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Rickshaws and Sashmi

Otaru, Japan was our next cruise stop and is a city on the northern island of Hokkaido. Did you know that Japan is made up of 6852 islands? Most are small, but 4 make up the shape we envision when we think of Japan (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku). Being in the norther part, we saw the temperature drop and even had to found a store selling gloves for mom.

On the cruise critic roll call, another passenger had outlined their plans for Otaru and it sounded so lovely that I copied it. I got in touch with EBISUYA Rickshaw and given their wonderful reviews on Trip Advisor, booked a 1hr tour that would pick us up directly from where the cruise ship docked. The Cruise Critic member also mentioned eating at a Michelin star sushi restaurant and that also sounded lovely but I was uncertain how best to go about making reservations from an all Japanese website. Luckily, EBISUYA Rickshaw was extremely helpful and volunteered to make the reservation for us and re-arrange out tour so our final stop was the restaurant. The customer for EBISUYA Rickshaw was outstanding so if the guide was half as good, I knew we were info great day.

Japan, as it turns out has pretty strict immigration rules which resulted in them coming on board the ship itself and setting up a mini immigration center complete with heat scanning (in case you were running a temperature). Everyone on the ship had to then go through this mini center before being able to leave the ship. The whole process was longer than I had encountered on any other cruise so I have no doubt that people who had booked tours where at least a little late. We docked at 9 am  but we only managed to get off the ship after 11. I had made the ricksaw reservation for 11 but was able to get a hold of the company and adjust the time, which was great.

We finally did disembark and found our ricksaw driver waiting for us almost at the bottom of the gang plank. He met us with this amazingly deep bow and a wonderful smile and I knew we were in for a wonderful time. His name was Tiger and for the next 1h 30 he pushed and pulled us around Otaru showing us all the key spots.

He also proved to be a wonderful photographer. He knew not only just the right spot but also just the right angles. These are some of my favourite shots of the whole trip. Tiger is a professional ricksaw driver and travels from city to city in Japan as the tourist seasons change. This was actually his last day in Otaru before moving to Kyoto. It turns out we were the last cruise ship of the season in Otaru which actually wasn’t that surprising given the temperature. It was about 5 degrees  and we were quite grateful for the warm blankets that Tiger covered us up with.

Restaurants (and addresses in general)  in Japan can be challenging as you would expect given the language barrier so I had arranged to have Tiger drop us of directing in front of Izezushi (sushi restaurant) was turned out to be a brilliant idea as we would NEVER have found it otherwise. It was down a side street and the sign was in kanji (as you can see below).

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After Tiger dropped us off, we had about 30 minutes before our reservation so we wandered the surrounding streets while trying not to stray too far.

I am not sure I can express how much I was looking forward to eating at Izezushi. I had read all the reviews and even a few blogs from people who had bee there and all were glowing. I remember telling myself as we entered to try and keep realistic expectations.

I am happy to report that it exceeded my expectations. I had no idea that sushi could taste like that! The menu changes daily as the chef selected the best choices at the morning market. We had seats at the counter and our own personal chef. He had been there for 7 years which I found surprising as he looks so young.  His English was pretty limited but we did manage to have a pretty good conversation.  He prepared each piece individually and you ate them has there were passed too you. Unlike at hoe, each piece is perfectly seasoned and you do not add any wasabi or soy sauce. It was fascinating watching him prepare each piece in include brushing them we different soy glazes that complemented the features of that piece. My favourite pieces were the fatty tuna, snow crab and uni. I had the 16 piece menu and enjoyed every piece except for one (which I think was smelt roe). Mom went with the 14 pieces and was equally pleased (except for the salmon roe LOL).

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After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city (including picking up a pair of gloves for Mom) before heading back to the ship as the sun set. Otaru is a pretty city that was made 10x more interesting though Tiger’s eyes. This whole day is one of my favourite from the whole trip.

