Emperors & Empires Cruise on the Oceania Nautica
3/10/15 to 3/26/15
Due to the length of the review, it is in seven parts to help with the download time. The links to the other pages are at the top and bottom of each page.
Page 1 - Pre-Cruise in Beijing
Page 2 - Pre-Cruise continued; Embarkation and Ship
Page 3 - Ship Continued; Ports of Call: Tianjin, China; Dalian, China
Page 4 - Ports of Call: Seoul, South Korea; Shanghai, China
Page 5 - Ports of Call: Shanghai, China continued; Ishigaki, Japan; Okinawa, Japan; Kyoto (Kobe), Japan
Page 6 - Ports of Call: Osaka (Kobe), Japan; Nagoya, Japan
Page 7 - Ports of Call: Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo, Japan -
After almost three weeks touring Asia, we were finally arriving at our last port. We had gone to the buffet to have breakfast before our tour. As we were sitting down, I couldn’t believe that we were able to see Mount Fuji in the distance through the windows. I had originally thought about spending the day going out to see Mount Fuji, but had read that it is normally covered in clouds, so that it would probably not be worth going. And there it was, 60 miles away visible from the port in Tokyo. I was so thrilled, I couldn’t believe it. I had brought my camera to breakfast with my midrange lens to take photos of Tokyo while we were coming into port; but sure wasn’t expecting this. I went to deck 10 to take some shots of it and then ran down to our cabin to get the telephoto lens. The further we got into the port, the less of the mountain was visible due to the mountains in between Mt. Fuji and the ship. I was missing breakfast; but when there is a photo opp, you don’t wait to get the shot. After we arrived at the dock, Mount Fuji wasn’t visible; nor could we see it the rest of the day.
While taking shots of the Tokyo skyline, two tugboats came out and started shooting out large sprays of water to welcome us to Tokyo. How special was that?
Then when we arrived in port, we were treated to another drum presentation. I don’t know if all ships get this type of welcome in all Japanese ports or if it was just that we were early in the season; but it definitely left a good impression on us.
We finally had a jet way type gangway that made it easy for Carol to leave the ship on her own without assistance.
I was really looking forward to our tour guide for our visit to Tokyo, since I had been communicating regularly with him for well over a year. He had been helping me with setting up an itinerary, and I had even made some suggestions to make his website more appealing for Americans. We had also talked on Skype to get to know each other better. It was like I was finally visiting an old friend. Our guide was Yosuke Yokokura of Discover Japan Tours (www.discover-japan-tours.com/index_e.html). It was so great to finally meet him. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide for our visit. He was such a good person who couldn’t do enough to make our visit enjoyable. He was a true pleasure to spend time with. Everyone was so pleased with him.
For the first time on the trip, we were touring with a different couple, Octavio and Shirley from San Antonio, Texas. We knew each other from the Cruise Critic roll call and had previously met them on board. We ran into them on numerous tours, so we were looking forward to finally spending a couple of days with them. The other two couples we had been touring with were staying over in Tokyo for a few days and had different tour plans, so they didn’t join us. They missed out on some great tours.
When Yosuke took us to his van, I was very impressed. It was the largest van we had been in for the whole trip and there were only four of us. The back of the van had more than enough room for Carol’s TravelScoot without it being collapsed. In fact we could have had two of them in the available space.
As we drove to our first destination, the Meji Shrine, we saw a cherry tree that was in full bloom.
When we arrived at the shrine, we could tell that we were in a very large, heavily forested park area. We would see how large later in the day. Walking through the park, we came to an area that had barrels of French wine on one side and sake barrels of on the other. The barrels are apparently donated to the shrine each year as offerings to the shrine. There were a bunch of barrels there.
Further up the path we came to the largest Torii gate of its style in China. It is called the Grand Shrine-Gate and is 39 feet tall. I had to take a photo of Carol with our new friend Yosuke in front of it.
We came into the main shrine area and saw another large Torii gate.
