Archive for May, 2017


We had issues uploading the photos from Hiroshima Peace Park and Miyajima last night, but they are all there now.

Tuesday 30 May Hiroshima and Miyajima

We arrived in Hiroshima this morning and after a lovely breakfast out on the Lido Deck, we disembarked the ship and two buses drove us through the city centre, past the Castle Moat, to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (Hiroshima Heiwa Kinen Kōen) in the centre of Hiroshima. It is dedicated to the legacy of Hiroshima as the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack, and to the memories of the bomb’s direct and indirect victims.
At 8.15am on 6 August 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb (“Little Boy”) on Hiroshima in Japan. Three days later a second atomic bomb (“Fat Man”) was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. These were the only times nuclear weapons have been used in war.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was planned and designed by the Japanese Architect Kenzo Tange. The location of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was once the city’s busiest downtown commercial and residential district, which was obviously why it was chosen as the site for the nuclear bomb. The park was built on an open field that was created by the explosion. Today there are a number of memorials and monuments, museums, and lecture halls.
Our first stop on our walking tour was at the Atomic Bomb Dome, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, which is what remains of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The building served as a location to promote Hiroshima’s industries. When the bomb exploded, it was one of the few buildings to remain standing (partly), and remains so today. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Atomic Bomb Dome is a moving link to Hiroshima’s unique past.
From there we saw the “Console the Souls” Rock, the Motoyasu-bashi bridge, which was the original target, the Peace Clock Tower and the Peace Bell. We were very moved by the Children’s Peace Memorial, where there is a sea of color thanks to the thousands of folded paper origami cranes, a symbol of longevity and happiness. There is also a monument there in memory of Sadako Sasaki, a little girl who was exposed to the radiation at the age of 2, then 10 years later died of Leukaemia. She had folded thousands of paper cranes to try and stop the disease from killing her.
We also saw the Pond of Peace and the Flame of Peace, which will continue to burn until all Atomic Bombs have disappeared from this earth. The Cenotaph, which is a monument to all the victims, was next to the Flame of Peace. The Cenotaph is an arched tomb for those who died because of the bomb, either the initial blast or exposure to radiation. Below the arch is a stone chest holding a register of these names – there are over 220,000 names – Japanese, Korean and 12 American POWs. The Cenotaph is lit by the Flame of Peace.
We continued our walk to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Outside the museum is the Fountain of Prayer. The Museum is undergoing some renovations, so part of the exhibition has been moved to the East Building. The first thing we saw was an animated aerial replica of the city prior to the atomic blast, and showed an animation of the bomb being dropped, the mushroom cloud and the subsequent devastation of the area. It was disturbing to see the Atomic Bomb and how in a matter of seconds a 2 kilometre zone was completely destroyed. There was an exhibition showing the Dangers of Nuclear War and about Hiroshima’s history during the war, recovery efforts after the war and the efforts of Hiroshima city and its citizens to eliminate nuclear weapons. We also saw some of the belongings and clothing of some of the school children affected by the blast, which was heartbreaking.

The city of Hiroshima is prosperous once again, but the city will forever be synonymous with the tragedy of war and the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city at the close of World War II in 1945.
This was one of the most moving places we have visited.

We returned to the Caledonian Sky for a buffet lunch, which we ate out on the Lido Deck.
At 2.30pm we were shuttled to the island of Miyajima, 10 at a time, in zodiacs – we did beach landings and managed to not get our feet wet.
Miyajima is considered to be one of Japan’s scenic wonders and is located two kilometres off the coast of Hiroshima, offering one of the country’s most iconic sights – a giant red Torii (gateway) that appears to float on the Inland Sea. The great Torii is said to be the boundary between the spirit and the human worlds. The first Otorii of Itsukushima Shrine was constructed in 1168 and was built about 200 metres offshore. The island of Miyajima also features wooded hills where shrines and temples nestle in maple and cherry trees.
We walked along the shore of this lovely island, past the Ferry Terminal from the mainland, through the little village to the Itsukushima Jinja Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. The shrine and its Torii gate are unique for being built over the water, seemingly floating in the sea during high tide. The tide was on its way out, which meant that the Shrine buildings did not have water under them, but we were lucky that the Torii Gate still had water around it. We enjoyed wandering through the shrine complex with our guide Junko. She gave us interesting information about the shrine complex, which consists of multiple buildings, including a prayer hall, a main hall and a Noh theater stage (a form of theatre involving music, dance and drama, originated in the 14th century), all of which are connected by boardwalks and supported by pillars above the sea.
The island also has a fairly large deer population, which, although lovely animals, have become somewhat of a nuisance to tourists as they try to steel food or anything else from your pockets or out of your hands.
We returned to the ship by zodiac and were greeted by the staff with the usual cool face-washers and lovely cold drinks, which were very much appreciated because it was very hot. We enjoyed afternoon tea in the lounge, especially the churros with chocolate sauce and ice cream!
We enjoyed dinner in the dining room, relaxing and chatting with several other couples and the resident musician. As usual there was a lot of laughing and joking from our corner of the room.
We could get used to this lifestyle!

