Le Calife Seine Dinner Cruise

Since learning we’d be in Paris leading up to the 2024 Olympics for work, I’ve been following some Americans who moved to Paris on YouTube – their channel is called “Les Frenchies”, (yes, I know… but what can you do?), and they have some great, up-to-date content for people visiting Paris. One of the things they highly recommended, was something I thought would be way too touristy for my liking, but based on their frequently voiced dislike of highly touristy experiences, I thought we’d give it a try. So, I booked us a dinner cruise on ‘Le Calife’.

Seeing we are now staying in Saint Germaine (*wipes away faux tears* – it’s lovely, but it’s not the Georges V!), we had only a short 350m walk to the Pont des Arts, where ‘Le Calife’ is berthed.

I love this! I wonder if this was dedicated before she passed away in 2020… ‘On 23rd September 2021, “The ‘Place Juliette Gréco’ was inaugurated in Paris. It can be found beside the Church of Saint-Germain-de-Paris, in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.” Bummer.

This is not out boat.

This is our boat. Le Calife was originally built in Belgium in 19as a cargo carrying ship and has large twin stream engines, but when this type of transportation became less popular it was sold to an enthusiast for restoration. It apparently took 18 years to restore and transform it into a restaurant; it has its original engines still operating. The ship is all fitted out with red mahogany, brass and other decorative details, including seriously vintage stained glass lamps from 1789… which I will no doubt mention later!

Square du Vert-Galant…

Pont Neuf…

We were welcomed aboard at 20:00 with a glass of champagne, and a set menu with several delicious choices for each course…

Our delightful waiter asked us if we would like a bottle of red wine or white wine, all chosen by the chef… we had both chosen meat for dinner so opted for a bottle of red. Which may or may not have been a bit of a mistake, because we didn’t realise that we weren’t going anywhere until 2045, and the first course of dinner wouldn’t be served until roughly 21:30..!

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris… still under masses amounts of scaffold as the restoration after the 2019 fire, but expected to reopen December 2024.

A nod to the teams of people working on the Cathédrale…

L’entrées… the vol au vent of chanterelles with foie gras and morel mushroom sauce for me, the Label Rouge salmon fillet gravlax with fresh cheese and herbs for Mr K:

Ah, there they are, the fabulous antique stained glass lamps through the verandah of the boat. A lovely touch, but perhaps not so practical when it comes to photography reflections!

The mains… Rossini style beef tenderloin, with foie gras, Dauphinois potatoes and roasted vegetables for me, and Lamb shoulder confit, with seasonal vegetables and baby roast potatoes for Mr K:

Just as dinner was being served we sailed into view of the Eiffel Tower. Gorgeous! I particularly love the stained glass motif they have incorporated into the lighting! 🙂

It is a striking element of the Parisian skyline for sure. A little after these pictures were taken, we swung around and the tower started to ‘sparkle’ as they have the flashing lights going for five minutes on the hour every hour… kinda gave up on the photos by now though.

The underside of one of the several bridges we went under… complete with reflections of someone’s dinner. 🙂

Dessert… Lemon cheese cake, with lemon cream, lemon sorbet and limoncello for me, and Chocolate lava cake, custard and Madagascar vanilla ice cream for Mr K. The lemon on lemon with a lemon motif was really quite good!

Alas we were back to the quay all too soon; not really it was just before midnight. The dinner cruise was really lovely. The food was nice, but we made the mistake of doing this *after* we’d had the fanciest meal of our lives at Le Cinq! When will we learn… you don’t go China straight after you go to Japan and you don’t go to a *good* French restaurant the night after going to a internationally famous three Michelin star’d French restaurant!

Side Quest: Cambodia Part I

So I’m in Bangkok for a week of mostly work and as I am someone who likes to wander, I decided last week that I’d try and get to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat while I’m (loosely!) ‘in the region’. Logistically this was going to prove a little challenging – I could book some short flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap and see nothing of the countryside, or I could find a way to go via public transport, which would end up taking way too many hours away from work, or I could find some tour operator to help get me there using private vehicles and drivers.

