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.

Busan Take Two

Today, we were in Busan, South Korea for a rather weird and unusual port day… weird because it’s Sunday and stuff was less open than usual, and unusual because the ship didn’t arrive until 3pm and was scheduled to depart at 10:30pm. Given we have been here before, we weren’t too bothered about having a strange half day to go to town, but I felt sorry for people on the ship’s tour who signed up to go all the way out to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple… it takes about an hour to get everyone off the ship, the temple is easily an hour’s drive away, followed by about an hour worth of steps to get down to the beautiful seaside temple, only to end up there in dusk – or worse, in semi-darkness. Not the best scenario for photography or for admiring the intricately painted and carved temple.

Never mind. Our plans only extended as far as going to town, finding a coveted transit card on the metro, checking out the fish markets, heading to a local shopping centre and being back on the ship for to see the lovely bridge all lit up for sail away.

We took the free shuttle bus – the one the ship doesn’t tell you about – to the Busan Metro Station and managed to nail our first objective pretty quickly. Only of course after finding an ATM because none of the ticketing machines accepted credit cards… what’s with that Asia? Everywhere else you can tap and wave for just about anything from a can of Coke to a $100 purchase – here, it’s ‘cash only’ just about everywhere. South Korea and Japan are known as technologically advanced nations and yet, they seem stuck in last century’s financial payment systems.

Anyway, got ourselves some ‘cashbee’ cards for the collection and took a train to the famous Ja-Gal-Ch’i Fish Markets, whereupon we were greeted by nearly every edible fishy thing under the sun. Some of which was already half-gutted and prepared, some of which was being dehydrated for purposes unknown, some of which was alive and kicking in tanks, and some of which was doing its best to escape said tanks! The Fish Markets cover an enormous area including this building where you can buy your fresh seafood and take it to one of the many restaurants upstairs and have them prepare/cook it for you. The entire tray of oysters in the photo below was only10,000 won, and while I would normally have been keen to try all the things, we were here at about 4:30pm, and I was not at all hungry.


After this, we went looking for, and promptly got lost in the Lotte Mall – one of the world’s biggest shopping malls consisting of three interconnected 13 storey towers of shopping as we hunted for the observation deck and coffee shop. With the enormous size of this place, the last thing we expected was to discover the observation deck was only accessible from one tucked out of the way elevator, but eventually, we found the right one. The views were admittedly a bit uninspiring – Busan was, 20C overcast and very hazy today.

After this we made our way back into the shops to potter around, find a snack and bludge some wifi in a coffee shop – as you do, before making our way back to the ship around 9pm. I took some lovely and slightly dodgy photos of the sail away (you try taking night photos off the back of a moving ship with no tripod!) but I kinda like their fuzzy weirdness anyway  😉

Tune in Tokyo

Feels weird to be opening my blog and realizing I haven’t written a single thing here since I was last travelling. Life has been pottering along, work, home, school, puppies, short domestic trips to Hobart and Canberra etc … <insert some variation of domestic bliss here>. But here we are back on the road, or rather back in the air, and I feel compelled to write something so I can look back on these memories of busy and heady travel when I’m old and stuck in a nursing home and unable to go anywhere under my own steam.

This year, Mr K and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary… it’s rather a weird thing to be celebrating really. It’s not like we did any special to achieve it or at any point thought we wouldn’t make it. Time marches inexorably forward so it was really just a matter of ‘time’, I suppose (Did you like that one Mr K? That was for you.).

We had always planned to be spending our 20th anniversary in France, wandering the streets of Paris, tootling around the countryside in a tiny silly car (a la Absolutely Fabulous), surrounded by vineyards and chateau, eating too much cheese (as if there is such a thing!?) and testing out my dodgy highschool French – ‘Ou est la plume da ma tante?’ … However, one thing led to another and work being always tricky when you’re self employed, we decided we could only really spare two to three weeks away and there’s no way I would put myself through the agony of a long haul flight to Europe for such a short trip – which is how we ended up watching Notre Dame in flames from our hotel room in Asakusa, Tokyo, rather possibly being there in person. It’s a weird thing to watch a historical event like this unfolding and realizing that sticking to your original plan or making a different decision, or perhaps a slight change in schedule might have seen you in the middle of something like this. It’s like the massive explosion that happened in Tianjin the day after we left the area or the military coup that occurred in Turkey the day before Aunty Mary was due to fly there. A day either way and who knows…