Monday 29 May 2017 Kurashiki

This morning we woke to a beautiful day on the ocean – we had breakfast up on the Lido Deck while the ship made her way to the port of Uno Ko in Okoyama. We disembarked the ship at 9.00am and boarded 3 buses to take us for the one-hour drive through Okoyama City into the mountains. As we drove along we saw lots of fruit and vegetable-growing farms as well as rice paddocks – Japan grows 100% of its own rice but needs to import a large percentage of other food.
Our first visit was to one of Japan’s three most significant gardens, Korakuen. This stunning 17th-century formal garden covers a total area of approximately 133,000 square metres that incorporates the typical features of a Japanese landscape garden, including a large pond, streams, walking paths and a hill that serves as a lookout point.
We saw Korakuen’s spacious lawns, which are unique for a Japanese garden, and we also found groves of plum, cherry and maple trees, tea and rice fields, an archery range and a crane aviary. We also saw a lovely lake with a little island in the middle, three ponds, one of which was filled with Lotus plants (no flowers) and a little stream. We were told today that the reason that the Japanese keep Carp in their ponds is that they keep the mosquitos at bay by eating the mosquito larva We enjoyed wandering along the walking paths and half-way around, we were able to climb up a small hill, which gave us a great panoramic view of the whole gardens.
We enjoyed a peach ice cream in the Fukuda Tea House overlooking the lake and saw another bride and groom, dressed in colourful traditional wedding attire, having their photos taken in these beautiful gardens. Then we continued our wander along the path back to the buses.
The bus drove us to Kurashiki, another hour away where we had a traditional Bento Box lunch at the Kurashiki Kokusai Hotel. We had Sea Bass, Seared Bonito & Tuna, Chicken, Pumpkin, Radish, Snap Peas, Grilled Pork Loin as well as Tempura style Snapper, Sand Borer & sweet Potato and of course steamed rice and Miso Soup.
After lunch, we were taken for a walk around Kurashiki old town, where we were able explore the old merchant quarter and its 17th-century wooden warehouses. Kurashiki has a preserved canal area that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the city served as an important rice distribution centre. The name, Kurashiki can be roughly translated as “Town of Storehouses”, which refers to the storehouses in which the rice was kept. Many of the storehouses have been converted into museums, boutiques and cafes.
Our visit to the charming old merchant quarter of Kurashiki was exactly what we had pictured Japan was like in the 17th and 18th centuries, with its traditional wooden warehouses and canals with weeping willows.
We left Kurashiki at 3.00pm and made our way back to the port to our ship, arriving just before 4.00pm and once everybody was aboard, we set sail. Not long after that, we went under the Seto Ohashi Bridge, which is a 13 kilometre section of bridges connecting several islands. We also had a briefing on how to use the much smaller life jackets required during zodiac landings as we will be using them tomorrow afternoon.
This morning we received a formal invitation to join the Captain at his table for dinner tonight at the Captain’s Welcome Dinner. We had Pre-Dinner drinks in the Lounge and were introduced to the senior staff before heading down to the dining room to join the Captain Hakan Gustaffson and two other couples. Sandy was seated to the left of the Captain and we had a wonderful evening chatting and laughing and enjoying our special Welcome Dinner.

