Sunday, October 5, 2008

Land of the Rising Sun, Part 2 -- Osakan You See...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Children! Do not try this at home! Guiding tourists through your city should only be done by experienced professionals on a closed course. Taking trains without a schedule can be dangerous to your sanity.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t good, either. The six of us met in the Ocean Bar at “the trivia table” at 8:45 this morning. We and the Pettuses were still tired from our foray into Kyoto yesterday. Nonetheless, we ventured forth to meet Mr. Otah, our SGG guide. Keep in mind that yesterday he took us around half of Kobe getting from the adjacent Metro station to the JR, a distance of maybe 100 feet. We left the Metro, walked outside, up steps, down steps around a hotel and then back into the JR station. Today, we emphasized that MA, D and Roxannne could not tolerate walking too many steps. Wham! He discovered the short way to make the transfer from one to the other. When we were traversing the JR station, Mr. Otah magically discovered that there are, indeed, elevators and escalators available for use by the public. In other words, we were off to a better start than yesterday.

We did our usual dance at the ticket machines, Mr. Otah hindering more than helping. Regardless, we arrived at Osaka’s JR station with little trouble. Once he figured out where we were, Mr. Otah led us to meet Yoshi, his companion for the day. Yoshi, another Goodwill Guide, spoke much better English than did he, but she seemed to be relegated to a secondary role for the day. We could not decide if this was based on sexism, seniority in the Osaka SGG or to Mr. Otah’s being an officer in the SGG club. Our two guides seemed to disagree throughout the day about what to do, where to go and how to get there.

We think that we were every Metro line which runs into or out of Osaka. Our goal was the Osaka Castle, an edifice too big to miss, really, but Mr. Otah [whom we later nicknamed Elmer and Frodo] seemed not to know how to get there on the Metro. We did at least one about face, getting off one train only to immediately get on the same line going back where we started. There may have been some other roundabout routes involved before we arrived at our destination; we were too confused and amused to notice.

Once we emerged from the Metro station near the Castle, we still had a long schlep ahead of us. We approached the Castle from the rear, probably because we were just a little lost. As a result, we had a harder slope to navigate as we entered the grounds and finally approached the Castle than if we had come in the front gate.

Osaka Castle is over 400 years old, dating to 1580 under the shoguns who built it on a site which had held a large Buddhist temple, Osaka Hongani. Although the Castle “fell” during the Summer War of 1615, reconstruction started in 1620 and took ten years to complete. The main tower was destroyed by lightning in 1665 and other buildings were lost to fires over the years. The main tower was again rebuilt stating 1931 with the funds coming from a public campaign. The area around the Castle was damaged by bombs during WWII but have been at least partially restored and turned into a historic-site park open to the public.

Currently, the Castle houses a museum showcasing the history of the shogun and the Castle itself. We did not know this when we arrived there, hot and tired. We had stopped as a group on the bridge over the inner moat where Mr. Otah read us the history of Osaka Castle. It was yeoman-like, to be kind, and he plunged ahead despite the fact that we weren’t really listening. When we got to the Castle’s entrance, Russ and Patti decided to stay outside since they had seen it two years ago on the way from the Statendam to the airport. MA saw the steps required just to enter the building and quickly opted to stay with them. Otah and Yoshi had a little argument about who was doing what. Yoshi said that she would escort Ed, Roxanne and D inside [a decision we cheered] and then announced that she would be staying outside, leaving the three of us in Otah’s obviously oblivious ministrations. Once we paid for our tickets, we dragged ourselves up a long series of stone steps before finally entering the museum. We took an elevator to the top of the Castle and spent some time on its observation deck of the where we marveled at this architectural artifact set in the middle of modern Osaka.

The rest of the Castle was devoted to a celebration of itself. There were displays referencing the life and times of the first shogun [Hideyoshi Toyotomi], the Summer War and the Castle itself. We were surprised and disappointed that the interior was not a representation of he Castle as it would have appeared prior to its fall; we had expected that considering its history and the fact that the Nijo Palace in Kyoto had been preserved that way. We worked our way quickly down flights of steep stairs, stopping at each level to walk around the displays but not understanding a darn thing since almost none of the signs included any English. Mr. Otah seemed baffled by the whole thing to the point that he kept trying to descend by way of the up-designated stairways. It was at this point that D named him “Elmer” in honor of Elmer Fudd or, in this case, Elmer the Befuddled.

Ed, Roxanne and D met up with the rest of the group around 11:30 and headed for the Osaka Museum of History. Earlier in the morning, Elmer had presented us with an agenda. He anticipated showing us the Castle and Museum before lunch and then the Kuromon Market and something else before hitting Osaka’s shopping streets. His schedule called for us to return to the JR station for the hour-long trip back to the Amsterdam at 5:00 p.m. After yesterday’s late return from Kyoto, there was no way we were starting back at 5 o’clock.

At any rate, we walked out of the front gate of the Castle and started to make our way to the Museum. As we passed one building, we heard loud thuds emanating from the interior. We investigated and found what appeared to be kendo and judo matches between high school students. There were even several girls among the kendo participants. We watched and photographed for a few minutes before continuing on our trek to the Museum.

When we got to the Museum, there was more not-unexpected confusion over ticket prices with Yoshi and Elmer apparently working at cross-purposes. Yoshi seemed to know what she was doing and eventually we paid our way in and went to the top floor via elevator so we could again work our way back to ground level. Once again, everything was in Japanese, which was to be expected, but there was no attempt to explain what we were seeing. We took the escalators back to the first floor as quickly as we could.