Bonding in Busan

I am very happy to report that our first at sea day was  as relaxing as I had hoped and mostly filled with reading and taking in a few Celebrity Life activities such as a lecture on all the upcoming ports and a behind the scenes look at the aerial duo that performed the night before. You can also be as busy as you like on sea days but this first day was more about relaxing and continuing to familiarize ourselves with the ship than much else. It was the perfect first day of the cruise especially with a port day on tap!

Our first port of the cruise was Busan, South Korea. Busan is South Korea’s second largest city and had experienced a severe typhoon several days prior to our arrival. Videos had shown massive flooding but those turned out to be most isolated areas. As a point of interest, the only difference between a typhoon and a hurricane is where they are located.

We arrived in Busan at 7am and had a group tour booked for 8:30. Like our Mediterranean cruise, I had used the Cruise Critic website to connect with others on our cruise and pre-arranged an independent tour for this stop. In the end, 8 of us joined up for a highlight’s of Busan tour. Unfortunately, we were only in Busan until 3pm (meaning we had to be back on the ship by 2:30) so the highlights were all we had the time to do.

To start, we drove out of Busan and into its surrounding mountains for a visit to Beomeosa Temple (Temple of the Nirvana Fish). This temple was establish in 678 and is considered one of the top 3 temples in the southeast region of South Korea. We had just missed a festival but many of the lanterns were still hanging providing a wonderful atmosphere to some already pretty outstanding views. Most of the temples and shrines, we would visit on this trip were active ones and it added a different level to be touring these beautiful buildings while people were actively praying. I tried to be as respectful as possible during my picture taking although I could not resist the back shot of the monk below. He physically expressed such peace, it was amazing. I also wish I could have shared the chanting sessions that went on. Truly outstanding.

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After exploring Beomeosa, we headed to what seems to be a staple at every city in Asia, a tower. Or in this case, Busan Tower. Busan doesn’t have an exceptional skyline like Shanghai but it was still fun to see it so clearly from 118m up. That is until I started to feel the tower swaying and then it was simply a case of how fast I could get back down to the ground.

 

Next was the Jagalchi Fish Market which to date is probably the largest fish market I have ever seen. There were so many different types of fish and seafood here that it blew my mind. They have some familiar item such as east coast lobster but the sheer variety was amazing.

With such a limited stay in Busan, we now had to head back to the ship. I dislike such limited stops in port as it is really just a tease. All the rest of our ports were at least 10 hours giving us a better chance to really see the different cities.  On the plus side, I could now get back to the previous day’s relaxing😉

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A Cruising we will go!

After a fun filled 3 days in Shanghai, it was time to head to the Baoshan port and begin the second phase of our trip: Cruise! We had a boarding time of 12:30 so took a leisurely morning at the hotel prior to checking out and grabbing a taxi to the port. Overall, driving in Shanghai is its own experience as lights and divider lines seem to be viewed as optional. In fact, most major intersections also have 4 police officers at each corner to manage traffic as well. And don’t even get me started on the mopeds…complete chaos….road/sidewalk everything was on the table. Definitely not a city where the pedestrian has the right of way. So given our previous experience with taking taxis, I was surprised at just how terrifying the ride out to the port was.

The taxi driver loved driving right down the middle of the divider lines and took anyone who was in front of him as personal enemy number 1. I was actually kind of nice to realize that the passing car stare down is in fact universal. So after 30 minutes of pure terror, we arrived at the port and were quickly ushered into the terminal and checked in. However, due to some unforeseen immigration issues we were not being allowed to board the ship until 2 pm (it was supposed to start at noon). Meaning that roughly 2000, were starting to arrive at the terminal that was not equipped to handle those numbers. Therefore, Celebrity had arranged for shuttle buses to take willing passengers to the closest mall to kill time until we could board the cruise ship.

Turns out the mall was only about 10 minutes away and 5 stories to wander through. It always surprised me how many US stores there are in Chinese malls and this was no exception: Nike, Adidas, Toy R us were all found here. Most surprising however was the Roots Store:2016-10-09-12-57-13

Odder was the English signage, especially given how few people speak English, let alone read it.

