In March 2017, we took a 2 week cruise to some amazing destinations in Asia.
A total of 17 days from departure to return.
We flew into Narita with enough luggage to fill a minivan. OK… Maybe not quite that much, but it sure felt like it while schlepping it all through the airport and train station during rush hour with what must have been six million Japanese going in six different directions. And this is after a 13-1/2 hour flight. Y’all might think a 13-1/2 hour flight is a lot. And for some people it is. For us, though, after our 27 hour (door-to-door) trip back from Bangkok in 2001, nothing else seems long at all. I loaded up my Kindle in advance and spent the flight reading, interspersed with cat naps. I did not find myself jet-lagged when we got to Japan at all. Karen was a little less perky.
We got to Narita and then had to haul a massive amount of luggage out through the airport during rush hour and through the train station to take the train to Tokyo. This is by far the most economical approach, but it requires you to be adventuresome. Not reading Kanji puts the traveler at a disadvantage. If you wait long enough, most of the computerized signs will eventually give you information in English. We got on the right train finally (whew!) and settled in for an hour-long ride into Tokyo, where we hustled out and flagged down a taxi – which got us to our hotel in short order. The Sheraton Miyako in Tokyo is beautiful. The rooms are excellent and the service exceptional.
As you might imagine, we were pretty hungry — and tired. But I needed to get out and photograph the skyline with Rainbow Bridge before I could even consider going to sleep. We were leaving for Yokohama to catch our ship the next day, so this was the only opportunity to photograph the Tokyo skyline. But first some food.
We were very pleased with our dinner and breakfast the next morning. Prices for dinner were pretty high by Dallas standards, but the food was excellent.
We grabbed up the camera gear, hailed a taxi and headed for the area where the skyline view is best. Google Earth is our friend. It was raining, so not the ideal circumstances, but we had no other options. Almost as soon as the taxi started moving, Karen was out like a light. She needed her rest, so I let her sleep. I could not afford this luxury. We got to our destination in short order and I headed out to get the shots I wanted with our driver in hot pursuit carrying an umbrella. Everyone is Japan was very polite and courteous. I got the shots I wanted and back to the hotel we went for a little sleep before a very busy next day.
We arranged for a private tour of Tokyo through TripleLights. We did the same thing in Osaka and highly recommend them. Mayumi was our Tokyo guide and she was excellent. We utilized public transportation both in Tokyo and Osaka and found it economical, convenient and educational. Around the world we have found the subway systems to be a great way to get around. Tokyo and Osaka were no exceptions to this.
We started out in the subway station and picked our route to Asakusa, which is famous for the massive Buddhist temple with the giant lanterns. There is much to see in Asakusa and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Shopping opportunities abound. Without a guide, it could easily become overwhelming, so we are very happy to have had Mayumi on deck.
Is that a giant lantern or are you just happy to see me?
A highlight of this experience was encountering two groups of school children being escorted by one or two teachers. They come out to the popular tourist areas to practice their English. There would be 5 or so children in their uniforms with sheets of paper that had phrases for them to practice. They were adorable, impeccably dressed and very polite. We had a great time with them. After using us for practice they would give us gifts of origami, which we will treasure forever. I had been advised about them by a friend in Austin prior to our encounter, so I knew what was up. Our tour guide said in all the times she had been to guiding tours in Tokyo, she had never seen them before. So we feel especially fortunate.
We spent quite a bit of time exploring the temple and learning the customs. We discovered that Asian people in
general are quite superstitious (and religious). Found more predominantly in Hong Kong, but also observed in Japan are tall buildings with a window or gap (tunnel) high up in the face of one side and opening all the way through to the other. This is so the dragons can fly to the water from the mountains. It is good luck and good feng shui, apparently. This example is from Osaka.
We learned some interesting statistics on one of our bus rides. In Japan, when polled, 90% of people follow the Shinto religion, while another 80% subscribe to Buddhism. Think about that for a second. It seems pretty clear that about 80% of the population is hedging their bets. Apparently they just want to make sure they’re covered. Right?
