Asia's Subtropical Isles

2017 Asia's Subtropical Isles: Philippines, Taiwan & Japan Field Report

Mark Brazil|May 9, 2017|Field Report

Sunday & Monday, March 12 & 13, 2017 - Manila, Philippines / Embark Caledonian Sky

Arriving into Manila, we gathered from a diverse array of states and nations to celebrate the beginning of our exciting subtropical adventure with welcome drinks and dinner at the Marriott Airport Hotel. With a day to explore the capital city of the Philippines, we opted to go beyond the destination and learn about some of the philanthropic work being done by the Vilar Sipag Foundation. The foundation works to improve the environment and help the local people of Las Piñas emerge from poverty. We visited two important projects, one of which converted waste coconut husks into fiber; they are then spun into string, twisted into rope, and finally woven into loose coir matting to be used for soil stabilization and erosion control. The other project collected soft plastic garbage from streams and rivers and processed them into recycled plastic, to be used in molded school chairs and desks. At St. Joseph’s parish church, we were entertained by an organ recital played on the church’s famous 200-year-old bamboo organ, to the accompaniment of the local boys choir. Our day continued with lunch and local musical and dance entertainment at the Vilar Sipag Foundation, and a visit to Fort Santiago and San Augustin Church—the oldest stone church in the Philippines.

In the late afternoon we embarked our home-away-from-home, the Caledonian Sky, and settled in with a welcome briefing.


Tuesday, March 14 - Hundred Islands National Park

We began the day with social anthropologist Shirley Campbell talking to us about The Early Farmers of Southeast Asia, then continued with snorkel and dive briefings. After lunch, we disembarked into Zodiacs for Mayor’s Island where some spent time underwater exploring the coral reef and its surrounding marine life; others set off by outrigger boats for Alaminos City. Warm welcomes and friendly faces greeted us, bands and dancers welcomed us ashore and then, after a fun jeepney ride into town, another group of performers welcomed us to the town plaza where we met the mayor, tasted local foods, and chatted with the neighbors. Our main activities, though, were to learn about the importance of the mangrove forest and to contribute to its re-generation by planting seedlings, and to visit a salt production facility where we helped rake together the salt left behind in shallow pans after seawater had evaporated.

Divemaster Mike Murphy took the divers on their checkout dive just off Mayor Island. Due to the weather conditions, it was best to stay close to the ship; even with limited visibility and mediocre corals, it was great to just get wet.


Wednesday, March 15 - Vigan

From our anchorage this morning we made an unusual Zodiac journey to shore on Vigan Island, where we were greeted by local school children on xylophones and drums. From there we set off for our full day tour of the island taking in the historic St. Augustine Church and its nearby brick bell tower. We were serenaded outside the church and wooed by dancers on Crisologo Street, before visiting a local pottery at Pagburnayan—we even had an opportunity to try out the potter’s kick wheel! We saw a weaving demonstration at Cristy’s Loom and enjoyed a tour of the historical museum housed in Syquia Mansion; dedicated to Vigan native Elpidio Quirino, the sixth president of the Philippines, the museum showcased the lifestyle of the wealthy during the Spanish era. We even added to our modes of transport today, with a chance to ride in a horse-drawn buggy! Back on board we enjoyed a late afternoon ice cream social, followed by our daily recap and briefing on tomorrow’s activities.


Thursday, March 16 - Babuyan Islands

Our Zodiacs took us ashore on Calayan Island this morning to enjoy nature and birdwatching walks, a hike to a lookout on the nearest cape, and for relaxing and combing along the sand beach. After lunch and repositioning back on board, we went ashore again to Poblacion Town, where the townsfolk turned out to greet us and their welcome could not have been warmer. Rich Pagen entertained the town’s children leading them like the pied piper back and forth and round and round the sports ground; then they entertained us with a charming dance depicting the island’s endemic Calayan rail, while their elders performed a choreographed dance depicting past warring tribal factions. It seems that those of us ashore were the highlight for the entire community!