To one side was a temizuya, which is a Shinto water ablution pavilion for a ceremonial purification rite known as temizu. To be purified there is a ritual where you wash your left hand, then your right, then rinse your mouth and several other steps. Kelly had shown us this same type place and ritual when we were in Suzhou. This was a much larger temizuya. Octavio tried the ritual.
We entered the large courtyard and checked out the different structures. They were quite beautiful, but like most of the Japanese buildings we had seen the style was more subdued from the Chinese ones and not as colorful.
We saw a cute little girl being taken into the shrine by her parents and grandmother for some type of ceremony. Too cute.
We continued walking through the lovely grounds until we got back to the van.
Yosuke was taking us to a shopping area called Takeshita Street. It is a strange name that I am sure some people make jokes about; but it was one very popular crowded street. It is apparently the “in” spot for young people to hang out. What were we doing there? :o)
There were all kinds of stores carrying all kinds of things. Clothing and accessories did seem to be the most popular shops.
Yosuke pointed out a shop with some very strange dresses outside on display. Apparently Lady Gaga has shopped there before. As I was taking photos, an employee came out to shoo me away and told me “no photos”. Too late.
The street was only a few blocks long. Moving along we got to see the Tokyo manhole cover. There was also a large store that specialized in a different type of product.
We then went over to a more upscale shopping street. I couldn’t believe how crowded the sidewalks were. There were so many people just walking around and it was a Wednesday morning.
Yosuke wanted to show us an upscale shopping mall that had an interesting interior. When we went in, the crystal lighting in the entrance caught our attention.
The highlight of the mall was the way that it was built, you would never have to use steps. The walkways and stores were slanted, where it was just a gently sloping ramp that went around all six of the floors. Kind of cool. The lighting in the entry was an eye catcher also.
There were lots of interestingly designed buildings in the area.
We got a kick out of the dog that was outside of a shop, I assume to draw attention. It certainly made us look.
Yosuke also pointed out the small police station. The Tokyo police have these small stations all around the city. They believe that it helps deter crime. Since Tokyo has a very low crime rate, it must be working.
Yosuke selected a restaurant for us that looked very nice. It was also pretty popular. We had to wait a little while to get in; but we would have had to wait at most restaurants at that time of day.
While we were waiting for our table, Yosuke wanted to show me some of the interesting architecture that was close to the restaurant.
When our table was ready, we were very pleased to see what a nice restaurant it was.
They had several lunch specials that we could choose from. Yosuke told us about them and we all ordered the chicken dish. It sounded very good. Before the meal came, they brought us each a small salad. Then they brought the main course in a lovely covered container with miso soup. It looked even better with the cover off. It was quite delicious. Yosuke had made an excellent choice for restaurants.
After lunch, Yosuke told us to go into a store that had lots of souvenirs and other things, while he went to get the van. It was quite a nice store and we found several gifts there.
Our next destination was to see the Shibuya. It is a very popular shopping area and right next to the very busy Shibuya railway station. I have seen photos of it many times and there is a good scene of it from the movie Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray is in the middle of the street. We passed by it and I got some photos.
But Yosuke wanted to show me something else about the intersection. Apparently all the lights for the intersection turn red at the same time to allow pedestrians to cross the street. When the light changed, I couldn’t believe how many people were crossing the street in all directions. It was an organized chaos; but was just fascinating to see how it worked quite well.
It seemed rather strange to me that there were so many pedestrians in the city; but automobile traffic was relatively light wherever we went. Apparently automobile ownership is very low in Tokyo, probably due to the cost of cars and the excellent public transportation systems.
We then drove through the Shinjuku area, which is a large business, entertainment and shopping area around Shinjuku Station, the busiest railway station in the world. More than 3 million passengers a day go through the station. That is just mind boggling to me; but it does help explain why there were so many pedestrians in Tokyo.
He then took us to a different section of town. He wanted to show us a variety of the many areas of the city, so that we could experience more of the overall culture of the city. The district is called Kabuki-cho, which is the biggest nightlife district in Japan, located in Shinkuku. This area is also a bit seedier type. It actually didn’t look that bad, but he said that organized crime had a lot of business in that area.
