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Wonders of Japan Trip Log May 16 - May 29, 2018
Thursday, May 17: Kyoto
After many hours flying, catching transfers and taxies we arrive today at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kyoto. This is a superb location being close to Kinkakuji Temple, Nijo Castle and Tenryuji Temple - three historic places where we will kick off on our explorations.
Welcome to Japan!
A delicious breakfast in the Garden Room filled us for an early departure to Nijo Castle, first of our historical stops for today. Here we had an opportunity to see the ornate audience halls of Ninomaru Palace. Taking in the sights and the subtle squeaking of what is known as the ‘Nightingale walkways’, which gave us a feeling of a place paused in time and just long enough for us to experience a moment in history.
Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) was our tour next stop where we saw the magnificence and opulence of a building smothered in gold leaf. This 3 storey pavilion was lovingly restored to its original spender in 1955 after it was burned to the ground by a young monk. The Golden Pavilion and the lavish gardens just added to the wonderful Japan experience.
Tenryuji Temple nestled on the slope of the Aradhiyama district, blessed us with a talk on Zen Buddhism. Here we were reminded to take time and ‘be in the moment’ try not to let our thoughts wander on ahead, instead to sit and be still and enjoy the now. A good lesson we could all try now and again.
Lunch anyone? What an experience! The true Buddhist vegetarian ensemble presented to us was a first for most. The different flavours and textures that dancing over your tastebuds was exciting, fresh and perhaps strange. A unique meal which had people talking long in to the afternoon.
The late afternoon saw us in with a cooler and less busy walk through the Heian Shrine renowned for its gorgeous vermilion-hued brilliance. The gardens were particularly stunning as a peaceful meander along the water’s edge had us eying magnificent flora which was a wonderful way to end our day exploring.
Following the sights and sounds of Kyoto it was lovely to return to the hotel and get ready for the welcome reception. This was a great opportunity to meet the rest of the guests and chat about the day.
Friday, May 18: Osaka
Breakfast, handing in Passports, a morning walk, then onward to our home for the rest of the voyage, our ship, 'L’ Austral'.
We left in small groups for our guided walking tour to the Jsanjusangen-do temple. This was situated just across the road from our hotel. The wonderful building was a sight to see from the outside but surprisingly it was what was contained on the inside that astounded us. To see the one thousand wood carved and gold-leafed life sized statues standing in perfect rows within the active temple was awesome! Again standing in awe of what people can accomplish.
Buses left our hotel en route to'L’Austral' and we took a quick sojourn through the Expo Park gardens enroute. Here the rose garden was in full bloom with not only a feast for the eyes, our sense of smell was titillated by the fresh aroma of the blooming flowers.
All aboard and time to unpack into our cabins, our home for the next part of our journey. After lifeboat drill we settled in and are due to sail tonight for the port of Takamatsu.
Saturday, May 19: Takamatsu
Shodoshima/ Kankakei tour
In the early morning thirty guests plus staff and local guides boarded a ferry from Takamatsu to Tonosho Port in Shodoshima Island, also known as ‘Olive Island’. Right after a beautiful drive we took a ropeway along Kankakei Gorge to the summit of Setonaikai National Park then headed down a scenic trail and discovering local flora and amazing landscapes. Walking was slow as the trail was very wet after the intense rain last night. As soon as we got back to the bus, a short drive brought us to Kinryo Shoyu where we learned about soy sauce artisanal making. We spent the rest of the morning immersed in intense smells and flavours, which made our mouths water. Resistance was futile and soon our wallets were open as we made our purchase of sauce and olive oils. By noon the brilliant sunshine lead the way we headed off for an amazing Japanese cuisine lunch, followed by a picturesque view of the Olive Garden on our way back to the Tonosho Port. A highspeed boat brought us back to Takamatsu to board 'L’Austral' in time to get ready for the Captain’s welcome party.
