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Japan with Royal Caribbean Cruises
In Japan On the Legend of the Seas

by Winnie Graham

The letter written by the young Kamikaze pilot did not tell his parents he was leaving on a suicide mission in the morning. Instead Ryoji Uehara, 22, comforted them by saying how privileged he was to be chosen a member of the Japanese Army’s Special Assault Unit.

Like many Western visitors to Japan, the little I knew about kamikaze pilots was not good. As a child I had grown up in South Africa with the idea that they were “devils” who dive-bombed US warships in the closing stages of the war, not only disabling “our” vessels but killing crew. So much for the effects of adult talk.

“I wish only that the Japan I love will someday be made truly great by my fellow citizens,” he added. The next day he was a statistic – one of the many Kamikaze Japanese pilots who died in the bid to destroy the US military fleet during World War 11 at the same time killing hundreds of servicemen in the Pacific.

Now, reading a translation of a letter in the Chiran Peace Memorial Museum just outside the city of Kagoshima, I had sudden insight into the pain their parents must have felt at their son's pre-ordained death, some of whom had little choice but to obey orders.

As a passenger on Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas, I was lucky enough to visit parts of Japan not all tourists get to see. Kagoshima was one port that came as a surprise. Not only could we do an excursion to the Flower Park where literally thousands of plants are on display. But there was an active volcano nearby as well as this thought-provoking museum.

The authorities say the memorial was not established in celebration of Japan's imperial militarism but rather as a personal tribute to the heroic young pilots who sacrificed their lives for their country and emperor. The collection contains a selection of memorabilia, photographs and private letters. It is something to see – and think about.

Not surprisingly, Kagoshima is famous for another warrior.

in Japan with Royal Caribbean International CruisesThis is where the last Samurai (on which the movie was loosely based) fell in battle. A thousand years of Samurai culture was destroyed there in the 19th century, yet ironically a child born in the city at roughly the same time would, as a man, destroy Russia's mighty Baltic fleet and thrust Japan into the modern age of global sea power.

“ Admiral Tago Seihachiro was truly the last Samurai and Japan's greatest naval hero,” our guide told us. “He was the son of a Samurai born into the 'way of the warrior'.”

The volcano on Sakurajima Island is the most famous active one in the world (not counting the one in Iceland that recently turn the air industry upside down). Its eruptions in the 20th century spewed lava across the sea, bridging the island with the mainland.

We first spotted the volcano as the Legend sailed into port. As if to mark our arrival, it erupted, thrusting lava and ash into the sky. A few hours later we headed up the mountain for a closer look, amazed at the number of louquat orchards and fertile farms on the slopes of the volcano.

Our cameras at the ready, we waited for yet another eruption, but Sakurajima remained silent – until we were back on the bus and about to leave. Then it blasted forth as we hurried to the safety of the cruise ship.

The Japanese gardens, on the other hand, were to be a constant source of pleasure, and there was no need to seek out special ones. Every town and city seems to be blessed with talented horticulturists working to turn odd corners into perfectly shaped spaces.

Although we were too late for the famous cherry blossoms – they flower in early April – almost every other tree seemed to be in bloom, as were the colourful peonys and a host of different flowers. Every city was lined with trees, all perfectly shaped and pruned, with Zen gardens everywhere.

Our cruise in Japanese waters started in Okinawa, the island notorious as the scene of largest land, sea and air battle ever, played out in “a typhoon of steel” that lasted 80 days. It was World War II and the combined forces of the US Army, Navy and Air Force were determined to capture the Okinawa and use it as a base for a fullscale invasion on the mainland.

That battle started on Easter Sunday, 1945, with both the Japanese and the Americans determined to win the war at all costs. The civilian population was caught in the middle, victims of both sides of the struggle. An estimated 100,000 people died, some blown apart by shells, some driven to suicide, others dead from starvation. A grim history, but a beautiful spot.

It was raining on the morning we docked at Okinawa, perfect for a visit to the Prefectual Peace Memorial Museum built to mourn those who perished in that horrific battle. The exhibits detail a range of individual war experiences with the obvious lesson clear to all. War isn't worth the price.

