Paul Ashford Harris

The Wonders of Japan: a coutionary tale

Sat 25th May:

Arrived in Kyoto from Osaka airport, an hour and a half along a motorway which the Japanese have sensibly elevated, and built straight across the centre of Osaka; splendid view into the inhabitant’s bedrooms. After booking in, we took the lift to the 2nd floor of one of Kyoto’s more substantial hotels, Hotel Okura. We are on our way to the “Orientation Room” for an introduction to Abercrombie&Kent’s “Wonders of Japan Tour.” Faced with a room full of salt and pepper hair and strange accents our first thought was that we had strayed into a Rotary Convention from L.A., but with a rising sense of panic we realise we are in the right place. We purloin the tour guest list; a few Aussies and assorted Central or Southern Americans, and 90 plus U.S. citizens; one hundred and four in total.

Next morning we assembled to be confronted by four (that’s 4) large buses and are escorted on by the guides or warders, polite but firm. We appear to be younger than average which is a worry.

On the buses we are thoughtfully warned, “there will be a number of steps on today’s tour.” Visits on schedule for today include 2 temples, 1 shrine and 1 castle. Arriving at these venues we pile off the buses to find thousands of people are shuffling through the various exhibits in a sort of conga line clutching cameras. Amongst the visitors are groups of children, immaculately dressed in school uniforms. We are informed we are fortunate; it’s much less crowded than cherry blossom time. One hundred people line up for “Lunch”; veiled complaints about Tofu and need for chop sticks. At least one thousand photographs have already been taken.

We meet Chubb from Texas, hard of hearing and a good 80, and his consort Velma from Kansas, both giving marriage another try after meeting on the internet. I’m pretty sure they know they are in Japan but love is blind.

We decide to dodge the welcoming night dinner with floor show of singing geishas and retreat to a small roof bar nearby where we grab a wine bottle and contemplate our fate. We go down stairs to the grill room and sit at the BBQ table whilst the chefs cook an excellent meal in front of us: spirits lift.

Sun 26th May:

We found ourselves on the end of a half hour queue of guests outside the breakfast room so we fled to a nearby café and sat in the sun. Four buses with inmates and warders head for Osaka castle on the way to the ship. We are warned to take care as there will be some steps. A belligerent old lady called Betty aged 87 gets lost. While we spectate from the buses, frantic warders chatter on two way radio system before she is located and escorted back to the ship in a taxi. She then chokes on a hamburger and Doctor is summoned who bashes her on the back. She survives but henceforth travels only with the ship’s doctor in attendance. He is from the Philippines and deserves a medal.

The four buses share three Japanese lady interpreters. These are very nice women and they patiently answer a range of questions but wisely, since we are mostly on the buses for over an hour, soon revert to telling “funny Japanese story.” One of our companions has a great sense of humour and laughs at each of these stories so loudly we are concerned she may be sick.

We board the boat at Osaka harbour. Built in 1987 she is a bit tired but cabins and deck space are quite adequate although it later becomes apparent that some of our fellow passengers are not too thrilled. This is her last voyage before an overdue refit.

Our arrival coincides with tea time; clearly this is going to be an important ritual. Gail meets Patricia who, like her, was born in Stockport near Manchester, but has lived in California for 40 years. Patricia tells Gail her life story. Her husband Martin is a joker; life and soul of the party. Sun goes down eventually.

Met Ken and Linda. He is a R.E Agent from Las Vegas with the world’s largest camera, apparently some form of competitive fetish amongst the Americans.  He keeps his camera equipment in a back pack which neatly matches his paunch in shape and size thus providing a useful balance when walking. Tells me he has 58ft power boat and made $7million during the boom and invites me to join his “Foundation”. I provide an email address with a couple of letters reversed.

Dinner is served in the dining room. We peruse the menu for some tempting Japanese delicacies, the poisonous fugu fish perhaps, but discover the head chef is from Delhi. As it turns out they won’t actually serve Japanese food on the ship apart from the odd sushi  tasting. Perhaps we are odd thinking this is bizarre. Luckily the head chef runs up a pretty good curry.

Mon May 27th:

Okayama (Uno-ko) on Honshu Island. Take buses (4) to visit famous Bizen pottery: Buses set off in line astern, after we are warned about steps. One hundred people stare uncertainly at four floors of ceramics pots. Many seek consolation in continuous photography. We are kindly informed time is available for shopping. Back on buses.