Given the time constraints and my longstanding, well known desire to ‘see new shit’, I chose the latter option and found a tour operator who could help me with the transfers from Bangkok, to the Cambodian border, across to the other side an another driver to get me to Siem Reap… in with this was a English speaking drivers and a tour guide, entrances to the temples at Angkor Wat, a visit to a floating village and they booked me a local hotel in Siem Reap. Sounds pretty streamlined and well practiced, yeah? We shall see…

I’m up early Wednesday morning for a 0630 start and waiting out the front of the hotel for driver number one… who is nowhere to be seen. By 0700, I’m on the phone calling the organiser and asking where they are. Apparently the driver went to the wrong hotel entrance and about 15 mins later finally appeared. At this stage, I was getting a bit ‘Hmmm…’ which became immediately apparent in the messages I was sending to my family chat. 😛

Happy, smiling, setting off on an adventure photo…
Read: ‘Please take note – this person and a conveniently place image of their vehicle registration, was the last person I was seen with before I went radio silent and are possibly dead in a ditch somewhere.’

We set off at crazy speed heading out of the city for the Thailand – Cambodian border. It seems Thai drivers only know one way of driving. Full throttle red-lining it, or hard on the brakes, there is no in between. Once we hit the highway, I asked how long it was to the border and it was then that I discovered this driver most certainly didn’t know any English past, ‘Hello. Are you Robyn? How are you?’ Oh dear, what have I gotten myself into.

We make it to the border and I was handed over to these caricatures, err I mean, characters – Super Refelctive Sunnies Man and Crazy Make Up Lady – and they told me to wait while someone would come to take me through the border shortly.

So I waited for about 20 minutes and eventually a teenager came along, Grubby High Vis Shirt Guy, and he said, “You follow me, Madame.” I looked at Crazy Make Up Lady, and she motioned that I should follow him. So I did. *Shrug*, and off he loped without looking back to see if I was following. At this point I’d just been in the car for 3 hours, and my longstanding busted knee wasn’t going to keep up with him, so I didn’t bother even trying. He had crossed the street and was half way up the road before he noticed that I wasn’t behind him! I could see him in his grubby high vis shirt, but I wasn’t up to dodging the traffic like he could! He gave me a slightly sheepish and apologietic look as I eventually caught him up and he then walked at a more moderate pace until we got through the Thailand exit. Here I was handed to another person, Long Pinky Fingernail Guy who, bless his ugly striped shirt and official looking lanyard with a Pokémon card in it, spoke some English. He took me up two flights of stairs (le sigh… escalator broken; permanently I suspect), and we found ourselves at the end of a very long queue of foreigners waiting to get visas to enter Cambodia. I told Mr Long Pinky Fingernail that I have a bad knee and can’t stand up very long, and he said he could get, ”Fast lane for USD$40.”

I had previously been informed the visa was USD$30 so figured this was a negotiation, and I responded, “I was told the visa costsUSD$30.” Whereupon he promptly winked at me and said, “Fast lane is USD$40”. Oh dear god, we are bribing border guards already. Alright, let’s get on with it – it won’t be the first time. I went to open my bag to get him the USD$40 and he literally, said, “Not here! Not here!”, and led me to a lift (why did i just walk up two flights of stairs if there is a functioning bloody lift!!!), and took me downstairs to an air conditioned waiting room, took my passport and my money and disappeared. Less than ten minutes later, he reappeared with a grin, my passport and visa all stamped and proper and ready to escort me to my next driver on the Cambodian side of the border! Fucking fun so far.

Sadly, my next driver didn’t’ even have enough English to tell me his name. So we sped off into Cambodia towards Siem Reap in a silence that was only broken when I attempted to ask for a bathroom break! Thankfully the word ‘toilet’ seems to work nearly everywhere in any language. I gotta say, at this point I was pretty concerned that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted out of this little adventure. I was coming because I want a glimpse of the history and culture, and I particularly wanted the perspective of the country’s turbulent and complicated recent history from a local – not just some bullshit I could read on Wikipedia. I was crossing my fingers that the actual guide I wold be spending time with later had much better English skills than these drivers and border assistant guys.

We drove through the countryside where the abject poverty of being one of the UN designated ‘least developed nations’ was abundantly clear. Children not in school, raggedy clothes, people with no shoes, beggars, beat up cars, tonnes of unsafe looking overhead powerlines, trash just everywhere, houses with plastic for windows, a layer of dust dirt and filth over everything. To me, it felt like a cross between the outskirts of Fez, Ankara and Quetta, thought unlike Pakistan, people were smiling and the children were waving.

Before I knew it, just like in Pakistan the sharp contrast between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ came into sharp focus as we neared the hotel where I would be staying the night and where I would meet the guide that afternoon.

