Japan, Hong Kong & the Ryuku Islands Cruise: May 29, 2017 – June 12, 2017
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Japan turned on perfect weather for our day in Kyoto.
Nijo castle presented a fascinating insight into the life of a Shogun, who ruled Japan as a military dictators for over 700 years. The castle’s nightingale floors squeaked under foot as we viewed the stunning paintings of the famous Kano school lining the walls of the Shogun’s audience rooms.
Next stop was the famous Golden Pavilion or Kinkakuji temple which gleamed in the summer sun, set against a backdrop of green moss and immaculately clipped pine trees.
At the charming village of Arashiyama we visited Tenryuji – the Temple of the Heavenly Dragon. One of the resident monks, an American by birth, delivered a private lecture on the history and meaning of Zen Buddhism, as well as the temple’s World-Heritage-listed Zen garden, before offering us a beautifully presented lunch of traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, shojin ryori.
Meijijingu is Japan’s youngest Shinto shrine, but made to look much older, with its Chinese-influenced architecture, heavy roof structure and bright vermilion and jade green paint, not to mention its imposing torii gate.
To cap off our cultural experience, our welcome dinner featured music from a player of the koto, a ninja show and kimono-clad hostesses.
We climbed to the top of Osaka castle to take in a magnificent view of the surrounding city. The current structure is the third incarnation of the original building, which has been destroyed twice before.
After our visit to Osaka castle, we travelled to the port to join our luxury floating hotel, ‘L’Austral.’
After our first night aboard ‘L’Austral’ we awoke docked in Uno port. The morning was hazy but warm, through the haze you could see the islands that are dotted through the Sato or Inland Sea. This morning there were three touring options to choose from and after a delicious fresh breakfast aboard it was time to join our coaches for our excursions. In the evening, Captain Patrick Marcheseau invited all to a welcome reception and dinner, here we were introduced to the senior officers before enjoying a beautifully prepared dinner.
Naoshima – The Island of Art Excursion
Our morning bus ride was exceptionally short as we drove 300 meters to the ferry which then took our bus for a delightful twenty minute ride across the waters to Naoshima. As soon as we arrived it was evident we were on an island of art as the famous red pumpkin sculpture of Yoyoi Kusama stood at the end of the ferry pier. From there it was a short bus ride to the world renowned Chichu museum, sitting inside the hill to preserve the islands landscape the museum is brilliant in its simplicity, inspiration and ability to challenge the mind. We were all enthralled and in awe of the art and audacity of the concept from the refined concrete walls to the innovative use of space and perspective. The Monet garden which we walked through on the way to and from the Chi chu Museum paid homage to Monet and was a riot of color alongside peaceful waterlily ponds.
Next stop was the Benesse House Museum sitting proudly atop its own ridgeline and looking out to the Seto Sea, here more artwork challenged the mind and provided a unique perspective all within a building that is an architectural masterpiece. Lunch was served at the museum and was a feast for the taste buds, but it was probably the desserts that stole the show. During the afternoon we explored through the Benesse Art House Project, we must have been quite a sight shuffling our way into the pitch darkness of the Minamidera! Then all too soon it was time to return to the ferry and bid farewell to Naoshima for today, but I am sure some of us will be drawn back to this island to discover the explore further in the future.
We departed for our full day adventure with a mild temperature of 75 degrees and slightly overcast skies. We drove for approximately one hour through the lush Japanese countryside dotted with rice fields to the lovely Kibitsu Shrine. Hidden among huge red cedar trees, this tranquil shrine epitomizes Japanese Shintoism. We then traveled on to Bitchu-Takahashi. On arrival we transferred from our big bus to a much smaller one in order to get high up into the mountains. Driving up through forested scenery we arrived at our base, had a short break and got ready to start our trek to see the highest castle in Japan, the Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle. After a short, but quite steep hike with our bamboo walking sticks, we arrived at the isolated castle with its breathtaking views of the city of Takahashi way below. We returned down to Takahashi for a well-deserved rest and a fabulous Japanese lunch. After lunch we had the opportunity to stroll through the quiet afternoon streets going in and out of two Samurai houses. This small area dates back to the Edo period and gave us a real sense of how different life was back then. The afternoon got hotter and hotter, so we stopped for some green tea ice cream before making one last stop at the Zen Buddhist Raikyu-Ji Temple and its dry garden designed by the legendary Enshu Korbori. The drive back went really fast as most of us had a nap all the way back to ‘L’Austral.’
Korakuen & Kurashiki Excursion
Our visit to Okayama began with a visit to the city’s Korakuen Garden, one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. The garden dates back to 1687 when Ikeda Tsunamasa, a Japanese feudal lord, ordered its construction.
We circled the large garden viewing it’s many groves, bridges, and ponds. The garden is complete with plum trees, maples and tea trees. We finished our visit by trying the garden’s renowned peach ice cream.
