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Category Archives: September – October 2017 Japan!
Our last tour day (Sunday) was in Akita and we were fortunate enough to have a guide whose English was the best so far. Still accented but much easier to understand she was quite enjoyable to listen to. Well spoken and certainly well versed in Akita’s history and culture she gave insight to the area and even omelet-making tips.
Japan is made up of 45 prefectures, 1 circuit and 1 metropolis. Akita is a prefecture with 25 cities one of which is also named Akita. Summer temperatures can reach 34c but winter is fairly mild (from our standpoint) with temps down to only about -2.5c. Snow accumulations are about 100 cm (which I, personally, would also be thankful for).
Rice production in the area is third in Japan at 500,000 lbs. per year, but Sake is also very important in this prefecture.
The Hata-Hata fish (also known as Buriko) is one well known in Akita, but not necessarily enjoyed by all. It’s unusual in that it has no scales and is quite sticky to the touch. Fish sauce is produced by fermenting this fish (which is caught in the winter time) over a 3 year time frame. Of particular note is that Koji mold (same mold used to make Sake) is used in this process. In the end it is boiled for an hour, strained and bottled. The end product is commonly used in place of butter or milk to make omelets (and will be attempted when we get home).
Given that you have (hopefully) enjoyed reading of our adventures throughout these past 2 weeks, what do you suppose our first stop will be? Another market would be correct. But again, unique relative to others we have encountered. This was a full mix of grocery, fresh fish, liquor, tourist items and household goods. Few souvenirs had been purchased prior to this, but here an exception was made. There was no boatload of items, but things we had thought would actually be reasonable, usable and simply delectable.
Our second stop is the Sake Brewery and here I admit to once again failing to obtain important information. Like the name of the brewery for instance. No doubt it was mentioned, but being heard was only probable at best and remembered, apparently impossible. It has been around for over 300 years (no thanks to people like me) and is quite apparent inside. The timbers that make up joists, rafters, and support posts, and the iron straps that bind them all together, all clearly show their age. Yet such was craftsmanship in days gone by that they have all done their duty, keeping the brewers and their artistry safe and continuous.
Making Sake is quite the process. It starts with milling (removing the outer portion, sometimes referred to as polishing), washing, steeping and steaming. How much is milled will dictate the quality of the Sake. Daiginjo, the highest quality, uses rice that is milled down a minimum of 50% or more. Then Koji Mold is sprinkled on top which changes the starch of the steamed rice into sugar. This will change will take about 2 days.
The water and yeast are added to change the sugar into alcohol. This then allows the Moromi fermentation which takes about another 20 days. The last part is filtration. The Moromi is put into bags that are filled with air. These are then hung in a gigantic press which is used to squeeze out the Sake. This also results in a secondary product called Sake Cake. Keep in mind this is a highly simplified representation of the whole process. The end result, however, can be exceptional, always dependent on the brew master and the ingredients.
Our final stop was built in 1912. It was named Akarenga-kan and started out as the headquarters of the Akita Bank. It took 3 years and was built so well that it has never been damaged by earthquakes. In 1981, the building was given to the city of Akita. After reconstruction and refurbishment, in 1985 it re-opened as the Akarenga-kan Museum. It is home to the Katsuhira Tokushi Memorial and the Sekiya Shiro Memorial Room.
Katsuhira Tokushi (1904-1971) became a self-taught artist, skilled in designing, woodcarving and printing. This skillset led to wood block printing in which he also designed all of his own wood blocks to actually do the printing. Essentially, he would carve several identical pictures in several blocks of wood. He would then color different areas and then press this on to paper. Each piece of wood would be pressed separately, in turn, on to the paper to give the final full color picture. Oh…one other thing. Remember that to make this work properly, each design on the blocks of wood have to be carved as a mirror image to the final result. In essence, it’s all carved backwards.
The other artist in this museum is Sekiya Shiro (1907-1994). After studying for several years in a local silversmith shop, he became an apprentice in Tokyo. His mastery of the fusion technique called Hagiawase, which melded different metals other than just silver and bronze, is what he used to create stunning works of metallic beauty. In 1977 his work was recognized as an important cultural asset to Japan and he was awarded as a National Human Treasure.
Unfortunately no pictures were allowed of any of works done by either of these artists.
Back to the ship and after 5 days of tours every day, we can relax in the knowledge that a sea day lays ahead. But there is a downside.
Monday is that dreaded of all cruise days. The Last Day. It will be spent gathering belongings, deciding which clothes should be used to pack which breakables in. Opening and closing drawers more times than enough to make sure nothing is left behind. Trying to determine what really needs to go in the carry-on vs. what can be jammed in normal luggage.
