Asia March, 2016


Saturday March 26, 2016

Our last day in Tokyo and we’ve got some prep work to do prior to flying home tomorrow. One of our traditions on long haul flights is to avoid the awful in-flight meal service by taking on our own food. Tokyo is famous for it’s large department stores many of which have really good food halls located in their basements – we’ve found these places to be great for providing a nice alternative to the airline food.

We took the hotel shuttle bus to Shinjuku station then walked to the Isetan department store, one of the crown jewels of shopping in Tokyo.  Arriving a little before opening time we joined the small group of people patiently waiting to enter the store. Peering through the glass doors I could see the smartly dressed shop workers all lined up and attentively listening to last-minute instructions from their supervisors. Presently music began to play in the lobby outside the store and at the appointed time two shop assistants emerged from the store and proceeded to greet the crowd with a speech; I had no idea what they were saying – maybe it was details of todays special sale items, but it sounded more formal than that. Then at precisely the correct time the doors opened and the small crowd began to enter in a very orderly fashion. All the shop workers were lined up at their appointed stations and each of then gave a deep bow as the customers walked by.

The food hall at Isetan is absolutely amazing; it’s like Harrods but more down to earth – actually more reminiscent of the old food hall in Lewis’s department store in Glasgow, but with Japanese-themed food. To my surprise I was quickly admonished for taking pictures – I guess the food purveyors want to guard their intellectual property. We wandered around trying to decide what to buy and eventually settled on some great sandwiches, cakes and we even found a cheese counter where, with the help of a very friendly English-speaking customer, Sandra was able to satisfy her need for well-aged cheddar.

 

With the in-flight grub all sorted, we found a coffee shop in the department store and gorged on fantastic cappuccinos and cakes (I was at last feeling a bit better) and then walked back to the hotel where we stored our purchases in the in-room fridge.

For our final afternoon in Tokyo we went out in search of antique Kokeshi Dolls; originally from northern Japan they are handmade from wood, have a simple trunk and an enlarged head with a few thin, painted lines to define the face. Sandra had watched a documentary about Kokeshi dolls a while back and I had bought her a couple of the shiny airport-shop versions on previous trips, but we thought it would be fun to track down some old original versions. After a bit of Googling I read about a place in Tokyo that might have some older Kokeshis, and so we worked out the subway route and set off. 

On the way to the store from the subway station we encountered an anti-nuclear rally that involved hundreds of protesters in an orderly march down the main street – the anti-nuclear movement in Japan appears to be very strong.

The Oriental Bazaar is a souvenir shop in Harajuku/Omotesando district of Tokyo; it’s a really good place to pick up original Japanese goods many of which are consigned there from artisans all over Japan. The shop has three floors and the older stuff is all on the top level. Our expedition was rewarded when we came across a table covered with about 40 original Kokeshi dolls of various sizes. The great sorting process began. Each doll was picked up, inspected, put back down, picked back up, reassessed, put back down and eventually we picked out the two best mid-sized beauties. 

 

Back at the hotel we finished our packing in preparation for the flight home tomorrow. We’ve had another fantastic trip and already have ideas for our next big adventure.

Post Script: On arrival back home we received an email from Cunard informing us that the ship had been hit with an outbreak of the dreaded Norovirus right after we disembarked. Subsequent testing revealed that I did in fact have the bug - this explains a lot!.

Friday March 25, 2016

Today is the first of two full days in Tokyo before we head home on Sunday. We had originally booked an all-day tour to Mount Fuji, but given my still very shaky condition we had to cancel. I feel really bad for causing the trip to be cancelled. 

Breakfast in the clubroom provide a great selection (maybe things aren’t deteriorating after all?) - though I only managed tea and a piece of toast. Over breakfast we hatched a rough plan for the day; a visit to the old Tokyo Tower and the Ginza shopping district. We also decided that we would use the subway, so this required a bit more study and the download of a great app before we finally set off. 

We made our way to the subway station beneath the hotel and stood in front of the large map trying to figure out which lines and stops would get us to our destination. Then we had to work with the ticket machine, the trick here is to find the button to change the screen to English – after that it’s not that complicated. The final hurdle is then to figure out which platform to go to – this required the assistance of a helpful station employee.

After a couple of stops and changes we arrived at the station closest to the Tokyo Tower; the thing to note about making your way out of a subway station in most major cities is that there are many exits and if you pick the wrong one you can find yourself a very long way from your intended destination. We found the posted map which lists the nearby attractions for each labeled exit, and then followed the signs for our selected way out. Emerging from the subterranean world of the underground we were rewarded with the site of the Tokyo Tower rising from behind some nearby buildings.

Even though we had visited the tower on a previous trip it was still a thrill to ride the elevator up to the two-story main observatory located at 490 ft; we also paid the small additional fee to ride up to the smaller special observatory at a height of 819 ft. The tower was built in 1958 as a communications and observation facility located in the Shiba-koen district. At 1,092 ft, it is the second-tallest building in Japan. The structure is an Eiffel Tower-inspired lattice tower that is painted white and international orange to comply with air safety regulations. Even though it was a slightly overcast day the views were still very impressive.

 

From the tower we made our may to the adjacent Zōjō-ji temple where we hoped to visit the cemetery – the guide on our previous trip had told us this was the burial place of several Shoguns, in fact six of the 15 Tokugawa shoguns are buried here so we thought it was worth a visit. The temple and was originally founded in 1393 but the present buildings date mainly to just after the Second World War. Unfortunately we found the entrance to the cemetery was closed and even though we could have figured out a way in, we respected the intent of the gate and chose pass by.

Following another successful navigation of the subway system we emerged in the Ginza district – famous for high-end shopping. Part of our mission on this excursion was to try and locate a backstreet Tempura restaurant that we ate in on our first visit to Tokyo several years ago, we were not successful – which was just as well as I had committed to myself to never eat Japanese food again following my incident in Kyoto. 

We walked the main street and gawked at the shops, it’s a bit like a Japanese Oxford Street, or 5th Avenue. Somehow we found ourselves trinket shopping in the home of Hello Kitty, Sanrio World – I have to admit to just not understanding the fascination of it all. Tired and in need of a sit down we darted into a Chinese restaurant on the upper level of Sanrio World (Chinese food in Japan – what were we thinking!). The food was mediocre I think, but I’m only guessing because I just moved it around my plate as I was still not up for eating anything.

Back at the hotel I slept for a few hours and in the interest of keeping things low key we had dinner at the restaurant located in the hotel lobby. The Italian-themed restaurant turned out to serve quite decent food and the place is very popular with Japanese clients – though super-expensive.


Thursday March 24, 2016

Today we travelled from Kyoto to Tokyo for the final leg of our vacation. Still feeling very shaky, and unable to eat anything, I was nevertheless fit enough to pack up and take the long taxi ride to the airport. Kyoto is served by two airports in the neighboring city of Osaka; and our flight departed from Itami airport, the older of the two.

We have visited Tokyo several times before, in fact it’s one of our favorite cities; we’ve always arrived at Narita airport – but today we had chosen to fly into Haneda airport which is about an hour closer to the city. The JAL flight was smooth and efficient and Haneda airport was pretty easy to navigate. We followed the same routine we’ve used at Narita, buying bus tickets at the central counter and then finding the appropriate bus stop outside the terminal. I always get a kick out of watching the bus company employees line up and bow as the bus pulls away – it provides an insight into the formalism and protocol that dominates Japanese culture.

We have once again chosen to stay at the Hyatt Regency in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo however while planning the trip we were unable to procure a club level room. At check I decided it was worth a try to see if I could negotiate club level and was surprised at my success, with the imminent arrival of the cherry blossom season, the hotel was quite full.  Since our last visit the rooms in the hotel have been renovated and alas, what appears to be the Hyatt corporate standard interior design has been implemented in Japan – a pity since the previous design was distinctly Japanese. The one saving grace was the automated toilet with built in bidet – awesome!

