Impressed by the Asian island nations of the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan

By Lynn L. Remly
This article appears on page 6 of the September 2017 issue.
View of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

The Philippines and Taiwan had been on my bucket list for years, so when a brochure hit my mailbox from Zegrahm Expeditions (Seattle, WA; 855/242-0967 or 206/285-4000, with a tour featuring both countries — in addition to the southern Japanese islands — I was halfway there. 

The clincher was three magic words: “No single supplement.” I booked the trip.

“Asia’s Subtropical Isles: Philippines, Taiwan & Japan” (March 11-29, 2017) was a new itinerary for Zegrahm, with whom I had traveled happily twice before. No visas were required for US citizens for this trip, so the total cost, excluding airfare, insurance and an extra night on arrival in Manila, was $15,282. It was well worth it, considering the range of venues and experiences included. 

An introduction

I arrived a day early and stayed in the Manila Marriott Hotel at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, where the tour group would gather the next day. A transfer to the hotel was included as part of my reservation through Zegrahm. 

I simply slept the day away, and the next night featured only a welcome dinner at the hotel to allow everyone to arrive and decompress.

Our first full day brought a tour of Manila, including time spent in the outskirts and in the old walled town. 

The Philippines were named after King Phillip II of Spain in the days when much of the Far East was divided between Spanish and Portuguese influence. Portugal ceded its claims to the islands in exchange for Spain’s agreeing to keep hands off the Spice Islands, and the Philippines became central to Spain’s trade route with China, with silver and gold from Spain’s colonies in Latin America being exchanged for Chinese silk and pottery.

From the late 19th century into the early 20th, Manila was a vibrant, multicultural, international city, its streets lined with Art Deco structures. The glory days are long gone, and, it is said, today’s fragmented archipelago, divided between Christians and Muslims, has never recovered from World War II. 

Touring Manila

Interestingly, our day tour of Manila started not in the glitzy Intramuros area but in the slums, where a filthy river ran among shacks and garbage. We visited two local businesses aimed at providing an income for the poor, especially women. 

In the first, the women were engaged in spinning and weaving netting from coir (coconut fiber) to be used on hillsides for erosion prevention. As they worked, their kids could help or just play, obviating the need for day care. 

The second venture addressed the immense problem of garbage floating in the city’s dirty waterways. Plastic bottles are recycled into school chairs, which are then donated to various schools. We watched as the bottles were cleaned, melted and poured into forms that were then assembled into chairs.

With that impression in mind, we shifted gears and headed for Intramuros, the walled city created in 1571 by the islands’ first colonial settler, Miguel López de Legazpi. Originally inhabited by the rich and connected Spanish population, its walls contained government buildings, fine homes, plazas and religious foundations. 

The city withstood Chinese pirates, Dutch invaders and British, Japanese and American occupation, but it was finally flattened during the Battle of Manila in 1945.

In its reconstruction, beginning in 1951, an effort was made to reproduce the area’s pre-war appearance. Our walk led us among the reconstructions to Rizal Park, which centers on the monument dedicated to the country’s revolutionary hero, José Rizal, executed by Spanish authorities in 1896. 

We then drove through the high-rises and apartments of the walled city — a stunning contrast to the shacks occupied by the average Filipino. The Philippines’ long legacy of corruption, most notably under Ferdinand Marcos (1965-86), still hovers over the country today, leaving a nation of haves and have-nots living very different lives. 

Setting sail

We boarded the Caledonian Sky the next day, a luxury expedition-style ship holding only around 100 passengers. Compared to what I’ve experienced on other ships and even in hotels in my travels, the single accommodations were expansive. Each wood-paneled cabin had a sitting area along with the sleeping area and bath. 

I have traveled on the Caledonian Sky before and saw this time that she is showing her age. The shabby carpet was not all that bothersome, but a burst pipe flooded the floor of one person’s cabin, which, of course, leaked down to the cabin below. Neither person could move, since the ship was full, so the passengers had to deal with it. 

Also, we were without hot water for showers the last two days of the trip. 

