35 years ago, I lived in Japan for two years. I built a great love for that country and its people when I was there. I loved the language enough that I studied it in college and received a BA in Japanese a few years later. Unfortunately, I have never been able to return since the 1980s. It was definitely overdue. Because Adobe gives a sabbatical every 5 years, I was able to spend 25 days in Japan (and Korea) with my wife during the month of April.
Every day was absolutely amazing. I am still processing the experience, and will be using this forum to document it somewhat, with photos and thoughts of our experience there.
We first flew to Tokyo, then, after one night in a hotel at the Haneda airport, we went to Kyoto to spend several days. We then went back up to Yokohama, where we took an 18 day cruise around the main islands. (I've grouped the photos by destination, but within a section, they may be time jumbled.)
Map of Japan (also showing Korea) with visited cities
It was a thrill, after a long flight, to see Japan--the Tokyo Sky Tree is particularly recognizable in that sea of city called Tokyo. We were nervous about getting money, hotels, and transportation figured out, but it all turned out to be not as bad as we had feared. There were kiosks for buying train tickets and SUICA cards, ATMs for getting yen, as well as an office (with a long line) for enabling the JR Pass. There were convenience stores, drug stores, and restaurants right in the terminal for taking care of our other needs. Getting a room at the Haneda Royal Park Hotel was great, because we were already tired from the long flight and long lines to enter the country--it's right there in Terminal 3 and not much more expensive than other hotels around.
The shinkansen (bullet train) is amazing: very fast with a smooth ride, easy entry (think "airplane speeds" with "train accessibility"), and great views. It was raining, which kept us from seeing Mount Fuji, but still made the countryside beautiful. Even the tradition of buying food at the station to eat on the train was fun and convenient.
I lived in the Kyoto area for about a year, so this was an important destination for me. It was not on our cruise, so we went down there for a few days before the cruise started.
The hotel and its facilities (washing and vending machines) were fun to figure out. The room was smaller than my kids' bedrooms at home, but perfectly functional.
We only saw a very few things in Kyoto, but it was as amazing and wonderful as I remembered. You could not see everything in a year, so I picked a few well-known and less-busy locations to share with my wife: the Imperial Palace Gardens, Heian Shrine, and Touji Temple(which we were fortunate to see at night). We also attended church in the Fushimi Ward, in the exact same building where I served in the 1980s--ah, the memories! The last of the cherry blossoms as well as many other beautiful flowers and trees were out. It rained on-and-off our first full day, keeping the temperatures cool and making everything more green and lovely.
We then went to Yokohama for our cruise. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Yokohama the nights before and after the cruise--what a beautiful hotel!
Ports Visited on Cruise
Our cruise started from Yokohama, which is a very interesting city in its own right. We were able to see Yokohama Chinatown (where we went to find dinner), but otherwise did not do too much exploring. (That would come after our cruise.) The Hyatt Regency Yokohama room was huge even by American standards--compared to our room in Kyoto, it was a enormous and posh. Our stateroom on the Diamond Princess also felt roomy and very comfortable, especially with the balcony. We explored the ship as we left the harbor and during the sea day on the way to Aomori. The ship is beautiful and has a lot of interesting places to explore. It was particularly fun seeing the sights of the harbor as we did some of our ship exploration.
I'd never thought about Aomori before this trip--it is very far from where I lived long ago. We actually visited this port twice, and the second time, we walked around the city and attended the Aomori branch, so it has become special to me. The area is fairly rural, and is very beautiful. The sakura were in full bloom when we went to see the castle grounds at nearby Hirosaki. We also stopped at the Seibien Garden on the way. Mount Iwaki, sometimes the Fuji of Tsugaru (the name of that district) because of its shape, is quite beautiful from Hirosaki and much of the region. The Hirosaki castle was torn during the Meiji Restoration, but the one standing gatehouse is very beautiful among the sakura--but small enough that you feel like it's a toy castle somehow. Finally, we stopped at a Neputa Mura, museum site celebrating the Hirosaki Neputa Festival (called the Nebuta Festival in Aomori), where they create lantern-lit paper kites large and small. They also had local craftsmen making items like ohashi (chopsticks) and lacquerware bowls.
Sakata is best known for its cedar and other lumber exports. It is a beautiful, mountainous area on the Sea of Japan.