We did laugh at the Godzilla head at the top of a new building. After all if you are in Tokyo, you have to see Godzilla.
We then went over to the Golden Gai neighborhood. This is a small area of just six very narrow streets containing about 200 small businesses, mostly theme bars. The area is a throwback to the early 1900’s when much of Tokyo looked like this area. Many areas like this were burned down in the war; or taken down by developers after the 1980’s to put up concrete buildings.
Most of the places are closed during the day; but the narrow streets get very crowded at night. Although it looks so unlike the very clean looking Tokyo, it attracts celebrities and artsy types, probably because it is so different from the norm.
We got back in the van and headed to our next destination, a view from above. On the way, we passed by a strange clown riding a bike.
After our disappointing attempt to view Shanghai from atop a skyscraper, I was looking forward to looking down on Tokyo. There are several tall buildings and towers to choose from to get a panoramic view of Tokyo. With the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building observation deck being free and centrally located, Yosuke recommended it to us. In the lobby of the building, we saw banners advertising the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I will be able to appreciate watching it on TV more, now that I have been to Tokyo.
The building has two towers that split from the main building at the 33rd floor. Each of them have an observation deck on the 45th floor. Yosuke recommended the south tower, since he said the view was better than the north. Apparently the south tower blocks much of the best views from the north tower. After waiting in a short line, the elevator whisked us up to the 45th floor. As we walked out of the elevator, we saw the large open area with a restaurant/gift shop area in the middle and people lined up around the outer windows to look at the city.
We didn’t know where to start, since there were so many windows to look out. Rather than deciding on a path, I just went to the closest window and started to feast my eyes on the panoramic view of Tokyo.
The views were outstanding, even with some glare on the windows.
The glare was worse on the north side of the floor where we could look out and see tourists in that tower looking out.
Yosuke pointed out the large green area in the city, which was rather hard to miss. It was the Meji Shrine park area that we had visited that morning. It was amazing that such a large parcel of land, 175 acres, had been saved from development for the shrine.
In order to leave the observation deck, we did have to wait in a long line. It gave us an opportunity to take turns looking through the shop. We found some very nice souvenirs there.
The tour for the day was over and we were ready to get back to the ship to relax and finish packing to go home the next day. Carol had to shift things around in our two large suitcases to keep them both below 50 pounds before we put them outside our door for pickup. Our carryon bags were a lot heavier than when we arrived in Beijing. I had hoped that we would be able to see some of the lights of Tokyo from the ship but we were too far away at the port.
Tokyo – Day 2 and Disembarkation
With the four of us all being on the same flight to Houston at 5:00 PM, we asked Yosuke to get us to the airport by 2:00 PM. This would be in line with the 3:00 hour window the airlines recommend for international flights; and our internal requirement to keep our stress level down. The tour was originally supposed to start at 8:30 AM; but we moved it up to 8:00 AM since we didn’t have much touring time that day.
We had asked to be able to disembark the ship at 7:15 AM, since we didn’t know how easy it would be to go through immigration and customs at the terminal. I have to say it was probably the easiest ever. There was no crowd leaving the ship that early and it was easy to find our luggage. We just breezed through immigration and customs. Unlike most cruise terminals, the luggage was on the second floor where we exited the ship. There were elevators for Carol to go down to where we would exit on level one. I was impressed that they also had moving sidewalks that went down to the first level rather than elevators; which expedited the people flow, so that everyone wouldn’t have to use the elevators to get their luggage downstairs. All of our luggage easily fit in Yosuke’s van along with the TravelScoot.
With the revised starting time, we had an extra half hour to kill before we went to our first stop, the Tsukiji Fish Market. He didn’t want to arrive too early, since it would be too busy and not the best time to tour the market. So it gave us an opportunity for Yosuke to show us some other parts of the city. While driving around he stopped at a very unusual building. It was the office for Mikimoto pearls. It was worth stopping to look at.
We drove around some other areas and once again I was shocked at the traffic. We were in the middle of rush hour and the traffic was moving quite well; and there wasn’t that much of it.
