Japan and a little bit of China
After having two Japan cruises cancelled by Celebrity, we finally made it to Japan, with a touch of China. It turned out to be one of our favorite trips. We very much liked Japan, and its people. The people were friendly and many were very helpful to us. The country was clean, with no trash on the street or graffiti on bridges or buildings. The people were polite and generally dress well with not grunge. The country functioned very well, drivers seemed to obey the traffic laws, the trains ran on time and we felt safe walking the streets, even at night.
We arrived in Tokyo, Narita airport on October 17; eight days prior to our October 25 cruise that was more in Japan than China. The worst thing about the trip was the long flights to and from East Asia. We did have a direct flight on Delta from Atlanta to Narita. Still, 14 hours on an airplane was like a marathon, it just never seems to end. However, end it did at 3:30 PM on a Saturday. Fortunately, Japan’s wonderful infrastructure included the Narita Express, a fast train directly to Tokyo Station, with trains about every half hour. A one-way ticket was about 3000 yen or $26. The trip took less than an hour.
On the sound advice of my Son, Jack, who was in Tokyo on business a few months ago, we booked a hotel room at the Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo Marunouchi, which was adjacent to Tokyo Station. This allowed us to avoid the cost of a more expensive taxi. However, we had to find our hotel. I knew from a map of the station that the hotel was just north of the station. Getting there was more difficult, since the station was huge. We found the east exit and turned left, but there were so many skyscrapers in the way. We did not see the hotel. Fortunately, a young Japanese woman stopped, on her own, to help us, after a search on her smart phone gave us the proper directions. We found the Japanese people constantly seemed to be helpful during this trip.
The hotel was located on the top floors of a skyscraper, with the lobby on the 27th floor. Our room happened to be on the same floor, with a nice view of the city. Booking this hotel turned out to be a great decision, due to the location, reasonable price ($230 per night with a nice breakfast included), and very helpful staff. Another interesting feature was that both the hotels we used in Japan had vending machines that included beer. For $3 you could purchase a night cap instead of spending $10 in the hotel bar for the same beer. The hotel staff was great in assisting me in contacting our tour company to reconfirm our local tours and determine where to pick up the bus for the tours. The room we booked included a double bed, desk and chair, but was not large enough for another chair. This was not a problem, since we spend little time in our room. Our room was on the same floor as the lobby and restaurant. We had a buffet breakfast every morning with a choice of Japanese or Western food. We enjoyed the Western food, which was generally good, but the Japanese don’t cook their scrambled eggs as much as we do in the USA. Still, we had great choices with eggs, bacon, sausage, croissants, breads, yogurt, fruit, cereal and more.
We stayed there five days then went on a tour to Kyoto for two nights, returning to the hotel for one more night prior to our cruise. The staff had already placed our left luggage in our hotel room prior to our arrival from Kyoto. The staff helped us with coordinating with our tour company as well as assisting in navigating the huge Tokyo Station. Breakfast was good with a choice of Japanese or Western. I only wish they cooked the scrambled eggs a bit more. The hotel was perfect for our visit. The Narita Express took us to nearby Tokyo Station upon arrival, so we avoided an expensive taxi. Also, the hotel is near the Ginza district.
We took full day tours every day but one in Tokyo, which included a very good Japanese lunch, so in the evening, after two healthy meals, we were not terribly hungry. Therefore, we didn’t spend much on evening meals. One night we had pizza in an Italian restaurant on the third floor of the building that included the hotel and the other nights we ate at restaurants in Tokyo Station. There are many to choose from and we always found very good food, without spend a lot. Japanese beer was good and we sampled Sapporo and Kurin brands.
One evening, we were comparing the English menus of two restaurants in Tokyo Station and noted “pork rectum” as one of the choices on one restaurant’s menu. We elected to eat at the other restaurant. That evening, Ginny noted this even on Facebook and my Daughter, Risa, who lived in Korea (with US Army) indicated that this dish was a delicacy in East Asia. Still, we had a laugh about this.
Several months prior to our trip, I had booked tours with Viator for our stay in Japan. We have had success with Viator in the past, especially in Asia. Viator contracts out for all its tours. All our tours were provided by JTB Sunrise Tours. All our tours were excellent, with well informed and personable guides. Each day tour included a very good Japanese lunch that exceeded our expectations every time. Our first tour was on our first full day in Tokyo, Sunday. We slept about 12 hours that night recovering from the jet lag. We had to walk to meeting point at the south end of Tokyo Station for our pickup. We were taken to a central bus terminal, where we were assigned to our tour bus for the day. This process takes about half an hour or more, since there are many tours and many buses involved.
Our first tour was the Panoramic Tokyo Day Tour - Meiji Shrine, Asakusa Temple and Tokyo Bay Cruise. The tour included the Meiji Shrine, Japan's most famous Shinto shrine, the Imperial Palace garden, and the Asakusa Kannon Temple (Senso-ji), Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple Our bus drove past the shopping areas of Nakamise Shopping Street and the Ginza district. We then took a short cruise of Tokyo Bay.
