Hong Kong- Day One

Arriving in Hong Kong is similiar to Taiwan. We hit the fog often associated with the Spring here. Slowly we creep along the misty waters sounding our ship’s horn frequently. Hong Kong is very unique. In fact, it is a precarious place.It is vigorously fighting to keep it’s independence from mainland China. The people that we met desperately want to keep their democracy but, China is steadily eroding their freedoms. The success of this little outpost on the bottom edge of China is an example of a free people that the Chinese government cannot stand to have exist. I think their struggles are only beginning.
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities on earth. The living conditions are extremely tight. Our guide is quite proud of her flat which is located 40 minutes out of center city by subway. She had paid $400,000 U.S. dollars for it. Her 100 square foot bedroom is the envy of her friends. Her total apartment is only 350 square feet. It is hard to fathom this existence, but when we visit the Temple Market Street; she points out an area where a person, usually a male worker, will pay $200 per month for a top level bunk bed. The lower level goes for $500 a month. They build a type of cage around the bunk bed so that you can keep your belongings in a locked foot locker. They hang a shelf for a hot plate at the foot of the bed. Immigrants are flocking here from the mainland for higher pay. Reminicent of our Southern border. Our guide, whose name is Rosita, a name given to her by her English teacher, really has issues with the illegal immigrants. She says they have no manners or respect for the customs of Hong Kong. We cannot tell these people apart but Rosita sure can.
Our ship is docked at the terminal building. We have no idea that upon entering the terminal we will be coming into a side entrance of a huge modern mall with 1,000 stores. We could be in America. All the name brand stores are here as well as home grown ones. In order to get out of the terminal, you have to walk through the Mall. Can you say Corral? This morning the stores are not yet open and it is quiet and lovely. When we return we will find a mad house of thousands of people in here shopping. If Rosita had not escorted us back through the mall to the ship, I might still be lost amongst all the retail stores. James is happy that I can’t stop and linger in the stores. There are even employees with large paper maps helping new comers to the mall find their way. Rosita explains that Chinese are fond of any high end retailer that has a recognizable one word name with a logo that they know. Coach, Channel, and LV are all hip with customers who are qued up to enter the stores where total patrons in the store are limited due to crowding. Ferragamo is not so lucky. James and I are amazed. The path we have to take through the mall for the next two days is through the Children section of the mall. High end, name brand stores catering to the little ones are everywhere. Designers like Robert Cavillo and Stella McCartney are offering exclusive designs in stores devoted only to children. Hell, I cannot afford these fashions but they have designer frocks for the kids who will out grow them in a matter on months. This is Incredible. On Tailor Row one can have a duplicate of the latest desingner fashions replicated in your custom size in a matter of days. Sonny, our driver, maneuvers us expertly through the heavy traffic.
Today is the Saturday before Easter. Traffic is busier today as tomorrow is a very special day here. First, it is Easter which is celebrated by the more than 1/2 million Christians in the city. Tomorrow is also the day when the Chinese families gather at the graves of their ancestors in a sort of rememberance communion with them. Rosita is trying to explain their customs cleaning the grave site and burning incense. James and I are told that they also bring along lunch ( not sandwiches either) which consists of multiple food items including a whole pig. All of this has to be carried by hand up to the grave sites on the side of the mountains.The theory is the ancestors can enjoy the picnic by whiffing the smells the food gives off and the living ones can have a great meal. Oh, it gets even more bizarre. The Chinese have all manner of paper offerings to their ancestors. The paper offerings are purchased from stationary stores and are in all shapes and sizes. The idea is to burn a paper offering in the shape of something the ancestor always loved or wanted. They come in the shape of money drawn on the bank of heaven, sports cars, gold bars, credit cards, shoes, Apple cell phones, and purses. Rosita takes us to a stationary store which is like Macy’s on Christmas Eve. It is mobbed with people buying for the graveside ceremonies. They even offer the paper necessity bag which cantains underwear, socks, pj’s ect. All of which will be burned tomorrow. To avoid the crowds, Rosita and her family went to her ancestors’ grave on the mountain top last weekend. Her two brothers carried a whole roasted pig on a bamboo pole up the mountain and she carried the trimmings and paper offerings.
Next we go to the “Dry” market. The dry market is a kind of medicine food store to the Chinese. The store is a little hard to take. All types of sea creatures are dried or dissected and packaged for sale. You name it, they had it. Even bird’s nests and deer antlers were on sale. The whole place stinks to high heaven.James is barely hanging in there.Rosita eagerly explains what various items provide in terms of medical treatments. Its like the Dr. Oz show on steriods! Wet items, like fresh fruit and veggies are offered elsewhere. Because so many Asians do not have access to dairy products on a regular basis, many of them have become lactose intolerant. They have a dry “medicine” to help that as well. Next stop is the oldest Temple in Hong Kong. No big Buddha here, just old ones. As expected, there is big business here today as the local families who have elected cremation in leiu of a family plot for burial. They are burning incense and paper offerings here instead of up on the mountainside. If you have a big issue in your life or a large wish that you want considered, you can purchase the jumbo size incense coil which is almost 3 feet in length and will smolder for a month making it easier than dropping by the Temple on a regular basis. James is coughing with all the smoke trapped inside the Temple.
It is now time to drive up the steep winding road to go to the peak for lunch. This road travels through the wealthier neighborhood in Hong Kong. We are back in the land of luxury sports cars and limousines. We wind our way up through lush green subtropical vegetation broken up by large estates and well manicured lawns in front of mansions. At the top we are at the highest point in Hong Kong and can gaze down upon the highrise towers and port below.
Lunch is pretty good, maybe I am becoming more accustomed to the local food. James is nursing a diet coke and having his usual rice. We join the throngs outside on the platform for a few scenic photos. Sonny drives us quickly back down the road to the Aberdeen fishing village where we take a sandpan boat ride. In this harbor we pass a floating restaurant and multi-million dollar yachts alongside rickety old fishing boats that also double as a home for these families. The old boats are lashed together and resemble a large floating junk city. Some even have guard dogs living on them.
Tunnels under the bay are the fastest way to get back to the ship and that madhouse of a Mall. We did cross the bridge where the democracy protestors had recently been gathered to protest the mainland Chinese decision to limit the people who could stand for election to the local Hong Kong government. Only those approved by the Communist Party would be permitted to run.
Back on the ship, we only have 1 and 1/2 hours to dress for dinner. We have reservations at Lung King Heen restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel. On the way to the hotel, we stop at the Temple Street Market. It comes alive at 6:30pm and goes until midnight. The vendors sell all types of kitchi stuff. Cheap Jade, your name engraved on a grain of rice, sun glasses, purse knockoffs, tea sets and even cell phone connecting wires that light up are offered by the street vendors. I am loving it with all these choices. James, however, has had a rough day and even the prostitutes who are trying to catch his eye, do not make him want to stay. So we head off to the hotel. The Four Seasons is , of course, typically elegant in the Four Seasons manner the world over. The hotel is beautifully decorated for Easter. The restaurant is waiting for us. We had to make the reservations weeks ago. It is small with fabulous service and views of the bay. We arrive just prior to the 8:00pm light show that occurs nightly and features all of the highrise buildings with individual flashing light designs. What we learn is the better place to see the lights is from the pier where we are tied up. Even so, the tallest building in Hong Kong is directly opposite our window with its distinctive light show and a bar at the very top where we have reservations after dinner.
Dinner is served, but not before James has two Jack Daniels to start. Rosita and I are discussing the menu which is larger than I expected. All of the dishes are large portions and meant for sharing. He tells us to get what we want, but he had decided on his fare and is not sharing. Their signature dish is the roasted suckling pig. Rosita and I go for the tasting menu. The staff was extraordinarily attentive and we had great seats for the light show. Its 10:30 and we are not finished with dinner. We will have to make a call to roof top bar and let them know if we are coming or not. Since we have another full day of touring tomorrow we decide to take a pass.

