Everyone Loves Kyoto

Posted October 21, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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I love Kyoto. Everyone loves Kyoto. And on the day we were there, everyone else was there too, all at once, loving Kyoto almost to death.


We started at the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji. It’s Kyoto’s most iconic sight, and thousands of people were there to see it, at least half of them groups of school kids.


They were remarkably well-behaved, but each group had to have its picture taken in front of the view of the Pavilion, making for a chaotic scene.


This is the view I wanted, unadorned by selfie-takers and giggling kids.


However, our guide grabbed my camera and insisted that I too had to have a photo taken there. I guess I’m sort of half-way glad he did.


One group of students was walking together, all dressed in kimono, which is A Thing to do while in Kyoto. Alas, they too were absorbed in looking at their selfies.

The Pavilion is topped by a golden phoenix, to denote its rising from the ashes. It has burned down several times over the centuries, most recently in 1950. It was restored in 1955, and is said to have been covered with 45 pounds of gold leaf during that restoration.


Here was a spot to toss a coin and make a wish. I decided to the stick with the same wish I made in Tokyo.

After what our guide called “an ordinary working peoples’ lunch,” which was indeed nothing remarkable, we went to the Eikan-do Zenrin-ji temple.


It’s a wonderful place, not least for two signs that might be my favorite signs of all time.



Seriously, though, it’s gorgeous and tranquil and doesn’t allow photos of its antiquities, which include the only known statue of Buddha looking backward over his shoulder. I did take pictures wherever allowed, most notably on the stunning grounds surrounding the temple.





Next our guide, Ken, took us to Kyoto’s old town.


Here too there were crowds, and lots of kimono-clad tourists. I wish we’d had more time there, but a quick walkabout revealed that


even Kyoto is not immune to nonsense-English. Fortunately, most of what we saw was more like this.





Because we were docked in Kobe, some 80 minutes away from Kyoto, our time there was much shorter than I would have liked. It’s definitely a city I’d like to visit in more depth.


This is all I got to see of Kobe, nor did I get to try the famous beef. I hope that I’ll have the chance to return to this special corner of the world.



There Was No Mountain

Posted October 21, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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In Shimizu, when the mountain is out, you can apparently see Mt. Fuji from all over town. In theory you would see it from here,


or from high atop this Ferris wheel. But nope, even though the sky above us was clear, the mountain was in hiding and my adventures here were of a different sort. Today I went out on my own, in a country where I speak about seven words of the language and read exactly none.


My first mission was to find an ATM, and believe it or not, a 7 Eleven is where to do it. By the way, I’ve seen quite a few of those cute Shiba Inu dogs, which of course look right at home here.


You know how a 7 Eleven sells all sorts of snack food? This one was no exception.


This is their recycling installation, for the eco-minded among us.


And the manhole cover near the store, much more beautiful than it had to be.


And beauty was my mission, as I was looking for this museum. It had no sign in English, so I asked a young man who was walking in. He smiled, nodded, and proceeded to pay for my entrance ticket. The Japanese are a wonderfully welcoming people.



Inside, the architecture was as beautiful as it was outside.



There was a lovely display of wooden boats, and the level of fine detail on each of them was amazing.



The Shimizu/Shizuoka area is known for tea production, and from these displays I surmised that it was a mainstay of the local economy in the past, and that these jackets were typically worn by tea workers. I was the only person in that part of the museum and I didn’t see any signs in English, so surmise is the best I have to offer.


On my way to find lunch, I discovered that hair appointments here cost about what I am used to paying. Just remove the last two zeroes on those prices and you’ll have a number that is about 10% higher than the current value of the US dollar.


Walking through a market while looking for a place to eat I saw these beautiful dried squid, just about the size of your hand. I tried a sample, and it was very chewy, but tasty.



Japanese restaurants are known for having plastic displays of their menu out front, and I thought this one looked the best, especially because it had oden, which I love and saw nowhere else. However, I unwittingly chose perhaps the most challenging restaurant out of the 20-25 choices I had in front of me.


That no one spoke English pretty much goes without saying, because to my surprise, wherever we go in Japan, no one speaks English. But this place didn’t offer a sympathetic server who might struggle through a few words and gestures with me, because here you order from a screen.

A tiny young woman seated me on a stool in front of the screen, and went back to greeting people who were passing by. I had no idea what to do. I went back to her, practically took her by the hand, and pointed to the plastic foods I wanted, then went back to the screen and shrugged sheepishly. When she was sure she knew what I wanted she poked at a few things on the screen and left me.


