Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Southern Japan -- Kagoshima and Kobe

At last, we reached Japan, and a part of it that Louise had never been to, Kagoshima at the bottom end of Kyushu. We were beaten there by a more illustrious westerner, Francis Xavier. The well-travelled Jesuit missionary arrived in 1549 and spent 2 years here before heading back to India for what he thought was a mail run.
He never made it back, and the Christianity he brought to Japan proved too dangerous to the Shogun and was eventually banned. Today there is a church dedicated to Xavier, with this statue of him and some of his Japanese disciples.

We spent the day sightseeing with Joe and Anita Kess. Every day we were at sea, we had at least one lecture, sometimes two, on the culture, history and/or natural history of the area we were about to visit. Joe is a retired Linguistics professor from the University of Victoria, and one of the three best lecturers on our voyage, outstanding on the language and culture but also in history. When he and Anita found out about our History connections at the UW and that we had a friend in common in another retired UVic professor, we became good friends.

The ship docked a few kilometers south of the downtown area so we started with a cab ride to the northern part of the city and its famed garden, Senganen. It was a relaxing place, the former home and garden of the Shimazu family that ruled this area for 700 years until the fall of the Shogunate in 1868. The second shot is the central courtyard of their house.

The gardens provided a great example of the "borrowed scenery" concept, where a garden is built around a striking view. At the University of Washington, that would be the axis of campus called Rainier Vista. Here, it was views of Sakurajima, an active volcano a short distance across the bay, framed by the garden again and again.

We next hopped a bus into town and checked out downtown. Like many Japanese cities, Kagoshima has its covered shopping malls.
Japan is also home to some of the more perplexing signs, such as this first one. The second and third both lead to another perplexing option, but that's another story. And that fourth one -- well, it wasn't perplexing at all, and required no Japanese to understand!

And what would a visit to a Japanese city be without a shrine or temple? Here is the torii, or gate, to the Terukuni Shrine, and a few steps further and we were greeted by the most dramatic tree we had ever seen!

Like any self-respecting shrine in Japan, there is a place to ritually cleanse oneself with water, but here with a sign showing you how. Nearby was the equally traditional place where prayers had been left, and Joe and Anita didn't have a prayer, so checked out what the going issues were to see if they wanted the same.

What would an embarcation be without a little ceremony? We often had farewell concerts as we left port, and Kagoshima followed suit with a thumping loud one from this taiko group. And, after slumbering much of the day, Sakurajima woke up and sent us some smoke signals to send us on our way.

It was too close to our next stop, Kobe, for the boat to take two nights, but too far to do it in one, so we had a rare afternoon arrival, complete with a fireboat welcome and a brass band playing on the pier as we docked. The second number they performed was Eighty Days Around the World, a darned appropriate piece for them to play given that this was our 76th day on the Volendam as we've taken it from Los Angeles through 5 countries to New Zealand and then to 7 more en route to Japan.

We were met at the pier by the Matsudas, wonderful folks who were host parents to Jeff's son Matt on his first trip to Japan many years ago. Matt has returned many times to visit with them, and invited them to his wedding almost two years ago, where we met them for the first time. As you can see from the photos above, Kobe clings to the sea beneath an impressive ridge of mountains, and up we drove, first for a stop at a shrine, then for the stunning view from Mt. Rokka down to the Volendam below us, then out to the massive, man-made Port Island, and lastly to the southeast and the distant city of Osaka, which these days flows pretty much continuously into Kobe. You may want to click on some of those shots to blow them up -- it was quite a sight!

On the walk back to the car we passed a cherry tree still in bloom on May 1 up at this altitude,
and the longest slide Jeff had ever seen outside a water park. It was not as thrilling as he expected, however, as the speed was remarkably slow and the plastic rollers kept building up static electricity and zapping him when he touched the metal side rail!

The Matsudas had two more treats for us. First was an exquisite dinner in an historic mountain inn. This was kaiseki, a multi-course dinner that brought us one delectable course after another. It was great fun to get to know them better over dinner, and hear about Matt from a quasi-parental and Japanese perspective we hadn't heard before. Then as a nightcap we returned to our elevated viewpoint on Mt. Rokka for a magical display of the city lights. Oh, what a wonderful evening!

Back on the ship, we headed up to the top deck for one last look at the city lights from sea level -- well, nine decks above sea level, which is a lot different from Mt. Rokka -- and walked back to our
cabin past corridors stuffed with luggage. Our voyage from Auckland to Vancouver is broken into four parts, with fewer than 200 joining us for the complete trip end-to-end and many more getting on and off at Singapore, Hong Kong or here, Kobe. We too will disembark tomorrow, but only for two nights as we take the Shinkansen up to Tokyo to visit Matt and his family, while the boat floats to Tokyo where we will rejoin it. Our next blog will be of our family visit. Come join us then.

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