The Meiji Shrine website explains the significance of the shrine:
Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine. Shinto is called Japan's ancient original religion, and it is deeply rooted in the way of Japanese life. Shinto has no founder, no holy book, and not even the concept of religious conversion, but Shinto values for example harmony with nature and virtues such as "Magokoro (sincere heart)". In Shinto, some divinity is found as Kami (divine spirit), or it may be said that there is an unlimited number of Kami. You can see Kami in mythology, in nature, and in human beings. From ancient times, Japanese people have felt awe and gratitude towards such Kami and dedicated shrines to many of them.
This shrine is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken (their tombs are in Kyoto).
Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912 and Empress Shoken in 1914. After their demise, people wished to commemorate their virtues and to venerate them forever. So they donated 100,000 trees from all over Japan and from overseas, and they worked voluntarily to create this forest. Thus, thanks to the sincere heart of the people, this shrine was established on November 1, 1920.
The shrine was somewhat crowded, since it was Sunday, but fortunately, we saw two wedding parties that day, as well as several Shinto priests in traditional dress. It was a great way to start our tour of Tokyo. Next, we visited the Imperial Palace garden, which are on the grounds of the Emperor’s palace. The palace was on the site of Edo Castle, originally occupied by the Shogun. The restoration of the Emperor to power resulted in the Shogun vacating the palace for the Emperor. Entrance to the palace itself is only allowed one day a year and not for the general public. Entering the Palace grounds, we passed over a huge moat and then through the massive 500 year old walls in order to visit the gardens. The site itself was not that overwhelming, but it due to its historical importance, it is a must see when visiting Tokyo. Our next site was the Asakusa Kannon Temple is a Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. According to a legend, in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Sensoji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo's oldest temple.
Beyond the Hozomon Gate are the temple's main hall and a five storied pagoda. Destroyed in the war, the buildings were reconstructions. The Asakusa Shrine, built in the year 1649 by Tokugawa Iemitsu, stands only a few dozen meters to the left of the temple's main building.
We saw a lot of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan, and were told by guides that Japan has 127 million people, including 100 million worshiping Shinto and 100 million Buddhists. Japanese generally find not incompatibility in worships both faiths. Shinto emphasizes life, while Buddhism emphasizes the afterlife.
On our way to lunch, we passed through Ginza, as shopping district, close to Tokyo Station. The tour then took us to Tokyo Bay, were we took a short cruise, where we could see the skyline and a new shopping area called Odaiba, located on an artificial island created in the past for a fort to protect the bay from invaders. After the amazing first three sites, the cruise and visit to Odaiba was a step down. All in all, the tour was excellent and I would recommend it as an introduction to Tokyo.
The next day, we had no tour planned. We did a little shopping, looking around Tokyo Station and walked to Ginza. Going through a nice department store, we could see that the Japanese like name brand designer items, whether luggage, clothing, jewelry or whatever. The prices we saw in the stores were very high. We found a nearby post office and mailed some postcards to family. Most ATM machines in Japan are not compatible with ATM cards from the USA, except at the post office. I was so concerned about not having enough cash that I purchased $900 worth of yen and $100 worth of Hong Kong dollars before the trip. As it turned out we had about $200 worth of yen left after leaving Japan. We used a little to buy some New Taiwan dollars and exchanged the rest back to US dollars before we left for home.
On Tuesday we were on another JTB Sunrise tour, Kamakura, Yokohama and Tokyo Bay Day Trip from Tokyo. The tour included the Great Buddha of Kamakura at Kotoku-in. Kamakura's historic Hasedera Temple and Sankeien Garden in Yokohama. The huge Buddha at Kamakura dates from 1252. It was originally housed inside a temple, but a huge tsunami washed away the wooden structure sometime in the late 15th century, and the statue has sat out in nature ever since.
The Hasedera Temple was equally impressive. The site was ancient and included a large hand carved wooden statue. The official website provided an interesting history:
The Origins of Kamakura’s Hasedera Temple
According to the legend, in 721 AD the pious monk Tokudo Shonin discovered a large camphor tree in the mountain forests near the village of Hase in the Nara region. He realized the trunk of the tree was so large that it provided enough material for carving two statues of the eleven-headed Kannon. The statue he commissioned to be carved from the lower part of the truck was enshrined in Hasedera Temple near Nara; the statue from the upper half (actually the larger of the two) was thrown into the sea with a prayer that it would reappear to save the people.
Fifteen years later in 736 on the night of June 18, it washed ashore at Nagai Beach on the Miura Peninsula not far from Kamakura, sending out rays of light as it did.