Once our welcome ceremony ended, we added to our rapidly growing list of transport in the Philippines, by riding in trailers towed behind two-wheel landmasters; off we went to take part in rice field ploughing with water buffalo followed by rice planting. On the way back, some of us took rides in motorcycle sidecars, others as pillion passengers on motorbikes, while most of us returned behind the landmasters. Meanwhile, the divers had two fantastic dives in the afternoon: the first had the best soft corals to be seen anywhere in the world, and the second was a mixture of hard and soft coral, with lots of smaller reef fish.


Friday, March 17 - Batanes Islands

As we arrived ashore this morning a local marching band was there to greet us; to the sounds of their accompaniment, we were soon setting off in vans to explore the island. Our tour took us to the Naidi Hills and the local lighthouse where food tasting was on offer in addition to broad vistas of the island. Some delved into the tunnels remaining from the Japanese occupation while others took walks. We visited a fishing village and the town square where we were entertained with a cultural performance.

On nearby Sabtang Island after lunch, we experienced our most unusual form of transport to date—a ride in a thatched-roof motorcycle and sidecar! We saw the local stone village and afterwards watched a traditional dance performance in the main square. Here the islanders were torn; while they seemed very much to enjoy our arrival and presence in town, they were clearly eager to get back to their series of basketball games going on just behind the harbor!

Offshore, the divers had an absolutely incredible and unique dive with visibility reaching upwards of 150 feet! For more than 20 minutes, the divers swam over an amazing coral mountain, just one colony of hard coral, covering literally acres, the growth finally ending up in deep trenches of hard and soft coral. What an amazing experience.

Back on board the Caledonian Sky, we were treated first to afternoon tea then an entertaining history lecture by guest Charles Jones, entitled Can I Tell You a Little Story About the Philippines?


Saturday, March 18 - Hualien, Taiwan

This morning Shirley gave her lecture on, Who is Taiwanese: Identity and Politics in Taiwan; soon afterwards we arrived into the east coast port city of Hualien and set off for our full-day tour up into the spectacular Taroko National Park. Our journey took us up through the 12-mile-long Taroko Gorge, where we could admire the way water had carved this deep narrow canyon and how human labor had excavated tunnels and a cliff-hugging road that wound its up way up through the mountains. We lunched at the Silk Palace Hotel and took short walks to visit the Eternal Spring Shrine and to watch the endemic Taiwanese macaque. We retraced our steps back to the port of Hualien, admiring along the way the endeavours of those who had completed the cross-island highway, connecting the west and east coasts in 1960.


Sunday, March 19 - Taipei

Docking at Keelung this morning we were greeted by a low gray sky and rain; undeterred, we set off on tour today with some heading out to experience the more natural side of northern Taiwan, with visits to Bitou Cape, the Gold Ecology Park, and the Yeliu Geopark. Others headed into Taipei to visit the National Palace Museum, renowned as one of the finest museums in the world and boasting more than 620,000 items representing almost the entirety of Chinese history and archaeology. We made visits to the Martyr’s Shrine, the Lung San Temple, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, delved into the traditional food markets of Di-Hua Street, and paused to photograph the second tallest building in the world: Taipei 101.


Monday, March 20 - Miyako Island, Japan

Continuing our journey from Taiwan to Japan, we had a morning at sea to enjoy two lectures. Ornithologist Mark Brazil gave his first presentation, A Land in Turmoil: The Land, Landscape, and People of Japan, followed by Brent Stephenson who gave us tips and hints on how to our improve our photography in his presentation, The World Through A Lens. After gray skies in Taipei, it was delightful to have sunshine and azure seas as we reached our first landfall in Japan—Miyako-jima. We enjoyed our first greeting performance on the dock, with wonderfully energetic dancers and drummers, before our birders went off for an excursion to a wetland near the island’s northern tip and a forest near the east coast. Our main tour included visits to the Irabu Ohashi Bridge, Japan’s longest toll-free bridge at 11,614 feet; the Makiyama Observatory; and the gardens of the Utopia Farm. Before we sailed this evening, we were entertained by a local group known as the Shisa Band who played traditional and modern tunes on the Sanshin, drums, and guitar to the accompaniment of a mother and daughter singing duo.


