Wonders of Japan: May 18, 2017 – May 30, 2017
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The first morning of “Wonders of Japan” dawned and it was beautiful, the sun was shining over the hills, mountains and lakes of Hokkaido. Our hotel, the Windsor Hotel Lake Toya, sits atop a mountain with commanding views across both Lake Toya and the Pacific Ocean.
After a delicious breakfast where there was a choice of both traditional breakfast fare and also for the more adventurous some traditional Japanese options our excursions departed. There were three options to choose from today, most had chosen to join either “Best of Sapporo” or “Wonders of Lake Toya” and a few of the more adventurous joined “Lake Toya Kayaking.”
During the evening we were all invited to gather in the Grand Hall for our welcome gala, dinner was prepared by Chef de Cuisine Takahashi Iijima and it was a delight to behold and eat. We were welcomed to the “Wonders of Japan” by our A&K Cruise Director, Jannie Cloete and A&K Expedition Leader Suzana Machado D’Oliveira before the night concluded.
Wonders of Lake Toya
A short bus ride down the hill brought us to the shores of Lake Toya. The trees were just coming into leaf and we were fortunate to find that the cherry blossom, tulips and daffodils were in full bloom here as spring was in first full blush in Hokkaido’s northern climate. Our first destination was cruising Lake Toya aboard one of the custom Lake cruisers, ours looked like a floating castle and it efficiently took across the lake to the largest island, Oshima (big island in Japanese).
Back on shore we visited the Lake Toya visitor center which not only houses an excellent introduction to the local fauna and flora but also the volcanic history of area, particularly the eruption of 2000 that saw the town evacuated and partially destroyed by a large lahar. As part of the visitor center several of the damaged buildings have been “preserved” as a testament to the power of nature and Japan’s need to be prepared for the future. Lunch for us was a traditional Japanese meal served in a restaurant with a view of Lake Toya featuring salmon, tuna and scallops. The afternoon had us venturing up the volcanic peak of Mount Uzu which is now 400 meters high. To reach the upper slopes we took a gondola that sped us above the forest from where we had grand views of both the still steaming volcano and also Lake Toya far below.
Best of Sapparo
The “Best of Sapparo” excursion introduced the importance of Hokkaido for its distinct history and culture and as a source of Japan’s agricultural products and seafood. Approximately 20% of Japan’s seafood is caught in the ocean around Hokkaido. The coastline is 2,600 miles long. The morning walk through Sapparo’s Central Wholesale Market illustrated the great variety of seafood available – hairy crabs, snow crabs, red king crab, scallops, snails, trout and squid.
In the late 19th century American advisers were invited to assist in the development of Hokkaido. They introduced the grid city plan, architectural styles and agricultural techniques. The Massahusetts-style clock tower and state house are reminders of these years.
The Hokkaido Museum illustrated the historical development of the island through five thematic exhibitions: Hokkaido’s Tale of the 1.2 million Years; The Culture and Recent History of the Ainu; The Secret of Hokkaido’s Unique Identity; Towards Our Time and The Ecosystems of Hokkaido.
Another lovely start to the day and again there were three different touring options for us to choose from today. At the end of the day we were welcomed on board the ‘L’Austral’ our home for the next 12 days with a performance by a youth group dancing traditional and contemporary dances.
Lake Shikotsu & Mount Mombetsudake Excursion
A gentle drive through the Hokkaido countryside started our tour to Lake Shikotsu and Mount Mombetsudake, with a stop along the way at a roadside shop specializing in local produce including apples, cherries and local fungi that comes in all shapes and forms and is considered a Japanese delicacy!
Arriving at the outskirts of Lake Shikotsu we met our local guides from the National Park and began our hike up Mount Mombetsudake. The trail climbed consistently through a mixed deciduous forest dominated by Japanese Maples but also featured ash and oak among others. The understory was dominated by bamboo and with the snow melting away the wild flowers were coming into bloom. Most climbed as far as they were comfortable before ambling back downhill, but three among the group made a dash for the summit where they were rewarded with spectacular views across the lake and surrounding volcanoes.