The statue was then brought to Kamakura and a temple was constructed to honor it. Since time immemorial, Hasedera Temple has been known as the 4th station among the 33 holy places in the Kanto area.
We found this site to be amazing, with beautiful gardens and a nice view of the Ocean.
Our final site was the Sankeien Garden in Yokohama. These gardens were more amazing than the Hasedera Temple. The gardens were donated by a wealth beneficiary to preserve ancient buildings from around Japan. The gardens and ancient building are set in well-designed locations. It was another example of fantastic Japanese gardens that we saw on our trip. We never tired of visiting these gardens. Again, our tour included an excellent Japanese lunch.
On Wednesday, we took another JTB Sunrise tour to Nikko, north of Tokyo. Despite the wonderful sites we had seen already, Nikko proved to be our favorite day tour in Tokyo. Our tour included the amazing Toshogu Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, and the Kirifuri Waterfall from an observation deck in Nikko Park. The official website describes the Toshogu Shrine, as follows:
The Toshogu Shrine is the main attraction of Nikko. The Shinto shrine is dedicated to the kami (spirit) of Ieyasu (d. 1616), who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, a military dynasty that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867.
To create a worthy shrine for the shogun, 15,000 craftsmen worked for two years, using 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf. The enshrinement of Ieyasu's spirit is reenacted twice each year in the Procession of the Thousand Warriors.
Unlike most Shinto shrines, characterized by minimalist architecture that blends into its surroundings, Toshogu is a riot of color, gold, and carvings, with birds and flowers, dancing maidens, and sages following one another around the buildings. Some visitors find the shrine awe-inspiring and beautiful; others are repelled by the gaudiness. In contrast to the exuberance of the shrine, Ieyasu's mausoleum itself is relatively simple and austere.
One of the most famous elements of Toshogu is the Sacred Stable, where a white imperial horse is kept (a gift of New Zealand). The stable's fame derives from the original carving depicting the three wise monkeys, "Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil." Other famous carvings at Toshogu include a sleeping cat and an odd rendering of an elephant by an artist who had apparently never seen one.
This site was the most impressive one we visited until Kyoto. It included hundreds of 400 year old cedar trees that were provided by one of the Shogun’s lords. Shogun Tokugawa was known as the first Shogun that brought peace to Japan after many years of infighting by various lords. We found Tokugawa’s footprint in several of the historical sites that we visited in Japan. Next we visited the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, which also had a nice garden. Of course, to go inside the villa, we had to remove our shoes, which we probably did 50 times during our time in Japan. The villa was interesting, but traditional Japanese homes are somewhat Spartan and simple. They are usually made of wood and paper (with all the earthquakes that made sense). Again, we had another great Japanese lunch and finished our tour at the Nikko Park to see the Kirifuri Waterfall. This required a hike along a path through the woods to a viewing platform. The falls were attractive, but not particularly awesome compared to falls we have seen elsewhere.
On Thursday we checked out of our hotel, leaving our large suitcases there for our three day trip to Nara and Kyoto. This was another Viator/JTB Sunrise tour that I purchased over the internet prior to our trip. The tour was named Kyoto and Nara 2-Day or 3-Day Rail Tour by Bullet Train from Tokyo. The tour included round trip transportation on the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto, a hotel room at the New Miyako Hotel for two nights, and a half day tour of Nara the first day, then full day tour of Kyoto the second day. The third day we were on our own. Lunch was included the first and second day, as well as breakfast every morning at the hotel. We departed on the bullet train from Tokyo at 9:50AM (a tour representative met us at the meeting point, provided us with tickets and vouchers, guiding us to the train), arriving in Kyoto about Noon. We were escorted to our hotel, the New Miyako Hotel, just across the street from the rail station.
NARA AND KYOTO
Both cities were former capitals of Japan (capital were the Emperor lived). Our afternoon tour of Nara followed an excellent lunch at our hotel. The bus took about one hour to arrive at Nara. Our first site was the Todaiji Temple, a huge wooden temple with a huge Buddha and several smaller statues. The temple is described, as follows:
Todaiji "Great Eastern Temple" is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple's influence on government affairs.
Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world's largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall's size. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.
The building was impressive, not just in size, but the included statutes and contents. Upon arriving, we passed through the nearby deer park, were hundreds of tame deer were there to greet us. Some in our group purchased food for the deer and feed them. I was satisfied to pet one or two. One problem, with all the deer walking around, we had to watch our step so we didn’t step in the deer manure.
Visiting the temple, we encountered awesome statues, many other tourists, as well as worshipers. It was Interesting that the temple included a small gift ship.
Next, we visited the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The shrine was originally established in 768; however the buildings have been reconstructed several times. There were a thousand bronze lanterns as well as 2,000 stone lanterns outside the main shrine precinct and along the path leading to the shrine. Also, there was a sacred thousand year old wisteria tree. Our final stop was at Nara Nagomikan, a large building for shopping, filled with tourists.
