Wonders of Japan Trip Log May 30 - June 12, 2019

Wonders of Japan Trip Log May 30 - June 12, 2019
June 2019

Thursday, May 30: Arrive Osaka, Japan

Today we arrived at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kyoto and after checking in we made our way to the A&K hospitality desk where we received a warm welcome, information on activities for the next day and a delicious selection of drinks and Japanese canapes. It was then time for an evening out on the town or a quiet dinner in one of the many local restaurants before retiring for the night to try catch up on some well needed sleep.

Friday, May 31: Kyoto

 A good breakfast in the Garden room saw us strong and ready to start out for our adventures in Kyoto. With three great tours to choose from Best of Kyoto, Best of Nara or the Uji Tea experience, there was something for everyone. 

Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) Here we saw the magnificence of a building smothered in gold leaf. In 1955 this 3-story pavilion was lovingly restored to its original spender after it was burned to the ground. The Golden Pavilion and the lavish gardens seemed the perfect introduction to the culture, history, and beauty of this wonderful island nation we are about to explore.

Tenryuji Temple. Nestled on the slope of the Aradhiyama district. Beautiful and peaceful, this temple set the perfect stage for our first encounter with a Zen Buddhist. We were blessed with a talk on Zen Buddhism. Thomas Yuho Kirchner’s inspiring words reminded us to take time and ‘be in the moment’ try not to let our thoughts wander on ahead or into past, instead to sit and be still and enjoy the now.

Lunch was an experience. The true Buddhist vegetarian ensemble presented to us was a first for most. The different textures and flavours that seemed to dance over your tongue and fill your mouth were exciting, fresh and perhaps strange. A unique meal which had people talking long into the afternoon. 

Nijo Castle. This historical landmark greeted us with an imposing gateway magnificently decorated in gold and intricate wood carvings. Here we had an opportunity to see the ornate audience halls of Ninomaru Palace. Taking in the sights and the subtle squeaking of what is known as the ‘Nightingale walkways’, which gave us a feeling of a place paused in time just long enough for us to experience a moment in history. 

The Best of Nara Tour featured two extraordinary Buddhist temples representing the formative years of Buddhism in Japan. Both are distinguished as UNESCO Heritage Sites. The Horyu-ji, established in 607 by Prince Shotoku Taishi, boasts the oldest wooden pagoda in the country. The Todai-ji, the Great Eastern Temple, founded by Emperor Shomu in 738, is dominated by the largest wooden building in Japan. The masterpieces of sculpture in both complexes demonstrate the artistry in bronze, wood, and clay during the early, experimental years of Buddhism. The Daibutsu sculpture, 49- feet tall, was a monumental achievement created over a decade. Priests and dignitaries throughout Asian travelled to Nara, Japan in 752 for the eye-opening ceremony of the Great Buddha. Enthusiastic school youth sporting colourful caps and curious, young deer greeted us on the path to the Great Buddha Hall. 

After a short drive from Kyoto south to Uji, we learned the proper way to brew sencha tea for optimum taste. The procedure involved several steps all geared toward keeping the temperature of the water below boiling to preserve the fresh taste of the leaves. We also learned how powdered tea is made by manually grinding the tea leaves ourselves to produce the special fine, brilliant green powdered tea called matcha, used in the Tea Ceremony. We then whisked this into a froth in a large tea bowl and drank it with special Japanese sweets. After a delicious lunch in the kaiseki style, we toured the Byoudou-in Temple, built in the mid-11th-century in the shape of a bird with outstretched wings, and visited the treasure hall museum where rare sculptures and paintings that once covered the interior walls of the temple are preserved. 

Following the sights and sounds of Kyoto, it was lovely to return to the hotel and get ready for the welcome reception. This was a great opportunity to meet the rest of the guests and chat about the day.

 Saturday, June 1: Osaka

Breakfast, handing in passports, a morning walk, then onwards to our home for the rest of the voyage, our ship, 'Le Soleal'. 

We left our hotel in small groups for our guided walking tour of the Jsanjusangen-do temple. This temple was situated across the road from our hotel. The wonderful building was a sight to see from the outside but surprisingly it is what was contained on the inside that astounded us. One thousand wood carved life-sized statues standing in perfect rows within the active temple was an amazing sight and once again we find ourselves standing in awe of what people can accomplish. 

After another wonderful lunch, our buses were waiting outside the hotel to transfer us to 'Le Soleal'. On the way, we had the opportunity to visit the world-famous Expo Park gardens. 

All aboard and time to unpack into our cabins, our home for the next part of our journey. We were greeted by the lively staff and crew and with a refreshing cocktail in hand, we set off exploring the ship. 

A lifeboat drill, first onboard dinner, and more cocktails saw us into the night where we spoke to fellow passengers and made new friends. Next stop Takamatsu.