Best of Takamatsu
A fresh 9:00 a.m. departure had us boarding the luxury buses for the start of our ‘Best of Takamatsu’ excursion.
Ritsurin-koen is considered to be one of the finest gardens in Japan. It is said to contain a thousand pine trees, each painstakingly hand-pruned to give the impression of great age. We explored this miniature landscape to find Kikugetsutei, the ‘moon-scooping pavilion’ teahouse, lying at the garden’s heart. Taking in the view across the lake, with its half-moon bridge, we were lucky to catch an unexpected glimpse of a bridal couple in their elaborate silk kimonos.
The town of Kinashi is famous for its bonsai. Eighty per cent of Japan’s pine bonsai are produced in this town. We visited two venerable bonsai nurseries, Kandaka shojuen, with its acres of pine trees under training, and Nakanishi chishoen, run by a fifth-generation bonsai master. Dozens of precious ancient trees reside in these gardens, lovingly tended by their owners and passed down from generation to generation.
The excursion to Naoshima, Japan’s art island, began with a stroll through the narrow streets of Takamatsu to discover the Art House projects. The island patron, Benesse Company, commissioned site-specific art installations for houses and buildings. The Ishibashi family home and a dentist building now showcase the artistry of Hiroshi Senju and Shinro Ohtake. The most memorable art house was James Terrell’s installation that required patience and zen-like meditation for our eyes to adjust in the completely darken interior in order to see a softly-lit wall. Entitled Minamidera, this installation is named after the temple that once stood on the site.
Lunch was served in a restaurant designed by Tadao Ando. Its seaside site was walking distance from Yayoi Kusama’s gleaming black and yellow pumpkin perched on a pier. The afternoon tour featured the Benesse Art House and its collections of works by American, Japanese and British artists—Jennifer Bartlett, Hiroshi Sugimoto and David Hockney. The day-long excursion concluded with a visit to the Chichu Art Museum where we experienced the artistic collaborations of architect Tado Ando, James Terrell and Walter de Maria who created poetic and powerful installations of stone, light and sky.
Claude Monet’s paintings of waterliles were uniquely installed in a gallery devoted to this artist whose life-long pursuit was to capture the transience of light and color with brush and paint. At the museum’s entrance, a garden evoking the many hues and textures of Monet’s paintings bridged the world of nature and art.
After another awe-inspiring day, filled with art, culture and historic moments we all dolled-up to be introduced to an absolutely wonderful man, our Captain, David Marionneau-Chatel. A decadent glass (or two) of lovely Veuve Clicquot saw us into the Theatre where our Cruise Director Nadia, welcomed us and our Captain took to the stage.
After dinner, a few drinks and stories shared, it was again time to turn in for the night for a fresh start in the morning as we sail into Hiroshima.
Sunday, May 20: Hiroshima/Miyajima
Best of Hiroshima
This morning, we boarded the bus at 8:30 a.m. and drove through the bustling streets of Hiroshima to the Peace Park and Memorial. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Our expert Japanese guides described the 6th of August 1945, the day that Hiroshima was destroyed by the Atomic bomb, as a horror that started out as a gorgeous day like today. Impossible to imagine. Through the photographic record and the display of artifacts in the museum we could see the incredible and unspeakable damage inflicted by atomic weapons on human bodies, hearts and minds. No matter how many times one visits Hiroshima, it is a sobering experience and leaves all of us with reflections on war and peace.
Memories of Hiroshima
Our group was treated to a rare experience as we were introduced to Sadae Kasoka one of the remaining survivors who actually witnessed that fateful day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 6th August 1945 at 8:15 a.m. At only 12 years old, Sadae describes the perfectly normal morning going about her work when a blinding flash caught her attention before covering her ears to the deafening explosion that followed. She went on to explain the confusion and terror that swept through her as she desperately searched for her parents not knowing what was happening.
This very moving and emotion recount of a moment we can only imagine had many shedding several tears as the reality that was for a nation became real for us, if only for a moment. What a brave woman. Thank you Sadae-san.
