Discovering the treasures of China and Japan on a luxury cruise

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by Larry Taylor, Fullerton, CA

My wife and I are inveterate travelers but had never been to Japan, high on our list of places to go. We also love to take cruises and had heard a lot about Crystal Cruises (phone 866/446-6625 or visit www.crystalcruises.com) and its good reputation. Crystal’s 11-day cruise, starting in China and ending in Japan, was the ideal itinerary for us. We could visit Japan and check out this luxury line.

The ship

In early May ’04 we flew to Beijing and boarded our ship, the Crystal Harmony. Many of our fellow passengers had flown in three days earlier to take a pre-cruise tour of a number of Chinese historical sites, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. This was part of the 14-day “Treasures of Ancient Empires” cruise-tour, which starts at $3,495. We had been to China before, so we had decided to forgo this part.

Our first two days were at sea, giving us a much-welcomed chance to relax and get over our jet lag as well as time to become acquainted with the ship.

The thing that distinguishes Crystal Cruises ships is the elegance of the interior, from lush carpets to the mirrors on the corridor walls. Overall, there is a feeling of spaciousness.

Our stateroom was very comfortable, with a king-size bed, a sitting area that included a love seat and vanity, and large closets. But what made the cabin above average was its spacious veranda. (On this ship, 85% of the cabins had verandas.) The public areas on board were large and comfortable and contained several high-end shops. There was an auditorium for movies and speaker presentations and a large theater for after-dinner musical productions and entertainment.

For dinner, we chose the 8:30 serving in the main dining room. There were six at our table, couples from Manchester, England, and Banning in Southern California. We looked forward to visiting with them and sharing the day’s experiences during our excellent 4-course dinners.

We weren’t restricted to the main dining room, however. Two alternative restaurants were available: Prego for Italian food and Kyoto for Japanese. The food was so good in both, we opted to eat twice in each.

Shanghai

After two days at sea, our first stop was Shanghai. We had been to Shanghai in 1987 but were not prepared for the amazing changes in the city. Before, it was a dingy, crowded place with streets congested with bicycles and pedestrians. This time, it was still crowded (more than 16 million people), but there were a lot of cars among the bikes.

The big surprise was the amazing growth of the infrastructure. Skyscrapers stood in areas which were formerly swamps. In an expanding Chinese economy, this is the vibrant business capital of China.

During our two days in port, there were several shore excursions offered which took passengers to favorite tourist attractions, including an overnight trip to Xi’an to view the world famous Terra-cotta Warriors. Since the main city sites were fairly close to the dock and Chinese cab fares were very low, we decided to tour the city on our own.

It was raining our first day, so we chose to stay dry and take in the highly regarded Shanghai Museum of Art and History, housed in an impressive new building. On our 1987 visit, its treasures were displayed in dank, poorly lit rooms. This time the art was displayed in an architecturally splendid building in the shape of an ancient wine vessel. We spent the better part of the rainy day there, but it still wasn’t enough time to fully appreciate the 100,000 examples of the country’s finest bronze, ceramic and jade sculptures as well as the exquisite art and calligraphy exhibits.

City sights

The second day broke sunny and we decided to take in parts of the new and old sections of the city on foot. On the way to Yu Yuan Garden, we walked down the alleys of the Old City to see how people have lived for centuries, tending their birds in front of their dwellings, selling their wares and visiting with neighbors.

We passed through a bustling marketplace. On this Sunday it was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. Food, crafts — virtually anything anyone wanted to buy — were on display.

Over 400 years old, Yu Yuan is a classic Chinese garden with trees and flowing streams — an oasis in the crowded city. Its traditional red buildings with upturned roofs are artfully accented by the undulating forms of dragons on the surrounding garden walls.

Next we took a cab to the Jade Buddha Temple, a “must see” in all travel books. The colorful temple is a hive of activity, with visitors filing through plus monks in pastel robes and the devout praying. On display in the main building is a magnificent 6½-foot, 455-pound Buddha, exquisitely carved from white jade, with precious gems.

At cocktail hour, with night coming on, it was pleasurable to sit on the top deck and look at Shanghai’s neon-lit skyline, dominated by the gaudy, futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Below, brightly lit tour boats passed by. Photographers on board were out en masse.

On to Nagasaki

Hoisting anchor at midnight, the ship departed for another day at sea on its way to Nagasaki, our first stop in Japan. On sea days, experts gave informative talks regarding the next ports to be visited, filling us in on the area’s customs, culture and sites. We were given informative handouts and instructed on common Chinese and Japanese phrases as well.

During these leisurely days at sea, there was time to spend shopping, gambling in the casino, seeing a current movie or just relaxing around the pools or on our veranda reading a book. Every evening, there were after-dinner shows in the Galaxy Lounge.