We spent about 4 hours exploring Tokyo and then back to the hotel to gather up our massive collection of luggage and take a taxi to Shinagawa Station to catch a train to Yokohama. At least this time is was not rush hour. I was a lot of work hustling luggage through the station and finding the right train, but eventually we pulled it off and settled in for a relaxing ride.
Arriving in Yokohama, we took another taxi to the ship and got settled in. Unfortunately we would have no time to explore Yokohama. What we noticed in port and would rediscover throughout our trip is that massive, colorful ferris wheels are very popular in Asia and almost every port / skyline is punctuated by one. I did get a pretty nice shot of the Yokohama skyline from the ship, though.
That evening we set sail for Osaka where we would meet up with Yoshi, our guide for a half-day tour. One of the highlights of Osaka is the Umeda Sky building. We discovered this during our research for the trip and added it to the itinerary immediately. Karen wanted no part of going up 40+ floors to ride an escalator that goes through thin air from the side tower to the over-bridge, but I was thrilled at the prospect. Videos of the Umeda Sky experience can be found in my YouTube channel.
The Water Clock is another very interesting feature of Osaka. Located in Osaka Station City, it first went into operation in March of 2011 and I heard about it sometime later. When I realized we would be in the general vicinity, it was added to the top of our itinerary. The is literally a wall of water that, controlled by a computer, drops streams of water in a curtain that form numbers, words and graphical elements. It displays the time and temperature in English and Kanji. It also displays musical notes and a lot of other things. Basically, it works exactly like the print head on an inkjet printer. It’s amazing. Video of this is also on my YouTube channel. This is a must-see if you are in Osaka.
From there we went to the Castle. Which is fascinating. Especially when you consider that it is
surrounded by a massive moat hewn from solid stone, like any castle in Europe. But there the similarity ends. The structure of the current edition of the Osaka Castle is classic Japanese multi-story construction. It has some Victorian style to it and is made of wood, rather than the stone of European castles. They have a time capsule on the property that is very space-age looking, made of solid stainless steel. They also have abundant street food and a slew of food trucks, which not surprisingly look very different from food trucks in the States.
As most of you know by now, I always wear a cowboy hat. Most of my life I have worn cowboy
hats. So needless to say I was in my typical attire in Asia. As we are standing in the position from which this picture was taken, an Italian man in his 30s comes up to me and asks to take my picture in front of the Castle. You could have knocked me over with a feather. But then I would have gotten right back up and slapped the snot out of you, so don’t get any cute ideas, OK?
Anyway… Go figure.
Lots of photos of the Castle, food trucks, etc. in the online galleries. Links at the bottom of this post for all of them. Each city has its own gallery.
Back to the ship for our trip to Shimizu and Mount Fuji. The thing about Mount Fujiyama is that nine times out of ten it will be obscured by clouds (nod to Pink Floyd) and you’re not going to get any great photos. We were very fortunate in that we had both clouds and great visibility of Mount Fuji. It was a moving target that kept fluctuating, so I shot a lot of Mount Fuji. There was a vibrant, rainbow colored ferris wheel where our bus stopped with made for some great photos. From there we walked through the city to another temple. It was quite remarkable, as were the views of Mount Fuji. And kindergartners in brightly colored hats. Fascinating!
Shimizu has a very interesting temple. It is different in architecture from any of the other temples we were to see in our travels. As it turns out (you have to ask questions to find these things out) the difference is because this is a temple to a goddess as opposed to a god. Ah-HA! So the architecture is unique. The roof lines extend skyward like wings. The entire roof assembly is made of copper. You have to examine the images very closely to discover this.
Back aboard the ship to our next destination – Hyuga.
Here’s the deal. The only thing to see on this stop is another temple. By now we have a pretty good idea of what goes on in Shinto and Buddhist temples. In the final analysis we would have been happier with another day in Osaka. Then we would have taken the train to Kyoto for the day and I think that would have been a lot more interesting. Hyuga Cape and another temple. We’ve seen enough Japanese temples now, OK? The view of the Pacific Ocean from this location is pretty remarkable, but I could fill a book with views of the Pacific Ocean. So I don’t really need more of them. Osaka. Osaka for a 2nd day would have been better. Hello? Holland America? Is anyone listening?