Club level at the Hyatt Shinjuku used to be one of the very best – now its like all the others, very little food and limited selection. In fact in the evening the hot food is actually brought to the table (two selections) and this is supplemented by a meager buffet of cold items. Sandra picked one of the selections, fish I think – it was horrible (she said), I was still not able to face any food.


Wednesday March 23, 2016

Today was supposed to be brilliant, simple as that – with a half-day guided tour of some of the most amazing historical places in this ancient capital of Japan all booked and ready, everything should have been brilliant. However I had a very rough night with extremely painful stomach cramps; I could barely drag myself to the bathroom this morning – I’ll spare you the details of my bathroom adventures.

Putting on a brave face I accompanied Sandra to the club level for breakfast where I could barely manage a cup of tea and the sight of any cooked items sent me running hither in search of a convenient facility. Putting on an incredibly stupid face I decided I was fit enough for the day’s activities and so we took the hotel shuttle to the station area where we met up with our tour group.

Off we went along with a bus full of other eager tourists to visit three of the prime sites in Kyoto. First stop, Nijo Castle – dating to 1626 the castle consists of two concentric rings (Kuruwa) of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of the Honmaru Palace, various support buildings and several gardens. I had visited this castle over 20 years ago, but had only vague memories of it – though I did remember the famous bamboo floor that was designed to make creaking noises so that the Shogun could hear any would-be assassins creeping up on him during the night. In future years if you happen upon an especially fertile spot in the very well tended gardens you have me to thank for it; this would be the spot where I was unfortunately violently sick during the tour.

Convincing myself, and Sandra, that I felt a bit better we re-boarded the bus along with the 50 other happy travellers and headed for the Golden Temple. I was feeling absolutely lousy, but determined not to let the sickness get the better of me.

I should hate to visit the Golden Temple during the busy season. The temple is located within extensive grounds consisting of beautiful gardens, ponds and walkways – all very well maintained and organized, as you’d expect in Japan. Located on the edge of a small lake the temple itself is very picturesque and this leads to some very uncomfortable elbow pushing as tourists jokey for position to capture the best possible photo. I must admit that this recent trend towards selfies, and especially those taken with those selfie stick contraptions, is a pain in the arse when a tourist site is just so crammed with people. There’s something so inconsiderate about people pushing themselves into the best spot and then taking forever to pose for multiple pictures, it’s even worse when they barge into your own frame just at the right time. Like I said I’d hate to visit this place during the busy season.

 

Aboard the bus and heading for the final stop, the Imperial Palace, I decide I’ve had enough. Rushing to the front of the bus I instruct the guide that she better stop the bus, or face a god-awful mess – I’m not sure she understood my words, but my body language must have been crystal clear. I can’t describe how embarrassing this event was, and so I won’t. 

And so we found ourselves sitting at a bus stop in an unknown part of Kyoto, with no idea where we were or how to get back to the hotel – and me periodically hurling, what an adventure. Not wanting to risk making a mess of one of Kyoto’s fine taxis we decide to take the bus to the station and from there get the hotel shuttle; somehow making a mess of a city bus seemed more acceptable than defacing a taxi. As I lay sprawled on the bench in the bus stop, Sandra figured out the bus system – no mean feat since the signage was all in Japanese! 

Back at the hotel by early afternoon I lay down and slept for the rest of the day and, on and off, through the night.


Tuesday March 22, 2016

This morning the ship docked in Osaka and this is where we will be disembarking. There was quite a crowd waiting on the dock; hundreds of people plus TV cameras – we later found out that this was the maiden visit for the Queen Elizabeth to Osaka and that this had made the morning news in the local area. 


Disembarkation was very smooth mainly due to the small number of passengers who were finishing their cruise in Osaka. The ship is actually on a world cruise and we were only on board for one segment of the overall itinerary; Cunard sells segments of the world cruise to those who don’t want to stay on board for the whole 121 days it takes to do the full world cruise. 

Our driver was waiting for us but it took a few minutes to realize this as the sign he held displayed our son’s name not ours – he had booked the driver and hotel for us and so they assumed he would be the one to pick up. After the driver had solved the 3D jigsaw puzzle called “how to fit three very large suitcases in an average sized car” we set off for the 1½-hour drive to Kyoto.

For our post-cruise stay in Japan we are spending two nights in Kyoto and then three nights in Tokyo. Based on the research prior to the trip we had concluded that, even though it was a bit of a drive from the port, Kyoto had more to offer that Osaka. 

We arrived at the Westin Miyako hotel in Kyoto by late morning and of course our room was not ready for us. So we stashed our luggage with the bell people and headed for the coffee shop off the lobby to make plans for the afternoon. The Westin Miyako is obviously a hotel that used to be very popular with visiting dignitaries – I concluded this from the series of impressive black and white photographs that adorned the walls of the coffee shop; a veritable who’s-who from the world of politics, royalty and movies but the last three decades were not represented at all.

The lobby coffee shop is highly recommended, though not inexpensive – a fantastic array of cakes was brought to the table for the purposes of inducing copious drooling followed by the impossible task of selected just one. We sat and enjoyed the great coffees and delicious cakes while looking over the maps and information that had been given to us by the very helpful concierge.

The concierge had recommended a short walk to one of the many temples in the area but despite my outstanding navigational skills we still managed to get quite lost – I blamed the map. However due to the high density of temples in Kyoto we did not have to go far before we found one; actually it was huge and therefore pretty hard to miss.

The Heian-Jingu Shrine was impressive but the surrounding gardens were awesome. We paid the small entry fee and wandered through the beautifully maintained gardens with ponds, streams and bridges – highly recommended. If we had been visiting about a week later I’m sure we would have witnessed a superb display of cheery blossoms from the many expertly pruned trees in the gardens – oh well you can’t win them all!


 

We tried but failed to find a restaurant for lunch; the places the concierge had recommended were all extremely small and therefore full up – in a way I was glad because they were very traditional Japanese, meaning floor level seating and very low tables. So we returned to the hotel and ate in one of the restaurants, it was OK.

We were finally able to check in to our room, which turned out to be small suite – nice though a little in need of a make over. In addition to a very large bedroom with king sized bed, the suite also included a separate sitting room, walk-in luggage room come closet and a nicely appointed bathroom complete with the Japanese style automatic toilet / bidet – a real treat. 

Later that evening we checked out the club level and were once again were very disappointed at the selection of foods available – confirming our suspicions Asian hotel club levels have now descended to the pitiful levels of those found in the US. And so we took the hotel shuttle bus into the center of Kyoto and had a little walk around the station area. With many shops and restaurants, the Kyoto station area is a bustling hive of activity – this is not just a place to go to catch the train. Within the station complex we found settled on a small restaurant, mainly because it had tempura on the menu – a favorite of ours. Following a quite puzzling lengthy wait we were finally shown to a small booth that had sat vacant the entire time we were stood waiting, about 20 minutes. I chalked this up to the mysteries of the Japanese culture. The menu was entirely in Japanese, but luckily included nice pictures of all the items – so following a series of pointing and grunting cycles we were finally able to place our order. We shared tempura, noodles and other a few other mysterious items – I always find that beer is a good lubricant for these culinary adventures.


Monday March 21, 2016

Sea day


Sunday March 20, 2016

Today is our last port of call before we disembark. Yokohama is a huge port about an hour from Tokyo. The most popular thing to do at this port is to visit Tokyo, but since we will be spending 3 days there at the end of our trip we decided against this as a shore excursion. Research had indicated that there was not much to see in the actual city of Yokohama, though I’m probably doing it a disservice, as it is actually the second largest city in Japan. Given this situation we opted for a shore excursion to the city of Kamakura, about an hour south of Yokohama.