 

So Japan it is. I had seen a nice deal on a cruise and QFF points for the relatively short flights, and here we are. The Plan – arrive in Tokyo two nights before our cruise departure, spend one very chill day in Tokyo doing nothing but looking for cherry blossoms and Pokemon, sake and sashimi (roughly in that order!), then make our way to the beautiful Diamond Princess in Yokohama for a short 8 night cruise before spending a week in Osaka, then some time in a traditional ryokan/onsen before coming home with a few days downtime before heading off to May Crown.

Our transit day was delightfully uneventful, we even had a spare seat and a bit of extra room on the flight on the way here. I learned a very important lesson – embroidering on a plane during turbulence is… well, it’s rather stupid. I must have stabbed myself at least half a dozen times, but persevered because there was nothing else to do.

We arrived at Narita around 1830 and then did our usual not-fun dance at Terminal 2 trying to figure out the train to get us to Asakusa. The trains in Japan are phenomenal; fast, clean, efficient, regular, easy to navigate… all except for trips from the airport. There are three different options to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo. The Narita Express for which you need two different tickets, only one of which is purchasable from a machine, the Skyliner for which you need only one ticket also purchasable from a machine, or you can take a JR line train on your Suica card which can also be topped up from a machine – but, (hint for new players!) all these machine service options only take cash! So it’s always a bit of a cluster to figure out which option is going to suit you best depending on where in the city you need to go and which option is going to be quickest based on your potential departure time and kinda annoying that you end up dropping a pile of currency the moment you get to country. This is my third time in Japan so I’m ready for this one now… it’s going to be a cluster no matter how good you think your planning and timing is, so just let the chaos flow over you is my advice. If you get to the city in an hour or so without dropping $300 for a taxi, you’re doing great.

We made it to Asakusa just after 8pm, stepped out from the train and were greeted by a lovely clear evening with a slight chill and our first sight of a famous cherry blossom tree under a warm street light, and the smells from a nearby curry restaurant. I immediately smiled and felt this was going to be a great trip.

We checked into our hotel, admired the view and how spacious the room was (for Tokyo), before heading out for a wander for a late dinner. We found a quaint little restaurant (not a noodle bar, not a sashimi restaurant, not a teppanyaki grill?) that served various soups, stews, grills and general Japanese fabulousness. Enjoyed a lovely meal of yakitori and broiled eel washed down with a nice junmai sake before heading back to the hotel to decompress after our transit day.

The following morning, in accordance with The Plan, we skipped breakfast and took a train to the traditional Japanese gardens in Shinjuku in search of cherry blossoms. We strolled among the gardens for a few hours admiring the gorgeous trees, with their plentiful blossoms in tones of white to deep pink. Hundreds of locals were in the gardens with their picnic blankets enjoying small hanami parties – which is a tradition of sitting under the trees and eating a small meal while watching the petals float down from the blossoms. I can totally see the appeal for these workers in their business attire, or the somberly dressed grandmothers grouped together with their tea and rice cakes… outside the gardens is surrounded by skyscrapers, retail hell and screeching trains, but here under the trees is a serene tranquillity and an unusual sort of gentility just pausing for a moment to enjoy some good company, share a drink and soak in the beauty of the cherry blossoms. It must be doubly wonderful to be outdoors under the cherry blossom trees if you had just had a few months of very cold, possibly snowy winter weather. Everything about the gardens was just gorgeous, and we whiled away a few hours here, just gently strolling the paths and remarking on the beauty of the flowers.

After this, we popped down to Tokyo Station to check out the new Pokemon Centre. On our last trip, we went to the Pokemon Megastore in Sunshine Plaza, but this place has only just opened and has a crazy overpriced Pokemon Café and everything. But we just wanted to have a sticky beak and see if there was any cool stuff here we could take home. The shop, as anticipated, was full of merchandise of all different Pokemon of varying degrees of utility – the Japanese seem to love confectionery and cookies in over-packaged Pokemon themed tins and boxes, there was heaps of it! And of course, loads of plush, which takes me back to my Disney Store days and I had to resist the habitual urge to start tidying the Pikachus. We picked up a few knickknacks but found nothing particular to take home before heading back to Asakusa .