Lunch was served at the Lake Shikotsu Tsuruga Resort and was a veritable feast including sashimi, grilled salmon, tempura and a panacota for dessert. Afterwards there was the opportunity to relax at the resorts foot onsen and explore the small village before it was time to make our departure for ‘L’Austral’ that was waiting in the port of Muroran.
Noboribetsu & Porotokotan Excursion
The Porotokotan, the Ainu Museum, is a museum built in 1965 to present and preserve this ancient culture. The way of life and language, in particular, is endangered as only about 100 people speak the language. The museum simulates 5 historic-styled houses, a botanical garden and an ancient barn to create a village beside the lake. The museum shop is a totally 21st addition to the village plan. The performance of singing and dance featured a lullaby and ritual, community dance that returned the soul of a bear to its ancestral kingdom of the bears. Simple instruments carved from wood were played by singers wearing traditional Ainu clothing. Many of the names in Hokkaido—Sapporo; Noboribetsu; Muroran; Lake Toya—are from the Ainu language.
The number of Ainu still living are difficult to identify as over the centuries they assimilated into the Japanese culture through marriage. The Japanese government finally recognized them as a separate identity in 2008.
We had a traditional Japanese lunch with many courses served in many numerous pieces of ceramic and lacquer – approximately 21 pieces of ceramic and lacquerware comprised a single lunch setting! The afternoon was spent hiking into the Valley of Hell to view the Sulphur springs. The water temperature is so hot that steam emerges from the ground and the earth is parched, making it unsuitable for vegetation to grow.
Overnight ‘L’Austral’ whisked us from the southern shores of Hokkaido to the Northern coast of Honshu and by breakfast we were closing on the port of Aomori from where our respective tours were departing. During breakfast a call from the Captain alerted us to the presence of dolphins alongside the ship and actively feeding.
Lake Juniko Trekking & Hot Springs Excursion
Our morning drive took us from Aomori westward through extensive rice paddies, planting was in full swing with lots of action in the flooded fields as the young plants were planted out. Aomori prefecture is famous for apples and as we moved to higher ground the apple trees began to appear. Our first stop was at a sumo museum and produce market, downstairs the market was a hive of activity with fresh fish and vegetables for sale.
From there we continued southwards along the coast bordering the Japan Sea and during a stop where the rocks had been uplifted at least 10 meters by earthquake activity we were able to get a great appreciation for the water clarity with crystal clear aqua blue water lapping the shore.
Lunch was served at the entrance to Juniko Lakes and it was yet another extravagant feast of many courses. Then it was time to head for the hills and Juniko Lakes, here the forest is dominated by Japanese Beech trees but with a great diversity of other species as well and the area is unique for the maturity of the forests having never been logged. Our path took us past 5 of the 12 Juniko Lakes, formed when streams were dammed during an earthquake about 300 years ago, the clearest of these pools is a brilliant crystalline blue. Beneath beech, chestnuts and maples to name just a few of the trees the trail was a delightful wander through a UNESCO World Heritage forest.
To complete the day and recover from the hike there was the option of an Onsen or traditional Japanese spa, for some it was the first time, others were old hands but it was greatly enjoyed by all. As was the beer to follow that many choose enjoy! It was a quite ride along the coast to Noshiro where ‘L’Austral’ awaited having shifted along the coast during the day!
Seriryu-ji Temple & Lake Towada Cruise Excursion
Seriryu-ji Temple, founded in 1982 by Priest Ryuko Oda, is a Shingon Buddhist Temple. Built at the base of a mountain, the plan includes architectural structures typical of a temple plan — the Main Hall (Kondo); the Five-Storied Pagoda and the Bell Tower. All of the buildings were constructed by Katsushiro Omuro, a master carpenter from Aomori. The most important site is at the highest point in the plan – the monumental bronze sculpture of Dainichi Nyorai. The complex includes many other deities in the Buddhist pantheon. The Main Hall is dedicated to Amida Buddha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. On the walk leading to the large Buddha are sculptures of Jizo, the protector of children, and Kannon, the God of Compassion. The entire complex, constructed in the span of ten years is a testament to the leadership of the founding priest, Ryuko Oda.