Even though it was Sunday the traffic on the way to Kamakura was quite heavy, and once we got off the highway it turned horrendous – one hour turned to almost two! The tour included only two stops; the first was at Kotokuin Buddhist temple to see the giant Buddha, Daibutsu. The big Buddha is a big tourist attraction and it is quite impressive, not quite as big as the statue in Hong Kong but with deeper history. Cast in 1252 it originally was covered with a temple, but the structure was destroyed several times by tidal waves and earthquakes and so in the end they decided to leave him sitting out in the open – which is quite unusual. Our guide, Koku-san, reliably informed us that the statue’s weight was the equivalent of 24 elephants. For 200Y, about $2, it is possible to go inside the statue – but given the long queue and limited time we had to pass on this. 

 

Following a 15-minute bus ride we arrived at our second destination on this tour, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto Shrine. Set on a hillside at the end of a long approach road the temple is quite beautiful and an immensely popular attraction for Japanese people. There were thousands of visitors, many in their Sunday best – some even in traditional kimono dress. It had the feel of families out for a Sunday afternoon stroll with a bit of pilgrimage thrown in. 

We joined the throngs of people and climbed the 62 steps up to the main temple, there was a massive crush of bodies as we passed through the main gate – as I neared the front I could see the Japanese people offering a quick prayer and throwing few coins into a giant hopper. Beyond the hopper was a more private space where families were having their babies blessed; children aged 3, 5 and 7 also undergo some kind of ritual in the shrine. I learned from our guide that Japanese people could be both Buddhist (1 god) and Shinto (~8000 gods) at the same time – so they can cover all bases.

With the little spare time we had left we took walk down the main shopping street near the shrine Komachi Dori. The street was very narrow and incredibly busy, uncomfortably packed with people – most of the shops were selling snack foods and knick-knacks. We were searching for a coffee shop, but most of the places did not offer seating – so we turned off the narrow street and finally found a tiny little place up a flight of stairs. 

The last task was to fight our way through the crowds and back to the bus, we made it just in time – there is nothing like the looks of death one receives on these tours if you cause the bus to miss it’s scheduled departure time. The journey back to the ship was uneventful; unless you count massive traffic jams as an event. 


Saturday March 19, 2016

Sea Day


Friday March 18, 2016

Today is our second stop in Japan and we are visiting the city of Kagoshima.

The weather has changed dramatically from yesterday; it’s raining and overcast - the forecast has it remaining this way for the whole day overcast. Kagoshima is situated on a wide bay facing a small island that is dominated by the volcano Sakurajima. Looking out from our balcony the volcano should have filled the view, however today I could not even see the island!

 

                                              Our View                                                                          How It Was Supposed To Look


No formal shore excursion today for us, we are self-guiding. Our plan is to try and make it to the estate of the last Shogun to rule in this region, the place is called Sengen-En.

The terminal in Kagoshima was a lot smaller than Nagasaki, however the welcome of the people was just as warm – they could not have been more helpful. We learned that Sengen-En was actually a little ways outside of town, but that the hop-on hop-off tour bus made a stop there – so we purchased a pass for 600Y each. The tourist busses run mainly in the city area and so we had to get the Cunard shuttle from the port to the city.

  

Armed with two maps and an i-phone GPS we found our way to the nearest tourist bus stop, only to see it disappearing into the distance. Faced with a 30 minute wait and the prospect of traipsing round the gardens at Sengen-En in the increasingly heavy rain we actually contemplated just having a quick look round the shops and heading back to the ship – we’ve become such whimps!

On our way to the bus stop we had noticed a large shopping area; a combination of covered alleys and a department store – so we decided to check it out and maybe get a cup of coffee while we dried out. The shopping alleys offered a strange mix of almost market-like stalls juxtaposed with high-end shops. The department store was called Yamakataya and we headed inside in search of a coffee. 

We knew from prior Japanese visits that these large department stores often have extensive food markets in their basements, so we headed downstairs and were not surprised to find beautiful displays of fresh fruit, fish, meat, baked goods – think Lewis’s food hall in Glasgow (sadly now long gone), or Harrods in London. The problem is these places cater to the locals, in other words they sell food to take home – walking around gawking at the delicious wares just made us hungrier. Finally we found a place called Afternoon Tea in an alcove off the food hall and managed to get coffee and a selection of great pastries.

Sufficiently fortified we decided to battle the weather and go back to our original plan. The City View tour bus is a great way to hit all of the main tourist attractions in and around Kagoshima, about 15 stops in all – although we only planned to use it to get out to Sengen-En and back. The atmosphere on board the bus is quite hectic with passengers getting on and off, jockeying for the limited seats and trying to listen to the recorded announcements about the upcoming stop – there is also a tv screen showing the next stop. Just push the bell to tell the driver you want to get off; there’s even Wi-Fi on board though it did not work on the first bus we used.

The trip out to Sengen-En took about 15 minutes and we got off the bus into quite heavy rain. We ran in the direction of the crowd and under a wooden archway – immediately an assistant approached and in perfect English helped us through the ticket purchasing process. We were informed that there were three price levels, the highest of which allowed access to the interior of the residence. The price difference was not that big, and looking out at the increasingly heavy rain we figured that going indoors might be a good idea. The kind lady showed me how to put the correct money into the ticket machine and we were soon on our way. At the time of purchase we did not realize that the interior tour included a guide – and that we had to scurry along to make the set start time for the tour.

The Sengen-En site includes the residence, gardens, history factory, restaurant and shops – it’s quite extensive. The Shimadzu family rules over this region for a period of almost 700 years from 1185 to the end of the samurai class in 1869. Towards the end of the period the Shimadzu were instrumental in the modernization of Japan; sending out young men to Europe to be educated and initiating industrialization – one of the museums here shows how machinery was imported from England for metal and glass production. 

The residence was constructed in 1658 as a second home for the Shimadzu family. Between 1888 and 1897 the house was used as a full time residence by the last lord of Satsuma, Tadayoshi Shimadzu. 

The guided tour of the Sengen-En residence was outstanding, we felt so lucky to have chosen this option. It turned out that there was only one other couple on the tour so the four of us got an almost personalized tour. The residence was classic 19th century Japanese construction; a series of interconnected rooms constructed of wooden frames and paper-thin walls, many of them built to slide open. No shoes are allowed inside and so, shoeless, we walked the red carpets over bamboo floors from room to room. The guide explained each room in Japanese and normally we would have had to follow along with a written hand out - however, because there are only 4 of us on the tour the guide was kind enough to repeat everything on English just for us. 

The final event of the tour was a surprise, largely because we had rushed into the tour without reading much about it. We entered a large room and noticed 4 small plates resting on the floor, each plate held a small Japanese cake. There were no chairs in sight. We were invited to sit on the floor while the guide explained the ritual of the cake and the subsequent “tea” that was served. I don’t think I’ve sat cross-legged on the floor since infants school, and the ability of my legs and muscles to get into that position deserted my a very long time ago. Sandra was in similar distress. So I tried kneeling but that didn’t work and in the end we sort of slumped on the floor, wondering how we were ever going to get up again. At this point I was glad that photography was not allowed inside the residence! Presently the “Matcha tea” arrived, a bright green viscous liquid that included ground mushrooms – it tasted very savory and bitter, it was awful. I won’t describe our attempts to regain vertical, other than to say they were eventually successful. 

Following the house tour the weather was still awful, but with aid of umbrellas we managed to get some pictures of the gardens, then we had a quick look around the shops and museums before jumping on the bus back to town. 

 


Thursday March 17, 2016

Nagasaki – I’ve been looking forward to this stop every since we booked the cruise. After the debacle of yesterday we are thankful to be officially finding our own way today and our rough plan is to visit the Atomic Bomb Museum, take the cable car up the big mountain and finally visit the Glover Gardens – we’ll see how it goes.

