Treasures of Japan

Published on Thursday, May 17, 2012

Friday, April 23, 2010 - Kyoto, Japan: Founded in the eighth century, Kyoto was the original capital of Japan and the Emperors’ residence for more than 1,000 years. Today it remains the traditional home of the geisha and their apprentice maiko and boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and architectural landmarks that represent nearly 20% of Japan’s natural treasures.
 
Following a walk through the serene Sagano Bamboo Grove, our next stop was the beautiful 12th-century Sanjusangen-do Temple which houses 1,001 statues of the thousand-armed Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). The temple name refers to the bays between the pillars that house the immense collection of statues. Tragically, the temple burned down in 1249, but was reconstructed in 1266. The western gallery of the temple is also famous for its annual archery contest which dates back to the Edo period.
 
The Heian-jingu Shrine complex and garden was built in 1895 during the Mejii restoration to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto established during Japan’s shogunate era. The beautifully landscaped garden is designed in the style popular during the Heian period. There is a massive scarlet steel torii that marks the entrance to the complex.
 
Lunch was on authentic Japanese tatami mats at Awataguchi-jyunsei for yudo-fu (tofu). Our tour continued to the ancient temple of Kiyomizu-dera which enjoys a dramatic hillside location and spectacular views overlooking Kyoto. It is affiliated with the Hosso School of Buddhism which originated in Nara. It is very popular with local and foreign visitors who come to purchase good luck charms and drink the celebrated waters of Otowa-no-taki, the sacred waterfall.
 
Saturday, April 24 - Kyoto / Kobe / Embark Clipper Odyssey: It was time to bid farewell to Kyoto and continue with our journey departing on Japan’s famed Shinkansen (bullet train) for Kobe, where we enjoyed a delicious traditional Japanese bento box lunch. The classic makunouchi bento originated as refreshment during the intervals between Kabuki plays. Then, it was on to the cable car at Mt. Rokko which provided spectacular views overlooking Kobe’s commercial areas, residential neighborhoods, and the harbor—all of which have been completely rebuilt since the devastating earthquake of 1995. A late-afternoon transfer to the Clipper Odyssey gave everyone the opportunity to unpack and settle in before meeting the expedition staff.
 
Sunday, April 25 - Okayama / Kurashiki: Beautiful blue skies and sunshine greeted everyone upon arrival at the port of Uno Ko, Tamono City. Despite a slightly chilly start, the morning soon warmed up providing a perfect day to visit one of Japan’s top three ‘must-see’ gardens, the Koraku-en Garden of Okayama. Upon our arrival, we discovered we were not the first as this particular Sunday was celebrating the Japanese monk who traveled to China and returned bringing tea with him. Hundreds of formally dressed Japanese men, women, and children were arriving to attend elaborate tea ceremonies throughout the garden. The elegantly-dressed ladies were wearing soft pastel, spring-colored kimonos and obis—the whole scene added to the garden experience. The 28-acre Koraku-en Garden was constructed between 1687 and 1700 and was designed as a stroll garden. The name means ‘the garden for taking pleasure later.’ Opened to the public in 1884, the grounds are also home to some exquisite red-crowned Japanese cranes. In Asia the crane is a very popular and important symbol of longevity, and according to legend it is believed that they live for 1,000 years. While strolling through the gardens visitors can enjoy matcha (frothy green tea) served with kibi-dango (sweet rice cake). Providing a dramatic backdrop to the green lawns and cool carp-filled ponds of this beautifully landscaped garden is the dramatic, black Okayama-Jo, known as Crow Castle originally built in 1597 and rebuilt in 1966.
 
Our morning drive continued though the manicured farming landscape of the Japanese countryside to the town of Kurashiki, a historic picturesque village of rice warehouses set along moats and canals fringed with weeping willows and now famous for arts and crafts. After a delicious lunch in Ivy Square, we explored the O’Hara Museum of Art founded in 1930 to showcase Kojima Torajiro, a Western-style painter. O’Hara Keisaburo was the owner of the Kurabao Textile Company which flourished in the area during the 19th century. His museum boasts an exceptional collection of both modern and contemporary art from Japan and the West. The next stop was the Ohashi House, a charming example of an 18th-century Japanese merchant’s house. Our remaining time was spent exploring the myriad art and craft shops, the Japanese Rural Toy Museum, and the Mingei Museum of Folk Craft.
 
