The Exotic Far East

Japan’s culture and customs have been an interest of mine for some time. With the relative threat reduction from the Covid pandemic, my wife and I decided we’d take a 14-day cruise of Japan, which included two stops in Okinawa and two stops in Taiwan. 

Our first mistake was to leave the cruise booking too late. Our original intention was to take a cruise from April 10 to 24. However, by the time we got around to booking it on the Holland America Westerdam, those cruise dates had been sold out. So we booked an earlier cruise from March 27 to April 10. We didn’t know it at the time, but selecting the earlier date had weather implications. The late March – early April date seemed promising, as this was cherry blossom time in various parts of Japan. Unfortunately, the weather overall was mostly grey and overcast skies with frequent rain. Of the 21 days there, only about five were sunny. C’est la vie!

Our flight to Vancouver from Winnipeg on March 23 was 3 hours and 15 minutes, and Vancouver to Tokyo was about 10 hours, so we were awake well over 24 hours by the time we arrived March 24 at 4:15 p.m. Further, there’s a 14-hour time change from Winnipeg to Japan, which added to our jet lag confusion upon arrival at Narita Airport. 

Japan is still quite diligent about the pandemic. All airport and customs officials were wearing masks, as were many of the travellers. We had printed our vaccination documents, which have a QR code, but the officials were looking for a phone application entitled “Visit Japan Web.” After a short detour and assistance from helpful officials, we got into the customs and immigration line where there were about 300 people ahead of us. It took most of the three hours we’d read it would take to process through it.

Following customs we made our way to the train station, one level below, which was to take us to Tokyo.  Some travellers aren’t aware it’s over 50 kilometres from Narita Airport to Tokyo, but there are several ways to get there. We chose the train – Narita Express – which took about 55 minutes and cost us about $32.50 each. However, it’s possible to get to Tokyo more quickly by taxi, if you’re prepared to pay the equivalent of $180 to $220.

24 March – 27 March – Tokyo, Japan

We had no idea how large Tokyo Station is when we arrived. It took us awhile, and a few helpful locals, to even find where the taxi stands were located among the entrances/exits and several train lines that connect to the Station. Our hotel, the Mitsui Garden Hotel Otemachi, was about a mile from Tokyo Station. It took little time to get to our hotel by taxi and we checked in at 8:15 p.m. which was a bit later than we’d estimated. 

One of the facets of western culture that has invaded Japan is convenience stores. We found a 7-Eleven store, which are numerous in Japan along with Food Mart stores, a few blocks from our hotel, bought sandwiches and drinks, and had “dinner” in our clean and modern, but small room. The room had a TV with plenty of channels, but the only one that had any English language was CNN. We became quite conversant with the American news during our overall six-day stay in Tokyo.

Kanda Nishiguchi Restaurant Street

We had planned for three days in Tokyo before our cruise and three days following the cruise. Because we weren’t sure what shape we’d be in when we arrived, we took Saturday, March 25th “off” to acclimatize.  However, we did find a street several blocks away from our hotel in the Kanda Nishiguchi Shopping Street with about 30 +restaurants on it. We chose one restaurant which fortunately had an electronic English translation of a Japanese menu so we were able to understand what we were ordering.

On March 26, we purchased tickets ($38 each) for the “Hop On – Hop Off” (HoHo) double-decker bus which we were able to board near the Tokyo Station not far from the Mitsubishi building where the HoHo busses start and stop. We rode on two of the three routes available (red and green, but not the blue route). We saw a good deal of several hundred high rises and regions in the city, the weather punctuated by almost continual rain, but hadn’t realized up to that point how populated it is.

Part of Tokyo Station

Tokyo has about 14 million people with a total of 37 million in the areas surrounding the greater metropolitan Tokyo area, so it’s easy to get lost if one doesn’t know (or understand) the bus, subway, and train transportation system. Once our Hop On – Hop Off bus tours were finished, we decided to walk the mile back to our hotel. Naturally, the weather decided to be uncooperative and it poured rain most of the way back. Our flimsy umbrellas could not withstand the wind and rain. Only one of the two we had survived the wind, and that surviving umbrella was barely functional, so our clothes were soaked. As this was the last day before we boarded the cruise ship, which required another train trip from Tokyo to Yokohama, we took it easy that evening and packed our suitcases.