The first thing we had to do was figure out the lay of the land and how we were going to get about. The people in the cruise terminal could not have been more helpful – once again reaffirming our belief in the kindness of the Japanese people. We purchased all day passes for the streetcars (trams) for 500Y each – about $4.50, what a deal, and following the instructions of the helpful staff walked about 5 minutes to the closest tram stop. 

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I always find it a bit more nerve racking to be touring a country that does not use western style alphabet – but in Japan many of the signs are also in English, and if you really get stuck you can almost always find a local who is only too happy to practice their English language skills and help you along. I knew we had to board one tram, go a few stops and then change for the final ride up to the museum. The tram was absolutely packed with people, and it being a warm day and the tram not being equipped with air-conditioning I soon found myself overheating. There were several of us from the ship making the same trip, all of us nervously looking at the tram map and trying to figure out where to get off. Soon a group of Japanese schoolgirls took an interest and offered helpful advice; in fact they got off at the same stop as us and made sure we walked over to the correct spot to board the next tram – this is typical Japanese.

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The next tram wound its way up the valley towards the hypocenter where the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. There are three separate things to see in this area; we started with the Peace Park and Memorial. The park includes several statues, a fountain and beautiful gardens. The centerpiece is the so-called Peace Statue with one hand raised to warn of the potential of atomic bombs and the other outstretched to signify eternal peace. 

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We moved on to the site of the actual hypocenter – I found this an incredibly moving experience. Walking down a path above a small stream we rounded a corner to see a wide-open space with a single stone pillar at one end, erected at the spot of the hypocenter. Also in this area is a large statue depicting a mother holding a dead infant and representing the 40,000 people who were instantly killed at 11:02AM on August 9, 1945. 

The final stop in this area was at the Atomic Bomb Museum; built in 1996 the museum captures a good cross-section of events and artifact from the time leading up to the bombing through to the peace movement it spawned in the years after the war ended. I found the museum to be extremely well organized and laid out – it was hard not to draw comparisons to the 911 museum in New York. Nothing appears to have been glossed over or politicized, the exhibits are purely factual. We also saw several high school aged children’s groups in the museum. Along with pieces of twisted metal, the exhibits include a life size reproduction of the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb with a cut away section to help explain how it worked.

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To hit our 2nd stop on the overall itinerary we took the same tram back down the valley a few stops and then walked about 15 minutes to the Fuchi Jinja cable car station for the ride up Mt. Inasa. The Japanese call the cable car the Ropeway and the 5 minute journey up the mountain afforded us great views from the ships in the port on our right, up the valley to the atomic bomb site on our left. A short hike after exiting the cable car and we were at the lookout structure on the top of Mt. Inasa. This circular structure consists of an interior spiral walkway leading to a restaurant at the top and a viewing platform above.

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The highlight of the lunch in Hikari No Restaurant was the view, absolutely amazing – looking over the port and down on the Queen Elizabeth. The views from the rooftop platform were spectacular, made even better by the brilliant weather – we really got lucky. 

In order to have time to fit in our 3rd and final stop, we took a taxi from the cable car station through town to the Glover Gardens. Quite close to the ship the Glover Gardens area is a tourist spot that encompasses some quaint shopping streets, the old Oura catholic church, several houses from the time of the first European settlements in Japan and of course the Glover house and gardens. 

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Thomas Blake Glover was a Scottish entrepreneur who moved to Nagasaki in 1859 when the Japanese ports were opened to trade. Through shipbuilding, coal mining and the tea trade Glover contributed greatly to the modernization of Japan. He is known as the father of Japanese Beer and the Kirin beer logo still shares his famous moustache. screenshot1195

Note that if you visit this area there is a separate entry charge for the church and the gardens. Entry to is via a series of outdoor escalators - the area being on a steep hillside. The old Oura church is quaint but not overly impressive – no pictures allowed inside (I confess to take-ing one before I realized the no photos rule). The gardens are, well, not really gardens as we would define them – more a series of walk ways back down the hill interspersed with the occasional old house. I think the actual Glover house was under restoration because we never did find it – though there was a large fenced off structure with lots of scaffolding that I assume may have been the main house. We stumbled upon a nice coffee shop in the upstairs of one of the old buildings and enjoyed a relaxing break before heading back to the ship, a short 10-minute walk.


Wednesday March 16, 2016

Located a days sailing south of the Korean peninsula Jeju (pronounced Zair Zyou) Island is the largest of the Korean islands. A central extinct volcano dominates the island, though today the view was not so good due to the overcast conditions. The primary business of Juju is tourism, especially geared towards Koreans – it is a very popular honeymoon destination. The volcanic soil conditions and relatively mild climate also support some agriculture – the main crop is tangerines, the trees are everywhere and the markets and shops filled with tangerine based products. 

Unfortunately today we were lumbered with the worst tour guide in the history of tour guiding. Not only did the guide fail to provide us with any relevant information about Jeju or our tour, she had the annoying habit of somehow working a fake laugh into every sentence and turning the PA system on the bus up to ear splitting levels. Mild complaints soon turned to near mutiny; she seemed surprised that we were not interested in how much her island property had appreciated or how she was doing with her teenage daughter. As interesting sites whizzed by the guide seemed oblivious to the shouts from her customers to provide some kind of commentary. We made a mental note to visit the tour office back on the ship and provide some appropriate feedback.

After about 30 minutes of increasingly frustrating verbal crap, we unexpectedly stopped at the Hallim Tropical Park – no one had any clue what the place was about or what we should expect. However I seemed to remember that this tour included a visit to some lava tubes, so with some hope we disembarked the bus. 

Hallim Park turned out to be a quite beautiful tropical garden, with a few caged birds thrown in and yes – the lava tubes. In the absence of an actual guide, we followed the provided map to what looked like the entrance to the lava tubes. Descending a steep flight of stairs we passed through a stone arch into a dark cave-like space. The lava tubes were amazing; as we followed the damp path through the first tube we marveled at the stalactites and stalagmites and the incredible way the hot lava had carved out tube. A limited amount of lighting provided enough visibility to allow us to follow the path, though care was needed to avoid tripping or colliding with the overhead rocks – the occasional drip from above also added to the ambience. 

 

After about 50 yards the first tube ended and we climbed another stairway back to the surface. Blinking, we found ourselves back in the gardens and following a footpath that led to a second lava tube; all in all there were 3 tubes to explore – all amazing, well worth a visit. 

Another highlight of this stop was the bonsai garden that was filled with at least 100 very well maintained bonsai trees, some of them over 300 years old. 

 

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Driving a little further I took the opportunity to look over the tourist map and try to figure out what was in store for us. Jeju has the feel of an island that the government designated a tourist spot; it feels just a little bit too convenient and I got the sense that someone, somewhere had a list of all the things a proper tourist spot should have and was determined that Jeju should have them all. There is a literally a museum for everything, even “Sex and Health” – that was not on the itinerary, thankfully. We did however stop at the Museum of Tea where we got to sample tangerine flavored tea and walk amongst the tea plants.

Following lunch, another large buffet – average this time, we headed down to the coast and pulled into a car park. No one had any idea what we would find at this stop. The Jungmun Coast “rock fractures” were actually a series of vertical hexagonal rock formations similar to the Giants Causeway in Northern Island – though a lot smaller, according to Sandra who has actually visited it. A cliff top pathway with well positioned viewing areas afforded a good view of the large black hexagonal rock columns. Impressive.


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The penultimate stop was at Yakchunsa Buddhist Temple, another large and well-maintained facility – I wonder if they are all like this or if the tour companies only take us to the nice ones, I suspect it’s the former. Having hiked the hill and took in the temple we returned to the bus at the appointed time to find the guide explaining that because there were some in the group who did not care to stop at our final destination, the local market, she was changing the itinerary (I didn’t even think we had one!) – we would skip the market and spend more time at the temple. Some took off to hike the 10 minutes back up the hill to the temple, but I took the opportunity to express my displeasure at this final straw - and so the guide decided to change the itinerary back to the original version and so she dashed off up the hill to gather up her lost sheep. What a farce!

