Okinawa & Ishigaki Island Japan and the last Sea Day

This post is being written in February 2020 well after our visit to Okinawa last October.

We arrived at the port of Naha which was our first stop in Southern Japan. During the included excursion we visited the Peace Park which is adjacent to the cliff seen in the photo above.

This cliff was the scene of mass suicides during the last days of WWII. Japanese has retreated to caves on these cliffs and when it was apparent that they were going to not withstand the American invasion, many chose to jump rather than be captured.

The nearby park serves as a memorial to both Japanese and allied soldiers who died during the invasion. There are large tablets with the names of the dead in alphabetical order with each country having a section. Like all such places it was beautiful, peaceful, somber and sad. At the center is a plaza overlooking the sea with a fountain that has both water and on certain days, flame all in a map of the area.

From the park, we drove along the coast and were dropped in the downtown.

We wandered up the shopping street enjoying the unusual items and people watching including the ladies in uniform offering tourist information-flight attendants in another life? We also had some purple yam ice cream. Very tasty!

Apparently the chef on the ship thought it was tasty too-look what was one of the desserts that evening!

The next day we stopped on Ishigaki Island just a little further south. This is mostly a resort community where northern Japanese come to get away from the cold..or retire to for the same reason.

Our included tour this day took us up to an overlook where the picture above and the two below were taken.

From there we headed to a cove where black pearls are cultivated and sold-very expensive-that’s a $1200 necklace and was among the cheapest on offer! We had a nice walk along the beach before returning to the bus.

Our final stop was at a weaver which was really a shopping place. This was the one tour that got pretty low marks from us on our review. Glad we hadn’t paid for it!

We did use up the last of the yen we had been carrying since we left Kyoto on some KitKat bars. KitKats are a favorite snack in Japan and they come in hundreds of flavors-we couldn’t decide between apple pie and yam but ended up with the yam. These (like the ice cream) were delish.

As in our previous port, we returned to the ship along with many other buses and found a long wait. This time is couldn’t be blamed on customs, it was purely having all 930 passengers arriving back to the ship about the same time.

I went and sat in the shade on one of the ginormous cleats that they use to tie up the ship while others waited in the hot sun. About the time Mike was on the gangway, the line was down to just a few and I was aboard five minutes after him cook and comfortable whether than hot and sweaty!

Our final sea day was the next day. I don’t know what we did but I suspect it was mostly be lazy. I do know we had a big breakfast and no lunch so we had room for Afternoon Tea. We really enjoy this complimentary affair on Viking. It is held in the Winter Garden each afternoon from 4-5 pm. Typically one of the musicians plays appropriate music, you select your tea from a huge menu (gunpowder? Green? Oolong? You have about 20 to choose from) and with your pot they bring a tray of sandwiches (menu changes daily) and pasteries. Then they pass warm scones. Usually these are accompanied by clotted cream and jam. However, we were served whipped cream instead of the clotted variety. Our Scottish friend Lady McGrath (we met she and Sir Brian aboard our first Viking transatlantic) complained about this and had been pleased when we reported that on our second transatlantic we were served “proper” clottted cream. I instagrammed some of these same pictures and was stopped the next day by the assistant waiter in charge of tea (that’s him in white chatting with the ship’s manager in charge of all the food venues) to invite me back. He said they had trouble provisioning clotted cream in Asia but had a small amount for those who asked. I guess we will have to come back!

As you can see, in honour of Lady McGrath we took the bottle of bubbly that was one of the perks for the upgraded cabin and made it a “Champagne Tea”. We can’t have tea everyday as it makes it impossible to enjoy the sushi and crab legs at Happy Hour! #FirstWorldProblems

We attended the show this evening as the whole cast was performing a show they put together, it was quite good.

We returned to our room to a beautiful moon lit night. Tomorrow we arrive in Xiamen for two days.

To China

This post is being written from Las Vegas about our trip from Japan to China on September 27th. Sorry I have fallen so far behind.

The picture above is Mike in Kyoto as we boarded our bullet train to the Osaka airport for our flight to Xi’an China. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After our long day to, from and in Hiroshima and knowing we would be going non-stop for the next 7 days we decided to take it easy on our last day in Kyoto. We had thought about seeing another sight or two but the remaining ones required a trip away from the city so we decided…”next time”.

After sleeping in, we had a tasty last lunch in our hotel’s buffet restaurant. We hadn’t planned on eating there but after peaking in and seeing it was all locals, we decided to try it. Very tasty salad makings and Japanese versions of European dishes but also some delicious tempura and other Japanese noodle dishes. It was interesting watching the locals use chop sticks and raise their plates to eat non Asian dishes.

We had originally intended to use the same luggage service to take our bags to the airport and for us to take the subway to train station. But we found out we had to send the luggage two days ahead and that the cost of a cab was cheap much less than the luggage service, we decided we would handle the bags ourselves. The hotel called us a cab and I’m glad we had that experience.

Like so much in Japan, it is still old school. The driver wears gloves (some wear suits and hats), the cab is immaculate and the seats are even covered with antimacassars!

We arrived at the station and quickly boarded the Hello Kitty Express to the airport. Everything on the train was themed even the bathroom mirror and the antimacassars!

We arrived at the HUGE (well we thought it was huge until we saw China’s airports) too early to check in so had to cool our heels for a bit in the checkin area which wasn’t much fun as apparently half of everyone leaving Osaka was doing the same thing.