There will be no separate update to these pages – what you see now is what you get. We hope you have enjoyed our missives and pictures left in this little area of ‘the cloud’. The trip has been, ultimately, all that we wanted. Maybe we didn’t do or see or taste all the things that were hoped for, but the experiences we had, that were never imagined, more than made up for any perceived shortfall.
Japan is one of those places you should at least consider to put on your bucket list, if not done so already. It is all that you have heard it to be and more than you can imagine.
…which will absolutely just lead to a new beginning.
Our guide today, while quite knowledgeable, was also quite difficult to understand. His command of English was fairly good, but his accent was more than a little challenging. The facts he presented were interesting but the market area, and restaurant we had lunch at, proved to be the highlight of our tour today. Taking a ship tour once again proves to be not always a great choice. Not bad, just not great. However, in fairness, when the language difference is all but insurmountable and street signs (if and when they exist) are illegible, a ship tour allows a certain comfort level.
Snow crab and Yellow Tail tuna are 2 of the prime commodities of this area. Bear in mind, however, that in recent years, snow crab has become a huge favorite both of locals and tourists. One sizable crab can go for $200 USD and if you want it in a restaurant, double that. Also they are only caught between December and March. So, limited supply.
Snow is plentiful in this area and can reach 60 cm or more. Doesn’t sound like much to us, but here it keeps rice crops to only 1 per year.
Our first stop is at Kehi-Jingu Temple (locally referred to as Kei-San) which was built in the early 700’s. Regrettably the 11 meter tall Torii Gate (one of the 3 greatest wooden Torri Gates in Japan) was undergoing repair and completely covered. The grounds cover some 100 acres with trees that, in some cases, are over 200 years old. Both the temple and the pine grove are maintained by volunteers. Before approaching the actual temple to make a wish, one must be purified. This is a fairly simple procedure of using water to rinse your hands and lips (refrain from drinking please). Walk up to the rope and ring the large bell at the top 2 – 3 times, bow 2 times, clap 2 times, make your wish, then bow once more. If I get to retire soon…
Just outside the shrine is the pine grove with some trees in excess of 200 years old. A pleasant walk and right beside it is a 1.5 km beach. People fish during the day, but only small fish are caught. Deeper waters are necessary to catch the bigger fish. The small ones, however, are quite good especially when done Tempura style.
Our next stop was at The Port Of Humanity Tsuruga Museum. The opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway made travel between European cities much simpler. In addition, the International Europe-Asia connecting trains helped include Japan in those travels. The port of Tsuruga, being an ‘open’ port, made it the port of choice for Polish orphans in 1920 after losing their families during turmoil in Siberia. Later, in 1940, it also saw the arrival of some 6,000 Jewish refugees. Most of their personal belongings were seized during the travel on the Trans-Siberian. One watch managed to survive and was given as a token of deep appreciation for the treatment given by the people of Tsuruga.
Across the street was another Red Brick Warehouse. This one has been transformed now displaying a diorama depicting the townscape of Tsuruga of the early 1900’s. It measures about 27 meters long and 7.5 meters wide (at its widest point). Ships, cars and trains all move about, day follows night with appropriate lighting and the scenic detail presented is all done on an impressive scale.
Back to the bus and more information gathering. Longevity here seems somewhat more than home with males living about 80 years and females about 87 years. Possible reason for that notable difference is that about 25% of males smoke and only 9% of females do. Mobile devices are certainly prevalent in Japan with about 1.68 devices per person (on average). Makes sense if you think of tablets coupled with smartphones. There are almost 5 million vending machines of which half are beverage related. In a recent 5 year span, tourism has increased from 10 million to 24 million. So far this year, that is up again to 27 million. The Olympics in 2020 expect to draw 40 million.
Our last stop is at another fish market. Ok…I didn’t make note of the name, shame on me. Once again, however, it showed itself to be different from others we had been to. We didn’t spend a lot of time wandering about because we were immediately drawn to a very large Yellow Tail tuna on display. As luck would have it, this fish was also about to be drawn, quartered and carved down to various bits and chunks. Directly behind this display of fish-cutting mastery was one of several lucky recipients of the finished product. This was a restaurant to please almost any sushi-lover. Sit at the counter and pick plates of fresh sushi as they pass you by, 2 pieces per plate. In front of you is a box filled with plastic chopsticks, another filled with ginger slices. A little container of packages of hot, tasty wasabi beside a bottle of soy sauce. Cups that can be filled from the hot water tap in front of you to be mixed with matcha tea powder squeezed from a container that looks more suited to ketchup. It is way too easy to eat way too much. Every bite different because with so many choices, why choose the same thing twice? The most and the best sushi that has ever pleased my taste buds and filled my stomach.
As mentioned earlier, maybe not the best tour, but easily one of the tastiest.
Here it is…Friday the 13th. How’s it going to turn out? To begin with, the ship didn’t arrive in port until 10 A.M. A sleep in day! Off to a good start.