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It turned out the there was only one couple who did not want to visit the market, because when we finally got there everyone else got off the bus for a look around. Even though we did not have much time, the market was still very interesting – it was indeed a market for the locals and not the usual trinket bazaar. The displays of fresh tangerines, fish and other local produce were amazing.

All in all a mixed day: we saw some amazing things, but the island felt a bit contrived to me. In addition the so-called guide ensured the trip was at least a 2-tylenol day. Can’t wait to visit the tour office back on the ship.


Tuesday March 15, 2016

Today we are visiting Busan (formerly Pusan) in South Korean – this is our first visit to this country. I don’t have any preconceived notions of what to expect; all I know of South Korea is that it is an electronics and automobile manufacturing powerhouse with brands like Samsung and Hyundai, and of course the country lives in a constant state of fear over the possibility of war with it’s northern neighbor. Sandra’s dad was in Korea as a soldier in 1950, she has some cherished old pictures – I imagine things have changed a bit since his visit, however the two counties are actually in a ceasefire situation and so technically still at war.

In preparation for our visit we had not found a lot in the city of Busan that looked super interesting, and so we booked a shore excursion to the city of Gyeongju to learn about the ancient Silla Empire.

It was a bright, cold but clear day as the bus left the dock and made its way through the city towards the main freeway. Very modern large skyscrapers mixed with low-rise buildings, not much sign of anything old. We learn that Busan is the busiest port in South Korea; I suppose this is where all of those flat screens and cars make their way out to the world. We cross two long bridges, the first of which has a spectacular 360-degree spiraling on-ramp. 

After several morning rush-hour traffic jams we finally make it out on to the modern highway heading northeast to the city of Gyeongju. Soon we are in the countryside, which is mostly hilly, in fact 80% of South Korean is considered mountainous – and with the fast growing population driven by its hot economy, living space is an issue. An obvious solution pops into my head, but it involves the reunification of the two Koreas – something a certain short plump guy is not likely to allow.

We pass Hyundai City, which surprisingly does not look very industrial – it must be some trick of industrial design. Mostly the landscape is hillsides and rice paddy fields, lot and lots of rice paddy fields – just about every spare flat bit of land that is not covered by a building, is being used as a rice paddy.

The journey north took about 90 minutes and we eventually arrived in the city of Gyeongju; the city is a primary tourist site largely because it was the base for the ancient Silla Empire. Predating the formation of the country we now call Korea, the Silla ruled a large area starting in 57BC all the way up to 935AD. Over that last 100 years, archaeological work has revealed many of the former Silla dwellings, burial places and hundreds of artifacts. 

Our first stop though was not Silla related; instead the guide took us to the spectacular Pulguksa Buddhist temple. Built on a hillside the Pulguksa temple consists of about a dozen buildings set amongst a series of small lakes and streams and beautiful gardens. Everywhere we looked was a photo opportunity, and not for the first time I was thankful for the advent of digital photography. All of the buildings have the classic curvy tiled roofline and intricately painted woodwork; we must have seen a hundred Buddha statues. Our guide was a veritable encyclopedia of information about the temple, he’d been doing the tours for 25 years – however we found ourselves lagging behind the group so that we could get more pictures and so I did not catch everything he said. We’ve been to many Buddhist temples on our travels and this one has to be right up there in terms of beauty and awe.

  

Next we motored over to the Commodore hotel where a large buffet lunch was waiting for us, other Cunard tours had already arrived. My expectations for the “included” lunches on these shore excursions are never very high – but today the food was very good and included a mix of western and Korean style foods. Loud twanging Korean music temporarily distracted me from the food and we were entertained with a series for traditional Korean dancers.

After lunch we visited the excellent Gyeongju National Museum that displays the history and art of the Silla period in neatly organized exhibits. With the limited time allowed by the tour it was a bit of a rush to try and even see the top highlights in the museum; mostly we were interested in that artifacts recovered by the Archaeological digs during the 1970s. Perhaps the most impressive display was the gold crown from the Cheonmachong Tomb dating to the 5th or 6th century, as I rounded the corner into the room displaying the crown I experienced a literal breathless moment – it was so unexpected and stunning. 

 

Our final stop for this tour was at the Daereungwon Tomb Park; as the name suggested the area contains a number of tombs in a park-like setting. The tombs consist of large circular mounds of rock and earth very reminiscent of the ancient burial mound that can be found in Britain. The highlight of this stop was actually getting to go inside one of the tombs; in fact it was the Cheonmachong Tomb the source of the beautiful gold crown that we had seen in the museum. The tomb consists of a small wooden room, within which was discovered a lacquered coffin – some 11,500 artifacts were recovered from the tomb. The wooden room was then encased in a gigantic mound of rocks and covered with a layer of earth.

  

As we headed back to the port I took a look at the tourist map and estimated that it would take the best part of a week to explore all that Gyeongju has to show – it’s a pretty impressive place.

Later that night as we sailed out of Busan we noticed that one of the bridges we had crossed on our tour was lit up providing some spectacular views.


Monday March 14, 2016

Sea day


Sunday March 13, 2016

We’ve only visited China on one previous occasion; a day trip to Shenzhen from Hong Kong – and so we are really looking forward to visiting Shanghai today. 

We gathered with the rest of our group for the all day shore excursion and at the pointed time, around 7:30am, we proceeded off the ship and through Chinese immigration. Strangely, all those going ashore were issued a photocopy of their passport  - the originals being safely kept onboard.

Our guide for the day, Coco, was soon introducing herself as the bus sped out of the port for the hour-long journey into Shanghai. We learn that since it’s Sunday the traffic should not be too bad and that we may even arrive a bit early. The fire hose of facts starts to flow – really it’s too early in the morning for this, my ability to retain information is proportional to my caffeine intake and I just have not had enough yet. I barely remember that Shanghai has a population of 24 millions. 

Gradually the landscape changes from severely industrial to just plain industrial – the views are not enhanced by the overcast sky and occasional drizzle. High-rises, apartment complexes, train lines, more high-rises this place is vast. 

As we approach the city center we learn that the Shanghai of today owes its existence to “our second chairman, the short one” who opened up China for trade and, based on the input of his Fang-Shui advisor, decreed in 1997 that the city should achieve balance by creating a massive new development on the east side of the river where at the time there was only a swamp. It is staggering to see what was achieved over the next twenty-six years; most of the now iconic Shanghai skyline included three huge towers, three tunnels under the river along with major extensions to the underground train system. The east of the river development would rank as a major world city all by itself.

Our first stop was at the Yu Gardens and market. Coco tells us that the market, or bazaar, caters to both locals and tourists; the stores selling the work of local artisans as well as cheaper trinkets are located in ancient wooden buildings with classic Chinese rooflines. There is a buzz of activity and the streets are packed with people, we’ve been told to keep a close eye on our valuables – I notice a strong police presence, but really compared to some of the places we’ve been it did not feel very threatening. 

We walk over the zigzag bridge and into the Yu Gardens; the atmosphere immediately changes from torrid to serene. The facts continue to flow from Coco, she must be The Google of Chinese culture. The Yu gardens are not like any other gardens I’ve visited; in place of the usual planted beds and well kempt lawns are a series of grotto-like spaces constructed around a small stream. There are also a lot of classic Chinese style wooden buildings that were used for various functions; meeting halls, hangouts for the rich folks and the like. Walkways and small bridges link the various spaces – the overall effect is very pleasant, and upon closer examination I find that most of the plants and trees are in fact labeled with their Latin names reminding me that this really is a proper garden.