We then traveled on to Kurashiki where we had lunch at Ivy Squire followed by a visit to the world-class Ohara Museum of Art. The museum’s extensive collection spans four galleries displaying everything from Western and Japanese modern art to antiques from ancient Egypt and Asia. The visit ended with free time to shop and explore the narrow streets of Kurashiki.
This morning it was a little hazy as the sun rose over the islands of the Seto Sea, but that meant everything was bathed in a delightful warm orange glow! During breakfast ‘L’Austral’ docked in the Port of Hiroshima and just before 8:00 a.m. the first buses departed for our day of exploring.
Sights and Shrines of Miyajima Excursion
The first tour of the morning away and for this group it was a short bus ride along the coast to the Miyajima Ferry terminal where we left the buses behind and joined the ferry for the short crossing to the sacred island of Miyajima. The beauty of the ferry was that we sailed right in front of the O-torii Gate that stands in the sea before the island, appearing to float in an attention grabbing shade of red. Upon leaving the ferry terminal we were greeted by the islands sacred deer that lie about on the paths and approach visitors with a voracious appetite for anything including plastic, paper and clothing.
Our trail took us along the shoreline and then up into the valley behind town headed for the Momijidani Ropeway that was to whisk us from sea level to over 400 meters up the mountainside. It was a beautiful ride suspended above the forest canopy and with the view improving every moment as we climbed higher and higher. From the top station there is still 100 meters of elevation to climb before reaching the summit at Mt Misen, the path took us through beautiful, pristine forest and around outcrops that afforded views across the Sato Sea. At the Misen Hondo Shrine we stopped to recover and sample the tea cooked over a fire that has been burning continuously for 1,200 years, the tea cooked over this fire is claimed to cure many ills and we were certainly keen to give it a try. Then there was the summit itself and the 360° view across the island and surrounding Sato.
After lunch back in the village it was time to visit Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, built above the water (at high tide) the shrine sits in a beautiful bay looking out towards the O-torii Gate. With its white walls and red structural elements it cuts an impressive site. Afterwards most opted to visit the less visited but beautiful Buddhist Shrine of Daishoin that sits in its own valley and is full of great detail and hidden rooms as well as hundreds of Buddha statues wearing knitted hats.
Best of Hiroshima Excursion
On the morning of August 6, 1945, a man made sun suddenly flashed in the sky above Hiroshima. As Herbert Morrison, the American radio journalist once infamously said, “Oh the humanity.”
War is a terrible thing. Yet, a phoenix can only rise from ashes and in the case of Hiroshima, the phoenix is a staunchly underlying feeling of hope and a united humanity. It teaches us that while we travel to enjoy the differences of other cultures that ultimately, we are more alike than different.
Hiroshima was a profound and deeply personal experience for everyone that visited the Peace Park. Seeing the iconic atomic bomb dome set amidst the backdrop of modern buildings was almost surreal but a stark reminder of one of the most notable events of the 20th century. Groups of Japanese school children shared the park with travelers from around the globe.
The museum was superb and offered a well-documented and insightful history of the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, it’s terrible impact on Hiroshima as well as ongoing issues with nuclear proliferation. It is clear that a primary purpose of the Park is to ensure that the event of August 6th is never repeated in the 21st century. It is a lesson that we all keenly felt.
Memories of Hiroshima Excursion
Shukkei-en Garden is a classics Japanese garden nestled in the city area of Hiroshima. Without exception, the garden was also bombed away in 1945 by the A-bomb but originally it was established in 1620 as a garden associated to a villa of the local daimyo. Having a pond in the center, Shukkei-en Garden offers a nice trail around it – crossing small stone bridges, going up to the small artificial hill, stone lanterns and tea houses along the way. Instead of a castle, there stands today a skyscraper apartment just behind the garden.
The afternoon tour began with a “talk by the survivor” – Mr. Sakuma was 9 months old when the A-bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. Although he doesn’t remember the day, the shadow of A-bomb came to impact him when he was 10 and suffered illnesses with his kidney and liver. Sakuma talked about his strong wish for the nuclear weapon free world and peace.
And the last destination was the Peace Park and Museum. Many of schools in Japan make school trips to Hiroshima for the purpose of peace education. Hiroshima is a place where everybody can find the meaning of peace, no matter which country you are from and which language you speak.
As we returned to ‘L’ Austral’ we were greeted back to the ship and at the same time bid farewell from the city of Hiroshima by the Hiroshima City Police Brass Band who put on a rousing performance. Then at 6:00 p.m. in the theatre the Hiroshima Children’s Marimba Band played for us, this was an exciting and frenetic performance that showcased both their skill and enthusiasm.
Overnight we crossed the Seto Sea and this morning we awoke as ‘L’Austral’ sailed towards the port of Uwajima on the island of Shikoku. The mountains rose into the early morning haze protecting the harbor which was bustling with activity as every good fishing port is in the early morning. Heading ashore we were greeted by local drummers, samurai warriors (well at least their modern incarnation) and the town mascots, then it was time to join our morning excursions.