Sunday, June 2: Takamatsu 

The first group for the day started off by taking a fast ferry from 'Le Soleal’s' neighbouring pier to the island of Shodoshima. This is situated to the Northwest of Takamatsu. We Then boarded two buses for a ride through the island countryside which included traditional Japanese houses and olive groves – the climate here is drier than other parts of Japan allowing for these small olive groves to flourish. Our destination was Kankakei Gorge ropeway, which is a cable car system that travels approximately 1000 feet (300m) up to a lookout. After enjoying some time at the top with wonderful views and considerably cooler air, we were ready to start our hike through the vibrant green forest. The rock formations here are volcanic in origin and this creates outcrops which have been given names by the locals – such as ‘the chick’. The forest is home to a variety of animals and many bird species, and we heard the delightful call of the Japanese warbler. 

After a traditional Japanese lunch at a small hotel, we visited a soy sauce factory – famous in Japan cuisine. This particular factory is currently owned by the fifth generation of a family. It takes over two years to create and brew the perfect soy sauce in a traditional manner. The delightful and welcoming owners then showed us through their personal garden and house next door which allowed us an insight into what a Japanese home looks like. 

A short fast ferry ride took us back to Takmatsu in time to wander along the waterfront back to 'Le Soleal'.

Today we enjoyed an entire day on Naoshima, the famous Art Island of Japan. After a water taxi ride to Miyanoura Port from Takamatsu to Naoshima, where we were greeted by Kusama Yayoi’s large Red Pumpkin, a bus took us from the port to the Benesse Art Site where we began our tour at the Chichu Museum, designed by Tadao Ando. Inside were amazing site-specific installations by James Turrell and the late Walter de Maria, and a room entirely devoted to a series of Monet’s late water lilies. From the Chichu we continued onto the Benesse Art Museum to enjoy an outstanding collection of international contemporary art including works by Jennifer Bartlett and Bruce Nauman along with Japanese artists Hiroshi Sugimoto and Shinro Ohtake. Following lunch, at the Benesse House Terrace Restaurant we toured the beach sculptures by Kiki de Saint Phalle and drove to the Honmura Art House Area where we visited several installations including the mysterious Minamidera designed by Ando and housing a dark/light Turrell “experience” entitled “The Dark Side of the Moon. After visiting the only Ando-designed public toilet in the world, we returned, both enlightened and relieved to Takamatsu. 

Takamatsu’s gravelly granite soils and low rainfall make it an ideal place for pine trees to grow. Indeed, the name Takamatsu means ‘Tall Pines’. So perhaps it is no surprise that our Best of Takamatsu tour involved lots of pine trees. 

Ritsurin Garden, established in 1625 and completed almost a hundred years later, is famous for its thousand pine trees. The pines are ingeniously trained by specialist niwashi gardeners, to give them the appearance of a giant, ancient trees, whilst keeping them at eight or nine feet in height. At the heart of this impeccable strolling garden lies the Kikugetsutei tea house, or ‘moon scooping pavilion’, fashioned like a barge floating on the ornamental pond, where guests to autumn moon viewings can ‘scoop the moon’ - or at least its reflection - from the water. Some of us were lucky enough to witness a Japanese wedding taking place here at the tea house.

We were then off in the bus for a short trip to the nearby town of Kinashi which boasts a very different kind of pine tree. It is responsible for producing 80 percent of Japan’s pine bonsai. We visited the nurseries of two fourth-generation bonsai masters, Mr. Nakanishi, and Mr. Kandaka, where we saw hundreds of miniature trees at every stage of production, from young trees rowed out in the field to grow on, to decades-old masterpieces valued at several thousand dollars each. 

Lunch on board 'Le Soleal' with the special being udon noodles, then a leisurely stroll or shuttle service to explore the harbor and its surrounds. 

18H00 saw us gather for a quick briefing with Suzana Before our Captains Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party. Thank you, Captain. Tonight, we sail for Hiroshima.

Monday, June 3: Hiroshima & Miyajima

This morning, we boarded the bus at 8:30 a.m. and drove through the bustling streets of Hiroshima to the Peace Park and Memorial. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Our expert Japanese guides described the 6th of August 1945, the day that Hiroshima was destroyed by the Atomic bomb, as a horror that started out as a gorgeous day like today. Impossible to imagine. Through the photographic record and the display of artefacts in the museum, we could see the incredible and unspeakable damage inflicted by atomic weapons on human bodies, hearts, and minds. No matter how many times one visits Hiroshima, it is a sobering experience and leaves all of us with reflections on war and peace.

Lunch was waiting for us onboard 'Le Soléal', after filling our bellies and gaining some energy, it was back on our luxury buses to meet our fast ferry which would take us to Miyajima. Once there, we walked through the orange halls of Itsukushima Shintō shrine, with its iconic torii gate standing in splendid isolation in the sea beyond. Our final sightseeing destination was the idiosyncratic Daishoin Buddhist temple, full of quirky statues of Buddhist saints, each with a knitted cap atop his head.