We have been asked to select one of four buses and remain with our selected number for the remainder of the tour. Instead of being buses 1,2,3 and 4 the buses are wittily named  Geisha, Ninja, Samurais and Shogun. Keep it simple is the plan. Ours fellow inmates on Geisha seem mainly to consist of citizens of Las Vegas and L.A. and they are very keen on photography. We forgot our camera.

Later in the morning we catch up with Geoff Kent (of Abercrombie and Kent) in a coffee shop. He is actually nominally “escorting” the tour but cheerfully admits it is his first visit to Japan. He has wispy carrot coloured hair, signs of facial scarring,( polo accident or surgery), and a 30 year old Brazillian wife, his 3rd attempt. Like polo I suppose the more you try it the better you get. We are trying to guess how old he is and finally establish by various ploys that he is 72.  His wife is wisely travelling with a friend of the same age as herself . Geoffrey also has his biographer from New York along to write a book about him. His background is Kenya, polo and Sandhurst, plus an apparently unlimited friendship with the world’s glitterati. He lets slip that Prince Charles, whose polo team he captained, keeps ringing up and won’t get off the phone, tiresome one would imagine. The biographer appears bewildered by Anglo Saxon social niceities.

On to buses, and off to visit Korakuen formal garden, one of Japan’s three great gardens, and undoubtedly pleasant place for a stroll, and to see the sacred cranes. These are birds in case you wondered.

Back on the boat seeking Australian company we run into Barbara. She is travelling alone and has her fist gripped around a champagne glass. She has a nervous tick and after a couple more belts of champagne she reveals that she was once married to Graeme Wood the founder of “Wot-if.” He has run off with her best friend, who was Andrew Ollie’s ex wife. Barbara is clearly disgruntled and is busy spending his money, from her appearance mostly on champagne and sacha torte. This is going to be a very long trip.

Accidently sit at dinner with Jim and Peggy from Boston who turn out to be good company. He has worked in China many times and they are both are extremely well travelled and well informed, having visited around 120 countries. We quietly total up our own travel experiences; not even close.

Tues May 28th:

In the morning travel to Miya-jima Shrine in Zodiacs, a morning off from buses, but, there will naturally be steps. The Buddhist/ Shinto temples run up the hill behind the Tori or shrine gate, which is made of wood and rises about ten metres out of the water. Gail and I stride ahead and actually this is a wonderful peaceful place. We find a quiet coffee house with pretty private garden and enjoy green tea and coffee served with elegance and pride in a way only the Japanese can manage.

We visit the Hiroshima Peace Park (in buses) which is predictably chilling. It is well done although we have little time to enjoy the very complete museum. Afterwards we reflect that the exhibit has strangely failed to remark on Japan’s contribution to the war in the Pacific, all the way from Pearl Harbour to Iwo Jima. In fact many of the thousands of Japanese children who visit may actually think that this appalling event somehow came out of nowhere and was perhaps just a sort of fiendish American experiment. Hiroshima has been rebuilt with spacious boulevards but it seems a pity that the opportunity was not taken to employ less utilitarian architecture. The buildings look like Parramatta industrial area.

Back in the bus, Ken from Las Vegas pipes up; “whose side were the Japs on in WW1 anyway?”

We are off to revive our spirits over lunch in the ballroom of a four star hotel, decorated in sixties casino style and handily positioned next to Hiroshima Railway station. 100 emotionally drained inmates tear into steak and chocolate cake. Harsh fluorescent lights reveal an ocean of pearl grey locks and certain cosmetic imperfections presumably due to less than competent facial surgery. It is proving difficult to concentrate on conversations with people whose top lip is rigid.

Free time is thoughtfully available for wonderful shopping opportunities. We buy a map of Japan.

We are back on the boat in time for tea in the lounge. A frisson of excitement runs through the inmates when it is announced that chocolate chip cookies are available.

At dinner Betty aged 87 sits with her sister Faith aged 90. Faith is sophisticated, bright and incredibly marches along with the rest of us without recourse to outside assistance. She has lived in San Francisco for many years and explains dismissively that sister Betty, who is constrained by a neck brace and zimmer frame, and is not too happy about her sister’s agility, still lives in their birth place, north somewhere or other; Dakota, Carolina, Korea? They are joined by another elderly but sprightly 85 year old from Sydney called Rosemary. Betty and Faith bicker since they don’t agree about anything. Rosemary looks pained which she probably is.

