JAPAN March 2016

From the observation deck of the Tokyo Tower the city spreads like a haphazard heap of high rises. The harbour area offers some break in the landscape of concrete and glass. Somewhere in the middle lies the renovated acreage of Tokyo Castle, its renovated pagoda-like keep testament to the rebuilding that has raised Tokyo from the ashes of the Second World War. The fire bombing of many cities in Japan in 1945 caused massive destruction in a country where the main building material was wood. Operation Meetinghouse in March of ’45 caused more damage and loss of life in Tokyo than the two nuclear bombs that would follow later in the year at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The red and orange ‘Eiffel ’ copy  is a major attraction, both for those wanting to view the city and those wanting to indulge in perusing the tacky souvenir shops below. Fast food and a fast buck seem to be the order of the day here, but as darkness falls and the floodlights come on the tower shines like a beacon of a new Tokyo. Hidden in the back streets is a small but exquisite garden, in the ultimate Japanese style, a place of tranquillity and peace which is shattered by the screams and scrapings coming from the huge roller coaster that over looks it from the fun fair next door. What a genius of a planning officer allowed that?

For me, Japan is an enigma. The guides insistence of a people committed to community, calmness and compromise jars with my talks of the Japanese activities in the Second World War; the atrocities committed in south-east Asia; the evidence of the ‘Death Railway’ and the use of local women as ‘sex slaves’. Although 70 years have passed this ‘new view’ indicates either a complete change of attitude or a veneer over what could re-emerge under the right conditions. The cheers and waves of the schoolchildren on the dockside as they ‘played’ us in and out of port was emotional and gratifying, and hopefully a sign of a change in the make-up of this country to give us all hope.

Taiwan – the Republic of China – as opposed to its huge neighbour across the water – the People Republic of China is another enigma. Believing itself to be the true centre for the Chinese people it hangs on to its independence through its political compromises with Beijing (no nuclear weapons and no formal separation), and the backing of many big players, such as the USA. Populous and crowded, with many factories pouring out almost everything we need complete with the ‘Made in Taiwan’ labels it has an order and method to it more reminiscent of Europe than Asia. The streets are wide and clean, the traffic lights work and the signs are in Chinese and English giving some hope to the traveller.

The role of Buddhism plays a huge role here, and a visit to the Fokuangshan Buddha Memorial Centre demonstrates this as clear as day. Here is a place of unbelievable scale. The buildings, shrines, walkways, pagodas and the huge figure of Buddha are straight from the CGI workshops of Hollywood. It looks unreal, It is huge. The atmosphere is calm, the concessions shops sell only healthy food and the souvenirs are of a different class. But the walk to the main shrine is one to take your breath away. Even in the slight drizzle of a mid March day it was like walking in a dreamland, a religiously tasteful theme park. Words almost fail me. Where the money came from the create this, I don’t know. Where the money comes from for its upkeep…a similar response.

We dined in a restaurant dedicated to the preservation of the Buddhist vegetarian regime. We had enough to eat, but were not always sure which variety of bean curd we were tasting. But the vegetable were good.

And so a return to Hong Kong, Xiamen, Jejus (South Korea) and Shanghai and to finish this set of cruises in Tianjin…and settle down for the 20 hours of flying to get home”!

MADE IT

February 20th Hong Kong

 

And so I have made it be an official O.A.P., an Old Age Pensioner, 65 today and still ticking. The first assigned cruise has been completed and today is disembarkation day for many guests, with about 120 staying on for the next leg to Tokyo.

It’s been an interesting time, with strangely, the highlight of the trip so far being the day we had in Bangkok prior to boarding the ship when we visited the Museum and cemetery and eventually the bridge that crosses the River Kwai. It was a fascinating look at the Thai countryside and then the emotion of what we were seeing to remember the 130,000 people murdered by the Japanese as they constructed their ‘railway of death’. We have seen more of course, from the poverty of Cambodia to the seemingly veneered opulence of the Sultanate of Brunei (can it really be that good there?), the playground island of Boracay in The Philippines with its beaches snorkelling and ‘fun’, to the ancient walls of Intramuros in the teeming city of Manila.