After returning to the Clipper Odyssey, we sailed under the very impressive Seto-Ohashi (Big Bridge) opened in 1988 linking Honshu Island with Shikoku Island. Then our wonderful Japanese guides Chieko Sakihana and Mineko Dohata taught us how to fold paper cranes. In the evening we joined Captain Georgios Pallas and his senior officers for the captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner.
 
Monday, April 26 - Miyajima / Hiroshima: The impressive red, floating Torii (or Shinto shrine) gate to Itsukushima-Jinja is one of the most popular and photographed sights in Japan. It ranks as one of the top three ‘must-see’ sights. Miyajima Island, or more correctly Itsukushima, is a tranquil forested island surrounded by oyster farms set in the Seto Inland Sea. The Itsukushima shrine dates back to 1168 and honors three female deities. The Torii, the shrine, and the stage rest on mud and during high tide appear to be floating on water. The Torii was built in 1875 and is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mark Brazil also led a hike in search of the island’s avifauna and others had time to browse the shops of Miyajima sampling the local maple leaf-shaped cakes stuffed with everything from cheese to bean paste. All too soon it was time to board the Zodiacs for transfer to the ship for lunch.
 
This afternoon we explored Hiroshima. We visited the Memorial Park which begins by the Aioi Bridge over the confluence of the Honkawa and Motoyasu Rivers. The A-Bomb Dome, across the river, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The original building, the Industrial Promotion Hall, was built of steel and concrete and was one of the few buildings that was not completely destroyed. It now serves as a permanent reminder to the world of the tragic cost of atomic warfare. We also visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which documents the background to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the effects on the people of Hiroshima, including the hibakusha (survivors) who experienced the event. The Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall is a contemplative hall of remembrance and register for the atomic bomb victims. Both the Museum and the Peace Memorial Hall were designed by the architect Tange Kenzo.
 
A highlight of today was witnessing the many Japanese school groups visiting the peace park, assembling to pay their respects and lay chrysanthemum flowers at the cenotaph in memory of the victims, and to pray for world peace. Before dinner Ron Wixman rolled out the lecture series with his illuminating and presentation, Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.
 
Tuesday, April 27 - Hagi: Hagi developed as a jokomachi (castle city) in the early 17th century; it was home to a Mori clan daimyo (feudal lord), his retainers, and merchants. Hagi is renowned for its pottery so we set off for the famed Nosaka Kiln to meet the owner, Mr. Nosaka, and his son to learn about the making of hagi-yaki ceramics. Mr. Nosaka is considered a significant cultural asset in Japan and his ceramic works are much sought after and considered collector’s items. While some browsed in his showroom, Nosaka-san entertained us with tea and candied spring orange peel—a local delicacy. Upon arriving in Hagi proper, we walked through the historic streets among the merchant and Samurai houses. The Kikuya Merchant House, now a designated historic landmark, provides a comprehensive glimpse back into the 17th century to see how a wealthy and very well-connected Japanese merchant lived. A wander through the immaculate gardens at the back of the house capped off our experience.
 
The final stop of the morning was at the Tokoji Temple, one of the Mori feudal clan family temples founded in 1691. Its buildings boast a number of important cultural properties of Japan and its construction is clearly influenced by Chinese style. Behind the main temple are the tombs of five Mori lords and more than 500 stone lanterns dedicated by the Mori vassals to honor their feudal lord. They rest mystically amidst bamboo and maple forest in front of the Mori clan mausoleum.
 
After lunch aboard the ship, many of us went back to explore Hagi further and visited some of the many ceramic workshops and sampled the locally-made orange ice cream. Continuing on a westward path, the Clipper Odyssey set sail and Paul Harris continued the lecture series with his thought provoking presentation on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
 
Wednesday, April 28 - Tsushima Islands / Pusan, South Korea: Mid-way between the mainland of Japan’s Honshu Island and South Korea in the Sea of Japan lies Japan’s Tsushima Islands. Tsushima is famous as the site of the sinking of the Russian fleet by the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905-07. The Japanese success established the country as a major power in the eyes of both Europe and the USA. Interestingly, HIJMS Mikasa, Admiral Togo’s flagship at Tsushima was built in British ship yards and is now a naval museum. The island is largely forested and, historically, the economy has depended on the sea for fishing and trade.
 