Essence of Owajima Excursion
From the port, our buses travelled to the countryside just outside of Uwajima. We wound our way through the steep, tree covered mountains and down into a low valley filled with flooded rice patties. We visited an incredibly gracious rice farmer who showed us both the old and new ways of planting rice paddies. After an hour amongst the rice paddies, we drove back to the coast to visit the oyster farms where they produce the famous Japanese pearls. Upon arriving, we were welcomed by a family run farm where they showed us the entire pearl growing process. Not only did we see the young oysters receiving the seed pearls to start the pearl growing process but we also saw them pull oysters right out of the ocean, shuck them, and produce pearls sight on scene! After our pearl farming experience, everyone got the chance to buy pearls right from the source.
Uchiko Old Town Excursion
To reach the historic town of Uchiko it was a pleasant hour long drive through the countryside north of Uwjima, the road passed through numerous tunnels and along mountain slopes covered in bamboo while the valley floors were dedicated to rice paddies which had been recently planted. Arriving in Uchiko we first visited the 20 ton statue of a reclining Buddha that the local village had commissioned in the 1990’s. From the Buddha it was a pleasant stroll along the small village lane that was Uchiko’s historic main street – traditional merchant’s houses were packed in along both sides and many had retained traditional features which meant that much of the historic character of the district is preserved. A visit to the Kamihaga residence of the Honaga family provided insight into the traditional Japanese wax production industry that once thrived in the area, and also an opportunity to purchase some of the beautifully crafted locally produced candles, paper and silk scarves.
Further down the hill at the other end of town was the Kabuki Uchiko-za Theater, still a working theater it has very much been preserved in its traditional condition. Returning to Uwajima there was a little spare time so the opportunity was taken to visit the Michimoeki Kisaiya Hiroba, or local market where there was plenty of fresh fish and produce for sale and nearby the pearl co-op lured a few in to purchase their exquisite locally produced pearls.
Uwajima Castles and Gardens Excursion
A sea of Japanese iris in bloom welcomed us to beautiful Tensha-en garden, where the seventh Lord of the Date clan would sit and practice calligraphy overlooking the peaceful pond and bamboo grove.
A visit to the nearby Date Museum gave us insight into the family which ruled this pretty coastal town, with its collection of samurai-era fine arts, weaponry and historical artefacts.
Later, we climbed up the hill to Uwajima Castle, the Date family’s stronghold, commanding spectacular views across the countryside and port, where we could see ‘L’Austral’ moored and awaiting our return.
Last night we were no longer sailing in the Inland Sea, it was now the Pacific Ocean that rocked us to sleep at night, and there was an ever so subtle rocking to be felt aboard ‘L’Austral.’ This morning with the sun rising to a brilliant clear day we approached the high island of Yakushima, renowned as the place in Japan which receives the most rain. Luckily today there was to be no rain at all. Yakushima is also renowned as the island which has every climatic zone represented from the sub-tropical coastline to the sub-alpine mountain tops that are frequently snow clad in winter. Today there were once again three different excursions available, the first two to depart spent the day exploring the island.
Yakusugi Handicraft and Shiratani Valley Excursion
This was a tour of two halves, the morning was spent in the town of Miyanoura near the ship, where there was the opportunity to visit an excellent interpretation center which had informative displays about the island’s natural history including coastal fisheries and cedar forests. As part of our visit to the center we also watched an introductory documentary to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that occupies a large portion of the island. This was screened on an exceptionally large screen! Then it was time for the interactive part of the morning, making cedar chopsticks. We were provided with a pair of split cedar sticks which then had to be shaped using exceptionally sharp chisels into chopsticks – this required a number of precisely outlined steps –more than you might imagine for something seemingly as simple as chopsticks. Our finished products seemed to impress our Japanese hosts/teachers, but then the Japanese are renowned for being polite.
After lunch back aboard ‘L’Austral’ it was time to head for the mountains, with the buses winding their way up the impossibly steep hillsides on a road that seemed to have been attached to the mountain side, our destination was Shiratani Valley within Yakushima National Park. This is a valley with a beautiful stream flowing down through the granite rocks in a series of pools and falls. We started our hikes from the base buildings 620 meters above sea level, from here there was the opportunity to hike up on a series of paths to around 800 meters above sea level passing through absolutely beautiful primeval forest all along the way, but the stars of the show were the Japanese cedar trees, some of the these Yarisugi trees are estimated to be over three thousand years old.
Yakushima’s Natural Wonders Excursion
Our group left the ship early, everyone eager for our day ahead and the opportunity to explore and circumnavigate Yakushima Island.
We began our bus ride through the Japanese rice fields and quickly started climbing the narrow roads into the mountains. We entered Yaku-sugi cedar land with its natural lush green forest about 1,000 meters above sea level. Our hour and a half walk was along a boardwalk pathway under the canopy of giant trees, stopping on a bridge with amazing views and running mountain streams.
This virgin forest is home to centuries-old Yakusugi cedars. We enjoyed hearing all about these amazing old trees from a local expert with the highlight being the giant 3,000-year-old Kigensugi cedar.