One thing I found interesting about the port of Hyuga. Tetrapods. How many people even know what these are? Show of hands? OK, you in the back. You can’t fool me. You wouldn’t know a tetrapod if you fell over it. They had row upon row of tetrapods lined up at the port. These are used to construct seawalls and jetties. Man-made ports all over the world are constructed with the aid of these remarkable cast-concrete shapes. They look a lot like jacks. You know the kid’s game? Bounce a ball and pick up as many jacks as you can on each bounce? Well, these are the kind giants would play with . Really STRONG giants. Well, I found them interesting at least.
Moving right along…
Wow. Just WOW. The skyline of Shanghai is a thing of beauty. The Oriental Pearl tower is absolutely unique. The skyline reflected off the water is stunning. And the buildings on the opposite side are also in a category all their own. One of these massive towers is completely illuminated in LED graphics that constantly change. It’s amazing.
Our visit to Shanghai was less than ideal. We were there for 2 days and it rained both days. The first day it rained a LOT. We had scheduled a tour each day with Holland America. Getting through customs is a very time-consuming experience. It should come as no surprise that a customs building in any Chinese port is going to be the size of a football field, but you can’t really wrap your mind around this until you’re standing in a sea of humanity while lowing like cows in a stockyard. Everyone does this, right? It’s not just me… Is it? Oops. After slogging through customs we get out the other end and off on a tour of the museum. It is really interesting and in hindsight (it being 20-20 and all) we would have been better off just staying there. But NO. We have to slog through the rain to the Yuyuan water garden with a wad of other tourists, some of whom are severely mobility impaired. This of course, holds up everything. And heading back to the ship, one woman simply cannot take another step. She’s halfway through the water garden when this happens. There is no way to get a car to her. The rest of us are standing on a street corner in a downpour (my hat has a whole new shape now) and wondering when we are going to get back. Fortunately we all decided to head for the transit terminal where we could at least be indoors. Meanwhile the tour director manages to get a motorized rickshaw type contraption to get this woman to the terminal.
At this point we find out this is some big holiday and literally thousands of women are streaming through the transit terminal to go pray at some temple. Needless to say, this makes our departure for the ship take a LOT longer than we had expected. And by the time we get back, the Lido deck buffet is closed. And food options have gone way down. And we are all hungry. Now given that the tour was arranged, organized and sponsored by Holland America, you would think they might have their finger on the pulse of tour delays and keep the buffet open a little longer. Or arrange a stop for food. Or something. Right? Not even close, Sparky.
Hello? Holland America? Is anyone listening?
Day 2 in Shanghai we are bused to a Water Town. We and a small contingent of other travelers decide not to take the boats (which are taking a remarkable amount of time to make an appearance) through the city and instead decide to walk the city on a self-guided tour. We were very happy with the results. We saw some very interesting things and had a great time. We probably missed out on some historic stops, but at least we weren’t just standing around in the rain waiting for a boat. It rained a lot less this day, but the experience was to form the pattern for the rest of the trip. Immediately upon returning to the trip, we returned all of the future scheduled excursion tickets for a full refund. After this experience we decided to rent taxis and arrange our own tours. This would prove to be one of our best decisions.
Visas. Did I mention the Visa debacle? I don’t think so. In all the documentation we received when booking the cruise – and during the telephone conversations / emails well in advance we were told in no uncertain terms that we would not even be allowed to board the ship without Chinese visas. Just for Shanghai. For us, that meant either a road trip to Houston or paying a service a big wad of cash for a couple of visas. We chose the road trip because Slick.The.Dog loves road tripa and I needed to photograph the Houston Skyline. This mean actually TWO road trips. One to drop everything off at the Chinese Consulate. And then another trip a week later to pick it up. They Will Not Mail anything back. Go figure.
So we made two trips to Houston and spent just under three hundred bucks to get visas.
But lots of other people did not.
And they all got on the ship.
And they all got off the ship in Shanghai and explored the city.
Holland America? Thump, thump, thump… Is this thing on? Are you listening?
Anyway… In defense of Holland America, this is China. Things probably change based on the barometric pressure. And our President’s latest Tweet.