The day turned from spiritual beauty to scenic beauty in the afternoon. A boat cruise on Lake Towada emphasized again the significance of volcanic activity in the creation of the Japanese islands. The large lake is 28 miles in circumference and 326 meters in depth. The water is extremely blue and pure as it comes from a stream at the bottom of the lake. In 1903 an engineer established a trout industry in the lake. At first the people living in the area resisted his efforts as they were concerned that it would disturb the dragon living in the blue lake. However, he successfully established the industry, improving the economic health of the region.
Throughout the day we enjoyed a drive through the beautiful countryside filled with apple orchards and mountain streams. At days end, we visited a drum museum and an exhibition of some of the giant drums that were used in Matsuri festivals.
Lake Tawada and Oirase Trail Excursion
We started at 8:15 a.m. from the port of Amori (that means blue forest) to the archeological site of Sannai-Maruyama. We visited 5 thousand years old dwellings, pillar buildings and mounds and learned about civilization that existed for 1500 years on the island. After visiting the gift shop where many bought clay figurines representing important cultural pottery, we loaded the buses to our next destination – traditional Japanese lunch at beautiful hotel on the Oirase River. On the way we crossed the Hakkoda Mountains still covered with snow. At the stop on the top of the mountain many of us tried barley tea. The Japanese wisdom tells that if you drink one cup of each you’ll be healthy for 3 years. Replenished with energy and promise not to get sick for the next 3 years (or at least two weeks of our journey) we continued our way to take a 2-mile hike along Orisae Gorge. We walked through a lush-green forest lighten with sun to Lake Towada. After visiting the observation deck to enjoy the lake view and try apple chips a local delicatessen, we continued our way to the drums museum. Many practiced playing drums and enjoyed the performance by other guests who knew what they were doing with the drum sticks. We completed our journey at the port of Noshiro where ‘L’Austral’ arrived just before us.
Ogi, Sado Island, Japan
This morning started a little differently, there was no morning excursions to rush on our way for as we had morning at sea, and a lovely morning it was on the silky smooth waters of the Japan Sea. While it was a little more leisurely it certainly wasn’t short of things to do, we maximised the opportunity to have lectures, at 9am Karen Keane shared her talk “Ten words and one phrase that helped me decipher the enigma of Japan” a presentation that many found exceptionally enlightening. Then at 10:30 Marjorie Williams introduced “The art of savouring: Tea Masters and their tastes” which was again enlightening and informative.
An early lunch allowed for a full afternoon ashore on the beautiful Sado Island, despite being Japans sixth largest island it has a delightful rural feel with a population of just over fifty thousand people. The arrival of visitors is a big event for the community and we were warmly welcomed ashore, it was then a short ride to the excellent local museum housed in a former elementary school. Here we found extensive displays of local artifacts from dolls, to farming and fishing equipment and even clocks. There is also a full size replica of a 16th century trading ship that has been constructed using traditional techniques and is housed in an adjoining building. Also of great interest to many was the rice paddies and there was a chance to take a closer look at the planting which was being demonstrated by two local ladies, a great photographic opportunity as well.
Then it was on to Kodo Village, home of the world famous Kodo drummers, we were ushered into their home theater in the heart of the village and with commanding views over Sado Island and the sea. Then with great anticipation we awaited the arrival of the performers, the sound of rhythmic drumming announced their arrival and we were then treated to a performance of great energy, passion and skill. The sound from the large drums reverberated through your body and everybody sat enthralled by the spectacle before us and the privilege of witnessing the world famous Kodo drummers performing especially for us in their home village. We were exceptionally fortunate to have two of the founding members of Kodo performing Yoshikazu Fujimoto and Chieko Kojima both who have been drumming for over forty years.
Back in Ugi Port the community had put together a grand farewell featuring local dancers, fantastically intricate origami ibis and ladies in the traditional Taraibune Tub boats. This evening Captain Patrick Marchesseau hosted us for the Captains welcome cocktails and dinner.
It was a lovely still morning as ‘L’Austral’ made her way into the Port of Kanazawa, once again the weather gods were shinning upon us. As breakfast was served we docked in what was to be our base for the next two days as we explore the city of Kanazawa and Ishikawa Prefecture. On the way to our excursions we received the traditional local gift of an origami Samurai hat.
