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November 7, 2006 > Japan, China and then home

Japan, China and then home

by Arnie Becker

As we headed for port the next morning in Muroran, Japan, we saw a beautiful suspension bridge reminding us of the Golden Gate Bridge. Located on both sides of the bridge were heavy industrial areas including Nippon Steel, a major oil refinery with cranes moving containers on the eastern side of the Island of Honshu, the northern major island in the Japanese chain. We were glad that the weather was warmer than in Siberia and we could dispense with our warm jackets, scarves and gloves.

The contrast was stark between Japan and Siberia. The buses were spotless, the drivers were dressed like chauffeurs, some wore white gloves, and inside the buses was spotless as well. Our guide was a middle-aged Japanese woman who spoke English. She was dressed very conservatively in black with a neat little hat. Since we could not pronounce her name, she suggested that we just call her KK. She told us that Japan had 126 million people, with a male/female ratio of 30 percent to 70 percent respectively. There are 25,000 people over 100 years old.

En route to the active volcano Mount Usu, we drove by several small towns that looked European or American in their architecture with touches of Oriental flair. Many of the houses had ornate, well maintained gardens. The highways we traveled were in good repair with large and small fields of crops growing in very symmetrical rows alongside the way.

According to Mrs. KK, the last volcano eruption was in 2000, prior to that it was in the early 70s. Although the area is a national park monument, it is privately owned by one family. Among the village vendors and a couple of restaurants, there is also a gondola visitors can ride to the top of the mountain complete with views of Lake Toya, the volcano and Mt. Fuji.

As we prepared to depart that evening, we were given quite a sendoff by a sharply dressed group of young performers who came down to the dock doing gymnastics and flag twirling along with a steady stream of cars blinking their lights as martial music blared from their speakers.

Yokohoma, our next port of call, is a major industrial city with a downtown like any large American city. The citizens were very polite, taxi drivers wear white gloves, and no one honks at you if you stop and look at a map. In fact, someone will offer assistance.

Our first stop was the Owakudani Valley where we boarded a 10-passenger gondola for the 20-minute ascent to Owakudani Valley Station, enjoying views of Hakone Park, and the Owakudani Valley's boiling and smoking thermal springs. From there we went to the beautiful Lake Ashi that was created by volcanic activity. We boarded a unique Viking-style boat for quick cruise across the lake and saw golf courses and small fishing boats akin to the row boats found at Fremont's Lake Elizabeth.

Once on the other side there was not much to do. The guide said shop, shop and shop. We saw people walking around with green ice cream cones and discovered that these were filled with wasabi ice cream. We decided to try one and found that they tasted just like the wasabi used with sushi and just as spicy.
As we prepared to leave Yokohoma we noticed a constant stream of people coming down to the pier. Over a thousand gathered on a grassy knoll against the fence. There was a drum corps, dancers, and city officials. This was a very moving sight as many people waved flashlights and yelled sayonara repeatedly. We did the same back to them. It left us with fond memories of Yokohoma and the Japanese people in this modern city.

The last port of call for us on this cruise was Nagasaki, the site of the second atomic bombing of   World War II that ended the war. We wondered how we would be received. However, the people here were just as friendly as those we had met in the other Japanese cities.

We boarded buses for the Shimabara Peninsula and the city of Shimabara. The city is located approximately 50-miles east of Nagasaki. A classic "castle town," Shimabara flourished in the early 17th century after completion of its formidable castle. We toured the castle and visited its museum that featured an exhibit on early Christianity in Japan, as well as displays of feudal swords and armor. Afterward, we took a walking tour of well-preserved Shimabara and visited a "samurai village" where the ways of Japan's warrior class are kept alive.

From Shimabara we went to the village of Mizunashihonjin. This small village was buried by ash during an eruption of Mt. Fugen in 1991 in which 48 people died. A few roofs remain visible above the ash and debris complete with TV antennas, gas and water hookups, air conditioners and garden hoses. It is weird to see the tops of these houses, virtually untouched, but buried up to the eves. One can only imagine what went through the minds of the residents as the ash came down on top of them faster than they could escape. Today the city of Shimabara has preserved the village as a memorial.

Back to the ship for our last night aboard. This was one vacation that I did not want to end. I felt totally relaxed for the entire 22 days. I had eaten what I wanted to, when I wanted to, gone to shows that were of interest, taken excellent computer classes and had wonderful massages. My wife Allison did many of the same things and also made three very pretty and complex ceramic pieces. We had our last quiet dinner at the Horizon Buffet, went to our last theater show, and had a last drink.

I have to say that this was the best vacation that I have taken in terms of being able to relax, go sightseeing in wonderful and interesting cities, meeting lots of very nice people, having great food, learning new computer skills and just spending time with my lovely wife.

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