Tuesday, March 21 - Kerama Islands

The subtropical Kerama Island group lies 22 miles west of the main island of Okinawa, and the islands offer a peaceful haven away from the bustle of Okinawa’s bustling city of Naha. While some went off to dive, others walked to a local beach for an exciting snorkel over a fringing reef. Yet more of us wandered through the quiet village learning about Japanese rural life, and some embarked on a 5-mile hike uphill to visit two viewpoints—and inadvertently witnessed the noisy practice landings of a Japanese military Chinook helicopter pilot at very close range above the hilltop helipad!

Back on board we enjoyed lunch and circumnavigated Zamami Island in a quest for the island’s more famous visitors—humpback whales. Our quest was wonderfully successful, with a fantastic display by a very young (2-3 month old) humpback repeatedly breaching around its mother and her escort. At one point it breached several times just beyond our bow! In the late afternoon our local culturalist, Mayumi Brazil, gave her presentation Kimono: Japanese Clothing, Fashion, and Style, amazing us at the end when she showed us how to dress in kimono without help and without a mirror!


Wednesday, March 22 - Amami Islands

Amami-Oshima represents the northern biodiversity hotspot of the island chain stretching between Taiwan and Kyushu, so today we divided into various groups including one that went off for the whole day in search of the local birdlife. They quickly saw the endemic Lidth’s jay, but also found many more regional endemic species and migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, making this the single most productive day for birds of the whole trip! Meanwhile, the non-birdwatchers set off from the port of Koniya for a day exploring the Kuroshio no Mori Mangrove Park by kayak, and visiting the fascinating Oshima Tsumigi Village to learn about the local techniques for dying and weaving silk fabric. We enjoyed eating lunch at a restaurant overlooking the sea, then visited the Amami Park to learn more about island life. We also dropped by the Tanaka Isson Memorial Museum of Art to admire the works of the “Gauguin of Japan.” All tours ended at Naze Port and we re-embarked the Caledonian Sky, which in the meantime had sailed around the west coast of the island.


Thursday, March 23 - Yakushima

The rugged mountains of Yakushima were shrouded in mist as we reached our destination this morning. Boasting the highest rainfall of anywhere in Japan, the island is lush and green and the flanks of the mountains entirely clad in Japanese Crptomeria forest. We enjoyed a morning ashore, visiting the Takeda-kan woodcarving workshop for a wood-turning demonstration and an opportunity to purchase items made of Yakusugi, as well as a visit to the Yakushima Environmental and Cultural Village Center where we received an introduction to the island’s geography and natural history. After lunch back onboard, we set out for Yakusugi Land for walks of various lengths through the temperate rainforest of Cryptomeria and other species at the mid-elevations of the island. Light rain and mist made for a tremendously atmospheric walk and brought out the wonderful range of shades of green of the ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens, and broadleaf evergreen trees. Overhead the taller Cryptomeria towered over us, some of them well over 1,000 years old.


Friday & Saturday, March 24 & 25 - At Sea / Itsukushima

Overnight we sailed from Yakushima up the east coast of Kyushu, bound for the Inland Sea. With a day at sea, we had the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely start to the day with three lectures from our team; Mayumi began by speaking on Japanese Food: Artful Cuisine, Rich followed with his presentation, From Koi to Cranes: Wildlife and Humans Sharing Japan’s Ancient Landscape, and Mark gave a talk entitled, Japanese Gardens: Inspiration & Contemplation. We rounded out our educational day with a fun BBQ on the lido deck.

Taking advantage of the next morning’s high tide and calm weather, we breakfasted early and went ashore on Miyajima well before the day visitors had arrived, enabling us to enjoy surprising peace and calm at this immensely popular site. The Itsukushima Shrine’s famous vermillion Torii (gateway) appeared to be floating on the bay as we approached the World Heritage Site. After exploring the shrine with our guides, some of us opted to wander on our own and taste the oysters and maple-leaf sweet bean cakes for which the island is so famous. Others continued uphill to visit Daishoin, the Shingon Buddhist temple at the top of a long flight of steps, or took the nature walk back through the woods to the Zodiac landing. The more intrepid of us took a brisk walk to the ropeway “10-minute walk, 7 if you run a little!” then rode up its two sections to the viewpoint before hiking to the top of Mt. Misen, made famous for being the location where Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, meditated. As we returned we witnessed Miyajima at the height of its daytime popularity, with crowds everywhere. The contrast from the early morning was staggering.