Here, we went to Mount Haguro, which is one of three holy Shinto mountains in the area. We went down hundreds of steps into a valley with various shrines, including a 5 story pagoda among the trees (repurposed from Buddhism to Shintoism during the Meiji Restoration), a waterfall, and a bridge, all set in a beautiful cedar forest, as the clouds hung over and sprinkled on us from time-to-time. It was a magical place. After that, we took the bus to the top of the mountain (where our trail would have eventually led us, had we just walked all the steps). There, we walked through the shrine to a hall where we had a very traditional meal, made mostly of local mountain vegetable dishes (12 or 13 of them). I ate everything; Lisa tried everything (which was impressive--some of it was...interesting). From there, we went to the Shinto-focused Chido Museum. Finally, we went to the Zenpouji Temple, which has another beautiful 5 story pagoda.
We went to Kenrokuen, and then walked over to the Kanazawa Castle Park. Kenrokuen is one of the three most famous parks in Japan--large and beautiful views everywhere you look. Kanazawa castle was another victim of the Meiji Restoration, but the park has several of the entry gates and other buildings, which were very interesting. It also had a a lot of very beautiful flowers. After this, we went by bus to the local fish and vegetable market, which was a very busy shouten (covered shopping street), with every sort of fish and vegetable shop you can imagine.
From Sakaiminato, we went to the the Tottori Flower Park, which is a pretty amazing place, as can be seen in the photos. Then we stopped at a candy factory and store, which was fun--one of the rooms you look into certainly made me feel like I was watching Willy Wonka's inventing room.
Sakaiminato is very proud to be the home of Mizuki Shigeru, a very famous manga artist. They have an entire street lined with 153 bronze statues of his characters (as well as various paintings, drawings, children's playground equipment, etc.). Our bus didn't stop there, but we went out of our way to drive through the area slowly so that everybody could see. Our tour guide talked about the artist and the art, even sharing how much her son liked the characters. After getting back to the port, before boarding the ship, we walked over to the nearby fish market, which seemed to specialize in crabs.
At this point, we jumped across to Busan, South Korea. About a month earlier, I met a soon-to-graduate BYU student who offered to have his father meet us and show us around. It was an incredibly kind offer by him and his father. I had no idea that in that short day, I would come to love South Korea and its people so much. Busan is a beautiful city with so many interesting things to see and do--and so many apartment buildings ! Even better, my young friend's father just retired from working with the seminary and institutes programs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so we were able to get a perspective of the Church in South Korea as well.
I had no idea that the impacts of the Korean War were still reverberating so much in South Korea. We went to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery. It was very peaceful, but definitely a solemn reminder of the cost of war. We watched a video in the chapel, walked over to where the American names were listed, and were even able to see the raising of the UN flag over the cemetery.
From there, we went to the APEC House and Dongbaek Park. This building was built for the 2005 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. Before that time, the whole island was controlled by the military, but it is now a large park and memorial for that summit. There were many beautiful sea views (including Haeundae Beach) from the park, as well as many flowering trees and bushes. After that, Brother Cho took us to an amazing nearby buffet restaurant, called Marina Blue Moon. We returned (as we had gone) by way of the longest suspension bridge in South Korea, the Gwangan Grand Bridge.
Kagoshima sits in the shadow of one of Japan's most active volcanos, Sakurajima, which was venting smoke while we were there. We rode the bus to Ibusuki, where we ate at a very fancy Italian restaurant, "Ristorante Feniiche" (transliterated from the katakana name I found online later). It shares a building with the Satsuma Denshokan Museum; unfortunately, the (delicious) meal was served slowly, so we did not have time to do much more than eat the meal. We then took the bus to Lake Ikeda, the largest lake on the island of Kyushu. This volcanic caldera lake is 66 meters above sea level, but 233 meters deep. We stopped at Ikedako Lakeside Park, where which had beautiful flowers planted in patterns of tidy rows by the walkway, and there was a beautiful view of Kaimondake volcano across the lake. Driving through Ibusuki and the countryside was enjoyable in its own way (though maybe I'm showing my own country background here). The area is known for growing tea plants--the fans above the rows of tea plants are interesting. From there, we drove to the Chiran Samurai district. These were used to house the local nobles' warrior families, and is bult like a set of small fortresses--each house is surrounded by a 4 or 5 foot stone wall. Many have beautiful gardens and some allow you to come in and see the gardens. (You can also see from the photos that tour groups bring their own challenges--so many people packing into small spaces.)
When we signed up for this cruise, it looked like a single 18-day cruise. However, it was really two back-to-back 9 day cruises. This day (April 20th) was the switch-over day for the two cruises. Luckily, the ship docked in a much better place, Osanbashi, which is right next to Yokohama. We took the day to visit with my friend (former student, former coworker) Tanner Lund, who is working on a PhD in Tokyo (and working for Indeed, who was willing to move him to Japan).