The end of the garden walk spilled out back into the market; the sights, sounds and smells are an assault on the sense – but in an exciting and good way. Coco shows us the meeting point and we are given 45 minutes of free time; free in China, who knew? The meeting point is in fact a government-run “Silk World” shop where in exchange for the free use of the clean facilities you get to watch a demonstration of how silk worms produce silk.

We head for what we’ve been told is the best dumpling place in town, this is Shanghai after all – it was easy to find because it was the only place with a huge queue. I did a quick time and motion study and determined that it would take us 93 minutes to reach the hole-in-the-wall serving counter - no dumplings for us today. So we headed over to Starbucks, yes in this quaint centuries-old market there were in fact two of these Seattle-based caffeine dispensaries (we also noticed a McDonalds!).

Shopping was very easy, we used the Chinese currency that we had obtained before we left home – everyone was very nice and spoke very good English. One shop was selling hand painted duck eggs and we bought one for use as a Christmas ornament; the young girl even customized our purchase by writing our names in both English and Chinese on the egg.

Back on the bus we head back to the city center; more cultural facts from Coco – she’s a bottomless pit. Through one of the newly constructed tunnels and under the river we immerge on the east side in the forest of super-high towers that is the pride of Shanghai. The bus disgorges us in front of the Jin Mao tower and Coco shows just the right spot get an upward-looking photo of all three of the main towers at the same time. It’s very cloudy (or is it smog?) and the tops of the towers are barely visible.

A very fast and smooth elevator ride brought us to the 88th floor of the Jin Mao tower. Apparently the number 8 is considered very lucky in the Chinese culture; this is because the pronunciation of the word “wealth” and the pronunciation of the word “eight” are almost identical. So the 88th floor must be super-lucky. I suppose the viewing platform of the tower would normally offer spectacular 360 degree views of the city but, as expected today, the clouds / smog are messing things up a bit – not so lucky then.

After a short bus ride back over to the west side and we visited the Grand Theater for lunch, which was included with the shore excursion. I never have very high expectations for lunches that are “included in the price”, however the meal today was exceptional. An area of the upstairs ballroom had been sectioned off and transformed into a banquet style lunch area, complete with large round tables equipped with rotating Lazy Susans to facilitate a classic family style Shanghainese meal. Several tour groups were already eating and our group occupied two of the round tables and tucked in to a fantastic meal.

Following lunch our bus cut across People’s Park to the Shanghai Museum where we were once again set free, this time for about 3 hours. Our plan was to try and walk to the promenade-like area along the river known as The Bund, and then finish off with some time in the museum. Central Shanghai is an extremely modern metropolis with busy broad streets, shopping malls and high-rise buildings. We navigated our way to the pedestrianized shopping area along Nanjing Road – everywhere we looked seemed to provide a photo opportunity, I’m sure we looked like classic tourists.

Nanjing road seemed to be one of the main shopping areas and on this Sunday afternoon about half of Shanghai must have been out for a stroll. Other than at a football match, I’d don’t think I’ve ever seen this many people packed so close together. All of the high-end brands could be seen and the Chinese people seemed perfectly at home in this environment – really not that very different than any other major world city, only this is communist China! After about 45 minutes of hard slog, think salmon swimming upstream, a quick check of the GPS showed we were not even half way to our intended destination – and so we abandoned the idea of a walk along the Bund and changed course for the museum.

The occasional old colonial building would appear reminding us of the history of Shanghai. Following the opium wars of 1870-something the city was divided into four “concessions”; one each for the British, French, American and Japanese. People’s Park, right in the center of the city, is a modern creation and houses several museums, the theater and main city government building within it’s grounds. 

The main Shanghai museum is located in a modern building and as might be expected is crammed with some spectacular Chinese artifacts – we noticed some pottery from 10000 years ago! There is also a superb display of ethnic Chinese fabrics and costumes. A rather good tea and coffee shop is located on the second floor. Note that if you visit the museum the security checkpoint causes a backup; we waited about 10 minutes.

Heading back to the port and its more facts from Coco, only now she is getting a little political. Apparently the west should not worry about the Chinese rise to prominence any build up of military power is strictly for defensive purposes; “the Chinese people are by nature very kind and gentle, we will not hurt you”. Well that’s a relief.


Saturday March 12, 2016

Sea day


Friday March 11, 2016

Sea day


Thursday March 10, 2016

Checking out of the Langham was always a very cordial and pleasant experience - not so today for our departure from the Cordis. Unfortunately the one good duty manager that we experienced on this trip was on the receiving end of our forcefully delivered feedback regarding the abysmal club level. The young guy did his best to run through all of his hotel-university-taught techniques to parry our attack, pretty soon he was broken out in a sweat and starting to repeat himself. He held his ground, I’m sure his teachers would have been proud of him. After much haggling the manager offered to pay for our limo to the cruise terminal; Sandra said this was an insult and promptly left. Actually, acceptance of this pittance would have impacted any future negotiation regarding monetary compensation – this was the real reason we did not accept it.

Embarkation at Hong Kong was very strange. Following a short ride down from Mong Kok to the Ocean Cruise Terminal our car joined a line of vehicles snaking its way into the port. After about 45 minutes of slow progress the car turned on to the dock and we found ourselves driving right along by the side of the ship – a first for us. Eventually the driver decided “this was the spot” and along with crates of food, pallets of luggage and other supplies on the dockside our bags were unloaded from the car – I began to think we might never see them again. The whole scene was like something out of Indiana Jones – well maybe if you squinted really hard.

Mass confusion followed; go this way, no wait – go this way, go up one level, no wait – go back down. We found ourselves inside a large shopping mall – I’m not kidding. In fact as we progressed in what we hoped was the right direction we took the opportunity to stop and buy 3 pairs of shoes – I’m really not kidding! Yes, in a nod to the uber shopping experience that is Hong Kong, the gangway from the ship leads right into the biggest mall in town. 

We finally passed through security and into the familiar surroundings of the Queen Elizabeth. I’ve described the ship in previous blogs so I’m not going to repeat my observations here, though she has been in for a refit since our last visit – so we’ll watch out for any significant changes. Stateroom 7128 is on the port (left) side towards the aft (rear) of the ship and is nicely appointed with a balcony; in fact we’ve stayed in this exact cabin on a previous sailing. One immediately obvious upgrade is the wall mounted flat screen TV that has the added benefit of creating a bit more counter space – always a premium in a ships cabin.

In the late afternoon we made our way to the upper decks and captured some great pictures of the Hong Kong skyline, despite the overcast skies. I had been looking forward to sailing out of Hong Kong, but since coming on board we have found out that the ship will not leave until after 11:30PM by which time I’m sure I’ll have conked out.


Wednesday March 9, 2016

Today is the last full day in Hong Kong for us as well Scott and Sean; tomorrow we board the Queen Elizabeth and they fly home. So to make sure they see the most they can of Hong Kong we have arranged for a half time city tour – we did this same tour many years ago and found it to be a great way to see many of the highlights.

After joining the tour bus we are soon passing through one of the three tunnels that connect Kowloon to Hong Kong Island. The bus wound it’s way through Hong Kong and over the hills to Aberdeen a former fishing village. Most of the fishing boats are now long gone but a few still remain as house boats out in the harbor and for a small additional fee we boarded a small Sampan boat for a harbor tour. The Sampan boats are about the size of a large rowing boat over which has been constructed a flimsy canopy that is open on all sides. The boats are powered by a small outboard motor, invariably with a woman at the tiller. The Sampan weaved its way among the moored fishing boats allowing us to get a great view into life aboard one of these aged hulks. The famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant is also in Aberdeen harbor and our Sampan captain was kind enough to pull up to it, allowing one of our fellow tourists to “visit the facilities”.