Sights and Shrines of Miyajima
Glorious views over the city of Hiroshima and the Seto inland sea was the reward today for our band of hardy souls who braved the climb to the summit of Miyajima’s highest peak, Mount Misen. We experienced the brilliant greens of the forest canopy from above as we caught cable cars part way up the mountain, and giant granite boulders, suspended above our heads, as we climbed the rest of the way on foot. Luckily we were able to fortify ourselves with tea at Raikado hall, brewed over a fire that has burned continuously since the year 809 CE.
After lunch at a local restaurant looking out over a traditional Japanese garden, we walked through the orange halls of Itsukushima Shintō shrine, with its iconic torii gate standing in splendid isolation in the sea beyond. Our final sightseeing destination was the idiosyncratic Daishoin Buddhist temple, full of quirky statues of Buddhist saints, each with a knitted cap atop his head. The afternoon was spent shopping in the local market for curios sampling green tea ice-cream and tasting the local delicacy, oysters. Miyajima has many inquisitive local deer and some found themselves inadvertently sharing their snacks with these wonderful creatures.
It was then time to head off again and board the high speed Ferry back to Hirishima and then a quick bus ride to 'L’ Austral' where we were surprised by a truly energetic performance of the Hirishima Junior Marimba Ensemble. Their music, energy and smiling faces made sure everyone who attended the performance was left in awe of these young performers. What a treat!
Monday, May 21: Karatsu
We had a sleep-in this morning and woke to the gentle rocking of ‘L’Austral.’ After breakfast we had time to reflect on our journey thus far and it’s hard to believe we have only been sailing for three nights. We have achieved so much in Japan already and are looking forward the treasures still to be discovered.
We had an early lunch then were headed off on the buses for our next adventure discovering Karatsu. As we headed down the gangway we were met by the people of Karatsu who put on a wonderful welcome for us. The town brass band played as passengers danced with local preschoolers. The atmosphere was electric as many more people filed in to the harbor in anticipation of our arrival.
Best of Karatsu
Driving just a few minutes from port, we visited Karatsu castle. The towering white castle was built in samurai times as a siege refuge for the ruling family, and it is still the most imposing building in this charming seaside town today. The castle holds a historical museum telling the story of Karatsu’s samurai past and boasts magnificent views over the surrounding area.
We went on to the Karatsu Kunchi Festival museum, which contains the gigantic, elaborate floats that have been pulled through the streets of Karatsu as part of a Shintō celebration every November since the 17th century. The floats are brightly painted and gilded, in the image of mythological beasts and samurai helmets. Later, some visited the ridiculously photogenic Karatsu jinja Shintō shrine, next door, before travelling to our final destination.
The Takatori house was formerly the home of Taketori Koreyoshi, a wealthy coal magnate during the Meiji period. The exquisitely preserved house contains all the classic elements of a Japanese house, as well as several western features, such as a grand piano, glass windows and a fireplace, perfectly capturing that era of rapid modernization in Japan.
It was a beautiful day to be in Karatsu, on the island of Kyushu, an ancient city that frequently welcomed travellers from China and Korea. Today’s travellers spent the afternoon experiencing the traditional arts of puppetry, tea ceremony and Karatsu-yaki or ceramics.
The performance of the Joruri puppets provided a special opportunity to understand the intricate collaboration of artists. Three puppeteers manipulated one doll whose nuanced movements evoke expressions of sadness, happiness, love and loss. The real star was a narrator who expertly sang the role of each character, changing her voice from that of a young girl to a mature woman while conveying the story’s drama. The entire troupe will travel to New York in June for performances.