We told our guides that we were hungry, thirsty and tired; travel may be enlightening but it is also exhausting. They suggested that we walk about 15 minutes to restaurant specializing in Japanese pizza [no cheese, mostly veggies]. We countered that the Museum had a restaurant which we wanted to investigate. We won. And the restaurant, though short on atmosphere, had good food. Roxanne, MA and had curry and rice which they really liked; Ed had a version of a bento box, a sampler which included soup, fish, pickles and other things; Patti had a bowl of something with meat; and Russell had beer. The guides also got drinks but did not eat. It was our usual $20 lunch [actually $21, but who’s counting]. More importantly, we all enjoyed both the food and the chance to rest. Yoshi presented us with a collection of postcards showing off Osaka, mostly pictures of places we had not visited; we will divvy them up later.

While we were eating, Yoshi gave D a form to fill out which mostly recapped our day and our request for services. He had filled out something similar on-line months ago, so this was a sort of evaluation. Where the form asked for the time frame of the services requested, he wrote “morning and lunch.” It was our way of saying that we had had enough and were ready to go home. We think Elmer and Yoshi were surprised and maybe a bit hurt, but we were really ready; Patti almost cheered when we made the point.

So, it was back on the Metro and then to the JR station and the usual befuddlement by Elmer at the ticket machine. He insisted on our buying tickets of the wrong denomination despite what Yoshi said, so we had to add to our fare cards we reached Kobe. We could get on the rapid-service train but would not have able to get through the gates to exit. The difference was only 10 yen, but none of us wanted to miss out departure tonight.

Everything worked out, though. When we exited the JR station near the ship, Patti knew exactly how to get to the Metro station. It wasn’t difficult, but she was the only one who had made a point of remembering everything including the train we needed to take for that final leg.

We met Ed and Roxanne shortly after we boarded for a celebratory real Coke and lots of laughs. Although the day had not turned out exactly as we had hoped, or even close to it, we had had an adventure unlike anyone else on board. [Roxanne told us at dinner that John and Mary Ann Darcy had had a good time with their Guide, but they traveled by themselves and could not have had nearly as much fun as we did since they used taxis, not trains]. Cunard is right: Getting there is half the fun.

All in all, our two days in the port of Kobe were unforgettable for soooo many reasons. As Roxanne wrote in her blog, for example, the distance between stops on any train is directly proportional to whether you are standing or sitting. And, if there is a Metro train that you haven’t ridden, are you required to before you can return to your starting point? And while we make fun of Mr. Otah, we have to remember that all of the Goodwill Guides are volunteers offering a valuable, if often erratic, service. For every Elmer, there are probably two or three Keikos. Now, there was a guide.

We set sail around 11 o’clock tonight for our next port and more adventures –Shanghai!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

We were lucky with the weather in Kobe/Osaka/Kyoto. If anything, we were too hot. On Saturday MA carried a jacket which matched her outfit and D packed a sweater. It was so warm that all we did was carry them from site to site. Yesterday, we were smarter although D did carry the rain jackets all day just to be safe. It was still hot, even indoors.

Today, on the other hand, was overcast and maybe a little rainy. Or they could have washing the windows and decks. We weren’t outside enough to know and couldn’t really tell from inside. Skies were dark with heavy fog at times. We wondered if this was the aftermath of the most recent typhoon in the area. Like hurricanes, though, it is better not to talk about them.

We spent the day as we have most sea days by reading and playing trivia with some penny slots thrown in for variety. The casino keeps opening and closing as we sail depending on our distance from shore and intrusion into territorial waters. We won at trivia this morning by winning a tie-breaker. That makes 6 wins so far, below our usual number but better than any other team so far. Since the ship’s staff isn’t keeping track of trivia winners, we do, especially since we are doing well.

Tonight was the captain’s reception where they acknowledge frequent sailers. It’s a cocktail party with speeches. The theater was filled to capacity as almost everyone on board is a repeat passenger. Some received pins and medals at the party, but most of the “awardees” received their rewards in their cabins since there too many to name individually. We lapped up free drinks [champagne and Coke] and hors d’oeuvres before dinner. Dinner featured escargot and lobster tails. As Rachel would say, “Yummo!”

Tomorrow looks like more of the same minus the lobster tails. We have had to buy more internet time so we can keep blogging and checking e-mail. Posting the blog is not taking as long as it did at first. Either the equipment is working better of D had too steep a learning curve. It still takes 10 minutes or so to post and format, so adding pictures will have to wait until we get home.

We asked the staff to move two chairs from the Lido deck to “our” verandah because sometimes we want to sit, not lounge. Manto, the cabin steward, is aware of the request and he and D checked out the rear deck prior to dinner. The deck staff had moved different lounges to the area, so Manto said he would work on getting it done right by tomorrow. When D first made the request, he gave the room number as 6221 which is on Verandah deck. The Guest Services rep said she would talk to our concierge [hey, it is Verandah Deck!] and D just laughed. Life on the upper decks does have its perks – we will be among the first to do the face-to-face dance with the Chinese officials tomorrow. This will be like the dance we did with the Japanese but tenser.

More tomorrow on the immigration dance, trivia and the weather.

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