But after we checked our bags, and after spending a bit of time in the lounge we found ourselves aboard our plane for our 4.5 hour flight to Xi’an. When we booked the flight on Hainan, we discovered for less than $100 more over what an economy ticket plus the exit row seat fee cost we could be in Business (which came with extra bag weight which we needed 😢) it was a no brainer to ride up front. The service and food but most importantly legroom were all great.

We arrived in Xi’an at 11:35 pm. We had used a Chinese tour agency, China Highlights to book our hotels, tours and transfers in China. We don’t normally use an agency but as Asia was completely new to us and frankly we were a bit afraid to plan our travels without help. Thank goodness we did, as it turned out to be the National Holiday in China. If not for the advice of the agent we worked with, we would likely have been trying to see the sights along with thousands and thousands of Chinese. She advised us to arrive earlier than originally planned which we did. All of that is to say that we were pleased to see the smiling face of our guide “Rocky” waiting at the door when we exited customs. He and our driver drove us through dark but heavily decorated streets to our hotel in the center of the city where we arrived about 1 am.

Our room was large but Asian standards but when we walked in I was sad to see what I thought was a very ornate footboard. I had told Lily (our travel agent) that I was very tall and that I’d appreciate it if we could be assigned a room without a footboard. Oh well, it was only two nights. But wait, that is a strange looking footboard. What is it?

Yes, apparently the hotel had taken Lily’s request to heart and using some ballroom chairs, and extra pillows and a folded comforter, they had extended the bed! Wow, this was a new one! Mike said, “can you imagine the conversation the housekeepers must of had while setting this up!”

So after a long day, we fell asleep in a very long bed in a brand new country!

Tomorrow, we are off to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.


We took our second bullet train early in the morning for the roughly two hour trip to Hiroshima. We had arranged another “Goodwill” Guide and Tai met us as promised at the train station. That’s him below in a picture taken on the ferry to our first stop, Miyajima. This resort island is known for its Shinto Shrine that has a huge Torii partially submerged at high tide.

Unbeknownst to me (despite copious research) the gate is undergoing renovations so rather than seeing this:

here is what we got:

Mike’s bad juju continues-remember he didn’t get to see Big Ben’s Tower in London due to similar scaffolding. If we ever get him to Paris I’m afraid the Eiffel Tower may be under a cloak too!

The shrine itself is pretty interesting as it is mostly overwater (or at low tide, over sand😢)

We hiked up lots of stairs to get to the beautiful pagoda that dominates the hillside where we took our standard selfie and Tai all but laid on the ground to take a much nicer photo.

The island is also home to a herd (perhaps several) of small deer. They aren’t at all afraid of people and we were warned to keep our ferry tickets put away as they have been know to snatch and eat them. Luckily our train passes were good on this ferry so that wasn’t a concern for us!

After returning to the ferry and back to the mainland, we took the Hiroshima streetcar back into the city. We had ridden a train out from the City as it was covered by our rail pass but due to time, Tai said it would be faster overall to take the streetcar since it would make a stop directly at the Peace Park. I’m always up for trying new transportation and the streetcar was great. Tai taught Mike how to buy our ticket and off we went. I particularly liked the attendant in her white gloves who walked through the car after each stop to make change if needed.

We arrived at the Peace Park stop but before we visited it was time for lunch. Tai took us to a restaurant in a department store. This is fairly typical in Japan, the malls and department stores have floors devoted to restaurants. In the one we visited I counted five different ones on the floor he took us too. We had Okonomiyaki. This delicious cross between a pancake and an omelet was delicious! We had seen it during our YouTube research so we were glad Tai suggested it. The dish is made on a flattop by making a crepe, covering it with cabbage, sprouts, other fillings (one of ours included local oysters) an egg, special sauce (sorta a sweet and sour Worcestershire) and noodles. Through an intricate series of flipping you end up with crispy noodles on the outside and gooey deliciousness inside. While we ate at a table, if you sit at the flat top, you eat it directly off the griddle. Either way it was Yummy!

We really enjoyed our time with Tai. He is a recent retiree also and enjoys being a goodwill guide to improve his English (which is already amazing!) it was fun to watch him pull out his phone and look up translations and then ask us to explain certain phrases that don’t translate exactly. For example, at some point I said in relation to our first visit to China that we took the cruise to “dip our toe in the water”. This phrase obviously doesn’t make much sense when directly translated but once we explained, Tai grinned and reached for his notepad to write it down. I would love it if I spoke a foreign language enough to be able to be a Goodwill Guide in the US. 😢

After lunch we walked a block or so, to reach the Peace Park. This park is built around the former municipal building whose dome was the sighting point for the knowing when to drop the world’s first atomic bomb. The title picture for this post is what one sees when entering the park. The park is beautiful and and spreads across both sides of the river. It is in start contrast to the destroyed remnants of the building. I was particularly taken with the fallen stone and brick ruble scattered around the buildings.

In addition to a Museum which we didn’t have time to visit, there are memorials throughout the park.

The most moving is the Children’s Peace Memorial. It was inspired by Sadako Sasaki who was exposed but not injured during the original blast when she was two years old. Nine years master, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Believing the ancient practice of folding origami paper cranes would bring her health, she started folding and continued to do so until her death 8 months later. Today, in addition to the clacker of the bell that hangs in the center of the Children’s Memorial, there are thousands of cranes that people around the world have folded in the children’s memory and in the hope for peace surrounding the monument. The modern connection between paper cranes and peace is said to be the result of Sadako’s original cranes.