On Friday, we had our full day tour of Kyoto, the long ancient capital of Japan. Our morning tour included Nijo Castle, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple) and Kyoto Imperial Palace. The first two sites we encountered massive crowds, including many Japanese school children, most appearing to be grammar school age. Nijo Castle was described as follows:
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle's palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep.
After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan's feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.
Nijo Castle can be divided into three areas: the Honmaru (main circle of defense), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense) and some gardens that encircle the Honmaru and Ninomaru. The entire castle grounds and the Honmaru are surrounded by stone walls and moats.
This was the first of the castles we visited in Japan. There are not many castles, in Japan compared to Europe. It was a bit refreshing to see a castle after so many temples and shrines. Little did we know that we had many more shrines and temples to see in Japan. We enjoyed seeing them all, but it reminded me of touring Europe, where visiting cathedrals is so common that it is easy to be cathedral saturated. We were definitely shrine and temple saturated after our trip. Nijo Castle was interesting with its palace, walls and grounds. We visited Ninomaru Palace, which served as the residence and office of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto. The palace survives in its original form, and consists of multiple separate buildings that are connected with each other by corridors with so called nightingale floors. The floors were constructed so as to squeak like a nightingale, to act as an alarm that someone was approaching. This operated as a security device protecting the shogun from assassins. The garden was impressive with its well laid out stones, plants and lakes.
The Golden Pavilion was our next temple to visit. Its beauty was amazing, especially when viewed on the other side of the lake, where its reflected image is apparent. Unfortunately, hundreds of other people felt the same way and our viewing was limited to a few minutes, couple of snaps of the camera and negotiating the crowds out of the crush. Still, the small temple was most plated in gold and shined magnificently in the sun. This temple is a must see if you come to Kyoto. It is another UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Imperial Palace was not so crowded, since it can only be visited by appointment, which our tour company had arranged. We viewed the large structure from the outside as well as inside (shoes off again).
We were taken back to the hotel for lunch, which was good, then for three more shrines or temples. Kyoto has a plethora of shrines and temples, many in their original state, since the city was not damaged during WWII. Our afternoon tour included the Hejan Shrine, Sanju Sangendo Hall and Kiyomizu Temple. The Hejan Shrine was only about 100 years old and while impressive, compared to what we had seen and would see later, this shrine was not in my opinion a must see for visitors of Kyoto. The Sanju Sangendo Hall was impressive. The massive wooden hall was a Buddhist Temple including 1001 Buddhas. There was one massive Buddha stature and 1000 others. Also, there were statutes of Buddhist gods. Apparently, the faith has many gods originating from Hinduism, since Buddha was an Indian. No photos were allowed in the temple. It was amazing, but dust from the burning incense was thick. Ginny commented that the whole place needed a good dusting.
The Kiyomizu Temple was our final site for the day. The temple is on the eastern side of the city next to the mountains (mountains are everywhere in Japan). The main hall has a large veranda, supported by tall pillars, that juts out over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. We were not allowed to go inside the temple, but the view was good and the temple complex was impressive. It was a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Our last day in Kyoto, we were on our own. There were several interesting sites we could have visited, but we chose to do the Philosopher’s Path. The Path is near several shrines or temples. It was described, as follows:
The Philosopher's Path is a pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto's Higashiyama district. The path follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Usually in early April these trees explode with color, making this one of the city's most popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots.
Approximately two kilometers long, the path begins around Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
We took the easy way getting there by taking a taxi to the north end of the path to the Silver Pavilion. The taxi cost about $20 and we could have taken public transportation for less, but didn’t want to bother with changing trains, etc. The Path itself was along a canal in a quiet residential district. Our first temple to visit was the Silver Pavilion, which had never had the silver applied to its exterior like the Golden Pavilion. The most impressive part of this site was the amazing garden. The site was next to where hills started to rise on the eastern side of the city. The grounds were largely covered by moss. This doesn’t sound impressive, but the groundskeepers were appeared to be constantly raking the moss of any leaves or debris, which created an amazing appearance. Of course, there were lakes, beautiful flowers and trees as well.
We walked the path and visited a couple of small shrines the arrived at the Eikando, formally known as Zenrinji Temple. The temple did not allow photos inside. There were attractive rock gardens in courtyards, inside the temple. There was a pagoda and a platform (many steps to get there) were we took photos of the city. By the time we reached the end of the path at Nanzenji Temple, we took photos of the exterior and then elected to head back to our hotel. Sightseeing can be tiring and we had done a lot of sightseeing. The taxi back to our hotel was about $14. We relaxed in the hotel for a couple of hours before our train back to Tokyo. Again the tour company had someone to escort us to the rail station and our train. We were back in Tokyo about 9PM, made our way to our hotel, the Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo Marunouchi. Checking in was quick and our left luggage was already in our room, which happened to be the same room we had stayed in before.