We then stopped to visit the Yakusugi Museum to learn more about the cedar logging era during the Edo period that ended in prohibition more than 50 years ago.
Our lunch today was at an intimate Japanese restaurant with a gorgeous garden in a tranquil setting. We were fortunate enough to be served a traditional Japanese lunch, each person receiving 18 small bowls of delicious delicacies that nobody could decipher, but everyone thoroughly enjoyed. Our hosts had spent hours putting together over 880 small dishes for our group of 38 people!
We continued our journey to view the ancient Banyan tree and stopped at the fast flowing Oko-no-taki Waterfall. We drove along the island’s west coast, entering into the UNESCO World Heritage Seibu Forest Path. Our buses stopped along the road each time we saw macaque monkeys and Yakushima deer and everyone’s cameras could be heard snapping away through the bus windows.
We ended our day with a short stroll at Naga Inakahma Beach to see the tracks from the nesting ground for green sea turtles and everyone wished we could stay for sunset to wait and see the turtles hatching.
Yakusugi Trek and Iwasaki Onsen Excursion
Yakushima Island Natural Recreation Forest is an enormous wooded area with trails that pass through dense stands of towering century-old cedar trees. With the aid of two local nature guides we followed a well-marked trail that took us deep into the forest.
The hour and a half walk took us past rushing rivers, over suspension bridges, and past fallen trees that gave a primordial feel to the walk.
All agreed that we had earned our deluxe bento box lunch that awaited us at a local hotel that featured a three story cedar tree in the lobby.
We capped the day with a relaxing onsen public bath, the first for many of us.
Another lovely night at sea beneath a bright moon as we sailed southwards and another lovely morning as we sailed into the harbor at Amami Oshima. The terrain of Amami Oshima is generally high and hilly but steeply incised by ravines, because of the terrain the island has remained largely forested with the 15,000 inhabitants living along the coast and in the valleys. Amami Oshima was formerly connected to the Asian mainland via a series of land bridges and has reserved many unique endemic species of birds and mammals as a result.
Kinsakubaru Virgin Forest Excursion
The first tour to depart with just a small group we headed southwards along the coastline and then up into the interior of the island to the Kinsakubaru Virgin Forest, which was ratified as Japan’s 34th National Park in March 2017. The heavily forested slopes of the National Park are home to a great diversity of endemic plant, bird and mammal species which our local naturalist and guide for the day Mr. Sikaru introduced to us as we walked beneath the forest along a trail. The birds were still calling and we were fortunate to see the beautiful and endemic Lidth’s Jay feeding in the understory at close range as well as the Ryuku Robin which was singing beautifully. The forest was an interesting mixture of plants and trees but most people attention was drawn to the tree ferns of which we passed through several impressive stands.
Returning back to the coast we travelled to the Amami Wildlife Research Center where we were introduced to the work which the center is doing in working to eradicate the introduced Indian Mongoose which threatens many of the native species as well as helping injured native animals to recover and be released into the wild. This project is being supported by A&K Philanthropy and a $4,050 donation was presented to the center director. The local media were in attendance and were very interested in who we were and why we had chosen to visit Amami Island and support their conservation efforts.
After lunch back aboard a short excursion was made to visit the Amami Oshima Marine Exhibit where there was the opportunity to see the sea turtles and learn a little about the local marine environment before taking a stroll along the beach.
Art, Nature, and Textiles of Amami Oshima Excursion
The day began with a visit to Oshima Tsumugimure Village where silk fabric is woven into intricate designs and then into clothing from ties and scarves to beautiful kimonos. We watched demonstrations as artisans used foot operated looms.
That was followed by a quick panoramic look at the Pacific Ocean from Cape Ayamaru and a stroll through a thicket of Amami Cycads. We then enjoyed an elaborate bento box lunch of local delicacies at Amami Resort Bashayama.
The day ended with a visit to Amami Park and Tanaka Issa Museum. We had a chance to see a large collection of Tanaka Issa’s work and learn about his rise to one of Japan’s most treasured artists.
Amami Oshima Marine Exhibit and Mangrove Park Kayak Experience
We had a leisurely departure at around 9:00 a.m. and headed for the Ohama Seaside Park, museum and aquarium. After a very short drive we arrived at the Amami Marine Exhibition Hall and spent a wonderful hour feeding and viewing the green sea turtles. From the Marine center we walked less than 50 feet down to the stunning Ohama Beach.
In true A&K style, there were beach umbrellas, white towels, snorkel equipment and coolers filled with drinks waiting for us. We all grabbed our gear and headed for the clear aquamarine water.
We spent the morning enjoying the beach before returning to ‘L’Austral’ for a quick lunch. An hour later we were back on the buses headed for an afternoon of kayaking. We arrived at Mangrove Park where everyone, regardless of skill or kayak knowledge, climbed into a single or double kayak and headed off sea kayaking along the mangrove forest. Splashing about, with clear blue skies and lots of laughter, we thoroughly enjoyed our kayak experience. Before moving on we all shopped for some local Amami delicacies like Miki, a sweet drink made of rice and sweet potatoes and their special brown sugar. This was followed by a walk to the gorgeous Funamgyo Waterfall where we all had the opportunity to listen to our naturalist Simon inform us of all the flora we were seeing.
