Tshushima, Japan

2019 Treasures of Japan with South Korea Field Report

Pepper Trail|May 23, 2019|Field Report

Sunday, April 14, 2019  
Kyoto, Japan
After a long day of travel and a quick night’s sleep, we began our first full day in Japan with the delicious breakfast of Kyoto’s Hotel Okura, which suitably blended East and West. From hash browns and French toast to smoked mackerel and creamed burdock root, there was something for every taste and degree of immersion into Japan. Thus fortified, we boarded our buses and set out to explore the cultural treasures of Kyoto. 

One group began at the Sanjusangendo Buddhist Temple, established in the 12th century, and containing a stupendous hall filled with 1000 life-sized gilded statues of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, as well as the much-larger-than-life-sized Thousand-Armed Kannon. The complex also features a long veranda that was the site of archery competitions among the samurai, and the feats performed by the champions of those competitions almost defy the imagination. From this great temple, we traveled to a center of political power, Nijo Castle. Established at the height of the shogunate period in the 17th century, the castle is a huge complex, with great rooms decorated with vibrant paintings of tigers, cranes, and other creatures real and imagined. Ornithologists Mark Brazil and Pepper Trail put their binoculars to good use identifying all the small birds that enlivened the paintings—and then trained them on some real birds in the castle gardens.

After a delicious Japanese lunch, we traveled to the Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine, the famous home of thousands of vermilion torii gates. The light rain and big crowds couldn’t diminish the visual impact of this spectacular site. Still, the tranquility and mindful attention of a classic Japanese tea ceremony was most welcome after the hectic atmosphere of the shrine, and we returned to the hotel at the end of our day of touring with inner harmony restored.

Monday, April 15
Kyoto / Kobe / Embark Caledonian Sky
Our day began with a visit to the Ryoan-ji Temple, home to a famous Zen “dry garden,” a seemingly natural, but intensely mindful arrangement of 15 stones that rise like islands from a “sea” of raked white gravel. The mysterious power of this garden is undeniable, and is reinforced by its location within beautiful temple grounds with flowering cherries, plums, and azaleas arrayed around a picturesque lake.

We next visited one of Kyoto’s most famous and popular sites, the Golden Pavilion. The graceful golden structure—which contains a relic reputed to be from the Buddha himself—rises from the edge of a lake, and is reflected in the waters. A trail leads along the edge of the lake and up a small hill, offering breathtaking views of the pavilion at every turn.

Our afternoon destination was the Byodo-in Temple, home of the incomparable Phoenix Hall, with a huge gilded statue of Amida Buddha dating from the 11th century. The walls of the great hall are adorned with 52 carved bodhisattva figures, many playing musical instruments, which glorify the Buddha. Half of the originals have been removed, and are now on display in the site’s marvelous Hoshokan Museum, allowing close inspection of their consummate artistry.

After two full days in Kyoto, everyone was ready to board the Caledonian Sky, and settle into our home for the remainder of our Treasures of Japan journey. We reached the ship docked in the port of Kobe just at teatime, and varied our sashimi-centered fare of the previous few days with some proper British finger sandwiches. A bit of time to unpack and explore the ship was followed by the busy embarkation-day schedule of lifeboat drill, staff introductions, and briefing for the next day’s activities, followed by our first great dinner prepared by the ship’s wonderful chefs, and then—aaah—to bed.

Tuesday, April 16
Uno-ko / Naoshima / Kurashiki
The Caledonian Sky came alongside in the port city of Uno-ko as we headed for breakfast this morning. Half of us soon departed on a ferry for the art island of Naoshima, while the other half set out by bus for the Koraku-en Garden and the historic town of Kurashiki. Let’s follow that group first.

