Sunday & Monday, May 1 & 2, 2016 - Tokyo, Japan / Niigata / Embark Caledonian Sky
We gathered as one group for a sumptuous Japanese meal at our hotel. Our Expedition Leader, Mark Brazil, introduced our expedition team, including our local guides, before we all headed for bed, ready for a full day and a fresh start tomorrow!
The following morning, we boarded buses for an excursion through the Asakusa district of Tokyo. The highlight of our trip was a two-hour visit to the Asakusa Shinto Shrine / Senso Buddhist temple. This turn of the 17th-century structure, built at the time of the Tokugawa shogun, is one of the rare examples of a spiritual religious structure representing both traditional Japanese Shinto and Buddhist religions. Here, we also encountered throngs of Japanese worshippers and tourists exploring the shopping arcade at the temple.
Our Japanese lunch buffet was followed by a visit to the double bridge entrance to the Imperial Palace. Our afternoon highlight was preparing ourselves to function like the Japanese in lining up, moving the lines, darting onto the correct bullet train, and taking our seats on one of the fastest trains in the world. We traveled over 200 miles with a number of stops on the way in only two hours. In Niigata, we happily boarded the Caledonian Sky and settled into our cabins, prepared for our journey.
Tuesday, May 3 - Sado Island
This morning we were treated to a beautiful display of local women’s traditional folk dance, before touring Sado Island off the west coast of Japan. Several of us had a great experience making traditional soba, buckwheat noodles, and even eating our own creation afterwards! Mark and Rich Pagen led others on a nature walk to find the rare and almost extinct toki, or crested ibis. Mark explained that this represented one of the very few successful restoration breeding programs for an endangered species. We all met up at Toki Forest Park where this bird was brought back from almost total extinction. In the afternoon, we enjoyed a visit to an enchanting traditional village built by seamen, strolled through its narrow streets, and ended at the centuries old Buddhist cemetery. We also had the chance to ride in small, round wooden boats with local women paddlers in native dress. Our departure was enhanced by a ribbon-throwing ceremony with a group of drummers on the pier.
Wednesday, May 4 - Kanazawa
Kanazawa was one of the very few cities spared bombing in World War II. In addition, it was spared from the ravages of constant battles between the warring Toyotomi and Tokugawa shoguns, as it was controlled by the Maeda clan. Instead of building armies and defenses, the Maeda built gardens, promoted arts and crafts, and focused on trade. We visited the world famous Kenroku-en Garden, considered one of the three best gardens in Japan. We enjoyed its waterways lined with iris and azaleas, ponds, manicured trees, stone lanterns, moss, and bridges, all laid out in traditional Japanese style. A contingent of us also participated in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, while another group went to the museum of contemporary art.
After lunch, everyone visited the quaint old town with its small wooden houses; we explored a samurai house, as well as small home gardens. Back on board, Mark spoke on Japan: Land in Turmoil, providing us with a detailed discussion on natural hazards in Japan, as well as its settlement pattern and natural flora and fauna. At recap, Ron Wixman discussed the origins of the Japanese garden and how they came about as a fusion of the classical Chinese garden, Zen Buddhist meditation and peacefulness, Taoist ideas of balance and harmony, and Japanese Shinto reverence of nature. As our ship departed, we were treated to an energetic performance by youngsters acting out a modern Japanese dance with huge colorful flags!
Thursday, May 5 - Matsue
Leaving the port at Sakai Ko, we traveled through the Japanese countryside to the small city of Matsue. Some of us explored the Adachi Museum of Arts; known for its magnificent collection of contemporary Japanese paintings, the highlight for us was certainly the exquisite gardens developed by the founder of the museum, Adachi Taikan. Other guests went to the extremely impressive Matsue Castle; built in the beginning of the 17th century, this five-story structure sits on a huge foundation of stone. Inside, we found a fine collection of samurai gear and equipment. In addition to the castle itself, we toured a traditional samurai residence in the Buke Yashiki Quarter, that was built during the Edo period.