I surreptitiously glanced at people around me and noticed food was arriving in front of them on a conveyor belt, which stopped in front of the diner who had placed the order. Wow.


Then I saw that the people on either side of me at the counter were tapping the green canister over their tea cups, and wow again, everyone had a little hot water spout that delivered water at perfect tea temperature.


Not long after that the conveyor stopped in front of me, so I understood that this was my bowl of oden. I removed it, but the screen kept beeping at me until I realized that I had to press a button to indicate that I had received it.



If you haven’t had oden, it’s a delicious stew made with a dashi broth and filled with various fish cakes, daikon slices, agar cake, and other delicacies. I think I made a faux pas in ordering it, since it’s a cold-weather dish, but I love it so I didn’t care. That and some prawn, fish, and vegetable tempura left me happily stuffed and cost about $17, as compared to the minuscule $32 sashimi bites in Tokyo.



We had only a short stop in Shimizu, so I headed back to the ship after lunch, inordinately pleased with myself for navigating my first day on my own in Japan, however awkwardly. On the pier this guy was making noodle-stuffed omelets that he garnished with various sauces, and many of the crew members were buying them, for under $5.


As we were getting ready to sail away, this group of little kids performed dances and songs for us. My balcony is on the equivalent of the seventh floor, so it was too high up to guess their ages accurately, but consensus among the passengers was that they were in kindergarten or first grade. Those kids sang and danced their hearts out for us, including some really disciplined and highly coordinated running all over the place to make different shapes as a group. They finished up with a rousing rendition of YMCA, which has never before sounded so great.

Shimizu is a sweet little town that I was sorry to leave. And I didn’t even mind missing Mt. Fuji.

Tunneling Through Tokyo

Posted October 20, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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There are 12,000,000 people living in Tokyo, and I feel as if I’ve seen every one of them. This picture was taken at 9:30 at night, when office workers are just going home.

I hadn’t really grasped the enormity of the situation when I selected a guide who travels exclusively by train, subway, and foot. My feet grasped it, though, when we traveled well over 20,000 steps on the first day alone.


The subways are so crowded and people are so tightly packed together that during rush hour every train has one car for women only. Tokyo makes you revise your notion of personal space.



We started at the fabulous Tsukiji Fish Market. When I inquired about this sign near the entry my guide, Teru, said that is was intended for Chinese tourists, considered to be very rude for eating while walking. Of course, it could just as well be intended for Americans, because we’re certainly not innocent of that crime.


Just to be macho I sampled the raw whale meat. It tasted the way dogs smell, familiar, not unpleasant, but not like something you’d ordinarily put in your mouth.



The market also held other non-fishy surprises, including radishes labeled in French and tiny fingernail-sized Hakurei turnips.



The bigger surprise was at this little sushi spot, where our tiny sashimi snack of four small bites of eel, two shrimp, and two slices of tuna cost a whopping $32.



Next we walked through the serene Hama-Rikyu Garden where we saw this 300 year-old black pine tree, tenderly supported in its old age.


We were able to see part of a play at the National Noh Theater, where no photos are allowed during the performance. Noh is an ancient and largely impenetrable art form, difficult even for Japanese audiences, but I enjoyed its strange beauty.


I had wanted to visit a renowned handicrafts shop where they were exhibiting lacquer ware from all over Japan. Everything was exquisite, including this tiny but street-legal Subaru which had been restored and lacquered by hand. The crafts were too expensive for me, but this car was for sale for about $40,000, which I thought might actually have been a bargain for some collector.



The Ginza by night, where I was on a frantic quest for Ibuprofen because my feet were falling off. Teru was absolutely convinced that it was not possible to get any sort of pain medication without a prescription, never having taken an over-the-counter pain drug in his life, although he’s about my age. So I was able to educate him about something in Japan, a pharmacy where, of course, OTC pain relievers were readily available.


Drugs, plus a copious amount of excellent sake in a really nice robatayaki restaurant, made it all much better.


This was the sake menu, and we tried several different kinds,



while enjoying charred saury fish, which is just now in season, squid sashimi and tempura, and vegetable tempura with taro, bamboo shoots, and a larger version of shishito peppers. Oh, and I also got interviewed by TeleTokyo for a food show they were doing on foreigners and Japanese food. It will air next week when I’m in Beijing, so I won’t get to see it, but hopefully Teru will be able to record it for me.


Here’s the spectacular view from my Tokyo hotel room because yes, my friends, all of that happened in a single day. Hence the 20,000+ steps and sleeping like a stone.