Now up by 9 A.M. for a quick shower etc. and upstairs for a leisurely breakfast. A look outside shows weather that will be easy to enjoy; warm, no rain, no beating sun. Ok…this seems pretty good so far.
Off the ship to catch a shuttle into the downtown area and we make note of where we are to ensure a ride back to the ship later. This turns out to be easy enough as it is right at the main train station. What to do now? A look back at our notes for the day remind us that visiting a castle and its surrounding moat seemed like a good idea. Another benefit to this train station is that it is also a bus station and a taxi stand. How convenient!
Stopping in at the nearby tourist information center reveals a price break in the bus ride to get to the castle. Basically half price if we get tickets from them rather than the bus driver. Works for me. What arrives to take us away appears to be nothing more than a local bus rather than a tour-type transport. This quickly proves significant as there are clearly more people than seats. Our luck continues to hold in that we do get to sit down, but the bus is now well past standing room only. This is also worth noting because not only are there 3 stops before the castle (where some people actually want to get off) but the entire ride is also an hour long. This is no short jaunt.
We’ve finally arrived and given our immediate bus experience, it seems prudent to verify when the bus will be stopping here for the return trip. It is now 12:30ish P.M, the next one is at 1:40 P.M. and the last one at 2:40 P.M. What we don’t want is to have to take a cab…much too expensive (approx. $75) on top of the fact that we bought round-trip bus tickets.
The Matsue Castle is one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan and it is located in the town of Matsue. The castle, and some of the town, is surrounded by a very large moat that has a number of small vessels to take visitors around. Given the castle has more than a few stairs, it’s felt no more practice on those are necessary. Moat cruise it is.
Now the day begins to reveal more of its superstitious potential. First, the cruise will take the better part of 45 minutes. That means no way to get back for the 1:40 bus. However it still leaves lots of time to catch the last one at 2:40. Second, the boats have collapsible rooftops. There are a number of very low bridges that must be floated under and the only way is to lower the roof for some of them. “Let’s practice” the boat driver says.
Ok…back up a bit. When we got on the boat, we had to take our shoes off and sit on the carpeted floor. Not totally uncomfortable, but the roof is about 6 -7 inches above our head. Fully extended. How far does this thing need to drop?
Quite a bit as it turns out. And not just once or twice, but 4 times!! When lowered as much as necessary, we actually need to lie almost flat. Remember…it’s all about the experiences. Sure.
The trip is both uneventful and not as claustrophobic as it could have been. The lowered roof provided more humour than discomfort and being part of the moat flotilla really was time well spent.
Back on shore, a pause is made at a local ice cream stand for a green tea and vanilla swirl which disappeared on the stroll back to the bus stop. The time was now almost 2 P.M. and the line for the bus started with us.
Apparently many, many people decided the last bus would be the best bus, perhaps thinking more people would have taken the earlier bus. Time dragged on with more and more people filling the sidewalk. The ‘bus stop’ was flexible it seemed because when the bus actually came by, he didn’t stop where he had when we got off, nor did he stop right at the bus stop proper. Let’s complicate this a little more with the fact that, in Japan, you get on in the middle of the bus and pay at the front when you get off.
Somehow we managed to get almost the exact same seats we had on our first trip, but once again the bus was way past full. And another hour to get back. All in all Friday the 13th has been unusual in its kindness to us.
Now back at the train station we find that one of the more famous streets is half a minute walk away. Mizuki Shigeru Road is named after the manga artist Shigeru Mizuki. He is also the creator of the “Yokai” spirit monsters that will crop up anywhere in Sakaiminato. This street not only has a plentiful number of his Yokai, there are also an excellent variety of little stores, souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants, begging for your money…oops, I mean your attention. 😉
A dinner of Red Snow Crab (which was quite tasty) and sake (which was less so) and it was time to grab the ship’s shuttle for a return.
Tomorrow is another tour day in Tsuruga.
The seas were a bit rough last night and as we pulled into port in Busan this morning (Thursday), they calmed down. However, the weather was less cooperative. Drizzle rain: you know, the stuff that is just enough to be really annoying, get your camera wet and mess up your hair. On the plus side it wasn’t cold.
Our tour today is a private one arranged through an acquaintance on Cruise Critic. There were 15 of us piled into a 20-seater van. Seats not made for carnivorous North Americans, but at least soft on the bum. Off we go to our first stop, Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist Temple.
The trip into and through downtown Busan gives quite the eyeful as to what a determined people can do. In the 60-some years since the Korean War that had left this city totally devastated, there has been a massive resurgence in construction. There is a visible and notable skyline in just about any direction one can look (the obvious exception being the open port cuz it’s hard to build skyscrapers on water).
