JAPAN (日本) & SOUTH KOREA (대한민국)

JAPAN

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Wow!  What an outstanding country Japan is!  The fond memories of Japan’s unique culture, healthy lifestyles and longevity of it’s population, along with the natural beauty of this gorgeous, friendly country has me already planning a return visit later this year!

First, I will cover a little bit about the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship.  It has been refurbished and custom-designed for the Japanese traveler.  There were about thirty other Americans on this beautiful vessel. The vast majority of passengers were Japanese with others coming from Hong Kong, Korea, China, Vietnam, and Australia.  The first thing we noticed about our fellow Japanese travelers were how extremely polite they were to us and everyone else. It is customary in Japan to bow-using only your head-to those you pass or meet. No exceptions were  ever made on the ship nor once we were in port.  I found this to be so charming and polite. In the morning it is customary to add the word “Ohayo” (pronounced Ohio, like the state) while head bowing to others, –a well wish for a good morning and  prosperous day.

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The Diamond Princess , much like their other ships, serves traditional cuisine based upon various themes throughout the cruise in the main dining rooms. However, we were drawn instead to having our meals in the Horizon Court buffet. There, authentic Japanese breakfasts, lunches, and dinners were freshly served, along with lovely Japanese dinnerware and porcelain chopsticks. There was even a fabulous noodle-bar available in addition to this unique buffet.

Although we declined to participate, we were impressed to learn that there was an authentic Japanese Bath aboard the Diamond Princess in the Spa area. Izumi, designed like a traditional Japanese “onsen”, it has both an indoor and outdoor Japanese bathing area, including steam rooms, saunas, and hot tubs. It was rumored that nude bathing is the norm on the Diamond Princess, but we never did confirm this to actually be true.

The entertainment on board was the best we have ever experienced. The shows leaned towards Japanese costumes and traditional dance. Often when we were in port late into the afternoon, local performers (sometimes children’s dance companies) and  “rakugo” story-tellers would board the ship in authentic dress and entertain the guests aboard the ship.  Some performances were held during the dinner hour which was nice because it was easy to get a good seat. Yet, the highlight of the cruise entertainment was the Kumano Fireworks festival. I failed to do my research and unfortunately had just come from the fitness area to view the fireworks.  Embarrassed, I found every other passenger dressed to the nines for this unusual outdoor celebration. Japanese passengers wore lovely Japanese kimonos (着物, きもの) and I quickly learned that the married women wore plain kimonos while the unmarried women and children donned floral, colorful kimonos. Men’s kimonos fell below the knee and were worn with loose pants. It was wonderful seeing all of the families dressed to celebrate the fireworks, a display of unprecedented bursts of sheer beauty.

The wonderful ship itinerary allowed for a perfect snapshot of this amazing country.
After spending the night in Tokyo, we boarded the ship with ease the following morning. (Remember, there were only about thirty other American travelers, so check-in was a breeze to say the least). We were so grateful to have only two “Sea Days”, as it’s a shame to come all the way to Japan to spend it at sea on a ship. But the itinerary covered a lot of the country, with port calls in Shimizu, Kumano, Beppu, Busan (South Korea–which I will blog about separately), Kagoshima, Nagoya, and back to Tokyo.

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Rather than discuss each of the ports at length, I will give an overview of each:

TOKYO: We arrived late and booked a transfer &  hotel (as well as our air) through Princess.  Everything went so smoothly and even though we were half asleep when we arrived, we marveled at the cleanliness of the Narita Airport and at the ease of customs and security.  We stayed at the Hotel Nikko Narita which was wonderful and included a delicious Japanese breakfast complete with “supplements bar” (Yes, I mean vitamins!) We chose to board the ship later that morning, but at the end of the cruise we took a city tour of Tokyo before going to the airport.  We saw the following attractions: Meiji ShineSensoji Temple, and Tokyo Tower.  By this time, we had the Japanese shrines visits memorized so we almost felt like the locals as we savored our final experiences of Japan. By all means, take this excursion on your final day or see these sights a few days before your cruise.  I must mention this:  After being on a cruise ship for longer than seven days, I am usually very ready to get home.  This particular cruise was different. The Diamond Princess was spectacular and leaving Japan made me feel very sad.  My husband and I both agreed that this beautiful country was actually a place we could easily call home if we ever had the opportunity.  We LOVED it!