Crystal’s shows were some of the best we had seen on cruise lines. The ship’s company of young, energetic singers and dancers performed original productions based on the music of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, plus there was a ’60s night featuring favorites from that era. On alternate nights there were professional performers, including classical pianist Avner Arad.

Glover Mansion

On our morning arrival in Nagasaki, the first item on our agenda was to visit Glover Mansion, highly touted by travel books. From the ship, it was a short walk up Dutch Hill to its location overlooking Nagasaki’s beautiful harbor.

On our way up we passed by an assortment of shops, immaculately clean (the usual standard for Japan) and, with brightly colored displays, all vying for customers. Fans in all shapes and sizes, plastic toys, ceramic bowls and vases and woodcarvings were available, as were some clothing items (but not the usual stand after stand of T-shirts found in other countries).

Thomas Glover was a Scottish entrepreneur who immigrated to Nagasaki in 1859 and soon married a Japanese woman. He went on to introduce the steam locomotive to Japan. The period architecture and lavish gardens of his estate look much as they did over a century ago.

Said to be Puccini’s inspiration for “Madame Butterfly,” this spot is especially meaningful to opera fans. Statues of Puccini himself and Madame Butterfly, as played by a famous diva, can be found there. Viewing the sparkling harbor below, it was easy to see why the composer was inspired.

Crowded sites

Nagasaki, as well as Hiroshima, was hit by an atomic bomb near the end of World War II, and this momentous event is commemorated by Peace Park, where a black obelisk marks the hypocenter of the bomb blast. Nearby is the Atomic Bomb Museum, containing a collection of relics and photos of the devastation. A visit here is a sobering experience indeed.

Maybe it was because it was near the end of the school year, but everywhere we went to visit historical sites, we ended up in the midst of masses of Japanese schoolchildren, ranging from elementary to high school students. They were a charming sight in their school uniforms but a little much when we tried to get close enough to see a museum display. Nevertheless, the students were fun to visit with and were especially curious about America. A few times we were approached and asked to fill out questionnaires given as an assignment by their teachers.

Nara visit

Our next stop was Osaka, the center of Japanese commerce. Although there is much to see in this lively port, the city provides an excellent base for excursions to Japan’s most popular destinations, the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Both were a couple hours away from the ship by bus on excursions offered by Crystal Cruises.

Since we were going to Kyoto during a post-cruise layover in Tokyo, we opted to visit Nara. After getting advice from a seasoned Japanese traveler on board, we decided to go on our own via high-speed train. We were glad we did.

Not as fast as the famed bullet trains out of Tokyo but plenty speedy, it took us only 31 minutes from the Osaka station. This was our first introduction to the marvels of Japanese efficiency. Trains there are always on time. If the schedule says a departure is at 11:59, be ready to go on the minute.

The capital of Japan in A.D. 710, Nara is home to some of the world’s most revered Buddhist temples and shrines. After getting off the train, we walked a short distance to Nara Park (Deer Park), where most of the sites are located.

At the park entrance we were greeted by a herd of deer. Altogether, there are 1,200 deer living in the park, all seemingly looking for handouts. Vendors obligingly sell biscuits for visitors to feed to them. Many locals believe the nodding motion of the deer’s heads is actually a respectful bow and are convinced the animals are messengers of the gods.

There are three main places to visit here: Kasuga Shrine, built in the eighth century and featuring 2,000 stone lanterns lining the walkways to its tranquil core; Kofukuji Temple, with its 5-story pagoda reflected in the tranquil waters of a nearby pond, and, the most impressive, Todaiji Temple, also from the eighth century, containing what is reportedly the largest wooden structure in the world. It houses a wealth of Buddhist art and — looming over all — the awesome bronze Buddha which has come to symbolize Nara.

Mt. Fuji

That evening the ship departed for Shimizu, our last stop before arriving in Tokyo. During our cruise, each port city at which we stopped put on a welcoming ceremony. Shimizu, however, staged the best, with bands playing, schoolchildren marching in file and dancers in traditional costumes — a carnival atmosphere.

Shimizu is called the gateway to Mount Fuji, which has come to be the symbol of Japan. Naturally, we had to see it, so we signed up for the excursion to Nihondaira Park, reportedly one of the best viewing spots. We were warned beforehand that many days it is impossible to see the mountain because of cloud cover. That day, though, we were in luck.

Just before arriving at the park, one of the guides on the bus let out a shout. There it was, the snow-covered tip, pushing through the clouds just like in the pictures. We got off the bus and hiked out to get the best photos.

At the end of the cruise, ready for our 3-day stay in Tokyo, we were fully convinced that this had been the best way to introduce ourselves to Japan. Traveling with Crystal Cruises is never inexpensive, but the quality is worth every cent. Before booking, be on the lookout for discounts, which are often offered.