Karatsu ceramics are famous for their grey-colored clay forms accented with painted brown motifs or stamped with floral designs and filled-in with a white slip. The Karatsu potter Nakazato Taroemon was designated one of Japan’s Living National Treasures for his artistry and continuing this traditional art. We visited his kiln - over 200 years old - that is still fired to produce stoneware cups and bowels today. The multi-chambered kiln is built on an incline so the upper chambers achieve the hottest temperatures. Red pine wood, imported from Okayama, fuels the kiln. A single firing takes three-days to complete. The kiln is the oldest in Kyushu.
Finally, the afternoon concluded with a demonstration of the traditional tea ceremony at the Kinshoji Temple. We drank green tea from finely-potted Karatsu tea bowls in a room embraced by gardens. The freshness of the flavor and delicate scent as well as the welcoming presence of the Zen monk and tea hosts brighten moods. The dry landscape garden at the temple’s entrance was raked in circular patterns, evoking the eternal movement of water and life.
Green Tea Harvesting
Japanese life revolves around the drinking of green tea. Rural Karatsu in the Saga prefecture is home to one of the most famous tea farms in Japan. After a short drive from the ‘L’Austral’ we arrived at the green tea farm. A warm welcome by the local farmers greeted us on arrival. After a quick lesson in the correct way to choose and harvest only the best leaves of the tea plant, we were handed traditional wooden baskets and then set free to go and pick our own tea leaves. What an absolute treat!
This particular area has been producing tea for over 100 years, and it felt great to be a part of that tradition. We had the opportunity to then sample various teas like Sench and Tempura, and whatever was left was gifted to us to enjoy back home.
Getting back to the port was just as festive as when we first arrived and as we climbed the gangway we were sent off buy the sound of traditional drummers beating for us a heart-thumping rhythm as we set sail for South Korea.
Tuesday, May 22: Gyeongju, South Korea
Today’s highlight was a visit to Korea’s world heritage-listed Bulguksa temple, whose name translates as ‘Buddha’s Kingdom Temple’. Bulguksa dates to the eighth century, comprising a number of sub-temples, prayer halls and pagodas. Each building is brightly painted in turquoise, reds and yellows, with elaborately carved roof timbers. As if it wasn’t beautiful enough already, we were lucky enough to visit on Buddha’s birthday. The temple complex was festooned with vivid multi-colored paper lanterns, and full of worshippers, bobbing up and down as they bowed 108 times before the historic gilt statue of Buddha.
After a generous buffet lunch of Korean, Chinese and Western cuisine, we were graced by local traditional performers who danced ever so gracefully, followed by a drummer who seemed to tell a story through movement while beating a pleasant rhythmic beat.
We then continued on to the Tumuli Park, a pretty landscape garden set around Silla dynasty burial mounds. The large burial mounds give the area a very special atmosphere. Each grass-covered dome contains the tomb of a member of Silla royalty, buried with all their riches and everything needed for the afterlife.
Gyeongju National Museum
The precious artifacts excavated from the burial mounds are housed at the Gyeongju National Museum, our last port of call. Here we were able to view at close quarters the exquisitely crafted gold and jade jewelry of the Silla dynasty, along with more everyday items such as food utensils and weapons. We learned the history of this astounding city; from Neolithic times, to the adoption of Buddhism and Chinese writing system, until its zenith in the eighth century, when Gyeongju became one of the four largest cities in the world along with Baghdad, Constantinople and Xian.
Once back on board, we attended an informative lecture presented by Louisa, entitled, ‘Japan is the Center of the World’ a brief history in to Japan.
Once again a magnificent dinner and a few cocktails saw us ready for bed as we sail onwards returning to Japan for our next port of call in Matsue, Sakaiminato.
Wednesday, May 23: Cruising the Sea of Japan
We woke up this morning to rainy grey skies – this seemed like the perfect opportunity to relax and unwind as we readied ourselves for our continued exploration of Japan.
The day was spent catching up with new found friends, spending time with family and in general taking it easy… that was the idea. The ship was abuzz with activities ranging from group Q & A’s to lectures by our onboard experts, a movie, music and card games.