  

Following the obligatory jewelry factory stop, where, as usual, not a single purchase was made by anyone on the bus – we headed over to Stanley Market. We like the Stanley area and had visited on a couple of previous occasions; the market is largely covered and sells goods that are a couple of notches up the quality scale when compared to markets in Kowloon. The tour allowed for a full hour in Stanley and so we made our way out through the back of the market and onto the promenade that surrounds the small picturesque bay. We found a nice little café with tables out front and ordered a light lunch – idyllic.

Back on the bus we headed for the final stop on the tour, the top of Victoria Peak overlooking Hong Kong harbor. The whole idea of this stop is to take in the superb views of Hong Kong, but today it was very cloudy and so the views were almost non-existent. The disappointment caused by the clouds was partially offset by the unique experience of riding backwards down from the peak on the funicular railway, at times the angle if inclination approached scary – but our guide assured us that the railway had never yet suffered a fatality.

Following the tour we took a short walk to Time Square for some retail therapy and along the way got caught in a torrential monsoon downpour, complete with the occasional lightning flash. We briefly sheltered in a doorway then made a run for it but by the time I reached the comfort of the shopping mall I was thoroughly soaked. A secondary reason for visiting this particular mall is the excellent little restaurant in the basement. On one of our previous visits to Hong Kong, Crystal Jade Restaurant was the first place we tried Shanghai Dumplings; somehow we always manage to fit in a trip here - the dumplings were outstanding as were the noodles. 

   

By now it was time to make our way back to Apsley’s to pick up the shirts and dresses and so we hopped on the ever-efficient MTR for the short trip back over to Kowloon. Upon arrival we learned that the shirts were indeed ready but the dresses would be another couple of hours. With some trepidation I entered the small changing room (why am I having Mr. Ben flashbacks?) and tried on one of the newly minted shirts. It’s true what they say, there is nothing quite like a custom tailored shirt; I realized that up to this point in my life I’ve basically been wearing sacks disguised as shirts. My fears about this process being fade away as I try on a second shirt – this one with a “Chinese” collar, wow amazing! The Chinese collar is thanks to Sandra who spotted the difference between our request for “no collar” and what we really wanted which was a Chinese collar.

After hanging out at Scott and Sean’s hotel club level, just around the corner from Apsley’s, we returned and picked up the two dresses for Sandra – she was suitably impresses with the handiwork and I know from a lifelong sewer, this is a ringing endorsement.

Later that night we find ourselves in the hotel restaurant after once again being underwhelmed by the offerings at the Cordis club level. 


Tuesday March 8, 2016

This morning could quite possibly be our worst ever hotel club level experience; not only was the food on offer atrocious but the chair I was sitting in collapsed sending my crashing to the floor and after waiting 20 minutes for someone to cook her an egg we had to leave in order to meet up with our tour group for the day. We are determined not to let this crappy situation get in the way of our enjoyment – but it is a major annoyance.

Today is Macao day. Whereas yesterday Sandra and I acted as tour guides for Scott and Sean, today we cross, for us, uncharted waters for a day trip to the former Portuguese colony of Macao. This excursion was pre-booked and 4 of us were picked up at 7:30AM by a tour bus, which then did the rounds of several Kowloon hotels before depositing us at the ferry terminal for our trip across to Macao. 

The tour guide accompanied our group into the terminal where he explained the procedures we would have to follow to get through Hong Kong immigration and customs before giving us our tickets and telling us another guide would meet us in Macao. The whole process was very smooth and we soon boarded the hydrofoil for the one-hour crossing. The boat was very comfortable with large pre-assigned seats and a continuously running video of two young ladies briefly explaining some of the cultural highlights of Macao before extolling the virtues of the vast casinos and shopping malls – all in sub-titled English. I dozed off.

We were met in Macao by our new tour guide, Cisco – who had the particularly annoying habit of speaking about himself in the third person, I hate that. Cisco explained that thanks to the benevolence of the new lavish casinos and their “donation” of a new “temporary” ferry terminal, we had come thorough Macao immigration in record time. He proposed we use this extra time for a quick detour to the Venetian casino before starting the official tour – actually he put the issue to a vote of the tour group, but by the time we figured out what he was asking he took this acquiescence as approval – so off we went.

The Venetian in Macao is an exact replica of the Venetian in Las Vegas and so our distaste for the Las Vegas original was replicated for its Macao cousin. We used the time to get a Starbucks. 

Finally we are back on the bus and the official tour starts. Despite the fact that he keeps telling us this is not a gambling tour, Cisco is straight away bombarding us with facts about all the casinos on Macao and their shady owners – really we just want to know about the history and culture. Things settle down a bit and we see how close Macao is to Mainland China – in fact a short causeway connects it. Illegal immigration across the narrow strip of water from China to Macao is discouraged by machine gun towers on the Chinese side, with shoot-to-kill orders.

A short journey takes us to an old temple; in fact it’s the spot where the Portuguese first landed on Macao back in 15 something. It’s hard to imagine this first encounter; the sailors apparently having trouble with their boat seek help from the locals on shore. There is no common language to help the exchange of information but the Portuguese are keen to know where exactly they have fetched up. Eventually the monks somehow figure out what the foreigners want and tell them the name of the temple, A-Ma. The sailors misunderstand this to be the name of the entire country and their interpretation of the Chinese word eventually leads to the name Macao. Or so the story goes.

The temple is a bit ho-hum (that’s not a Chinese phrase by the way) for a World Heritage site, but the highlight of the stop is scoffing down the Portuguese tarts from the local bakery. Cisco took a count while we were on the bus and called in the order – clever chap, wonder if he got a free one? The tarts consist of a small pastry shell filled with an egg custard, browned on the top and served warm - very good.

Next stop the Macao tower, apparently one of the tallest needle-style towers in the world. There is some debate on the bus about whether it’s worth stopping as it is very cloudy and visibility from the top would be limited. The tour company has a rule that if 10% of the customers want to go to the top of the tower (for an extra charge) then they have to stop. Those not interested in ascending the tower get to mingle at the bottom among the shops and slot machines. We opt to go to the top and this trips the 10% rule; I sense a collective groan on the bus.

We’ve been up our fair share of towers and high buildings around the world – the Macao tower was OK. As predicted the visibility from the top was almost none existent; at times there was a brief clear moment and we could see China and the ground at the foot of the tower. The highlight of the tower visit was watching the maniacs bungee jumping and walking around a narrow outdoor platform (suitable tethered).

More casino facts from Cisco, and he has now woven in all the cultural superstitions that the Chinese people follow in order to gain wealth. “Don’t touch a gambler on the left shoulder”, “surround your house with outward facing mirrors”, “stand on one leg and whistle Dixie” – OK I made that last on up. But really with all these sure-fired ways to guarantee luck and wealth one has to wonder why all Chinese are not billionaires. 

Finally we are at a real cultural treasure, the ruins of The Church of St. Paul. This stone façade has long been the symbol of Macao, but I wonder how long it will last at the rate new casinos are going up. Cisco makes a big deal about how the façade has withstood earthquakes and monsoon winds to remain freestanding. But on not-so-close examination I notice major structural steel supporting the stone wall from behind and reinforced concrete lining what were once window openings. Nevertheless the ruins are impressive and make for a great photo opportunity – hence the large crowds. 

A wide stone staircase leads down from the small square in front of the façade and is flanked on one side by beautiful gardens. From the foot of the stairs we wander through the narrow winding streets of the old town, Cisco warns us about expert pickpockets – who are apparently all tourists, the locals would never do such a thing. The old town is quaint but packed with people, Cisco tells us we are lucky this is not a busy day – he’s not joking. 

The tour ends with 20 minutes of free time to either browse the knock-off shops (which Cisco insists only sell “seconds” not knock-offs) or hang out in the Jackie Chan casino – yes it is in part owned by the famous martial arts movie star. Ordinarily we’d choose option 3, but Cisco has primed us with stories about the opulence of the Jackie Chan casino with it’s “English” guards outside, gold bars in the floor of the lobby and $1M outward facing mirror. So we toodle along to the casino and find out that it’s all true. We barely have time for a cold drink before we are rounded up onto the bus for the return journey to the ferry terminal. 