Yosuke was in finance prior to starting his touring business. He took us through the very nice high end area where he once worked. I liked the zebra statue there.
We then drove to the Royal Palace area that we had passed by the previous day; but hadn't been able to take any photos.
We hadn’t planned on touring the palace; but one of our goals was to hopefully see cherry blossoms while in Japan. We hadn’t had too much luck, since the weather prior to our arrival hadn’t been quite warm enough. Looking at the forecast, with temperatures in the 70’s right after we were to leave, I assumed that everything would be in full bloom the next week.
Yosuke parked in a park along the side of the palace grounds since many trees there were in bloom.
The area was just gorgeous. This is a very popular cherry blossom viewing area; as we could tell by all the budding trees lining the river.
There were some cherry blossoms out. The park area itself was just so beautiful. I was jealous of those visitors that would see it next week when the blossoms would probably be at peak blooming.
After the quick stop at the Imperial Palace, it was time to head to the market. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Over 60,000 people work at the market, which begins operations each day at 3:00 AM and closes for cleaning at 1:00 PM. We didn’t know what to expect from it. During the trip, we had seen many markets that had fish for sale. Some of them weren’t that appealing with the open fish trays and less than pleasant odors. Yosuke recommended that Carol not go with Octavio, Shirley and me to walk through the market, since it would be very crowded with narrow paths and wet brick floors. It wasn’t the place for a person on a scooter. Carol didn’t mind at all. She waited in the van with her Kindle.
The market is broken down into two main parts. The inner wholesale market has restricted access to visitors and the outer retail market is packed with locals and tourists. As we walked through the outer market area, I was surprised that most of the food products were nicely packaged in closed containers and many were in refrigerated storage. It was so different from the Chinese markets and so much more sanitary.
As we walked toward the inner market area, I couldn’t believe how busy it was. Small electric vehicles were speeding across the open area. Yosuke had warned us to stay in single file behind him and be careful and watchful, since it was a dangerous place if we didn’t pay attention. I think that the word crazy described it better. I don’t know how these vehicles weren’t running into each other as they rushed around to deliver and pick up product. And they were going very fast.
Yosuke had timed our visit where we would be able to go into the inner wholesale area without a problem. It would not have been possible in the early morning during the auctions when only two groups of 60 visitors each day are allowed between 5:25 AM and 6:10 AM. Before we entered, he told us rules about touring the facility. We had to go in single file so that employees could pass us in the very narrow aisles. We had to watch carefully at intersections not to be run over by the small vehicles. We weren’t to touch anything or we would be buying it. There were a few other warnings that I don’t recall; but it was obvious that we were just there to carefully observe the place. As we entered, we understood the need for the warnings. It was not set up as a tourist attraction. It was a very busy working facility.
There were Styrofoam and refrigerated containers with all varieties of seafood everywhere.
Workers were packing and cutting up fresh and large frozen fish.
It was quite a place. As we walked around, the path was in a mild curve. It was a very long walk and I couldn’t understand why we didn’t turn around and go back down a different row to where we started. When we came out at the other end, we weren’t that far away from where we had started. I thought the building was rectangular from what it looked like from the outside’ but it wasn’t. Below is a photo from Wikipedia from above that shows that it is actually in a quarter circular shape.
I had read that the market, which had been in its current location since 1935, was going to be moving 2 miles south. It was supposed to have happened in 2014, but the location where it was to move had ground pollution issues. Since the market is currently in a very prime location in central Tokyo, it needs be moved soon to make way for road improvements that will be used as a main artery for the 2020 Olympics. I can’t imagine what it will be like during that relocation. We were so lucky to be able to see the old market, since it won’t be around much longer. I really enjoyed it. It was unlike any fish market we had ever visited and it only had the odor of very fresh fish.
Since we had come out at the other end of the market, it wasn’t that far of a walk back to the van. Across from where we parked was a hospital that Yosuke said had western style restroom facilities, so everyone took advantage of the opportunity. Adjoining the hospital was a playground for their child care facility. We had to watch them play. They were just too cute.
We passed by some interesting shopping areas on our way to our next destination. Notice the very light traffic.