Our visit to the Peace Park was very impactful. It is awful to think of the horror that the bomb wrought. Of course the horror of war is also unimaginable. I hope that the goal of this park to achieve Peace in the world is someday permanently achieved. This is also probably a good time to share my thoughts regarding the way the Japanese treat us. Unfortunately I never felt close enough to any of the Japanese people I met to discuss it with them, but I found it surprising that there appeared to be no resentment towards Americans. Given the devastation the war wrought I expected that they would not be as accepting and friendly. Perhaps it is that ingrained Japanese politeness and desire to not disrupt. I mean a people who don’t blow their car horns or don’t ever push to get on or off a subway certainly wouldn’t want to treat anyone badly simply because we retaliated for a surprise attack by defeating them. Anyway, not trying to be political, just an observation.

After thanking Tai for his time, stories and knowledge, we headed back to Kyoto arriving about 12 hours after we left. Since we were still stuffed from lunch we ended up eating some leftovers we had in the room and hitting the sack. It had been a long but meaningful day.

Tomorrow we head to China!

Kyoto Day 2

This post is being written in the middle of the Strait of Taiwan on our sea day between Ishigaki Island Japan and Xiamen China about our second day in Kyoto last month.

We woke up early and after a quick breakfast from the bakery next door to our hotel, we took the subway to Nijo Castle/Ninomaru Palace. Prior to being relocated to Tokyo, the capital of Japan was Kyoto. Originally built as a fortress by a shogun, this castle later became the palace for some of the emperor’s relatives and hosted a long visit by the Emperor.

The entrance gate is heavily decorated (actually everything is that way!) and I found some of the details just beautiful. Even the back is the gate is impressive.

The palace building is a series of rooms each having a different purpose, the first ones administrative and the further interior the more private. All are also highly decorated. Additionally, the floors chirp when you walk on them. It is said this was done for security so that an intruder could be heard coming. However, my mama would have said the floors squeak and they ought to call the contractor back to fix them! Unfortunately, photos weren’t allowed inside but I’ve included some photos found on the innerwebs below.

The gardens of the Castle/Palace are lovely and I suspect more so during blooming season. They were designed to be viewed from inside the building and the waterfalls and plantings create pleasing vignettes for the royals pleasure.

There is a second building onsite but it was under scaffolding being restored but we did cross it’s most and climb up (and I mean climb) to the castle walls.

Throughout the grounds there are several tea houses most of which are not open to the public but instead are used for official entertainment or can be rented for events. These were originally used by the royals. One of them was open during our visit so we decided to have a rest and have macha tea for the first time. Macha is a powder made from green tea and rather than steeping it, you mix it using a bamboo whisk with hot water. When you hear about a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, it means you will be drinking macha. The tea house was lovely but rather than being traditional and sitting on tatami mats on the floor, we elected to have our tea on a bench (much easier to get up off of) on the porch (much cooler than inside). It was an enjoyable experience with a beautiful view into the garden but we won’t need to have macha again! Thankfully we also had some cold green tea which we knew we liked since that’s what we drink at home. With our tea we got a sweet-typically Japanese it was the consistency of bread dough with a sweet bean paste inside. I later learned we should have eaten with the macha as the sweet would have made the bitter of the tea more enjoyable..or so the guide said. The first video is of us making the tea and a lesson from Mike on its health benefits while the second one is worth watching just to see the look on Mike’s face as he tastes the sweet!

After tea and a stroll through the beautiful garden we headed towards the exit of the Castle/Palace with one last stop at the Imperial Kitchen. This huge building (surrounded by many small storehouses) is now used for exhibits. There was a photography exhibit of everyday Kyoto life on display which was interesting but I found the huge beams and beautiful architectural details and doors even more fascinating. But best of all were the beautiful long handles shoe horns waiting at the entrance/exit to assist in putting your shoes back on!

It was lunchtime by the time we left so we decided to walk towards our hotel (thankfully the taller buildings provided shade to the sidewalk) and find some food. We of course were looking for something traditionally Japanese-soba noodles perhaps but when we saw Mos Burgers we knew we had to try Japanese fast food! It was great fun-the cashier didn’t speak English but between her smile and my google translate we did just fine. The menu had burgers, shrimp burgers, fried shrimp on a bun, tofu burger and all sorts of others. We elected to have the Mos Burger which was a pork and beef mixture and the shrimp on a bun. Both were tasty, the fries and onion rings were just ok. After eating our sandwiches we were still a bit hungry so we split a hotdog. It was really good-more a German sausage than an American hot dog.

After lunch we continued our stroll (Death March) back to our hotel passing some interesting architecture and what we presume was a negligee store along the way.

We also passed a bakery with beautiful cakes so we order us up a slice of thebfig version to take back to the hotel. We were more impressed with the packaging than the cake unfortunately. Not only did they pack it in a beautiful box and bag, there was a cardboard spacer in the box along with a teeny ice pack and an even teenyer fork! All this for $4 bucks. No wonder the cake was just alright tasting! 😂 Back in the room, I made myself a cup of coffee using the coffee system that we found at both hotels in Japan. The coffee comes in what looks like a small packet that you typically use in 4 cup maker but the packet has cardboard “arms” which you just to hang it over the coffee cup. You then just add hot water and it brews to a quite tasty cup o’joe.

After a rest (read nap for someone), we headed back towards Gion. On the way we stopped to have soba. These noodles are thicker than ramen and made of buckwheat. Here rather than pork in the broth like in Tokyo, the tradition is to have tempura with them. Mike had a hot dish, while I selected cold noodles which are served with a cold mashed yam paste. We both liked them.