The next morning we decided to take some taxis. Look at how pristine this one is, with lace doilies on the seat backs. Another one we took had a driver wearing white gloves.


The Imperial Palace is an obligatory stop in Tokyo, but all you can see is the outside grounds, since the emperor and his family still live there. I opted for a taxi-window view of this watch tower and called it good.


I wanted to see more contemporary Tokyo life, so we went to the Akihabara district, a place of which Teru strongly disapproved. To me it looked absolutely normal, funky, casual, like many places in American cities. To him it represented a degeneration of Japanese society. In one sense I had to agree with him.


I had asked to see a cat cafe, and Akihabara is where they are.


The one we went to was pretty much like visiting the cat adoption room at the Humane Society, with the exception of the fact that you had to take off your shoes before entering, and they served iced green tea.

But Teru said that if we were going to see a cat cafe and since we were in the neighborhood we could also see a maid cafe. Maid cafe? Yes, a place where “cute girls” dress like maids and serve you.


Fortunately, we got there too early and the maid cafes were closed. Because take a close look at the “maids.” Wouldn’t you say they are about 12 or 14? Evidently you have to be 18 to be a maid, but then make-up and costumes transform the young women into something that might delight pedophiles, but turned my stomach.


This is much more how I think Japanese kids should look.


Perhaps they are on their way to this school?



Next we walked down a charming and tranquil street to the beautiful Fukagawa Fudo temple.






In the temple nine priests and monks performed a striking Buddhist ritual, with chanting, fierce drumming, and the burning of wishes, sending them heavenward.


How that works is that you buy a little stick, each one representing a generic category of wish, like “healthy family” or “happy marriage.” And then you personalize it. The cost of the wish is a donation to the temple, and the priest tosses your wish into the fire during the ceremony.


And that was Tokyo.





No Cranes On Demand

Posted October 19, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Prepare yourself for an onslaught of Japanese adventures. We’ve been ashore every day, with no breaks, and I’m way behind. I’m going to try to do a rapid-fire catch-up on the last few days, which have been pretty amazing. This was my first Japanese sunrise.


This was what I first saw coming into Kushiro in the early morning. Like every Japanese port it’s protected by a series of low sea walls.


As it turns out, there’s always food awaiting us on the dock, as if the cruise ship were starving us. This, for the donut-minded among you, was one of Kushiro’s offerings. I didn’t try them, but the area around the cart selling them smelled really good.


A small group of us piled into a van and headed north, up toward Hokkaido’s Lake Akan. Our first stop was the International Crane Center, where, disappointingly, we were about a month too early to see flocks of red crowned cranes in the wild.



Instead, the center showed us a few lonely-looking cranes in captivity,



as well as teaching us about the habits and life cycle of the supremely elegant birds.



Our next stop was a roadside rest station, where delicious snacks were available. I love Japanese food, so I was in heaven here. A kabocha fritter and crunchy wakame and sesame snacks made a fine lunch for me.



Next we went to see Ainu dancing and singing. The Ainu are the aboriginal people of northern Japan, and apparently here in Hokkaido is the only place where they have a distinct cultural, as opposed to assimilated, presence. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside or during the performance, but the theater building was beautiful and the performance was interesting.



It’s already autumn in Hokkaido, and so beautiful in the countryside. Doesn’t this look just like Japan should look?



The town of Kushiro itself, though, is absolutely unappealing, at least what we were able to see of it.




DSC00675The townspeople came and put on a wonderful sailaway show on the pier for us, featuring these taiko drummers, seen here from high up on my balcony.


Kushiro’s sunset was spectacular. That’s our ship, in the golden light.


We were in port with the Pacific Venus, the second-largest Japanese flag cruise ship. Here the pilot boat guides us out past her, and onward toward Yokohama.


Beautiful Kamchatka

Posted October 11, 2018 by Abra Bennett
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Petropavlovsk Part Deux. We started the afternoon at a museum of local and natural history. There was impressive taxidermy showing the wildlife of the Kamchatka peninsula, including


the sea eagle, said to be much larger and more powerful that the bald eagle,


the Russian brown bear, which is the world’s largest, as well as the beautiful red fox and lynx.


After the museum we drove out of town to a spot where this vehicle awaited us. We were on our way to visit the home of some championship sled dogs, and the road would be rough. When I saw this behemoth I was sure they were exaggerating, but no, not at all! No normal vehicle could possibly have traversed the roads we followed.


I kept trying to grab a picture as we bounced and crashed our way through a thick birch forest, but they were mostly all a blur. This one must have been taken during a moment when we were suspended in the air some foot or so above the ground, the only explanation for why it’s even partly in focus.