Sunday 28 May 2017 Kyoto, Osaka

This morning, we were picked up from our hotel and were taken to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, featured in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha”. The Shrine is famous for its 3000+ vibrant orange Torii gates that wind their way up the hill behind the shrine. This intriguing shrine was built in honour of the god of rice & sake by the Hata clan in the 8th century. As the role of agriculture diminished, deities were worshiped to ensure prosperity in business enterprises.
The magical, seemingly unending path of the Torii gates, makes it one of the most popular shrines in Japan. This shrine also features dozens of statues of foxes. The fox is seen as the messenger of the god of grain foods, Inari, and the stone foxes are often known by the same name. The keys that are often depicted in the fox mouths are keys to granaries. This shrine is the central location for some 40,000 Inari shrines throughout the entirety of Japan.
We enjoyed our walk up to the first station – there were hundreds of people walking up through the Torii gates too. Apparently it would take just under 2 hours to walk up to the top.
From there, we were taken to the Sake Brewery Museum, where we learnt how sake was made and we were able to sample different types of sake, as well as soaking up the atmosphere in the old brewery. This museum about sake making is run by the Gekkeikan Sake Company, one of Japan’s leading sake companies. Opened in 1982, it is housed in an old sake brewery that was built in 1909, and presents the history of sake in Japan and sake production in Fushimi in an easy-to-understand manner. We saw exhibitions of some sake-producing items, which show each stage of the process and also displays of period materials dating back to Gekkeikan’s founding. Traditional chants of sake makers were played throughout the museum, recreating the atmosphere of the old brewery. Historically the waters of Fushimi also made this area an important hub of transport and trade. Here the confluence of three rivers, the Uji, Katsura and Kamo, and an intricate network of canals were put to good use, transporting rice, sake and other goods between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.
Following our visit to the museum, we were able to taste three different sakes: The Old Style Okura Museum Exclusive Retro Bottle Sake; Tama no Izumi (Jewel of the Fountain) Daiginjo Sake; and Gekkeikan Plum Wine.
We then made our way to Osaka, known as the Western Business Capital and the largest city in the area. Here, we enjoyed an Okonomiyaki lunch at Chibo. There was a bbq plate in the middle of each table and we were given some scallops, Benito fish, octopus and pork belly to cook on the BBQ plate ourselves. This was followed by a pancake that was a cross between a pizza and a pancake – on it was soy sauce, seaweed, mayonnaise and Benito flakes or pork which we had to heat up on the BBQ plate. Just when we thought we had eaten as much as we could manage, they brought out some noodles and beef for us to fry on the BBQ plate. We all thought that it was quite different and quite tasty.
After our lunch, we did a walking tour of the Dotonbori District, which is one of the main tourist destinations in Osaka. Dotonbori is a popular nightlife and entertainment area with its huge illuminated signboards. The most famous billboard, which is seen as an icon of Osaka, is for a confectionary company, Glico, which displays the image of a runner crossing the finishing line. Both sides of the canal are lined with advertisements and neon signs and entire buildings are decorated with neon lamps. Interestingly, Dotonbori is apparently often chosen as a scene in Japanese and foreign movies as the symbol of Osaka.
There were hundreds and hundreds of people everywhere walking along the pedestrian streets shoulder to shoulder, happily wandering along enjoying the atmosphere and looking at the shops and the incredible advertising signs everywhere. We were given some free time to take photos and met at the end of the street, where the bus was able to pull in and pick us up quickly.
We then made our way to the port of Osaka to board the MS Caledonian Sky, the sister ship to MS Island Sky that we sailed in down the coast of Norway and also around the Baltic capitals, St Petersburg and the Scandinavian countries in August 2015. It was exciting, but also relaxing, settling into a familiar environment. Our cabin is almost the same as the one we had for our trip around the Baltic. e were delighted to find that some of the staff we knew from our previous cruises were onboard and they remembered us and greeted us like long lost friends. After a lovely welcome afternoon tea, we came to our cabin to find that there was a bottle of Moet Chapmpagne and a plate of strawberries dipped in chocolate. After settling into our cabin, we had the mandatory safety drill and then it was time for sail away at 6.00pm, meeting the crew at 7.00 with pre-dinner drinks, a short briefing about tomorrow’s activities and then it was time for a lovely dinner, which was delicious.

Some details of the MS Caledonian Sky:
Length: 90.6m
Width: 15.3m
Max. Cruising Speed: 12 knots
Tonnage: 4,200
Total Refurbishment: 2012
Guest Capacity: 114 (57 suites)
Crew: 75

We are looking forward to spending the next 12 days onboard the MS Caledonian Sky adventuring around Japan.