Phew! Managed to make it here safely, and had a couple of hours to chill before meeting the (OMG I hope he speaks English!) guide in the lobby that afternoon. Quick shower and kersplatt!

Met Long, my guide for the next couple of days in the lobby and I was so relieved to find out his English was strong. Now this is going to sound a bit weird considering how far I’ve come and how many people I’ve been handed off though – this, is when I was supposed to pay for all these providers! When I booked all this, though a Cambodian travel company, I tried to pay for it through PayPal and the payment wouldn’t go through. I contacted them to let them know their PayPal links were failing and I was told that ‘PayPal is not currently allowed in Cambodia, and you can pay when you get here.’ Now I took that to mean, when I was collected in Bangkok, but apparently it meant when I met the guide in Siem Reap. Additionally, I was told that I could pay by credit card when I got there… but what they meant was, there was an ATM that I could get a cash advance from! Urgh – I could feel the incoming sandy lube exchange rates from a hotel ATM a mile away. Oh well, it is what it is at this point.

Long was pretty casual about it and said I could fix him up later, but that we had to get going to see the sunset on the floating village. So we jumped into the van with Mr Rolex – yes, I finally found out who had been driving me for the previous stretch from the Cambodian border to the hotel, and his name was Mr Rolex. No explanation. We drove out towards the enormous lake, Tonlé Sap, which is some 200km long by 100km wide during the wet season and a massive part of the Mekong River system. All along the river and on the way to the river were huge stilt houses built by the river – they reminded me of the houses at the beginning of the film, SlumDog Million. Calling them ‘houses’ is generous to say the least, they are ramshackle dwellings held together with tarpaulin and twine with multi-generational families living in poverty.

Long told me the people who could live on the river were ‘safer’. When the water rises in the wet season, their houses rise with it, but those living on the water banks are living a precarious life on unsteady, very tall, stilt houses

The community out here is predominantly Vietnamese. Cambodia has a complicated history with their Vietnamese neighbours and for whatever reason this Vietnamese diasporic community chooses to live on the river. Long claims it isn’t because they aren’t welcome to live on the higher land with the Cambodians, but many of them are used to this sort of river lifestyle. Anyone can build a boat and come live on the river – there are no council rates, no property taxes, no real estate per se but very little in the services apart from what the community decides to create together. Some of the houses are barely better than rafts with a tent over them, some are very well designed and built to be shops, meeting places, restaurant/cafes, and there’s even a a church and a school.

The local school: the kids either get driven to school by their parents or they swim to the school each day. School only goes from 1pm to 5pm daily. In the morning, the children are usually helping the family with the fishing business.

Early each day the fishermen set out, get a daily catch and take it back to a fish market closer to Siem Reap so there are loads of long fast boats getting about billowing exhaust fumes, making the entire area smell like fuel rather than river.

The light at this time of day was really crazy… there was a heat haze rising off the land and a lot of evaporation, you could turn one way and see a thing, go behind it and it looked completely like something altogether different. A photographer’s paradise, and me here with just an iPhone. These channel markers were pretty cool – the water is only about 1.5m to 3m deep at the moment, but when the wet season comes it will be 10m-12m deep. Which is what makes living on the river banks so precarious.

We stopped at a floating restaurant/cafe and gift shop where I had a chance to eat some local frog* – but after my hectic day of travel I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous so opted for a cold coconut and some fresh mango instead. (Should have tried the damn frog! InstaRegret!). There was some crocodile pens here – they make jerky out of them so they were just fattening these ones up apparently. Also for sale was eel jerky, turtle jerky, and various other fish jerky which I also avoided. They were also selling lots of touristy crap here – cheap clothing, little Buddha statues, crocodile skulls, t-shirts and keychains etc. None of it looked like something I wanted to take home.

We took our drinks and mango and found a nice spot to watch the sun going down. Long told me about his family (married with three sons), his aspirations for them (teach his kids good English so they have a chance to work in business or tourism), and how the Cambodian outlook is currently quite positive in spite of their current one party communistic government… from the way he was telling it, the people are happier not Happy (TM), but happier and feeling more positive than they have in generations.