Shirakawa-go and Shogawa River Excursion
This was the first tour of the morning to depart and we headed straight through Kanazawa towards the mountains that loomed in the distance behind the city. For the first 40 minutes or so of the drive we were passing through the extensive rice paddies that produce the high quality rice for which Kanazawa is so renowned, and at this time of the year the fields were a hive of activity as the rice was being planted for the year. Then very abruptly we left the rice paddies behind and started to drive through the mountains, the road followed the Shogawa River but passed through numerous long tunnels that afforded glimpses of the beautifully blue river within the gorge.
Then just like that we arrived at Shirakawa-go, a protected hamlet deep within the mountains. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural significance and the scene before us with the steep thatched roof houses surrounded by lush green fields with a backdrop of forested mountains rising to snow clad peaks certainly seemed fitting for such a designation. We wandered with our guide through the fields, along alleys and down windy streets as we explored the village, the steep thatch on the house roofs was several feet thick and tied in place in such a way that not a single nail or screw was required. In the mountain streams that flowed through the village there were carp and trout, around the houses the iris were coming into bloom and the rice paddies were being planted. All in all it was a lovely morning
for a stroll through Shirakawak-go.
The Best of Kanazawa Excursion
Kanazawa is a castle town established by the powerful Maeda clan during the 16th century. The town was built around the castle, a fortress for the Maeda daimyo who became the wealthiest daimyo during the 16th and 17th centuries. Fortunately, the city was not bombed during WWII so it maintains the traditional architectural styles and the traditional craft aesthetic.
The Kenrokuen Garden, cited across from the castle, is one of the most important daimyo gardens in Japan. A Kaiyu style or “stroll garden”. It was designed around a central pond with many different venues featuring tea gardens and a variety of rock formations, all enlivened with seasonal flowering plants. One of the oldest species of Japanese iris, kakitsubata, was blooming today. The garden stroll also included a visit to the Seisonkaku residence that demonstrated architectural elements unique to Japan – shoji panels that can be opened to outside garden views and carved wooden panels placed at the top of the walls allowing air and light to flow between spaces. The jewel tone colors of burgundy, blue and purple are interior wall colors unique to Kanazawa. A tea ceremony was performed for all guests at the Gyokusen-an garden retreat. Chanoyu, the Way of Tea, continues to thrive some 600 years after its origins in the Zen communities. Over the centuries it evolved into a very popular pastime with an estimated 10 million people practicing tea today in Japan.
The afternoon program featured a visit to gold leaf studio. Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan’s gold leaf. It is essential to the embellishment of many of the arts including Buddhist sculptures and sutras (scriptures), painting, ceramics, lacquer and fabrics. Everyone decorated a postcard by applying multi-colored gold leaf to the design motif.
The final visit of the day was at a Kutani porcelain studio. Kutani porcelain is unique to Kanazawa as Maeda warlords were able to acquire the knowledge of the porcelain industry from Kyushu where the porcelain clay was discovered and the industry was established. Kutani ware is characterized by a bold palette – ochre, blue, purple and green. The motifs are inspired by textiles and other decorative motifs. Only 37 years old, the young potter is now the eldest member of the Kutani family to continue this 500 year old family tradition.
Kakusenkei Gorge and Yamanaka Onsen Excursion
The excursion began with a walk along the lush Kakusekei Gorge. Mosses, ferns, and other plants lined the walkway as it followed the Kakusenkei River bordering the town of Yamanaka.
We then walked to the Yamanaka Onsen where we all enjoyed a well-earned dip in the warm waters, including an open-air rock-lined bath overlooking the river. The Onsen was followed by lunch with great views of the gorge. After lunch, we strolled the main street of Yamanaka.
Overnight ‘L’Austral’ was docked in the port of Kanazawa. We stayed overnight because there is more to do here than one day allows so the plan for the morning was to continue our explorations and broaden our knowledge and understanding of the area. For those who had been on the Shirakawa-go and Kakusenkei excursions yesterday this was the first chance to experience the city on a “Highlights of Kanazawa Tour” for those on the “Best of Kanazawa” this morning was going to be spent delving deeper into the heart of the city.