But that was enough about war and suffering. It was time to enjoy something of Japan's tourist magic: geisha girls and fine food, sushi in particular. I skipped the next tour, took a train from Kobe to Kyoto, (a relatively easy process), called at the tourist office at the station for a map, and headed for Gion, the Geisha tourist area. There is something about those beautifully painted young women that attracts and I wanted to speak to one.

Geishas - in Japan with Royal Caribbean International CruisesIt was near Gion that I spotted three young Geishas walking down the street. They giggled demurely when a passerby asked if he could take their photograph. They readily obliged. I took advantage, then asked their names, but their reply in Japanese was as foreign to me as my English was to them. They could neither understand my request nor write in the Latin alphabet. Stumped. I could only smile and move on, leaving them to continue their walk along the street posing for tourists wanting pictures.

Urban myth has it that these beautifully painted women “entertain” men in tea houses or ochiya. It is a belief reinforced by Arthur Golden's book, Memoirs of a Geisha. He tells the fictional story of a young girl trained as a Geisha who is inevitably destined to become a concubine.

While the myth persists that Geishas are there to make men ”feel strong”, the ancient practice of turning impoverished young girls into subservient handmaidens was, of course, abandoned decades ago. Sex may once have been part of the Geisha's lot, but today they have come to epitomise femininity, their bearing and behaviour as much part of Japan's rich cultural heritage as their kimonos. My walk round Kyoto gave me an insight into the lifestyle of the locals. I checked out the supermarkets along with the temples, the restaurants as well as the parks and was sorry to make my way “home” to the liner in the late afternoon.

Of the seven days we were on the Legend, we were in port for five, keen to see as much as possible of the Japanese towns and cities. Time and again we were to visit World Heritage sites, including the famous bronze statues in Nara, with its traditional architecture, the Golden Pavilion of Kyoto and Nagoya Castle built by the Tokugawa Shogun four centuries ago.

We sailed under bridges spanning the sea, marvelled at the skyscrapers and cleanliness of the cities, and fell in love with the superb products in the stores. Though few could speak English, the Japanese were always quick to spot a visitor looking lost or in need of guidance. Then the lack of a common language was no barrier.

If Japan proved to be a great tourist destination, the cruise ship was a very comfortable base from which to explore the islands. In fact, the itinerary was so full that some passengers opted to skip the excursions and instead enjoy life on board.

The benefit of having a home on the liner was a decided plus. Japan is known to be an expensive destination but with a stateroom on the Legend, guests were free to come and go in port – or enjoy the fun activities on the ship.

Facilities included a casino, miniature golf course, dance classes, art auctions, rock climbing on deck, and shopping galore (with jewellery, watches, cosmetics and clothes available at bargain prices).

Apart from the fine dining options, Royal Caribbean's showtime production after dinner was a regular, bands played dance music at different venues, karaoke sessions were popular and so was the late night disco.

Yet, for all the hectic schedule, there was still time for spa baths, scalp treatments, hairdressing appointments, sake and Chinese rice wine tasting, movies and snacks (either at Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlour, the pizza place or the hamburger den). And, of course, there was the heated swimming pool and games deck.

The seven days on the Legend were packed with new experiences and new friends with not a moment wasted. What a trip!

Photos courtesy Winnie Graham


Royal Caribbean International Cruises
The Legend of the Seas is based in the Far East and offers 4,5,6,7 and 12 night cruise itineraries year round. Cruise prices include all meals and entertainment on board, port charges, taxes, and gratuities. For more information on Legend of the Seas visit the Royal Caribbean International website

Thompsons Holidays

Thompsons Holidays is a leading South African travel company offering clients a range of holidays both in Africa and around the world. The cruises it promotes are designed to coincide with weather patterns in the different regions ensuring smooth sailing all the way. For itineraries and dates visit the Thompsons Holidays website.

Winnie Graham, former travel editor of The Star, South Africa's leading daily newspaper, started travelling seriously when she retired a few years ago.  Since then she has seen a fair bit of the world but confesses cruises - either ocean or river - are decidedly the most leisurely way of getting around. Trains come next on her list of favourite modes of travel. When she's home she lives in the mountain village of De Rust, a five hour drive from Cape Town. 

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