After a lovely barbecue lunch on board, we were treated to an exhilarating performance of Taiko drumming at the port. As we cruised away from Japan, we heard from Ron on Religions and Cultures of East Asia, as well as from Jim McClain about the Silla Dynasty in the rise of a unified Korea.
Friday, May 6 - Ulsan, South Korea / Gyeongju
It was a special pleasure to disembark in Ulsan, as a dance troop performed and played drums for us! Arriving in Gyeongju, we went directly to the mound tombs of the Silla Dynasty. This style of burial was common among Eurasia’s steppe nomads from Romania all the way to Korea. At the national museum, we were treated to the original, exquisitely-worked gold crowns and belts taken from these tombs, along with the best examples of Buddhist statuary, paintings, and other artworks found in Korea. The museum was abuzz with children as it was national Children’s Day.
A wonderful Korean lunch of beef bulgogi was served, along with a variety of delicious side dishes. This was followed by a visit to a local food market with a variety of live, pickled, and cooked foods. To punctuate this already exciting day in Korea, we attended a festival in the village of Oegosan, famous for its long tradition of making high-quality pottery.
Saturday, May 7 - Shimonoseki, Japan / Hagi
Today was a real “wow” day! On our way to the lovely town of Hagi, we passed rice paddies, lakes, and tree-covered hills. In Hagi, we split up going to three distinct destinations. One of these was a visit to the famous Nosaka family, known for creating fine local pottery called Hagi-yaki. We saw the traditional kiln and were treated to a demonstration to how the pottery is handmade.
Another group visited the Kikuya House, home to a family of Samurai warriors turned merchants. They were quite wealthy and the home is now a museum in which both the house itself and its numerous historical objects are on display. As we walked around the garden, the family also invited us to visit their private garden, normally closed to the public.
The piece de resistance, however, was the visit to Tokoji Temple, behind which is the burial ground of the Mori Clan feudal lords. Here in a serene setting among the trees, are numerous stone lanterns standing in rows in front of large stone cenotaphs of feudal lords and their families. The beautiful Buddhist temple paled in comparison with the impressive burial ground behind it.
This evening, we were fortunate to be docked right next to fairgrounds; on shore, we dressed up in kimonos, played games, learned Japanese calligraphy, and enjoyed rides, including a giant illuminated Ferris wheel right next to our ship. Some went off to sample the famous fugu, or blowfish, known for its deadly poisonous organs, that if not removed properly, can kill you! Despite this, the elaborate presentation of the fish tempted us; I am happy to report that all who digested the local delicacy were just fine!
Sunday, May 8 - Shimonoseki / Akiyoshi-dai / Akiyoshi-do / Moji
The beautiful limestone formations outside the town of Shimonoseki are little-known outside of Japan; we were able to view the karst topography at Akiyoshi-do, and walk through the cave at Akiyoshi-dai, which was nothing short of breathtaking. The cavernous rooms, limestone formations, underground streams and pools, and diverse colors were magnificent. With all of our travels around the world, few caves or caverns could compare with those that we experienced today. After lunch, we traveled over the longest suspension bridge in Japan, which connects the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. In the town of Moji, on the Kyushu side, we spent over an hour walking through the retro area in the center of town. We saw very interesting architecture and sampled foods from the shops. Many people tried some of the local delicacies while others shopped in stores of this on-trend neighborhood. At the end of the day, Rich presented, From Cranes to Giant Salamanders: Wildlife and People Sharing Japan’s Ancient Land.
Monday, May 9 - Hiroshima / Miyajima
This morning the weather was overcast—appropriate to visit the memorial site dedicated to the dropping of the A-bomb in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. At the memorial we were treated to a presentation by Mrs. Keiko Ogura, a survivor of the bombing. She talked to us about the lasting psychological effects of this event on those who survived, who were both marginalized by other Japanese and who marginalized themselves due to the deep feelings of remorse and guilt. Her talk was incredibly moving.