However, what irritated me the most was loud music emanating from somewhere, spoiling my nap or my sleep (I retire early) on five or six occasions. I checked the lounge areas but found nothing, so I concluded the music had to be coming from the crew’s quarters. 

I complained each time and the noise stopped, but it shouldn’t have happened at all, much less over several days.

Island excursion

Hundred Islands National Park was the ship’s first destination. These mushroom-shaped limestone outcroppings (actually 124 islands) offer beaches and greenery, though only three have facilities for visitors. 

There were two options for the day’s activity. The first, which I took, was a transfer by Zodiac to Mayor’s Island, where guests then boarded covered outriggers for an hour’s scenic tour. The covers mitigated the intense heat — about 90°F — somewhat. 

On arrival at Lucap Wharf, we were greeted by a welcome banner and an address by the mayor, followed by a visit to a salt farm and an optional opportunity to plant mangrove seedlings. 

The second option was a snorkel- (or, for certified divers, scuba-dive-) and-birding adventure. The islands have suffered from both dynamite (aka blast) fishing and tourism, making it hard to find untouched coral or unlittered beaches.

All of the touring days were very long, which elicited a lot of comments from passengers. Because the itinerary was new, I imagine that the planners just wanted to include as much as they could, but the full program each day was exhausting.

Some mornings offered a lecture, on the early farmers of Southeast Asia, for example, or on some aspect of local culture, such as kimonos and yukatas. 

Each day ended with a recap, featuring a sort of mini-lecture covering some special points of the day’s visit, and a discussion of the next day’s program. Most passengers used this hour as an informal happy hour. 


Our next day featured a visit to Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the oldest towns in the Philippines, Vigan was a central entrepôt in the trade between colonial Spain and China. Its center is said to be the best surviving example of a Spanish-colonial town in Asia. 

Our visit to St. Augustine Church and its bell tower was followed by smaller-group visits to see pottery making and loom weaving plus a visit to the Syquia Mansion, the former home of the Philippines’ sixth president, Elpidio Quirino. 

Quirino is best remembered for the economic developments he implemented at the end of World War II that helped, in some measure, to rebuild the country. 

The afternoon brought the first of many, many cultural shows, usually performed by schoolchildren and local music and dance groups, as well as a horse-drawn kalesa ride through the city streets.

The Philippine archipelago comprises over 7,000 islands, and many of them have distinct cultures and dialects. 

Our visit to Calayan Island the next day seemed like a return to an earlier century as we headed out on a nature walk and a visit to a rice farm, with water buffalos grazing in the background. 

St. Patrick’s Day found us among the Batanes Islands in the north, home to an indigenous group called the Ivatan, whose local buildings of limestone and coral, roofed with cogon grass, are iconic. 

We disembarked on Batan Island (not to be confused with the Bataan of World War II fame), riding into the Naidi Hills on local transportation. In the capital of Basco, we saw the lighthouse, then viewed the Santo Domingo Church. 

A trip to a Japanese tunnel, used as a lookout during World War II, was a reminder of the vicious Japanese occupation that took place after MacArthur’s escape from Corregidor. 

Fishing is an important part of the local economy, and we watched a demonstration of Ivatan fishing techniques in a local village. A singing presentation by resident boys at the San Carlos Borromeo Church was well attended by locals, also. A final community vocal presentation at the town square ended the day. 

I skipped a later visit to Savidug Village, which featured a viewing of its unique stone houses, some of which we had seen earlier. Our days were all so long, and the heat made everything seem longer.

On to Taiwan

Batan is closer to Taiwan than to Manila, so the sail to our next destination was a brief one. A lecture on Taiwanese identity presented by the staff anthropologist prepared us for our excursion. 

Our first port of call in Taiwan was Taroko National Park in Hualien, where we drove along the spectacular 12-mile-long Taroko Gorge, carved out from the marble hills by the Liwu River. 

We saw the Eternal Spring Shrine, a monument to the 212 military veterans who died constructing the Central Cross-Island Highway that now connects Taiwan’s east and west coasts. The highway was completed only in 1960, and it was our first introduction to the tenacious character of the Taiwanese, who withstood shelling and the constant threat of invasion by mainland forces to create a 21st-century world.