The afternoon was spent shopping in the local market for those curios sampling green tea ice-cream and tasting the local delicacy, oysters. Miyajima has many inquisitive local deer and some found themselves inadvertently sharing their snacks with these wonderful creatures.

The name and the city evoke the unforgettable event of August 6, 1945, when the first Atomic Bomb was dropped from an American B-29 on Hiroshima in an effort to hasten the end of WWII in the Pacific Theatre. A major, modern bustling city has since sprung like a phoenix from the ashes.

Our first stop was a peaceful visit to the Shukkei-en, a carefully restored Edo-era strolling garden, followed by a visit to Hiroshima Castle, also restored, to learn about samurai life in a 17th-Century castle town. After lunch we walked through the Peace Memorial Park, designed by award-winning Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, taking in an Eternal Flame that will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons are eliminated, a cenotaph dedicated to the all the dead at Hiroshima, and a monument to Sadako of the 1000 Cranes, a young athletic survivor who sadly succumbed to leukemia in 1955. From there we had the very rare opportunity to hear the moving and thought-provoking testimony of Mrs. Ogura, a hibakusha, or A-bomb survivor, who was 8 yrs old at the time. We ended our visit to Hiroshima at the Peace Memorial Museum with a sobering walk through the historical displays of archival materials and post-blast photographs of the effects and after-effects of the use of nuclear weapons, which left us with much to think about. 

This morning, we boarded the ferry for a short trip from Hiroshima to the sacred island of Miyajima. As we approached the island, the gigantic red torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine came into view, seemingly floating on the water of the bay. This huge torii is one of the most famous sights in all Japan; so famous it even has its own smartphone emoji! 

After arriving on the island, we inspected Itsukushima Shrine, built in the shallow water of the bay rather than on the land itself, since the island was once considered so sacred that even a shrine would desecrate its sanctity. 

A short walk up the hill brought us to Daisho Buddhist Temple. This temple is charmingly quirky, featuring dozens of small jizo statues, many sporting brightly coloured beanies knitted by devotees of the temple, to keep their bald heads warm. 

We enjoyed a traditional Japanese lunch at a local restaurant before heading to the summit of Mt Misen, the highest peak on Miyajima at 535m above sea level. We caught a series of gondolas high into the mountains, then ascended the summit on foot, but not before tasting tea brewed over a flame which has been alight for 1,200 years at the Buddhist temple situated just beneath the peak of the holy mountain.

It was then time to head off again and board the high-speed Ferry back to Hiroshima and then a quick bus ride to 'Le Soléal' where we were rewarded by a truly energetic performance of the Hiroshima Junior Marimba Ensemble. Their music, energy and smiling faces made sure everyone who attended the performance was left in awe of these young musicians. What a treat! 

The evening recap and briefing showed us there is more to mobile phone photography than meets the eye. Thank you, Richard. Marjorie’s passion for Japanese history and art left us wanting for more and our Expedition Director Suzanna, briefed us on the schedule, excursions, and shoes on or off for tomorrows landing in Karatsu. 

A wonderful dinner and a nightcap was a great way to end this beautiful day and see us rest for tomorrow’s adventures. Good night

Tuesday, June 4: Karatsu

We had a sleep-in this morning and woke to the gentle rocking of ‘Le Soléal’. After breakfast, we had time to reflect on our journey thus far and can’t believe we have only been sailing for three nights. We have achieved so much in Japan already and are looking forward to the treasures still to be discovered.

This morning Richard Harker, A&K’s resident photo coach, gave his lecture, “Photographing Japan: Capturing Eastern Aesthetics & Culture.” Showing many beautiful photos from previous Wonders of Japan cruises, Richard spoke about ways to reflect Japanese culture and traditions in our photos. Guests left the lecture better understanding of how to photograph the many destinations we are sailing towards. 

Our Culture Lecturer Marjorie Williams Gave an astounding talk entitled “Capturing Japan: A Study in Eastern Aesthetics”. This was Met with much enthusiasm and added to our growing knowledge of the history of this-this beautiful land. 

An early lunch, then off on the buses for our next adventure discovering Karatsu. As we headed down the gangway, we were met by the local people of Karatsu who put on a wonderful welcome for us. The atmosphere was electric as many more people filed into the harbor in anticipation of our arrival. 

Driving just a few minutes from the port, we visited Karatsu castle. The towering white castle was built in samurai times as a siege refuge for the ruling family, and it is still the most imposing building in this charming seaside town today. The castle holds a historical museum telling the story of Karatsu’s samurai past and boasts magnificent views over the surrounding area.

