Tokyo and Mt Fuji

Once again having just a short visit of three days here was only enough to scratch the surface.

Outside of the Emperor’s Palace

The city of Tokyo is one of the most modern in the world as well as one of the largest. The greater Tokyo metropolitan area with its population of over 36 million includes development all along the 37 kms of motorway beside Tokyo Bay from where the Volendam berthed at Yokohama to the centre of Tokyo.

The city proved to be a wonderful contradiction of skyscrapers and the tradition Japanese gardens, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and the Emperor’s palace.

Cards of some of the Performers

We were lucky enough to have a night out at a small theatre restaurant. Apart from the delicious cuisine and jugs of local beer the entertainment was delightfully traditional Japanese with a Beatles number thrown in for good measure. The stage was segmented and the different sections were raised and lowered to create constantly changing landscapes across which the performers danced and bounded.

An exciting show

 

We then took a day excursion from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji. We didn’t see the volcano because of the overcast, and we were told that it is quite a rare event to see the summit (so I bought a postcard instead). We had escaped from the megalopolis that is Tokyo into the country where we visited a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine, walked in some lovely gardens and enjoyed some local cuisine, all the time while our guide, Satoru, gave us insights into Japan’s history and culture.

Our several days in and around Tokyo were most enjoyable but with regards to my Japan visit there is another aspect that deserves my blogging about. Japan has held a special significance, if that is the right word, for me because of my own father’s experience as a Japanese prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma Railway during WW2. I haven’t harboured any hatred of this nation and its people but it has been like a cloud hanging over my feelings that needed to be confronted.

Mt. Fuji is to the left – somewhere

Accordingly I had been looking forward to Japan and particularly Tokyo to learn about this country and its culture that seemed so very different to my own. Learning more about a country’s history certainly helped in my understanding of their culture (and isn’t that one of the main reasons for, and benefits from, travelling overseas).

Mt. Fuji on a rare clear day at Cherry Blossum time

As explained to us, Japanese culture emphasises humility and belonging to a group rather than individualism. This is in evidence by the respectful bowing that is the norm in society. Unfortunately this same culture has led to some serious social problems especially in retirement. During a career where employees become so dedicated to their company a large proportion do not have time for other interests, and this becomes a real problem for them when they retire.

Without exception, everyone that I have spoken to that has travelled to, or spent time in, Japan has told me that they are a friendly people.

Following WW2 and the virtual obliteration of Tokyo the world has seen how Japan has emerged as an industrial powerhouse in the modern world, largely based on the efficiency and dedication of the Japanese people.

Japan is also particularly prone to natural disasters but these people have a philosophy, as explained by Satoru, along the lines that “thunder, earthquake, typhoon and an angry father, will pass”. To me it seems that this approach in conjunction with their combination of religions is partly responsible for their philosophy – life goes on after such an event.

In our small minibus on the drive back from Mt. Fuji I can say that I have seldom felt more relaxed, content and at peace. The weather during our visit to Japan has been cloudy and often raining, but on a personal level I feel that the clouds have been blown away.

Experiencing Hokkaido

After seven days crossing the North Pacific from Glacier Bay we arrived at the island of Hokkaido and the city of Kushiro to start our visit to Japan and experience its culture.

Hokkaido is the second largest of the four main islands of Japan which is in fact an archipelago of many thousands of islands. Today Hokkaido’s main industries are agriculture and fishing. Historically it is the ancestral home of the Ainu people who inhabited the island for hundreds of years before being taken over by the Japanese. This is not dissimilar to the situation with other indigenous peoples around the world, with the Japanese recognising the importance and benefits of ensuring the survival of Ainu culture.

Hot springs

The excursion during our one day in Kushiro took us to the “blue” Musho Lake which, because of the all-to-common fog, was not blue and barely visible. Next at the hot springs demonstrated the volcanic nature of this part of the world. The sulphur plumes and odour from the hot springs were all pervading and is something we don’t experience in Oz. The real highlight of the day for me was just driving through the countryside with its forests of yellow and orange and red autumn leaves – quite spectacular. Every now and then we would come across the a few graceful Japanese cranes with the red crowns, grazing next to the road.

Early next morning we cruised into our second port in Hokkaido, which was the fifth largest city in Japan, Hakodate. It was our first real taste of rainy weather but it didn’t deter us from enjoying the sights of this pleasant city. We called at some of the main attractions in including the Goryokaku Fort with its exquisite Magistrate’s Office building and the nearby Gorokaku Tower, Hakodate Mountain and the Museum of Northern Peoples.

The fort was the first of its kind in Japan and modelled on a European citadel town. In the centre of the Fort was the Magistrate’s Office which was completed in 1864. This was in response to the opening up of isolationist Japan, and particularly the port of Hakodate, to the rest of the world after the American Commodore Perry’s visit and ultimatum in 1853. This building was dismantled in 1871 following war in the city and became a park. The building was reconstructed between 2006 and 2010 to the original design and using traditional construction techniques. The building provides an excellent example of Japanese precision in workmanship.

The Gorokaku Tower overlooking the Fort was also completed in 2006. The Tower enables us the truly appreciate the Fort area from the observatory level 90 metres above. It is now manicured parkland (still) surrounded by its moat with the Magistrate’s Office at its centre.

During our two days on Hokkaido we also sampled some of the delights of Japanese cuisine

Yum yum

with an emphasis on seafood, and were introduced to the friendly polite Japanese people. We look forward to expanding on these experiences with a couple of days in Tokyo.

Crossing the North Pacific – Friday October 6

A much better day dawned today with a lot of pale blue between fluffy white clouds. The Pacific Ocean is also blue, but a darker shade, and is living up to its name being quite peaceful on a moderate swell.