The Koraku-en Garden is esteemed as one of the three great “strolling gardens” of Japan, and is graced by spreading lawns, a perfectly placed viewing “mountain” overlooking the central lake, as well as rice paddies, a tea plantation, an orchard of blossoming cherry trees, and—let’s not forget—a cafe selling the peach soft ice cream for which this region of Honshu is famous. There is also an aviary with a number of red-crowned cranes, providing us with a wonderful opportunity to see these stately and auspicious birds, which have recovered from the brink of extinction in Hokkaido thanks to the efforts of conservationists and farmers.

With our spirits (and bellies) refreshed by Koraku-en, we then continued on to Kurashiki, where our first stop was the Ohashi Residence, a beautifully restored 18th-century merchant’s house, which embodied the distinctly Japanese quality of grand simplicity. Lovely ikebana flower arrangements greeted us at every turn. After a wonderful traditional lunch at the adjacent restaurant, we moved on to Kurashiki’s world-class Ohara Museum, whose astonishing collection of Western masterpieces included paintings by El Greco, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Picasso, and Andy Warhol, as well as an extraordinary collection of Japanese ceramics. We then had ample time to explore the charming neighborhood of the museum, with restored rice storehouses converted to cafes and shops arranged along a willow-draped canal.

Wednesday, April 17
Uno-ko / Naoshima / Kurashiki
Today we reversed tours to explore Naoshima Island while the rest of the group retraced our steps in Kurashiki. After a quick ferry ride, our first destination was Kusama Yayoi’s whimsical red and black Pumpkin at portside. We all enjoyed entering the hollow sculpture and, yes, many photos were taken. Then it was off to the Benesse House Museum, where the collection of modern art works—many monumental in scale—are displayed in a building that is a work of art in itself, offering sweeping views of the island and the Seto Inland Sea at every turn. Particular favorites of many were the robotic “Three Chattering Men” sculpture  by Jonathon Borofsky and “The Secret of the Sky” by Kan Yasuda, in which two immense granite boulders have been smoothed to a satin finish and placed in a high concrete courtyard beneath a square of open sky.

Our next stop was the Chichu Art Museum, designed like the Benesse House, by famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Here, in a subterranean museum pierced by numerous skylights, a small and select set of works by Claude Monet, Walter De Maria, and James Turrell are exquisitely displayed. Monet’s water lilies were a fresh revelation in this setting, and Terrell’s light installation, Open Field, provided a series of mind-blowing illusions.

We then enjoyed a wonderful buffet lunch back at the Benesse House Hotel, with an opportunity to stroll along the beach to Kusama Yayoi’s famous yellow pumpkin, before setting out to explore Naoshima’s Honmura Art House district. Here, empty houses in this historic district have been turned into art installations. All in all, it was an unforgettable day of witty, challenging, and occasionally mystifying modern art, all displayed with Japanese mindfulness and clarity.

We returned to the ship in time for the first installment in our lecture series, Mark Brazil’s presentation Japanese Geography: Our Voyage in Context, which provided a wonderful overview of the geological, climatic, and biological factors that have shaped Japan’s natural and human history.

Thursday, April 18
Miyajima / Hiroshima
We began our day very early, and in exciting fashion—the only Zodiac ride of our expedition. The reason for the early start and the Zodiac ride was to get ashore on the sacred island of Miyajima before the arrival of the morning ferries which bring hordes of tourists to admire the island’s shrines, temples, and—most especially—the famous Otorii gate that rises from the sea. This strategy was spectacularly successful. We had the favored viewing points of the gate to ourselves, and then ample time to tour the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine and the Daisho-in complex of Buddhist temples. This complex includes many altars on the mountainside, with amazing sand mandalas, reclining golden Buddhas, and the charming spectacle of hundreds of small stone statues of monks wearing knitted caps. 

While most of us were enjoying this leisurely exploration, a small group of “survival of the fittest” hikers, led by Mark, followed the climbing path to the top of Mt. Misen, where they were rewarded with sweeping views of Miyajima—and elevated heart rates. 

Everyone then strolled slowly back to the Zodiac landing site through the streets of Miyajima, sampling grilled oysters, maple cakes, conger eel dumplings, green tea ice cream, and other Japanese delights.