27 March – Tokyo to Yokohama

Yokohama Osanbashi Cruise Terminal – Waiting to board the Holland Westerdam

Following our hotel checkout the next morning, we headed back to Tokyo Station to take a train to Yokohama, about 30 kilometres south. After some additional confusion on our part about which train to take, we used a commuter train for a 50-minute ride to Yokohama. The advantage of the commuter train is that it was inexpensive (about $5). The disadvantage was it was crowded and challenging to manhandle our suitcases around. We arrived at the Yokohama Station in good time and a short trip by taxi brought us to the Osanbashi Yokohama International Passenger Terminal. We were scheduled to board at about 2:40 p.m. but were allowed to process onto the ship even though we were a bit early. The ship departed that evening at 7:00 p.m.

30 March – Naha, Okinawa

Our ports of call

After two full days at sea, our first port stop was in Naha, Okinawa. Naha was one of the replacement destinations for the port of Nagasaki, which had been part of our original cruise itinerary. The destination changed after we had already booked and paid for our cruise. This happens sometimes. We weren’t given a reason for the change, but it may have had to do with ongoing concerns about the pandemic.

Naha isn’t small, with 320,000 citizens, and it is the largest city in Okinawa with about 20% of the overall population. We chose a ship-offered excursion called “Panoramic Naha”. Apparently, “panoramic” means to drive by sightseeing areas, but don’t stop for photos, because we did not get off the excursion bus at all during the tour other than for a short washroom break. We drove by Shurijo castle and the shopping district, which were interesting, but overall the tour was unsatisfying. Naha is known for some good snorkelling, but if that’s not an interest, there doesn’t seem to be too much else there to capture one’s attention.

31 March – Ishigaki Island, Okinawa

As we were leaving Japan for Taiwan the next day, we were required to go through Japanese customs, which had situated several customs officials on the ship to facilitate the process, before we were allowed off the ship.

Unfortunately, the thing with ship-offered shore excursions is when there aren’t many offered it is important to book them early because they usually sell out relatively quickly. Ishigaki Island was one of the locations we were unable to book an excursion. However, once off the ship, the port offered a free shuttle bus “downtown”, so we took that and shopped for a while.

Ishigaki island is much smaller than Naha, with a population of less than 50,000 and an island length of about 35 kilometres. Glass bottom boat tours, kayaking, surfing and snorkelling seem to be some of the available and popular activities for travellers, which some cruise ship passengers chose as an excursion. 

Ishigaki is a nice place and while it was overcast it did not rain for which we were grateful. Going ashore gave us an opportunity to take a few photos and text or email family back home as it was early evening of the previous day in Winnipeg when it was late morning in Ishigaki.

1 April – Hualien, Taiwan

We disembarked at Hualien hoping for better weather, but it continued to be grey and overcast. On this occasion we had booked an excursion called “Highlights of Hualien” which featured four stops over 4.5 hours. 

Our first stop was at the colourful and busy Chinese Gang Tian Temple, dedicated to the sea Goddess Matzu, which our tour guide informed us was the largest temple in Hualien. It is several stories high with attached smaller temples. The next stop was a former winery that had been repurposed into the Hualien Cultural and Creative Industrial Park. It encompassed several buildings which included an art gallery, merchant stalls and a coffee shop. 

A third stop was at a Japanese military building called “Pine Garden” which had been completed in 1942. It, and four other buildings, served as a headquarters for Japanese military officers managing military personnel during the Second World War. There were several large, metal-fabricated examples of insects on the property which may have been to demonstrate the type of insects found in the area.

The fourth stop was a Japanese shrine which had numerous sculptures and gift shops on the property. One feature was 88 different Buddha representations on stone slabs which had apparently been brought there from all over Japan. 

2 April – Taipei, Taiwan

The port for Taipei is Keelung in northern Taiwan. We boarded our tour bus about 8:15 a.m. for the 35-minute trip to the city and a five-hour tour. Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, is quite modern and industrious. It was the seat of the nationalist government for the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek, who died in 1975.