After supper we headed to Gion Corner. This theatre is the official headquarters of the Geisha Association and they have two shows a night which include a traditional tea ceremony, flower arranging and music (all happening simultaneously), a traditional orchestra performance directed by a conductor in an elaborate costume and mask, a traditional comedy play, a puppet show (with big puppets operated by two or three people) and a traditional geisha dance-in this case performed by a first year and second year maiko. You can tell the second year as her upper lip is also painted. You can tell they are not yet geishas, as their obe (belt is long in the back rather than tied into an elaborate knot. The show was a little hokey but I’m glad we went as otherwise we wouldn’t have seen a real geisha at all.

After dinner we had a nice stroll back to the hotel through Gion (where maybe we saw some modern Geishas??) and along the river which was quite lively. We also popped into the two story supermarket beside our hotel. The upper floor was a specialty market with lots of foreign foods-who knew you could get Brer Rabbit Molasses outside the south? Of course at $8 a bottle I wouldn’t be buying it very often!

Tomorrow we head to Hiroshima.

Kyoto Day 1

This post is being written as we leave port in Ishigaki Japan headed back to China and covers our first full day in Kyoto back in late September 2019.

Kyoto turned out to be the highlight of our time in Japan. There was lots (too much?) to see, everyone we met was friendly, and we got in a groove of getting up relatively early and sightseeing, having lunch and then returning to our hotel during the heat of the day and then venturing back out after sunset.

The first morning we met the Kyoto Free Walking Tour just outside one of the stations near our hotel along the river. We have done these tours in several places and they have always been very good for an overview of a new place and this was no exception. There is no charge but at the end of the tour you tip the guide whatever you wish.

This tour met beside the river which is well used in the daytime as a bike path and exercise site. We loved seeing how the Japanese behavior of not wanting to offend extends to even the trimming of hedges. Not only were there cones places along the sidewalk, but one of the workers held up a screen while the trimmer was running and when someone approached on the sidewalk, they stopped work and bowed slightly. Once we passed by, the trimming started again. Imagine any one of those happening in your town!

Our tour started in Gion which is the old part of Kyoto, known for the Geisha culture and narrow streets. This part of the city has had its electric lines buried so it comes as close as possible to looking like it did back in the day. It appears that in order to maintain the appearance of ancient Kyoto, they even camouflage traffic cones with bamboo covers! The last picture was taken on another visit to Gion but gives you an idea of how it looks at night.

We had hoped to see a Geisha or a Maiko (geisha in training). Alas we saw neither though we did learn about their history, practices and training. Geishas aren’t prostitutes, rather are entertainers and in more modern times escorts (more or less).

The houses which train the geishas are by the wooden blocks above the door each identifying the ladies who reside within.

There is a highly defined pecking order and rules regarding their appearance, how they wear their kimono and even lipstick. 1st year Maikos only apply lipstick to their bottom lip! The rules of Gion apply to us tourists also. Apparently there is such a problem with people touching the Geishas that the city had to put up signs to insure proper behavior. (No touching the geishas, no leaning on the buildings, no drinking, eating, littering (all of these are true throughout Japan-again that making sure to not impact others) and no selfie sticks!)

I (of course) was intrigued with some of the construction details, especially the tile roofs and the ornaments found on them.

Leaving Gion, our group headed towards a Buddhist Temple (or was it a Shinto Shrine?-they were starting to run together, especially if you don’t go fully inside. Anyway, the title photo for this post is of a pagoda we passed along the way. Apparently it’s temple burned down but the pagoda remains and is a landmark throughout this part of town. We saw it going up to the shrine and then again on our way down.

The shrine area was quite peaceful and beautiful. We had planned on trying to go back and really explore but time (and our feet) ran out. The last picture shows the tea bushes that serve as a hedge for part of the shrine. Originally, the monks used these to grow their own tea.

Leaving the shrine we headed downhill along a narrow shopping street which included (of course!😢) a Starbucks. Though if you blinked you might miss it.

At the bottom of the hill was a large and beautiful park that stretches from a Torii Gate uphill into the woods. It is full of cherry trees and is the favorite place for people from Kyoto to come and enjoy their blooms. It would be beautiful to see in the spring! There were also several other shrines we visited during our tour. One was the Three Monkeys Shrine. Here people bought stuffed monkeys and left them with their prayers.

You can see “See No Evil, Speak No Evil and Hear No Evil” along the top of the entrance gate.

Our tour ended at this spot and luckily for us there are also a lot of vendors in the park and we took advantage to have a quick nosh. Both the dumplings and the yakitori of chicken and scallion were delish!

While we hadn’t seen any real Geishas, we had seen plenty of fake ones. Apparently from our guide told us, lots of Chinese tourists rent kimonos (and hire rickshaws) for sightseeing selfies.

After a return and rest at the hotel (and presumably some lunch?) we returned to the subway station via a walk along the river to head to Fushimi Inari Takisha, probably Kyoto’s most famous sight.

This Shinto Shrine is famous for its 10,000 Torii Gates. So famous in fact that it is overrun with tourists. While researching I ran across a blog post describing the author’s visit during the evening. Not only was it cooler and less crowded, the darkness added a mystery to his visit. He had me at cool and less crowded!

We found our way on Kyoto’s subway system (didn’t even have to change lines!) and arrived just as the masses who came for sunset were leaving. We spent the next hour to hour and a half, walking uphill through the shrine and the seemingly endless pathway of gates to more altars. We didn’t go all the way to the top as it would have been a three hour trip oneway! We really enjoyed our time at the shrine and I highly recommend an evening visit. ‘Nuff said, here are some pictures so you can see for yourself.