The TL;DR on Cambodian history is that the Angkor Empire, which started in around 900AD was dissolved in 1432 and brought a very politically unstable period to the region. During this time many local ruling administrations were established, and they were variously the Vietnamese and Siamese (Thai) ethnic groups who continuously fought and struggled for dominance over the region. Long said that Cambodia, which was placed under French protection in 1863 (placed by whom, I don’t know?), and didn’t gain independence from the French until 1953 – we don’t particularly like the French here anymore and no one seems interested in learning French or anything to do with France, except they’ve kept the croissants and macarons! 😉

The more recent political history of Cambodia has been shaped by developments in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam again, with the added mass destruction of the Marxist dictator Pol Pot who was effectively Cambodian Hitler trying to commit a genocide of the entire Cambodian people (he was ethnically Khmer-Chinese and considered the Cambodians to be a sub-human race. His efforts in mass slaughter and mass starvation contributed to an estimated 1.7 to 2.3 million deaths. Tens of thousands of mass graves scatter the country as his destructive Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia between 1975-1979. Like, that is not so long ago, I can remember the fall out always being in the news in the ‘80s.

As a result of the fuckery continuing in the region even after Pol Pot was rolled, a United Nations transitional authority was established in 1991. The Kingdom of Cambodia was created in 1993, and the country has been governed by a constitutional monarchy since then. The current King, King Norodom Sihamoni, acceded to the throne in 2004. It’s all so recent. In the most recent general elections, held in July 2023, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) won all the seats in the National Assembly, with nearly 80% of the vote – which is kinda what happens when you have an uneducated public and only one party to vote for. But still people aren’t worried about being rounded up and slaughtered like their parents were back in the 70s, so in spite of the abject poverty everywhere, they’re remarkably optimistic of their future.

The history lesson was interesting, and the sunset made it all seem even more poignant somehow…

On the way back to the jetty, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking about the people here and how little they have and yet they feel hopeful and happy… I took a picture of this kid jumping around in the water, (water that would probably kill me if I ingested any of it!), just after sunset and he just looked so joyful and carefree. It’s a blurry mess of a picture given the low light and I’m using a phone… but it shows so much imo. We all need food, water, shelter to survive… but what do we actually need to be happy?

After our little river cruise to the Chong Kneas Floating Village on Tonlé Sap, we made our way into town. Long kindly offered to take me out to dinner and show me some local spots because, ‘You don’t want to end up in a tourist trap!’ About 50% of the population make their money on tourism in Siem Reap and they’ve all been hit fairly hard by the Covid pandemic so there’s a lot of price gouging going on – he says that it can costs up to USD$10 per person for a nice meal with an alcoholic beverage, which is ridiculous apparently! So we head to the famous Pub Street and have a bit of a wander through to have a look at all the pretty lights they’ve put up to make a festive atmosphere for the tourists and then promptly head away from the glitz to a small family restaurant serving traditional Cambodian meals.

Pub Street is pretty cool – but it is sooo obviously touristic. Menus all in English everywhere, shops all filled with the same souvenir and clothing items to buy, they even have the old line up the old white men for a bath of fish biting pedicure with a side of life long fungus available! But we found the quiet little restaurant and Long translated the menu for me and I opted to try a traditional fish curry called ‘Amok curry – it was a fragrant green curry with coconut and lime flavours, light on the coriander! Long chose a prawn and pasta dish and a beer. My meal was absolutely delicious – possibly one of the best curries I have ever tasted, and it paired quite well with the lychee daiquiri that I chose off the cocktail list. 🙂 Long was right – dinner was only USD$7 a head… and I think I did his mind a little a bit, by paying for both our meals and rounding it up to USD$20 anyway.

Oh and I found out after dinner why Mr Rolex was asking me if I wanted Krud… apparently the Aussies that come here just love it.

I was planning on spending a bit longer in town, but was absolutely stuffed after such an early start, a few stressful and tense encounters with randoms, and then a long afternoon out in the sun… so opted to head back to the hotel for an early night so we could get a jump on tomorrow’s Angkor Wat itinerary and with a bit of luck beat the large group tourists.

Long found me a tuk tuk and rode back to the hotel with me, and I was smiling as I watched him make the tuk tuk driver clean the seats and remove some water bottle so it would be ‘clean enough for Madame’. He’s a fairly quiet, well spoken, very friendly man and so far proving to be very open minded good company – ie: he’s doesn’t seem exasperated by all my questions!