As our Expedition Leader Suzana says, whatever you are doing about the weather…keep doing it! Because our run of excellent weather continues, the forecast this morning predicted a 40% chance of rain but despite the occasional threatening cloud on the horizon we had another great days weather! Our port for today was the small town of Motobu, not a destination in itself but a jumping off point from which the various tours set out to discover Okinawa
Ocean Expo Park & Sesoko Beach Tour
This morning our tour had the shortest drive of all with our destination being the Ocean Expo Park which was only a few minutes away. This was a grand park featuring a huge Aquarium as well as a number of other venues, luckily our close proximity ensured that we had the place nearly to ourselves. An easy ramble down the hill from the bus brought us to the aquarium building which looks out over the ocean. A particular highlight for all was the enormous “Ocean Tank”, reputed to be the largest single aquarium tank in the world it was home to two whale sharks, several manta rays and an array of other sharks and pelagic fish.
Next stop was to Nakiijin Castle, occupying a prominent ridgeline and surrounded on three sides by deep canyons, it was obviously a strong defensive position and home to the northern Ryuku Kingdom in historical times. It was noticeable how different the design of this castle was to those we have seen earlier in the cruise. Flowering amongst the castle ground was a beautiful native white lily. After lunch aboard L’ Austral it was an afternoon of relaxing on the beach and enjoying the opportunity to swim and snorkel at the nearby Sesoko Beach.
Naha City Tour
The morning began with a pleasant drive from Okinawa’s port city of Motobu to the bustling city of Naha. Our first stop was a traditional Bingata dyeing lesson. Each participant was given two patterns and paints to recreate the patterns on small coasters.
With guides looking over our shoulders and helping out when needed, everyone managed to replicate their two patterns with reasonable authenticity.
We then had free time to explore the many shops at the Mikisha public market. Dozens of shops offered everything from sweets to tailored clothes.
After a local lunch we boarded our bus to take a short drive to Shurijo Castle, once the cultural and political center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. We walked the grounds and toured the public and private residences of the Ryukyu kings.
We reserved a little time to shop in the castle’s shop and then headed back to L’Austral.
Higashi Village and Yambaru National Park
After driving from Motobu port to the east of the island of Okinawa, we began the day with breakfast on the beach at the JAL Okuma resort, which included local foods for us to try.
Next we went to the Yambaru Kuina Conservation Forest to meet one of the few endangered Okinawan rails held in captivity. Her name was Kyon Kyon, and she entertained us with her busy antics while we learned about the plight of her species, under siege from introduced mongooses and cats.
At Yambaru Marininomori Discovery Forest, we took a canopy boardwalk through the tropical evergreen Yambaru forest, spotting lizards, butterflies and giant ferns, before taking a short boardwalk around a pond teeming with black newts and swamp orchids.
We enjoyed a generous local lunch cooked by the staff at the Discovery Forest before heading to Gesaji Mangrove Forest, where we took another boardwalk through the mangrove forest, learning about the ecology of this highly specialised community. We spotted mudskippers and fiddler crabs, and the mounds of giant mangrove shrimp amongst the prop roots of the mangrove trees.
This morning at 0900 there was an official welcome to Miyako-jima from the Mayor, as this was the first time that L’ Austral had visited these shores there was a plaque presented by the Mayor of Miyako-jima to Phil Otterson, Chairman of A&K USA and Captain Patrick Marchesseau the Master of L’Austral. After this it was time to set forth for our day of exploring on Miyako-jima, the weather remained dry although it was noticeably warmer and more humid than we had experienced previously.
Highlights of Miyako-jima
First we travelled cross country from the port to the southeastern end of the island at Cape Higashi-Hennazaki, along the way we passed through an agricultural landscape with the production of sugar cane dominating. Arriving at the base of the cape it was a gentle stroll along that demarcates the waters of the Pacific Ocean from those of the China Sea and we could see the waters swirling around the shoals nearby. At the end stands a large lighthouse where the plants were in bloom and surprisingly the butterflies were present in abundance. Of particular note was a lovely black and pink butterfly.
Next we headed along the southern coastline to meet our boat for the glass bottom boat experience, upon arrival we discovered that the boat went one better and actually had an underwater viewing area where we could be seated and enjoy views of the reef and its inhabitants. Along the way we were treated to some great views of green sea turtles resting on the sandy bottom. Then as we navigated between the coral reefs we were accompanied by swarms of colourful reef fish with a Giant Trevally that made regular passes of the windows. Headed back in the general direction of L’ Austral we crossed both the Ikema Ohashi and Irabu Ohashi
Bridges, these long modern bridges link the smaller outlying islands to the main island Miyako-jima. While they were not technologically difficult to build their length alone makes them a great engineering achievement, and the pride of the islands. During the afternoon there was the opportunity to spend time at the beach with the chance to swim, snorkel or just lie back and relax. The snorkeling was excellent, definitely the best that we have experienced so far on the voyage with a great diversity of life to be seen and all in a natural aquarium.