We met Tanner at Marunouchi Square at Tokyo Station. Before and after we met with Tanner, we spent some time in the Kokyo Gaien public park area on the east side of the Imperial Palace grounds. We had a nice time catching up with Tanner and enjoyed the palace grounds. The day was quite warm, probably the warmest day of our time in Japan. I had filled up my 128GB SD card for my Lumix camera, so we found a camera shop that sold memory cards just outside the train station. (It was quite pricey, but when you need something like that, you just pay the extra cost.) It felt like we spent a lot of time on trains. We saw an Adobe Photoshop advertisement on the train screens, so I had to take a picture of it (and thank the sponsor of the trip--after all, I was able to go because of my sabbatical, provided by my employer, Adobe). It was also fun watching the ship go under the Yokohama Bay Bridge while we were at dinner (luckily, we had a window seat).
Our tour, called "Highlights of Ibaraki," first took us to Kairakuen, a second of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. It was created by the Tokugawa family, cousins to the shogun's line. These were some of the first photos I worked on, as this garden was really beautiful, with its azaleas, bamboo forest, cedar forest, and plum orchard. The original house is now open for viewing, and each room's walls are painted with flowering plant themes. It was interesting to see that some of the trees had trunks that looked split and almost dead, but thriving tops. These and similarly beautiful sakura (from earlier in the trip) reminded us that it's important not to judge a tree by its trunk (yes, there is a broader life lesson there). This was one of the few times Lisa let me take a picture of her--the azaleas were that stunning! (And also, it was super-sunburn-sunny.) This is where I really first noticed that the pines in Japanese are are not stylized, but reflect the shape of actual pine trees.
Some years ago, I was amazed by pictures of the hills of blue nemophila flowers at Hitachi Seaside Park. I honestly thought I would never make it to that part of Japan--after all, my connections were with Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe) and Okinawa. And with the Hitachinaka port call, there we were. I wasn't even aware, when my wife signed us up for that excursion, that I would be visiting that park. In spite of being incredibly crowded, and the fact that we only walked a small portion of it, this huge park amazed me with not only the nemophila, but other flowers and plants. The day was very warm (about the same as the previous day in Tokyo), but we got soft serve ice cream to help with that. Lisa had an umbrella to ward off the sun. It has a flower pattern, and she had been a bit self-conscious about it (thinking it was maybe too "little girl" for her age), but a nice woman in the park complimented her on it, making her feel much better about the pattern. I am grateful for small acts of kindness.
At the end of the day, Hitachinaka hit me with another set of emotions (mostly natsukashii) as they had a marching band on the pier, marching and playing for the ship as we cast off and sailed away. In high school, I played trumpet (and was 1st chair during my senior year) in the Pride of Broken Arrow, which was one of the powerhouse marching bands in Oklahoma (and is even better now, regularly placing well in national competitions). This band was quite good and very fun to watch from our balcony.
We had the same guide in Miyako and, later, Akita, Mr. Ishi. He was the Japanese version of my jazz pianist friend Mike Hansen--laid back and kind, with a self-deprecating humor and life-worn voice. He spoke many times about how the 2011 tsunami hit this area of Japan particularly hard--causing damage as far as 50km inland. There were many visible construction zones as our bus took us to various places. This part of Japan is particularly rugged, and after the tsunami had hit, in addition to many higher levees, the government rebuilt many highways with new tunnels through the various mountains. Seeing the huge doors in the new levees and the stairs going up from the highways was a reminder that the tsunami preparation here is very real.
This day sits particularly well in my memory as an absolutely stunning, amazing day, but when we started the day, I had no idea what was going to happen with this "Best of Iwate" tour. (I had forgotten to look at the itinerary.) The number of photos here reflects that feeling.
First, we went to one of Japan's three largest limestone caves, Ruusendou. It practically has a river running through it: the sign states that the flow rate is "1.5 tons every second." You see several underground pools or lakes inside the cave. The second underground lake is 38 meters deep, while the third underground lake is 98 meters deep. They have put lights down into the water, making the look of the cavern amazing. (After the previous day's heat, it was a relief to go into the cool of the cave.)
After the cave, we stopped for a few minutes at the Tarou hotel, which is now preserved as a remembrance of the 2011 tsunami. Its bottom two floors were scrubbed to the girders by the tsunami, while the third and higher floors were relatively untouched. We we then had a traditional Japanese meal at a nearby ryokan (Japanese inn)--I think it was Ajidokoro Kaisyu. Again, I ate everything and Lisa tried everything.
We then went to Sanno Park on the coast, where we saw the beautiful Sannoiwa Rocks and that stretch of coast for 10 minutes or so (which seemed too short for the view). After that, we went to Jodogahama beach (and the nearby store) for 20 or 25 minutes. Finally, we went to the nearby Miyako Jodogahama Boat Cruise, where we boarded the Umineko Maru and took their standard cruise around the Jodogahama rocks and along the coast back toward the Desaki Pier, which was a short bus ride from the Diamond Princess.