The next day was the start of our cruise. We had signed up for transport to the port at Yokohama with a fellow cruiser, Ron. Green Tomato provided the transport for Ginny and I, it was about $115 total. We could have saved taking the train and then a taxi, but did not want the hassle of dragging luggage on the train.
A week prior to flying out to Japan, Celebrity called us offering an upgrade to a sky suite. We had originally booked a balcony. Had we booked a sky suite in the beginning, the price would have been at least double that of a balcony. However, Celebrity offered us an upgrade for a total of $800, which was still a fraction of what we would have paid for a suite in the beginning. We accepted and were moved to cabin 6145, which is one of the higher level sky suites (sky suites are still the entry level suites). The upgrade provided us with two free meals in one of the two Celebrity specialty restaurants, which was worth $180 to $200. Also, we could dine in the new suite restaurant, Luminae. Other benefits included a butler, who brought us tea and snacks about 4pm every afternoon.
Checking in at Yokohama was fast and easy, once we discovered there was a short line for suite passengers. Our suite was located next to the huge suite on the aft, port corner of the ship at deck 6. We had one room, which appeared to be about twice the size of a normal balcony cabin, with a balcony quite large (including upright chairs, table and lounge chairs with footstools. Also, the bathroom was large, with a separate tub and shower, double sinks and lots of storage room. We did enjoy the suite, but this cruise was very port intensive and we spent little time there with only four sea days. Even with the benefit of dining in Luminae, we concluded that we would never book a suite outright, due to the cost vs. benefits.
This restaurant was excellent. The food and service was exceptional. Also, over the two weeks, we became acquainted with many others dining there. Having done Aqua class and dined in BLU on one cruise, which we found to be excellent, we found Luminae to be even better than BLU. The food in BLU was closer to what was available in the main dining room, while in Luminae, the food was closer to fine dining. The only disadvantage was that there were fewer choices available on the menu. There were usually about five appetizers and five main courses available. Still, the quality came through and I know that I gained some weight on this cruise (I usually don’t). Another advantage over the MDR was that Luminae was quieter. Breakfast was excellent with a very wide selection. One thing, two years ago we were in BLU and they had Muesli from a cart, where your serving was made to order at your table. We learned that this option was no longer available. Luminae still had muesli, but it was closer to what you could find in the buffet. The staff was excellent and we were served by several different servers, all took good care of us. Plamen was the Maître-de and handled the service quite well. Edwardo was our sommelier, who was excellent.
The entertainment was generally good, and had some great shows, but Celebrity needs to change its production shows for its singers and dancers more frequently. Some of the shows like IBroadway and Boggietown we have seen on two or three earlier cruises. The singers and dancers were all up to speed in talent, except for one female singer. The guest artists that were excellent were Peter Cutler, Greg Andrew impersonating Elton John and Monique Dehaney. Dan Hamill was good as well as the Rock Rhapsody celebrating the group Queen.
We found the ship to be in pretty good shape considering its age. One minor issue was that a spot between the floor tiles in our bathroom kept oozing a sticky substance. Not a bid deal, we put a tissue down from time to time so not to walk on the stuff.
We look forward to the happy hour from 5-7PM every evening when elite guests or higher congregate and socialize (with free drinks). On other cruises we have enjoyed the happy hour in the deck 11 bar with its great views. It is great to meet others and socialize. For this cruise, we were issued three vouchers per night and had three bars where we could redeem the vouchers. One bar was the Sunset Bar, which for most of the cruise was too cold to use, the other Rendezvous, which always had loud music so we could not socialize; and last Cellar Masters, which was rather modest in size and a bit understaffed. We understood that the Cosmos bar (forward deck 11 bar) was booked every night by the Park West (art sales group). Many of us thought it was unusual to book the best bar on the ship every night for one group. Still, we meet some great people in Cellar Masters and successfully cashed in our vouchers.
SHIMIZU (Mt. Fuji)
Our first port was Shimizu, which was near Mt. Fuji. We took the Celebrity excursion Best of Shimizu with Lunch, which was described, as follows:
Spend a day exploring Shimizu's unforgettable medieval castle ruins, world-heritage-listed ancient pine grove, exquisite traditional gardens, and more. At Shizuoka City, see Sengen Shrine before heading to Sumpu Park. Sumpu Castle was partially rebuilt after a 1635 fire, and re-opened post WWII as a park. See traditional gardens at Momijiyama Garden. Little rivals Nihondaira Park with its commanding views of Mt. Fuji. Following your Japanese lunch, see Miho no Matsubara, beloved by artists for its gnarled trees and vistas.
• See Sengen Shrine, ancient Suruga country's main shrine with deep religious support.
• Explore Sumpu Park and its 1585-built Sumpu Castle; and Momijiyama Gardens featuring traditional manor house ponds.