SHIMIZU: Normally, we are not big on booking excursions since we prefer to climb, hike, or cycle on our own.  But, since this was our first time to visit Japan (as well as our first visit to Asia together), we opted to take part in guided tours. On our up coming return to Japan, we are more confident to “do our own thing”, which we learned can be very safe and easy to do. For Shimizu, we took the Sunpo Castle Park, Views of Mt. Fuji, and Shivuoka Seven Shrines excursion. Being on a bus is a bit of a drag, but the tour guide’s English was good and she gave a wonderful lesson on the difference between the Shinto Shrines (not religious) versus the more common Buddhist Shrines (religious).  We became very familiar with the purification process of entering the Shinto Shrines.  First, you wash in a covered pool of water using a large wooden spoon for your hands and mouth known as “temizu.”  As you make your journey towards the shrine, you will walk under several  wooden torii structures. Each torii passed offers further purification. When you get to the actual shrine, there will be at least one stall where Omikuji fortunes are either drawn from a box near the shrine or purchased at the stall. Several of these fortunes (good or bad) can be seen tied onto plants and trees. Omamori and Amulets  are sold in the stalls (usually by very young Japanese women who wear the traditional modest kimonos and white face make-up) and are thought to bring good fortune to their new owner. I recommend taking this tour to get a good overview of Shimizu and the Japanese culture. The Castle and gardens are worth seeing as well. However, on our next trip to Japan, we are likely to spend more time at Mt. Fiji.

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BEPPU: We headed out on an organized excursion to the Usa Jinga shrine. This shine is 19th century “Hachimangu style. It is a Buddhist shrine and was very different from the earlier Shinto shrines we had visited. Afterwards, we headed to Jigoku Meguri (Boiling Hells) which was several impressive hot springs. Some of the springs look like mud, while others look like blood! There was also a clear colored spring that you could soak your feet in.  The outside temperatures were about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but regardless, we removed our shoes and soaked in the extremely hot footbath. There is a wonderful souvenir shop located at this attraction where they sell postcards.  Stamps can be purchased on the ship and you can also mail your postcards from the ship as an added convenience. My husband and I both enjoyed this excursion and would  do it again.

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A funny story while we wandered through Beppu:  My husband and I stopped for ice cream to cool down a bit from the very hot temperatures.  As we strolled along, a group of young local adults stopped and stared at us. One took off his sunglasses and asked us, “Where are you from?” I answered, saying, “America.” He looked puzzled and repeated, “America???” Then I said, “The United States.” And, that seemed to clear up the confusion.  The group was very curious about us and continued to watch us eat our ice cream while taking photos of us.  I suppose we do look a bit different, but for the most part the Japanese tend to dress very western like Americans. That is, unless they are visiting a shrine or celebrating a special occasion. Then the dress code is the kimono.

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KAGOSHIMA: We booked the excursion Chiran Samuri Houses and Lake Ikeda. The highlight for us was meeting the charming family that you can see in the slide show above. They were doing the tour on their own and we kept running into them from attraction to attraction. We actually got lost from our tour group twice because of our fascination with this fun family and their own fascination with us.  The pretty woman in the photo at the top (far left) is the mother of the boy, Lentil.  She had spent time as a foreign exchange student in Minnesota, so her English was very good.  She enjoyed practicing her English and asked us many questions about the United States.  Her goal is to bring her family to the states in the future for a visit.  Her husband spoke limited English, but enough to point to his T-shirt and tell us that he wants to see New York City.  As far as the shore excursion goes: I would recommend it if you have never been to Kagoshima.  Otherwise, just see Kagoshima on your own.