Invited to Captain’s table for dinner with Geoffrey. We are on best behaviour naturally and I am determined not to stare at Geoffrey’s hair. The guests include a couple of Americans and their wives plus Geoffrey’s entourage. Gail’s companion is from Chicago and is recovering from an horrendous ski accident. I chat happily with Geoffrey for most of the evening and try to include his wife who is trying very unsuccessfully to look fascinated by my rapier like wit. She has come to dinner in her Yoga gear.

Wed May29th:

The boat has transferred to Oita overnight and off we go on the buses with a resounding warning that “there will be steps” ringing in our hearing aids.  First to the Usuki stone Buddha’s where fortunately a ramp has been built to assist some of the passengers get up the hill. Peter, our enthusiastic botanist with beard and silly hat, discovers a minute land crab. Within seconds one hundred cameras are drawn from their holsters. The land crab remains calm. Peter then discovers several ferns and a large worm, clearly these are also fantastic photo opportunities although not as good as being photographed standing alongside a group of elderly Japanese gentlemen who, until discovered, were quietly paying their respects to the Buddha.

We visit Yusufin, which is Japan’s answer to a Swiss alpine town, minus yodelling. We sprint off by ourselves to a small museum which houses Marc Chagall prints, and have a typically exquisitely served coffee on a veranda watching herons chasing small fish in the shallows. Pity they don’t like the fat carp that have invaded every water way.

Met Buck from Texas. “Hi, I’m Buck from Texas.” “Hi, I’m Paul from Sydney.” “We prefer the fall too.”

A Japanese lunch for a change is greeted by some of us with relief but is obviously not to the taste of all our fellow travellers. Free time for shopping opportunities is thoughtfully provided. We find time to talk to a miniature dachshund called Ko.

Back on buses to reach the boat early so as to be sure to be in time for tea. Oita port like so many in Japan is not bordered by quaint shops, bars and restaurants but is for purely commercial uses and we doubt ever normally sees a passenger ship. In fact this port is apparently the local scrap metal loading dock or is this pile of rusting junk a piece of Japanese contemporary art?

Dine with Jaime and Maria. She reminds us of Maria from West Side Story and is from Venezuela and they live in El Salvador. They are great company and very interesting about Chavez and Central America in general. Jaime owns a shoe manufacturing company employing some 5,000 people, 3,000 in El Salvador. Rush to Google and look it up. It’s true. Dodging L.A. estate agent Ken and raconteur Martin, I have a Japanese whisky in the bar with Jaime as a night cap(about 9.30).

Thurs May 30th:

The ship has sailed over night to Nagasaki. In the morning breakfast on the stern deck in the sunlight, a bit cool but apparently too cold for most of the guests so we have the place pretty much to ourselves. Buses trundle up in a row outside; a “steps” warning is naturally given. One strange (stranger) feature of the trip is that each time we leave the ship we are given plastic bottles of water, and more on return to the buses. I enquired why we aren’t requested simply to fill the old bottle up but was informed that people are suspicious of tap water and only want a sealed bottle, notwithstanding Japanese tap water is excellent. I calculate we probably will have used a couple of thousand plastic bottles by the time we finish.

Nagasaki is a much prettier town than Hiroshima and the hills seem to have constrained the blast. It is also the “home” to Madam Butterfly. The museum is more atomic horror. What can really be said? Again it is crowded with school children but again, in stark contrast to the anguished admissions of responsibility we have just witnessed when we were at Flossenburg and Dachau Concentration camps in Germany, the exhibition is muted about Japan’s part in this Gotterdammerung.

We decided to walk up the hill near the dock to the Glover Gardens and the colonial houses built at the top of the hill with wonderful views over the bay and our ship. Some of us press on to the top where Glover’s house was used for the scene in the Madam Butterfly film where Cio Cio San witnesses Lieutenant Pinkerton returning to Nagasaki with his American wife. How these timber houses survived the bomb it is hard to imagine. We walk back to the ship which is leaving early to cross the Sea of Japan to South Korea.

Fris,31st May:

Off the boat early to clear South Korean customs and then on the buses for full day tour of Kyongju, a World Heritage site. There are a few recalcitrants who have discovered we are moored opposite the world’s largest car factory, Hyundai, and would like to visit. No chance.

After a couple of hours we arrive in the park and inspect the burial chambers and excavated monuments and temples. Then on to the museum which turns out to have a wonderful display of gold jewellry, metal weapons and pottery. Off to what the brochure describes as “a lunch of Korean delicacies whilst watching a traditional dance.” I leave this visual and culinary feast to your imagination. Botanist sees lizard: photos ensue.