We spent about an hour wandering the mall before deciding to investigate the restaurant options. We’d been disappointed in the Shanghai food to date (really bland flavouring) so decided to give a Korean BBQ restaurant a try. Again, we had fun with the waitress trying to order from pictures on a menu but in the end I think we ended up with quite a good meal.

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After lunch we headed down to the basement level and came across a tea store that had a tastings so of course we had to stop in there. The clerk spoke some English so we tried 3-4 different types of tea and walked out with a significant amount of green tea – which by the way – tastes NOTHING like what we have here in North America. The clerk joked that the Chinese keep all the good green tea for themselves and only export the lower grade only fit for tea bags. Good to know.

Now it was time to head back to the port and hopefully board the ship. By this point, it was almost 3pm so luckily this meant that most of those who had stayed at the port had boarded and the immigration lines were not super long. In fact, we would have been through really quickly if the scanning machines didn’t keep breaking and having to be reset. Finally, we boarded the ship and due to the delay were able to get into our stateroom immediately. It was nicely to able to settle in and unpack for our home for the next 7 days.

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We then proceeded to spend the rest of our time familiarizing ourselves with the ship before grabbing the first of many stellar meals in the main dining restaurant. Our first full day on board was a sea day as we headed to South Korea and I was very much looking to forward to a day of relaxing and reading.

Our hotel was in the Jing’An area of Shanghai and hosts a very large and beautiful Buddhist temple about 800m from the hotel lobby. This was our first stop of the morning. It was again and active temple and was also under renovation. It was very odd to see such an ornate temple right across the street from a giant Old Navy store and surrounded by glass skyscrapers. highlights the old meets new and east meets west as no other sight did in Shanghai.

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As I mentioned in my first post, Shanghai is the financial center of China and does not have a strong focus on tourism. This means that while there are lovely “tourist” spots, there is most the depth and breadth of spots that we might see in the major cities. For example, after the temple we decided to walk down to the Arts and Crafts museum which is actually more like a crafters housed in one central building than a museum, although they do charge you to go in. The one good thing about this site was that we got to walk through some more residential neighbourhood off the beaten path.

After returning to the hotel to freshen up (it was very humid), we then grabbed a cab to the former french concession for a wander and late lunch. I have never been to a country where so few people spoke or understood English. I was surprised at how exhausting that can be.  As English speakers we are very spoilt when travelling and that is also the case here but to a much lesser extent. It makes you realize just how much you take for granted. This is what likely lead to our venture into the Wolfgang Puck restaurant. Following lunch, we headed back to the hotel to rest and chill before our evening river tour.

Tea is a major part of Chinese culture, yet it does not seem to be one that takes place outside the home. We endless watched for a non-tourist trap tea house and never did find one. We are both major tea fans so are disappointed we did not get to explore this area more. We did visit a tea house as part of the first tour which I forgot to include in my first day’s recap. It was short but informative and we got to try 4 different types of tea. The most interesting for me was the basic green tea which tasted nothing like I am used too at home. According to the Tea guide, this is because they tend to only export lower grades of tea. Suffice to say, I bought some for the road.

Since tea was on our mind and we had some time to kill, we decided to try the hotels afternoon high tea in the atrium. Sadly it was all US tea but the sweets and sandwiches that accompanied it were all quite good and tasty. Although, the churro in chocolate sauce definitely highlighted the more western side of tea drinking.

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The evening tour consisted of a return to Nanjing Rd but after dark. You would not have thought it was the same street all lit up like Times Square. From there, we venture down to the Bund pier for an hour-long boat tour of the river. Shanghai City is basically divided into two new Shanghai and old shanghai and is divided along the river. The Bund side are all classically English architecture buildings all lit up while the other side are the more modern buildings built in the last 15 years. It was a great night for the cruise and I we got some great shots of both sides of the river.

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We ended the tour with  quick jaunt over to the Pudong side over a closer look at the Shanghai Tower and Oriental Pearl TV station. It was an excellent way to end our last night in Shanghai. Now we are off to the International port to board the Celebrity Millennium for our 7 day cruise to Tokyo!