Our afternoon experience was quite the opposite—we came ashore by Zodiac on Miyajima Island with its exquisite vermillion Shinto temple. The Itsukushima Shinto Shrine has basically retained its original form since its establishment in the 12th century. After experiencing this beautiful architectural monument, the group split into three. One group went on a nature walk led by Rich, encountering two racoon-dogs, or tanooki, one of which was lucistic and completely white! Another group went to the shopping district where many tried such local delicacies as oysters, maple-leaf cakes, and a variety of seafood served on a stick. (The oysters of Miyajima are famous well beyond the borders of Japan, and as we found out—for good reason!) The third group followed Ron up to the Daishoin Buddhist temple with statues from around the world, as well as replications of Shinto gods and cartoon characters. The highlight of this trip was the underground and extremely dark maze structured to give the person walking through the feeling of nothingness.
Tuesday, May 10 - Takamatsu
On the pier, our tour started with a display of 19th-century samurai rifle shooting—what a blast! We visited three sites today—Shikoku Village, Ritsurin Garden, and Noguchi Sculpture Park. At Shikoku Village, we crossed a vine-rope bridge, and walked up a flat stone path to explore thatch roof dwellings and workshops reminiscent of centuries past. This outdoor ethnographic style museum was set in a lush forested area with streams, ponds, and manmade waterfalls.
The Ritsurin Garden (Chestnut Grove), was started in 1625 by the feudal lord of Takamatsu and was completed in 1745. This huge garden, one of the most beautiful in Japan, had manicured pines and chestnut trees, some of the prettiest ponds with water lilies in bloom, Japanese bridges, and teahouses. We lined up to get cones of the local chestnut ice cream at the end of the spectacular gardens.
Having heard the tragic story of Mr. Noguchi, who was rejected by both Japanese and American authorities and settled in a small village near Takamatsu, we visited his home and workshop, both now part of a museum where his modern art stone structures are displayed. To top off this already exciting day, Mayumi Brazil gave a presentation on traditional Kimono and Yukata, focusing on the function, the fashions, and styles of these garments. She dressed herself in her kimono and obi sash, showing us how complicated it is to wear. After that, we were entertained by the ship’s crew with music and singing, including a performance by Captain Mike Taylor!
Wednesday, May 11 - Uno-Ko / Naoshima
Our last day aboard the Caledonian Sky brought us two choices; one group went off via ferry to Naoshima, to visit the Chichu Art Museum and the Benesse House Museum. The former, designed by modernist Japanese architect, Tagao Ando, is interesting in itself and houses a collection of art including works by Monet, de Maria, and Turrell. The Benesse House is part museum and part cultural village, dedicated to preserving older structures on the island, and combining them with modern architectural styles. This was a real hit with our contemporary art lovers!
The rest of us were in for a real Japanese cultural treat—we explored the old town of Kurashiki; with its traditional shops and houses, this town not only has a well-preserved canal dating from the Edo Period, but also a museum of art and the Ohashi residence, one of the best-preserved 18th-century merchant’s homes in Japan.
Koraku-en is the garden behind Okayama Castle, which is visible from the castle itself. Unlike the other great gardens of Japan, this one includes a view point in the center providing wonderful views of the small tea plantation, mock rice paddies, bamboo groves, plum and cherry trees, and the beautiful tea house beside one of many ponds. At the end, we sampled the delicious peach ice cream, famous in this area. Tonight we celebrated our spectacular voyage around Japan with cocktails, the captain’s farewell dinner, and a slideshow presentation by Rich that incorporated scenes and video clips of all we had experienced.
Thursday, May 12 - Kobe / Disembark / Kyoto
This morning we visited the Tenryu-ji Temple with its magnificent stands of giant bamboo. After walking through the sprawling gardens, we were treated to a special vegetarian meal prepared by the Buddhist monks associated with the temple. We all sat at long tables, lined up in a large room with tatami matted floors, and were served course after course after course.
Our next destination was the world-famous Golden Temple (the Kinkaku-ji), which is a gold-colored pavilion situated on a small lake. All around the lake were beautiful purple irises in full bloom. Cameras were clicking away as we captured the pavilion reflected in the still waters, with irises and manicured trees and plants around it. This introduction to the great temples and shrines of Japan’s cultural capital marked the grand finale of our expedition around Japan.