After our return to the Caledonian Sky, the ship repositioned to Hiroshima. Our afternoon visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum was a moving and somber experience, centered around the hour-long talk by Hiroshima bomb survivor Shiraishi Tamiko. Her heartbreaking story of suffering and endurance brought home the reality of the bombing as no tabulation of statistics ever could. The “Outline of Atomic Bomb Damage” exhibit in the museum, with its displays of melted rice bowls, scorched toys, and charred children’s clothing, was another sobering testimony to the horrors of atomic weapons.

Before dinner, Amy Lowen treated us to her highly entertaining and informative talk, Language Matters: Japanese Demystified

Friday, April 19
Beppu
Today we enjoyed a most relaxing day, thanks to the hot springs and onsen baths of the city of Beppu on the southernmost main island of Japan, Kyushu. In keeping with this theme, Expedition Leader, Nadia Eckhardt allowed us a bit of a sleep-in, and began our excursions at the almost unheard-of time of 9AM!

After leaving the ship, we headed straight for hell—the jigoku, which is the Japanese name for hot springs. Our itinerary included two of the seven jigoku for which Beppu is famous: the milky blue Ocean Hell and the Blood Hell, rimmed with red mud. At the Ocean Hell, everyone had the opportunity to enjoy a wonderfully relaxing foot bath—at a much more comfortable temperature than the nearly boiling-hot hell itself. We also visited a Japanese-sized geyser, which erupted on schedule, with Japanese precision.

After lunch, we had three options: a full onsen bath experience, the Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center, or the ancient Usuki Stone Buddhas. The Yumetamatebako Onsen opportunity was by far the most popular choice. All the participants enjoyed the luxuriating soak (of course no one would think of actually taking a bath in an onsen), and some of the more adventurous guests tried out the barrel-like steam baths. 

The group that visited the Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center chose the most challenging option. Touring the center, we viewed many beautiful works of art, from one-inch long, tightly-woven little boats to expansive, six-foot-wide structures created decades ago, and were then tasked with making our own “bamboo bell.” It was little comfort to learn that this activity was intended for local elementary school students learning the art of bamboo weaving. In the end, our finished bamboo bells may only be good for a cat toy or the back of a Christmas tree, but this shared activity allowed us to appreciate the amount of skill and patience reflected throughout the rest of the museum.

The Usuki Stone Buddhas are a series of 61 statues carved in relief from outcrops of tuff, dating from the 12th to 14th centuries. The statues are arranged in four groups, with central Buddha figures flanked by bodhisattvas and “kings” who judged the sins of the dead. The masterful and expressive carvings in their tranquil hillside setting overlooking a quiet valley richly deserve their status as National Treasures of Japan.

Before dinner, Rich Pagen presented From Cranes to Giant Salamanders: Wildlife and Humans Sharing Japan’s Ancient Landscape, weaving a wealth of natural history information with insights from Japanese history and folklore into a fascinating lecture. 

Saturday, April 20
Shimonoseki
This morning we awoke to find that Easter had arrived a day early, with a magnificent spread of chocolate bunnies, eggs, and other Easter treats laid out at Reception. As many of us enjoyed some pre-breakfast chocolate, the Caledonian Sky docked at Shimonoseki, near the base of the bridge crossing the narrow strait between Honshu and Kyushu.

Our morning adventures began with an excursion to the limestone plateau of Akiyoshidai, highlighted by a visit to the spectacular Akiyoshido caverns. This six-mile complex has a half-mile path that descends through huge chambers and past features such as the towering Golden Pillar and a spreading fan of graceful terraced pools. Before returning to the city, we stopped for a view over the entire karst plateau, a unique area of grasslands studded with thousands of projecting limestone boulders.