 

After our time in the Yu garden yesterday, we wanted to revisit this spot and decided to do this as our first stop of the morning to avoid some of the larger crowds. We fuelled up at what had to be the most expensive hotel breakfast buffet in record and grabbed a cab down to the Yu Market. Cabs in Shanghai are really cheap and relatively easy to come by. Our hotel had a card with the most popular attraction in both english and chinese so you can just point at your desired location and hope for the best😉

Yu Gardens is surrounded by a huge market that was similar to the Grand Bazar in Istanbul in some ways. The Gardens themselves are in the middle of the market so just finding the entrance can be a bit of an adventure. After entering the Gardens, we spent the next hour or so getting lost wandering from one area to the next. I really enjoyed this second visit so if you ever go, be sure to plan for lots of time here.

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After Yu Gardens and the market, we decided to try our luck and walk our way over to the Bund (the former English concession and old financial center of Shanghai). The Bund is basically a section of a street (3.2km) that goes along the river and has a lovely pedestrian promenade by the water. We started at the southern end and walked up to the War memorial we had stopped at the night before. It is a great location to people watch and it must have been a  good day for a wedding as we passed 9 wedding shoots along the pathway.

From here, we decided to really punish the feet and walk down to the Nanjing road pedestrian street which essentially looks like a giant and really long Times Square at night. Actually, it is probably more like a combination between the Las Vegas Strip and Times Square as there was M&M world and the Hersey’s store as well as many other larger US stores. Mom kept her eye out for a Macy’s but sadly none was found😉

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After all this walking it was back to the hotel for a late afternoon nap and chill. For dinner we ended up back at the restaurant we tried on our first night. This time, I went with a friend rice and mushroom dish that really hit the spot since I had been a ‘little’ hangry up to that point. Good thing I was traveling with my mother so someone else would have no doubt clobbered me.

This night we may have actually made it to 9:30 before crashing completely.

Day 1 of our time in Shanghai started early as we had crashed at 7pm the night before. I had figured this would be the case and had booked us a full day tour starting at 8am.

I always like to do a tour as soon as I can in order to orient myself to a new city as well to see the highlights and what is worth a second visit. It generally works out quite well and Shanghai was no different.

The tour had 22 people and great guide named Tom (he said his chinese name but it had sounds I sadly can’t even pronounce). The group was a mix of American, Brazilian, English and Australian and everyone but us we leaving on a Royal Caribbean cruise the next day. Overall, they were a good group especially if you overlooked the fact that they complained constantly about the amount of walking, the stairs, the food and the chinese overall. So fun times……

We started the tour at the Yu Gardens which was the number one place I wanted to visit in Shanghai. The garden is over 400 years old and is absolutely beautiful and is quite a maze to navigate. It consists of 6 different sections, each with its own theme. On the tour, we only had a short visit but it was enough to know that I definitely wanted to come back the next day to fully explore the whole gardens.

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Next, we were onto the Shanghai Museum,  which sadly had a very long line. By the time we made it inside, we had only 40 minutes before we had to be back on the bus. With such little time, we decided to focus on the ceramics floors as this was the listed as the highlight collection of the museum. They had some really impressive pieces but sadly very little descriptions in English. Tourism is a relatively new thing for Shanghai so it can feel like a half-hearted after thought in some areas. It was still lovely to see the progression through the periods and the change in styles and colours through the different dynasties.

From here, we headed to a local restaurant for lunch. Trying new food is generally a highlight of a trip but I must say that overall and in particular this meal and I found the food to be vastly underwhelming. It wasn’t bad, just not very flavourful. We actually caved a one point and ate at a Wolfgang puck restaurant (shameful confession).

After lunch, we headed out to the Jade Buddha Temple which was built in early 1900’s and hosts some gorgeous jade Buddhas. This was an active temple so it was amazing to get to (respectfully) see how the Buddhist religion is practiced. This was another highlight of the day and I would highly recommend this spot to anyone travelling through Shanghai.