Diamond Princess Maiden visit to Miyako

Our day was kinda highjacked today, we were going to go into town to do some shopping, find a sake brewery, and hunt for fresh sashimi, but half our day was shanghaied dealing with insurance companies and stuff like that so we didn’t get off the ship until nearly 11am and all plans went out the window… that’s okay, these things happen.  A lot of the main attractions in the Iwate prefecture are up to an hour out of Miyako (like the amazing caves I intend to visit if I ever make it back here) so we knew we didn’t have time to do much at all.  As it happens we debarked just in time to see an unusual amount of official brou-haha because today, the Diamond Princess was visiting the town of Miyako for the very first time.

Miyako is a town that was devastated by the tsunami on March 11, 2011 and is still in the middle of rebuilding.  The township was ecstatic to welcome the ship (and her 3,000 well monied tourists) and they turned out in colourful display to welcome the ships company and formally present the traditional Maiden Voyage plaques that ships receive when they visit new ports.  The town’s dignitaries, including the governor of Iwate, the Mayor of Miyako and a host of other important looking middle aged men waiting for the ceremony to commence… The governor and the mayor listening to the ships captain giving a speech. The Mayor of Miyako who made a point of greeting us personally – I mean, I think he greeted nearly everyone who came off the ship by shaking hands and asking where we came from.  He was very friendly and had pretty good English. The town has a bunch of cute mascots… not quite sure what they are?  A salmon, a dolphin and a couple of dragons? It was not just the local dignitaries, but the local merchants were really happy to see the ship in port as well, and turned out with food trucks, market stalls, sake vendors, school children doing caligraphy and all sorts of cool stuff.

I particularly loved this little sign near a Takoyaki food truck promising a ‘small octopus friend in every ball’.  🙂  Fresh Takoyaki from food trucks is delicious by the way – much better than the frozen versins they serve us at the sushi trains at home, that have hardly any seafood in them. Today is also ANZAC Day, and the ship had a dawn service at 4:28am, which oddly enough we didn’t make it to.  Last time I was on a ship for ANZAC Day (a cruise out of Australia though) they did a dawn service and another service at 11am… this time they didn’t have the second service and I didn’t notice in the schedule that it wasn’t going to be happening.  This cruise seems to be made up of about 800 Australians so I can understand them not doing two – but I was sad to miss it.

We had planned to go to Sabbatini’s for dinner last night to celebrate our anniversary, but after a few hiccoughs and some stuff to sort out back home when we got back from Hirosaki Castle, we didn’t really feel up to it anymore, so we had postponed until tonight instead.

The food at the specialty restaurant is lovely, but I think when you have cruised as often as we have, you do start to find the whole thing a bit too predictable.  The menu rarely changes and if you’re going for a ‘special’ night out, you kinda want to try something new.

After dinner we went to check out a new show that Princess has created especially for its Asian cruises called ‘The Secret Silk’ that was created by Stephen Schwartz – the award-winning composer of Wicked, Godspell and Pippin, in conjunction with John Tartaglia, who has starred in Broadway hits like Avenue Q and Beauty and the Beast. We had pretty high expectations given the talent involved, but it felt like a swing and a miss as far as we could see… it was a Japanese inspired story with an Asian style costumes, dance choreography and set design, all set to Western music which really ruined it… the whole thing felt like the producers didn’t ‘trust’ Western audiences to be able to connect with and understand music that was congruous with the themes they were attempting to work with.  So it was weird and disjointed.  Which is a shame because it looked great.

As a little weirdness that I probably shouldn’t be putting in here but which gave me quite the giggle – we were in a lift well today and saw this lovely and very elegant couple who have been swanning around the ship (and I do mean swanning, they have been ballroom dancing in the middle of the atrium at every opportunity) getting ready to go down to dinner.  Mrs Shin was shaking a shawl around her shoulders and some very practical white knickers fell out of her shawl and onto the floor, which Mr Shin tried to hastily retrieve and then rush back to their room.  🙂  They have been walking about the ship like they were at home – but perhaps that is taking the ‘home away from home’ concept a little too far.  She was so embarrassed, it was adorable.