Taiwan is looking a bit shabby in many areas as it vies with its giant neighbour across the waters, teetering on notions of unification or war with China, and Hong Kong, the once prized possession within the British Empire, now waiting to see what might happen when the People’s Republic of China finally has full control on 2047…

For us we have gone about our duties with diligence and commitment as usual, the lectures, music performances and Julie’s card sessions together with the routine guest interaction have kept us busy and interested.

I have received a promotion, if that is what it can be called. With Regent Seven Seas operating in partnership with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, speakers are accredited as ‘Smithsonian’, and advertised as such for the cruises, with all the bells and whistles of logos, fancy slides for the presentations etc. Well some are it seems. I have my new badge, but you will struggle to find any reference to me on the Regent website for this or any forthcoming cruise. I see reference to others, together with their ‘bios’, but I seemed to have slipped under the radar. But, I am here, I am doing the job, and maybe a badge is enough…ask any wild west Sheriff!

We celebrated the ‘state pension’ status achievement last night in Hong Kong, by taking a walk in the rain through the ant-hill of humanity that constitutes 5pm in this city, towards the ‘night market’ and stopped in at a ‘traditional’ Chinese restaurant where in a large 3rd floor room littered with tables there were 2 people eating. The staff seemed to outnumber the tables, but it was clean, highly decorated and the menu was understandable – it had pictures! The mirror tiles on the central pillars gave a feeling of grandeur and the fish in the large tanks resembled extras from Jurassic World. Hot tea was brought immediately, with some peanuts and a sticky red substance that we both avoided. The tea was translucent but a little tasty and we then proceeded to over order. We ignored the advice of the Maitre’d, who kept saying the plates were large, by assuming that he was so small he couldn’t possibly advise two big ‘Brits’ on how much we could eat. He was right, we were wrong. With the spring rolls, sweet and sour pork and beef and noodles, not to mention the huge bowl of special fried rice, we were beaten before we started. We did our best, having negotiated for forks rather than chop-sticks (it’s taken me 65 years to master the knife and fork routine and I’m not one to voluntarily adopt local habits just because ‘we are there’ – we were in The Gambia the other day and we didn’t adopt the local custom of eating with our fingers out of a plastic bowl on the ground!)

And so we ate what we could and washed it down with a very good local beer, being watched by staff who were obviously nodding to each other with a knowing sneer and a ‘see they wouldn’t listen’.

We wended our way to the night market, famous for its variety and value…but not for its rain! We made it back to the ship for the nightly laser light show over on HK island….and so ended a day to remember.

2015/16

2015/16

Another busy year beckons as we prepare for a trip back to the UK to sort the visa for China. And we look back on a year that was almost too good to be true. The cancelled cruise in January (accident on the ship) gave us time to catch up on things in Spain and take a quick trip to the UK, via Inverness and Culloden Moor/Loch Ness, and then a flight to Miami for 3 back-to-back cruises on the lovely RSSC Navigator, to Bermuda, Bahamas, Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Centre (WOW!), cookery lessons in Mexico and the Panama Canal to San Francisco. A lunch date in Sonoma with cruising friends, Dick and Diane, and Bruce and Kim, and off to Perth, via Hong Kong (what a long way!). 10 days in Perth allowed us to catch up with Sonya and Jim – and shorten their DIY list, and dinner with Sandy and Colin. To Sydney and a couple of days with friends Terry and Sue, and on to Tasmania to join the Insignia for the trans Pacific route. A flooded cabin gave us an upgrade and a balcony and we enjoyed the islands of French Polynesia, with great swimming and snorkelling. We were working of course, and put in many shifts of lectures and cabaret shows. Sharing the stage again with John Charles was a great thrill, and touring Hawaii with Loke, his wife, was an absolute treat. To Los Angeles and a flight home to Spain to sort and organise the concert in Canillas with Sally Jones and her tribute to Edith Piaf (WOW!), and back to the UK to fly to New York, on short notice (lecturer sick) to rejoin Insignia for the St. Lawrence, Montreal to meet with Lyne and Jim, Quebec and St. John to have a wonderful day with Gerry and Lynne on the river and in their cabin.