In addition to the towers of glass, concrete and steel, there exist numerous bridges that cross water, greenspace and traffic. Elaborate and multi-tiered, they help move this population of 3.6 million quickly regardless of method be it foot, bicycle, car, truck or bus. And at night at least one of them does it very colorfully.
On our way to the temple, the dreaded question is asked. “Does anyone have a problem with stairs?” Japan and area are doing their best to kill me. Fortunately there are somewhat fewer than before but given all that have been traversed in the recent past, these prove to be their own trial. Negotiated and survived however, they reveal a fantastic view of the coast and the shrine that waits at the base. It was worth the journey.
Having left the temple the tour takes us to the UN Memorial Cemetery. Established in 1951 by the United Nations, it covers 35 acres. Had it been a more weather-conducive day the views would have been even more beautiful. Somber and sobering it presents a quiet reminder to the millions men and women that fought and died in the Korean War. There are 2,300 graves representing 22 countries laid out in almost military precision. A most fitting display indeed.
The bus now takes us to the Ja-Gal-Ch’i Fish Market. Originally established by women peddlers, over time it has become more commonly referred to as ‘Aunt’s Market’. Everything is alive here and all the containers are constantly fed with fresh sea water. Sashimi is the defacto method of eating just about everything you can see and, if your stomach is up to it, you can watch its entire preparation. As much as I like raw seafood, I’m not quite that much of a purist. Yet.
We leave one delectable sight to visit another, equally engaging in its own way. The Busan Tower is 120 meters (about 393 feet) tall and provides some rather spectacular views of the city below. Again, the weather is not the best for viewing, but surprisingly enough, it is still fairly clear.
The last stop is one geared towards weight reduction by way of money removal. We arrive at Gukje International Market with about an hour to spend wandering the streets finding new ways to change money into items of sometimes questionable pertinence. Experience and many dust-collecting items already owned, lead us through the myriad of goodies that present themselves.
The bus greets us once more and the night lights of the city help guide us back to our ship. The balcony view that we enjoy now affords us view of a city that we don’t often get. More often than not we leave while we are at dinner or our view is one of the ocean rather than downtown, or we leave during the daylight hours. This time we see the city and the bay we are docked in, at night. Not that far away is Gwangandaegyo Bridge. It stretches almost 7.5 km and is the longest bi-level bridge, over ocean, in Korea. At night it is lit by over 16,000 LED lights that rotate through a delightful color pattern. Our city fathers could take a page out of this book, to be sure. We have a bridge, that has lights…on rare occasions…
Tomorrow, unlucky Friday the 13th gives us a day to get lost in Sakaiminato.
Today we start by getting up at 7 A.M. so that after all is said and done we can be on the bus by 8:30. But…I LIKE sleeping in!! Oh well…it’s all about the experiences, right?
Today the first stop will be at the Obi Castle. But on the way there, it’s time once again for a little Japanese information.
The Japanese written language is very interesting in that there are 3 parts to it. Children learn the first form which consists of about 50 different letters. As they grow older, they also learn a ‘short’ form of that writing that contains about another 50 letters.
The third form is one imported from China over many years. These are combined characters that are used to represent terms and concepts. During their schooling, children will also learn about 1,000 of these. In order to effectively read a daily newspaper for instance, one must know about 2,500 of those characters. To put that number in context, there are about 50,000 in use in Japan today. Writing their language is truly a skill that takes years to master.
Miyazaki is known as Japan’s “Cultural City of Historic Sightseeing”. It is also sometimes referred to as the Hawaii of Japan given its warm climate and surfing locales. Our tour today will be visiting 2 of those historic sites.
The first stop is Obi Castle in Obi town. The castle was built by the 6th head of the Ito Clan and he governed 48 branch castles. Forced to flee in 1577 by the Shimazu Clan, they managed to regain control in 1587. This was done by offering the castle in return for aid during the Kyusyu campaign. The next 14 generations (some 280 years), the Ito family governed over Obi.
One house that we visit, but cannot enter, is the Samurai House of Denzaemon Ito. He was a high-ranking Samurai and was entitled to have a larger than normal home. The grounds surrounding his home are easy to be envious of.
Another house we visit is Matsuo No Maru, another home of a high-ranking Samurai. This is one that wandering about inside is allowed. The 20 rooms give a unique insight in daily life of a Samurai. The house, like a lot of Japanese homes, is made almost entirely of wood. Fire is a threat, hopefully warded off by talisman on the rooftops. A low-tech sauna and a very basic bathroom bring home the niceties that we live with today.
Back to the bus for our trip to the Udo Jingu Shinto shrine. This is dedicated to Yamasachihiko, the father of Japan’s first emperor Jimmu. Today’s emperor is the 125th in an unbroken line of succession. That’s impressive! However, due to a declining number of Imperial Family members (currently 19), continued succession is a very real concern. The shrine we are going to see is believed to be the birthplace of that first emperor’s father.