We went on to the Karatsu Kunchi Festival museum, which contains the gigantic, elaborate floats which have been pulled through the streets of Karatsu as part of a Shintō celebration every November since the 17th century. The floats are brightly painted and gilded in the image of mythological beasts and samurai helmets. Later, some visited the Karatsu jinja Shintō shrine, next door, before traveling to our final destination. 

The Takatori house was formerly the home of Taketori Koreyoshi, a wealthy coal magnate during the Meiji period. The exquisitely preserved house contains all the classic elements of a Japanese house, as well as several western features, such as a grand piano, glass windows, and a fireplace, perfectly capturing that era of rapid modernization in Japan. 

The afternoon was spent in Karatsu. Kyushu, an ancient city that frequently welcomed travellers from China and Korea. The afternoon excursions introduced the traditional arts of puppetry, tea ceremony, and Karatsu-yaki or stoneware ceramics. 

The adventure began with a demonstration of the traditional tea ceremony at the Kinshoji Temple. We drank green tea from finely potted Karatsu and Hagi tea bowls in a room embraced by gardens. The freshness of the flavour and delicate scent, as well as the welcoming presence of the Zen monk and tea hosts, brighten moods. The dry landscape garden at the temple’s entrance was raked in circular patterns, evoking the eternal movement of water and life. 

The performance of the Joruri puppets at Yoyo Kaku provided a special opportunity to understand the intricate collaboration of artists and musicians. Three puppeteers manipulated one doll whose nuanced movements evoke expressions of sadness, happiness, love, and loss. The real star was a narrator who expertly sang the role of each character, changing her voice from that of a young girl to a mature woman while conveying the story, A Young Pilgrim Otsuru. Her daughter accompanied her on the shamisen. The entire troupe will travel to New York on June 22 for performances. Bunraku puppets, popular in 18th century Edo, grew out of the Joruri puppet tradition. 

Karatsu ceramics are famous for their grey-coloured clay forms accented with painted brown motifs or stamped with floral designs and filled-in with a white slip. The Karatsu potter Nakazato Taroemon was designated one of Japan’s Living National Treasures for his artistry and continuing this traditional art. We visited his kilns that are fired to produce stoneware cups and bowels. His family has lived and worked in this location for 250 years. The multi-chambered kilns are built on an incline, so the upper chambers achieve the hottest temperatures. Red pine wood, imported from Okayama, fuels the kiln. A single firing takes three-days to complete. The three kilns are every month throughout the year. The kilns are among the oldest in Kyushu. 

Karatsu is famous for the quality of its green tea. We were shown the tea plantations in the mountains above the city. Neat rows of brilliant green shrubs awaited harvest, some of them covered with black shade cloth to produce the very highest grades of tea. We were given a demonstration of how to harvest the fresh green leaf tips and then set loose in the rows to pick a basket of our own. We were made a snack of fresh tea shoot tempura, seasoned with green tea salt, and sent on our way with a smile and a wave.

Tea masters have long favoured the rustic Karatsu-yaki stoneware produced in the kilns of this region. What looked drab, uneven and primitive to untrained our eyes, soon became something of beauty and value under the tutelage of several generations of Karatsu-yaki potters, who kindly schooled us in the subtle features of their wares, fired in the mud and straw walk-in kiln that has been in operation for over two hundred years. This was Japanese wabisabi at its most beautiful. 

Returning back to the port was just as festive as when we first arrived and as we climbed the gangway, we were sent off by the sound of traditional drummers beating a heart-thumping rhythm as we set sail for South Korea.

 Wednesday, June 5: Gyeongju, South Korea

From the modern industrial port city of Ulsan, we drove back in time to Korea’s ancient Silla dynasty capital city of Gyeongju. In its heyday, Gyeongju was ranked along with Baghdad, Xian, and Constantinople as one the four most populous cities in the world, the furthest eastern point of the silk route. Yet it still astounds us to see Roman glass dug up from Gyeongju’s archaeological sites, a symbol of the prestige and sophistication of the ancient city.

The sixth century Bulguksa Temple was the first stop on today’s itinerary. This UNESCO world heritage-listed structure houses several golden Buddhas, but the brightly painted timbers of the temple buildings themselves almost surpass their beauty. Turquoise blue, red and green curlicues cover every square inch of the building, making for a very colourful change of scenery from the muted brown temples of Japan.

After a generous buffet lunch of Korean, Chinese and Western cuisine, we were graced by local traditional performers who danced ever so gracefully, followed by drummers who seemed to tell a story through movement while beating a pleasant rhythmic beat. And then on to our next destination.