The first of our lectures was presented by our ever-fascinating and entertaining resident expert Simon who delivered his lecture ‘Japanese Gardens – their history and appreciation’, helping us to understand the history, design points and plants that we will see as we travel around Japan.
This was followed by a six panel question and answer session hosted by our Cruise Director, Nadia. The experts included, Richard, Marjorie, Louisa, Simon, Chieko-san and Su-san. Questions started flowing and our panel answered with knowledge and flair, providing additional information regarding Japan, the history, cultural aspects, and everyday life for Japanese people.
After another lunch, it was time for an interesting movie entitled ‘Sumo East and West’ and the popcorn was a warm welcome as we filed into the theatre.
Our onboard cultural expert Marjorie took to the stage this afternoon to give a very informative lecture entitled ‘Geisha and the Floating World’, that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in Edo, Japan. These were talented performers and highly skilled in calligraphy, composing poetry and refined conversation. The prints and paintings, known as Ukiyo-e, discussed during the lecture were windows into their world filled with actors, daimyo and merchants. Geisha in Japan today have become icons of Japanese culture and epitomize the concept of beauty and femininity.
As we exited the theatre we heard the sounds of classical music drifting through the halls, and following these melodic notes we found ourselves in the Grand Salon where Roman, our resident concert pianist was entertaining with classic music pieces from the masters. A truly magnificent performance.
And if that wasn’t enough, it was time to head upstairs to join our fascinating expert, Louisa in the Theatre as she continued Part II of her talk, ‘Japan is the Centre of the World” outlining the incredible history of the country of Japan.
Our usual fun filled recap and briefing brought us up to speed with the goings on and what to expect for tomorrows landing in Kanazawa and the tours to follow. And would you know it, it was then time to eat again.
Thursday, May 24 & Friday, May 25: Kanazawa
Kakusenkei Gorge and Yamanaka Onsen Experience
Travelling an hour inland from Kanazawa by coach, we arrived at the scenic hot springs resort town of Yamanaka, whose name means ‘in the middle of the mountains’. Surrounded on all sides by forest-covered mountains, we descended into Kakusenkei Gorge to hike along the river bank in the dappled shade of the fresh green Japanese maples.
At the end of our walk we entered the onsen, a traditional Japanese bath house, where the men and women went their separate ways to sit like satisfied snow monkeys in the natural hot spring water, looking out of the mountain tops, with modesty towels folded on top of our heads.
Lunch was served upstairs in the onsen, where we barbecued our own wagyu beef and vegetables, as the staff brought course after course of dainty Japanese fare, each served in beautifully glazed Kutani ware, after the local custom.
The remote mountainous district of Shirakawa-go is best known for farmhouses in the thatched gassho-zukuri (thick-thatched roof) style. These rustic and lovely houses form part of the traditional dwellings of Japanese homes. With a beautiful hour drive from the port, we headed towards the magnificent mountains which slowly revealed themselves as we drew closer. On the way we passed by many rice paddy farms where immature plants have taken root ready to mature for the coming season.
The quaint village set in a valley surrounded by lush mountains covered in the most wonderful forests of cedar and other gorgeous Japanese trees, could have been a picture from a story book. The local inhabitants went about their daily business farming, pruning and general morning chores as we walked through the streets getting a glimpse of life in a farm village.
The largest home (Wadake) was open for us to tour, here we saw a very neat, sparsely decorated well organized house where six people still call home.
After a traditional lunch in a local restaurant we continued to a lookout point where we could see and take in the entirety of the farmhouse village. A beautiful day spent out in the country and forests of Kanawaza.
The Very Best of Kanazawa
With two days to discover and explore the rich and varied excursion opportunities in Kanazawa, the excursions were split into three half day outings with all of the guests returning to the same coach, with the same guide, for each constituent part.
