Friday, October 3, 2008

Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Arches

Wednesday, October 1, 2009

We are in Miyako, Japan, today but have no plans to go ashore. After a relaxed breakfast, MA had her nails done while D sat by the pool and began World Without End, Ken Follett’s gigantic [990 pages] about life in 14th Century England. Although not a sequel in the traditional sense, it is set in the same town as his Pillars of the Earth but 200 years later. Again, it will revolve around the building of cathedrals and the conflict between Church and State. Some things never change.

The town of Miyako is about 2 miles from the ship. A shuttle bus was available for those passengers who are “mobility challenged” as the announcement emphasized. The rest could walk – about 40 minutes we discovered—or take a taxi for 1000 yen. If you were reading carefully, you know that 1000 yen is about 10 dollars. Yes, there will be a quiz when this is all over.

We lost at trivia again today but have lost our motivation; apparently none of the “good” prizes are offered any more. We already have our fill of coffee mugs, mouse pads and key chains. With no mag lights, umbrellas, floppy hats or calculators in our future, we have lost our will to win. Besides, we have enough of all of all of those at home already. We’re trying to convince the staff to offer drinks or yuppie coffees instead but have not been successful thus far.

We opted not to walk into town and reports from others confirmed that there wasn’t much to the town itself. The HAL tours all went to the countryside, especially to a local beach famous for its rock formations. Roxanne and Ed took an all-day bus trip which visited not only the beach area but also the farming areas. They said it was an interesting but long day. We have no regrets.

Following tomorrow’s sea day, we will be docked in Kobe for two days. On Friday, we and the Pettuses [Pettii?] will be met at 9 a.m. by a Mr. Atoh who will escort us to Kyoto via the Japan Rail [JR] system. We will be met in Kyoto by Keiko Nagata with whom we have exchanged e-mails. She is set to show us some highlights of eastern Kyoto. We will purchase passes and travel on public buses all day. Keiko will return us to the JR station and make sure we get on the right train. We don’t know if Mr. Atoh is staying with us all day.

On Saturday, Mr. Atoh and another Goodwill Guide will meet all six of us and go to Osaka. There will be two guides because there are now more people in the group. We have no idea where we will go, but the ground rules are the same: We pay for the Guides’ expenses including transportation, meals and entrance fees; we bring them gifts as a ‘thank you’ gesture; and we will not offer them money. As may have been posted earlier, the Goodwill Guides are volunteers who belong to clubs dedicated to assisting foreigners to see specific areas of Japan. The Guides get the chance to practice their language skills and the visitors get to see Japan through the eyes of an ordinary person, not a professional. We are looking forward to the experience.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The whole Date Line thing is really confusing. When we are in Florida, it is easy to keep track of the time difference between us and Jon in Jakarta. In fact, D keeps local and Jakarta time posted on his computer. It only becomes important to us when we want to talk to the kids – we know that our morning is their evening and our evening is their tomorrow morning. Time zones are not important to e-mail.

Now, however, we are trying to live in two time zones simultaneously. Even as this is being written, at 10 a.m. ship’s time, we are watching CNN coverage of last night’s debate and vote on the seven gazillion dollar financial bailout. And yet the two are one, since Larry King’s evening is our morning. Very Zen, Grasshopper, but very confusing. When the vice-presidential candidates have their debate Friday night, we will be walking off the ship in order to travel to Osaka. Fortunately for us, CNN seems to replay everything every twelve hours, so we may be able to watch the re-run before dinner Saturday night.

The real trip begins tomorrow, too. We have been sailing, sailing for almost two weeks with only a few hours ashore. It is more like a trans-Atlantic voyage on the Queen Elizabeth than a trip to foreign lands. With our excursions to Kyoto and Osaka imminent, to be followed in short order by Shanghai, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bangkok, Singapore and, of course, Cambodia, the real trip is only just beginning.

Friday, October 3, 2008

My feet hurt; MA’s knee is the size of a soccer ball; and we are exhausted. What a great day we had in Kyoto!

We were up early again and had breakfast delivered to the room to save a little time and walking, knowing it was going to be along day. While MA got dressed, D went on deck to take photos and video of our arrival in Kobe. Although we have no port activities here, it is an impressive city filled with modern architecture, bridges, rapid transit and bustling roadways. Much of this modernization is the result of WWII destruction. We were met by a fire boat spraying water in imitation of fireworks as well as a band playing Sousa marches on the pier and the typical Japanese rhythm band. We saw one of the drum bands two years ago in Nagasaki; the young people who perform as remarkably talented.

