Sailing the Orient on ms Volendam
Features editor John Newton sails from China to Korea and Japan.
As perfect days go, the masses of springtime cherry blossoms in Japan that have become a national obsession – and a major international tourism drawcard – were putting on a blooming jaw-dropping show.
For the 1400 passengers aboard our cruise ship – ms Volendam – it was a splendid and welcome sight, first to see blue skies, and then catch their first glimpse of the delicate, majestic pale pink blooms after days of peering out at sea blanketed by fog.
It seemed fitting that the Nagasaki Peace Park should be such a serene place of beauty and colour after what happened to the city on 9 August 1945 when an atomic bomb exploded, killing 73,884, injuring 74,909 and leaving 120,820 homeless.
Nagasaki was the first Japanese port of call on Volendam's 14-day cruise from Hong Kong to Yokohama, the port city of Tokyo – a distance of 3153 nautical miles.
Located in the park at the epicentre of the bomb blast, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum – opened in 1996 - captures life in the city before that fateful day 72 years ago, together with artefacts of the devastation caused by the bomb called 'Fatman'. These include a wall clock which 'froze' at 11.02am – the moment Nagasaki was destroyed. The clock was found in a house near Shinto in Sakamoto Machi, about 800 metres from the hypocentre.
Nagasaki's Omura Park is also filled with 300 blossoming cherry trees in spring and is recognised as one of 'Japan's top 100 cherry blossom spots'.
Not known for prolific cherry blossom displays, Kagoshima – the second cruise stopover in Japan - is a hot spring haven with the second largest number of hot springs in Japan. The city spreads along Kinko Bay and boasts one of the most unusual vistas in the world, with Sakura-jima - an active volcano – rising from the waters, just a few kilometres away.
Millions of people across Japan hold hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties underneath the trees in local parks during the short blooming season (late March-mid-April) of the cherry blossoms, or sakura in Japanese. In Tokyo, Kawaguchiko at the foot of Mt. Fuji and Arakura Sengen Shrine, are reputed to be among the city's best spots to enjoy sakura.
Japan was like a breath of fresh air after days at sea and disappointing visits to Shanghai and Seoul, although the Great Wall in Beijing more than made up for a couple of pricey excursions. These included a high-speed bullet train (Chinese version) ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou and the city's West Cape Cultural Landscape, a World Cultural Heritage site.
After a long, tedious immigration process off the ship, the train from Shanghai's Hongqiao railway station – Asia's biggest, covering 1.3 million square metres – lived up to expectations and soon hit nearly 300 kilometres an hour, arriving on time in Hangzhou in just over an hour.
It was after the rush of adrenalin on the train that the tour started to turn sour. First, the set lunch at a so-called four-star hotel was enough to put people off Chinese food forever, while the staff were rude with a 'couldn't care less' attitude. Glad to be out of there, we headed to Hangzhou's West Lake, which spreads over nearly 60- square kilometres. It has more than 100 places of interest, but our fleeting visit took in only a short, uninteresting cruise and a ramble along the scenic shoreline. Back in Shanghai, the mind-boggling city is where we should have stayed in the first place to sample at least a couple of the city's 20,000 restaurants.
Seoul, a soulless city, was yet another disappointment, although the pretty young ladies in national costume at the Gyeongbok Palace and Folklore Museum were far more photogenic than the dour palace buildings that we couldn't enter.
While the Korean-style barbecue lunch was far superior to the Hangzhou experience, the downtown stopover at busy Insa-dong Street followed by an open-air market crush proved to be a letdown for the ship's passengers looking for a quality shopping spree. Tacky souvenirs and cheap quality clothes were not on anyone's list.
An eerie, sea fog (a real pea-souper, as they say in the UK) kept almost everyone off the Volendam's decks as the ship – with its foghorn blaring every two minutes - headed to Tianjin, the port of Beijing, where the sun came out as we set off on a long coach journey to the Summer Palace & Garden of Cultivated Harmony and on to the Great Wall. A memorable hour or so was spent climbing steps and breathing heavily along a restored section with incredible views.
The fog was back the next day when we spared a thought for those who'd booked Beijing excursions on the second day. Police closed the highway to the city, forcing the coaches to turn back to the ship.
Japan was eagerly awaited – and it didn't disappoint in all three cities, with our pre-booked Mt Fuji and bullet train trip in Tokyo capping an exciting end to a cruise of more highs than lows, dominated by gloomy, cold spring weather – down in some places to 7C - resulting in more action in the spa salon than in the indoor and outdoor swimming pools.
The author was a guest of Holland America Lines
Words and images: John Newton
For details go to: http://www.hollandamerica.com/