Gail bumps into Ken who is explaining to his friends that Lyndon Johnson was the force behind the assassination of John F  Kennedy. Gail is astounded to hear this. Ken gives her a contemptuous look. “Everyone knows that.”

We head back to the ship via the usual cluster of craft shops with mostly sadly unappealing products, probably made in China. People clamber back on the bus carrying a large array of parcels. The lengthy drive is punctuated by a delivery from our Korean guide who it is now clear is an evangelical Christian, perhaps a moonie? We are regaled with an incoherent stream of quasi-religious ranting and stories about his relatives who, thanks be to God, live in the religious safe haven of the USA. He is praying for reconciliation between North and South Korea which he is confident will soon occur.

The tour brochure has omitted the bit about being locked on bus for four hours with an insane Korean religious fanatic.

SAT 1st June:

Arrive at Matsue after crossing back into Japanese waters. Succumbing to mild paranoia, I keep a surreptitious watch out for the Chinese navy or North Korean missiles. Matsue is described in the brochure as ““the town of water”, nestled between a scenic lake and a large lagoon.”  We lean over the rail with our friends Margaret and Harriett from Brisbane. There is silence until Harriet remarks with her slow Queensland drawl, “looks pretty horrible.” It’s another commercial harbour. The buses take us in line astern to a samurai house; fifty of us try to crowd into the same room, cameras brandished. On we go to a terrific original castle which contains an interesting display of samurai equipment and especially their elaborate armour and whose steep wooden stairs rising five floors thin the crowd. How small the samurai all were before protein weaved its magic. The castle is set in a pretty garden on top of hill looking over the surrounding countryside. The trees surrounding the park are home to a pair of nesting harriers and about fifty cranes which are busy squabbling for food.

Back on the bus the guide is prattling on but is confronted by rows of sleeping passengers, eyes closed, mouths open and Adam’s apples bobbing. Well, it’s a job.

Back at the ship the local children have put on a performance for our departure. The bigger ones do acrobatics and the younger bop in perfect timing to an American Rap song whose words I hope they can’t understand. It is a sensationally good performance from children as young as four and we are all enraptured.

SUN 2nd JUNE:

Buses to the city of Kanazawa, and to Kenrokuen gardens, one of Japan’s top 3 gardens, and actually delightful. The crowd go left with their battery operated guides fastened in their ears. Gail and I go right. We manage an hour and a half of solitude, available to anyone who can read a map. Then off to Japanese sacred tea ceremony. We are ushered into the tiny tea ceremony room to be initiated in groups of 15 at half hour intervals. The tea is passed around in tiny cups by ladies dressed in attractive kimonos. The tea has the consistency of mushy peas but is bound to be good for you. Japanese ladies look startled to have cameras thrust within 50 cms of their faces by enthusiastic photographers. This photographic farrago is presumably going to be shown to the folks back home who I’m guessing would actually rather have their toenails pulled out: a thousand pictures and not a single story.

During special free shopping time we head off in a taxis for the Geisha area of old wooden houses which is charming (no cars and never bombed). Then we sneak off to the Museum of Contemporary Art which is predictably bizarre but fun. Have a kebab at a stall and end up talking to a Japanese girl who is an associate professor at the University. She is wondering about her future given the ageing population and Japan’s resolute refusal to allow immigration. She helps us with a taxi to Iki Iki Markets-that’s fish markets. Supplies are a bit scant but it is Sunday afternoon.

Dinner at Captain’s table again. The guest list is Captain who is Croatian, Geoffrey Kent’s group (Kenyan, Brazilian, Japanese and American), us, another Brazilian, two French Canadians, and Maria and Jaime from El Salvador. Fun evening and Geoffrey and his group enjoy the Kobe beef they have specially flown in. Nasty looks from those omitted; from the table not the beef. We are detecting a groundswell of opposition to Geoffrey from the American contingent, not surprising considering that the only thing they have in common is some passing overlap in the use of the English language.

MON 3RD JUNE:

Arrive at Sado-ga-shima, a small island with a tiny fishing harbour with no sign anyone is around. On buses, mind the steps, and off to see the Red Ibis sanctuary. They are sacred to Japanese (JAL Airlines brand) and only a few hundred are left. Bus suddenly stops for no apparent reason in the middle of nowhere; ah,ha, it is a photo op. Everyone out, everyone back in. At the sanctuary we get a good look at the birds and an interesting chat with the tour botanist about how they will maintain genetic diversity. Chinese Ibis apparently; is there anything the Chinese don’t make? Gail and I are standing in the garden looking at two Ibis outside beside some bushes. Photographers suddenly rush out and snap away. Do they know that the Ibis are made of cement?