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After the temple, we went for a walk in the Former French concession. When China first opened its doors, it was decided that any foreigners should live separately from the local people. So each group set up their own area and the Former French concession is one of the most popular. It is easy to see why as the architecture is very European and offers an interesting contrast to the areas surrounding it.  It is here that you tend to see the largest groups of tourists and more western style restaurants.

Next, we stopped by a silk factory for a demonstration and sales pitch. It was very interesting to see the process used to get the cocoon into a thread. I had no idea that each cocoon was made up entirely of 1 single thread. It seems that every our has at least one of the these types of visit and overall this one was at least interesting (which is more than I can say for the cameo tour/sales pitch we had in Italy).

The last stop of the day was the War monument on the Bund. It offered amazing views of the Pudong side of Shanghai which until 1994 has been farmland and now hosts some of the most impressive buildings in the city including Shanghai Tower and the Oriental Pearl TV tower.  This was another spot we wanted to spend more time the next day.

It was around 7pm when we got back to the hotel and headed back out to hunt up some supper. We learned quickly that it is imperative to pick a restaurant where the menu is mostly pictures so you can simply point. After some wondering we selected a restaurant with a wide variety of food and I ordered a hotpot and Mom had the wonton soup. We started with some pork buns which ended up being the highlight food of the Shanghai trip for both of us. We had two full meals, the pork buns and a drink and the total came to 105rmb (21.00$) not a bad deal. If we went to a most western restaurant than you easily start to pay North American prices. For example, a coke at the corner store is 0.60$ but in the hotel is $9 bucks. Robbery!

It had been a very long day we were still feeling the effects of the time change (12hrs) and jet lag so headed back to the hotel with the hopes of staying up til 9pm. We may have made it to 8:30😉

 

 

Whenever you start out on a travel adventure, you generally want the initial travel to the airport and flight to go smoothly. Sadly, this adventure begin with calamity after calamity when I apparently lost the ability to remember where I put things.

The morning itself started well, my flight wasn’t to until 1pm so I had time to wake up, back up my last-minute items and grab a small snack. I had booked a car to take me to the airport and he arrived perfectly on time. Everything was running smoothly……..that is until I reached the airport and forgot my phone in the taxi. Cue the massive panic!

I immediately grabbed my iPad to try to look up the number for the company but then thought to simply call me phone and hope the driver answered. Luckily for me, pay phones still exist at Pearson although I did need to use my credit card to make the call. ‘Luck’ was on my side as the driver not only answered but agreed to return to the airport to drop it off. Update: that call using my visa came in at $14.77…can you believe that? I was very, very, very relieved as I had just bought a new phone the week before.

Soon my phone was back in my hand and I was checked in and through security. I meet up with Mom as she had flown into Pearson earlier from Halifax.

 

We grabbed a bite to eat and about 20 minutes before we needed to head to the gate to board I realized that I didn’t have my iPad. That is right, in my relief at getting a hold of the driver, I left my ipad by the payphones. Complete panic!

I run out to the Air Canada booth and ask if there is a lost and found and she recommends that I go out of security and check. Why she could not just call, I have no idea. Anyway, I run back to security and throw myself on the mercy of the shift supervisor who allowed me back out and permission to cut the line for my way back in. I then had to go down to floors and to the complete other side of the airport, this is to check the Lost and Found office after I had already ran by the pay phones in case it was still there.

I get to the Lost and Found office and nothing had been turned in! At this point, My biggest thought was how the hell I was supposed to survive a 14hr flight without my iPad. I had spent the night before loading up with movies and books and I had brought nothing else with me. However, I didn’t have too much time t dwell as my flight was currently boarding and I was outside security.

In the end, I did get boarded on time if a little sweaty and the flight wasn’t as bad as I had feared. I still did not sleep much but they had movies that weren’t horrible on the plane even if the stupid TV fell every time somebody walked by. We were in the front seat of our area and so had a wall rather than seats in front of us. This was great for leg room but had the TV in the armrest, which turned out to by its own challenge.

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All in all, we made it to Shanghai and I am happy to report that my iPad was in fact turned into Pearson lost and found later that day. Here is hoping that I got all the crazy out of my system the first day!

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