Wonders of Japan Cruise: May 2016
May 13 – 26, 2016
A&K’s 2016 Wonders of Japan Cruise departed on May 13, 2016, visiting unique ports and rarely seen wilderness areas on board exclusively chartered ‘Le Soleal.’ We will be providing daily cruise updates on the blog so check back often under A&K’s Trip Logs.
Breakfast in the appropriately named Garden Room, with its breath-taking views of the adjacent garden, began our full day immersed in Kyoto’s deep and rich cultural history.
During the warm, bright, sunny day that followed, we managed to work in visits to Nijo Castle (showplace residence of visiting Tokugawa shogun), Kinkakuji (the iconicTemple of the Golden Pavilion) and Tenryuji (a Zen Buddhist temple located in Arashiyama on the outskirts of the city).
Along the way we paused for an enlightening (!) talk on Zen Buddhism by an American Buddhist monk followed by a special vegetarian luncheon prepared following centuries-old culinary traditions.
Our welcome reception and dinner provided the chance to meet more fellow travelers, the A&K Expedition team — and a bevy of Kyoto geiko (the local Japanese word for “geisha”)!
In the course of a single day, we learned the proper etiquette involved in shoe removal. We sat on the floor and learned a bit about Zen history. We strolled through meticulously maintained gardens, witnessed beautifully performed traditional dance and listened to the sounds of the age-old stringed koto and samisen. We sampled lots of beautifully presented Japanese food. No question: we were truly immersed in Japanese life and culture much of the day!
Overall our experiences left us satiated, a bit bewildered and very much intrigued about just what other cultural riches await us in the days ahead.
The immediate area around the Hyatt Regency, like so many other neighborhoods in the city, is full of intriguing shrines and temples — as we discovered on our morning guided walking tours of the surrounding Higashiyama Shichijo district, stopping by Sanjusangendo (with its 1001 images of the Kannon Buddha) and the pond garden at Chishakuin.
Following lunch and one last stop (visiting the Shinto shrine and garden at Heian-jingu), we divided into two groups to travel by bus down to Osaka where we (finally!) were able to board Le Soleal, our “home-away-from-home” for the next nine nights. A champagne toast greeted each arrival, followed inevitably by our mandatory lifeboat drill and our first onboard briefing.
From our port at Uno-Ko near Okayama, we set off today on a multitude of individualized full-day excursions, each focused on one of a wide range of available art, culture, architecture, horticulture and active hiking experiences, including the art and architecture of Naoshima, the landscaped garden of Korakuen, the preserved traditional townscape of Kurashiki, and the unique urban townhouse architecture of Takahashi.
For the majority of guests, however, the highlight of the entire day might well have been the cone of delicious peach soft ice cream consumed at the conclusion of our tour of Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most highly regarded landscape gardens, in Okayama.
For others, a short ferry trip across to Naoshima – the ‘island of the gentle mind’ – brought Yayoi Kusama’s iconic giant pumpkin sculpture into view, another highlight.
This lucky group also enjoyed exclusive access to some of the island’s exceptional art museums, including the impressive Chichu museum, a subterranean space designed by Tadao Ando. Scarcely visible at its hillside location and surrounded by the scenic Inland Sea the museum invites consideration of our relationship with nature. The permanent collection includes works by Claude Monet, made visible entirely by natural lighting and strikingly simple works by James Turrell who presents light itself as art. Later in the day the group enjoyed a further installation by this same artist which entailed 15 wondrous minutes of near darkness as our eyes and minds adjusted to this challenging environment.
Following a delicious buffet lunch at Benesse House the group’s relationship with nature was further explored as the heavy rain set in during our walk around the House Project. Undeterred by the downpour we followed our local guides to several innovative art works created and displayed in both traditional and modern buildings.
Back in Okayama, another group of afternoon visitors to Korakuen, huddled beneath their umbrellas, witnessed one of Japan’s most enduring realities: almost every Japanese garden looks its best when soaked by rain!
Back aboard Le Soleal, we traded impressions of the day’s activities as we gathered with fellow guests, our captain, ship’s officers and our A&K team for a captain’s reception and dinner.
Hiroshima is never an easy destination to experience. Today’s excursions, however, provided opportunities to appreciate the horror of the attack itself and the resilience of the Japanese people in its aftermath. Those visiting the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum or speaking with a bombing survivor Keiko Omura confronted these head on.
Others came to realize the resilience and historical importance of the city in the course of a visit to the completely restored Shukkeien Garden and the city museum within Hiroshima Castle.
Other guests spent at least part of the day on Miyajima, viewing the island’s iconic floating shrine gate (a structure dating back to at least 1555) or hiking the island’s mountain trails.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we all come to realize, does not alone define the city. Indeed, Hiroshima has a rich and multifaceted history, a rich traditional cultural heritage and a vibrant natural setting well worth exploring!