Miyako-jima Cultural Experience
This morning with had a unique and truly Japanese experience of indigo dyeing. First we took a scenic drive along Ikema Bridge then visited the Makiya Observatory and The Miyako-jima Art and crafts center. We enjoyed a great explanation about the Miyako jofu, JOFU （上布）generally means “fine ramie fabric” (Choma). Although in Okinawa, it wouldn’t simply mean “high quality”, it could be dedicated gift to the king or tribute. An authorized historical document in Korea has recorded that hemp fabric was first woven in Miyako Island in 1479. But a delicate fabric was first woven in 1583, when a wife of a weaver, who was promoted to produce a good work by the king of Ryukyu. Since then, “Miyako Jofu” was designated as an item to be presented to the dynasty, bringing about “Iro (color) Jofu.” Today we visited a studio where we saw indigo dyeing. It requires a careful touch when you pull the cloth out of the indigo liquid and aerate the piece. If aerating process is not done evenly, it causes uneven dyeing.
Ikema Island and Shigara Hot Springs
This morning our group started our leisurely tour with a drive across the Ikema Ohashi bridge to Ikema Island. The 25 degrees Celsius balmy weather and blue skies added to our upbeat moods. As we crossed the long arching bridge, the water below us changed color depending where the sunlight hit the water. We stopped for a photo on the bridge searching for sea turtles and other creatures. We then headed for a viewpoint while eating local lemon ice cream. A bit of shopping and more eating of local snacks was done by all before boarding us buses to move on to Miyakojima Underwater park. This proved very informative and it was fun to go under the water and still be able to look out at all the fish. We returned to the ship for a quick lunch and were on the go again within an hour.
The afternoon was jam packed with action. We headed for the beautiful Miyako Kaichu Park for some swimming and snorkeling. En route we decided to stop in at a Pachinko Parlor to experience a Japanese phenomenon that not many people see. We then continued on to the beach and spent two hours swimming and exploring the ocean with our naturalists. There were lots of fish and nearly everyone got to see a sea turtle.
We ended our afternoon at the Shigira resort for a relaxing dip in the Hot Springs. The natural hot spring on the seaside bubbles up from 4,000 feet underground, and everyone loved trying this “bath with a view” and quintessential Japanese experience. For those of us that didn’t want to be segregated, the resort featured an open-air hot spring pool surrounded by gorgeous gardens which added a fun element to the traditional hot-spring experience.
This evening as L’ Austral sailed from Miyako-jima our A&K USA Chairman, Phil Otterson and Captain Patrick Marchesseau hosted a Sayonara sail away party on the pool deck featuring a performance by the L’Austral dancers as we celebrated the success of our voyage through the Japanese Islands.
Today is our last day in Japan, we have sailed southwards exploring our way through the islands of Japan starting from Honshu, as we have sailed southwards the weather has become warmer and the culture more laid back. So this morning we set out to spend our last day in Japan and the last of our yen!
Iriomote and Urauchigawa River Cruise
We departed from L’ Austral and boarded the local ferry which was to take us to Iriomote, the other large island in the Ishigaki group, it was a very comfortable 45 minute ride on the ferry which brought us to the beautiful shores of the less visited Iriomote. The plan for the morning was to board local river boats to explore into the interior of the island, we travelled up river with a breeze to keep us cool passing first through the Mangrove forests before the river narrowed and we were within a deep gorge in the sandstone. All around was forest, part of Iriomote National Park and the proposed UNESCO World Heritage site, also home to the endangered Iriomote Wild Cat. Lunch was served at a nearby local resort that fronted onto a picture post card tropical beach.
Our afternoon activity saw us changing modes of transport once again and travelling to Yubujima Island across the tidal flats on carts towed by water buffalo, Yubujima is home to a botanical garden specializing in bougainvillea, but it was the butterfly garden that caught most people’s attention. Housed inside a very warm glasshouse was a specially planted garden of butterfly friendly plants and numerous butterflies the large black and white Paper Kite Butterflies were of particular note.
Taketomi Village and Yonehara Beach
A beautiful tropical day greeted us on the island of Ishigaki, in the extreme southwestern corner of Japan. A short ferry ride had us arrive on the small island of Taketomishima, whose name means ‘island of stone walls’. The charming village was indeed lined with walls made of local coral stone, as a protection against typhoon and tsunami.
We boarded the buffalo taxi – a covered wagon drawn by water buffalo – for a guided tour of the village. Our driver sang local folk songs and played on the sanshin, the three-stringed banjo of the Ryukyu Islands, to everybody’s delight.
The next stop was the local museum at Yugafu-kan, where we learned about traditional life on the island.