Highlights of Kanazawa Excursion
Departing the ship we headed for central Kanazawa, first stop being the Gyokusen-an garden retreat, this recently constructed tea house sits on the shores of a centuries old castle lake and garden so the views are exceptional. With all of us sitting as delicately as possible on the floor mats the ceremony unfolded before us with the preparation of the vessels, whisking of the tea and the presenting of the tea and sweets. The ceremony is beautiful for its simplicity
Next stop was the Kenrokuen Garden, which is just a short bus ride away on the other side of the castle, the entrance to the gardens was a bustle of activity but very quickly we moved away and found our own space in the surprisingly expansive grounds. The garden is an exceptional design using water and landscape features as well as the plantings themselves to divide the area into spaces while at the same time creating a feeling of expansiveness was very noticeable and quite ingenious. The expansive and perfect moss beds were amazing and then near the end or our visit we discovered the reason for their perfection as a team of gardeners were meticulously weeding a moss bed.
The final stop for our morning in Kanazawa was the Higashi Chaya district, home to the Geisha tea houses, with its narrow alleys and beautifully preserved buildings many dating back two centuries it was marvelous to wander and explore. We passed Lady Baba’s Tea House, the proprietor from our marvelous Geisha show the night before and were also able to venture inside many of the buildings which now housed shops selling gold leaf and lacquer ware.
Best of Kanazawa – Day 2 Excursion
The morning began with a visit to the Higashi Chaya District of the city. Here, Kanazawa’s Geisha quarters offered a glimpse into the past when the tea houses were filled with wealthy samurai and merchants. Today, the small quarter features traditional architecture and small specialty shops. The architectural styles of the 17th and 18th centuries is evident in vertical lattice work on the first floor, known as “Kaga lattice”, and the exterior sliding panels on the second floor. The upper levels had higher ceilings to accommodate the “banquet rooms” for entertaining. The exterior panels can be slid open for light and air. Lady Baba, the owner of a prominent tea house greeted the guests at the door to her establishment. She and the talented Geisha performed on the ship the night before to an enthusiastic audience.
Passengers participating the day also had the opportunity to tour a market to admire the extraordinary seafood available for Kanazawa restaurants and residents.
Some then took the opportunity of their free time in and around Kanazawa railway station, a hive of activity and home to some excellent Japanese restaurants. With all back aboard ‘L’Austral’ we bid farewell to Kanazawa and later in the afternoon our Geologist Daria introduced the “Volcanic Islands of Japan”.
Despite rain being forecast the day once again dawned dry and with the promise of being warm. Sakaiminato is the port for the ancient town of Matsue, situated on a long sand bank at the mouth of an expansive estuary with lush green hills rising above us across the harbor channel. Today there were two excursion to choose from.
Matsue Castles & Gardens Excursion
Departing from the ship we headed across several bridges connecting the various islands in the estuary and soon found ourselves in a horticultural paradise with peonies and ginseng being the main crops growing on the light sandy soils. We were headed to Yushien Garden, an enclave of tranquility and beautiful garden design amidst the fields, renowned for its peonies we were just past the peak of flowering but some plants were still in bloom particularly the tree peonies and there was also a cooled display house that had an expansive display. There were peonies in every shade imaginable from white to pink, yellow and even a deep velvety red variety. As is typical of great Japanese gardens Yushien is designed around water with the streams and ponds forming the structure of the garden around which every other element has been added.
Next we ventured into the heart of Matsue City, a small city with a population today of just 120,000, the center of town is dominated by Matsue Castle. This castle has survived through the centuries to be one of only four remaining ancient castles in Japan, rising on a promontory and surrounded by large moats the black and white castle has a distinct presence. We climbed a series of staircases moving progressively closer to the castle building itself. This is not a castle in the European sense but rather a large stone and wood structure rising from a defensible position atop the promontory, designed to withstand sieges and accommodate the samurai warriors that defended it. Once inside we climbed through the progressive layers of the castle on steep wooden staircases that eventually brought us to the top and a grand view over the city.
Lunch was served at a nearby restaurant where the slices of beef were cooked over a piping hot BBQ plate in the tables and it was delicious. After lunch there was a chance to wander through the old samurai district and enjoy a Japanese soft serve ice cream. Back at ‘L’Austral’ it was necessary to clear customs as we are heading to South Korea tomorrow and then there was a sail away farewell from the local community as we headed out into the Japan Sea.
