Sunday, April 30, 2023


Our first full day on our own! And we certainly took advantage of it. We started the day at Itsukushima Jinja Otorii, literally translated as Grand Torii Gate but better known as The Floating Torii Gate. Look at the pictures to see why. We rode the JR train from Hiroshima to Miyajimaguchi where we caught the first ferry to the island. Being able to photograph before the crowds showed up made it well worth the early wakeup time.

Next we took the ferry from Miyajima directly back to Hiroshima, which took us right to the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome, the historic site of the dome which survived an atomic bomb blast.

Nearby are the Children's Peace Monument, the Hiroshima Victims Memorial and the Hiroshima Peace Museum. It was all very sobering and something everyone should see. If you've seen the movie "Oppenheimer", seeing or having seen Hiroshima and the actual results of an atomic bomb blast, adds another dimension to the movie. It was encouraging to see the G7 conference scheduled for later in May, bringing together major countries to peacefully talk and work out international issues.

Although exhausted and thoroughly wiped out after an already long day, we still had one more stop on our list - the Hiroshima Castle. Although I balked at first, it was well worth the effort especially near the end of the day when the light was gorgeous.

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Hiroshima photo album

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Yokoma to Hiroshima

It was sad to see the first cruise end but we were looking forward to over a week on our own! After leaving the ship we took a bullet train from Yokohama to Hiroshima. This was the first day we started using our JR Rail Pass which allowed us to take most of the JR Bullet trains (there were a few exceptions) and all of the other JR trains for seven days.

At the Yokohama train station I managed to find some local craft beers! One of my biggest complaints about cruise lines is their lack of beer varieties.They'll have pages of wine but you're luck if they have a half dozen beers, most of which are not very good.

Now properly supplied with beer, we took the bullet train to Hiroshima. The picture below is actually in Osaka where we changed trains.

Not a lot of pictures to show, but still a nice day. And though you'd think it was a relaxing day we actually ended up walking quite a bit. Between walking to and from train stations and between connections (and the train stations are VERY large!) we'd rack up quite a few steps. During the cruise execursions we'd average around 10,000 steps - and those were pretty active tours. But during the next week while were were on our own we averaged closer to 20,000 steps per day with a peak of 27,000 steps during our day in Kyoto. I'd jokingly refer to it as our death march, but between the large amount of walking and the abundance of fresh fish, which we definitely took advantage of, it was probably our healthiest week of the year!

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see pictures in the Yokohama to Hiroshima photo album

Thursday, April 27, 2023


The final stop on this cruise was in Nagasaki. Although we were going to return here again on our own we did manage to see most of the highlights. For this stop we bought an excursion from the cruise line which included a one day local transport pass, similar to our Suica card. Although at the time we were still a bit perplexed by the tram system, we eventually found it to be very simple to use. There were just a few color coded tram lines which would take you to most of the sights in Nagasaki or at least close enough so you could walk the remaining distance.

One of the biggest downsides to booking excursions on the large cruise lines is that most of the tours are very large, about a bus load of people for one or two tour guides. In this case we all took a single tram car. I felt sorry for the locals who either ended up waiting for the next car or were squeezed in with all these tourists.

Our first stop was at the peace park where we saw the peace park statue, fountain and ground zero for the Nagasaki atomic bomb.

The final stop for the tour was the one legged Tori gate which although damaged by the atomic bomb blast still stood.

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Nagasaki photo album

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Busan, South Korea

On the 7th day of our cruise we stopped in Busan. Once again we'd booked a private all day tour. This one was one of our favorites! We probably covered more sights in Busan than any other stop thanks to our tour guide. The photos below are only a sampling of where we stopped. If you look at the photo album for Busan you'll see 52 photos - more than any other day on our Japan trip. The next closest photo album, a day in Hiroshima and the Floating Torii Gate, has 37 photos.

The Busan tour started bright and early at 7:30 am when we were taken to Hwangryeong Mountain, a high mountain observation area overlooking Busan. The light was gorgeous and the expansive view breathtaking. I think this was our favorite stop of the day, certainly the most scenic!

Up next, after brief stops at Gwangalli Beach and Dongbaek Park, we took a ride on the Haeundae Blueline. This took us on a short scenic ride in a small four passenger trolly rail car on a track overlooking the sea.