Despite a rather cool and grey start to the visit, our first morning included a walk around the fascinating, city-center covered market at Omicho. Predominately featuring all manner of seafood and vegetables, this was a photographers’ paradise, with each stall-keeper having presented their wares in immaculate style. A gentle stroll around the market with the local shoppers and with the guides explaining the wide variety of produce available proved to be a very enjoyable exposure to a side of Japan that we hadn’t seen before.
Continuing within the city, our second stop this morning was at Higashi Chaya Street, the traditional heart of the geisha community in Kanazawa laid out in the early 19th century. With narrow streets, traditional building methods, low entrance doors and the chance to enter one of the geisha establishments, it was not difficult to picture just how bustling the area would have been in its heyday.
After lunch back on board ‘L’Austral’ and with the sun well and truly out, we spent the afternoon in the beautiful Kenrok-uen Gardens, generally considered to be amongst the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. Once again, the photographers were in their element as we slowly wandered through, with each turn providing yet another killer shot! During the visit, we were shown the intricacies of the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and were also able to visit the beautiful Seisonkaku Villa, built by a dutiful son for his mother (he was actually a high-ranking 19th century Lord at the time!).
The following morning, under clear blue skies, we returned to the city center for our final two visits. The first of them proved to be great fun as we all took our seats in the ‘classroom’ and were handed a small, plain, black lacquer bowl, a template, pencil and craft knife and were then shown the process of decorating the bowl with gold leaf. After painstaking concentration, the templates had been cut out and affixed to the bowl, adhesive was left to set for about 8 minutes and then the gold leaf was pressed into place, gently - not too firm. Nervously peeling the templates off we waited to see just how good (or not!) our efforts had been. Certainly, in my ‘class’ we all did well, were congratulated by our Japanese ‘teachers’ and now have a souvenir that we made ourselves.
Our final visit was to a pottery studio, now being run by the fifth generation of the same founding family. The current owner showed us around himself, and then made the process of ‘throwing’ two pots on the wheel look ridiculously easy! We were extremely fortunate that he didn’t ask for volunteers to give it a try. Having had two Emperors and a Prime Minister as visitors to the business over the years just emphasized to the group how valuable these traditional craft skills are.
With the visits complete, a number of guests were dropped off in the city center for some final independent wanderings at the end of an extremely enjoyable call to the city of Kanazawa.
Overnight in Kanazawa
Onboard after our respective activities we were delighted to meet Lady Baba and her Kanazawa geiko-san (as the geishas as these are respectfully known in Kanazawa). They took to the stage and we enjoyed a traditional performance of song and dance as these national treasures very proudly showed off their traditional dress and hairstyles.
The rest of the night was ours to explore, visit a local restaurant, or wander the streets and a frequent shuttle was provided to ferry us to town and back to our comfortable ship, ‘L’Austral.’
Saturday, May 26: Sado-ga-shima
This morning we anchored off the port of Ogi in Sado. It was a magnificent day with blue skies and calm seas. Then it was time to board the tender for the short trip to shore. The rocky swells certainly provided some light entertainment for our short ride.
The ship tender was lowered into the water as we made our way to the main lounge where we were escorted downstairs to the pontoon at the back of the ship. With many hands ready to assist us, we climbed in to the tender and headed for the shore. It was a rather fun ride and a unique way to travel. We all arrived safely to a warm welcome from the locals, greeting us with song and dance.
Boarding the buses on the island we headed for Ogi Folk Museum, this former schoolhouse was saved from demolition to take up a new life as a folk museum, here we had an opportunity to see all manner of Sado's cultural artifacts. A life-size replica of a 19th-century sengokubune (wooden freight ship) was also on display. This impressive wooden boat was used to cart sake and rice among other things to other ports of Japan.
A short walk across the road we were kindly invited to a rice paddy farm owned by a local, Mr. Aoki San. He spoke through a local translator as we witnessed two women planting the rice saplings by hand. She explained the process by which to grow this miracle plant.