Adachi Museum & Paper Making Excursion
The bright sunny day began with a visit to the Izumo Mingeishi paper workshop in Matsue-shi. The visit began with us learning about the late Living National Treasure Eishiro Abe who dedicated his life to creating Izumo Mingeishi washi paper.
We then had the opportunity to make our own paper in the style of Izumo Mingeishi washi paper with the help of the experts at the workshop. We also had the chance to watch the craftsmen at work,
From there we traveled a short distance to the Adachi Museum where we toured the unique gardens and exhibits of the museum.
Overnight we had crossed the Sea of Japan, and for the first time on the voyage there was some motion, not a lot but enough for us to know we were on the sea. Offshore from the port of Ulsan there was an armada of cargo vessels waiting their turn in port, we sailed through these and into the sheltered waters of Ulsan Harbour. This port city is home to Hyundai with both a large ship building yard and their largest car factory located here producing 6,000 cars per day. After completing Korean immigration formalities we joined our buses and set off for Gyeongju, the ancient Korean Capital city.
First stop was at the National Museum where we saw artifacts excavated from the Tumuli Park burial grounds, these were exceptional for how richly decorated and abundant they were. There was display after display of golden crowns, necklaces and decorative ware along with more ancient artifacts from the stone and bronze age. Next stop was at Tumuli Park where giant burial mounds from the Silla Dynasty rise up out of the landscape. The Flying Horse tomb was excavated in 1974 and gives access to the interior of a mound showing the shear amount of work required to construct one of these burial mounds. It was from the Flying Horse tomb that many of the artifacts at the National Museum originated. Tumuli Park was a great place for a stroll through the mounds that rose from the plain with near vertical grass covered sides.
Our lunch was a grand buffet at the local hotel. Traditional Korean kimchi was sampled by many for the first time and enjoyed by some, but with the diversity of food available there was something for everyone. Over lunch we were entertained by colorfully attired traditional Korean performers, then it was time to head for the hills and the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the temple of Bulguksa. This grand complex held us in awe with its age, beauty and the skill of its construction. The main temple stands upon a platform built of cut granite, and rises out of the surrounding forest in all its grandeur. Colorful lanterns adorned the underside of the walkways surrounding the temple and made for great photographic opportunities.
All too soon it was time to return to ‘L’Austral,’ on the ride back several buses were rocking along to the tune Gangnam Style by the famous Korean musician Si. Back aboard and having bid farewell to Korea Marjorie presented “Timeless Beauty: Japanese Gardens.”
During the night we sailed the Sea of Japan, or the Korean Strait. When we awoke this morning it was the shores of Japan that greeted us. With the pilot aboard we started the scenic navigation through the strait of Kanmon with Honshu on the port side and Kyushu on the starboard side. Arriving in the port of Moji there was a warm welcome awaiting us and we left for our excursions after completing Japanese immigration.
Shimonoseki & Kokura Castle Excursion
The morning saw us cross the Kanmon Strait via the large suspension bridge near the ship, with our destination being the city of Shimonoseki that sits on the shore opposite Moji. Here we visited the Akama Shinto Shrine, built in memory of the eight year old Emperor Akama that drowned in the waters of Kanmon Strait after military defeat. It rises up the hillside in a series of terraces and while the architecture is similar to the more familiar Buddhist temples there are subtle differences that our guides pointed out along the way. From the highest terrace where the shrine stood there was a grand view across the strait back to our ship ‘L’Austral’ docked in Moji. From the shrine it was only a short walk along to the Karato fish market, and this was a hive of activity – the auctions had finished for the day but there was a roaring trade in sushi and tempura from the small stalls. Many dived right into the action to find themselves a snack or even lunch but the most daring of all secured themselves some Fugu or Puffer fish, the potentially deadly local delicacy which must be prepared by a highly trained master!