Next stop was the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, a large Buddhist Temple complex that was very crowded. The area was huge with a lot of walking, much of it uphill. The one picture below doesn't do it justice as there were numerous statues, temples and views of the sea. Click on the picture below to see the entire Busan photo album including many more pictures of the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple area.

Following the long walk through the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple complex, which definitely helped us work up an appetite, we headed out to a lunch of beef wrapped in lettuce leaves. This was followed by stops at various scenic view points overlooking Busan on the way to Gamcheon Culture Village.

The Gamcheon Culture Village, to quote Wikipedia: is known for its layered streets, twisted labyrinth-like alleys, and brightly painted houses, which have been restored and enhanced in recent years to attract tourism. Built on a steep mountain-side slope, the village has been nicknamed "Korea's Santorini" and the "Machu Picchu of Busan".

According to Wikipedia "Gamcheon Village was built during the 1920s and 1930s when the Busan city administration decided to relocate the working-class population into an area secluded from the port, yet close enough to provide labor." At that time the poor lived high up on the hillside where it was less expensive to build but more difficult to get to.

I'm not sure we truly captured Gamcheon Culture Village, in part because after a big lunch and a long day of touring, we were starting to get a bit tired. In addition, the day was starting to warm up and the Gamcheon Culture Village was becoming very crowded. But there was more to come!

Our next stop took us to the Songdo Cloud Trails. This walkway provided amazing panoramic views of the ocean as well as a walkway that at times consisted of a clear glass floor allowing you to view the sea below - a bit unnerving at times. Along the trail there is also a statue of the Mermaid and the Farmer, shown in the photo below.

Near the Songdo Cloud Trails is the Songdoo Bay Station, an aerial tram with cars that have glass bottoms. You're actually given a choice of having a car with a glass floor or a solid floor. Either way the view is gorgeous!

At the other end of the tram line is the Songdo Yonggung Suspension Bridge which takes you to another gorgeous observation area. Unfortunately our time was running short and we didn't have time to visit the observation area. Instead we returned to our starting point, the Songdoo Bay Station.

Our last stop of the day was at the Jagalchi Market, a market world famous for fresh fish and seafood for takeaway or you can eat there from small informal stalls. By this time it was after 4:30 pm and we had to be back aboard the ship by 5:30, so we didn't have a lot of time to spend here.

And that was our day in Busan. There are many more pictures in the Busan photo album, so if you enjoyed the pictures above, check it out. Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Busan photo album

Monday, April 24, 2023


April 24, 2023 - Akita

On the 5th day of our cruise we stopped in Akita. This was our first tour booked with the cruise company, but strangely enough that we actually had the same tour guide as our previous day in Aomori. The previous day we had taken a one hour plus train ride from Aomori to see the castle in Hirosaki. After seeing the Hirosaki Castle we'd told the tour guide that we could take the train on our own back to Aomori.

The tour guide had to be in Akita the following day and Hirosaki is about 1/3 of the way from Aomori to Akita. Since our tour guide lives in Hirosaki, he was able to have his wife bring him his overnight bag for his one day stay in Akita, allowing us to also meet his wife. We were so happy to see him again in Akita as we boarded the bus as he'd done an excellent job the day before. Having him as a tour guide for a bus load of people was not as good as having him to ourselves with only four people, but he still did an excellent job!

When we arrived in Akita there was as usual a welcoming party demonstrating local specialties in entertainment. At Akita this was drum playing.

Our first stop on the tour was an almost 1.5 hour drive from Akita to Lake Tazawa. One of the sights we saw there was the Statue of Tatsuko. The legend of Tatsuko is about a vain young woman who, because she wanted to remain young and beautiful forever, ended up being transformed into a dragon which still lives in the depths of the lake. You can read more about The Legend of Tatsuko, her dragon lover Hachirotaro, and why Hachirogata Lagoon freezes over every winter while Lake Tazawa remains free from ice year round. Though the last part might have more to do with the fact that Lake Tazawa is the deepest lake in Japan at almost 1,390 feet in depth, rather than the reason given in the legend, that the two lovers spend the winter in Lake Tazawa.