Saturday 27 May 2016 Kyoto

We woke to a blue cloudless sky and enjoyed our breakfast overlooking the mountains.
On our way to our first activity, our local guide Mariko, told us that Kyoto has mountains on three sides but not on the fourth side, which is the south and as the streets run east-west, north-south it is very easy to work out what direction you are going in simply by looking to see where the mountains are. We crossed the Kamo River, which starts in the north from the mountains and travels to the south in Osaka to the Bay.
Our first activity this morning was a visit to an old traditional Machiya Style House in Kyoto – Washin Kan, where we were split into two groups. Our group had a calligraphy lesson first and our teacher was Yoshie, who was dressed in a traditional kimono. We learnt the art of Japanese calligraphy, called Shodo. We were shown the correct way to use the brushes and liquid ink to write Kanji. Yoshie explained to us that kanji is made up of symbols put together to make a word eg “wa” means Japanese and “yo” means outside Japan, so “wa fuku” means Kimono (Japanese dress) and “yo fuku” means western clothes. She told us that there are three styles of calligraphy – Block, cursive and semi-cursive. Today we learnt block style. We sat at long tables on short stools and put on aprons and in front of us, were mats with a thin sheet of practice paper as well as an ink tray with a calligraphy brush. Yoshie showed us how to form parts of a symbol that we were going to make. We had one sheet each for the four parts of the symbol and then we did a practice of the whole symbol parts together, with several ladies also dressed in kimonos, helping us and encouraging us. Then we were given a lovely piece of white card and we formed the symbol – Tomo – which means friend. We both thought that our symbol on the practice sheet looks better than the one on the card.
We had a lot of fun doing it and learning about this ancient form of writing.
Our next activity was a Japanese Tea Ceremony in a different room. There were little stools for us to sit on but we should have been sitting on the floor. Seiko, a mature lady dressed in a beautiful kimono, told us about the origins of this ancient practice, as well as the basic terms, utensils and customs that are associated with the art of a Japanese Tea Ceremony, which is also called The Way of Tea. It is a cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, (powdered green tea). She told us that scientists have recently discovered that it stops dementia. Prior to the Tea Ceremony starting we were given a special sweet to eat.
Another lady dressed in a beautiful kimono shuffled in to perform the Tea Ceremony for us. She knelt on the tatami to meticulously position all the utensils that she would be using and then wiped the bowls with a special cloth that she took from her kimono and folded in a specific way. Then with a wooden ladle, she scooped some hot water out of a container, poured some of it into a special bowl, which had the ground matcha powder in it. She then used a special little whisk in an interesting pattern to mix the tea. Each of her movements was slow and graceful. We were then served the tea one at a time in a ceremonial fashion, with us bowing, turning the bowl and saying specific things (with prompting) during the ceremony. After we had finished the tea, with a slurp, our cups were taken away to be cleaned.
We thoroughly enjoyed our morning at Washin Kan, learning the ancient art of Calligraphy and partaking in a Japanese Tea Ceremony.
On our way back to the hotel we were taken to the Heian Shinto Shrine Torii Gate and we were able to see the Heian Shrine. We were delighted to find a bride and groom, dressed in traditional wedding attire, posing for photos with the Torii Gate in the background. Sandy asked Mariko if we could take photos of them and she asked on our behalf and they said yes, with lots of bowing from the groom and us.
In the afternoon, we were able to choose from three different activities, so we chose to visit the Gion Area, a famous entertainment and Geisha quarter on the eastern side of the city. We went on a walking tour with local guide, Meg, to see some of the homes of the Geisha and traditional wooden machiya merchant houses in the area The area is filled with shops, restaurants and ochava (teahouses), where Geiko (Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and Maiko (Geiko apprentices) entertain.
Meg told us that the Gion District in Kyoto was originally developed in the Middle Ages in front of the Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine) to accommodate the needs of travellers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually became one of the most exclusive and well-known Geisha districts in Japan. While the term Geisha means “artist” or “person of the arts”, the more direct term “Geiko” means “a woman of art”.
We were interested to learn that when young girls are learning to become a Geiko or Maiko, they are forbidden to see their parents or socialise with other teenagers or use the internet, as part of their highly cloistered existence and that they are unpaid for the five years they are in training. As a Maiko-san they give up everything that normal teenage girls would do. Each day begins at 8am when they take an hour to fix their hair and dress before lessons of calligraphy, dancing, singing and drumming, then they work until midnight, seven days a week. They usually sleep on a wooden block to preserve their hair, and they receive no free time or financial allowance.
The reality behind the glamourised image of the Geiko is possibly why the traditional entertainment is a dying art form in Japan. Just after World War II, there were more than 1,000 Geiko and Maiko in this area of Kyoto, but now there are just 180 Geiko and 70 Maiko in the whole of Japan.
On our way from where the bus dropped us off, we passed the Chionin Temple, which houses the largest temple bells weighing 74 tonnes – it takes 16 monks to pull the bell ropes. Part of The Last Samurai was filmed here.
It was interesting to see the traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Because property taxes were formerly based on the size of street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street. We saw lots of girls dressed in traditional kimonos that they had hired to wander around the streets and they happily posed for us so that we could take photos of them.
We wandered slowly down a heritage street and across a little bridge and were told that this area is where parts of Memoirs of a Geisha were shot. We were lucky enough to come across another bride and groom, this time dressed in a colourful wedding kimono. From there we were taken through some narrow little streets where there were lots of boarding houses for the Geiko. We were also shown the School for the Maiko and then were taken to the Yasaka Shrine where we were lucky enough to see a Bride procession to the Main Sanctuary for the wedding ceremony.
We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon wandering around the Gion area, learning about the Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko.
We had a couple of hours of free time before heading out on the bus to a restaurant for dinner. Mimui is known for its Udon-Suki, which is a hot-pot dish cooked in a pot at the table on a convection hot-plate with noodles and various ingredients, including chicken, shrimp, cabbage, carrot, potato and mushroom in “dashi” soup. Interestingly, when we arrived at the restaurant we were told to go into the room prepared for us unless we had a food allergy, in which case to go with the waitress. Four of us ended up in a separate room on our own – very strange, but we had a lovely night chatting to the other couple who had just arrived today.
So, all in all, another lovely day in Kyoto.