Vist Sado gold mine, which is underground, and dates back to 1622. We walk down a thousand feet through the mine which is excellently displayed.  During afternoon shopping opportunity we go for a walk along the harbour and come across Nina and Esty in their 80’s and like us on a quest for peace. We agree to have dinner together. Her father is an artist and they have a Yurt in the mountains which they wistfully describe.

Back to ship and away to the tinkle of tea cups and gin bottles, the latter for my edification.

TUES 4TH JUNE:

Choice today is bus trip to meet the boat in the next Port, Aomori, or stay on the boat. The trip includes a one hour nature walk in beautiful conditions reminiscent of Switzerland or New Zealand and a visit to a giant drum museum interspersed by, ahem, six hours on the bus. Guess which we pick? The coastline is mountainous with patches of snow and we enjoy the boat with twenty other shirkers and actually spot a whale and some dolphin. Also cross above the tunnel from Honshu to Hokkaido the world longest at 59km. I have tried to persuade Gail this would be a good fun thing to do but she reminds me about earthquakes. Our bus inmates return. They have all had a wonderful day but there were some steps, which very fortunately they had been warned about.

Ken from L.A. has stayed on the ship. He sees me scribbling in my note book and asks me what I am writing. I tell him it is a novel about a cruise ship on which the passengers, a bunch of old farts, are indulged with anything their hearts might desire, such as cookies and photography. At the end of the trip they are all euthanized.

WED 5TH JUN:

We arrive at Muroran, on Hokkaido, which is another huge port, spanned by an impressive bridge which leads to a highway, and skirts at least fifty LPG tanks.  The Japanese have the most amazing infrastructure. Every place has astonishing highways, bridges and ports. Could this be why they have the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world?

Skip onto “Geisha” after receiving steps warning and then off to see the Ainu aboriginal community. They show off native bears and dogs confined in tiny concrete and rusty wire cages. The bears are huge. I tell the head man through the guide that the cages are a “bloody disgrace.” Guide tells bus that this Australian man has told Ainu chief that putting bears in such small compounds is a disgrace and doesn’t everyone agree? Obviously not, and I cower behind the seat.

The bus goes off on another hour’s journey towards something called “Hells Gates” which the Japanese believe is where sinners are sent by the God’s. I thought that was Las Vegas. Hells Gates turns out to be a geothermal area where clouds of steam are emitted from muddy pools, accompanied by the strong smell of sulphur emissions which remind me of the bus.

THURS 6TH JUNE:

Berthed at Otaru the port for Sapporo, where we will dis-embark on Friday morning.

Determined to do our own thing, we head for the Sake brewery but end up in the wrong place, the Sake shop not the brewery. Finally find the brewery and take up with our 80 year old friends Nina and Esky who are anxious to “play hooky” with us, as they call it. We walk very slowly to a department store which is truly appalling even by the low standards we have experienced to date. Stumble into the sunlight. What are we going to do next with our elderly admirers? In a stroke of brilliance I remember reading about a 19thCentury house belonging to the head of the herring fishing industry and which is perched on the hillside outside Otaru. I enquire of the tourist office and a very nice Japanese girl who has lived in Christchurch directs us to a taxi. The house, which is only twenty minutes from the port, is delightful with an interesting display of the history of the fishing industry now sadly no more. The views are across the bay to Otaru and beyond to the mountains of Sapporo, where the winter Olympics were held in the seventies. Below us is a small yacht club which is conducting racing out on the bay. This place is presumably off the visit list because there is nowhere to park buses and also it is at the top of a hill. Oh yes, there are steps.

That night we determine to skip the farewell dinner which will undoubtedly be accompanied by protestations of undying friendships and swapped emails. Nina and Esky beg to come with us so I reconnoitre and, although vastly tempted by a German Beer Hall, with genuine Oompah Band and with any luck Sumo wrestlers in lederhosen, I settle for a Japanese restaurant which turns out to be adequate although I am pretty devastated about missing the beer hall.

Sneak back on board and pack.

FRIDAY 7TH JUNE:

Not entirely devastated to be off home. We have actually met some nice people including Geoffrey, and seen some interesting sights, but in effect the boat is a floating retirement home and if you want to “know” as opposed to “see” this is not the way to do it.

SAYONARA.

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