This tour was marked as ‘strenuous’. The first walk at the Obi Castle was indicative, especially given one of the stairways we had to climb. However, this one drove it home. Our tour guide warned there were a significant number of steps to be dealt with – 300 one way she said.
I counted them. There were only 291 but I didn’t feel shortchanged.
Within a short distance of getting out of the bus, the first 97 presented themselves. Breaking the climb into 3 flights of 24 and 1 flight of 25 barely made it doable. Next it was a (gentle) incline through a tunnel, followed by a long, fairly flat stretch. The views along the way were fabulous which helped but somehow didn’t lessen the distance. Now, finally, the Tori Gate beckons.
The gate has 3 main purposes: 1 – to purify those passing through; 2 – to delineate the sacred ground from the ordinary grounds; and 3 – to dispel evil spirits.
I discovered 1 more. It is the beginning of the last flat stretch before the 194 steps leading down to the shrine itself. And always remember, in this case, what goes down must come up. And let’s top THAT off with forgetting to get a picture of the shrine! I’m blaming senility.
Beautiful scenery, a spider that needs to stay right where he is, more steps in a day than have been done in a month and once again the bus is in sight. All in all a great day.
Oh…did I mention it was 29C and not a cloud in the sky??
Oct 8 was a sea day. This cruise is referred to as a back-to-back. The last port of our first leg is also the first port of our next leg. While there are many activities on board the ship, a lot of people are simply getting ready to get off tomorrow. Some had done a cruise that started before ours and continued on, others had simply come on board for this specific cruise. Many new cruisers were going to join us tomorrow for just the upcoming cruise or, carrying on with the one right after (for their own back-to-back). There are never any shortage of passengers and always a generous mix of nationalities. This sea day, for us, was just another to laze around and do very little. Yes Mom…doing lots of that! 🙂
It is now Oct 9 (Happy Thanksgiving Back Home!) and we have returned to our starting point, Yokohama. This time, however, there is time to do a more thorough investigation of local sights, sounds, smells and savoriness. A goal set, a better map in hand, and out the door into the city.
Amongst other things, Yokohama is host to the largest Chinatown in Japan. Never having really explored those areas in San Francisco or Vancouver, it seemed like a good choice today. It was thought a cab would be necessary and immediately off the ship, at the bottom of the hill leading up to the terminal, there were a multitude of them. They, in turn, were all waiting to make their way up to the terminal proper to pick up fares. When we had walked out of the ship, it was by a slightly different way. In so doing, we had bypassed all the cabs that were actually in line for passenger pick-up. In speaking to a gentleman who turned out to be the person guiding cab traffic, we learned that walking back up(hill!) to the terminal was the only way we could hire a cab. Definitely a turn-based system. However, he was also kind enough to point out that walking would probably take only about 15 – 20 minutes and save us money. Done deal!
As usual, walking is not just the cheaper choice, it again reveals itself to be the more enjoyable one. Shops, businesses and parks make up the short blocks and people watching is just as interesting. Like Paris, dogs are as many and varied as their owners. Most are small (not surprising) and more than a few are the occupants of baby-carriages. That, too, is easy to understand. Given so many people walk everywhere and the inherent diminutive size of the dogs, being stepped on is a concern. Safety first.
In the window of another store was samples of furniture. Miniature samples. All hand carved from different woods and all with amazing detail. Whether these were samples of life-size items or just what they appeared to be was unclear. But they were for sale and not outrageously priced given the craftsmanship involved.
Soon the crossroads in front of us were definitive in appearance. Above was Choyo Gate (East) proclaiming an entrance to Chinatown. The easiest choice was to simply continue straight and hope we could follow our map well enough to not become hopelessly lost. No problem at all.
The next few hours were spent just being guided by our eyes and our nose. Staying on the (somewhat) main roads made it fairly easy to complete a full circle. Having said that, we did manage to get sidetracked a few times.
Only a very light breakfast had been eaten prior to this adventure and with so many choices begging indulgence we just threw up our hands and gave in. This was a steamed bun, but as mentioned before, Japan (and China it seems) is big on Halloween. The bun was orange, with both a Jack O’Lantern face and a wonderful pumpkin filling. Definitely not the familiar pumpkin pie spice, but one more true to just pumpkin itself yet slightly augmented. The dough was what one would expect, albeit orange through and through. An opportunity seized and appreciated. BTW, one is certainly enough for two people.
On we walk and try to take in all that surrounds us. An impossible task yet failure is not a loss. Everything that fills this land has given us much more than it has taken. But there is too much and once more we are faced with the fact that a return visit must happen.
However, before that can happen, a late lunch is in order! How can we return if we are too famished to even continue? (yeah…right….THAT’S going to happen!)