Friday 26 May 2016 – Kyoto – Start of APT Tour

We woke this morning to a fine morning with blue skies and a few clouds. While the morning stated off mild, by lunch-time, it was quite hot – approximately 30 degrees.
At 8.30am, we met some of our fellow travellers and our Tour Manager, Dot, as we commenced our APT Tour. We also met our local guide, Meg and our driver, Hiroshi.
Our first stop was to the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), which is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto and its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf that reflects a sheen on the pond surrounding the little island it is positioned on. Formally known as Rokuon-ji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s villa. The Pavilion was burnt down 3 times and was rebuilt in 1955. After the Shogun’s death it became a Buddhist Temple at his request, and is now one of Kyoto’s most famous temples.
There were lots of people at the Golden Pavilion, including hundreds of school children, who came here from all over Japan to visit what was once the Capital city that is filled with history. We were taken to the best place to take photos and then wandered along the pathway around the pond and through the grounds. We discovered that in Japan you can buy just about anything from a vending machine from soft drinks to beer to hot coffee to food and ice-creams and novelties to name a few.
Our next stop was a visit to Nijo Castle, an ornamental castle built by the founder of the Edo Shogunate as his Kyoto residence and is surrounded by stunning gardens.
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of the Edo Period. His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle’s palace building 23 years later and also added a five-storey castle keep. Nijo Castle is famous for its “nightingale” floors, which alerted the Shoguns against intruders by chirping like birds when they were walked on.
Our Local Guide, Meg, told us that from 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an Imperial Palace for a while before being donated to the city and being opened to the public as a historic site. She said that the palace buildings are good examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
Our tour of the castle commenced at the Higashi Ote-Mon Gate and then through to the very ornate Kara-mon Gate, which has layers of cypress bark for the roof of the gate. It had coloured carvings of cranes, pine, bamboo and blossoms. Then, after taking our shoes off and leaving them in a designated numbered area, we entered the Nimomaru-goten Palace. We walked slowly through the six connected buildings and Meg explained some of the wall paintings to us (there are over 3,600) – we were not allowed to take photos inside. The paintings, from the Kano school and the metalwork fittings were similar to what would have been in the residence of the Shoguns. As we walked along the Palace Nightingale Corridor, we could make chirping patterns with the way we walked. The “song of the nightingale” is caused by clamps moving against nails driven into the wooden beams supporting the floor.
After we had retrieved our shoes, we wandered through the Ninomaru Garden, which is a classic Shoin-zukuri garden, with a large island symbolising Paradise and a Crane island and a Turtle island. We saw a heron on a rock in the pond and he just sat there keeping an eye on everyone, turning his head from time to time.
From Nijo Castle, we were taken to a restaurant for a traditional Heihachi Lunch Box lunch and it was nice chatting to some of our other tour group. The lunch box had several small dishes with various food in them and we had some sauces, soup, rice and Japanese Steamed Egg Custard, which is nothing like the custard we are used to. We had watermelon for dessert, which was refreshing. The restaurant too had a small lake with a little bridge over it and we chatted to a lady who comes every day to feel the carp and also to feed a turtle using chopsticks – the turtle lifted his head up and gently took the food from the chopsticks – fascinating!
After lunch, we visited the Sanjusangendo Temple, Japan’s longest wooden structure. Sanjusangendo Temple, meaning Hall with thirty-three spaces between columns, describes the architecture of the long main hall of the temple. Sanjusangendo is the popular name for the Rengeo-in, is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The temple was founded in 1164 and rebuilt a century later after the original structure had been destroyed in a fire.
Once again, we took our shoes off and walked slowly through the Temple, while Meg explained about the 1000 statues that were in rows of 10 deep, and one big seated statue, with 28 Buddhist guardian deities placed along the front row to protect the Buddhist deity Kannon. Again, we were not allowed to take photos inside the building.
We were brought back to our hotel mid-afternoon to spend the rest of the afternoon/evening at our leisure. We caught up with our blog and photos and did a little bit of washing.
This evening, we went to The Hill of Tara, an Irish Pub a few doors up from the hotel and had a drink – Richard had a Kilkenny beer – 2 pints actually! He thought it was hilarious that we were in Japan in an Irish Pub, full of Aussies! He had a Shepherd’s Pie…. well, the Japanese version of one anyway. He had to eat it with a spoon but he said it was delicious and Sandy had fish & chips.
After dinner we went for a stroll around the streets and then came back to the hotel to have an early night.
Today was enjoyable and a slower pace than yesterday and we only walked 7.5km and climbed 4 flights of stairs.

