Back on the Road

After a quick rest at our friend Andy’s in Federal Way Washington we are back in the Mazda and headed slowly south generally towards Yosemite. We should be there on Wednesday.

Seattle

We arrived about an hour and half early and lucked out with our seats. The economy cabin was about half empty so Mike moved to an empty seat in the middle section of the same row where we had our assigned exit row seats so he had no one beside him and I had two seats to myself! We feel like we won the lottery!

Stayed awake the whole 10 hours so we are ready for bed! 🛌

Disembarkation

As much as we hated to leave, we are still smiling so it must have been a good time!

While Viking requires you to be out of your room by 8 am on disembarkation day, they do serve breakfast in both the buffet and the Restaurant. Since our trip to the airport wasn’t scheduled to leave until 9:40, we timed it to leave the room exactly 8 am and had a civilized proper breakfast-with lambchops and a pistachio raisin roll of course.

We then adjourned to The Living Room to wait for “Purple 4” to be called. While there we had the opportunity to say goodbye to the various cruisers we interacted with aboard. Some we exchanged contact info with, others a simple “safe travels”. Before finishing breakfast, the Assistant Cruise Director and singer Brensley Pope stopped by to say goodbye. So a sad time as all good times come to an end.

We are now sitting on the bus waiting for the boss to give the go ahead to head to the airport hotel where Viking has booked us a day room. And at 10:18 we are off!

And at 11:16 we are in our lovely room at the Regal Airport Hotel. It is directly connected to the airport but unfortunately no view of the runway or taxi way. Just a parking garage.

Given our air was “free”, I’m impressed that Viking is providing us this nice room to wait for our flight that leaves in about 12 hours. For those with afternoon flights, they’ve provided a hospitality room in the meeting part of the hotel. I’m gonna run down there is a bit to see how those folks are faring.

Then Mike and I have to decide whether we are going to try to sleep this afternoon and start resetting our clocks or just go enjoy the pool and relax until time to check in our luggage and head to the priority lounge for our flight.

#FirstWorldProblems!

Hiroshima

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!