The precious artefacts excavated from the burial mounds are housed at the Gyeongju National Museum. Here we were able to view at close quarters the exquisitely crafted gold and jade jewellery of the Silla dynasty, along with more everyday items such as food utensils and weapons. We learned the history of this astounding city; from Neolithic times to the adoption of Buddhism and Chinese writing system, until its zenith in the eighth century, when Gyeongju became one of the four largest cities in the world along with Baghdad, Constantinople, and Xian.

Tumuli Park contains the funeral mounds of Silla royalty. Not all of the dome-shaped, grass-covered tombs have been opened, but those that have, have revealed treasures of exquisite beauty. Elaborate golden crowns, belts, and shoes, festooned with jade commas; and all the accoutrements needed for the afterlife have been found. We went inside the Flying Horse tomb, which is open to the public, to see how the artefacts were interred, before visiting National Museum where we could get close to the original pieces and appreciate their fine craftsmanship.

There is certainly a sense of expectation when touring to The Hyundai Motor Factory. Little would one expect the gigantic monster this factory is. A never-ending, small town, with restaurants, avenues, streets and brand new cars (literally, just “baked” in the factory’s “oven”) zooming around to get to their proper location: from parking lots for the local market, to massive container ships where they would load up to 6,000 cars to be sent to the Americas, Australia, Europe, and other Asian countries.

Back on board ‘Le Soléal’. “Japan is the Centre of the World” was the title of Dr. McDonald’s overview of Japanese cultural history from Neolithic to just before Commodore Perry arrived in Japan in 1853. Professor McDonald suggested that the history of Japan can be seen as an exercise in “selective adoption” of foreign culture, beginning with China and Korea and including Europe in the 16th century, and “practical adaptation” of these cultures that result in forms that are always completely and uniquely Japanese. Once again, a magnificent dinner and a few cocktails saw us ready for bed as we sail onwards returning to Japan for our next port of call in Sakaiminato.

Thursday, June 6: Matsue, Japan

We woke this morning to the wonderful city of Sakaiminato. With a quick pass through Japanese immigration, we were loaded on to our luxury buses bound for the various destinations our tours would take us. Yuushien garden lies on the island of Daikonshima - ‘Radish Island’. But it is not radishes which are grown on this island, but two highly esteemed crops: Ginseng and Peonies.

Ginseng is a herb prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Its forked roots can look like human figures, complete with arms and legs. Unlike radishes, ginseng roots take many years to grow, and the finest specimens change hands for thousands of dollars. Tree peonies were also brought into gardens for their medicinal roots. The wild varieties have plain white flowers. However, rare specimens with pink, red, purple or double flowers were taken from the fields to plant in ornamental gardens. Daikonshima has been a major peony growing centre for many years, and Yuushien garden is considered to be the finest tree peony garden in Japan. Although the peonies in the main garden finished flowering a month ago, we were treated to peonies in magnificent bloom inside a special climate controlled house, where their exquisite, shot-silk petals can be appreciated up close.

Following our delightful time at the Yushien Peony Garden, we enjoyed a short ride on the bus before arriving at the fascinating Mizuki Shigeru Road back in Sakaiminato. The street is dedicated to the hugely popular Japanese manga artist Mizuki Shigeru and his beloved series GeGeGe No Kitaro which features the adventures of the one-eyed yokai or supernatural monster Kitaro and his spirit friends. The street is lined on both sides with granite and bronze sculptures featuring the many different and well-known yokai from the series. Although most of us were unfamiliar with this anime series, it did not lessen our enjoyment of taking photographs of these characterful sculptures. The street also offered several souvenir shops and cafes featuring the ever popular Kitaro heroes from cookies to chocolates and tee shirts to tenugui – the small cotton towels so favoured by the Japanese. As we drove up to our next point of interest we noticed the magnificent and imposing structure thrust up from the earth and awaiting our arrival. Matsue Castle. This National treasure is one of 12 remaining castle towers in all of Japan. Of the 12, this is the second largest and third tallest.

“Matsue Castle stands on the summit of its citadel hill – Oshiroyma- solid as when first built long centuries ago, a vast and sinister shape, all iron-gray, rising against the sky from a cyclopean foundation of stone”.

The castle was built in 1611 by Horio Yoshiharu, who took five years to complete. 1607 – 1611. The castle is an example of a practical fortress, or a watchtower rather than a castle residence.

Today’s excursion featured the Adachi Museum that celebrates the art of gardens and the art of painting and ceramics. Established by Zenko Adachi (1899-1990), the museum epitomizes his passion for landscape gardens and the work of the great artists of the early 20th century. A garden for all seasons and times, the gardens embrace the museums. Viewing points within the museum offer strategic perspectives of The Dry Landscape Garden; The White Pine and Gravel Garden; The Moss Garden and the Pond Garden. The viewing of the garden prepares visitors for a more receptive viewing of the nuances of Japanese paintings—the compositions, delicate colours, and themes that evoke seasons, birds and flowers, mountains. Beautiful places populated with narratives that connect to a timeless life. Foremost among the collection of early modern artists are the works of Yokoyama Taikan who received the first order of the Cultural Merit Medal in 1937.