Chiang kai-Shek – Memorial Hall

Naturally, the first stop on our tour was the 250-foot high, eight-sided, memorial hall erected in his honour. The spacious building (250,000 square metres) includes a library and museum of photos and artifacts as well as a huge, seated statue of Kai-shek on the upper floor which is reminiscent of the Lincoln memorial statue in Washington D.C. Two guards are posted near the Kai-shek memorial and are rotated periodically.

A second stop was to watch a “changing of the guard” ceremony. An honour guard of seven soldiers treated viewers to some elaborate military drill including rifle twirling. The ceremony occurs every hour on the hour. The two soldiers at the gate are replaced by two other soldiers who stand motionless, but “at ease”, for their hour of duty.

The third stop for a 90-minute tour was the National Palace Museum, a modern building. Each visitor received a headset to listen to a guided tour through several floors featuring jade and its history, ancient artifacts, sculptures, ceramic pottery and calligraphy. There was a huge gift shop available, but unfortunately there was little time left to shop after the information-packed tour.

Before we left to head back to the ship, we stopped for a photo of Taipei 101, which is the tallest building in Taiwan, and formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Centre. It was classified as the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2009 when its height was exceeded by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE. The 101 observatory is at 1,474 feet high. The structural top is at 1,671 feet.

4 April – Kagoshima, Japan

Following a day at sea, we were required to go through Japanese customs again before disembarking in Kagoshima as we had been outside the country in Taiwan. We boarded our tour bus relatively late because of the customs requirement.

According to our tour guide, Sota, Kagoshima, once known as Satsuma, is a seaside city at the southern tip of the of the island of Kyushu that has been called the “Naples of the East” because of its bay and moderate climate. 

Sota told us she had been an elementary school teacher for over 40 years but was enjoying her new career as a tour guide. She mentioned Kagoshima’s population had decreased in the last decade. Further, we learned decreasing population is a demographic problem throughout Japan. Parents are not having enough children to replace themselves.

We drove to an observation point with a view of a three-mountain range, one of which was an active volcano (Sakurajima). Unfortunately, we stayed at the observation point about 90 minutes which was the major component of our tour. Apparently, the observation point and the active volcano are among the few highlights that particular tour had to offer. We were back to the port by about noon and back on the ship shortly thereafter.

5 April – Aburatsu, Japan

Shin-Mon Gate – Entrance to the Realm of the Gods

The first stop in our tour in Aburatsu was to the Udo Jungu Shrine, which is situated in a cave along the coastline south of Miyazaki City and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The outer gate of the Shrine is called Shin-mon, which marks the entrance to the realm of the Gods – a sacred space. The shrine is is dedicated to Yamasachihiko, the father of Emperor Jimmu, the mythical first emperor of Japan.

Our second stop was the Obi Castle ruins, which are situated within what appear to be medieval fortress stone walls. The site was the scene of several clashes between two Samurai leaders – the Shimazu clan and the Ito clan – with the former ultimately victorious. The grounds contain the home, built in 1869, of Yoshohan, the Samurai who was head of the Ito clan. We also visited the Matsuo no maru house and the Obi clan museum.

There was a fair bit of strenuous activity involved in visiting these sites. There were many steps to reach both the Udo Jungu shrine and Obi castle ruins so we definitely met our steps quota that day. 

6 April – Kochi, Japan

Kochi was one of the port stops at which we had not booked an excursion. It was another miserable day – overcast and raining for most of the day. We had decided if the rain stopped we would take a shuttlebus into the city to walk around. However, the rain did not let up the entire day.

We visited the port terminal and used their wifi to see how everyone back home was doing. There were few shopping stalls available in the terminal, so there wasn’t much of an opportunity to buy anything of interest. After about an hour we headed back to the ship.

Along with two cruise-offered lectures on Japanese history, two on Japanese customs and etiquette, and one on the Japanese shrinking population, we were reasonably well informed about Japan. However, to further immerse us in the culture, the cruise line offered three movies during the cruise: “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “The Last Samurai”, and “Midway”. We had seen the latter two, but not the former so it was a great way to spend rainy afternoons, popcorn included. About 150 passengers like us who had not booked an excursion attended “The Last Samurai” in the ship’s Main (World) Stage theatre, so it felt a bit like home.