On the way back to the port at Akita we stopped at the Kakunodate samurai district and visited some of the Samurai houses that are open to the public.

The Kakunodate samurai district is also where we bought some delicious candy. If you're there be sure to try a few of the free samples. I'm sure that, like us, one taste and you won't be able to pass it up!

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Akita photo album

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Aomori and Hirosaki

The first of our two Japan cruises was called a Cherry Blossom Cruise and we had signed onto the cruise with the expectation that we would see lots of Japan's beautiful cherry blossoms. However we had yet to see any cherry blossoms! We had heard that the cherry blossoms had come and gone weeks before in the areas around Tokyo. Our stop at Aomori was our northernmost stop, the stop most likely to still have cherry blossoms, so it was now or never. Luckily it was now and we were finally able to see some of the beautiful cherry blossoms that are symbolic of Japan.

As with many cruise stops in Japan, especially the smaller cities, we were met by a band playing music and live performances. The snow covered mountains easily viewed from port added to the view.

Soon after leaving the ship we met our tour guide. The first stop was a short walk from the dock to the Nebuta Museum. This museum is dedicated to showing some of the larger than life size floats which are built for the yearly Aomori Nebuta festival. The festival takes place every year in early August. The reasons for the festival seem unclear, the origin being lost in history. According to Wikipedia the most likely reason is that it evolved from earlier Shinto ceremonies. What is clear though is that this yearly Nebuta festival attracts more tourists than any other Nebuta festival. Looking at some of the floats I'm not surprised. It would be even better to see them lit up and being part of a long procession.

This was the first stop on our tour and we arrived just before it opened. That actually turned out to be very fortunate. By the time we left the museum was very crowded, probably mostly from excursions offered by the cruise company. Thanks to our private tour we had a much less crowded experience.

After the museum we walked to the nearby train station to take an hour plus train ride to see Hirosaki Castle. It was here that we saw our first live cherry blossoms! The cherry blossoms in the botanical garden surrounding Hirosaki Castle seemed very popular for couples taking wedding photographs. But then, maybe the fact that we were there on a Sunday made it more likely we'd see that. That was probably also the reason that both the train and the castle were very busy.

The Hirosaki Castle itself was also very beautiful, especially with some of the snow capped mountains which were even closer than in Aomori. Click the picture below to see the entire Aomori & Hirosaki photo album.

Too soon our trip to Hirosaki castle was over and it was time for the long train ride back to Aomori. Although our tour guide offered to escort us for the train ride back followed by the walk back to the ship, we told him we'd be okay (which we were) on our own. Our tour guide actually had to be in Akita the next day to conduct a tour for a cruise ship. Hirosaki was already 1/3 of the way to Akita by train. Escorting us to the ship would have been close to a three hour round trip for him, a big waste of time. It just happened that our ship was also heading to Akita the next day as well. I guess good karma was our reward for saving the tour guide so much time. The next day on our Akita stop we were lucky enough to have the same tour guide!

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Aomori & Hirosaki photo album.

Saturday, April 22, 2023


Next stop on cruise with Miyako. As with all of the stops in Japan we were met by a friendly crowd of people waving hello to us, bands playing music and sometimes performances. Although you can barely see the welcoming performance in the photo below, what is more obvious is the number of small booths set up to sell souvenirs as well as food and drink.

At Miyako we'd decided to forgo the rather expensive cruise line tour in favor of taking a tour on our own. We took a taxi to Desaki Pier which provided a sightseeing cruise to a stop near the Jodogahama Beach. Although we'd purchased a round trip ticket, we were asked to return to the boat within a half hour after it docked. We gathered that soon the large tour buses from the ship were going to be taking people on the same boat and there might not be room for us to return later. As a result we didn't make it all the way to Jodogahama Beach but we did take in some scenic views of the rocky cliffs on the walk to the beach. We also saw some very scenic areas from the boat during the return ride which took us further up the coast before returning to our starting pier.

After the scenic cruise we ended up having a fair amount of spare time. We used the time well to visit the small booths set up on the pier. We sampled some of the local food and then ended up having some decent locally brewed beer as well.