After returning to the subway station, we got back to our neighborhood and as the Soba Noodle place was already closed we opted for conveyor-belt sushi. It was great fun and we happened to be sitting beside a graduate student from Houston doing a year abroad at Signapore University. She was with some fellow students and they said they had had eaten conveyor belt sushi everyday they had been in Kyoto and that this was the best! Lucky us. 😊. You pay by the plate, the different colored plates represent different prices. As you can see we had plenty!

After a very full, tiring but great day we returned to the hotel for some much needed sleep! Tomorrow, we are off to the original Imperial Palace!

Tokyo to Kyoto

This post is being written in early October from Okinawa about getting to Kyoto last month, hopefully someday I will get caught up!

After a great night’s sleep in Tokyo, we headed to the nearby train station and took the metro to the Tokyo Station (the same one we had visited on our first day in Japan) to catch the bullet train to Kyoto.

Before heading for the train though we did a quick tour through the hotel located above the station. This beautiful restoration/reuse of the original station is currently one of the Small Hotels of the World. Would be great to stay there! There are two sections, one on either side of the station’s grand entrance. To get between the two sections you walk around the mezzanine, which is also a history gallery of the station.

Since we started researching for this trip, I think has been most excited and intrigued by the bento boxes one can buy in the station to take on the train. So we arrived early to have shopping time.

Imagine the first floor of an older department store with all the cosmetic counters, except the cosmetics are now sweets, pastries, noodles and beautiful boxes with sushi, pork dishes, or rice and vegetables. Throw in some freshly steamed dumplings or buns along with a couple of hundred people and you will have an idea of one (out of five or six) of the areas in the station devoted to train food!

While making our lunch purchases, the pumpkin croquette caught my eye. Yes, it appears even Asia has gone pumpkin mad! Anyway, $2 later I had one to try. Turns out it was real pumpkin! Not a donut like I had expected at all. Almost savory.

After making our purchases we had to make our way thorough this huge and busy station. Below is a short (30 seconds originally?) time lapse video that will give you some idea of the number of people using the station. Keep in mind we were there about 10am on a holiday so not a rush hour crowd.

We were soon aboard our train (that’s it arriving in the title picture) and ready to head to Kyoto.

We had elected to buy first class railpasses at a surplus of about $125 each since we were worried how our big bodies would fit in trains designed for petite Japanese. I think we would have been only slightly less comfortable, but the real benefit was having reserved seats. One thing we didn’t like about the seat was the foot rest. It didn’t do us any good and it really impinged upon the leg room. On our older trains to Hiroshima and Osaka later in the week, the footrest was much better designed. We found it interesting that each rail employee upon entering and leaving each car, bowed to the car. We have been really impressed with the politeness and calmness of the Japanese. Our only other complaint was that they didn’t show you the speed of the train. The train’s top speed for our run was supposed to be 180 mph. The video below was NOT timelapsed.

We had reserved seats on the right side of the car in the hopes we would see Mt Fuji, alas it was very overcast so no such luck. Gives us a reason to come back! We did pass some interesting bridges and countryside.

While the countryside was passing us by we enjoyed sharing our lunch purchases. We first enjoyed an assortment of dumplings. Pork, mushroom, scallion and mushroom and a fourth that I can’t remember.

We then shared this dish if pork with vegetable and rice.

We were impressed by the nice disposable chopsticks (with matching toothpick) and the lightweight but attractive packaging.

We soon arrived in Kyoto and because we had sent our bags ahead (we had our necessities and our change of clothes packed in a small rolling underseat case we bought at Costco in Seattle) we were able to use the subway to get to our hotel with only minimal stress-why can’t they mark the subway exits better so you don’t walk all the way over there to come up and find out you basically have to retrace your steps above ground???

We found our hotel through some YouTube and TripAdvisor research and booked it through Mike’s credit card which refunds the fourth night cost to his account. It was very nice and located about 10 minutes from two subway stations so it was very convenient!

The room was a little smaller than the one in Tokyo but the beds were a little higher. However, the shower was the best we have ever experienced anywhere. The water pressure was great and it had both a rainhead and a handheld. Like the shower in Tokyo, it was in a glass enclosure with the tub. While I wouldn’t want this configuration in my house, since I wasn’t cleaning I appreciated the extra room. We had lots of amenities including nightshirts that wouldn’t fit and an even fancier toilet. It flushed itself when you stood up and had a deodorizing button!

After setting in and relaxing a bit, we headed out to explore the neighborhood and find supper.

The hotel was surrounded by shops, restaurants and there was even a roofed shopping street that started at the end of the block. A block away was the river which was an enjoyable place to walk and people watch.

We ended up having Yakitori (Grill) for supper at a tiny place a block or two away. We had to wait for some other customers to leave before we could go in. Everything we had was delicious and made and served to us immediately from the grill by the smiling chef.

We stopped at the 7-11 on our way home and got some yogurt for breakfast and I got this interesting waffle ice cream sandwich for dessert. The waffle was meh, but the ice cream was delicious. Mike bought what was basically a flat nutty buddy. He liked it because it was almost all crunch!

Hope to get a post about our Free Kyoto Tour that we did the next morning and our visit to the Torii Gates posted soon!

Tokyo Day 2

This post about our time in Tokyo several weeks ago is being written aboard Viking Orion somewhere in the South China Sea between Shanghai and Okinawa.

After disembarking Celebrity Millennium, we took the provided shuttle to the nearby station to ship our suitcases ahead to Kyoto. This is a common practice all over Japan. For a very reasonable price, your bags can be shipped same day from the train station or airport to your hotel or in two days to just about anywhere in Japan. That’s Mike filling out or more accurately having the agent fill out the paperwork. Total cost was under $35 which was much easier than dealing with them on the metro and trains we would be using to get to Kyoto the following day.