Next month the journey continues with a post-cruise stay in Tokyo.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Larry Taylor, Fullerton, CA

My wife and I are inveterate travelers but had never been to Japan, high on our list of places to go. We also love to take cruises and had heard a lot about Crystal Cruises (phone 866/446-6625 or visit www.crystalcruises.com) and its good reputation. Crystal’s 11-day cruise, starting in China and ending in Japan, was the ideal itinerary for us. We could visit Japan and check out this luxury line.

The ship

In early May ’04 we flew to Beijing and boarded our ship, the Crystal Harmony. Many of our fellow passengers had flown in three days earlier to take a pre-cruise tour of a number of Chinese historical sites, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. This was part of the 14-day “Treasures of Ancient Empires” cruise-tour, which starts at $3,495. We had been to China before, so we had decided to forgo this part.

Our first two days were at sea, giving us a much-welcomed chance to relax and get over our jet lag as well as time to become acquainted with the ship.

The thing that distinguishes Crystal Cruises ships is the elegance of the interior, from lush carpets to the mirrors on the corridor walls. Overall, there is a feeling of spaciousness.

Our stateroom was very comfortable, with a king-size bed, a sitting area that included a love seat and vanity, and large closets. But what made the cabin above average was its spacious veranda. (On this ship, 85% of the cabins had verandas.) The public areas on board were large and comfortable and contained several high-end shops. There was an auditorium for movies and speaker presentations and a large theater for after-dinner musical productions and entertainment.

For dinner, we chose the 8:30 serving in the main dining room. There were six at our table, couples from Manchester, England, and Banning in Southern California. We looked forward to visiting with them and sharing the day’s experiences during our excellent 4-course dinners.

We weren’t restricted to the main dining room, however. Two alternative restaurants were available: Prego for Italian food and Kyoto for Japanese. The food was so good in both, we opted to eat twice in each.

Shanghai

After two days at sea, our first stop was Shanghai. We had been to Shanghai in 1987 but were not prepared for the amazing changes in the city. Before, it was a dingy, crowded place with streets congested with bicycles and pedestrians. This time, it was still crowded (more than 16 million people), but there were a lot of cars among the bikes.

The big surprise was the amazing growth of the infrastructure. Skyscrapers stood in areas which were formerly swamps. In an expanding Chinese economy, this is the vibrant business capital of China.

During our two days in port, there were several shore excursions offered which took passengers to favorite tourist attractions, including an overnight trip to Xi’an to view the world famous Terra-cotta Warriors. Since the main city sites were fairly close to the dock and Chinese cab fares were very low, we decided to tour the city on our own.

It was raining our first day, so we chose to stay dry and take in the highly regarded Shanghai Museum of Art and History, housed in an impressive new building. On our 1987 visit, its treasures were displayed in dank, poorly lit rooms. This time the art was displayed in an architecturally splendid building in the shape of an ancient wine vessel. We spent the better part of the rainy day there, but it still wasn’t enough time to fully appreciate the 100,000 examples of the country’s finest bronze, ceramic and jade sculptures as well as the exquisite art and calligraphy exhibits.

City sights

The second day broke sunny and we decided to take in parts of the new and old sections of the city on foot. On the way to Yu Yuan Garden, we walked down the alleys of the Old City to see how people have lived for centuries, tending their birds in front of their dwellings, selling their wares and visiting with neighbors.

We passed through a bustling marketplace. On this Sunday it was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. Food, crafts — virtually anything anyone wanted to buy — were on display.

Over 400 years old, Yu Yuan is a classic Chinese garden with trees and flowing streams — an oasis in the crowded city. Its traditional red buildings with upturned roofs are artfully accented by the undulating forms of dragons on the surrounding garden walls.

Next we took a cab to the Jade Buddha Temple, a “must see” in all travel books. The colorful temple is a hive of activity, with visitors filing through plus monks in pastel robes and the devout praying. On display in the main building is a magnificent 6½-foot, 455-pound Buddha, exquisitely carved from white jade, with precious gems.

At cocktail hour, with night coming on, it was pleasurable to sit on the top deck and look at Shanghai’s neon-lit skyline, dominated by the gaudy, futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Below, brightly lit tour boats passed by. Photographers on board were out en masse.

On to Nagasaki

Hoisting anchor at midnight, the ship departed for another day at sea on its way to Nagasaki, our first stop in Japan. On sea days, experts gave informative talks regarding the next ports to be visited, filling us in on the area’s customs, culture and sites. We were given informative handouts and instructed on common Chinese and Japanese phrases as well.

During these leisurely days at sea, there was time to spend shopping, gambling in the casino, seeing a current movie or just relaxing around the pools or on our veranda reading a book. Every evening, there were after-dinner shows in the Galaxy Lounge.