But we had no problems with customs, so…
More like Nope-Inawa for us
Well, hell… No Okinawa for us. When we were departing Shanghai, there were gale-force winds keeping us in the harbor. So we had to bypass Okinawa and sail for Taiwan instead. We were both very disappointed at missing Okinawa. Karen’s father was stationed there in WWII. My sensei, Mas Oyama was from Okinawa (I taught Kyokushinkai Karate for 10 years) and I had always wanted to go there. Maybe another time.
By this time we had befriended a small group of fellow travelers from the east coast and Texas. We collectively decided tours were for schmucks and we were going to do a little research, hire taxis and go exploring on our own. This turned out to be a LOT more fun and loaded with benefits.
- No waiting for people who wander off and keep the whole bus in limbo.
- No traveling with people you have no interest in spending time with.
- Complete freedom.
- Stay in any given location as long as you want.
- Leave early if you feel like it.
- Stop on a whim to get that great photo.
- Change directions at a moment’s notice.
- Avoid the crowds.
And on and on and on.
Keelung is the port – our gateway to Taipei. The night market in Keelung is world-famous with thousands of yellow paper lanterns lining the streets. The only problem is… When they say Night Market, they really mean NIGHT. As in after midnight. We got there sometime after 9:00 PM and none of the lanterns were illuminated yet. Apparently you need to stick around until the middle of the night to see this. It was a really interesting place to explore. They had some food options I can only describe as nauseating (but then I’m a vegetarian – your mileage may vary). An entire roasted pig on a spit. Skewers of all kinds of small organs including hearts. Squid. Octopus. And things I could not begin to identify. Fascinating to be sure.
The view of the harbor either day or night is pretty spectacular. Once again, a massive ferris wheel is an anchor of the skyline.
At the top of the hill is Chungcheng Park – a temple to Goddess Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. We spent quite a big of time exploring this temple. The view of the harbor from there is unsurpassed. There were lots of interesting things to see, including motorized electric riding critters for kids. They looked sort of like hamsters. Or gerbils. I don’t know exactly what they are supposed to be, but they are decidedly strange. The pictures don’t really do them justice.
Also outside Keelung we discovered the National Museum of Marine Science Technology. We did not go through any of the exhibits, but the architecture alone is reason enough to stop and spend some time here. It is beautifully designed and constructed.
The Golden Falls and an abandoned Japanese (go figure) coal plant were very interesting stops along our route to Taipei. At the end of our trip, on the way back to the ship, we decided to eat in town. We selected the Evergreen Laurel Hotel, which has a restaurant at the top. It is beautiful. The food options are plentiful, assuming you want Chinese, and the view of the harbor excellent. The prices are also pretty steep. They are proud of their menu it seems. We found Taiwan in general to be expensive. Hong Kong was the only place we really found bargains.
Jiufen has a classic, vibrantly colored temple which combined with a vista of the city and water beyond, turned out to be very dramatic. We stopped here on our way back from Taipei and explored a bit. We were not there long, but the view along is worth the stop.
Well, Taipei is everything you would expect and a lot more. One day doesn’t even come close to enough time to see this amazing city. Taipei 101 was the worlds tallest tower until the Burj Kalifa took the title a few years ago. It looks like it’s bamboo and is illuminated in green. Quite a sight to see and at the top of my list of things to capture. We visited the Chang Kai Shek memorial and museum, which is pretty remarkable. Vast doesn’t even begin to describe it.
We also spent some time at the National Revolutionary Martyr’s Shrine and witnessed the changing of the guard. This is a very impressive ceremony and of course, timing is everything. If you aren’t there at the right time, you won’t get to see this. The changing of the guard takes place every hour on the hour starting at 9:00 AM.
The Confucius Temple is well worth a visit and we spent a fair amount of time there. I’m not sure if the seven dwarves are somehow a Disney thing, but I have no other explanation for them. There is a little street temple nearby that has some exceptional design elements.
The National Palace Museum is well worth the price of admission. We spent quite a bit of time there. Everything in Taipei seems to be constructed on a grand scale and this is no exception.