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Miyako photo album

Friday, April 21, 2023


The first stop on the cruise was Ibaraki. Elizabeth and I, along with two friends who were also on the cruise, booked a private tour. The excursions provided by the cruise lines tend to be the safe choice: they'll never leave without you, the cruise line has vetted the tour and they are usually the standard sights that everyone wants to see.

However they tend to be more expensive, you usually travel in a group with a large bus full of people and you can't travel at your own pace. Especially for us, there tends to be people in the group who are much slower than we are and as a consequence we end up waiting for others and not seeing as much as we could on our own.

We ended up doing quite a few tours on our own and I'd say they were all a success, especially if you have four people and can split the cost four ways. But even with two of us we ended up seeing much more and it was customized to what we wanted to see most. In Ibaraki we had booked what was mostly a ride from place to place without any tour guide narrative. That was fine for Ibaraki as we went to just two places which were self explanatory and easy to get around on our own.

Our first stop was at the Kairakuen Garden, a lovely 32-acre park known for its varieties of plum trees, a large bamboo forest & a Shinto shrine. We were having trouble finding the bamboo forest and asked one of the gardeners where it was. He didn't speak any English and so finally ended up stopping what he was doing and escorting us to the forest. This is something I've seen many times in Japan - their willingness to show you right to where you want to go even if it's not on their way.

At the entrance to the park is the Tokiwa Shrine, which is what's shown in the picture below. Click the picture below to see more pictures of the shrine and the bamboo forest. Unfortunately it wasn't the right time of year to take pictures of the plum trees.

Our next stop was at the Hitachi Seaside Park, a large park known for its seasonal flowers.At the entrance was a large set of flow beds with some blooming flowers. But the best part required walking a ways towards the sea where there was literally a mountain of blooming flowers, as shown in the picture below. Look closely in the picture because in the midst of that hillside of flowers are little dots that are people!

We had spent so much time at the two parks, enjoying every minute of it, that by the time we finished the Hitachi Seaside Park we were ready to head back to the ship. We might also have still been a bit jet lagged. Using the one day per time zone adjustment rule of thumb, the nine hour time difference between California and Tokyo was going to take us a while to adjust.

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Ibaraki photo album.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Cruise 1 - Yokohama

Our third day in Japan and it was time to head to Yokohama for the first of two cruises we'd be taking. But first, we spent the morning at Shibuya Crossing, a photogenic location in Shibuya Tokyo where five roads come together in a large intersection. When all of the traffic lights turn red, pedestrians scramble across the intersection, hence the name "Shibuya Scramble Crossing". The light wasn't very good for photography and the best shots are probably at night anyway, as you can see at Google maps, but we did manage to grab a coffee and find a table at the nearby Starbucks overlooking the crossing.

We made our way to Yokohama to catch the cruise which left port late afternoon. There wasn't a lot to see that day, though the Kagami-biraki ceremony was fun. They perform this ceremony at the beginning of Princess cruises leaving from Japan. It involves breaking open a Saki barrel and giving everyone there some free saki.

After the ceremony we departed port to a warm sendoff, a band playing and people waving farewell, then sailing out of the harbor under the Yokohama Bridge as shown in the photo below.

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Cruise 1 - Yokohama photo album.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Tokyo Day 2 - Imperial Palace

Second day in Tokyo. Highlight of the day was a visit to the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda City. The Emperor of Japan was receiving new Ambassadors so we were lucky enough to see horse drawn carriages pulling up with the new Ambassadors, a rare sight.

Click the link or the picture below to see more pictures.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Tokyo Japan

Our first day in Japan! After a tiring 11 hour flight that delivered us to our hotel late the night before, we were up bright and early for a trip to the Tokyo Fish Market. We'd booked a Toyosu Market and Tsukiji Food Tour private tour for just the two of us and our tour guide, Taka, had agreed to meet us early, then showed up even earlier! Which worked well for us since we were jet lagged and still 9 hours ahead of Tokyo time. As a result we'd woken up early on our own.

It was great starting the tour at 5:30am and since it was 2:30 pm back in California we were ready to go. If you want to see the fish market auctions going on you have to arrive early since the auction takes place between 5:30 to 6:30 am. Unlike the old Tsukiji fish market we'd seen 10 years before, the new market only allows you to view the auction through windowed observation areas overlooking the auction floor. To tell you the truth, it provided a better view of the auction than what we'd seen 10 years ago. Be sure to check out the video of the auction in action in the "Tokyo Day 1" photo album.