Lunch today saw us back aboard the ‘L’Austral’ and it turned out that today was a festival day in Moji so there were lines of street food vendors selling all sorts of local fare from grilled squid or octopus balls to local multi-layered omelets and crepes and plenty of locals out enjoying the day which was glorious. Also on offer at the wharf was the opportunity to try on a traditional Kimono, it took a little while to do it properly and the local assistants insisted that everything be done properly but the results transformed our guests into local for a few minutes. Then we were off to Kokura Castle and Garden, located right in the middle of the city this was a modern recreation of the traditional castle and garden but beautifully done and the castle proved to be a great interpretative museum full of information.
With all back aboard ‘L’Austral’ the city of Moji bid us farewell with an excellent school brass band playing on the wharf alongside the ship and several hundred locals waving us off. Then it was onwards through the Kanmon Strait, beneath the bridge and towards Hiroshima.
Moji Doll Painting Excursion
After a ten-minute ride from the Moji Port through the city of Kitakyushu we arrived at the Sankiro house to enjoy a beautiful art day. We spend the morning learning how to paint the famous Kazashi-ningyo dolls, they are a very special gift of Kitakyushu and are presented as a commemorative product in various international exchange settings, such as friendship/sister city meetings. In the 1950’s, Moji Port presented foreign vessels calling at the port with Kazashi-ningyo unglazed dolls as handcrafted gifts. The dolls have captivated numerous people with their elegant curves and delicate colors produced with traditional techniques. However, in the latter half of the 1960’s, there was a shortage of craftsmen which ended doll production. In 2015, a joint industry/academic/government project was launched to revive the art of Kazashi-ningyo, which were reproduced over a period of about one year using a combination of latest digital technologies, such as three-dimensional scanning and modeling.
Akiyoshido Plateau and Cave Excursion
This morning 28 guests set off on an adventure to explore the limestone plateau and cave. The group was led by our geologist Daria Nikitina and Japanese tour guide Miko. At the top of the plateau from the observation point we enjoyed the view of karst landscape created by water that dissolves limestone and creates many sinkholes and limestone pinnacles. The limestone formed 300 million years ago at the bottom of the ocean and used to be a coral reef. Many of us took the walk between sinkholes and enjoyed the endless view of the high plateau. After a delicious Japanese style lunch at the restaurant we descended in to the cave. Walking through the narrow entrance we entered spacious rooms and chambers with stalactites, stalagmites, flow rocks, waterfalls and many other features created by groundwater. On the way back, our guide shared with us the story about how toto, the Japanese style toilet was invented.
As we woke this morning ‘L’Austral’ was sailing through the islands of the Inland Sea headed for Hiroshima, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky or a ripple on the water as we navigated between islands and around the extensive oyster farms that characterize this area. This morning it was an early start with the first group away from the ship at 7:45 a.m. and the others following along in due course afterwards.
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.
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 1200 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 commanding 360 degree views from Hiroshima across the Sato Sea and to the south for many miles in every direction.
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
We spent the morning at the Hiroshima Peace Park reflecting on the events that unfolded on the morning of August 6, 1945 when the world’s first nuclear bomb was detonated 600 meters above the city of Hiroshima. The death toll from the initial detonation and subsequent effects of the bombing including the radiation saw 140,000 deaths within the year. The skeleton of the trade promotion building close to where the epicenter of the explosion was stands as a lasting testament to the bomb, the destruction it and the lasting consequences for the people of Hiroshima. Guests gently rang the giant peace bell and we walked through the gardens past the eternal flame en route to the museum where there was a moving record of the effects of the bomb on Hiroshima and its people.
After returning to ‘L’Austral’ for lunch the group travelled by privately chartered launch to Miyajima where there was a chance to visit Itsukushima Shinto Shrine with its iconic O-torii gate standing in the bay beyond the temple.
Memories of Hiroshima Excursion
We started our Memories of Hiroshima tour today with a visit to the beautiful Shukien Gardens – crossing over the little arched bridge we saw herons and turtles amongst the islands with beautiful bonsai. After visiting the garden we drove towards Hiroshima castle and museum, home to many original artefacts.