We learn as well that all of us, visitor and victim alike, have a role in creating lasting peace and a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.
This morning’s cruise along the southwest coast of Honshu eventually brought us to the coastal village of Hagi. Here for the first time we were ferried ashore in ship tenders to board our respective tour buses.
In the course of our afternoon visit, some guests strolled walled streets behind which nestled old samurai and merchant residences, visited a local temple, viewed the exhibits at the Uragami Museum and browsed local shops in search of Hagiyaki pottery.
One highlight was visiting the expansive rear garden at the Kikuya residence, illustrative of “new style” gardens and interior décor introduced by wealthy Japanese merchant families in the late nineteenth century.
Another intrepid group chose to set out for the Akiyoshi-dai Plateau — a unique landscape dotted with large stone pinnacles — where they explored the subterranean waterfalls, streams and pools found in Akiyoshido, Asia’s largest limestone cave.
Even prior to disembarking for our day-long visit, just by looking across the bustling port towards the opposite shore, we knew we were someplace new and different. There we saw, seemingly stretching nearly to the horizon, several huge container ships and multiple blue-roofed factory buildings belonging to Hyundai – where a brand new automobile comes off the assembly line every 45 seconds!
The morning ashore began with a lively performance by a talented group of drummers, dancers and a flautist portside in Ulsan, a fitting opening to our day to be spent touring neighboring South Korea while taking a break from our explorations of Japan.
Discovering the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty, a UNESCO World Heritage site, proved an outstanding educational experience, if only in encouraging comparisons with what we are beginning to appreciate about Japan.
Our visit to Gyeongju’s Tumuli Park allowed us to better understand Korea’s kingly cultural heritage, one dating back well before the first millennium. Adding the exceptional collection of archeological treasures found in the National Museum helped tie this side trip to one of South Korea’s most important World Heritage Sites to our growing understanding of Japan’s cultural heritage (and the Korean influences thereupon) as we marveled at the beautifully displayed and labeled artifacts uncovered within these royal tombs.
The abundant buffet (served at the local Hilton Hotel!) impressed us as did the entertainment accompanying the meal, all swirling, rustling silk and pounding drums.
Imagine our delight later in the day on discovering the decorations erected to honor the historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s 2560th birthday on March 31, 2016 were still largely intact at Bulguksa, the large temple we visited in the afternoon.
We seem to be piling up answers to good luck wishes over and over again, just as generations of temple visitors have done over the centuries, rearranging piles of pebbles in quest of Buddha’s assistance in confronting Life’s various vicissitudes challenges and desires!
Today, during our Matsue area visit, we split into two excursion groups as we departed from Sakaiminato, our home port for the day.
One group wandered through acres of blossoming peonies at Yuushien on the small island of Daikonshima, then journeyed on to Matsui where we visited the city’s historic castle before settling into a do-it-yourself barbeque lunch at a local restaurant featuring a highly-regarded local craft beer. Our city visit ended with an explanatory walk around a well-preserved samurai warrior compound.
The second group perused the exhibits at the Adachi Museum of Art and observed its beautiful gardens, rated consistently as some of Japan’s best, and – to cap off the day — visited Yakumo-mura to learn about the art of Japanese paper making. All returned to Le Soleal with souvenir sheets of paper they had handmade themselves!
Kanazawa, known for its Kutani-style pottery and gold-leaf workshops, also preserves traditional houses, a bustling market, artisan and craft workshops, bountiful gardens and the Chaya teahouse district in which local geisha entertain guests.
Many of us enjoyed getting to experience aspects of these traditions directly over the course of our one-and-a-half days in port: strolling through a local market, participating in a tea ceremony, watching a special geisha dance and drumming performance in an authentic traditional teahouse, discovering the pleasures of Kenrokuen (one of Japan’s three most famous traditional gardens), wanderinging through Seisonkaku (a villa built in 1863 using numerous western-inspired architectural and decorative innovations), visiting the Kosen Pottery Kiln (where a fifth generation Kutani-ware potter demonstrated his skills) and creating our own gold-flecked postcards as part of a gold-leaf-making workshop.
Another group drove inland to scenic Shirakawa-go and the Shogawa River Valley to view the area’s unique traditional farmhouse architecture.