This was our second time in Aomori. Since we had been here before, and it was Sunday, and the ship is docked practically in town, we walked in to attend church at the Aomori Branch and then walked around and back to the ship. The Aomori Branch was wonderful, with many friendly, welcoming members. I would happily make this my home branch if I could! On the way back, we walked past the interesting triangular Tourism Information Building and also walked right by one of the tugs that would eventually take us out of the port. Overall, it was a nice, slow day in a beautiful town with beautiful cool weather.
Yes, Akita dogs come from here, but there is much more going on than dogs.
In Akita, we visited Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan (423 meters). The lake is far inland, so we saw a lot of beautiful mountainous country while we rode the bus to this lake. We ate a wonderful Japanese lunch at the Tazawa Rest House and then visited a site dedicated to Tatsuko, a beautiful young woman who prayed at a nearby shrine to be even more beautiful than she was. She was transformed into a dragon who now lives in the lake. We visited the shrine and gold statue of her that commemorate her beauty. The cherry blossoms in the area were as beautiful as the statue, but more fleeting. After Lake Tazawa, we visited the Kakunodate Samurai Village. This village has houses with gardens and several houses turned into museums.
For our second visit to Busan, we took the excursion we had canceled the first time.
Nagasaki had a different feel from other parts of Japan. It has a long history of Christianity, including a rebellion and the brutal repression of Christianity (read "Silence" or "The Samurai" by Endou Shuusaku to learn more about this). The Shimabara Castle, rebuilt in the 1950s, is now a museum, with an extensive collections artifacts representing the (mostly hidden) Christian history as well as the Tokugawa era and the volcanic eruptions that have devastated the area. There is also a large collection of statues and paintings by Seibo Kitamura, the local artist who created the Peace Park's central monument. Nearby, there is a samurai housing area, with its own water supply, stone-walled homes and peaceful gardens. Shimabara is some distance from Nagasaki by bus, so we were able to see the countryside, with its small farms growing all sorts of vegetables (not just rice).
The Peace Park and Ground Zero Park were places of contemplation, reflection, and deep sadness. It is estimated that 10,000 of the 15,000 Christians in the area were killed by the bomb, and one part of the nearby, mostly destroyed Urakami Church has been moved to the Ground Zero Park. The origami cranes from nearby elementary schools made me think of "Sadako and the Thousand Cranes," the saddest children's book that my kids ever loved.
Finally, the sail-out from the harbor and into the sunset was amazing, with eagles all around the ship, and beautiful views everywhere you might look.
This was the final port of our cruise. After debarking, we walked to the Hyatt Regency Yokohama hotel. We spent the day walking and walking and walking--from the hotel, we walked back to the waterfront, where we happened upon the Japan Coast Gard's "Spy Ship" museum (having to do with the 2001 sinking of a North Korean spy ship off of Kyushu. There was also a German festival going on at the Red Brick Warehouse, which was interesting. I knew my son would be disappointed if we did not go to the Cup Noodle Museum--it was a bit specialized, but interesting (with lots of Willy Wonka-esque places and scenes). From there we walked over to the Air Cabin, but found it closed due to high winds. We then walked over past the Cosmoworld Park, and eventually to the Minatomirai shopping area next to the Minatomirai train station. There we found an Osaka-style Okonomiyaki restaurant up on the 4th floor. This was a grill-in-table, cook-your-own restaurant with very tasty okonomiyaki. (Not quite as I recall from when I lived in Kansai, but still very tasty). From there, we took the train to the next station (Bashamichi), hoping to find a place for fruit sandwiches. Having no luck in finding what Lisa was looking for, we ended up buying some food for the next morning at LINCOS, a very nice little grocery store nearby. From there, we took the train back to our station (Nihon-odori). We rested at the hotel for a bit (after that long bit of walking), and went to the Yokohama Chinatown, where we had a nice Chinese dinner at a more-or-less randomly selected restaurant.
Sunday morning, we ate the food we had bought, checked out, and took the train to Haneda Airport. At Haneda, we turned in the wifi router and checked in for our flight. We walked around inside the terminal once we were through security. I must have looked tired and old, because an old driver saw us and offered to take us to our gate on his two-seated transport. It was a very interesting way to end our time in Japan, riding in the back two seats of a little three-seated car, ice cream truck-style music playing, with children gaping and old people looking envious as we were driven to our gate (which was actually fairly far away). My body was absolutely wiped out from those two days' activities, so I was quite grateful for the ride.
As we flew out of Haneda, we were able to see Fuji in the distance--our first and last view of the iconic mountain.