The advantage of these tours is that you get so see a lot in a short amount of time – I don’t think we would have got to half the places in Macao if we’d been self-guided. The downside is that sometimes you get a tour guide without an off switch.


Monday March 7, 2016

4AM, wide awake – so much for the “sleep of sleeps”!

Breakfast in the clubroom – the scarcity of food offerings has continued from the night before, could this be intentional? In rebranding from Langham to Cordis has some corporate nut-job decided that the food in the club level is not important? Like many other travellers we have come to rely on the club level to provide sufficient sustenance in the morning to get through most of the day and a nice enough selection of food at night that often means we don’t have to find a place for dinner. During the Langham era, the additional cost of a club level room was value for money when considering quality and selection of food. If the selection at this, our first Cordis breakfast, is anything to go by we will be sorely disappointed. 

For many years now I have harbored a desire to have some shirts custom made at one of Hong Kong’s famous gentleman’s tailors. Prior visits have been too short (the process requires several visits to the tailor), but now with 4 days before we have to get on the ship I finally have a chance to fulfill this dream. Sandra had also brought along a dress that she liked and wanted to see if it could be duplicated. In the weeks before leaving I had done a little research on the custom tailoring options and the one thing I learned was to select a reputable tailor and not to be tempted by the quick and cheap establishments. 

Nathan Street is the main north-south thoroughfare of the Kowloon peninsula and at it’s southern end in the Tsim Sha Tsui district there is a cluster of tailors shops – many of them famous for providing suits to the rich and famous from around the world. These establishments are remarkably small and crammed with boules of fabric and plastered with photographs of their most famous clients. I had selected Apsley’s Tailors based on my research and also the recommendation of the hotel concierge.

Apsley’s is located in the Burlington Arcade right on Nathan Street; the shop is very small but somehow there are 4 employees there to greet us as we walk through the door. Wood paneling, lots of fabrics, a few old chairs and the strong smell of moth balls assault the senses and we quickly get down to the business of selected fabrics and shirts style options. I find out that buying 6 shirts is a “much better deal” and succumb to this old sales trick with barely a whimper. I’m lost in the thrill of it all, images of James Bond are flitting through my head as I select a style for the monogramming and stand while a dozen measurements are taken.

 After sealing the deal and agreeing to return later that afternoon for an initial fitting, I find out that Apsley’s also does dresses and so Sandra whipped out the dress she wanted copied and they get down to fabric selection and measurements. Sean also decided to buy a couple of shirts; Apsley’s did well that day.

We took a short walk to the Star Ferry terminal for the short journey across to Hong Kong Island. The Star Ferries are small commuter boats that have been plying the harbor since forever – they run every few minutes and are the best deal in Hong Kong; for a couple of bucks you get to travel across the busy Hong Kong harbor and take in the spectacular waterfront scenery. 

After docking on the Hong Kong side we head for the Mid-Level Escalators; this series of moving stairways transports the locals from the low areas near the waterfront up the hill to the “Mid Levels” and is the longest series of escalators in the world. To facilitate the busy commute, the escalators run up hill in the morning and then are switched to run down hill in the afternoon. Riding from bottom to top takes about 20 minutes; the escalators run practically straight uphill affording great views into the shops and businesses that run along side, also the streets that progress at right angles along the hill side.

The escalator ride is really all about the journey – there really is nothing much to see once you reach the Mid-Levels. We set off for the long walk back down the hill and through the busy Hong Kong streets looking for a suitable lunch spot. By chance we stumbled upon a small Italian restaurant that advertised “Gluten Free” options – a must for Scott who suffers from this allergy. 

Castello restaurant turned out to be a great find; small, family-run with a traditional Italian menu we all enjoyed it immensely – and the gluten free pizza brought a tear to Scott’s eye (literally). Over lunch we planned our afternoon itinerary that hinged around going back to Apsley’s at 5:30 for an initial fitting. We decided to visit the Lin Po Nunnery and Gardens on the east side of Kowloon.

  

The Lin Po Buddhist nunnery is easily reached via the MTR, Hong Kong’s underground train system. The MTR is very easy to use and incredibly efficient; select your destination by touching it on the map of the ticket machine, select how many tickets you want and then feed in the required amount of money. The machine will then spit out your tickets. The train lines are color coded so it’s easy to follow the signs in the station to your desired platform.

The nunnery is famous for being constructed entirely from wood with no nails or other types of fasteners. Entry to the nunnery and the adjoining gardens is free and access to the temple halls is open to all, though no pictures are allowed to be taken in the actual prayer halls. There are 4 main halls that surround a series of lily ponds; though only constructed in 1997 the place has an ancient feel to it and is still very much an active facility.

The adjoining Nan Lian Gardens are simply stunning; every tree, flower and shrub appear to have been precisely positioned around a central lake and each is perfectly pruned to create a wonderful experience. A large pagoda sits on an island in the center of the lake and a pair of brightly colored bridges connects the lake to the surrounding gardens. We followed a sweeping path for a peaceful stroll around the lake where we found a beautiful waterfall and further on a small teashop run by the nuns.

Back at Apsley’s I stepped into the incredibly small changing “room” to try on the prototype custom shirt; this was followed by the Chinese tailor buzzing around me pulling here and marking there until he was satisfied that he had enough information to complete his task. I was having a hard time seeing how this ill-fitting swath of cloth was going to turn into the beautiful custom shirt of my dreams. Sandra and was also subjected to a similar process for her dress. With a promise that the finished shirts “would be just fine” and available the next afternoon (dresses the following afternoon), we left the shop with more than a little trepidation.

At the Cordis club level later that night the pitiful display of food confirmed our fear; the days of the lavish Langham food spreads were a thing of the past – we feel ripped off.


Sunday March 6, 2016

After a relatively uneventful though agonizingly long flight we finally arrived in Hong Kong at around 8PM and made our way to the hotel transportation desk in the airport concourse. We had arranged for a car to pick us up at the airport; even though this is a bit more expensive than the other options – after such a long flight we appreciate not having to deal with buses or trains. Before long, suitably ensconced in the luxurious interior of a large Mercedes, we were on our way to the hotel. It’s nice to be pampered once in a while.

We have visited Hong Kong several times before and over the years we have come to favor the Langham Hotel in Mong Kok on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. So when planning this cruise we decided to add on 4 nights at the Langham prior to embarkation; this would give us time to get over the jet lag and visit some of our old favorite spots before heading out on the cruise. In addition our son Scott and his husband Sean were also making their first visit to Hong Kong at this time; so they would spend time with us prior to the cruise. 

Just before I booked the hotel I learned that the Langham in Mong Kok would be rebranded into the Cordis Hotel; everything I could find out indicated that this change would be pretty transparent. Upon arrival we were greeted at the curb by an associate from the club level who welcomed us and had all the details of our current and previous visits – this was a nice touch and in line with previous Langham experiences. 

The club level at the Cordis had been completely remodeled but still occupied three large interconnected spaces with floor to ceiling windows offering a stunning view of the Mong Kok. Scott and Sean joined us briefly; they had arrived the previous day and were staying at a different hotel in Kowloon. We noticed that the food offerings in the club room were decidedly sparse, but put this down to the relatively late hour. 

Tired and totally worn out, we turned in for the “sleep of sleeps” that usually follows such a long flight.


Saturday March 5, 2016

We are off on another exciting adventure; this time it’s an Asian cruise on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth starting in Hong Kong and ending in Osaka, Japan – with stops in China and South Korean in between. After a year of planning and organizing I can’t believe this day has finally arrived, even the imminent prospect of a 14-hour flight cannot seriously dampen the excitement.