After lunch back on board and a brief re-positioning, we visited the city of Hiroshima. Most of us took the opportunity to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and museum, where we listened to the moving talk by Ms. Keiko Ogura, a survivor of the August 6, 1945 nuclear bombing of the city. Others visited the beautiful Shukkei-en, a traditional strolling garden, where we enjoyed the flowering magnolias and cherry blossoms; then visited a local department store to explore the modern local culture.


Sunday, March 26 - Naoshima

This morning we added a local ferry to the many forms of transport we have used this trip. The ferry took us to the world famous art island of Naoshima, the brainchild of Soichiro Fukutake, where architecture, art, and nature conjoin in a delightful Inland Sea setting under the name “Benesse” (To Live Well). Careful planning, complex logistics, and great time-keeping by one-and-all allowed us all at some point during the day to visit the Tadao Ando-designed semi-subterranean Chichu Museum, the Monet Garden, Benesse House, Benesse Museum, and the Art House Projects in the local village of Honmura. At the latter, we experienced everything from total darkness in Minamidera to the transfusion of light from the upper world to the underworld at Go’o Shrine. We saw works by Claude Monet, Walter De Maria, James Turrell, Tadao Ando, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Teresita Fernandez, among many others. Among the more memorable were the outdoor sculptures, including those by global artistic phenomenon Yayoi Kusama, famed for her polka dots and pumpkins.

After a stimulating and challenging day amongst contemporary art and the Mediterranean climate of this island, as well as lunch at the delightful Terrace Restaurant at Benesse House, we returned to the Caledonian Sky for the captain’s celebratory drinks and dinner on our last night aboard.


Monday, March 27 - Kobe / Disembark / Kyoto

This morning we said farewell to the friendly officers and crew of the Caledonian Sky and departed by coach for two days of exploration
of Kyoto, the most famous of all of Japan’s cultural centers. Our three different groups visited the same sites, but in different order, so that we were all able to visit magnificent Tenryu-ji (temple) with its splendid bamboos, flowering azaleas, and the first wisps of cherry blossom pink. Also at Tenryuji, at the Shigetsu restaurant, we partook of a traditional vegetarian lunch served in beautiful vermillion lacquerware. Our day also included visits to the famed Golden Pavilion or Kinkakuji, one of the greatest highlights of Kyoto, and the wonderful garden and structures of Nijo Castle.

After checking in at the splendid Kyoto Okura Hotel, we walked a short distance to enjoy our buffet dinner at the Fortune Garden restaurant.


Tuesday, March 28 - Kyoto

Our final day in Kyoto was devoted to visiting further classic highlights of this amazing city. These included visits to the Gekkeikan saké brewery, including a tasting; the extraordinary Fushimi Inari Shrine with its thousands of wooden gateways lined up to make a vermillion avenue, and its attendant fox statues; Kiyomizu Temple, standing on stilts on a hillside overlooking the city; and the splendid garden of the Heian Shrine.

After a day steeped in the history and culture of this ancient capital of Japan, it was time for us to bid farewell. We concluded our journey with cocktails and a Japanese dinner, saying farewell to our local guide team, to Zegrahm Expeditions, and especially to our expedition leader Mike Messick, who had done so much to navigate us through this extraordinary expedition and fun adventure. Our journey ranged from rural Philippines to modern Japan by way of Taiwan; it introduced us to the history, peoples, art, architecture, culture, nature, and religions of this region, and along the way allowed us opportunities to ride in more forms of transport than we could possibly have imagined, from thatch-roofed tricycles and landmasters to jeepneys and modern Japanese coaches, by way of Zodiacs, ferries and outrigger boats, and of course the excellent Caledonian Sky!



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