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.