7 April – Osaka, Japan

The itinerary required us to be in Osaka overnight, so we had two days to tour the area. We had not booked an excursion for the first day as we had planned to do some touring on our own. However, the skies were again grey and overcast and it continued to rain so we stayed close to the ship. We concluded late-March and early-April are not the best times to tour Japan.

There were lots of activities on the ship for days like these, including a high-end spa, mahjong, bridge and learning to fold origami, for those who were interested. The ship also had a reasonable book selection in its library.

8 April – Osaka, Japan

We were up for an early breakfast for today’s tours which were to Osaka castle and the Shitennoji temple. After a bus ride into the city, we walked for about 15 minutes to get to our first stop at Osaka castle. There were a few hundred tourists already there by the time we arrived and several hundred by the time we left. It’s a popular site to visit.

Osaka Castle

Osaka castle is one of Japan’s most famous castles and a historical landmark. It played a role in the unification of Japan. Originally constructed in 1597 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the castle was the focus of takeovers and modifications by several different clans.

Osaka castle was bombed during the Second World War when it became an arsenal employing about 60,000 workers. American bombing raids destroyed about 90% of the arsenal. The Japanese government restored the building in 1997.

The grounds are about 15 acres and there are two moats. At eight stories high, the main building takes 230 steps if a visitor walks to the top. We went as far as the fifth floor, but the scenery didn’t seem to change much after the second floor so we headed down after reaching the fifth floor.

Shitennoji Temple

Our next stop was the Shitennoji temple. It is Japan’s oldest official temple, founded in 593, and famous for its symmetrical design. It was also important because it gave Buddhism the status of a state religion. To enter the temple’s five-story pagoda one must remove street shoes at the entrance and put on slippers. 

We also visited the Jodo-Gokuraku garden on the property, which is quite tranquil, picturesque and serene. There is a small waterfall near the entrance and a path around a pond with cherry blossom trees in bloom along the path. A traditional Japanese house is situated not far from the entrance with sculptured trees and bushes alongside it. 

9 April – Shimizu, Japan

This was our last day for excursions before heading back to Yokohama. Shimizu is a city of about 230,000 known for its tuna fishing industry and as one of Japan’s three most beautiful ports. 

Momijiyama Garden – Sumpu Castle Park

Our tour today was to Sumpu Castle Park ruins and a Japanese garden (Momijiyama) in Shizuoka (formerly Sumpu) on Honshu. The castle park grounds were the home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shogun who was the founder of Tokyo in 1603, but retired to Sumpu. To enter the grounds, we crossed a moat. As there were fenced-in ruins there undergoing restoration, there was not much to see of the castle ruins. However, the park setting was lovely and apparently used by many of the local citizens as a place to take their families.

The Momijiyama traditional Japanese garden is exceptional and features scenes from the Village, the Sea, the Mountain Village and the Mountain. There is a pond surrounded by stones and pines. There is also a wooden pavilion, a wooden bridge and a terraced garden that is superb.

From the Sumpu castle site, we travelled to Pine Grove Park. This entailed walking along a boardwalk with pine trees on either side for about one kilometre. This led us to a beach with very dark sand and a view of Mount Fuji, which allowed for some photos. The total walking distance that day was about seven kilometres. We were concerned we wouldn’t get enough exercise on the cruise, but it certainly didn’t work out that way.

10 April – Yokohama to Tokyo

As we were considered “independent” travellers, we left the ship about 9:30 a.m. that morning. Because of the lengthy lineup of disembarking passengers, it took us about 20 minutes to get a taxi to the train station for our trip back to Tokyo. The driver took us to a different train station (who knew there were two stations?) than the one at which we’d arrived 14 days earlier, but it worked out for the better. The train fare for the 40-minute ride to Tokyo was a bit more, but the taxi fare from the port to this train station was quite a bit less.

Back in Tokyo, we managed to exit Tokyo Station with less difficulty than when we’d first arrived, but got to our hotel, the Mitsui Garden Hotel Otemachi, too early for the 3:00 p.m. check in. We left our bags at the hotel and went to the local 7 – 11 to buy a sandwich for lunch.

That evening we returned to our now favourite restaurant street – Kanda Nishiguchi – and found a different restaurant. The helpful serving person used a “translation” app to show us the menu in English, which made it much easier to order. As it had been a long day since leaving Yokohama, we watched a bit of the only English-speaking channel we had (CNN) back at the hotel and retired early.