Taiwan

The captain sails us south through the busy East China Sea. We can tell when we have some distance to go by how bad the ship rattles. At 10-12 knots you feel nothing, but with some seas and making 18-19 knots you can really tell! The next morning we arrive in Keeling the main port for Taiwan. Group tour today! Oh Boy, what fun. As soon as the ship clears customs, we are on our way. Its warm and humid and the ships passengers are restless. Our first stop is a memorial to General Chiang Kai-Shek. We watch a changing of the guard ceremony. Next we went to a very impressive National Palace Museum. It houses some 700,000 items from China’s past many dating from 4,000 years before. This collection was begun during the 10th Century when Chinese emperors seized art treasures for their own personal enjoyment. During the 20th Century, the collection was crated and moved from city to city to avoid invading armies. When Chiang Kai-Shek’s army fled to Taiwain to escape the oncoming army of Mao, he took the art treasures with him and they still reside in Taiwan. Our guide explains that there are a huge number of mainland Chinese who travel to Taiwan to see what they consider to be their national treasues! The Taiwanese just chuckle as they consider themselves to be the rightful Republic of China. Only a portion of the huge collection can be shown at any one time, so they rotate the exhibits and displays. We really didn’t have enough time here to fully appreciate what was on display. I am considering leaving the tour and staying here for the whole afternoon and missing out on the additional shrines and another wonderful Asian lunch. We decide to be good children and stay with our assigned tour mainly because we cannot figure out how to get back to the ship which is some 30 miles away. We are still regretting it. Lunch was terrible. I am getting tired of rice and tea. The rest is not usually edible. The Martyr’s Shrine is not that interesting to me. It is very hot and we are forced to stay and see another changing of the guard ceremony. We are not the only ones showing the strain. The bus’s air conditioning system is not working very well and we nearly have a mutiny.I am embarrassed at just how rude Americans can become when they are the least bit uncomfortable. Although we are not comfortable, we at least try to remind ourselves that we are guests here. Maybe its time to call Loyal, our travel agent, and cancel the rest of our onshore group tours. On another note, it is remarkable how this small island has stood up to the giant that is mainland China. It is an outpost for democracy and a vibrant bustling economy.