• Grab your camera for Nihond Nihondaira Park, home to an ancient pine grove overlooking the sea while Fuji towers east.
The tour itself and guide were excellent. We visited the castle ruins; with its thick walls and gardens was interesting, and then the Sengen Shrine and another wonder Japanese garden at Momijiyama. The Nihondaira Park was up on a small mountain and had scenic views of the bay and area, but not Mt. Fuji. Miho no Matsubara was near the beach, and the only disappointment was that the view of Mt. Fuji was not good at all. We had a better view of the mountain from our cruise ship early in the morning. Apparently, the best time to view the mountain is early in the morning before the haze thickens. This was an excellent tour, but if you want a better view of Mt. Fuji. We could have taken another excursion or done a tour from Tokyo, where you are taken much closer to the mountain. Still, we did see the mountain.
We arrived in Kobe at 11AM and time for an excursion. The ship docked there overnight, so we had another day as well for sightseeing. Many people on the ship visited nearby Kyoto. I was glad that we visited Kyoto from Tokyo, since the ship’s excursions to Kyoto were about $200. Also, we had two full days in Kyoto as well as half a day in Nara.
Our first day we did Highlights of Osaka which included:
When it comes to history, Osaka has one of the most fascinating ones of all. See the best of Osaka and learn about its rich past. First, visit the stunning Osaka Castle, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a well-known warlord who ruled the country in the late 16th century. Then, it's on to the revered Sumiyoshi Taisha, the guardian deity for sailors and deity to bring prosperity. See Osaka and all its wonder and glory.
• Admire old weapons, armors, and folk-life items in the astounding Osaka Castle.
• Explore the renowned Sumiyoshi Taisha, the shrine that three million people visit at the beginning of the new year.
The Osaka castle was our second castle to visit on our trip. It was reconstructed and we enjoyed the castle (we walked up to the top floor) and its exhibits. Next was the Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, which was interesting, having L shaped designed buildings.
Our second day in Kobe, a group of about 20 of our cruise critic friends did a do it yourself trip to Himeji Castle. The trip was organized by Carole from Ontario, Canada. Carol also organized several tours for the cruise. Ginny and I were on all of Carol’s tours, except for the one at Shanghai. We were one her tour of Nagasaki and both days in Taiwan as well as a do it yourself both days in Hong Kong. Carol had researched our trip, which worked out well. We took the Kobe monorail from the cruise port to the train station nearby, then the train to Himeji. After we exited the Himeji rail station, we could see the huge castle (largest castle in Japan) at the end of the street less than a mile away.
The Japan Guide describes the 400 year old castle:
Himeji Castle, also known as White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) due to its elegant, white appearance, is widely considered Japan's most spectacular castle for its imposing size and beauty and its well preserved, complex castle grounds. The castle is both a national treasure and a world heritage site. Unlike many other Japanese castles, it was never destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and survives to this day as one of the country's twelve original castles. The castle recently underwent extensive renovation over several years and was fully re-opened to the public in March 2015.
Himeji Castle lies at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto. The first fortifications built on the site were completed in the 1400s, and were gradually enlarged over the centuries by the various clans who ruled over the region. The castle complex as it survives today is over 400 years old and was completed in 1609. It comprises over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys, which are connected by a series of gates and winding paths.
The castle was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was very impressive and overshadows even the large Osaka Castle. We walked up the wooden stairs several stories to the top floor. The interior was largely wooden with no furniture, but did have an occasional exhibit. An elderly Japanese volunteer noted our group and guided us (no compensation expected) through the castle. His English was hard to understand sometimes, but we appreciated his gracious effort. After visiting the castle, we went through the gardens, which were attractive as Japanese gardens can be. We learned that Himeji Castle was featured in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice as well as The Last Samurai.
After touring the castle and gardens, we walked back to the train station and mistakenly took the wrong train. Carol asked the attendant at the station which track and we realized the train had gone past Kobe, when we arrived in Osaka, north of Kobe. Himeji was south of Kobe. No problem, we got off the train in Osaka, found the next train to our port and arrived safely there. We had a few laughs about this.
Our next port was Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb was used in World War II. Our tour was organized by our new cruise critic friend Carol. The tour was with Tours by Locals.
Our group of 8 visited the Peace Park, Hypocenter, A-bomb museum and the surroundings; Spectacle Bridge and Temple Row; Site of the former Dutch trading House on Dejima and Dejima Wharf and visited a shopping area. We opted to skip the Shinto shrine. We purchased a streetcar day ticket for 500 yen and used the streetcar for transport to the sites. Our guide was excellent and left us some flexibility regarding what we would visit. Also, the Japanese lunch was excellent for about 900 yen.