NAGOYA: We booked the ever popular Toyota Factory excursion. It gives a thorough demonstration of all that goes into manufacturing automobiles. We also visited the Nagoya Castle which was one of my favorite places, and we saw the Atsuta Shrine. This was a great excursion and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Nagoya.

Nogoya Castle
I thought this place was so beautiful. Inside is a historical museum on each level.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog on Japan and the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship. This particular trip ranks up there very high as one of my favorite destinations and I would definitely recommend Japan as a place to see for the serious traveler.

Sayonara for now!

UPDATE: Well Konnichiwa (hello), again!

After returning from a second visit to BEAUTIFUL JAPAN a few days ago, there are two additional cities I would like to add to this page. The October temperatures were comfortable and ranged from 76-84 degree Fahenheit.

FUKUOKA ( 福岡市): While aboard the Holland American Voledam, we had a port of call in this city.  Unfortunately, our itinerary had additional port cancelations in Nagasaki and Ishigaki Island due to an unexpected typhoon.  This wasn’t a great concern to me because Japan is an easy country to visit and I’m certain that it will be a place I visit frequently in the future.

Fukuoka is Japan’s fifth largest city and my husband and I found it very simple to explore on our own without an excursion.  The ship did provide a free shuttle to City Hall, as it is difficult to walk to down town from the port due to the many highways and heavy traffic. Once we arrived down town, we enjoyed a short walk to Sumiyoshi-jinja shrines in Japan. We went through the purification and worship procedures for fun, and it was a wonderful way of welcoming us back into the peaceful Japanese culture.  To our surprise, we discovered that at this particular shrine, sumo wrestlers reside and train for competitions. It was amazing to see some actual sumo wrestlers up close.

We continued on to the Yanagibashi Rengo Ichiba (Fish Market) before heading to Hakata Station to wander the railway area. Canal City was another stop we made which is an enormous modern shopping area with every kind of item you could wish to purchase. The photo opportunities alone made this place worth the visit, with it’s many light show water fountains and lovely exotic gardens. Kushida shrine was the next spot we stumbled upon and then came across the Hakata Kawabata Shopping Street.  Later, we headed to the Tenjin area to explore the Suikyo Tenmangu shrine and Tenjin Chikagai underground shopping center. Japan is rather expensive but we enjoyed wandering through the shops even though we did not make any purchases. The Kego shrine was our next point of interest before heading to a Starbucks to check our Internet.  It was about this time that we headed back to city hall to catch our free shuttle back to the ship. Want more information on this terrific city? Visit yokanavi.com.

 

OKINAWA (沖縄島) and NAHA (那覇): 

Some of our fellow passengers opted to take a long trip to Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb and Peace Memorial Park.  Since our time was so limited in Okinawa and Naha, we decided to remain in this area and save Nagasaki and (hopefully) Hiroshima for a future trip. Having just read Charles Pellegrino’s The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back, I do have a huge interest in this tragic history. (And I highly recommend Pellegrino’s book!)

My husband and I set out on our own in this lovely place as we walked to city from the ship.  It was a balmy 92 degrees outside and everywhere we looked, we would find little independent gardens growing outside of neighborhoods and even in the middle of busy city streets.  As with our previous trip to Japan last year, locals would again stop and ask us to take a photo with them. Everyone we came across seemed happy and we always felt welcomed and at home.

Along the way to the rail station, we noticed several businesses that were closed, school children on various field trips, and venders setting up for what looked to be a large festival.  We soon learned that it was a National holiday known as Culture Day. We bought a day pass on the Yui Rail and made our way to Shurijo Castle. Formerly known as the palace of the Ryukyn Kingdom, the original castle was destroyed in 1945 during the battle of Okinawa. The site has since been restored and made into a museum. We enjoyed talking with the local school children visiting the castle and observing their charming manners.  One of the reasons I am so drawn to Japan is the genuine kindness and gentle ways of the Japanese people.  These attributes were widely displayed by the entire community during our first and second visit to Japan. For more information on the Shurijo Castle, visit:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuri_Castle.