The feeling from my morning treadmill looking down over the ship’s bow as it glides smoothly across the great expanse is almost one of man’s control over nature, but I know this is not true, as it is still able to impart a sense of the power that those water can generate. Only days ago even those slight seas tossed us around as a warning that we were interlopers here. Today we can feel more at one with our environment – at least for the moment.

Our days at sea (when not visiting ports with their ‘mandatory’ sightseeing) are without fixed commitments and unhurried. Accordingly it is often quite difficult to keep track of both the day of the week and the time (zone) during our long Pacific crossing – although it is doubtful that it is necessary most of the time. We have turned our clocks back an hour almost every night since we left Alaska to progressively adjust to Asian time. Luckily we are assisted in remembering the day of the week by means of the mats in the lifts that are changed daily.

I guess it must be Friday

We have had a couple of birthdays celebrated on board at dinner time recently, including for Scott a couple of nights ago. Unfortunately if ones birthday occurs on October 7 then they will be disappointed this year as tomorrow for us in Sunday October 8. We actually crossed the International Date Line during the day but luckily it didn’t affect our scheduled Happy Hour, so all was well.

Starting Across the North Pacific

Today is grey; overcast with low clouds and mist hiding the horizon. The sea is a darker grey, on a moderate four metre swell with only a few white caps, which generally means that the wind is less than 20 knots. Currently, we are several hundreds of nautical miles out of Juneau and south of the Aleutian Islands, heading approximately south-west at 18.5 knots with about 3000 miles to go to Japan.

Goodbye to Alaska’s calmer waters

We are now into our seven day sea crossing from Alaska to Japan and this gives me more free time to blog. In between there is eating, reading, eating, resting and maybe more reading, the odd lecture or seminar, meeting up for happy hour in the Ocean Bar with our favourite jazz trio, evening dining with some nights requiring formal attire, and then maybe a movie or live show. Some of our number have been busy visiting the shops, masseurs and manicurists but so far we have all managed to avoid the casino and art show sales.

To compensate for the excess of food on board that is difficult to avoid, spending 40 minutes in the gym this morning eased my conscience somewhat. My treadmill looked directly out over the bow and I strode along with slight up and downhill trajectories as the ship eased through the swell. We passed through a pod of dolphins apparently heading for Alaska and noticed quite a few sea birds skimming over the waves a long way from any land.

Yesterday’s rougher weather has gone for the moment. In those higher seas what had come to my mind, through the fuzzy feeling in my head, was how James Cook, George Vancouver and other seafarers of past times would have coped with the foul weather conditions that they inevitably encountered.

In the short time that I have been sitting, blogging here on the Lido deck near the pool and spa the swell appears to be getting higher and the ride a little bumpier as a second low pressure system passes to the port side. We have been warned of a third, probably more intense low pressure system, to be expected tomorrow.

The Inside Passage and Alaska

It is three days since we set sail from Vancouver to cruise the Inside Passage, that maze of straits, and channels along the Canadian and Alaskan coastlines through the myriad of offshore islands.

The towns in Alaska that we visited are all about their waterways, snow and ice, mountains and glaciers, wildlife, the native peoples and just a small population in this the largest state in the Union.

We made two stops in Alaska at Ketchikan and the capital, Juneau, as well as cruising Glacier Bay.

We continue to be astounded by our good fortune with the weather. This is the last cruise of this season before their winter break in this part of the world, and we have had good to perfect weather almost every day.

Ketchikan

A cute town that is supposedly the wettest place in Alaska with up the 300 days of rain a year resulting in several feet of rainfall.

Volendam at Ketchikan

Our excursion into the Misty Fjords showed us how steeply the mountains fall into the sea and here we had many waterfalls dropping down from the heights delivering the rain.

Juneau

Although the state capital it is isolated, without any roads in or out, and we have been told a few times that there are only three to get to Juneau:

  1. by water
  2. by float plane
  3. by the birth canal
Misty Fjord

Tourism is very important here, and it is possible that up to seven cruise ships will berth some days in peak season. As the last cruise of the season we had the place to ourselves and quite a few of the gift shops had already closed down.

Mendenhall Glacier

On our Juneau excursion we were guaranteed whale sightings (or money back) and we were not disappointed. Taken to the humpback whales regular summer feeding waters we saw at least half a dozen of them. Within the next few weeks they would be starting their annual migration to Hawaiian waters for calving and mating before returning in May. This excursion also took us to the Mendenhall glacier before returning to town where some opted for the cable car ride to the top of the mountain behind the town, and of course there was the mandatory visit to the famous Red Dog Saloon.

The Red Dog Saloon

We took in all the important sights…

Glacier Bay

The next morning after leaving Juneau, at about 9am we cruised into the spectacular Glacier Bay under cloudless blue skies. The weather gods are still with us and we have a perfect day. The ship’s crew suggested it was one of the best, if not the best, day of the season to view the wonders of the glaciers.

We spent several hours getting up close and personal to a couple of glaciers, most notably the John Hopkins glacier and the Margerie glacier and, in almost complete awed silence, listening to the noises produced as the ice moved and cracked under the pressure of the weight of miles of glacier from up the mountain. The Margerie glacier is said to move up to six feet a day.

Margerie Glacier

Our next stop was to be two days hence at Dutch Harbour, but the weather gods must have decided that we had had our share of good weather. Three low pressure systems were forecast in the area over the next couple of days, making the cruise both uncomfortable and the tender berthing at Dutch Harbour not possible. Instead of continuing northwards, we turned west on the sea journey Across the North Pacific.