Thursday 25 May 2017 – Himeji Castle, Kokoen Gardens, Engyoji Temple & Akashi Kaikyo Bridge

After a great night’s sleep, we woke to an overcast and drizzly day. We enjoyed breakfast on the 17th floor overlooking the mountains and at 8.30am, we met Takuya Yanagisawa, (our private guide we organised a few months ago), in the foyer of our hotel.
We had a fantastic day today and our words are not going to be able to do it justice. Takuya took us to the underground station adjacent to the hotel and we caught a subway train to the main Kyoto Station, where we boarded a Shinkansen train to Himeji – it was very smooth and travelled at about 270km per hour. From Himeji Station, we walked up to Himeji Castle, as by now the showery rain had stopped and the skies were starting to clear.
Himeji Castle, also known as White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) due to its elegant, white appearance and its well-preserved, complex castle grounds, is considered Japan’s most spectacular castle. The 17th-century Himeji Castle is considered a prime example of Japanese feudal period architecture. Unlike many other Japanese castles, it was not destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and survives to this day as one of the country’s twelve original castles.
Takuya told us that Himeji Castle, a World Heritage Site, lies at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto. He said the first fortifications built on the site were completed in the 1400s, and were gradually enlarged over the centuries by the various clans who ruled over the region. The castle complex, as it survives today, is over 400 years old and was completed in 1609. It consists of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys (courtyards surrounded by walls), which are connected by a series of gates and winding paths.
We entered Himeji Castle via the Ote-mon Gate and walked to the Hishi-no-mon Gate and then through a maze-like area from the Hishi Gate to the main keep, leading us along walled paths and through multiple gates and walkways (it was built like this to slow down and expose attacking forces).
In the middle of the complex is the main keep, a six story wooden structure and a basement. It is apparently one of only a handful of castle keeps in Japan that feature wing buildings.
We entered the main keep through an entrance in the lower floor of the building, where we took our shoes off and were given a plastic bag to carry them in. We climbed upwards via a series of steep, narrow staircases, with each level getting progressively smaller as we ascended. The rooms were unfurnished and Takuya explained some of the architectural features such as portholes, rock chutes, attacking points and concealed spaces, as well as renovation efforts made over the years to preserve the structure.
The top floor had a small shrine and we were able to look out in all directions, down over the castle roofs, at the maze-like defense structures below us and out across the city of Himeji, which was very picturesque as by now there was some blue sky. We could also see the fish-shaped roof ornaments that are believed to have protected the castle from fire.
We then made our way back to the Hishi Gate and made our way along the turrets and explored another bailey, the west bailey (Nishinomaru), which was the residence of Princess Sen. This area gave us spectacular views of the main keep from many different perspectives. Around every corner, there was another view of the main keep from a different angle, and more photos had to be taken!
We then made our way back to the Ote-mon Gate and the Castle Moat and found a little café where the three of us enjoyed lunch together (a lovely pork fillet sandwich and a cold drink), enjoying each others’ company and learning more about Takuya and his beautiful part of Japan (and enjoying to sit down for a little while).
