Japan

10 May 2024


I had a good 12-day cruise around Japan followed by four days on my own in Tokyo. Noble Caledonia operated a nice small ship with large cabins and about 110 passengers. I'd visited Japan in 2000, but not so extensively.

Japan's economy soared up until the 1990s. Since 2000 Japan has suffered through "lost decades" of economic stagnation, with its previously high growth rate falling below that of other major industrialized countries. Since 2021, the yen has lost about 40% of its value against the US dollar. To me, even with a weak yen, prices seemed a bit high — but if prices had been 40% higher, yikes.

Shrines & Temples

We saw many beautiful Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, often together at the same site. Here are a few of my favorites.

Shinto shrines are usually painted a vibrant reddish orange. At the top is the Fujisan Sengen Shrine dedicated to Mount Fuji and located in its foothills. Second is Kumano Hayatama Taisha, an important shrine in Shingu for almost a millenium.  

Torii gates near the entrance to Shinto shrines usually echo the same bright vermilion. This famous one welcomes pilgrims to the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima most dramatically at high tide.

Most temples/shrines required many, many steps, often steep, to get to the top. Above was the final series of nearly 500 stone steps going up to Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The Oyunohara Torii in Wakayama is the largest torii gate in the world (34m/112f high). Impressive, but where is the striking "orange" paint?  

Liked the flags at the entrance to the many stairs up to the Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine in the rugged mountains of Wakayama.

Gardens & Parks 

Most classic Japanese gardens that I had seen outside Japan were small, not much larger than a tennis court. But Japan has some large ones as well as sizes on down to small backyard versions, all with the requisite stones, varied plants, and water features placed in harmony and asymmetrical balance. 

The Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu was my favorite of the several famous Japanese gardens we visited. Six serene ponds, teahouses, winding paths, 13 little hills, varied trees of all shapes and sizes, including 1,400 pines. 

Developed over centuries for local lords, the large Ritsurin garden cover 75 hectares (185 acres). 

The gardens must be spectacular when cherry blossoms are in bloom or when the Japanese maples start turning into the colors of the koi fish. But in late April, we got to see a glorious kaleidoscope of greens.

From the port of Uno-Ko we drove to Okayama to see beautiful Kōraku-en, another one of Japan's most famed gardens since its creation in 1700.

After Kōraku-en, on the way to lunch, we stopped by a little pocket garden next to an art gallery. Proud parents were taking photos of their daughter in traditional clothes and allowed us to do the same. 
 
Also near the garden, this beautiful couple was on their way to have some pre-wedding photos taken and indulged us a moment too.

Kanazawa's Kenrokuen is often cited as one of Japan's top three gardens. Why is this vista significant? Because this unusual stone lantern has two legs instead of one and has become an iconic image representing Kenrokuen.

Loved the (mōsō) bamboo forest in Kyoto. Wish we'd had more time to explore more paths here. Japanese sometimes rent traditional kimonos for special events and I could tell this shy couple wanted their photo taken (not a selfie) so I volunteered. Then they were happy to pose for my camera.

Surrounded by another beautiful garden, Kinkakuji is a Zen temple in Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Thus, it's often called the Golden Pavilion. 

Kimonos, Bonsai, Kurashiki, & Sayonara  

At a small train station attached to a Kyoto tourist complex, someone brilliantly put kimono fabrics into these cylinders (lit up at night) to liven up the rail area. It's cutely called the "Kimono Forest." Nice to see something so creative and with no historical significance whatsoever. 

We got to visit one of the over 100 bonsai nurseries in the town of Kinashi which seems to have dominated the bonsai business for the past couple of centuries. Growing bonsai is labor intensive and takes many years, so it is no wonder that beautiful, mature bonsai trees can cost many thousands of dollars. I've always liked miniatures (model trains, etc.) so bonsai are fascinating.

We visited charming "old towns" in Mayajima, Hagi, Matsue, Kanazawa, and Kurashiki that have escaped modernization and become tourist destinations. My favorite was Kurashiki's old merchant quarter with its canal framed by weeping willows.  
Surprisingly, most of our eight Japanese ports gave us a colorful welcome (such as shown in the top two photos above) or even a departure ceremony, often with singing and dancing (third pic) and once with a great display of the ancient art of Japanese drumming (taiko).

On arrival in Hagi, we were met by the city's mayor dressed as a samurai warrior. Unexpectedly, he pulled out this samurai sword and handed it to me, instantly prompting a visceral need to go into a swordsman stance. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I might be adding a couple of additional photos (including line dancing onboard), but in the meantime, these pics capture my highlights of the excellent cruise.

Tokyo 東京都

With over 37 million residents, Tokyo is staggering, incredible, mind-blowing. Far ahead of Delhi (32 mil), Shanghai (29 mil), Dhaka (22 mil), and Sao Paulo (22 mil) and Tokyo manages to be clean and calm.  Very glad I added four post-cruise days to explore Tokyo.

Zipping around Tokyo turned out to be fun after mastering the clever subway system. No need to look for directions to 西船橋駅 😱, for example, or even for "Nishi-Funabashi Station." Basically, all you need to know is that it is station JB-30 on the yellow line (Chūō–Sōbu) on English-language signs everywhere and that is also the way Google Maps will give you detailed directions. 😁

We took the highspeed train across Japan from Kanazawa to Tokyo. 

The Sensoji (Buddhist) Temple is Tokyo's oldest and most popular temple. Even without its adjacent pagoda, it is much larger than those we saw on the cruise. 

Even without the colors of its cherry blossoms or its autumn maples, Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was the most beautiful large urban park that I have ever seen.  

So many additional interesting things to see in Tokyo and I explored quite a few more but this post must come to end! So I'm sum up by mentioning that I enjoyed strolling around:
  • Ueno Park 
  • Ueno Zoo (with two pandas)
  • Tokyo National Museum 
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum 
  • Isetan Department Store (the big Shinjuku flagship store of the trendy chain)
  • Shinjuku station and Tokyo station (the two massive subway and rail centers with extensive underground shopping complexes with a total of nearly 300 stores and restaurants)
  • Also the dull Meiji Shrine (dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken from the days when many Japanese worshiped the emperor, circa 1868-1945) 
 
🗽 By Tokyo Bay is this replica of the Statue of Liberty (about ⅙ size), one of three replicas in Japan. It reminded me that despite the fumbling that has characterized so much of US foreign policy, the postwar occupation of Japan (ending in 1952) successfully launched a parliamentary democracy, instituted land reform, introduced education reforms, demilitarized the country, and gave many billions of dollars in aid to rebuild infrastructure and kickstart Japan's economy. With that foundation of political and economic freedom, plus much initial aid, the Japanese rapidly turned their country into a peaceful, prosperous, economic dynamo.🗾