Back in Shimonoseki, our destination was the Karato Fish Market. Our local guides Yoko-san and Roy-san provided us with 1000 yen each to spend on sushi or sashimi in the jam-packed market. We all had great fun selecting five or six choices, ranging from the familiar (crab and tuna) to the more exotic (sea urchin and whelk) to the potentially deadly—the notorious fugu pufferfish, for which Shimonoseki is famous. Mark assured us that the highly trained sushi chefs of the market would never allow any of the poisonous internal organs of the fugu to contaminate their sashimi, and most of us enjoyed at least a taste, with no ill effects (other than, perhaps, mild disappointment). 

Full of delicious sushi, we then hurried back to the ship for—what else?—lunch, which featured an all-American menu of hamburgers and hot dogs.

In the afternoon, many of us set out for the Moji Retoro area, across the bridge in Kyushu. This attractive historical neighborhood was established in the early 20th century, and its food stands and shops were crowded with Japanese visitors who were also enjoying the nice, sunny day. We went to the top of the “Moji-ko Retoro high mart” to admire the view from the 31st floor.

Back aboard, Ron Wixman enlightened us with his lecture, Japanese Cultural and Religious Values, placing many of the practices and beliefs that seem uniquely Japanese in a cross-cultural context.

Sunday, April 21
Hagi
Today was spent in the delightful historic town of Hagi. At breakfast, Pepper was very excited to find that a large rookery of gray herons and great egrets was located near our berth in the port. He set up his spotting scope on the Lido Deck, and many of us enjoyed the great views of these beautiful birds in their courtship and nest-building behaviors.

As we disembarked, we were treated to a heart-warming welcome by a small group of Hagi high school students, who greeted us with carefully-practiced English speeches, and even wrote the names of several lucky guests in elegant Japanese calligraphy. 

Then it was off to our two morning destinations. Hagi is famous for its Hagi-yaki pottery, and we visited the Kogetsu Kiln, one of the most celebrated in the city. We viewed the massive wood-fired kiln, built on several levels to distribute the heat effectively, and then watched one of the members of the Nosaka family throw three perfect tea bowls on a potter’s wheel.  We enjoyed tea in the family’s small, elegant garden, and then thronged into the shop, where all admired—and some purchased—the masterful ceramics.

Our other morning destination was the Toko-ji Temple. This Obaku Zen temple is entered through a monumental gate, with a tree-lined walkway leading to the main Daiohoden building, which contains a golden Buddha and elaborate golden canopies. Impressive though all these are, they are not the true splendor of Toko-Ji. In the forest behind Daihoden is the burial site of the Mori feudal lords, who ruled Hagi for over 200 years, until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The graves are surrounded by hundreds of tall stone lanterns, given in tribute to the Mori lords. The ranks of massive lanterns in the quiet forest setting produce an unforgettable impression. 

After lunch back on board, we set off to explore Hagi’s historic samurai quarter, which is filled with beautifully-preserved houses, as well as charming shops which proved irresistible to many of us. The highlight of the afternoon was a guided tour of the Kikuya Residence, built for a family of powerful merchants early in the 17th century. This multi-building compound later was the home of the first Prime Minister of Japan, Itō Hirobumi, and thus contains beautiful painted screens and other samurai-era treasures alongside such “modern” novelties as one of the first telephone booths in Japan. The complex, which includes several magnificent gardens, provided an intimate look at the lives of Japan’s ruling class spanning several centuries.

This theme of domestic life continued once we returned to the Caledonian Sky, as Mayumi Brazil presented a wonderful talk—and even more impressive demonstration—entitled Kimono: Japanese Clothing, Fashion, and Style. We were all in awe of her as she showed us the seemingly endless steps of putting on all the pieces of a kimono, accomplishing the feat perfectly in about 20 minutes, without assistance—or a mirror.

And still the day’s excitement wasn’t over, as we were treated to an Easter barbeque dinner on the Lido Deck, followed by fantastic entertainment by the amazingly talented crew of the Caledonian Sky, who had everyone up and dancing. What a day!