 

 

Detective Pikachu comes out a few days after we leave Osaka – but Mr K is still hoping to find an advanced session in English or something.

It was around 4pm when we got back to Asakusa and decided to have a short wander around the markets. We stopped at a sake cellar for some tastings and bought some nice sake to take on the ship with us, and popped into a restaurant near the hotel for a bit of a snack – sake tasting after skipping breakfast and lunch was maybe not so wise. Some sashimi and some more sake later, we went back to the hotel to make use of the footbath for a while as the sun set. The hotel has a public bath available for use – for ladies from 10am to 8pm and for men from 8:30pm until 1am. Nudity is compulsory. I would have enjoyed popping up for a soak, but given that the timings are somewhat inconvenient and Mr K and I could not go together we opted for the open air footbath on the rooftop. For some reason, nuding it up with strangers in Japan feels weird compared to stripping off in Iceland, which I had no problem with??? No idea why… I’ll have to think on that one.

After a relaxing hour or so with very red and very shrivelled feet, we went back down for a bit of a rest before heading out to dinner. We had decided to find a good sashimi restaurant that served the famous fugu and research told us there was a place not far from where we were staying in Asakusa that has not had ‘a fugu casualty’ in over 75 years, which was comforting until we did the math and realized the restaurant had been there for over 90 years! J The staff were so friendly and polite and helpful and neither of them spoke a lick of English! Our server had a small translator that she spoke into to welcome us and try to help us through the predominantly Japanese menu, and between that and Google Translate, we managed to order dinner and make pleasantries.

Our meal consisted of a fugu jelly appetizer, a large sashimi platter to share which had mackerel, two different tunas, mackerel and kingfish, octopus, prawns and of course, some fugu, followed by some deep fried fugu and all washed down with delicious Kiku-Masamune sake (from one of the breweries I am looking forward to visiting near Osaka). The meal was delicious – I would highly recommend this tucked out of the way, little suburban restaurant if you happen to be in Asakusa. Unsurprisingly after an afternoon of sake and sake with a sake motif, I slept very well!

The next morning we had nothing on the agenda but to transit to the ship via Ueno Station to trade in our vouchers for JR passes for use after the cruise. We only had to get ourselves about an hour from Tokyo to Yokohama to board onto our ship, so we decided to go find the new Hokusai Museum for the morning. We packed up and checked so we could take our time at the museum and trotted over the river to Sumida.

 

The Hokusai Museum is brand new and was only opened in October last year, so we were really keen to see it. Entrance was only 700Y so I wasn’t really hopeful that it was be an extensive collection – and I was right. We saw more Hokusai works at the NGV exhibition last year. So it was a little disappointing in that regard, but there was an enormous collection of his sketch books which were very interesting and they have on display the famous 7m long lost Sumidagawa Ryogan Keshiki Zukan landscape scroll that was hidden in some private collection in France somewhere for nearly 100 years before surfacing at auction in 2008. The scroll was created in 1890 and was believed to have been taken to France and sold to a private collector in 1913. The piece is simply stunning and details the river that runs through this area of Tokyo… we could make out the bridges that we crossed to get to the museum, and the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa and roughly where our hotel is located! It ends, as all good things should, in the pleasure house district which is lavishly detailed. No photographs were allowed in the museum so I have pilfered some common license images from Wikipedia.

and of course…
*I wonder how many times that damned Wave has been posted to this blog…

After the museum, we made our way back to the hotel to collect our luggage and onto the trains. We had quite a long delay switching our vouchers for JR rail passes – there is something about the Japanese love affair with paperwork, like actual paperwork with hard copies of everything and officiously stamping everything, that makes transactions like these take much longer than you would think they should in this day and age. But we eventually got our rail passes and stopped for a quick lunch before boarding a train to Yokohama.

Much quicker than anticipated, we were in Yokohama, bundled into a taxi and at the Oshimbashi cruise terminal boarding the Diamond Princess. This is my third time on this ship and she is as lovely as I remember. Our muster drill took much longer than it should, but once that was done, we found went to watch the traditional breaking of the sake barrel and then settled ourselves into the Skywalkers Lounge with a Mai Tai and watching the sunset over Yokohama as we sailed away.