After leaving the Castle, we decided to walk off the beaten path. We walked through the Shurijo Park, visited an interesting art exhibit at Shurihugashi Senior High School.  Afterwards, as we headed back to the rail station we noticed a rummage sale on an adjacent street.  We wandered over to have a look and were greeted with many smiles but no language that we could understand.  Regardless of this, the kind people there gave us a warm welcome, even inviting us to stay and enjoy a pot-luck lunch with them.  We politely declined and soon a woman who spoke some English greeted us and encouraged us to allow her to give us a tour of what we soon learned was a very historical Methodist Church. The original church structure had also been bombed in 1945 and was rebuilt in 1986.  Funds had been raised recently for improvements to the church and the final construction was completed just a month before our arrival.  We enjoyed the church’s tiny historical museum, seeing the sanctuary and new roof-top structure, and learning about the history of the original cross at the top of the church which was made from concrete. We were given gifts of literature, postcards, and bookmarks (all with Japanese lettering) so I can not report the actual name of the church. But, I think that it might be called The Japan Christianity Society Shurijo Church.

 

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A parade for the holiday was about to start, and although we wanted to stay to listen to the bands and see the floats, we needed to stay with our schedule in order to fully see Okinawa. Back on the rail, we headed to one of the shopping districts. We visited the Mutsumibashi Dori Shopping Street, Hapinaha area, Sakaemachi Arcade, and Aeon Naha Shopping Center. Other than the high-end shopping malls, many of the smaller shops featured Hawaiian-looking garb and we soon learned that this particular part of Japan is considered to be a resort destination, much like Hawaii and the Caribbean is for the United States.  We ended the day with a garden walk near the beach and encountered three WODERFUL surprises:  First, we found the Yakult Probiotic Factory (I am a huge fan of this health drink) and found the building to be open and factory to be in operation–even on this national holiday!  To my delight, the workers sold me a package of seven Yakult bottles for a bargain price of $6.00!  The second surprise was spotting 6-7 beautiful cats sunning themselves in the park along the beach neighborhood gardens.  The cats seemed healthy and friendly.  We soon learned why these cats were so happy when our third surprise came along:  A kind Japanese man carrying a large feeding bag with chopsticks.  He proceeded to make individual piles of cat food with his chopsticks and the excited felines raced over to enjoy their exceptional dining experience!  After watching this very entertaining event, we walked along the beautiful Naminoue beach one last time before heading back to the ship.  What a fabulous day!

Sayonara (Good-bye) for now, dear readers….although give me a year or two and I KNOW I will return to BEAUTIFUL JAPAN and write more about this wonderful country!

Markets with floral beach wear
Markets with floral beach wear

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Naha, Japan Nov. 2, 2017 (2)

 

SOUTH KOREA

While on the Diamond Princess we had a port call in Busan, South Korea.  We had done quite a bit of research before our trip and felt very confident taking a Korean bus into the Busan city center.  It’s a walking city and there is so much to see and do.  We would have preferred another day here, but we moved quickly enough to get a great flavor of this bustling metropolis.

First, I will begin with the outdoor fish markets.  This is an exotic section of town because you will see live sea creatures being sold that look unfamiliar to the average American. The Jalgalchi Market is an interesting indoor market with even more varieties of popular food stuffs such as sting ray, octopus, abalone, eels, and other strange looking creatures. There is a restaurant on the second floor of the Jalgalchi where you can taste some of the Korean delicacies called Busan Myung Mool Hoe Jib(부산명물회집). We did not visit the restaurant because  we had read that it’s an expensive tourist trap.  However, if you are a true foodie, I would definitely give it a try.