Monday, April 22
Tsushima Island
Morning found us at sea, sailing toward Tsushima Island. After an opportunity for a bit of a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast, we were treated to two lectures. Pepper led off with his presentation, Incredible Journeys: The Miracles of Migration, which contrasted the fanciful early ideas about where migrating birds disappeared to with the latest scientific discoveries using high-tech geolocators and massive citizen-science datasets. Passenger Bob Oaks followed this with the fascinating stories of Japanese castaways in the 19th-century fishermen or sailors who were rescued at sea and taken to America at a time when leaving (or returning to) the closed nation of Japan was absolutely forbidden. Several of these castaways became quite famous, and one actually managed to meet three American presidents!

The Caledonian Sky docked at Tsushima Island around noon, and after lunch, a large group of us boarded a bus to visit the Wadazumi Shrine and nearby Eboshidake Observatory. The drive was spectacular, winding along the island’s serrated coast and through its splendid mountain forests. The Wadazumi Shrine is dedicated to the god of the sea, and features five torii gates, three of which stand in the shallow bay facing the shrine. Mount Edoshidake rises above the shrine, and the viewpoint at the top offers a panoramic view of Tsushima’s emerald mountains and azure bays. On the return trip, we stopped at the bridge spanning the canal blasted out in 1900 by the Japanese Navy in their preparations for the Russo-Japanese War—a conflict that was won decisively at the Battle of Tsushima four years later.

Meanwhile, an intrepid band of hikers led by Mark, Rich, Amy, and McKenzie set out up into the mountains rising above the town of Izuhara. One group scrambled up to some castle ruins with a viewpoint, while the “survival of the fittest” contingent hiked a higher trail with three castle ruins sites, eventually completing around a five-mile circuit. The mountain forest reminded Rich and others of the live oak forests of California, and certainly the dramatic coastal views were worthy of Big Sur. The hikers learned about the endangered and endemic Tsushima wildcat, a small and ferocious subspecies of the Asian leopard cat whose population has dwindled to less than 100. No sightings of that elusive creature, of course, so the hikers contented themselves with discovering the poop of deer and perhaps marten or fox. 

Upon everyone’s return to the harbor of Izuhara, we all completed our clearance out of Japan with immigration, and excitedly looked forward to our next day’s adventures in South Korea.

Tuesday, April 23
Ulsan, South Korea / Gyeongju
What a change from the sleepy little harbor of Izuhara on Tsushima to the sprawling industrial port of Ulsan, South Korea!  Home to the factories of the Hyundai car company and other heavy industry, Ulsan exemplifies the extraordinary economic energy of South Korea. However, that’s not what we were here to see. Our destination after a quick and efficient immigration process was the nearby city of Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty, a World Heritage Site and one of the great cultural centers of Asia. 

Our first stop (after wrestling into and out of the mandatory Korean bus seat belts that we nicknamed the “boa constrictors”) was the Tumuli Park, where the kings and nobles of the Silla Dynasty were interred in great smooth mounds. The grassy mounds rising out the flat plain are dramatic, as is the museum inside the excavated Flying Horse Tomb, which revealed the structure of these monumental burial constructions.

Next was a brief but memorable stop at the Seongdong Traditional Market, with its kaleidoscopic colors and bewildering variety of street food, as well as fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Many things tempted us to sample a taste; others … not so much.

Then it was on to the Gyeongju National Museum, which houses priceless artifacts of the Silla civilization (57 BC – 935 AD), including four elaborate golden crowns, gold and gilded bronze ornaments (for both people and horses), jade jewelry, as well as rare ceramics and treasures of Buddhist sculpture. Our excellent Korean guides put it all into context for us.

By now it was time for lunch, which was a lavish “Asian fusion” buffet at the Commodore Hotel. We were treated to a wonderful folklore show as we ate, with graceful performers dancing, drumming, and forming intricate patterns with vividly colored fans. 