Those are our big bags over on the right. But wait longtime readers are saying, y’all went to Europe for seven months in just a rollaboard apiece, why the big suitcases for this trip. That is the same question we’ve been asking ourselves since we rolled the bags into the train station in Vancouver!

Previously we have been staying in Airbnbs with washing machines but there were 13 days between leaving the ship in Tokyo and boarding Viking (which has free washers and dryers) in Tianjin. So we had enough clothes for that length. (We planned well, we each had one pair of clean socks when we boarded Orion!) Anyway, we have learned our lesson (again). We have agreed that never (ever) will be travel with more than a rollaboard!

After shipping the luggage we took the train/metro to the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku which Mike booked using points. The hotel was very close to the station and they provided a very nice shuttle bus back and forth to the station. The lobby had the biggest chandeliers I’ve ever seen hanging over more orchids than I’ve ever seen in one place outside of a greenhouse!

They let us check in early (around noon) and we had a great room, though the bed was very low. This was also our first experience with the electric Japanese toilets. We liked them, unfortunately neither this hotel nor the one in Kyoto had opted to install the drying option 😢 The Hotel also lived up to what we had learned (thanks YouTube) about amenities at Japanese hotels. In addition to the usual shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, the beautiful box included a comb (snagged), a nice folding brush (snagged), a sewing kit (snagged), nice toothbrushes, disposable wash cloths, hair bonnets (sorry Karen I didn’t snag one for you 😢) and other assorted necessities. Out in the closet were bathrobes and slippers and on the bed were nightshirts. Of course none of the last three fit us 😢

After a bit of a rest (finding our way out of the huge station had been a bit stressful), we decided to go explore the neighborhood and have lunch. We ended up at a ramen place highly recommended on TripAdvisor, Menya Musashi. Wow, so delicious. We had ramen and tsukemen which is ramen but rather than being served in broth, you get the noodles on the side and then dip them into a thicker version of the broth. When you’re done with the noddles, there are pitchers of chicken broth that you thin out what’s in your bowl and drink like soup.

The whole experience was a blast. There is a machine at the entrance with pictures (and sorta English descriptions) of the eight or so dishes you can order. You make your selections, feed cash into the machine, get a ticket and then go stand along the wall behind folks sitting at the counter until a seat is available when the nice lady behind the counter takes your ticket m, asks what size you want (all cost the same-we got medium) and waves you to a seat.

Then the fun really begins. There are pitchers of ice water along the counter, along with napkins and bibs! You can see the ordering machine behind the picture of us modeling the bibs.

It was great fun to watch the well oiled team, cook noodles, rinse them for the tsukemen, slice the pork belly, add it, egg , seaweed and deliver the bowls to the waiting customers.

We were really glad to have the bibs as we are still beginners with the chopsticks. I gave Mike a hard time as the six year sitting next to him didn’t use a bib and had nothing on his clothes when he was finished! The ramen were everything you’ve ever heard about them-just so so good. Certainly not Cup o’Noddles!

We explored the neighborhood a bit on our walk back towards the hotel. It’s an interesting area with the nearby train station, several shopping malls, new high rises and little side streets with tiny restaurants. And of course everywhere signs of the upcoming summer Olympics.

We intended to go the observation deck on one of the towers of the Tokyo Municipal Building, but between the long line (it’s free) and an impending rain cloud we decided to head back to the hotel.

After watching the National Sumo Wrestling Match on tv, we decided while not hungry enough to have a real meal (the medium bowls of ramen were large!) we did need a bite to eat. Luckily there was a 7-11 in the same building as our hotel! So we had the feast shown below, which included (clockwise from the lower left) a corn dog, a salad, egg salad sandwich, yogurts (for breakfast the next day), edemame, an egg roll, chicken on a skewer and in the center for dessert, a banana pancake. Everything was very fresh and tasty. The dessert was a pancake that most closely resembled the cake of a Little Debbie Swiss Roll, filled with a chocolate dipped banana and some whipped cream.

While we enjoyed our one extra night in Tokyo, if we had it to do over we would elect to stay In Yokohama. I didn’t expect it to have anything interesting to do. But between the Cup o’Noodles Museum where you can make your own custom cup, the other sights near the cruise port, the lower hotel costs and in general it being easy to get around, if we ever cruise back (and we hope we will) we would stay in Yokohama.

After finishing watching the wrestling and attempting to recreate their incredible forward facing manbun, it was time for bed as we had a morning train to Kyoto the next day.


This post is being uploaded well after the events took place from aboard Viking Orion. The Great Firewall of China kept me from being able to publish it sooner

Our ship docked in Yokohama which is 40 minutes to an hour from Tokyo by train/subway. I had gotten a group of six of us together and requested a “goodwill” guide. These are local volunteers who guide visitors around their city for free! The tourist only pays for any admission costs, transportation during the guided period and any meals shared with the guide.

Our group was lucky that Yuko was our guide, she had been great via email and even rode all the way out to Yokohama (1.5 hours from her home) to meet us at the station about a 10 minute walk from our ship. She even sent a picture of the entrance where she would meet us. That’s her below with Phil one half of Corry & Phil).

Yuko helped us buy our tickets. Tokyo (actually all of Japan) has an extensive and interconnected mass transit system and different lines are owned by different companies. This means that our rail pass was good on some of the transit we used but not on others. Very confusing. Below is the map just of Tokyo.

But buying a ticket, while taking a little learning to figure out turns out to be relatively easy once you press the “English” button on the upper right of the machine.