We met Ed and Roxanne at 8:45 at our trivia table in the Ocean Bar and headed to the Kobe cruise ship facility where we found Mr. Ota, our Osaka SGG representative holding a sign which said “Dabid Herstin.” Close enough. It’s the first time we’ve been hailed that way. Mr. Ota fumbled his way to the Metro station and showed us how to purchase tickets. Since the system uses pictographs and Western numbers, it was not difficult to master. For two dollars each, we had our tickets and marched to the train. We climbed stairs because there was no “up” escalator and decided, in retrospect, that this may have been an omen for the walking and climbing ahead of us today.

We had left the Metro after only two stops and hiked up, down and around a hotel to the Japan Rail [JR] station. JR is the national railroad and operates inter-city trains including the shinkasin [sp?] or “bullet train” which we were not riding. We purchased tickets for all of us including Mr. Ota who accompanied us to Kyoto [Tomorrow, he and another Guide will take us around Osaka]. Once in Kyoto, we were passed on to Keiko Nagata. There was much bowing and smiling. While Mr. Ota looked to be 107, Keiko was only a little younger than we – she has a 30 year old son – but looked younger.

A word about Japanese etiquette is in order here. The Japanese are unfailingly polite if, perhaps, seeming always to be in a hurry. The train stations are a sea of harried, hurried people of all ages. All of them seem to be late for a train. However, once they get to the platform, they wait patiently in line, often 20 deep. They do not push or show other signs of their impatience or rush. The train cars and buses may be crowded to the point of gridlock, but the passengers say almost nothing and don’t appear to jockey for a better spot. It really is a marvel to behold whether at a JR station in the midst of the rush hour madness or waiting for a local bus far from the crowd.

Meanwhile, back at the narrative: Keiko led us to a ticket office where we bought all-day passes for 500JPY each, about $5. The conversion rate of 1 yen [JPY] for a penny makes buying easy. Of course, Ed and Roxanne reminded us that they bought yen at 3 to the penny when they were last here, but that was 30 years bus stop ago. Anyway, we went from the ticket office to the bus stop and boarded a bus almost immediately. We were on our way to Nijo Castle. Construction of the castle began in 1601 and originally completed in 1603. Later additions and expansions were finished in 1626. Parts of the complex have been rebuilt over the years following a lightning strike in 1750 and a huge fire in Kyoto in 1788.

Nijo Castle reminded us of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Walled and surrounded by gardens, the Inner Palace [Honmaru] was used emperors and shoguns for many years. Although it has nowhere near the 9999 rooms of the Forbidden City, there are many rooms nonetheless. Many still stand empty; a few have been restored to their original state. There are offices, primarily, for the shogun and his assistants; not-so-hidden panels from which guards could emerge if there were any problems; living quarters; “grand” rooms and so on. The painted walls date from the 18th Century. Interestingly, visitors and employees must remove their shoes before entering the complex. And the building was designed using what are called “nightingale floors.” These floors make a faint but perceptible noise when walked on. The sound is somewhat musical [hence the name], but is distinctive enough to serve as an alarm and warning to the shogun. There was simply no way to sneak up on him or anyone in the Castle.

There was also the obligatory garden outside Honmaru. Called Ninomaru, it is a lovely, quiet area which appeared to be mostly a large pond containing several islands and bridges, plenty of conifers, and lots of boulders. Like the Chinese, the Japanese try to balance the elements of Nature; we shall see other examples when we visit Zhouzhang outside Shanghai later.
After another ride on the public bus, the next stop on the tour was the Golden Pavilion [Kinkaku] complex. The main building is a three-story structure covered in gold leaf. Keiko explained that this was the retirement home for the shogun while Honmaru had been his working home. There were paved trails through the grounds, but the steps were stone and not especially smooth. Both MA and Roxanne, having assorted orthopedic difficulties, opted to return the the entrance with Keiko while D and Ed followed the path up the hill. It was actually only about another 20 steps to the top of the hill, but the walk back down would have been a killer – broad uneven stone steps which slanted slightly down hill. It was tricky enough for us; it would have been an unpleasant adventure for the women. The grounds were beautiful and, once again, very peaceful. That seems to be the theme of World Heritage sites we are visiting today. We found each other at the bottom of the hill, near the entrance. After a short discussion, we agreed that it was lunch time. We had been on the go with Keiko since a little past 10 and it was now 12:30 or so.