One of the highlights of the entire trip, for me, was our visit to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which holds 690,000 Chinese treasures evacuated to the island by retreating Nationalists in 1949, during the Chinese Civil War. 

Our guide expertly led us through the crowded galleries of pottery, paintings and all aspects of Chinese art from five millennia, all beautifully lighted and displayed. 

We were given a choice of forming a group to stay in the museum or going to see the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. I was torn, but I was afraid to miss an important historical site, so I elected to visit the Memorial Hall and the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine. 

We finished the day with a photo op at Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings, designed in the form of a 1,600-foot-tall stalk of bamboo.

Others on board had chosen a northeast-coast nature tour, which included the Gold Ecological Park, but I would not have missed the museum and the Memorial Hall for the world!

Southern Japan

We left Taiwan after a too-short visit and headed for Japan’s southern islands. 

Japan comprises over 6,800 islands beyond the major islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, but few people ever see these small gems. This visit showed me a completely different side of the country.

Our first port call was Miyako Island, where, once again, a choice was offered for the day’s excursion, this time between a birding expedition and an island tour. I elected the island tour, which started with a crossing of the Irabu Ohashi Bridge, about 2 miles long. Because of its archipelagic nature, Japan has built many graceful bridges to connect its constituent islands. 

We stopped at Makiyama Observatory, which is not an astronomical observatory but a scenic lookout. Later, we went to admire the gardens at Utopia Farm and enjoy a quick sit-down and coffee.

The Kerama Island group was next as we sailed northward, our visit there centering on Zamami Island. One group of passengers went snorkeling or diving, another went on a long nature walk, and the rest walked to Zamami Village (population 584). I chose the third option, and it became an unexpected highlight for me. 

I had seen a documentary on Okinawa years before and was desperate thereafter to visit, but I was not willing to endure a transpacific flight just to travel to one island. As it turned out, we did not go to the city of Okinawa, itself, which is just another big city; instead, we visited a small place in the Okinawa Prefecture, the former kingdom of Ryukyu, that was just as I remembered it from the documentary.

We strolled along the main street, stopped in the area’s sole grocery store and admired the glazed-porcelain pillar lions set in front of the traditional houses to guarantee good luck. (One lion’s open mouth captures the luck, while the closed mouth of the other keeps it in.) One street ended in a torii gate, indicating that there was a sacred area beyond. 

The only jarring note was a huge Huey helicopter overhead, a reminder of the continued (and troubled) presence of an American Marine base on the island.

As in the Philippines, the islands harbor cultures and languages that are different from those on the main islands. The Ryukyuan languages, spoken in this southernmost group of islands, are not mutually intelligible with Japanese, though, of course, standard Japanese is taught in the schools and is spoken by everyone.

Village crafts

Porcelain melon-shaped ewer with a vine handle from the 10th to 12th centuries on display at the  National Palace Museum in Taipei.

We sailed through some rough weather to reach the Amami Islands, again dividing into groups according to particular interests. For me, the opportunity to kayak through the Kuroshio no Mori Mangrove Park was the obvious choice. The pleasant, quiet paddle was, again, such a contrast to the energy of the country’s enormous cities. 

As we left these islands, we spotted humpback whales (including a boisterous baby), which breeched again and again, seemingly just for the fun of it, all around our ship.

While in this area, we also visited Oshima Tsumugi Village and its silk-weaving factory. Dyed-silk weaving is the specialty of the island of Amami Oshima, and even though guides explained the process carefully, my mind was hard put to comprehend the fineness and intricacy of the weaving and dying. 

Our last stop was a visit to the Tanaka Isson Memorial Museum of Art, featuring paintings and artifacts of the painter known as “Japan’s Gauguin.”

The next day, spent on Yakushima island, was all about wood, especially cedar. The Yakushima Environmental & Cultural Village Center, as its name suggests, provides information on the culture and natural features of the island. 