Aomori and Hirosaki Castle

Today we were in the port of Aomori on the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu.  The region is mostly known for its epic mountain scenery and for being inhabited since the last Ice Age some 30,000 years ago.  The modern city as it now stands was founded in 1625.  The ship arrived nice and early in spite of some challenging wind conditions (according to the bridge) and we were greeted by one very noisy troupe of local drummers and flautists. This our third trip to Aomori.  On my first visit here I took a day trip out to Lake Towada in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park and took a day cruise around the lake with Aunty Mary.  On my second visit here, I spent the day checking out the cultural highlights of the Nebuta House and the Wa-Rasse Museum, which houses all the beautiful floats that are used in the annual Nebuta Festival. Today we decided to have a nice relaxing day, hire a car and drive up to the nearby Hirosaki Castle – about 35kms from port – to hopefully see the famous cherry blossoms and have our own little hanami anniversary picnic. We picked up our rental car without incident, but the Japanese propensity for proper paperwork struck us yet again, this time in the form of needing to have an International Drivers Permit in order to be able to hire the vehicle.  We have hired cars in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Iceland, Poland, Germany, all over the place and usually have a permit, but they never really ask for it.  Here of course, they do like to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s, and luckily I still had a valid International Drivers Permit from my last trip and we were able to hire our gutless little compact Toyota for the day.

As I mentioned earlier, the drive out to the castle was only about 35kms, but the GPS was showing that it would take 1 hour and 15minutes to get there – which seemed ludicrous, but once we left Aomori proper, we discovered why.  The roads here are in an appalling state.  Major roads interconnecting major towns are often one lane only and have a speed limit of 50kmph – yes, you read that right, 50kmph!  Not only that, but there are innumerable traffic lights on these roads between cities that are operating on timers – so you can find yourself stopped at a traffic light that appear to be waiting for no one…?  After about 30 minutes of driving on a road like this we decided it must be because they have such excellent rail infrastructure that the road infrastructure feels like it has been designed as an afterthought.  Anyway, we eventually made it up to Hirosaki and found somewhere, only slightly precarious, to park the car and from there walked up to the famous Hirosaki Castle.

Hirosaki Castle sits atop a stone wall surrounded by an enormous moat.  It is a 17thC feudal castle with elegant roofs, a tower, and five different gates and the enormous gardens are filled with 2,500 cherry trees that blossom in the spring. Luckily for us – we are here at the beginning of the 130th annual Cherry Blossom Festival which attracts over a million visitors each year, and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom creating an unbelievably beautiful environment.

The very Japanese advertising posters for the event:
We entered through the famous Cherry Blossom Tunnel and were immediately overcome by the beautiful, almost surreal, atmosphere created by these ancient trees.  On either side of us as we strolled along the river banks were elegrant and graceful cherry trees that appeared to be just dripping in flowers.  The effect is hard to describe, a feeling of wonderment followed us around for our entire time here – I can only liken it to being engulfed in an enormous piece of installation art that overcomes all your senses… the beauty of the flowers, the delightfully subtle aroma of the blossoms in the air, the awed hushed and respectful tones of the people murmuring their appreciation as they moved among the trees, the gentle lapping of the nearby water, and an almost magical feeling in the air as everyone seemed entranced by this overwhelming sight.  I can only compare it to the feelings I had seeing St Peter’s in Rome for the first time, or the sense of wonder and awe that I felt at Machu Picchu… it’s hard to describe how these truly unique places can effect you.  And this was most unexpected – I mean, they’re just flowers in lots of trees, but this felt like a truly special place and a truly special sight and I felt honoured and priviledged to be here to enjoy this. And I make no apologies for all the photographs I have included in this post, they do not in any way do it justice – in my mind, these photos are a pale imitation of what this place looks like and how it made us feel. The gardens were largely filled with locals who were drawn to the park to enjoy the beautfy of the trees – you could tell they were on their lunch breaks from work, or were there with work colleagues to enjoy a hanami party – a traditional cherry blossom viewing party that typically involves picnic blankets, feast day foods, and sake on the grass under the beautfiul trees as you watch the wind rustling through the branches and the occasional petals falling from the trees like confetti. Every man and their puppy appeared to be out enjoying the gardens today… even that Dogue. 🙂 I have a feeling I am going to end up sounding completely repetitive here – but this place feels completely magical. Further into the park, towards the end of the Cherry Blossom Tunnel was the start of the Festival Markets that spring up between 20th April and May 3rd this year.  This is known as Golden Week in Japan and many domestic tourists are taking their annual holidays.  Here at the base of the castle walls, the markets were full of knickknacks and toys for children, sideshow alley type games of chance and some interesting food stalls. Chocolate coated banana-on-a-stick. Chocolate not being ‘my thing’, I did not try one.