After lunch, we visited the Himeji Castle Kokoen Gardens, which is a relatively recent construction of a Japanese-style garden, opened in 1992 on the former site of the feudal lord’s west residence (Nishi-Oyashiki). It is 3.5 hectares and consists of nine separate, walled gardens in various styles of the Edo Period. Among the gardens, Takuya took us to one with a pond and waterfall, a tea ceremony house, a garden of seedlings, a flatly landscaped garden, a pine tree garden, a bamboo garden and a flower garden.
After wandering around and enjoying the gardens, we caught a taxi to the Mt Shosha Ropeway, a cable car, which took us up to the Engyoji Temple. It took us 781 metres up, with a 210m vertical lift.
Engyoji’s temple buildings are spread over a spacious, densely forested area on the mountain-top, which was spectacular. From the ropeway station we caught a shuttle bus to Niomon Gate and then hada 15 minute walk to reach the Maniden, a beautiful wooden temple hall, constructed on pillars on a steep slope. Another five-minute walk along the beautiful forest trail past the Tomb of the Honda family and then the trail brought us to the three massive wooden temple halls, known as Daikodo (main hall), Jikido and Jogyodo. We visited another temple building before walking back down the steep path to the shuttle bus. At each of the temples, we took our shoes off and left them at the entrance. Takuya related interesting stories about each of the places we visited and in many of the areas, it was just the three of us so this was a unique opportunity to enjoy the tranquility of each these temples and the forest without the usual crowds.
Because of its beautiful scenery and the lack of modern buildings on the temple grounds, Mount Shosha is frequently used as a filming location for historical movies and TV dramas. The Hollywood movie “The Last Samurai” was partially shot on the mountain, including scenes taken around and inside the three halls.
We travelled back down by shuttle bus and then caught a local bus back to Himeji station. We enjoyed the trip through the local suburbs with people getting on and off the bus.
The bus dropped us at Himeji station and we caught a Special Rapid Service train to Nishi-Akashi (this only travels at 12 kilometres per hour) and then a Rapid Service train to Kobe and from there a local train to Akashi Kaikyo. We walked down to the base of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which is a suspension bridge, linking the city of Kobe on the Japanese mainland of Honshu to Iwaya on Awaji Island. The Bridge, which crosses the Akashi Strait, is almost four kilometres long and is the world’s longest suspension bridge. We walked along underneath the bridge and had good views of the Akashi Strait and Osaka Bay.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. Interestingly, when we board the MS Caledonian Sky on Sunday afternoon for our cruise around Japan, we think we will be going under the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge as we leave Osaka on our way to our first stop at Kurashiki.

After a wonderful day, Takuya took us to the station where we caught a series of trains to Sannomiya and then the Shinkansen back to Kyoto Station via Osaka. We arrived at Kyoto Station at about 7.30pm, where we said our heartfelt thanks to Takuya, who put us into a taxi and told the driver to take us to our hotel and he headed back to Kobe. Our taxi delivered us back to our hotel at about 8.00pm – two very tired but extremely delighted adventurers.

We managed to travel on 5 different types of trains (subway, local, Rapid Service, Special Rapid Service and Shinkansen trains) as well as taxis, buses and a cable car. We lost count of the number of stairs (although Fitbit says it was 167 flights of stairs) and we estimate that we walked 16 kilometres. Our private guide, Takuya was very helpful, most informative and made this a very special day for us.
This has been a wonderful introduction to Japan.
(Thanks Alison for advising us to visit Himeji Castle!)