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Our next stop was BIFF Square.  The most difficult part of this section of town is fighting the heavy traffic to get from one side of the street to the other.  It’s practically a game, as cars just do not stop for pedestrians.  Plan to be a good runner, as crossing is a bit like playing dodge-ball back in grade school.  There will be plenty of horn-honking but your fellow street crossers will amuse you as they laugh and giggle crossing this crazy street. Once you reach the main area of the BIFF (which stands for Butan International Film Festival),  be sure to read the name plates on the ground.  Most will make no sense to Americans, as the film stars that have been honored are mainly Korean.  Still, it makes for an interesting photo and is one of the reasons the BIFF is famous and unique.  Another reason that people flock here is for the tasty and creative street food. Probably the most famous street food in the BIFF is the Hotteok. It is a pancake that is deep fried and then rolled into melted brown sugar, nuts, and pumpkin seeds. The line for this particular food item will be long, as it has gain popularity internationally. Don’t let the line discourage you because having a Hotteok is well worth the wait. Before leaving the BIFF, cross that crazy-dangerous street once more to see the shopping venders and tented fortune tellers.  These are not sights that are usually seen back in America!

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Our final stop (and where we spent most of our time) was at the world famous Nampo Lotte Department store.  Even if you are not a shopper, this is an attraction worth seeing and best of all-it’s FREE and comfortably air-conditioned! In addition to many cool attractions, the Lotte offers lovely clean restrooms, reliable ATM machines, and plenty of American restaurants in case you have grown tired of Asian cuisine.  The Lotte is touted as the world’s largest department store and has 13 levels with several entrances leading to even more shopping areas.  Make sure to pick up a map at one of the store entrances. Take some time to go up to the observation deck on the 13th floor to see a beautiful 360 degree overview of the city of Butan. There is a exquisite aquatics light show that is worth watching in the mall’s center that runs about every hour or so. Stadium-style seating is available on the first floor, but we enjoyed watching the show along the railing on the third floor to get a different prospective while avoiding the crowds.

The Lotte reminded us of a giant version of London’s Harrods because on the first level there was an endless food market. Another level was devoted to electronics, and yet another level to toys and so on. After we had seen enough of the Lotte, we walked to the underground shopping areas below the city.  These shops go on and on forever and can be accessed directly from the Lotte or along the metro-lines. We didn’t have any problems finding our way around, but I would recommend purchasing a map to avoid getting turned around in the wrong direction.  The markets are sectioned by names associated with the metro station; Nampo Underground, Seomyeon Underground, Gwangbok Underground, etc. Many of the shops are filled with bargain-type items that I have seen frequently at the Dollar Tree stores here in America.  a few shops had literally piles upon piles of tennis shoes. We were amused as we watched shoppers dig through the piles to search for their particular shoe size. A pair can be purchased for about 4000 SKW (South Korean Won) or about $3.50 American dollars, which most shop keepers will happily accept. We also noticed that almost anywhere you go in South Korea (as well as in Japan) there are drink vending machines located on nearly every street in the towns and cities.  TIP: These machines do not accept foreign currency. With the high temperatures in South Korea as well as Japan, it is comforting to know that if you carry some SKW notes in your pocket, you can easily stay hydrated with bottled water at any time. However, there is a limit to the amount of SKW these machines will take. To avoid frustration  when using the machines, it is wise to keep SKW coins and lower bills handy.

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For those readers who are visiting Busan as a port of call, purchasing an excursion to the attractions listed above is not necessary.  Instead, put on a good pair of walking shoes, save your money for some great bargain shopping, and enjoy Busan on your own. Some cruise ships offer complementary transfers into the city. I can not recall if we had to purchase a ticket for our bus ride into town or not. But if we did buy a ticket, I can tell you that the cost was nominal. TIP:  Do not try to walk to the city center without making plans for a ride into the city center. The South Korean highway system is complicated, making it dangerous and impossible to get there from the cruise port.  You might even get a citation from the government if you try to walk on your own. 

An-nyeong-hi ka-se-yo (안녕히 가세요), or….. goodbye for now! 

 

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