The highlight for most was our next stop. The home of the world famous Kodo drummers. Nothing could have prepared us for the beat we were about to feel. The word drummers does not do this musical wonder justice. It was quite an experience. We were drawn in on the first beat and held captive by the intricate rhythms as the performance took us on a body rattling roller-coaster following the heartbeat of the island. WOW! The thunderous applause and standing ovation was a show of just how much we enjoyed this spectacular event.
It was all smiles as we headed back to the harbor to say farewell to the local people who offered gifts of paper cranes and Japanese sweets.
After lunch on-board we set sail for Nashiro and while at sea we enjoyed lectures from Marjorie and Louisa.
Marjorie’s talk was entitled ‘The Tale of Genji: Wives Lovers and Demons.’ The lecture introduced the Genji Monogatari, the world’s longest psychological novel written by Lady Murasaki in the Heian court about 1000 AD. Chronicling the lives and loves of Prince Genji, the novel details the court culture of this golden era of Japanese history. Although written over a 1,000 years ago, it still fuels artistic imaginations and intense discussions among scholars and feminists in Japan, Europe and the US.
Dr. Louisa McDonald’s lecture, ‘Dark Humor and Violence in Contemporary Japanese Art,’ introduced us to several prominent Japanese artists whose work is well known in the international contemporary art community. She discussed the themes of appropriation, the infantilization of Japan by the Allied Occupation, the burst of Japan’s “Bubble Economy” in the late 1980s, the cost to the natural world of urban progress, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the works of Yasumasa Morimura, Takashi Murakami, Makoto Aida, Chiho Aoshima, and Chimpom.
Then in the early evening a relaxing cocktail brought us together in the theatre for the daily recap and briefing, where Suzana explained the procedure for the next part of our exciting adventure.
A truly stunning day in Japan and still more to come.
Sunday, May 27: Noshiro/Aomori
‘Good morning, Good morning everybody!’ This morning we awoke to the melodic sound of Suzanna’s voice as she greeted us in our cabins for an early wakeup call, informing us of our departures times for our full day excursion departing from Noshiro.
Noshiro is located in the Akita prefecture, in the far north of Honshu. This is a remote part of Japan, rarely visited by foreign visitors, although many people know the word ‘Akita’ as the name of the breed of dog originating in this region. Two of these fluffy giants greeted us on the pier for welcome petting and cuddles.
Lake Towada and Oirase Trail
The first stop on our excursion was the Odaiko museum, which houses the world’s biggest drum, according the Guinness Book of Records. A troupe of local men played this drum, and several others with heads measuring nearly ten feet across, for us. The giant drums leave the museum once a year as the centerpiece of a Shintō festival, their thunderous sound leading the prayer for good rain.
Crossing into Aomori prefecture, we visited the Hakka Toge observatory. This offered spectacular views across the intense blue waters of Lake Towada, surrounded by thick mountain woods. Wild wisterias festooned the treetops with their purple flowers, which bloom late here in the far north of Japan.
Descending into the Oirase gorge, we followed the river which is the only outlet for Lake Towada, dotted here and there with waterfalls. Under a canopy of ancient katsura trees, Japanese hornbeam and Japanese beech, we walked through an understory of ostrich ferns, rodgersias, trilliums and Japanese Jacks-in-the-pulpit, all in the fresh green of spring.
Lake Juniko Trekking and Aone Onsen
In the early morning thirty-seven of us departed Noshiro on two buses headed for the Shirakami Sanchi mountain range, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and our target for a three-hour trek, connecting several lakes in an area known as Juniko (twelve lakes). The experience was outstanding, with perfect weather for a walk in this superb and dense forest. En route we were guided by two local experts. After the hike, a few minutes on the bus were enough to get to the lunch venue where we had the opportunity to refuel, relax and enjoy the green and rough mountain landscape. And as if we were not already rested enough, located just a few meters away we found ourselves near the hot springs. Our bodies were soothed as we soaked in the divine waters.