Our choices, as presented by Keiko based on her knowledge of the area, were fast/buffet or good. We chose good food over expedience and began the walk to a nearby restaurant. When we arrived ten minutes later, we found a classically Japanese entrance which looked like the gardens we had seen earlier – an arrangement of shrubs and rocks designed to soothe. We were seated at a table by a window overlooking the entrance. We sat on backless padded stools which was certainly better for us than trying to get down to, and up from, the floor. We had wanted “authentic” food, so we each got the “tourist special” which included soup with udon [buckwheat] noodles and chicken; rice; creamy tofu; vegetable and [1] shrimp tempura and Japanese pickles. While we each enjoyed some aspect of the meal, we agreed later that the highpoint was the real Coca Cola. It hit the spot so well that we each had one with dinner later.

After lunch, it was back to the buses. While HAL’s tours may have spent less time travelling from venue to venue, at least we are not surrounded by large groups of rude American tourists. To be honest, we really enjoyed most of our experiences on the buses and trains [except, maybe, the first 10 – 20 minutes coming back to Kobe. More on that later]. Our next World Heritage site was the Ryoanji Temple. There really wasn’t much to it, on the surface, except more steps that MA and Roxanne refused to climb. Poor Keiko was beside herself, hurrying from the men to the women and back again. She had trouble comprehending that we were fine with the situation and, no, we did not want a refund on the unused tickets. MA and Roxanne sat on a bench near a stone Buddha, in the shade of mature trees, and talked while Ed and D went to see the “rock garden.” The Garden consisted of a plot 25 meters by 10 meters. The garden contains 15 rocks of varying sizes and a white gravel ground cover, carefully raked. According to the pamphlet describing Ryoanji, “It is up to each visitor to find out for himself what tis unique garden symbolizes. The longer you gaze at it, the more varied your imagination becomes. This rock garden…may be thought of as the quintessence of Zen art.” Ed and D could only find 13 rocks, but that is the whole point – the rocks are arranged so that all 15 cannot be viewed simultaneously. After looking at the rocks, they went to the side of the portico and sat on the edge and dangled their shoeless feet while looking at another little patch of shrubs, moss and rocks. The best part, by then, was being completely off their feet.

From there, it was back to the buses for the trip to the Heian-jingu Shrine. There really wasn’t much to see here. There were several buildings which looked more Chinese than Japanese, especially because they were painted a not-so-restful red. According to Keiko, the Shrine closed at 5:30 and it was just 5 p.m. when we staggered onto the grounds. We spent only 15 minutes here and could have skipped it completely considering the time.

By 5:15 or so we were heading to a bus stop for the long ride to the Kyoto JR station. It was rush hour and the streets and sidewalks were crowded with people shopping and/or going home from work. We had to transfer buses and rode a local rather than the express buses we had caught earlier. We arrived at 6 p.m. Keiko gave us instructions on which train to take to get “home” and we were off. We managed to purchase tickets, determine which train and track we needed [okay, she pointed that out to us before leaving] and find our way to the right track in the bustling station. The train was listed as “18:14” and promptly at 6:12 it pulled up in front of our queue. Sure enough, at exactly 6:14, it started to pull out of the station. The train was so full [How full was it?] that even if we had let go of straps and handrails, we could not have fallen. It was as bad as the train in Prague in May, but the ride was much longer. MA was very uncomfortable because [1] she wrenched her back during a “lurch” and [2] her knee had swollen to the size of soccer ball [well, maybe a softball]. After we reached the first stop about 10 minutes after leaving Kyoto, enough passengers got off to afford D and MA seats which were greatly appreciated. At the following stop, another 12 minutes later, Ed and Roxanne were able to join us.

They were able to see the lighted sign which listed each upcoming stop, so we were able to get off at the right station. By now, we had been on the JR “limited” train for more than 45 minutes. It was dark; we were exhausted; and we really weren’t sure we could find our way back to the Metro station, much less find the right train; so we found our way through the teeming masses and took a taxi. It cost about 15 cents more per person to do this, the best investment of the day. Once on board, we freshened up and went to dinner. MA went to bed almost as soon as she got to the room and D went to the library, as usual, to write up the day’s activities before he forgot everything.

Using the Goodwill Guide system was great. We had an experience unmatched by anyone on the ship. We may have gone to the same places, but we had a richer experience for using public transit and an amateur guide. The savings weren’t too bad either. We figured later that our transportation costs were $30 each [$21 for roundtrip JR train fare; $5 for the bus pass; and $4 for transportation to and from the Metro station]. We also paid Mr. Ota’s fare to Kyoto, paid for Keiko’s lunch and gave her 1000JPY [per our contract] to cover her expenses getting to and from the Kyoto JR station. Admissions probably cost another $15 each and the pro-rated lunch cost was $25 per person. So we had this experience for under $80 per person, much less than 10-hour trip HAL has to offer. On the other hand, it was a really long day, so tomorrow we’ll probably do a little less and get home a little earlier.

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