The Presidential Office building is a very impressive structure, so if you have the opportunity, visit it. Constructed between 1912 and 1919, it is of an ornate Baroque-style design with a 60 meter high tower that was the tallest structure in the basin during Japanese rule.
The Longshan Temple is the oldest and most active temple in Taipei. The activity level when we were there was unequaled by any other attraction on our trip. Across the street is a water fountain that seems to actually explode periodically. This is a very noisy event and you may find yourself wondering what is going on. We had no idea this was going to happen, but the racket it makes got our attention.
And then there is the Grand Hotel. Well it certainly has the right name. Constructed like everything else in Taipei on a massive scale and ornate to a level above most other hotels in the world, it is primarily a vibrant vermilion with decorative elements in a rainbow of colors. Listed as the world’s tallest Chinese classical building at 285 feet high, it was constructed between 1952 and 1973. It has 8 guest levels comprising 490 rooms. Each level represents a different Chinese dynasty.
We did not explore the city when we were here. We walked from the ship to an artist colony nearby. There was a massive concert being set up on two stages at the time. Lots of young people were converging on the area to attend the concert. We had a lot of fun exploring the artist studios, public art and listening to some Taiwanese rock n roll. It was overall very interesting. Karen and the other women came back with gorgeous silver bracelets.
We even encountered a Taiwanese cowboy. What are the odds? One of our favorite art installations was the peeing boy. A painting of a boy around a water spigot that spews water at random intervals is sheer genius. We have stills as well as video of this.
And then there’s the Gorge — and Barry from Boston
Hands down the best entertainment I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship is Barry from Boston. We discovered him early on in the cruise at The Mix piano bar. Barry very simply plays the hell out of a piano. I mean really plays the hell out of a piano. And that would be enough to get my attention. In addition to that he has some exceptional vocal skills. Technique, if you will. Barry doesn’t have one of the best singing voices I’ve heard (and that’s a lot after being a recording engineer for 20 years) but what he lacks in quality he more than makes up for with chops. Add to that his being a natural born entertainer and you have a must-see situation. We were faithfully there, right at the piano in the “Ring of Fire” every single night after we discovered him. We had a great time and would love to see him again. If you ever have the opportunity to see Barry, make sure you do it. You will not be disappointed.
Hualien – Taroko Gorge
The night before we arrived in Hualien we had been visiting with Barry and asked if he would like to join us on our exploration of Taroko Gorge the next day. He thought that would be fun – and it was.
When we arrived in Hualien we hired 2 taxis – as out little group had expanded by one – and go see what Taroko Gorge was all about. The gorge is the central fixture of Taroko National Park. I was prepared to be underwhelmed after seeing my fair share of canyons, gorges and other slashes into Mother Nature’s upper crust. But NO. First of all, it’s remarkably long and winding. And it’s carved out of marble. Yep. Marble. And then there are the shrines. There are at least two of them in the gorge. The Eternal Spring Shrine is pretty amazing. We did not visit it, but there is another with a remarkable vibrant vermilion suspension bridge across the gorge that we did spend some time exploring. The view from the top was pretty impressive, as was the schlepp up the steps. Well worth the trip. And loads of photos and video.
On our way back, our group split up to explore different things. Another advantage of not taking bus tours. Barry, Karen and I took off in search of dumplings. Apparently the Barry and Karen contingent had developed a hankerin’ for dumplings. We found this little standing-room-only corner dumpling shop which apparently is the go-to place and settled in to wait for an open table. After looking at the menu it became not surprisingly no place for a vegetarian. I knew that Asia would not be optimal, so no big deal, so I set off in search of other options, which was no problem. When I got back the Barry and Karen show were snarfing up mass quantities of dumplings and I have the photos to prove it.
We had a great time exploring Hualien with Barry and finally got back to the ship intact.
Next stop. Hong Kong and departure for home.