The chosen restaurant is one that has seating indoors which our tired feet and legs all but demand. Not overly hungry but I would be remiss if I did not try some Dim Sum. Sharing between us is more than adequate and 3 items were chosen. Shumai is first, out of respect for a dear friend back home that does a Fabulous recreation despite not being Chinese. In fairness, it’s an honest tossup as to which is better. Each are made differently and both worth devouring without hesitation.
Next is something we were told by ship crew members to Not Miss were Soup Dumplings. These are truly noteworthy in that they look very similar to almost any Dim Sum dumplings you may have had. However, inside is not only a wonderful ball of flavored pork but there is also very hot broth! Be very careful when biting into these as they can burn your tongue and will definitely squirt all over the place. That said…order more. 😉
Last, but an absolute Had-To-Find, were the Shark Fin Dumplings. These are always enjoyed back home (assuming the restaurant has them on the menu given their controversy). However, the ones here are the best I’ve had. Fuller, and somewhat sweeter, several orders of just these could easily make a meal. And make you a very happy diner.
More walking and more the eyes and nose are piqued by curiosities. It is a marvel at how much can be packed into what is such a small area. At least, it’s small by standards we are accustomed to back home. It covers about .2 km square and boasts about 600 shops. The hours of operation, holiday hours and Wi-Fi connectivity are all universal in Chinatown. It depends on the shops. 🙂
Enough is enough and we need to be back on-board by 4 p.m. or risk being left behind. Yes it is a relatively short walk but that was earlier in the day with fresh feet. A cab, although plentiful, didn’t seem like the flavor we were looking for. However…right beside us now are a group of young men with (motor-enhanced) rickshaws. Now we’re talkin’. For a well-earned 800 yen, back to the ship we go travelling slowly, but uniquely, through the traffic.
Another day with bodies spent but minds opened even further. Can’t wait for the second half!
The Hakodate morning started around 15C and never got any warmer. On top of that clouds crammed the skies. Many of them hung low enough to cover half of any mountains (hills, really) that would have been visible. And just to add one more little nuisance to the day, it was raining. On the plus side, we had no tours planned for the day so there would be no subsequent disappointments over things paid for that were not visible. The cable car tour, to the top of Mt. Hakodate for the (what would have been) fabulous view below, being at least one of those things.
No tour also meant just a day to wander about somewhat aimlessly. We took a shuttle from the ship to the downtown area and found a streetcar (reminiscent of San Francisco) to take us to the Red Brick Warehouse waterfront district. A couple of blocks later found us staring at the ocean, brick buildings on either side of us.
This historic area is where shipyards and foreign settlements were once plentiful. Now, those same buildings house shopping plazas and (of course!) the Hakodate Beer Hall. Walking through the area provides more than just a tourist shopping experience however. Locals abound as well, so the sense of how people live their daily lives creates an atmosphere that is more than just commerce.
Now it is late in the afternoon so a pause is made at a little restaurant for a small bite. Having not eaten since breakfast and then walking for the better part of the day, food seemed like a good idea. Surprisingly we weren’t as hungry as we would have thought. A little sushi and a little tempura were chosen to do a little magic. The restaurant staff spoke no English and their menus didn’t either but, fortunately, the pictures provided were universal. As it turns out they were also very accurate in their appearance. Judging by the empty plates at the end, both the stomach and the palate were pleased.
The strolling continued. Soon a food truck appeared. Not hungry anymore, certainly, but curious as to why there seemed to be so many venues that sold soft ice cream in cones. As this happened to be one of those suppliers, 1 was purchased so we both could enjoy. At least as soft as ANY back home, it also had a creamier (almost…buttery?) texture, fuller and with a slight flavor sensation that was not quite identifiable. Should an occasion arise, don’t hesitate. 🙂
Darkness is beginning to fall and shops are either closed or in the process of doing so. Along the way there are maps at almost every local bus stop pointing out not only where you are, but businesses and points of interest close to you. One place that was now close and on our list was the Morning Market. Ok…it’s not morning any more (by a Long shot) and everything is likely to be shut down as it is best known as the local fish market. However a walk through the area still seemed a good idea. Wellllll…as it turns out it is almost directly beside where our shuttle bus had originally let us off.
The streetcar earlier had taken us to the far end of the warehouse district. Hours had been spent leisurely walking back, enjoying the sites, sounds and smells that enveloped us. Had we simply walked in the opposite direction first thing, the start of our journey could have been right at the market. That would have made for an even better day. And the restaurants that lined the streets at that end would have led to an entirely different meal. As Agent 86 was so fond of saying, “Missed it by That Much”.
There is never a shortage of things to do and see when at port and usually not enough time and/or good weather to enjoy all. But, as always, a little of the flavor of the area can easily lead to a decision to return. Japan presents no reason not to.