We finally arrived at a beautifully rustic outpost, the likes of which I’d never imagined.


The outpost’s outhouse, although there was a slightly more modern one for visitors.


We were all more or less famished by the time we arrived, but there were audible gasps as people ducked through the small door into the dining room.


Lunch was actually pretty terrible, from my point of view as a person who doesn’t eat carbs, but I was so happy to be there that I didn’t care. There was broth with big chunks of potato and little pieces of reindeer meat, bread, a few sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and then a dessert of a fried dough and bowls of sweetened condensed milk sprinkled with lingonberries. Andrei and Anastasia, who own the place and raise the sled dogs, have seven children, so I rather imagine that this was a typical meal for them.


There are 126 sled dogs here, and each has its own little house on a pad. These dogs are raised to compete in the Beringia, the world’s longest dog sled race, that covers 1300 miles every year in Kamchatka. Both Andrei and Anastasia have won medals and big checks in this race, with these special dogs.


Here they show us how much the dogs love to run, maintaining a pace of 15 kilometers per hour throughout the race.


Then followed what, for me, was the best part of the day, as a wonderful troupe performed songs and dances of the Koryak, the indigenous people of the region.





People often ask me, about cruising, if it isn’t frustrating to spend just a day or two in each place. I guess it can be, but when a day is as full of wonderful things as this day was, it seems just right.


As we sailed away from the beautiful Kamchatka Peninsula I felt elated to have visited. If you ever get the opportunity to go there, grab it!

No Roads Lead Here

Posted October 11, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Petropavlovsk, like Dutch Harbor, is a place that can only be reached by sea or by air. Both cities have monuments to Vitus Bering, the Dane who sailed for Russia and forged her path of discovery and conquest of the Aleutians.


But that’s where all resemblance ends. Petropavlovsk (properly called Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky) is a thoroughly modern city of 200,000 people, and apparently about 500,000 cars.


Our own voyage of discovery started with Lyudmila, from the Kamchatintour company, and her thoroughly modern fingernails. The tour bus, though, was charmingly rococo and our driver drove as though we were all precious eggs in a frail basket. Which was a good thing, because Petropavlovsk has an incredible traffic problem, with seemingly three cars on the road for each of its 200,000 inhabitants. Nice cars, new cars, on decent roads, just way too many of them.


Fortunately Lyudmila led us on a little walk of monuments in the downtown center, including one to François Lapérouse, an early French explorer,


and another, built in 1854, commemorating lives lost in the Crimean War. It is said that English and French soldiers are buried on one side of this monument, and Russian soldiers on the other.


Next we were off to this gorgeous spot. This is the Trinity Cathedral, which was actually built in this century, despite its classic appearance.


One of its most striking features is its location. Petropavlovsk is ringed by volcanoes, to the point that there is no place in town from which you can actually see the horizon. We were incredibly lucky to have a perfectly clear, sunny, and warm day for viewing this splendor. Normally it would be cloudy and rainy at this time of year.





From the sacred to the profane, next we headed to a large indoor market to do some shopping. Most of the group wanted souvenirs, but I walked straight back into the grocery section of the market.


I had dredged up a few Russian phrases from my visit there in 1994, and refreshed them with a bit of help from Google. However, it was still a hilarious adventure.


I didn’t mind passing on the many stalls filled with packaged cookies, cakes, crackers, and snacks of all kinds, but when I got to the sausages and cheeses, all was lost. I was too busy stumbling through my 20 word vocabulary and signing about everything to get a picture here, but I finally did manage to procure a selection of local sausages and some cheese from Belarus. The lady made little antlers by her face to signify deer, I made little finger-jumping motions to confirm, we laughed. I showed her my Visa, wrote down a total amount of rubles I wanted to spend, pointed to several different sausages, she offered me tastes then cut me some.


I followed my nose to the smoked fish section, which was enormous. This vendor didn’t have a word of English either, but pointing, tasting, and my few words of garbled Russian got me a side of some delicious fish, tightly wrapped in plastic to avoid offending my bus-mates. I have no idea what fish this is – I can pronounce it in Russian, but that’s it. If you can tell me what I’m eating I’ll be forever in your debt!

I’m sure it seems crazy to bring food on board a cruise ship, but there you have it. I’m still me.

We went on to have an amazing afternoon, which, in the interest of being sure I can really get all this uploaded, I think I’d better describe in a separate post. Stay tuned for Petropavlovsk Part Deux.