The Kamizaka Observatory is located in the peaks overlooking northern Izuhara. On a clear day it provides great views of Tsushima (including the 1,000-foot-long bridge that joins the two islands), the mountains of Kyushu, and the Republic of South Korea which lies just 31 miles to the northwest. Behind the observatory are the remains of fortifications built in the 1930s to protect Japan’s outer borders.
 
The Banshoin Temple, built in 1615, was the family temple of the Tsushima clan. Stone lanterns line the 130-step stone stairway to the numerous tombs located in the cedar and pine forest on the hillside. There are three major feudal clans of Japan that have such graveyards: the Mori clan in Hagi, the Tsushima clan, and the Mida clan.
 
During the afternoon the Clipper Odyssey made her way east towards the Republic of South Korea and Sam Perry presented a fascinating look at the changing role of women in Japan in I am not a Geisha: Women and Japanese Modernity. Kim Saunders then prepared us for a day in Korea with her presentation, A Man Can Live Without a Wife, but not Without Kimchi: Introducing Korea and the Koreans.
 
Thursday, April 29 - Kyongju: Our immersion into Korean culture began with a chilly, early morning stroll through the fascinating and extensive Jagalchi Fish Market. Known as “the museum without walls,” Kyongju has several areas designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of these is the beautiful Bulguksa Temple. This magnificent temple was built in 528 A.D. and was renovated in 751 A.D.; its present name means “hope for a clean and comfortable country” and it is known as the Temple of the Buddha Land. Sadly, its wooden structures were burned during the Japanese invasion in 1593, but has regained its splendor through reconstruction from 1969 – 1973. Highlights here include the Paegun, White Cloud, and the Chongun, Blue Cloud, bridges leading to the land of mauve mist, the Sokkatap, Pagoda of Buddha and the Tabotap, Pagoda of Many Treasures, and the gilt-bronze seated Amitahba and Vaircana Buddhas.
 
A delicious buffet lunch was served at Hyundai Hotel, including an opportunity to try Korean soju (vodka), and of course kimchi, the quintessential taste of Korea, fermented pickled cabbage with chili and garlic. Ladies clad in brightly-colored hanbok costumes entertained us with a number of traditional dances including a samulnori, drum dance, and a fan dance. All senses satiated, it was off to the Kyongju National Museum which was established in 1945. The museum showcases 1,000 years of cultural heritage in the form of many of the national treasures that have been retrieved from Silla’s royal tombs and Tumuli parks. Highlights in the Archaeology Hall include the Cheonmachong Gold Crown and the stoneware horseback warrior. The Art Hall showcases some exquisite examples of Buddhist art and the new Anapji Hall showcases artifacts from the seventh-century site of Anapji. There are numerous stone sculptures on the grounds of the museum and the Emile Bell or Divine Bell of King Seongdeok which is the largest copper bell in Asia. At dinner there was an opportunity to sample delicious ocean fresh sea-bream from the Jagalchi Market, sourced by the ship’s wonderful executive chef and the hotel manager.
 
Friday, April 30 - Matsue, Japan: At last, a morning at sea, but not completely at leisure as Ian Cooke was on hand to introduce us to Sexy, Sexy Plants and the seven golden rules of creating the perfect garden—something the Japanese undoubtedly lead the world in. Then, Mark, our indefatigable expedition leader, put our entire journey in context with his immensely comprehensive presentation on The Geography of Japan.
 
During lunch the Clipper Odyssey docked at Sakai-Ko for an afternoon excursion to Matsue, a wonderful destination that is rarely on foreign itineraries. The 19th-century writer and journalist, Lafcadio Hearn, describes Matsue Castle in his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894) and gives great credence to one of only twelve (out of 52) original Japanese castles that remain today. To enter through the heavy metal doors and climb the softly-worn wooden staircase to the very top of this relatively small castle is to walk back in time. Outside Japanese visitors sat on tatami mats drinking green tea contemplating the castle flanked with cherry trees and dressed themselves in samurai robes for photographs. Built in 1611 Matsue Castle, once home to the Matsudaira clan, is undoubtedly yet another treasure of Japan.
 