Takoyaki ladies were industriously making snacks for the masses – one baby octopus for each takoyaki ball. Another man and his puppy…not only are visitors required to pick up after their dogs here, but there are signs indicating that dogs must be carried in the grounds. Needless to say, we did not see any German shepherds or Rotweillers being ferried about. The Dogue from earlier had his own pram! We walked further around the moat towards the entrance of the Castle and found several beautfiful ponds surrounded by ever more cherry trees – the stillness of the water reflecting the elegance of the blossom laden branches.  Just gorgeous! The entire complex has hundreds of lanterns placed in among the trees – I imagine it must look spectacular all lit up of an evening… Hirosaki Castle is an epic fortress that at one time was six stories tall – lightening hit it in 1627, blowing up the tower that once housed stores of gunpowder.  In 1944, the Imperial Army stripped all the bronze tiles and artifacts from the Castle to be repurposed into creating munitions for WW2 efforts.  It is still quite an imposing edifice and so prettily situated in among the cherry trees. More of the locals enjoying hanami parties. Today, it was our plan to come up to the Castle, hopefully see some cherry blossoms (little did we know what to expect!) and have some lunch under the trees to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary… we did not know that the Cherry Blossom Festival was going to be like the international food on-a-stick festival, but as a result we ate very well – with tempura sweetcorn on-a-stick, chicken on-a-stick, pork on-a-stick, scallops on-a-stick, beers, and all good things for lunch at our picnic.
We found a nice quiet spot to lay out our (borrowed from the ship picnic) blanket and settled in for nearly two hours, watching the world go by, the petals floating down from the trees whenever the wind picked up and listening to a nearby musician playing a shamisen.  I have read many books on Japanese history and culture and in my mind’s eye, it doesn’t get more Japanese than this. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like here before WW2 when the grounds would have been graced by families in traditional summer yakutas with children eating crushed iced treats, and ornately dressed maiko and geisha entertaining business men under the cherry blossoms… Looking up from our picnic blanket… After lunch we continued to wander the gardens and at every turn were greeted by yet more and more beautiful vistas surrounded by the cherry blossoms.

I know it looks like there is hardly anyone here in most of these pictures, but I am a very patient photographer and am only too happy to wait for all the selfie stick weilding bastards… err, I mean tourists to get out of my shot so I can get an unspoiled view.  🙂 I fucking love this place… And, I fucking love this man.

Mr K, you and I have spent an amazing and challenging 20 years together.  Some of the trials we faced seemed insurmountable… many relationships would have crumbled under the pressure of seven years of IVF failures, and a decade of living with someone with chronic pain and other chronic illnessness.  You have been my dearest friend and my most unwavering supporter.  You have cheered me when I have been sad or depressed, you have encouraged me when I have been frustrated or overwhelmed, you have loved me when I have been at my absolute worst.  I am sure I don’t deserve you, but I am awfully glad you haven’t figured that out (yet!).  I love you more and more every day, and I look forward to the joys the next 20 years may bring.  <3

Sakata… and mummified monks

Today we were in Sakata in the Yamagata Prefecture – it is a relatively new stop on cruise itineraries, and our first visit here.  Ever since I saw the name of the town on our proposed journey, I’ve had that stupid advertising jingle for rice crackers intermittently going through my head.  Sa-ka-ta, do do do, do do do, sa-ka-ta! Advertising has a lot to answer for – the Campbell’s Hardware jingle also ruined ‘Scotland The Brave’ on the bagpipes at the Edinborough Tattoo for me many years ago too (We’re Campbell’s Hardware! We’re the clan that can! Glad you went out of business, ya bastards!). Grrrr…

Anyway, Sakata is a relatively small town with many visitors leaving saying they found very little to see and do here. and to them I say – ‘You didn’t look very hard, did you?’
We had no real set agenda for the day and after going through a nightmarishly long and tedious immigration procedure on the ship.  On most cruise ships, you will find yourself handing over your passport to the ship’s administration and border processing will take place behind the scenes without passenger involvement, and officials will effectively deputise the ship’s security staff to police that the correct people are entering and exiting the country.  Japanese immigration officials, however, will come onto the cruise ships and process everyone back into the country after even just a quick stop in South Korea like we did yesterday… which wouldn’t be so bad but they are fingerprinting and photographing everyone and no one heads down for processing at their allotted time because they are all to bloody special to do what they are told, causing all sorts of long queues and unnecessary delays. The whole escapade is no doubt the result of the Japanese propensity towards inefficient hardcopy paperwork and their driving need to physical stamp of all the things, but having said that, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world for international travellers, and if their processes have anything to do with that, then we shouldn’t complain.