In the afternoon, we experienced one of the oldest artistic traditions in Japan-the art of papermaking. Washi, Japanese paper, is greatly desired by contemporary artists around the world. Eishiro (1902-1984), a paper artisan, was named a living national treasure in 1968 for his artistry in developing gampi papermaking. Abe was a member of the Mingei, folk art movement, started by Sosetsu Yanagi in the early 20th century. His son and grandson continue his legacy in his workshop, located in the old province of Izumo. We had the opportunity to make small pieces of paper in his workshop and strolled through streets lined with rice paddies and traditional architecture. Another wonderful day packed with sights, sounds and tastes, saw us heading back on the luxury buses to our ship.

Today’s enrichment lecture onboard was given by our wonderful resident Botanist, Simon Rickard, and his talk on” An Introduction to Japanese Gardens: Their history and Appreciation”. “Metropolitan” was the high energy show we were treated to tonight by the very talented ‘Le Soléal’ dancers. This was enjoyed by all who came to the theatre for a song and dance spectacular.

Another good nights sleep to all awakens, in yet again, another magical part of this wondrous land. See you in Kanazawa.

Friday and Saturday, June 7-8: Kanazawa

Two days in which to discover and explore the rich and varied opportunities Kanazawa has to offer.

Traveling an hour inland from Kanazawa by coach, we arrived at the scenic hot springs resort town of Yamanaka, whose name means ‘in the middle of the mountains’. Surrounded on all sides by forest-covered mountains, we descended into Kakusenkei gorge to hike along the river bank. The rain did not dampen our spirits as we walked among graceful Japanese maples.

At the end of our walk, we entered the onsen, a traditional Japanese bathhouse, where the men and women went their separate ways to sit like satisfied snow monkeys in the natural hot spring water, looking out of the mountain tops, with modesty towels folded on top of our heads.

Lunch was served upstairs in the onsen, where we barbecued our own beef and vegetables, as the staff brought course after course of dainty Japanese fare. And by the time we came back outside the rain had stopped and sunshine was upon us. The rest of our afternoon was spent wandering the charming village of Yamanaka with several craft shops with pottery, laquerware and wood items. It was a delightful day in a more rural area of Japan.

The remote mountainous district of Shirakawa-go is best known for farmhouses in the thatched gassho-zukuri (thick-thatched roof) style. These rustic and lovely houses form part of the traditional dwellings of Japanese homes. With a beautiful hour drive from the port, we headed towards the magnificent mountains which slowly revealed themselves as we drew closer. On the way, we passed by many rice paddy farms where young plants have taken root ready to mature for the coming season.

The quaint village set in a valley surrounded by lush mountains covered in the most wonderful forests of Cedar and other gorgeous Japanese trees could have been a picture from a storybook. The light rain did not stop us or the local inhabitants as they went about their daily business whilst we walked the streets getting a glimpse of life in a farm village.

The largest home (Wadake) was open for us to tour, here we saw a very neat, sparsely decorated well-organized house where people still live in today.

After a traditional lunch in a local restaurant, we continued to a lookout point where we could see and take in the entirety of the farmhouse village. A beautiful day spent out in the country and forests of Kanazawa.

Our morning included a walk around the fascinating, city-centre covered market at Omicho. Predominately featuring all manner of seafood and vegetables, this was a photographers’ paradise, with each stall-keeper having presented their wares in immaculate style. A gentle stroll around the market, with the local shoppers, and with the guides explaining the wide variety of products available, this proved to be a very enjoyable exposure to a side of Japan that we hadn’t seen before.

Continuing within the city, we next visited, the traditional heart of the ‘geisha’ community in Kanazawa laid out in the early 19th century. With narrow streets, traditional building methods, low entrance doors and the chance to enter a ‘geisha’ establishments. The unusual and unique gold-leaf covered ice-cream proved to be too difficult to resist and was enjoyed by many. It is not too difficult to picture just how bustling the area would have been in its heyday.

Considered to be one of the top three gardens in Japan, Kenrokuen’s name translates as ‘garden of six attributes. It is one of only a handful of gardens which has all six of the attributes considered necessary for a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses, and vistas.

We experienced the first rain for our trip while in Kanazawa, but Kenrokuen garden looked all the more vibrant in the rain, and visitors’ colourful umbrellas made for beautiful photographs against the glistening greenery of the garden.

We also enjoyed a delightful tea ceremony performed at the Gyokusen’an Tea Room located in a private corner of the Kanazawa Castle Park.