After the fish auction our tour guide, Taka, took us on a tour of the other market areas and restaurants that are part of the same complex. There's much more buying and selling of wholesale produce in that area than we had realized. Many of the wholesale areas are viewable from a raised, glass enclosed viewing area that lets you observe the comings and goings of people, forklifts and even bicycles.

There's also a number of very good restaurants in the area and we ended up eating at a very good sushi restaurant. And of course the sushi was super fresh! Our tour guide also "gently" pointed out the proper way to eat sushi by demonstrating dipping just a small portion of his sushi into his soy sauce, wasabi mixture. He didn't make any comment until I asked him about it, asking if that was in fact the proper way to eat sushi. He pointed out that the Nigiri Sushi already had some wasabi on the rice, as much as the preparer intended. And if you dipped your serving completely into your own soy sauce you tended to overwhelm the more subtle taste of the fish.

Our tour guide continued to provide us with a great introduction to Tokyo and Japan, including how to use a Suica card, one of the most important skills you can learn in Japan if you're traveling by bus or train on your own. The Suica, and other similar cards, are reloadable prepaid fares that work on almost any bus or train in Japan, not just Tokyo. He warned us that bus systems in different cities may work differently. For example, sometimes you swipe your Suica card before you board, sometimes as you exit, and sometimes both as you enter and exit. If unsure, just watch other people boarding and exiting, they're almost all using a rechargeable card of one type or another.

Our tour guide also provided an overview of where to visit in Tokyo. He took us on the bus to various parts of the city including Imperial Palace and the nearby Tokyo Train Station - a huge train hub near the Imperial Palace.

Our tour guide also helped us book seat reservations for our JR passes for later in our trip. The JR pass is an unlimited ride ticket for various trains in the different Japan Rail systems for a fixed period of time, including most of the bullet trains. The bullet trains contain a mixture of reserved seat and non-reserved seat rail cars. Most of the cars have reserved seating. In our case we'd purchased one week JR passes that we intended to use between the two cruises we'd booked. That week happened to be Japan's "Golden Week" and the JR Pass website warns you about booking seats early during that time period. Note though - that if it's just the two of you and you can travel early, before 9 am, or later after 6 pm, you'll probably be okay traveling in the unreserved train cars. We didn't learn that until later though, after we'd started using the JR passes and ran into an pre-med student from India traveling through Japan with a rail pass.

After our half day tour, and not yet exhausted, we continued our tour of Tokyo using our newly discovered Suica cards. The first stop was at Shinobazu no Ike Pond, a very scenic area in Tokyo with nearby museums, shrines and a zoo. We walked around the pond and visited the nearby Ueno Toshogu Shrine.

Next we went to Nakamise-dori Street, a "bustling shopping street connecting the main gate of Sensoji Temple & the main hall. [*] We had been here 10 years before but I barely recognized it. The shops were updated and an entirely new area had been added parallel to the street. Saddest of all, a shop which used to sell "Ice Cream Burger" had corrected the sign to read "Ice Cream Sandwich."

A side note on temples vs. shrines: the temples are Budhhist and the shrines are Shinto. You can also still see the blog entry for our visit to Tokyo 10 years ago and from there a link to the photo album with the "Ice Cream Burger" sign.

A glutton for punishment, we had booked an evening food tour in Shinjuku. Our first challenge was trying to find an exit from the Shinjuku Train Station. With 3.5 million passengers daily, Shinjuku station holds the Guiness World Record for busiest train station [*] We had stayed in a hotel near this station 10 years ago, but it seemed much larger and even more confusing than I remembered.

Luckily we had allowed extra time to meet our tour guide at a spot not too far from the station. Sandra was an excellent tour guide providing knowledgeable history of various areas, as well as updates of what had changed since we were in Tokyo 10 years ago. The food was more than adequate. Most tours would have provided three "tastes" but this tour provided what were closer to three meals. We hated leaving so much of the third meal behind, but we were still able to eat enough of it to enjoy how flavorful it was.

Click this link or one of the pictures above to see more pictures in the Tokyo Day 1 photo album.