Since the early 1700’s to around 1950, Otaru has had a major fishing industry comprising mainly of herring. That industry remains, but is now coupled heavily with tourism to help support the town.
Our first tour stop in Otaru will be near the top of Mount Tengu. As we make our way through this small city, the passing sights reveal typical urban life in Japan. Narrow streets, many multi-family homes and a multitude of businesses all vying for a piece of land at least big enough to carve out a living. Cleanliness and order remain the norm and the contentment that brings, while not boring, is becoming commonplace. If there were just some way to infuse this back home.
The bus has now reached the parking lot and we make our way to the ropeway (gondola) that will take us further up the small mountain.
Today is a rare day for us in that we have both warmth and clarity. Not a cloud in the sky which finally affords excellent viewing opportunities. The entire city is visible and our ship looks almost toy-like in the distance. Pathways abound leading to viewpoints that highlight different angles to enjoy the panoramic spread. Interestingly enough, despite the still unseen public garbage cans anywhere, the grounds, walkways and public buildings are amazingly clean. The only ‘refuse’ that can can be seen on the grass or pavement are leaves that have fallen from the trees.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Aoyama family fortune was built up over the course of two generations, Tomekichi Aoyama and his son Masakichi. It was Masakichi Aoyama’s daughter, Masae, that spurred the building of the famous mansion. She had visited another mansion in Sakata (Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Honshu) and thought, as marvelous as it was, her family should have a nicer one.
In 1917 it was started. Some 6 years and almost 310,000 yen later, it was completed. Fortunately the millions her father, Masakichi, had made herring fishing provided the funds necessary for its completion. Her and her father both enjoyed Japanese painting (nihonga) and calligraphy (sho) which was certainly reflected in the artistry that filled the home and the gardens surrounding it. The Baxian Room, for instance, shows the famous Chinese tale of the Eight Immortals. There is a 13 panel Fusuma (paper walls) painting that covers the walls of this room.
The gardens that lay outside the buildings do so in such fashion as to allow for quiet reflection almost anywhere on the premises. In one area is a wonderful waterfall cascading down to a pond replete with goldfish of a size that suggests a meal could easily be made from any of them. The front yard has large stepping stones leading through a raked gravel area where we would normally put grass. The trees are shaped and manicured in such fashion as to be immediately recognizable as Japanese.
Could I live here? Yes, quite comfortably and not even feel closed in by the lower ceiling height.
Our last stop was one block from Sakaimachihondori Street to allow us time to wander through the shops and stores that cover both sides of this one-way tourist promenade. Without doubt there are certain buildings worth spending time in like the Kitaichi Venetian Art Museum. But there are also the requisite stores that seek to draw you in with the trinkets that you know you don’t want, but are likely to buy anyway. However, the store owners at least don’t grab your arm to physically drag you in and, more often than not, you actually will see things that you haven’t seen before. Are they a bargain? Some are and some aren’t. Commercialism doesn’t change anywhere in the world.
Oh…a small word about parking in the area. Generally it is 300 yen for the first hour and 100 yen per 20 minutes thereafter. However, shopping at Kitaichi stores will get you 2 hours free if you have spent more than 2,000 yen. Rather affordable after seeing 1 cantelope for 1,500 yen or 1 cob of corn for 400 yen.
Back to the ship and we will soon be on our way to our last stop on this leg – Hakodate.
Although not officially classed as a ‘sea day’ in reality that is what it was. However it is one done at a very leisurely pace. Wednesday is spent rounding the edge of the Island of Hokkaido referred to as the Shireteko Peninsula.
At one point along our passage we stop, dead in the water, for a few minutes. Had the sun cooperated at all it would have made for a enjoyable sight and a more scenic view all the way. As it was, there were clouds galore, enough wind to be uncomfortable and a chill in the air.
The coastline offered much the same as others our travels have taken us past but, as always, showed the rugged beauty that nature can and does carve out over time. The occasional waterfall cascaded down the exposed cliffs and dark, yawning mouths of many caves opened, begging to be explored.
Clouds covered much of the hilltops so full views were not possible. Yet, in so doing, they provided an interesting ceiling.
On our way once more, we head out to open ocean. By Thursday morning, with yet another time change to implement, we will arrive in Korsokov, Russia.
Prior to leaving Kushiro, we endured the process of clearing customs on board. The fact is that our next formal stop would be in Russia, so we were leaving Japan even though not necessarily leaving the ship. A final decision had to be made by everyone on board as to whether to get off in Korsokov or not. If yes, it was only possible to do so as part of a ship guided tour. Entering the port to simply walk around is not permitted. If no, it was not possible to change that decision as official documents had to be obtained prior to even leaving with a tour.