The following morning, we returned to the city centre for our final visits. The first of them proved to be great fun as we all took our seats. We were then shown the process of decorating with gold leaf. After painstaking concentration, we added the adhesive which was left to ‘set’ for about 8 minutes and then the gold leaf was pressed into place, gently - not too firm. Nervously we waited to see just how good (or not!) our efforts had been. We were all congratulated by our Japanese ‘teachers’ and now have a souvenir that we made ourselves.

Next, we were off to a pottery studio, now being run by the fifth generation of the same founding family. The owner showed us around and then demonstrated the process of ‘throwing’ pots on the wheel. The owner's passion and enthusiasm just emphasized how valuable these traditional craft skills still are.

With the visits complete, a number of guests were dropped off in the city centre for some final independent wanderings at the end of an extremely enjoyable call to the city of Kanazawa.

On board, after our respective activities, we were delighted to meet the players of the Kabuki Performance. They took to the stage and we enjoyed a traditional performance of song and dance, with a modern twist adding colourful lights and a bit of Queen Rock. This unique performance griped us from the start and we were totally entertained. An absolute treat!

The rest of the night was ours to explore, visit a local restaurant, or wander the streets and a frequent shuttle was provided to ferry us to town and back to our comfortable ship, ‘Le Soléal’.

A wonderful recap of the last two days adventures, dinner, cocktails and then to bed for our next port of call. Ogi, Sado-Ga-Shima.

 Saturday, June 9: Sado-ga-shima

This morning we anchored off the port of Ogi in Sado. It was a magnificent day with blue skies and calm seas. Then it was time to board the tender for the short trip to shore.

The ship tender was lowered into the water as we made our way to the main lounge where we were escorted downstairs to the pontoon at the back of the ship. With many hands ready to assist us, we climbed into the tender and headed for the shore. It was a rather fun ride and a unique way to travel. We all arrived safely to a warm welcome from the locals, greeting us with song and dance.

We headed for Ogi Folk Museum, this former schoolhouse was saved from demolition to take up a new life as a folk museum, here we had an opportunity to see all manner of Sado's cultural artefacts. A life-size replica of a 19th-century sengokubune (wooden freight ship) was also on display. This impressive wooden ship was used to cart sake and rice among other things to other parts of Japan.

A short walk across the road we were kindly invited to a rice paddy farm owned by a local, Mr. Aoki San. There we witnessed two women weeding the rice paddies by hand. She explained the process by which to grow and care for this miracle crop.

The highlight for most was our next stop. The home of the world-famous Kodo drummers. Nothing could have prepared us for the beat we were about to feel. The word drummers do not do this musical wonder justice. It was quite an experience. We were drawn in on the first beat and held captive by the intricate rhythms as the performance took us on a body rattling roller-coaster ride following the heartbeat of the island. WOW! The thunderous applause and standing ovation was a show of just how much we enjoyed this spectacular event.

It was all smiles as we headed back to the harbor to say farewell to the locals who offered gifts of music, dancing, paper cranes and Japanese sweets.

After lunch onboard, we set sail for Noshiro and while at sea we enjoyed lectures from Simon Rickard ‘Appreciating Bonsi’ and Marjorie Williams spoke of ‘Shinto: The way of the Gods’.

Then in the early evening, a relaxing cocktail brought us together in the theatre for the daily recap and briefing, where Suzanna explained the procedure for the next part of our adventure. Dinner followed then a stunning classical piano recital by our extremely talented pianist, Elena Koreneva.

Overall, truly stunning day in Japan and it’s not over yet.

Monday, June 10: Noshiro/Aomori 

This morning we awoke to the melodic sound of Suzanna’s voice as she greeted us in our cabins for an early wakeup call, informing us of our departures times for our full day excursion from Noshiro.

Noshiro is located in the Akita prefecture, in the far north of Honshu. This is a remote part of Japan, rarely visited by foreign visitors, although many people know the word ‘Akita’ as the name of the breed of Spitz dog originating in this region.

After a scenic ride from the Port of Noshiro, this excursion began with a nature walk through the Juniko (12 Lakes) region of Akita and Aomori Prefectures. We were joined by Mr. Aoyama, a local expert nature guide who showed us multiple varieties of flora along the path, different kinds of trees and plants, and explained how they were used in traditional Japanese medicine and carpentry. A several-course lunch at a local restaurant was followed by a relaxing hot-springs bath and apple-flavored ice cream, a regional specialty. On our way to meet Le Soléal, which was scheduled to reach Aomori at the same time as our overland treck, we visited a Sumo Museum and were introduced to the remarkable career of Mainoumi Shuhei, a local Sumo Champion from Aomori, who retired, at the rank of Komusubi, in 1994.