Still others headed off into the countryside on a hike to the verdant Kakusenkei Gorge, followed by lunch at a local restaurant and a hot spring bathing experience in the Yamanaka onsen district. As excursion host Mark Brasil tells the story:
Within moments of leaving the port of Kanazawa we were on the highway and whisking down the Sea of Japan coast towards Kaga. Turning off into the countryside we passed newly planted rice fields as we headed into the hinterland. Soon we were in Yamanaka and walking along the delightful Kakusenkei Gorge. The cool breeze from the river, the lush green of the forest and the extraordinarily contrasting bridges were enticing. The most extraordinary was the red Ayatori Bridge; inspired by the children’s game of cats-cradle it snaked across the gorge in an attractive mesh of girders that was both intriguing and surprisingly pleasing to the eye. A little further on along the rushing river we reached our goal, the Kourogi Bridge and headed for a splendid barbecue lunch at a local hotspring Kagari Kisshotei. After a feast of a meal we decamped to the hotspring for a warming soak in mineral waters while enjoying a splendid view to the river. Some wandered the quaint main street sampling the local flavours soft ice-cream or shopped for local lacquer ware. After a busy excursion, a fine meal and a hot soak, many heads were nodding as we travelled back to Kanazawa in the late afternoon.
To top off our experiences, as we sailed away late in the afternoon of our second day, a group of local festival dancers on the dock premiered their latest pieces for us. Their enthusiastic performances and energetic choreographed waving of huge flags will long linger in our memories of both Kanazawa’s pleasures and its hospitality.
Centuries ago, political exiles, deposed emperors and unrepentant intellectuals were “banished” to this beautiful but remote island. Today Sado is known more for high quality rice, a growing commitment to organic agriculture and an effort to preserve the memories of its once-central role as a maritime trading center. Our half-day visit gave us the chance to experience both the island’s tranquility and these newer characteristics.
The highlight, of course, was a private performance by the local-but-world-renowned Kodo taiko drummers, heart-beat percussion at its best. Even Le Soleal’s captain found the time to join us for one of the two performances at the group’s permanent island home! We were fortunate to catch them here – two-thirds of the year they are off performing at venues around Japan and the rest of the world.
Breaking into smaller groups, we also toured a small local museum housed in a converted 1920s era elementary school building. Here the exhibits showcased a collection of artifacts reflecting what daily life was like “back in the day”. In a nearby structure we found a full-size replica of the type of traditional merchant ship once sailing local coastal waters between Hokkaido and central Honshu. We then literally crossed the road to watch a demonstration of the traditional method used to transplant by hand rice seedlings, raised elsewhere, into flooded paddy fields.
Having spent much of the cruise visiting more populated areas, our morning on Sado provided a welcomed alternative perspective on contemporary rural Japanese life and culture.
Back aboard by the early afternoon, we continued our voyage northward towards Hokkaido. This evening, our captain, Etienne Garcia, hosted a Farewell Cocktail Party followed by a gala five-course dinner in the ship’s L’Eclipse Restaurant. We are all too aware that our cruise is winding towards its conclusion, yet grateful for the still-accumulating memories that lie ahead.
Multiple busloads headed to Towada-Hachimantai National Park, passing enroute through the panoramic mountain plateau region of Hachimantai (a UNESCO World Heritage region) and stopping briefly at the Great Drum House to witness the drums used in the annual Tsuzureko Shrine Festival.
At Lake Towada, some hiked along the shore, then headed off to walk through Oirase Gorge, while others boarded a boat for a ride around the ancient caldera, a reminder of Japan’s volcanic origins.
A more adventurous set of nature lovers chose a trekking excursion to Juniko Lake, accompanied by an A&K naturalists and National Park guides.
Later in the afternoon, we all re-boarded our vessel in Aomori and set off aboard Le Soleal towards our final port, Muroran, on the island of Hokkaido.
Upon arrival on a cool gray and misty morning in the port of Muroran on Hokkaido and after a quick breakfast aboard ship, we bid farewell to Le Soleal’s captain and crew, disembarking by color-coded groups to board waiting buses headed for Sapporo, our final destination. As we left, we were serenaded portside by beautifully costumed native Ainu musicians and singers.
Two groups of guests headed off to Shikotsu-Toya National Park and Lake Shikotsu, perhaps (the weather improving as the day progressed) hiking amid Mount Mombetsudake, having lunch at a local inn and, time permitting, partaking in a foot or full onsen (hot springs) experience.
The museum’s redone exhibits brilliantly told the story of Japan’s northernmost main island using the latest technology and display techniques, thereby greatly enhancing our understanding of its place in Japanese history and culture.
This evening, we all joined together for a multicourse farewell dinner in the Premier Hotel – Tsubaki’s Grand Ballroom. Many lingered well into the evening, savoring the memories and newly-formed friendships fostered by our Wonders of Japan cruise experience and all the various sites visited on our shore excursions.
After breakfast tomorrow morning, we transfer to Chitose airport and board our homebound flights or continue our adventures for a few more days in Tokyo or elsewhere in Japan. Wherever it is we are headed we will carry with us fond recollections of our previous days aboard Le Soleal and all that so enthralled us about this very special Abercrombie and Kent cruise tour of Japan.