After getting our tickets we road about 40 minutes to our first stop. The train as expected were crowded but while we saw them, we didn’t experience the pushers. These gentlemen cram folks into the trains during rush hours. But it was full enough for me.

Our first stop was in the Askausa district where we went up to the roof terrace of the visitor center for the view shown at the top of this post. The tall Tower is the tallest in Tokyo. From this perch we also looked down upon the Buddhist Shrine we would be visiting next.

In the picture above, the main gate is under the big roof and the green roofs are over the market street that leads up to the shrine.

Vanna is pointing out the huge lateen that hangs from the center of the gate.

As you can see it was crowded everywhere we went in Japan. The Rugby World Cup was underway and fans from around the world had traveled to cheer on their teams. This is sorta a test event for the Olympics next year. As you can see from the title picture, Tokyo is counting down the days.

The market area was originally fruits and vegetables but is now tourist souvenirs, street food and kimono rental places. Apparently it’s big business to rent tourists (particularly Chinese girls) kimonos for their day of sightseeing. We saw them everywhere in Tokyo and Kyoto. And no, we didn’t try to rent one.

After making our way through the crowds, we arrived at the temple. Mike and I both paid a yen or three and shook the metal canister to release a wooden skewer with a number on it, we then opened the corresponding drawer and received our fortune. Mike’s was great so he kept his, mine not so much so I tied it to the nearby fortune tying place so it would blow away and not come true!

The Japanese honor both Buddhist and Shinto teachings (Buddhist is about life and Shinto about that afterlife) and the temples and shrines coexist peacefully. In fact across the street from the Buddhist temple was the oldest Shinto Shrine in Toyko.

The Buddhist temple has another big gate (those are Buddha’s big sandals!) and an incensor where one waves smoke over oneself to be purified. Then you walk up the steps to the temple, throw in some coins, ring the bell to get Buddha’s attention, pray, clap three times, now and leave.

The Shinto Shrine also had a gate and we were lucky enough to be there when a wedding (or at least the pictures of a wedding) was taking place.

From the temples we rode the subway to the Ginza area where we had a traditional lunch at a little restaurant. As you can see, we were greeted warmly by even the kitchen staff! Some of our group went fully traditional and sat at low tables on the floor. Mike and I elected to sit at a table with Yoku. Given how hard everyone had to work to get up after lunch, I know we made the right decision!

I had a delicious pork, soft boiled egg, vegetables, pickles and rice dish (also great miso soup. I thought I hated Miso soup, but it’s tasty in Japan) Mike has a beautiful selection of shashmi, tofu, and other nibbles.

After lunch it was back on the train to the central Tokyo Station for our visit to the nearby gardens of the Imperial Palace. This original station is huge and beautiful. The upper floors are now a Hilton associated hotel, unfortunately we couldn’t get a room there on points but we did walk through it on the day we left Tokyo for Kyoto so stay tuned for those pictures.

The gardens were pretty but I bet they are spectacular with spring flowers or the cherry trees are in bloom.

After retiring to the station, we headed for the famous crosswalk in the Shibuya district. This crosswalk reportedly is used by thousands each day which is probably true, but I think most are there as we were as tourists and crossed it not to get to the other side, but just to cross and come back.

From the Shibya station we said goodbye to Yuko and the rest of us headed back to the ship-luckily it was a single train all the way to Yokohama so nobody got lost!

We had a great day in Tokyo and got a brief overview. While we hated to leave the ship the next day, we were excited about our Japan and China adventures yet to come!


Like Otaru, Hakodate is not the first city you think of visiting in Japan. But the ship stopped there so we did too. That’s Mount Hakodate with all the radio towers on top.

We are glad it was one of our ports-they pulled out all the stops to welcome us. From what appeared to be the retired postal workers greeting us with a big welcome banner and shouting “Haarow” to us as we walked onto the pier to the school kids places throughout the town to assist us. We understand the schools use this volunteer assistance as part of their English language courses.

Hakodate provided shuttle buses to run us the 15 minute drive from the ferry and industrial port into downtown dropping us off at the train station. This would prove advantageous later in the day.

We followed the crowds and the advice of the school girls whose answer to most questions was a big smile, a handpoint to the left and “Morning Market that way”.

What a market it was-inside, outside just everywhere for several blocks. Seafood, fruits and vegetables. But as in Otaru not inexpensive-the crabs below range in price from about $20 up to about $50 for the large one in the right.

The highlight of our market visit for me though was my non verbal interaction with one of the vendors. She and her boss were giggling and nodding my way, she smiled and came over to see how tall she was beside me. We both started laughing when we realized my walking stick was as tall as she was!

From the market we walked several blocks to the “Brick Warehouses”. These former warehouses have been renovated into shopping and restaurants. It’s a great use for these and I suspect what Otaru hopes to do with the buildings along their canal.

Thankfully Lois isn’t along on this trip as I am sure we would never have gotten her away from the shops!

We ran into some friends from aboard who were sightseeing with two of the activities director’s staff and they mentioned they were heading to have ramen in a place they knew about. Unfortunately Mike and I ate too big a breakfast and weren’t ready for lunch and later when we tried to go there the place was packed. Since the clouds were turning darker we decided we better head to Fort Goryokaku. We took the tram from downtown out to the park, about a 15 minute ride. The city sells a day pass for about $5.50 and the tourist map had great instructions including step by step how to buy the pass on the tram and which stop to get off and even pictures of each intersection on the 15 minute walk from tram to the park. The one think they didn’t explain was what a one day pass was called in Japanese. So before we got too far from all the helpful students, I asked how to say “one day pass” in Japanese. The response I got was a smile and “onedaypass”. I smiled and said yes, how do I ask for a one day pass. “Onedaypass” was again stated to me with a smile. Finally on the third try of what ended up seeming like a “whose on first” comedy act, I realized that the Japanese word for what I wanted was the English word for it’ 😂

This fort which was built to protect the port and the Magistrate’s House (Governor’s office?) in the late 1800s is one of a couple of handfuls built in this style.