After enjoying lunch aboard ‘L’Austral’ we began our afternoon with a short drive to the A-bomb dome beside the Hiroshima Peace Park. Our guide Kimiko led us through the beautiful grounds of the park where we had the opportunity to ring the Peace Bell and to reflect upon the Eternal Flame which will burn until all the world’s nuclear weapons have been destroyed. In pensive mood we entered the museum and were introduced to A-bomb survivor Mrs. Keiko Okura. This delightful lady very graciously gave her time to us to describe her experiences during the bombing, its immediate aftermath and the years that followed. Her moving account concluded with a plea that each of us become ambassadors of peace and an end to nuclear warfare.
This evening Captain Patrick Marcheseau hosted farewell cocktails and dinner, there is still another day of the expedition to go yet but tomorrow is a busy day!
Our run of exceptional weather continues and it was yet another beautiful morning, overnight ‘L’Austral’ navigated through the Seto or Inland Sea so even during the night there was plenty to see with the lights of small towns blinking around us at various times and other ships passing by as well. Okayama port is situated in the midst of a group of islands and is enclosed by hills which all in all makes for a very scenic setting, especially for those up early enough to catch the morning light on the hills. Today there was once again three excursion options to choose from.
Bitchu-Takahashi & Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle Excursion
The first tour to depart and being Monday morning we were a little delayed by the traffic en route to our first stop at the Kibitsu Shrine, but along the way we drove through a fascinating rural landscape which showcased traditional rice cultivation and also a more recent crop of wheat. The Kibitsu Shrine is a Shinto shrine and after a steep flight of stairs we entered into a delightful compound nestled against the hill and surrounded by beautiful forest, of particular note is the graceful carved walkway that connects the northern and southern gates. Then it was back aboard the coach for the drive through to Takahashi, this took us up into the hills where rice and eating grapes were the crops of choice. In Takahashi we board a smaller local bus for the drive up the mountain following a road that seemingly clung to the mountainside, and then it was finally time to get walking. A well-formed trail took us up through the forest climbing towards Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle that sat proudly atop the mountain in its prime defensive location. The castle is one of only twelve remaining original castles from the Edo period and was constructed almost entirely from locally sourced materials, beautiful in its simplicity and robustness we all enjoyed some time inside marveling at the craftsmanship and history contained within the walls before returning back down the mountain to our waiting bus.
Lunch at the Takahashi International Hotel was a beautifully presented bento box – a fitting final meal ashore for our journey. During the afternoon we visited the Raikyu-Ji Temple where the azaleas were still in bloom. We all sat in quiet contemplation of the elegant simplicity of the design that drew the eye to many points as well as allowing it to rest peacefully. Nearby the samurai residences provided a window into life for the esteemed upper classes before it was time to bid farewell to Takahashi and return to ‘L’ Austral.’
Kurashiki and Korakuen Gardens Excursion
After a short drive we arrived in the beautifully landscaped Korakuen gardens. Built in 1687 by the local feudal lord and used as a reception area for the ruling family, we strolled around this spacious garden, stopping for the seasonal peach soft serve ice cream and enjoying a wonderful sunny day.
After our morning in the garden, we joined our fellow passengers doing the excursion in the opposite direction for lunch. Following a lovely lunch overlooking the city of Okayama, we headed to Kurashiki. Our afternoon was spent visiting the converted storehouses and boutiques of Kurashiki that go back to the Edo period and the city’s days as an important rice distribution center. Everyone had a wonderful afternoon exploring the Bizen pottery and small shops holding everything from Japanese rice crackers, green tea ice cream and other small Japanese knick knacks.
Naoshima – Art Island Excursion
After a short ferry ride across to Naoshima we were immersed in a world of art and architecture. With visits to the Chi Chu (meaning underground) Museum and Benesse House Museum we had ample opportunity to soak up the architectural brilliance of Tadao Ando. In the Chi Chu Museum there are installations and artworks by Monet, James Turrell, Walter De Maria, while in the Benesse House Museum there is a wider diversity of artists represented but includes Shinro Ohtake, Richard Long, Yukinori Yanagi, Jennifer Bartlett and Jonathan Borosky amongst others. A delicious lunch was served at the Benesse House Museum and the afterwards there was the opportunity to visit the islands iconic yellow pumpkin before continuing on to walk the street and alleyways while visiting the houses of the Benesse Art House Museum. Throughout the day the weather was beautifully sunny – a great day was had by all!