We admired the amazing array of woodcarving, from small souvenir pieces to huge furniture, and later in the day walked to Yakusugi Land, home to 1,000-year-old cedar trees. The oldest tree is estimated to be at least 4,000 years old. 

Walking along the paths and boardwalks, I felt like I might be in a Harry Potter woods!

With one of the world’s highest annual rainfalls (150-400 inches), the island conditions cause the trees to grow slowly and concentrate their resin content. Because of their high resin content, the trees are resistant to rot, hence their ancient age. 

Unfortunately, this feature made them ideal for roofing material, and, until recently, these majestic trees, many of them with individual names, were logged. Today logging is prohibited, so souvenirs can be made only from fallen trees or stumps.

A moving memorial

We had only one full sea day on this trip, en route to Miyajima. It was punctuated by several lectures and a TV program on World War II from the Japanese point of view, with extensive Japanese footage.

Itsukushima, known as Miyajima or Shrine Island, is holy to both Shintoist and Buddhist Japanese. Its significant Shinto shrine and a red torii gate that seems to float above the water at high tide are the main attractions. 

On the walk to the shrine, we were accompanied by friendly sika deer, which presumably hoped for a snack (though feeding them is forbidden). 

After visiting the shrine and torii, we wandered through the town sampling local specialties like maple-leaf-shaped cakes, huge grilled oysters and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. 

In the afternoon, the ship repositioned for our visit to Hiroshima. I had been to Japan several times before but never to Hiroshima, so this was an important goal for me. 

We spent most of our time there, of course, in the Peace Memorial Park, stopping to see the marker at ground zero and then visiting the museum. The Peace Memorial, or Genbaku Dome, is a ghostly reminder of a city nearly emptied of its life in just a few minutes.

Most affecting was a talk by a survivor of the bombing on August 6, 1945, that flattened the city, killed hundreds of thousands and quickly ended Japan’s resistance in World War II. 

Mrs. Keiko Ogura was an 8-year-old schoolgirl whose home was 2 miles from ground zero. She was at school at the time of impact and described people running toward her, skin hanging off their bodies, blind. One of the few survivors old enough to remember the event clearly, she has spent decades traveling Japan and the world telling others about her experience and promoting nuclear nonproliferation. 

A day of art

Our final day on board took us to Naoshima, an island distinguished by its many modern art museums. We started our excursion at the Art House Project, an effort that turned seven abandoned traditional houses into living art spaces. 

The first, for example, was all about seeing. We were led into a completely (and I mean completely) black space, where we had to feel along the walls to try to find a place to sit. After about 20 minutes, we saw a lighter space in front of us. The space was always there, of course; it was only when our eyes adjusted to the darkness that we could see the light. 

I’m not sure it was art — maybe a science project would be more accurate — but it was an interesting experiment. 

Other houses were more traditional in their displays, integrating art into the older structures.

The Benesse House Museum, which incorporates nature and art both inside and in the surrounding seashore and forest, is an effort to provide well-being (bene-esse: to be well) and includes a hotel which might also be considered a retreat. 

We ended the day at the Chichu Art Museum, a rather depressing concrete structure that housed modern art in an underground facility.


Disembarking in Kobe, we transferred to Kyoto, Japan’s imperial capital from 794 to 1868. The city is filled with significant structures, including Nijo Castle, the gold-leaf-covered Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) and Tenryuji Temple. 

Unfortunately, it was Japan’s spring break, and the crowds were beyond belief. We were tourists as well, of course, but it’s fair to say that the crowds made appreciating the sights difficult, if not impossible.

Our final tour day was dedicated to more temple sightseeing, including Fushimi Inari Shrine, dedicated to the gods of rice and sake, and the Heian Jingu Shrine, dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors of Japan. I skipped the day in favor of packing, since we had had no free time to do so earlier.

Despite the fast and furious pace of the trip, I was very glad to have, finally, visited that part of the world. Seeing the Philippines and Taiwan for the first time, I came home filled with new ideas and impressions, and seeing a new part of Japan reminded me that the joy of discovery when traveling never ends.