The Peace Park was located at the center of the bomb blast. The blast was an air blast, but the park was just below where the blast occurred. There were many memorials from different countries spread all over the park. Our guide pointed out what the bomb damaged. We learned here and at the A-bomb museum that the bomb largely missed the city’s business district, but instead hit a largely residential area. The museum was excellent and presented the history and facts of the bomb damages without getting into the propriety of the US dropping the bomb. At the museum, we were shown items that were directly damaged, like steel girders, melted coins and other evidence of the damage.
After the nice lunch, we visited Dejima, a former Dutch trading center. The Japanese allowed the Dutch a trading center in Nagasaki as long as they did not proselytize Christianity. The center was near the business district and appeared to contain some of the original buildings, although I am sure some restoration was necessary. The center gave us an interesting perspective on early contact of Europeans in Japan and the basis of trade. Next, we visited the Spectacle Bridge. The Nagasaki City Tourism Guide explains the importance of the bridge:
In 1634, Japan's first Chinese-style stone bridge, the Spectacle Bridge, was constructed by Mokusunyoujo, the second-generation Chinese monk of Kofukuji Temple, Japan's oldest Chinese Temple. The bridge gets its name from its resemblance to a pair of spectacles when the arches of the bridges are reflected as ovals on the surface of the river. This bridge, along with Edo's Nihonbashi Bridge and Iwakuni's Kintaikyou Bridge, are considered the three most famous bridges in Japan. Although it is not well known, Spectacles Bridge was the inspiration for the Double Bridge of the Imperial Palace.
We skipped the shrine and visited a shopping area, which was more modern than a traditional bazaar. It was an excellent tour for a very reasonable price and our group of 8 very much enjoyed the tour.
Our next day on the ship was our second sea day (first on the day before Nagasaki) and we enjoyed the opportunity to relax and recuperate from all the touring. Our next port was Shanghai. We only had one port in the People’s Republic of China, and the issue of acquiring a visa for China was quite large on our cruise critic roll call. I asked Celebrity (via email), as did others, if we needed the visa if we elected to not go ashore at Shanghai. We received a tentative yes, but caveated by the concern that the Chinese authorities could change their policy, which could lead to our not being able to board the ship in Tokyo.
At first, I planned to skip the visa and visit to Shanghai, since we had spent four days in the city on a tour of China in 2012. However, Ginny and I decided to not take the risk that could stop us from taking the cruise. Unfortunately, while our passports still had more than two years of validity, we lacked two clean pages (required by China) for the visa. Therefore we had to acquire new passports. It turned out to be expensive, but we now have new passports with a ten year Chinese visa.
Shanghai is an amazing city of some 22 million people. It has grown since our visit in 2012, when we were told its population was 17 million. Ginny and I took a Celebrity excursion named Watertown of Zhujiajiao. It was one of the few excursions that did not duplicate what we saw in the city three years ago. It was described as follows:
Explore Zhujiajiao, known for its 36 moss-covered bridges, on this tour to ancient landmarks and the Tian Hou Silk Factory. Visit Daqing Youju and Fangsheng Bridge, both important historical landmarks. Then, savor a delicious multi-course lunch at a local restaurant. After lunch, you can shop for fine local silk products at the Tian Hou Silk Factory, followed by a coach ride to the Pudong New District in Shanghai, with a final stop at Riverside Avenue near the Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
• See Zhujiajiao’s famous, Fangsheng Bridge, dating back to the Ming Dynasty.
• Visit the Daqing Youju, a post office that dates back to the Qing Dynasty.
• Enjoy a multi-course family-style lunch of traditional Shanghai-style dishes served at a local restaurant.
The tour was pretty good and our guide was informative. The watertown of Zhujiajiao was interesting, especially the visit the old post office. However, we had visited another watertown near Shanghai in 2012 that seemed more authentic and less touristy than Zhujiajiao. Traffic in the city was congested and getting around took some time. We noticed that traffic chaos had not changed since our visit to mainland China three years ago. If there were three official lanes, the drivers would create four or five. The visit to the silk factory seemed like the same one we visited in 2012. The lunch was good, but the waitress forgot to bring the rice to our table. The tour guide did apologize. It did seem strange, no rice with a meal in China. Otherwise, the meal was very good. Our last stop of the day was near dusk at the new Pudong district, across the river from the historic Bund. We managed some photos, despite that the sun had set. It was a relatively good tour, but I would not recommend this tour if you have not been to Shanghai before.
Our next port was our last port in Japan, Okinawa. Fortunately, the weather there was good and nice and warm. Temps were in the high 70s and I was able to wear shorts for the first time. We took another Celebrity excursion, Okinawa World and Shurijyo Castle. We first stopped at Shurijo Castle, former seat of power during Ryuku Kingdom's 500-year reign. The castle grounds had the typical thick rock walls, but the structure of the castle was wood. It was reconstructed, since the original building was destroyed in World War II. Our guide explained this history of Okinawa, how it was influenced by contacts with China and had some measure of independence as for a while, before being incorporated as a full part of Japan in 1879. The castle was worth a visit.