JAPAN 2017

Japan, situated in northeast Asia, is said to be “a fascinating balance of unique heritage and culture, contrasting with the sprawling metropolises of the world’s most advanced technological civilisation”. The population is 127 million, which makes Japan the world’s 10th largest country.
Japan is made up of four main islands – Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. The Japanese name for Japan is “Nippon” or “Nihon”, which means “sun origin” and is often translated as “Land of the Rising Sun”. Japan’s capital is Tokyo, which has a population of 9.1 million. Japan has 6,852 islands and a great way to explore the Land of the Rising Sun is by sea. We will spend 4 days in Kyoto and then board the MS Caledonian Sky (sister ship to MS Island Sky that we did our Norway and Baltic cruises in August 2015). On our journey we will “voyage around the stunning coastline and offshore islands of the archipelago, and discover ancient castles, serenely beautiful gardens and opulent temples and shrines”. At the end of our cruise, we will take the Shinkansen Bullet Train from Kanazawa to Tokyo for three days’ sightseeing as part of our APT tour and then the two of us will stay in Tokyo for a further three days for more sightseeing on our own.

Tuesday 23 May 2017 Brisbane to Osaka, Japan
The first part of our adventure commenced on Tuesday 23 May 2017 at 2.30pm, with our Singapore Airlines flight from Brisbane to Singapore on board an Airbus A330-300. After a comfortable flight, we arrived at Singapore Changi Airport at 10.50pm and went for a wander around this now very familiar airport. We had a cuppa at our favourite café and at 1.25am we boarded our next flight on an Airbus A330-300 for our 2.25am flight to Osaka in Japan.
Wednesday 24 May 2017 Osaka – Main Island – Honshu
We managed to get about 3 or 4 hours broken sleep, before our flight landed in Osaka at 8.40am. After clearing Immigration and Customs, we were met by an APT Representative, who took us and another 5 people who are on our APT tour, in a luxurious mini-bus for the 1.5 hour journey to our hotel in Kyoto. Kyoto was chosen as the capital of Japan in 794 and was the residence of the Japanese family until 1868. Because of the strong influence of aristocrats, warriors and religious areas, many Japanese ideas, culture and practices were created and established here.
We were impressed with the highway from Osaka to Kyoto – it was built above the houses and we crossed several bridges, which connected the little islands. Along the way we saw Osaka City, its sprawling suburbs, an agricultural area amongst the high-rise buildings and houses, before arriving in Kyoto. The day was overcast but remained fine. Our driver delivered us to the Kyoto Hotel Okura, where we will be staying for the next four nights. Kyoto Hotel Okura looks out on Higashiyama Mountains and Kyoto City streets – Kyoto is actually surrounded by mountains.
We were unable to check into our room until 3.00pm, so we had a snack in the hotel café with one of the other couples, before heading off on our own to explore the local area. We love their zebra crossings that chirp back and forth from one side of the crossing to the other when it is your turn to walk. We were impressed with the tree-lined streets and gardens, which are just starting to come into flower. We went past Kyoto City Hall, wandering along the streets until we came to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which takes up the equivalent of several city blocks. We wandered through the grounds but were not able to get into the Palace or even see the inner sanctum of the old Palace because of its walled exterior. Three schoolgirls came up to us, asking in their minimum English if we would answer some questions for their school assignment, which we happily did and then had to sign each of their assignments. We saw the Muku Tree of the Shimizudani Residence, which is 300 years old and is one of many Muku Trees found in the Palace Grounds. This tree has been staked to help support it, because of its age.
At the end of our 2.5 hours exploring, we discovered a large underground shopping mall, called Zest Shopping Mall, adjacent to the Hotel where we stopped for a coffee/cold drink.
After settling into our room, we ventured out to the Underground Mall we had discovered earlier, which turns out to be under the Town Hall. We decided to eat in a little local restaurant, where the staff were lovely and with a bit of English and sign language we managed to order a beer for Richard, a Cola for Sandy (she tried lemonade/Sprite earlier, but ended up with a nice cold, but very tart lemon drink) and for dinner we had Rosukatsu Gohan – pork cutlet fillet crumbed with something? and served with finely shredded cabbage, boiled rice and some sauces. We also had some Furaido Poteto – fried potatoes ie wedges. We ate our dinner with chopsticks!
We came back up to our room to finish our blog and sort our photos, while looking at the lovely view out over Kyoto and the mountains, through a fine misty rain.