Crystal’s shows were some of the best we had seen on cruise lines. The ship’s company of young, energetic singers and dancers performed original productions based on the music of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, plus there was a ’60s night featuring favorites from that era. On alternate nights there were professional performers, including classical pianist Avner Arad.

Glover Mansion

On our morning arrival in Nagasaki, the first item on our agenda was to visit Glover Mansion, highly touted by travel books. From the ship, it was a short walk up Dutch Hill to its location overlooking Nagasaki’s beautiful harbor.

On our way up we passed by an assortment of shops, immaculately clean (the usual standard for Japan) and, with brightly colored displays, all vying for customers. Fans in all shapes and sizes, plastic toys, ceramic bowls and vases and woodcarvings were available, as were some clothing items (but not the usual stand after stand of T-shirts found in other countries).

Thomas Glover was a Scottish entrepreneur who immigrated to Nagasaki in 1859 and soon married a Japanese woman. He went on to introduce the steam locomotive to Japan. The period architecture and lavish gardens of his estate look much as they did over a century ago.

Said to be Puccini’s inspiration for “Madame Butterfly,” this spot is especially meaningful to opera fans. Statues of Puccini himself and Madame Butterfly, as played by a famous diva, can be found there. Viewing the sparkling harbor below, it was easy to see why the composer was inspired.

Crowded sites

Nagasaki, as well as Hiroshima, was hit by an atomic bomb near the end of World War II, and this momentous event is commemorated by Peace Park, where a black obelisk marks the hypocenter of the bomb blast. Nearby is the Atomic Bomb Museum, containing a collection of relics and photos of the devastation. A visit here is a sobering experience indeed.

Maybe it was because it was near the end of the school year, but everywhere we went to visit historical sites, we ended up in the midst of masses of Japanese schoolchildren, ranging from elementary to high school students. They were a charming sight in their school uniforms but a little much when we tried to get close enough to see a museum display. Nevertheless, the students were fun to visit with and were especially curious about America. A few times we were approached and asked to fill out questionnaires given as an assignment by their teachers.

Nara visit

Our next stop was Osaka, the center of Japanese commerce. Although there is much to see in this lively port, the city provides an excellent base for excursions to Japan’s most popular destinations, the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Both were a couple hours away from the ship by bus on excursions offered by Crystal Cruises.

Since we were going to Kyoto during a post-cruise layover in Tokyo, we opted to visit Nara. After getting advice from a seasoned Japanese traveler on board, we decided to go on our own via high-speed train. We were glad we did.

Not as fast as the famed bullet trains out of Tokyo but plenty speedy, it took us only 31 minutes from the Osaka station. This was our first introduction to the marvels of Japanese efficiency. Trains there are always on time. If the schedule says a departure is at 11:59, be ready to go on the minute.

The capital of Japan in A.D. 710, Nara is home to some of the world’s most revered Buddhist temples and shrines. After getting off the train, we walked a short distance to Nara Park (Deer Park), where most of the sites are located.

At the park entrance we were greeted by a herd of deer. Altogether, there are 1,200 deer living in the park, all seemingly looking for handouts. Vendors obligingly sell biscuits for visitors to feed to them. Many locals believe the nodding motion of the deer’s heads is actually a respectful bow and are convinced the animals are messengers of the gods.

There are three main places to visit here: Kasuga Shrine, built in the eighth century and featuring 2,000 stone lanterns lining the walkways to its tranquil core; Kofukuji Temple, with its 5-story pagoda reflected in the tranquil waters of a nearby pond, and, the most impressive, Todaiji Temple, also from the eighth century, containing what is reportedly the largest wooden structure in the world. It houses a wealth of Buddhist art and — looming over all — the awesome bronze Buddha which has come to symbolize Nara.

Mt. Fuji

That evening the ship departed for Shimizu, our last stop before arriving in Tokyo. During our cruise, each port city at which we stopped put on a welcoming ceremony. Shimizu, however, staged the best, with bands playing, schoolchildren marching in file and dancers in traditional costumes — a carnival atmosphere.

Shimizu is called the gateway to Mount Fuji, which has come to be the symbol of Japan. Naturally, we had to see it, so we signed up for the excursion to Nihondaira Park, reportedly one of the best viewing spots. We were warned beforehand that many days it is impossible to see the mountain because of cloud cover. That day, though, we were in luck.

Just before arriving at the park, one of the guides on the bus let out a shout. There it was, the snow-covered tip, pushing through the clouds just like in the pictures. We got off the bus and hiked out to get the best photos.

At the end of the cruise, ready for our 3-day stay in Tokyo, we were fully convinced that this had been the best way to introduce ourselves to Japan. Traveling with Crystal Cruises is never inexpensive, but the quality is worth every cent. Before booking, be on the lookout for discounts, which are often offered.

Next month the journey continues with a post-cruise stay in Tokyo.