It is currently a park open to the public and while pretty now is I am sure quite beautiful when flowers are in bloom.

The highlight of the park for us though was the Magistrate’s House.

This building is a reconstruction of the original main building. It was built using the exact same techniques as the original-hand made ceramic tiles which are tied with wire together, wooden decorative carvings with hand hammered metal at the gables, all the joints are notched and pegged so no nails or screws.

While I wish it had of been built to a larger scale (ole Frank Lloyd Wright would have felt right at home) it was just beautiful and the details incredible.

We were lucky enough to have one of the docents take us under her wing (I think she enjoyed showing off her great English skills and was obviously proud of the house). She told us it’s history, explained how they could only build the main portion as otherwise it would be too large for current building codes for wooden structures.

We loved the original wooden urinal and toilet-I wish we had some this beautiful today!

Below are some photographs of the exhibits relating to the rebuilding including a structural model and samples of some of the joints

By the time we finished in the park it was close to 2 and the skies were continuing to darken so we hurried back to the tram and to the train station.

We purchased (as one must) rail passes in the US before we left. In order to use the pass we had to turn the voucher we bought into the pass. We decided that might be easier at the smaller Hakodate station rather than one of the busier ones in Tokyo. So we spent our last 30 minutes or so in the city doing that paperwork and making seat reservations for the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto we will take on Monday after we get off the ship. We even got seats on the right side of the train so hopefully the weather will cooperate and we will be able to see Mount Fuji.

We made it back to the ship just before the skies opened up and unlike most nights when we laugh at the old folks who are in line at 5:30 when the dining room opens-we were with them. After nothing to eat we were hongry! And after walking 4.5 miles (on what I thought might be an easy day since there was a shuttle to town!) we also were in bed before some folks had even gone to dinner.

Unfortunately because of the early dinner, we didn’t get to completely enjoy the sendoff from Hakodate. Through the dining room window we got glimpses of all those students arriving in school buses and standing in the rain, jumping up and down and waving flashlights as we left port!

So if you get a chance to go to Hakodate, we suggest you go!

Otaru (with pictures)

I’m writing this on from our hotel in Toyko before we head to the Bullet train to Kyoto on Monday morning. This is the first time we’ve had strong enough WiFi to load pictures since we arrived in Japan.

We arrived in Otaru as noted previously on time last Wednesday after our crossing. A future post will cover the crossing and our time on the ship. The pier in Otaru is an industrial pier but was only a 15 minute walk into town.

There was a good information tent set up by the tourist board so for those that needed maps and such it was available. There were also some taxis waiting but not an abundance.

A group of us from the CruiseCritic rollcall had planned on riding the train to Sapporo. After seeing how cloudy it was and coming to the realization that all the two of us were likely to do was wander Sapporo, Mike and I elected to skip the train-though we did take advantage of the early group immigration number the Celebrity Special Events staff had provided.

As this was our first port in Japan, everyone had to go through immigration. Unlike some previous experiences (see Key West aboard NCL Sun with the endless 5 am line around the atrium) this was smooth. The Japanese folks were aboard by 7 am, and had at least 12 stations set up to take our fingerprints and welcome us to Japan.

Mike and I were soon walking towards town where I saw the chuckle inducing tsunami warning sign above.

We walked to the train station hoping to turn our voucher into a real rail pass. Alas the small station didn’t offer that service so we continued along to the restored canal. This along with a cable car to a nearby mountain and a streamclock donated by Vancouver are Otaru’s big attractions. The title picture of this post was taken of one of the vine covered warehouses along this canal.

It appears that Otaru hopes the former warehouses will become retail and restaurants but at the moment most are empty or serve as parking.

The older buildings through our town are quite beautiful I think. And we were intrigued by what we think were snow fences protecting some from the steep hillside.

We were also intrigued by some sort of tank we saw outside most residential buildings. Have yet to figure out what they are. Any ideas? water heater? Propane?

Otaru was also the scene of our first visit to a Seven Eleven. We had learned that they are very important here-in addition to most of the things once finds in the US version (except for slurpees and Bug Gulps) they also sail dress shirts, underwear, lots of prepared foods beyond the usual hot dogs we have and most importantly for us have their own bank and ATMs. So as you can see by Vanna’s finger, we were excited for our first visit.

And I love the tagline on their house premium brand. I may make it my own!

We visited the market in Otaru and were shocked by the prices of local vegetables and fruits. Apparently imported goods are cheaper but not as tasty. A cantaloupe was around $10 while the ears of corn below were about $7 am ear. And even an ear of presumably the poorer quality “grilld”at restaurants was much cheaper than fried chicken by about $2.50!

I loved running across this group doing their part to keep their city clean. Though given the Japanese tradition of not littering and taking their trash home with them (they don’t even have garbage cans on the street or in train stations) I’m not sure how hard a job these folks really have.

Before finishing our 6 mile death march by heading back to the ship, we stopped in one of the vendors at the market for our first taste of Japan.

We shared a grilled (grilld?) scallop (tastier than it looked), a shashmi scallop, and some tuna. All were so fresh and delicious…well the local Otaru beer may not have been fresh but it was tasty!

We got back to the ship after a lovely day in Otaru and were entertained by dancers and drummers as we left port. All in all a great first day in Japan!