By mid-afternoon, another bus ride found us heading towards Aomori, stopping one more time allowing us a final visit to the Sumo Wrestling Museum and one more chance to enjoy a local Matcha ice-cream. By now it was 4:30 p.m. and time to head back to ‘L’Austral’ to get ready for the Captain’s farewell party.
Lake Towado Boat Cruise
The first part of this tour saw us driving through the lush vegetation densely populated with magnificent trees. The road meandered over hills and through valleys as we drove from tunnel to tunnel towards our first stop in Kitaakita City, the home of the world’s largest drum the ‘Tsuzureko Odaiko.’ Measuring 3.71 meters (10.6 feet) in diameter, 4.32 meters (12.34 feet) in length, and weighing approximately four tons. Yes, this is a big drum! After an impromptu demonstration, we were then back in the buses heading for Lake Towada viewing point before heading down to the shoreline for a delicious lunch.
With bellies full and a few minutes to walk the garden and relax in this scenic location we were off on our way to board a sightseeing boat for a pleasant cruise around Lake Towada. This lake sits at the top of a 400-meter-high (1,312 feet) mountain on the border between Aomori and Akita. The lake is a dual crater lake that was formed by the caving in of a volcano mouth formed by a giant eruption. With a depth of 327 meters (1,072 feet), the lake is the third deepest in Japan. The water is so translucent that you can see into it for 10 meters (32 feet).
Once on-board ‘L’Austral’ we had a bit of time to shower and change before heading up to the Theatre for the Captain’s farewell party. On a ship this size you can easily forget the number of staff and crew who are around to cater for our every need and it was truly wonderful to see all the players come together as Nadia invited them to the stage where we had a moment to thank them.
Another delicious dinner and a few more drinks saw us ready for bed and excited for our final excursion tomorrow.
Monday, May 28: Otaru
The morning was spent at sea. We were very fortunate to be accompanied into the port of Otaru by a pod of approximately 100 white-sided Pacific Dolphins. These majestic animals were entertaining us with energetic bursts of leaping out of the water and seemed to be posing, while everyone took the most amazing pictures. They stayed with the ship for about 15 minutes before heading out to sea again.
Craft and Nature walking in Otaru
We took a gondola up to the top of Mount Tengu, named after the Japanese mythical creature with a grimacing red face and long, pointy nose. We visited the Tengu museum, which displays scores of Tengu masks from around Japan on its walls. Afterwards, we took a short nature stroll around the summit area, covered with birch and oak forest trees, and even the remnants of the thick snow, which covers this area for half the year. Our younger passengers even found time to feed the chipmunks kept in an outdoor enclosure here.
Upon descent, we visited the historical canal street of Otaru, once the busiest city in Hokkaidō. The canal is lined with western-style warehouses made of stone and is now a cheery street bustling with locals and tourists eager to buy the region’s famous patisserie, seafood and cut glass.
For our final activity, we tried our hand at making some phone bling, Japanese style, using beautiful glass beads made in Otaru.
Culture & History Tour
We disembarked this afternoon to explore Otaru’s glassmaking industry, here we walked along the streets visiting various shops and stopping to buy (more!) ice- cream. It was then time to gather together for a short drive down the road to a sake brewery, here we had the opportunity to see how this unique drink is brewed and taste the final product. A unique experience for some while others really enjoyed the taste.
The Herring Mansion was our next stop. This magnificent home was truly spectacular and you can only imagine the lavish parties and gatherings this home must have seen before it was sold and re-purposed as place for visitors to enjoy a glimpse of the history that surrounds the fishing industry.
We were then entertained, once again, by the locals who greeted us back onboard as we returned for our final voyage recap and a ‘look back’ on this amazing voyage of discovery we have shared together.
As they say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and this was certainly true as Black Jack (Richard) gave us a memorable photo recap of our journey of exploration as we look back on The Wonders of Japan.
Now time to pack, have one last drink and a good sleep for an early wake-up call tomorrow morning as we all get ourselves ready for departure.
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