11 April – Tokyo, Japan

A moat leading to the Imperial Palace

Following a typical late breakfast comprising croissants, cereal, fruit, bread pudding (for me), juice and coffee, we headed off to explore the Imperial Palace, about a 30-minute walk from our hotel. We found the Palace gardens and eventually the gate where tourists were allowed only to discover there were only two guided tours that day of 70 participants each. We were too late to make the tourist list even though we had arrived well in advance of the tour time. The lesson we learned was to order tickets in advance.

The next item on our agenda that day was to shop for some souvenirs for grandkids, especially “gundam” models. To our chagrin, we discovered the gundam factory was in Yokohama, which we could have visited while we were there if we had known. We visited a few stores in and near the Tokyo Station area which we had been informed would have some souvenirs. However, they were not the items we wanted to purchase.

We had dinner that evening at an Excelsior Caffe, which was advertising pasta as a meal. We ordered the advertised dish which comprised shrimp, baked cheese, tomatoes, drizzled seaweed and a purple rice underlay. It was quite tasty! By the time we returned to our hotel, we had walked 9.9 kilometres that day.

12 April – Tokyo, Japan

This was our last full day in Tokyo and we were undecided about visiting another area of the city other than Otemachi or shopping. We had still not purchased souvenirs, so we decided we would spend the day trying to find some suitable ones the grandkids could enjoy. We’d been told Tokyo Station had some stores on the lower levels which might have what we were looking for, but after about an hour’s exploration we were unable to find anything we thought would be of interest.

We’d read about Daimaru Department Store, one of the larger ones in the city, and after asking for directions finally found it. We purchased some wood model kits featuring a fancy old-style closed carriage, a merry-go-round carousel and a hot air balloon all of which seemed to be age appropriate. However, we were unable to find t-shirts showing Japan or any aspects of it at Daimaru.

While we’d acquired a basic street map from the hotel concierge, the street configuration and numerous highrise buildings were confusing enough that we had to ask some locals how to get back to Tokyo Station. Once there we were able to make our way back to our hotel.

We had dinner on our favourite street at a different restaurant once again, then returned to the hotel to check in with Air Canada and to pack our clothes prior to our departure the next day. We’d walked 9.6 kilometres that day.

13 April – Tokyo Japan to Vancouver, BC to Winnipeg

Our departure day from Tokyo started nicely, but by the time we’d returned to our room from breakfast, we began receiving messages from Air Canada advising a departure delay. As we had to check out of our hotel by 11:00 a.m. anyway, we decided we would head to the airport and wait there.

On our train from Tokyo back to Narita Airport, we met a young Canadian couple from Vancouver who had been touring Japan. They were finding Vancouver too expensive to live so decided to relocate to Ireland where he was from originally and planned this relocation about a month after they’d returned to Vancouver.

When we arrived at Narita Airport, Air Canada announced additional delays and issued us each $25 worth of meal vouchers. The handiest place available was a McDonald’s, so we ate there. In the early evening, we had not realized most of the airport eating places closed by 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., so we went to McDonald’s again.

The plus side of all the waiting was we were able to find some good quality souvenir t-shirts at an airport store. We also met several Canadians, including solo travellers from Halifax and Winnipeg, two guys from Yellowknife who had spent two months in Thailand, and a family of four from Calgary. 

We were originally scheduled to leave Narita Airport at 4:55 p.m., but with several delays, the plane didn’t leave the gate until 11:15 p.m. The flight to Vancouver took a bit less time than going over, but Air Canada had rebooked us because we’d missed the original connecting flight. We arrived home at 1:15 a.m., over 30 hours since we’d awakened the day before.

Overall, the trip to Japan, Okinawa, and Taiwan was thoroughly enjoyable, despite the frequently overcast skies and lack of sunshine. The culture was everything we thought it would be, the Japanese people were almost invariably helpful, and the sights and experiences, including the cruise, were memorable. The jet lag and adjustment to the time difference took us about five days to get back to “normal”, but it was a price worth paying.

And now, on to the next adventure…!

Categories: All, HG Life, Travel

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