Much time had been spent before coming on this cruise watching a variety of Netflix shows and YouTube videos, trying to get some semblance of where we were going and the people and culture we were about to encounter. Naturally part of that included Korsokov, Russia.
This became another in a very short list of places we have decided to NOT get off at during a cruise. The different views of people who have been on similar cruises with a stopover in Korsokov all had pretty much the same information. It is perhaps unfair to judge any place based on others perceptions, but given that they were all almost identical, that is what was done.
It is a small, formal penal colony that has not changed a lot over the years. True there has been commercial development, but there was no real appeal, at least nor for us. The ship had to moor off shore so tendering was necessary. Certainly nothing different than we have done numerous time before in other lands, but indicative of this part of Russia. Interestingly enough, as I sit here upstairs, just outside the food court, 10 Russian military women sit at my group of tables. Just one row over, another group of Russian military men also sit. All enjoying lunch from the buffet.
There was no indication of anything even remotely uncomfortable by them or any of the surrounding passengers or staff. Nor would I suggest there should be. But I cannot remember that type of presence on any other cruise in any other country. It could very well be normal practice here and I have no problem with that. It was just…unusual.
Weather-wise it has improved a little. The clouds are breaking up presenting more visible blue than we have seen in a couple of days. Also less wind and a rise in the mercury level in the thermometer, provide a bit of a photo-op, at least of the immediate harbor. Later today we set sail once more, this time with Otaru, Japan as our destination. And there, we DO have a tour planned.
True to expectations, the wake-up call happened right at 6 A.M. Oh well, it won’t be an every day occurance.
Time to get dressed and have a quick bite before it’s down to deck 7 to meet up with the rest of our tour. As per normal, we’re not the only group leaving at this time, but as luck would have it, we’re almost the first one down to deck 5 and out the door. Immediate physical weather update confirms both much cooler and rain. yippee.
Off to the tour bus and we settle in for about a 30 minute ride. Yuko, our guide, gives us a little insight to both Kushiro and the Red-Crested Cranes we are hoping to see.
The island of Hokkaido is the 5th largest in the groups of islands that form Japan but has only about 12% of the population. Real commercial development of the land started only 150 years ago. Since then it has become mostly famous for fishing, as it is surrounded by 4 major waterways being the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk and the East China Sea. Paper and coal mining have also become significant industries however, with the changeover to oil, coal mining has been on the decline.
The island also has the largest wetlands area in Japan (and today wet skies as well). It is here the Red-Crested Crane calls home. Early land development affected them so badly by 1924 their numbers were down to 20. Fortunately the people of Kushiro recognized their plight and worked diligently to bring them back. Today they number approximately 1,800.
They are a very beautiful bird, standing about 1.4 meters tall with a 2 meter wingspan. In winter their mating dance has become a major tourist attraction unto itself and when completed, the birds are joined for life. This, along with their longevity of 30 to 40 years, has made them symbolic in Japan for long life and a happy marriage. Young appear almost full grown by 6 months, but it takes about a year before the full red crest becomes apparent. As well, they are forced to leave their parents by 10 months to make way for the new chicks that will arrive.
There are deer, brown bear, beautiful black striped snow white owls and at least 15 other types of birds on Hokkaido. These were not willing to show themselves today but it makes sense that only humans would be out and about in the cold and wet rather than being warm and comfortable at home.
Our next stop down the road is an observatory and nature walk. Wellll…the nature walk we did a quarter of, given it’s overall length. It was nice enough and a fairly easy pathway. But, again, it was not ideal weather for walking through the forest. Be that as it may, seeing trees whose branches wrapped around their own trunks like vines did present a rather unique sight.
Back to the ship once more in time for a small lunch. Given that we will be leaving Japan and entering Russian territory within the next couple of days, certain rules must be followed. The next opportunity to get off the ship, if desired, will be Korsokov, Russia. Whether one is going to get off the ship or not, immigration forms must be filled out by everyone and filed with the ship before the ship can even depart Kushiro. And guess what…we’re waiting for some people who can’t seem to understand the ‘can’t leave Kushiro until’ part. Finally, after many over-the-intercom deck-wide requests, all forms are in and we slowly leave.
Tonight, rather than going to our assigned dining lounge we decide it would be a good day to try the Kai Sushi restaurant. It became a very delectable choice, each individual dish small in stature but very appetizing to both the eye and the palate. Waddling out an hour later, we remembered it was also the night for the Captain’s Circle event. This is a gathering of Princess Cruisers who have reached a certain number of days cruised with Princess. Small canapes (oh sure, right after dinner!) as well as numerous free beverages, both alcoholic and non and recognition to the top 3 cruisers on board at this time. Couple number 1 had over 1,900 days cruised through 215 separate cruises. I should live so long.
Done for the day. With a little luck the weather will improve for sightseeing the penninsula tomorrow.