Our afternoon destination was the stunning Bulguksa Temple complex, located on the slopes of Mt. Tohamsan. The monumental buildings, dating from the 6th century, are adorned with elaborately painted dragons and many other creatures, and contain golden Buddhas of great serenity and power. We were lucky that our visit coincided with the upcoming “Buddha’s birthday” celebrations, and the entire temple complex was hung with brightly colored paper lanterns and streamers.

As evening fell and the Caledonian Sky set sail to return to Japan, we could hardly believe the wealth of experiences we packed into our one day in Korea!

Wednesday, April 24
Matsue, Japan
Dawn found us steaming up the west coast of Honshu, headed for the port of Sakaiminato and the nearby town of Matsue. We were treated to a great morning lecture by Mark, Japanese Gardens: Inspiration and Contemplation. This was particularly timely, as today and tomorrow we have opportunities to visit two of Japan’s most celebrated gardens. Today’s highlighted garden was located at the Adachi Museum of Art, and is unique in that it is designed not to be walked through, but rather to be viewed through the museum’s great windows. This sounded strange to us Westerners, but upon viewing the gardens, we understood. Each vista is a perfect work of art, the details arranged as carefully as the brushstrokes on a masterpiece by Caravaggio or Rembrandt. The museum also houses a world-class collection of art by 20th-century Japanese painters, which we all admired—when we could tear our eyes away from the perfection outside the windows.

The day’s other highlighted excursion was to Matsue Castle. Built in 1611, this massive, yet graceful structure was built for warfare as well as to serve as the residence of the daimyo. The heavy beams, the aromatic wood, and the floors polished to a mirror-like finish by centuries of tabi-clad feet made for an atmosphere worthy of a Kurasowa film. This feeling was enhanced by the samurai armor, swords, and helmets lurking in the dark corners of the castle.

Our two groups then converged at the Yushien Gardens on White Radish (Daikon) Island. This 40,000-square-foot garden is famous for the cultivation of peonies. We were a bit early for the peak peony bloom, but enough were in flower to give us a vividly colorful and fragrant preview of the garden’s full splendor.

We were back aboard in time for tea, followed by Amy’s lecture Culture Matters: Japan Beneath the Surface, which provided great insights into aspects of Japanese life that Westerners find particularly puzzling—and which sparked a great discussion session afterwards.

To top everything off, the day ended with a special Filipino dinner and a serenade by the ship’s multi-talented Filipino staff.

Thursday, April 25
Kanazawa
This morning we arrived at the large and bustling port city of Kanazawa, population 465,000. Kanazawa boasts many cultural treasures, but none are more celebrated than the Kenroku-en Garden, considered one of the top three gardens in Japan. We didn’t allow a steady drizzle to dampen our appreciation for this magnificent Edo-period garden, with its expanses of emerald moss, its carefully contorted pines, its stone lanterns and zig-zag bridges, its ponds and waterfalls. The rain only enhanced the spring colors and the tranquil atmosphere of the garden.

On our way back to the ship, we stopped at the Iki Iki Fish Market, where the offerings were much more tempting than its name implies. We sampled dried shrimp, squid jerky, and kelp with sardine eggs, among other delicacies, while admiring the cleanliness and organization of the market. Dozens of kinds of fish were on display, as well as multiple species of shellfish, crabs, octopus, and squid. Rich was particularly excited to spot some scorpionfish for sale—likely to be tasty, as long as you knew to avoid the deadly poisonous dorsal spines!

After lunch, many of us set out for Kanazawa’s famous Higashi Geisha District. Such districts are rare in today’s Japan, and this is one of the largest, with 90 houses remaining. We visited one, where the low ceilings and dim lighting made it particularly atmospheric, enhanced even more by the light drizzle going on outside. We were offered the opportunity to play the shamisen, as well as the drums that the local geisha play. I’m not sure if we’d have many return clients after our musical performance, but as non-geishas, we don’t have to. Afterwards, we wandered the narrow streets, stopping in to various shops to look at pottery, fabrics, and confections for sale.  Some of us walked up to a small Buddhist temple on the slope behind the town.