Yosuke knew that we had wanted to see Cherry Blossoms if possible. He had been watching various parks prior to our arrival to see if any of them were blooming earlier than others. He told us that he thought that Ueno Park, which was once a part of the temple grounds would be our best shot. As we drove up to it, we saw that he was right.
We couldn’t wait to get out of the van to walk through the park. It was beautiful and we weren’t the only people enjoying the sight.
We walked down the long path thoroughly enjoying seeing the cherry blossoms in an almost fully bloomed state. I was so glad that we would finally get to see what we had been hoping for.
There were also buildings to look at in the park as well as just outside it. This was just an excellent place to visit and I was so appreciative that Yosuke had found it for us.
Walking back to the van from the other end of the park, we passed through a Cherry Blossom alley that was not as far along in the blooming process; but it would be quite a site in a week.
Yosuke than drove through a cemetery that is known for its Cherry Blossoms. It was still too early there also; but it was still quite pretty.
When we parked the car, we got a view of the 2,113 foot tall Tokyo Sky Tree we had seen from the observation deck the previous day.
For this stop, Yosuke recommended that Carol should not take her TravelScoot, since it was just too crowded where we were going. He asked if she could walk a little and she said as long as we took it slowly she would be fine. We walked over to Asakusa Senso-ji Temple, which is also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple. It is the oldest temple in Tokyo being completed in the year 645 AD. Having two names confused me during our cruise planning process; but Yosuke let me know they were the same place. He was right about it being crowded. We had agreed that if we got separated to meet at the large lantern at the entry. It was hard to miss.
The place was packed with people browsing the many shops leading up to the temple. They were really good shops with lots of items that made good souvenirs and gifts. Rather than fighting the crowds going to the temple, Carol told us that she would stay near the entrance and do some shopping.
We came to some pretty statues in a garden area.
Close by was another gate with multiple large lanterns and we had a view of a pagoda.
As we approached the main temple, there was a large urn with incense burning in it. Throughout the trip I had been surprised that the incense in both China and Japan was not overly strong and choking like what we had experienced when we visited Vietnam. This incense was actually quite pleasant and we walked up to get a better whiff of it.
The main temple area itself was very crowded with people approaching it to pray. It was difficult to even get up the stairs to the viewing area to take photos of the gorgeous interior. The fine screening that was used to protect the interior allowed for pretty decent photos.
The ceiling above the interior viewing area was also quite pretty.
From the elevated level, I could look back and see the huge crowd below. This was a very popular temple. I could understand why, since as well as a holy place, it was also a very lovely place.
I could look one way and see a pagoda and the other way to see the Tokyo Sky Tree. Both were impressive.
Walking back we took the less crowded side paths back to where Carol was waiting. She did have some small packages of souvenirs she couldn’t resist.
As we left the temple area, we got a view of several nice looking buildings. One of them had a decoration on it that was supposed to be a flame.
We arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport just before 2:00 PM. We had a very nice tour in addition to the airport transfer. We were so grateful to Yosuke for making our visit to Tokyo so enjoyable. He was a special guide and a special man.
At the airport we were able to get the TravelScoot attended to at the counter. It wasn’t the type of baggage they were used to dealing with, but it worked out fine. As we were getting our last Japanese food at the airport, we discussed what a wonderful trip it had been. We had been gone three weeks and didn’t have a single day with rain while we were touring; and most days were sunny. We both felt that we had seen some truly amazing sights.
This had been a bucket list trip for me, since Carol was not that excited about visiting northern Asia. Neither of us could believe how much we both enjoyed China other than the horrible pollution. Carol even said she would like to return to Japan. It is now right up there with one of our favorite countries to visit. This trip gave us an appreciation for these countries on the other side of the world from us. We had no idea what to expect from them; but now have a deep respect for China, Japan and South Korea.
Once again we met and toured with many new friends on the cruise. We thoroughly enjoyed cruising with and being spoiled on Oceania once more. But most importantly we saw destinations that we have dreamed of visiting all our lives. It was a truly awesome vacation that we were so blessed to be able to do.
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