Saturday, May 1 - Kanazawa: The Kenroku-en Garden is among Japan’s top three ‘must-see’ treasured garden sights. The others are Koraku-en Garden of Okayama, which we visited earlier on our trip, and the third is Kairaku-en, Mito, Ibaraki. Established in the 17th century, this gorgeous garden was opened to the public in 1871. Kenroku-en means “garden of six qualities” which include spaciousness, seclusion, antiquity, ingenuity, flowing water, and panoramas. Highlights here were the Gankobashi (flying wild geese bridge) and the Kotojitoro lantern. Also, set amidst the myriad of stone and water features and horticultural diversity, is the exquisite Sei son kaku Villa, built in 1863 for the mother of the 13th Lord Maeda Nariyasa and home to a wonderful collection of dolls and doll house furniture. Opposite the entrance to the garden, a bridge leads to the imposing entrance gate of Kanazawa Castle. Once one of the largest castles in feudal Japan and seat of the Kaga clan, sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1881.
 
Back on board, we enjoyed a BBQ lunch on deck with fresh kani (crab) from the Iki-Iki Fish Market. There are over 5,000 varieties of crab in the world of which 1,000 are found near Japan. To complement our perfect lunch, we made an afternoon visit to the Fukumitsu-Ya Sake Brewery, established in 1625, for a little sampling while learning about the three distinct types of sake (rice wine). Sake is produced from very high-quality fermented rice and pure water. The very best, dai-ginjo, and the second best, ginjo, are both served chilled; while the everyday sake, the hon-jozo, is served warm. The classic sake serving set consists of a ceramic bottle and matching cups. Japan also produces shochu (a spirit made from barley, other grains, or potato) and beers such as Asahi and Sapporo.
 
Kanazawa has a charming and picturesque former geisha district known as Higashi-Chayamachi Street. Many of the Ochaya (geisha tea houses) are now tea houses or shops, but the Kaikaro House and 19th-century Shima Geisha House have been preserved as living museums, permitting an interesting glimpse behind the scenes of the traditional geisha world. Nearby the Sakuda gold-leaf store demonstrates gold leaf production and the upper floor of the old kimono shop is an Aladdin’s cave of textiles. Our evening was rounded off to perfection by the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner, allowing us a day to pack our precious purchases in good time for the luggage collection the following evening.
 
Sunday, May 2 - Sado Island: Spring had just reached the island of Sado. The wild mountain cherries and wayside violets colored the landscape together with irises, daffodils, tulips, and primroses along the hedgerows and in the many window boxes and gardens. As such, we enjoyed a spectacular drive along the west coast en-route to explore the Sado Kinzan Gold Mine. Gold was discovered during the Edo period (1603-1867) and the mine was worked until 1989 when it was turned into an excellent museum complete with animatronics to depict life in the mine. We then made a stop at the local Soba Noodle School. Soba (buck wheat) noodles are made with gluten-free soba flour mixed with either rice, wheat, or potato flour as a binding agent. This truly hands-on experience resulted in some delicious soba noodles boiled and served with a cool broth, or friedand- salted. This was also another opportunity to practice our hashi (chopsticks) skills and to learn that it is perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles, but not to leave your chopsticks sticking in your bowl.
Then we made our way to the the Toki Forest Park of Sado Island, the preservation center for the beautiful Toki bird. The Toki was fairly common in Japan until the late 19th century, but in 1960 it was listed as an endangered species having become the victim of over-hunting, environmental pollution, and loss of natural habitats due to farming. The center was established in 2007 to continue the work of protecting and prolonging the lives of these amazing birds; and to hear them call and see them active during the mating season is a testament to the importance of the vital work being done at the conservation center.
 
As we set sail for Niigata, Mayumi Kanamura enlightened us on Kimono: Japanese Clothing and Style with a lecture and presentation. This was followed with a step-by-step demonstration showing the complexity of donning and wearing a kimono using lovely Suzanne Stringer as a model and Mayumi-san and Chieko-san as the dressers. We then enjoyed a final recap, dinner, a delectable chocolate madness dessert, and the fabulous premier of Paul’s photographs of our Treasures of Japan voyage.
 
Monday, May 3 - Niigata / Disembark Clipper Odyssey / Tokyo: Disembarkation followed breakfast and all too soon we were gathered at the Niigata train station to collect our packed lunches and board the double-decker Shinkansen bound for Tokyo. Our journey took us through eight stations and numerous tunnels with the occasional glimpse of snow capped mountains as we sped from west to east Honshu. Upon arrival in Tokyo, we all said our goodbyes as we departed to catch our homeward flights. Sayonara to Japan and all its many wonderful treasures.