The afternoon’s excursion took us to the Yaeyama Palm Grove to see the rare endemic Yaeyama palm in its montane rainforest habitat. Considered to be one of the most beautiful palms in the world, the Yaeyama palm is endemic to Ishigaki and Iriomote islands.
We stopped to take in the view of idyllic Kubira Bay before travelling on to Fusaki beach for an afternoon of snorkelling. Sadly the coral was compromised by a bleaching event the previous summer, but the reef was still teeming with colourful tropical fish such as damselfish and triggerfish.
Best of Ishigaki
Surrounded by unbelievably hot and humid air, our first stop for today was the Tojin-baka Chinese Tomb. In 1852 an American/British ship was carrying Chinese laborers from mainland California when it crashed into rocks off the coast of Ishigaki island. The workers, believing that they were being treated like slaves, revolted against the crew and made a break for the island. The survivors received protection from Ishigaki islanders and the royal government. The Tojin-baka was erected in memory of those Chinese workers who died.
Next, Yaima Village is a fun cultural park where visitors can experience abundance of rich culture of Ishigaki. The village is an authentic replica of a Yeayama Island style village as it would have been before modern influences. Guests had a short break with a nice chilled cup of local herbal tea and a piece of handmade doughnut. Then, the group went into a park and was welcomed by cute little squirrels.
On the northern coast of Ishigaki lies a spot called Yaeyama Palm Tree Grove where palm trees which rise to a height of around 10 meters grow. Yaeyama palm trees can be found only on the islands in this region.
Then, the final stop for the day is superbly beautiful Fusaki Beach where guests bathed in warm water, enjoyed snorkeling being greeted by numerous number of fish and sea creatures.
With all back aboard L’ Austral we completed Japanese customs formalities and bid farewell to Ishigaki-jima and Japan with a tickertape send off from the pier.
Overnight we were reminded of the fact we have now sailed into tropical waters and flashes of lightening illuminated the ocean around us. This morning L’ Austral crept into her berth at Keelung port, entering from the ocean there is only a small aperture in the otherwise in accessible coastline, but once inside the harbor opens out and there is a vast number of wharves, we berthed in the inner harbor right in the heart of the action. First order of business before we could depart on our tours was to complete customs formalities, which went smoothly and were done enroute to the buses, then it was time to explore.
Taipei Cultural Experience
We were told it was a 45 mintue drive into Taipei but with little traffic on the expressway we were there in just on 30 minutes in time to see the changing of the guards at the Martyrs Shrine. In a great display of pomp and ceremony the new guards appeared from the central building and paraded down the central plaza keeping perfect rhythm throughout, despite the watching crowds and blazing sun. Two then assumed position at either side of the entrance, a position that they are to maintain for 1 hour without movement, no matter what! They have attendants to ensure they are perfectly presented and to wipe away the sweat, and under today’s conditions there was plenty of sweat. Next stop was the air conditioned comfort of the National Palace Museum, housing over 700,000 Chinese artifacts the museum is a treasure trove of art, ceramics, bronze, jade and ivory work that was transported here following the communist uprising in China. There really was too many pieces to fully appreciate the full glory and diversity of the museum even in the generous time that we had, but with our excellent local guide we were introduced to the most significant pieces.
Lunch was served at the Grand Hotel, a modern hotel version of a traditional Chinese building, standing on a hill above town it has a definite presence, and the lunch buffet made its presence known as well. With a great assortment of Chinese dishes as well and excellent sushi and sashimi (for those that hadn’t had enough in Japan) as well as beautifully intricate deserts it was a feast for the eyes and stomach. Wandering through the traditional markets of Dihua Street we met many traditional Chinese dried ingredients including shark fins and birds’ nests as well numerous other wonders and delights. Our final stop was at the Confucius and Pao An Temples, not old temples by Asian standards but beautifully decorated, the Pao An Temple has be recognized by UNESCO for its significance and the Confucius temple provided enlightenment to the story and history of Confucius the man.
Taipei City Tour
Coming alongside in Keelung , Taipei this morning we were struck by the deep contrast between the relaxed & peaceful island life we have been experienced over the last few days and the chaotic bustle of a rush hour city. Our coaches took us through the scooter filled streets to the towering Taipei 101. The shops were not open when we arrived, but many bus tours were queuing to ride the world’s fastest elevator – 101 floors in an ear popping 37 seconds – to experience the impressive views of the city. We then made our way back to the coaches and drove to the imposing Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall where we wondered amongst the exhibits proudly displayed. Following a uniquely memorable ‘all you can eat’ (although you could not possibly eat all) buffet experience at the stunning Grand Hotel we re-joined the coaches for a short drive to witness the amazingly choreographed Change of Honour Guards Ceremony. In the fierce midday heat guards and spectators alike were struggling with the 34C/ 100F degrees. We were blessedly able to re-join our air-conditioned coaches as the heavily uniformed incoming guards began their 60 minutes of unwavering duty. Our final stop took us the beautifully Fung Shui-ed Lin An Tai Historical House. The rumbling afternoon thunder and overhead passage of the aircraft taking off from the nearby domestic airport made a stark juxtaposition to the auspiciously design curves and pleasing lines of the house and garden.