To Greenland and the fog and ice-bergs, and across to Iceland, The Faroes, Norway, Denmark and Bremerhaven to meet with Blue (Bee Gee’s) and his wife Siggy for a shipboard concert reliving old time, Amsterdam, Zeebrugge and Southampton. Julie left for Cornwall and friend Mick joined me for the trip down the coast of France (Bordeaux overnight), La Corunna, Porto, Lisbon, Cadiz and into the Med to finish in Barcelona, and short flight back to Malaga.

Another Canillas concert in September with Byron Johnston and Danny Buckler (WOW!), and a visit from daughter Nikki, Ed and Samuel.  We packed up our friends’ Toby and Christina’s VW van and drove back to the UK, with 4 nights on the road and over 100 bottles of wine inside. Sadly in Surrey we attended the funeral of Toby and Christina’s daughter Nicola….

A rugby world cup game – South Africa v USA provided some diversion and then a flight home to prepare for the West Africa cruise from Lisbon on Oceania Marina, with lectures, shows and card session galore, via several countries in West Africa, a day in The Gambia with our friend Dodou and his family, and via the Namibian Desert (of old trekking days) to Cape Town. Julie flew home. I continued across the Atlantic via St. Helena (WOW! – again, 3 times now!) to Rio and the long flight home just in time to welcome Julie and her father Bryan to Spain for Christmas….what a year!

And 2016 is set to be as busy, as much fun and as varied…we start on the 31st Jan, on our return from two weeks in the UK, with a flight to Bangkok, and a trip to view the Railway of Death, before joining the Voyager for about 10 weeks, and 4 cruises to Japan and back!!

Rio!

Sailing in to Rio

 

The last day is here, the last day of 4 sea days since we left the beautiful island of Saint Helena, and if the mist clears we should have a fine view of the sights of Rio de Janeiro as we arrive and dock. The cruise (two actually) that started in Lisbon on the 3rd November is coming to a close. We have survived the west coast of Africa with it’s varying temperatures, cultures and experiences, visiting the more affluent islands of Madeira and the Canaries, the slightly less rich islands on Cape Verde, and then the series of visits to Senegal, Ivory Coast, The Gambia – ( a great visit for 15 of us organised by our friend Dodou and his family) , Ghana, Togo, the island of Sao Tome and Angola where the disparities of wealth and poverty are very much on show. Luanda in Angola is a new comer to the world of tourism and was at pains to show us what it had….with a police outrider to the convoy of buses. Namibia and Walvis Bay brought back a little more ‘Western style’ through its German heritage and allowed us once again to experience the desert that we had once trekked through a good few years ago. Julie left the ship in Cape Town to return to the UK for family duties. The ship returned to Namibia for a couple of stops including Luderitz, once the centre of wholesale diamond mining, now evidenced by the remains of the once flourishing industry in the ghost town of Kolmanskop. An overnight in Walvis Bay allowed further exploration of the town and the surrounding and enveloping desert before we headed west to Napoleons prison island. The weather was kind we all landed ashore to explore and be guided around this ‘gem’ in the middle of nowhere. And so to sea for the routine of lectures and shows, dinners and lunches with friends both old and new, talking of past cruises and the promise of those in the future. It’s been a good time, and a busy time…and I’m looking forward to being at home on the hill in Spain to enjoy a little peace and serenity away from the Madding Crowd!

Packing again

And so a few weeks pass so quickly by and we find ourselves packing up once again for the next assignment/adventure. Leaving next week to join the Oceania Marina in Lisbon for a cruise down the west coast of Africa calling in at many places well known to us, and a few new ones to add to the list…Angola for example, a place I know through years of news reports of trouble and strife, and The Ivory Coast, where we should have been once before but our proposed visit coincided with their election, and it was felt that a huge lump of American/Europeans might not be welcome in the aftermath of such a sensitive time!

We finish in Cape Town, and Julie will fly to the UK to do the ‘family thing’, whilst I continue across the Atlantic to Rio, via  a few stops in Namibia and the beautiful island of St Helena.

We will be back in Spain for the Christmas period, and a couple of weeks in the UK just after to sort the necessary visas for the Far East starting in February. We will be in Bangkok early for the cruise allowing us to do some specific tours – the Death Railway for instance, and then the beautiful Regent Seven Seas Voyager ship all the way to Tokyo and back.

More later…..