There are no rivers feeding into Lake Towada, and only one river going out from it. The Oirase trail follows the path of the river which drains Lake Towada. We walked through the ridiculously lush, rich forest, knee deep in ferns and woodland plants familiar to gardeners - Rodgersias, Petasites and Arisaemas - under a canopy of giant Katsura trees, beech, and Rowan. Here and there a little waterfall would reveal itself for a photo opportunity.

As we left to drive to the port of Aomori, whose name means blue-green forest, we climbed to 1000m above sea level, where there was still snow 1 meter deep in places. Fields of white Japanese skunk cabbages bloomed in the melting snow, in clearings between stunted birch and Ezo spruce. A wonderful sight for nature lovers.

The first part of this tour saw us driving through the lush vegetation densely populated with magnificent trees. The road meandered over hills and through valleys as we drove from tunnel to tunnel towards our first stop in Kitaakita City, the home of the world’s largest drum the ‘Tsuzureko Odaiko’. Measuring 3.71m (10.6 feet) in diameter, 4.32m (12.34 feet) in length, and weighing approximately four tons. This is a big drum! After an impromptu demonstration, we were then back in the buses heading for Lake Towada viewing point before heading down to the shoreline for a delicious lunch.

With bellies full and a few minutes to walk the garden and relax in this scenic location, we were off on our way to board a sightseeing boat for a pleasant cruise around Lake Towada. This lake sits at the top of a 400-meter-high mountain on the border between Aomori and Akita. The lake is a dual crater lake that was formed by the caving in of a volcano mouth formed by a giant eruption. With a depth of 327 meters, the lake is the third deepest in Japan. The water is so translucent that you can see into it for 10 meters.

Once onboard ‘Le Soléal’ we had a bit of time to shower and change before heading up to the theatre for the captain’s farewell cocktail party. On a ship this size, you can easily forget the number of staff and crew who are around to cater for our every need and it was truly wonderful to see all the players come together as our cruise director, Pau Carter, invited them all to the stage where we had a moment to thank them.

Another delicious dinner and a few more drinks saw us ready for bed and excited for our final excursion tomorrow. Otaru.

Tuesday, June 11: Otaru

The morning was spent at sea. We were very fortunate to be accompanied into the port of Otaru by a pod of approximately one hundred white-sided Pacific Dolphins. These majestic animals were entertaining us with energetic bursts of leaping out of the water and seemed to be posing, while everyone took the most amazing pictures. They stayed with the ship for about 15 minutes before heading out to sea again.

Mount Tengu overlooks the city of Otaru. It gets its name from the tengu, a popular goblin-like creature with a grimacing red face and a long, pointy nose. Look in your smartphone and you will find he even has his own emoji!

A pleasant gondola ride to the top of the mountain gave us panoramic views of the city and the harbor where 'Le Soléal' is moored. We visited the Tengu museum, which displays scores of Tengu masks from around Japan on its walls. Outside, the Tengu shrine sits surrounded by birch and oak forest, abuzz with cicadas. Many of our guests enjoyed feeding the chipmunks kept in an outdoor enclosure nearby.

Upon descent, we visited the historical canal street of Otaru, once the busiest city in Hokkaidō. The canal is lined with western-style warehouses made of stone, bustling with locals and tourists enjoying the region’s famous patisserie, seafood, and cut glass.

We took a gondola up to the top of Mount Tengu, named after the Japanese mythical creature with a grimacing red face and long, pointy nose. We visited the Tengu museum, which displays scores of Tengu masks from around Japan on its walls. Afterward, we took a short nature stroll around the summit area, covered with birch and oak forest, and even the remnants of the thick snow, which covers this area for half the year. Our younger passengers even found time to feed the chipmunks kept in an outdoor enclosure here.

Upon descent, we visited the historical canal street of Otaru, once the busiest city in Hokkaidō. The canal is lined with western-style warehouses made of stone and is now a cheery street bustling with locals and tourists eager to buy the region’s famous patisserie, seafood, and cut glass.

We disembarked this afternoon to explore Otaru’s glassmaking industry, here we walked along the streets visiting various shops and stopping to buy (more!) ice-cream. It was then time to gather together for a short drive down the road to a Sake brewery, here we had the opportunity to see how this unique drink is brewed and taste the final product. A unique experience for some while others really enjoyed the taste.

The Herring Mansion was our next stop. This magnificent effluent home was truly spectacular, and you can only imagine the lavish parties and gatherings this home must have seen before it was sold and re-purposed as a place for visitors to enjoy a glimpse of the history that surrounds the fishing industry.

We were then entertained, once again, by the locals who greeted us back onboard as we returned for our final voyage recap and a ‘look back’ on this amazing voyage of discovery we have shared together.

As they say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and this was certainly true as Black Jack (Richard) gave us a memorable photo recap of our journey of exploration as we look back on The Wonders of Japan.

Now time to pack, the last drink and then a good night sleep for an early wake-up call tomorrow morning as we all get ourselves ready for departure.