Okinawa World was a theme park that included a large cave with its stalagmites and stalactites. It took about 40 minutes to walk through. The rest of the park included a small reconstructed Okinawan village with crafts, etc. It was ok, but frankly I was underwhelmed. We saw a show with native dancing that was good, especially with the dragon (two persons inside the dragon) dance. All in all, the theme park was one that I would probably not recommend to others, but some might like it more. Our other option for Okinawa included a trip to the old Japanese command center during the WWII battle or a drive to see some scenic areas on the island. We enjoyed our visit to the island, but after being wowed by our other Japanese sites, Okinawa was not as impressive.
Carol’s tours for our two days in Taiwan were excellent. The tour company was My Taiwan Tour Travel Service Co., Ltd. Both tours together cost about $110 per person which was far cheaper than what Celebrity’s excursions had to offer. Since we arrived in Taiwan at 1PM, our first day tour was a half day tour. The tour took us to the Yehliu geo park at the Yehliu Promontory, which had many unusual shapes. One famous formation was known as the "Queen's Head." There were perhaps a hundred or more unusual formations which was fascinating. I am sure that persons going through my photos of the trip will ask why I took so many photos of rocks. My answer, they were very unusual rocks. Our tour finished with a trip to the Keelung Market (Keelung was the port north of Taipei where our ship was docked). We walked through the busy market with all its interesting stalls. Most were selling food of some kind. Some of the food looked and smelled good, others not so.
Day two in Taiwan was a full day tour that took us to Taipei. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the wonderful National Palace Museum. The museum was originally founded in the Forbidden City of Beijing in 1925, and moved to southwest China during the war with Japan, then moved to Taipei by Chiang Kai-shek when he moved there from the mainland when the Communist won the civil war. The museum is filled with amazing and priceless works of art and culture. Our guide took us through the museum, oriented us and took us to see several of the very important items. The item that I thought was the most awesome was the huge painting on silk called One Hundred Horses. The 1728 painting was by Castiglione, an Italian artist that mixed styles of East and West.
After the museum, we visited the tallest building on the island, Taipei 101. We didn’t go up to the top to see the city, since we had two buses with a total of 40 persons and that would have taken too much of our time. We did have lunch at the building site, which were largely dumplings with various ingredients. The lunch was quite good. In the afternoon, we visited the Chang Kai-shek memorial, which was huge, including a huge statue of Chang. Frankly, the memorial and statue were a bit much, since the statue was probably at least three times the size of Lincoln’s statue at the Lincoln Memorial. Our last stop was at a Taoist/Buddhist Temple. The temple was colorful with many active worshipers in attendance. The tour was excellent, particularly including the museum.
The cruise ended in Hong Kong and we had a full day and overnight until we disembarked from the ship. The first day, Carol, John, Terry and Katy joined Ginny and I on a do it yourself trip to see the Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery. All of us had been to Hong Kong before and none of us had seen these sites. Fortunately, there was a free shuttle that took us from the cruise port to a shopping mall near the Diamond Hill MRT station. The Garden and Nunnery are located adjacent to the mall. The Nan Lian Garden was amazing. It was magnificently landscaped with trees, plants, rocks, a waterfall, bridge and small museums. The fact that it was a quiet and serene garden in the middle of heavily built up Hong Kong added to the beauty of the garden. We found a small exhibit there of Murano glass from Venice, with some stunning glass. The nunnery was a Buddhist temple and also surrounded by tall buildings in a pleasant surroundings. We had spent about two hours at these sites, and then went through the mall, finding it very much like what you find back home. We all wanted to get back to the ship even though it was early afternoon, since we had to pack and prepare to leave the ship the next day.
The next day we departed the ship at 8:30AM and took a shuttle to the Kowloon Station, where we could check our luggage early for our flights. We found a place in the nearby mall where we stuffed our carry-on bags in a locker for a few hours and Carol, John, Ginny and I took a taxi to the Hong Kong History Museum there in Kowloon. We spent about three hours enjoying the museum which covered the geological and political history of Hong Kong. The exhibits were well done.
Returning to pick up our carry-ons, we took the Airport Express, a fast train, directly to the airport. Ginny and I said farewell to Carol and John, then continued to the last stop on the line to our hotel (we could see the airport from the hotel). We had a day rate for 8 hours at the hotel, to relax, since our flight to Seoul-Inchon was not until 12:55AM the next morning. We were on Korean Air Lines from Hong Kong to Seoul, then directly to Atlanta. The food and service on the flight was excellent, but it was another marathon 14 hour flight to Atlanta. By the time we arrived in Jacksonville, we were totally wiped out. The best part of coming home was seeing our cat, Simon, we happily greeted us. In fact, since we have been home, he follows us everywhere.
It was a fantastic trip. We loved Japan and our new friends from the cruise, but it was so good to get home again. Read Less