So we didn’t get into town until well around 11;30am. The first place we decided to visit was the Kaikokuji Temple, which is famous for housing six mummified monks.

Over 1,000 years ago, the practice of self-mummification was started by a monk named Kukai.  The act, called Sokushinbutsu, was intended to demonstrate the ultimate capacity for religious discipline and dedication and would take place over numerous years which culminated in the death and preservation of the monk’s physical body. Many hundreds of monks attempted the self-mummification process, but only 28 were known to be successful.  Those were then elevated to the status of Buddha and were then placed on display in temples in a place of honour for visitors to worship… unsuccessful sokushinbutsu monks were reinterred in their tombs and continued to be respected for their dedication and perseverance but not worshipped..?

Kukai (774 – 835 AD) was a Japanese monk who practiced Shugendo – a philosophy based on achieving spiritual power through discipline and self-denial. Kukai, in his old age, went into a deep meditation state and denied himself all food and water, eventually leading to his voluntary death. He was entombed on Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. Years later, the tomb was opened and Kukai was supposedly found as if sleeping, his appearance allegedly unchanged and even his hair healthy and strong.

Since that time, the process of sokushinbutsu formalised and self-mummification became practiced by a number of dedicated followers of the Shingon sect. Sokushinbutsu was not considered to be a form of suicide, but was viewed as a form of higher enlightenment.

The manner in which one mummified one’s own body was extremely rigorous and by all accounts extremely long, arduous and painful. For the first 1,000 days, the monks would refuse all food except nuts, seeds, fruits and berries and engaged in extensive physical work to strip the body of all fat reserves.  The next 1,000 days, their diet was restricted to just bark and roots. Near the end of this period, they start to consume a poisonous tea made from Urushi tree sap, which would cause severe nausea and rapidly deplete the body of fluids. The tree sap poison also acted as a preservative, which would kill off bacteria and maggots after death which stopped the body from decaying… much like filling your body with formaldehyde – only not waiting until you were dead to do it.

In the final stage, after over six years of this torture, the monks would lock themselves in a stone tomb barely larger than a person and go into a state of meditation. Seated in the lotus position, he would not move from until he died. A small tube provided oxygen to the and each day, the monk would ring a small bell to let the outside world know if he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb would be sealed for another 1,000 days.  At the end of that time, the tomb would be opened, and if the monk was successfully mummified, the body would be moved to a temple to be worshipped as a Buddha, and if not, he was reinterred and left there.

Cheerful stuff… the beautiful and bountiful cherry blossoms blooming in the grounds surrounding the rather macabre temple made for an odd juxtaposition to this somewhat gruesome religious practice. After ‘admiring’ the monks for their dedication and perseverance with some level of disbelief, we went for a bit of a stroll looking for a local restaurant to have some lunch.  We decided not to head back into the centre of town opting instead for somewhere where locals might have go.  We found a lovely little restaurant and found ourselves treated to a wonderfully traditional repast.

We were greeted by two very friendly ladies who barely spoke any English and were encouraged to discard our shoes and don some slippers before being led to a private room with a door that opened out into a private garden.  The menu was not in Engish but between the photographs of the meals available, and some help from Google Translate (such a godsend!) we were able to order some tamago, some pork rice sticky balls, some tempura fish and vegetables and miso soup.  Oh, and beer and sake of course.

Asakusa is famous for their tempura restaurants, but they had nothing on this place -it was light and so tasty. Justdelicious. Best tamago I have ever tried – that stuff they serve us back in Australia is crap  :/ After lunch we strolled the streets in search of the local sake brewery – which we found, but which was unfortunately not open to the public.  *sadface*  So instead we went hunting for a bar… I love the sidewalk art here.

Even the manhole covers are so cool. We found a noisy little bar (the operative word in that sentence being ‘little’) and went into try some local sake.  We were greeted by a rather unusual barkeep who was very much into Western culture and had a hundred questions for us about where we were from and did we know a big fat man from Brisbane who visited him a short while ago…  🙂 The local sake in Yamagata prefecture all comes with a stamp of authenticity. And when poured, is done so generously you can admire the meniscus of your drink! Of course, we had to go shopping after to find some sake to take back on the ship -ignoring all the warnings that the ship’s staff will take alcohol off you, because of course unless it’s hard liquor they rarely ever do. Back on the dock, we found a riot of markets and dancing and noise and takoyaki trucks and free wifi going on. All up we had a lovely relaxed (half) day in Sakata.