Kagoshima

Today we arrive on Kagoshima island. We are moored across a narrow inlet from an active volcano. It is belching smoke. I like Japan. The people are polite and the scenery is pretty but boy does it have its share of natural disasters. I am keeping my fingers crossed that another won’t happen in the the next 12 hours as we hover below this monster.
Today we have a private tour. Our guide is Reiko and we have a local driver.We are heading up into the mountains that surround this little sea port town. Reiko explains that this is one of the first places discovered by the Portuguese sailors. No rice is grown in this area. They are known for growing sweet potatoes. Some of the crop is converted into a local alcoholic beverage. James is now interested. We make a stop at a distillery and have a tour and tasting of the various brews. I could not tell the difference between this and Sake. James decides to help the local economy and purchases two bottles of their best offerings. Now that we have had an attitude adjustment, we cheerfully head up the steep mountain road to and area where the Samurai lived. We catch glimpses of Kagoshima far below as we wind higher and higher into the mountains.
It is here back in the Edo Period ( 1600-1868 ) that the Samurai were given residential quarters. Known as fierce fighters, they gained peace from their gardens which surrounded their homes. Both the gardens and their homes are beautifully preserved and elegantly manicured. The homes are still occupied by the Samauri’s descendents. We are not able to visit the homes but, we are invited to visit the gardens. We choose five to visit from the ones which are open to the public. Our driver is very knowledgable and makes several recommendations of particular gardens to visit. The homes are small well maintained wooden structures elevated off the ground and have the sliding wooden shutters. We are shown how they use a pole on the corners of the house so that the shutters can make a 90 degree turn. The landscaping includes protocarpus and other slow growing woody ornamentals fashioned into attractive designs that frame gates. Hedges that resemble mountains are joined by maples, plums, almonds and cherries all of them blooming. We find a local restaurant in the village and stop for lunch. Shoes off again. I must always remember to pack socks. We sit down to very low tables on cushions placed on tatami mats. We are served the traditional Japanese lunch. James has his,now traditional,Sake and more Sake. It gives him the courage to try this food one more time. Actually, it was pretty good food this time.
Back on the road we pass through green hedges in the fields on both sides of the road. It turns out they are tea plantations. Photo Op! Next we are headed to Kamakazi Peace Museum. They refer to it locally as the Chiran Museum. The museum is dedicated to the young Japanese University students who,with minimal training as pilots,were sent on suicide missions against our fleet. More than a thousand died. All for nothing. The war would be over in less than three months. I am only interested going here at all because the driver says he thinks the cherry blossoms have bloomed. What an understatement!! We arrive to a 1/2 mile long tunnel of pink billows of cherry blossoms. People are out on the grass beneath the trees enjoying cherry blossom ( Hanami ) picnics. We have learned that the competition for the best viewing sites can be fierce,so company bosses often send scouts ahead to claim good spots to set up the office picnic. I tell James to go on with Reiko and I will stay here with all the beauty. Young girls are all out in their best pink outfits posing with friends and family. TV cameras and reporters are covering the festivities. Yes!! Spring has come to Japan on the last day of our visit. The next 30 minutes passes too quickly.I love the little breezes that set the petals free raining down on everyone. It is too beautiful to descibe.
Our driver tells us to hasten along as there is one more site that he wants us to see. He takes us to a local park along the river where the mountain cliffs come straight down to the river. Here the cliffs have carvings of religious figures and a park full of cherry trees. It offers a pagoda similar to the gold one that we visited in Kyoto right down to the gold phoenix on the top. Today is a Monday and the park is very quiet but no less beautiful than the Chiran Museum. We stayed as long as we dared never too sure what traffic problems which we might encounter on the way back to the ship which is leaving early today.
We are lucky. Traffic is light. The driver, having heard that James likes motorcylces, pulls into a motorcylcle dealership. The dealer has many brands and two floors of various models. James does a little browsing.
We return to the ship where it has started to rain, but that doesn’t deter hundreds of locals from showing up to see the ship off. We are treated to a performance on the pier by young ladies,dressed in Kimonas,dancing for nearly 30 minutes in the rain while well wishers waved orange flags as well as Japanese and American flags. Glen Miller’s band is playing on the PA system as we pull away. Sayonara can be heard over the music as the flags continue to wave.