Yehliu Geopark & Chiufen Village
Our first glimpses of Taiwan were stunning, verdant mountains and we crisscrossed them on highways that were true engineering marvels. We snaked through tunnels of undetermined length as we worked our way up the coastline to visit one of nature’s playgrounds. Our destination this morning was the Yehliu Geopark about 45 minutes outside the port of Keelung. Our on board geologist, Ian Miller, had prepped with fantastic information of the 15 million year old sandstone “hoodoos” we were now witnessing in the park, pillars of rock that have been eroded by time and sea, leaving unusual shapes dotting the landscape. Using a bit of imagination, like finding shapes in the clouds, we could picture the formations we were standing in front of; the queen’s head, the gorilla and the fairy slipper. But looking down at our feet we discovered other geological gems such as intact and easily recognizable sand dollar fossils from ancient days. We traipsed the park for the morning having fun finding new hoodoos to name and looking for fossils.
After lunch we continued to make new discoveries in a very different way. We traveled to Chiufen (Jiufen) Village, formerly a center of Taiwan’s gold mining industry and walked the narrow, winding streets, high up in the mountains. The most fascinating shops we discovered were those selling foods we couldn’t recognize by sight or smell. We sampled some amazing fresh grape juice with all the crushed grapes in the bottom. We literally ran past the stinky tofu with the apt name. It was so smelly there was no way we wanted to stop and taste it! And the area is quite known for different type of snack balls such as shrimp or taro. We walked through the village houses, toured the old theater and spent some free time simply wandering.
We received a grand welcome to Penghu Island this morning, this was the first ever visit for L’ Austral and after a water cannon salute from the harbor tug there were drummers and dancers waiting on the wharf to officially welcome us to Penghu Island. Lying in the middle of the Taiwan Strait these islands have a long history of bridging the gap between mainland China and Taiwan and as such have for many years held great strategic significance. The islands themselves are quite low lying and sprawling, formed primarily of low lying basalts with columnar basalt being obvious at various points around the island. Today there was just one choice of tour with all of us exploring the island but in a slightly different order, the island is also popular with Taiwanese tourists so we were also sharing the island with a number of domestic tourists.
Driving northwards from Magong City we quickly left the city behind and began driving through the countryside which in any area where the soil was fertile had been divided into numerous tiny fields with large coral walls separating the fields as protection from the wind that comes off the sea during the winter months. After passing the islands wind turbines we continued northwards to Tongliang Temple and its great Banyan tree, stretching out across the front of the temple it provides shade to a large area and the tree is over 300 years old, it certainly was an impressive site to see the Banyan reaching out in all directions and the hive of activity beneath it. Crossing the Penghu Great Bridge brought us to the island of Xiyu where there is a geopark showcasing the islands basaltic geology and the old fishing village of Erkan where we were able to wander down the alleys between the traditional buildings built in a Fujian style with terracotta roof tiles and white-washed walls.
Lunch was served at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Magong City and it was a buffet to rival yesterdays in Taipei, showcasing great Asian cuisine it was a real feast at the hour that was available for lunch was a little short for those wanting to sample everything. After lunch it was time to explore the southern reaches of Magong Island, first stop was the excellent Penghu Living Museum which showcased island life over three floors with informative displays looking at all aspects of the life in the islands. The Fenggui Blowholes were not in action today due to the calm ocean conditions but the nearby Buddhist Temple was a site to behold with extensive gold leaf covered wooden carvings. During the drive back to L’ Austral we stopped by the Suogang Cairns, traditional stone structures to correct the areas bad Feng Shu. In Magong City itself and just a few minutes’ walk from the L’ Austral was Magong Temple, the oldest temple in Taiwan and the source of the cities name.
This evening as L’ Austral sailed towards Hong Kong and the end of our voyage Captain Patrick Marchesseau hosted us all for farewell drinks in the theater followed by dinner.
A day at sea, time to catch our breath, reflect on the journey and prepare for adventures ahead. Sailing southwest from Penghu headed towards Hong Kong, at first this morning all the was visible was the ocean and ships, then the coastline of China appeared on the horizon and we sailed for the remainder of the day parallel to the coastline of China. Throughout the day we passed numerous ships bustling along the their ways, proof if any was needed of the thriving business activities in this part of the world.
Aboard the L’ Austral we were kept busy with morning presentations from Richard Harker who took us in the footsteps of Ansel Adams before Ian Miller introduced “Plankton, Plants and Plate Tectonics in a broad ranging geological presentation. After a little quite time following lunch the chefs prepared crepes suzette in the lounge. Then it was time to join Suzana and the Expedition team in the Theatre for our final expedition recap, the slideshow compiled by Richard Blackjack using the photos of the A&K expedition team took us through our journey from Osaka to Penghu reliving many of the experiences and moments of exploration from our journey.