spoken but we are told to use simple words and actions if we need help – should be interesting. Buddhism is the main religion.
We proceed on to the National Palace Museum with 700,000 priceless artifacts ranging from the Neolithic Age to modern times. There are exquisite pieces carved out of jade dating back to the 10th century Qing dynasty, bronze pieces dating back to the 9th century and porcelain crafted with glossy glazes and some have very fine shallow crab claw crackle patterns and date back to the Northern and Southern Seng Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty from the 13th-16th centuries. There are some priceless treasures here.
On we go past some very large military bases all lined up beside each other – Army, Air Force and Navy. It is mandatory for every male to do military training. We witness the changing of the guard at the Martyr’s Shrine overlooking Keelung River. Here 330,000 spirit tablets commemorating soldiers who died defending their country.
Lunch is at The Grand Hotel – a buffet the likes of which we have never seen with offerings we have never heard of so we walk around in circles trying to choose what we might like to have. The boss sights the Hagen Daas ice cream section so he is ‘appy! However, he arrives to the table telling me he has chosen wasabi as a vegetable so I sit and wait for him to take a mouthful and leap up and dance around and scream for a drink – but he doesn’t. It is mild and tasty he tells me! Great – what a relief because there are about 1000 people here at this Grand ‘Otel eating ze lunch and the staff are too busy to cope with an emergency. This hotel is famous having welcomed world leaders and dignatories over the years. Also, we are told that there are 220,000 dragons carved into this magnificent building representing Chinese classical architecture so we feel well protected. These dragons represent different eras of Chinese dynasty.
Taipei is a walled city, the walls having been built a long time ago to protect the city from the rivers which used to flood the city. That problem has been fixed thankfully. We ride on to the Lungshan Temple, home of the Goddess of Mercy, and we are guided around areas of this peaceful place – except it isn’t today because there are many people visiting here in the 31 degree heat. We are told there are academic exams coming up next week and the students come here to make their offerings and prayers. By this stage I am starting to wilt – the boss is engrossed in what is happening but I am feeling like I will be down on the ground in a minute beside those that are fervently praying so I go to sit on a ledge that runs beside the back part of where everyone is standing facing the various sections – one is for medicine (might need it), one is for literature, and there are others. But one of the tour group whispers to me to get up quickly because a guard is approaching and he had already told her off! Heaven forbid – they are watching everything we do!
Our final stop is at the blue roofed Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall dedicated to the late president and surrounded by lovely landscaped gardens. We then make our way back to the ship which is now sailing the South China Sea on its way to Nagasaki where we arrive tomorrow morning. We go to the upper level to watch the ship navigate its way out of Keelung Port and suddenly a drone appears above us at the bow of the ship – are we being monitored we wonder? Anyway, this drone disappears mysteriously after a little while leaving us wondering what that was about. After we departed Hong Kong we had dolphins happily swimming along beside us for some time which was lovely to watch.
We are hoping to feel the zen of Japan so the stress remedy can stay in ze bag! I can tell you we need the zen – I did the laundry this morning and was ironing when a lady came in and emptied the drier onto the ironing board where I was busy pressing a shirt! Am I missing something here? She then announced to me that she was possibly in my way as I slid the iron near to her bundle! But I am in charge of the P’s so patience is on the list!
We have just been to an interesting lecture on “Japan Behind the Mask” exploring some of the cultural foundations of Japan and now we have a date in the diary to go to High Tea in the Wintergarden – because it is three hours since we had lunch and we have to wait another three-four hours for dinner because we are going to a concert. Life is busy as we sail along inching closer to Nagasaki.