The afternoon’s other activity was to experience the fine art of gold leaf craft making, a Kanazawa specialty. Originally developed to decorate Buddhist architecture and sculptures, the gold leaf industry now flourishes for jewelry and other decorative uses—including Kanazawa’s unique gold-leaf ice cream, an indulgence which many of us couldn’t resist.

Everyone returned to the ship just in time for the last lecture of the voyage, Pepper’s Fighting Crime with Feathers:  The Casebook of a Forensic Ornithologist.  This wide-ranging talk offered an overview of the illegal wildlife trade that threatens many of the world’s most charismatic species, along with descriptions of some of Pepper’s most memorable cases.

Friday, April 25
Sado Island
Our last full day on the Caledonian Sky found us at Sado Island, famous among birders around the world as the site where the critically endangered crested ibis, or toki, has been successfully reintroduced. The full-day nature excursion was a popular option, with Mark, Mayumi, and Pepper leading the search. Shortly before reaching the Crested Ibis Conservation Center, success! We spotted three toki in a rice paddy not far from the road. The birds are especially lovely at this time of year, with their peach-colored plumage accented with soft gray on the head and neck. As the day progressed, we spotted nineteen of these beautiful birds in the wild, as well as close-up views in the conservation center.

There was the option to take part in two very different experiences, both requiring a creative streak. These began with a visit to the Ogi Folk Museum and the quaint village of Shukunegi, where we followed the tightly winding path between traditional homes and spent time at a beautiful cemetery, which was dotted with offerings to those who had passed, including the sports drink Pocari Sweat and a variety of pink and yellow flowers. 

Next, we were greeted by a soba noodle chef, four different prep stations, a big bowl of buckwheat flour, and a tin of cold water. We divided up into two teams and set to work making Sado Island-style soba noodles. We were shown how to slowly mix the flour and water, rolling and prodding the gritty mixture between our palms and the wooden table, before rolling the dough out into a large but only 1 mm-thick, pancake form. After we carefully folded the dough and cut it into thin strips, our fresh noodles were whisked away to be cooked for us in a delicious seaweed and fish broth and served chilled.

The climax of this excursion was the taiko drumming activity. This was part performance, allowing us to experience the full power and emotion of the drum and drummer, demonstrated by our sensei, a member of the famous KODO group. But a larger component was interactive. In a semi-circle we followed the rhythmic lead and drumbeat of a guest, appointed by the KODO sensei, and were then encouraged to pound away on “Mr. Potato” and “Ms. Piggy,” enormous drums cut from the same tree. After learning the delicate protocol of the tea ceremony and walking through beautiful temples and shrines conversing in hushed tones, many took full advantage to pound away with wild abandon.

At last it was time to return to the ship. After dinner, as we sailed toward Niigata, we were all treated to a slide show of our Treasures of Japan voyage put together with great skill and wit by Rich. Then, off to finish packing and to prepare for our trip by shinkansen to Tokyo tomorrow.

Friday, April 26
Niigata / Disembark / Tokyo
Today was a long but memorable day of travel from the Caledonian Sky in Niigata to the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo, by shinkansen, by bus, and by shoe leather.  The bullet train was easily the most exciting, as we zoomed from the northern plain through mountain tunnels and into the urban sprawl of Tokyo, reaching speeds of almost 150 miles per hour. The most nerve-wracking was our double-time march through the cavernous and jam-packed Tokyo Central Station. Amazingly, we all kept together, thanks to the many staff armed with yellow Zegrahm signs. We recovered with a wonderful lunch at Happo-en, where no less than sixteen weddings were scheduled on a perfect spring day in the beautiful gardens. And finally, we made a visit to Tokyo’s great Meiji Shrine, followed by arrival at the New Otani Hotel and our farewell dinner, where at Nadia’s invitation, each of the staff and many of the guests shared favorite moments from the trip. It was remarkable how each of us named a different highlight, a testimony to how this voyage has truly lived up to its name: Treasures of Japan.

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