We got into Hong Kong in the evening. We gathered up some intrepid travelers and headed out so I could capture the skyline image I wanted. Thanks to Google Earth I had researched the location I needed and a taxi got us there in no time. It turned out to be the Intercontinental Hotel. We were very under-dressed for this location. Also, the prime vantage point is on the dockside walkway on the other side of the hotel. There is also no way through the hotel. So… Off we go headed for the nearest way through, which is about 2 blocks away. This proved to be very interesting, as it took us through a pavilion of public arr and throngs of young people out enjoying the nice weather and taking photos of Hong Kong. I easily got the shots I wanted and then we headed
off in search of dinner. Again, this is easy to find if you want Chinese food. We located a great restaurant nearby which had tiny fried baby eerls in a bowl as appetizers. It’s kind of weird having appetizers staring back at you from a bowl. At least I thought so. And since I’m the one writing the blog — it’s weird. OK? Just weird.
The next morning we were sad as we departed the ship and headed for the airport. It’s a bittersweet experience at the end of a great trip. You’re happy to be going home, but sad the adventure is coming to a close. The Hong Kong airport is nicely designed and easy to get around. We had a bit of a wait for our flight, but not bad, really. I have to say that across the board, this trip went really well. And since Tuscany I am reticent to verbalize anything like this until I am home. But that’s another story.
The Ship – Holland America Volendam
The ship was a mixed bag. We had heard is was recently renovated. I don’t know what the word “renovated” means in Rotterdam,
but apparently it’s not the same meaning in Dallas. When Karen booked the trip, she booked a category room as opposed to an actual location. In hopes that we would get an upgrade to a better (larger) category. Well, she was right. They put us in a handicapped room. It was a strange configuration and Karen HATED it. Did I say HATED? Let me rephrase… H.A.T.E.D. It!
The bathroom had a drain in the middle of the floor and a curtain that separated the shower from the rest of the room. You would expect this in a handicapped room, of course. The tile on the bathroom wall had clearly been patched. Over a large area. And badly. It had a wavy texture to it. The counter where it was expected you would apply makeup was thrashed. The edges were badly beat up and no repaired. It was pretty shabby looking.
And it has a nice big window. With a deck outside. So we can have people walking by and looking in. This is a little less than optimal. OK, maybe a lot less than optimal. Unless you’re an exhibitionist. Which we aren’t.
After I have everything unpacked and put away…
Karen HATED IT.
Did I mention she HATED IT?
And this was our anniversary trip.
Karen calls the front desk and tells them SHE HATES IT – and can they find us another room.
Sure enough, they can. And off we go to get the key and look it over.
Perfect. Exactly what we would have gotten without the “upgrade”. Near the waterline, but not below it (important). and pretty centrally located.
And an official schlepper to come move everything we’ve already unpacked to the new room. Pretty good service overall.
The ship in general was nice. Clearly some rooms had been renovated while others had not. Apparently their idea of renovated means that they have started the process and just might finish it someday. Apparently. The center column of the ship looks like something out of a larger-than-life 70s disco. Holland America? This needs to go. As do the cheesy Caribbean themed lamps in the Lido buffet. The buffet was a lot less impressive than many other ships we’ve been on. This needs a lot of work.
We spoke with the tour director and told them we thought the whole way the Shanghai tours were operated was a joke. They always need a Plan B. Everyone always needs a Plan B. Assuming everything will go according to Plan A is illogical. When the weather turns to snot, Plan B should kick in. There should be a sheltered destination contingency plan. She agreed. We had started out at the museum. We could have spent hours there. Or the bus could have taken us all to another indoor destination.
They also need a separate bus tour for mobility impaired travelers. One person who can barely move should not hamstring 50 other passengers. She agreed with this.
Overall, the staff was very nice and hospitable. Dinners were excellent and, as usual, they accommodate vegetarians and travelers with other dietary restrictions seamlessly, allowing them to pre-order the next evening’s meal from a special menu. Good Job, Holland America. Now lose the dated center column and cheesy light fixtures – and complete the renovation. Then you’re set.
And now the photo galleries
Follow the link below to the online galleries.
The landing page has links to all the individual galleries broken up chronologically by destination. These are combination gallery / slideshow pages, so you can click on the first photo on a page, then click on the > Play Arrow to start the slideshow – or just step through them one at a time by repeatedly clicking the right-side > Arrow.
Some of these images can be ordered from our store.