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Travel along vicariously on the Grand Asia 2018!

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I'm leaving in a week for the 82-day Grand Asia 2018 cruise!


Many of you followed along last year with my blog known as "WoodenShoeSailing." This year I have upgraded to a new blog site. I hope you will follow along at:



Fill out the Suscribe via Email box and you can get each new blog post via email.


You also can follow me on Instagram at @writerondeck and on Facebook by searching @writerondeck. I also plan to post on this thread (depending on WIFI speed and access on board).


Here is my first post (http://www.writerondeck.com/2018/07/24/mamma-mia-here-we-go-again/), written in late July when I decided somewhat last minute to take this cruise:


Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again


Day -68, Grand Asia 2018

Tuesday, July 24, 2018 — Chicago:


Perhaps I have lost my mind, but I’ve just signed up for Holland America’s 2018 Grand Asia cruise that leaves this fall. As readers may remember, I sailed on this cruise last year and blogged daily. The cruise has expanded to 82 days, skips New Zealand and adds Taiwan, Okinawa and more South Pacific islands.


I know I said last year’s 80-day Grand Asia cruise was my “cruise of a lifetime.” I guess it was just my “cruise of 2017.”

Why am I taking this cruise again? A confluence of factors:



  • I’ve spent the last month editing my 80 blog posts from last year’s Grand Asia cruise into text for a series of photo books. It’s left me feeling nostalgic for the countries we visited, the leisurely days at sea and the friends I made aboard the MS Amsterdam.
  • I took my introduction to watercolor on last year’s cruise to heart and have expanded into urban sketching. In fact, I’m taking an intensive course in it at the Art Institute of Chicago next week. My goal is to document my travels by sketching and water coloring along the way. I just needed the right trip – and this is it.
  • When Joyce texted me that she was thinking about going on the cruise again this year, I decided the signs were piling up. We met on a 2011 cruise, and I talked her into going on last year’s Grand Asia. (It didn’t take a lot of persuasion.) Once I checked the roll call on Cruise Critic for this fall’s Grand Asia cruise, I saw another half-dozen friends I met last year. Now it’s a reunion!
  • Holland America was offering a good flash sale for a guaranteed cabin (they will assign me a cabin later) and my Chinese visa is still good. I didn’t have any travel planned for the fall, other than returning to Dallas from Chicago when the weather turns cold.

So when I go to Dallas in August for doctor appointments and some business, I will need to return to Chicago packed with everything I will need on the cruise.

Meanwhile I am researching new ports and new things to do in ports I already have visited. Holland America has some shore excursions posted, and my fellow Cruise Critic members are busy organizing private tours. Joyce and I agree we want to do more food tours this time around. And of course I want to make time for sketching.

Another challenge will be figuring how to vote absentee. I may need to stop in a U.S. embassy along the way to submit my ballot. We’ll see what Texas has to say about the particulars.


I know there are dozens more details that need attention, so I will be busy for the next couple of months. I’ll fill you in as I prepare.

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Looks like a great itinerary. Look forward to reading your blogs.


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Count me in! Just added you to my reading list in Blogger so I will get updates through my blog site.


Next task...reading all of the posts from 2017 and then trying to convince my hubby that we should do this itinerary in the future!

Edited by AryMay

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Have a great cruise, we are leaving Sunday the 30th to Asia on the Westerdam for 28 days when we get back I will follow. We are both still working otherwise I would do this cruise in a heartbeat.

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Really looking forward to your reports.We are on the Westerdam from Singapore to Hong Kong in January, so will be able to read all the blogs before we depart. DH particularly interested in Dutch Harbour port. Safe travels!

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I'm just catching up here with a couple of my posts on this trip. I will try to post here as well on my blog during the trip, but the best way to see is to subscribe on http://www.writerondeck.com (see the original post in this thread for details).


I also will probably not be posting pictures here, due to the time it would take to upload. They will be on the blog.


What to Do the Second Time Around the Pacific


Posted on August 30, 2018 by Jo Johnston

Day -31, Grand Asia 2018

Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 — Chicago:


How do you plan visits to 33 ports in 15 countries spread across the Pacific Ring of Fire? It can be as easy or as complex as you want.


The easy route is to sign up for the cruise line’s excursions. Holland America sent us a four-color 113-page book of tours in every port, which gives me an idea of what is most popular to see and do. I can read more, check prices and sign up on their website.


The more complex option is to research ports, independent tour operators and other possibilities online. Trip Advisor is a good place to start. I also look at blogs by other travelers and at websites such as the Ports of Call section of Cruise Critic’s forum. I met people on this cruise last year who had whole binders tabbed with information on every port.



Last year I planned for months. This year I’ve left it until almost the last minute. Of course, I didn’t sign up for the cruise until a few weeks ago. For the past few days I have worked my way through each port, taking a country or section at a time.



I blogged before about differences in ship and independent touring and some of the choices I made last year.

This year I plan to take a few ship tours. One will take me to a vulcanology museum in Petropavlovsk, Russia, on the Kamchatka Peninsula. My Russian visa from independent travel years earlier in Saint Petersburg and Moscow has expired, and it just seems easier to go along with a ship tour this time. In Taiwan, I think I will take a ship excursion that takes us to the original Din Tai Fung, where we will learn to make Taiwanese soup noodles. Just like Tom Cruise did when in Taipei. It’s not something I could easily plan on my own.

In other ports, I want a customized experience that the cruise line doesn’t offer. For example, Fukuoka, Japan, is known for the street food stalls called yatai that are disappearing throughout the country. So a group of us are planning an independent yatai crawl while there.



Sometimes the ship excursions are too limited. All of the tours to Beijing visit the same places we visited last year (Great Wall, Forbidden Palace, Temple of Heaven). Surely there are other things to see in a city of more than 20 million people. I guess we will need to find them on our own.



I am much more confident this year exploring some ports on my own after getting the “lay of the land” last year. In others, I have joined with a couple of friends who also are repeating the cruise this year to hire a driver to take us to specific sites or activities.



Meanwhile, I also am making lists of what to pack. More about that in a future post.

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Another recent post from http://www.writerondeck.com


No Place to Go but Up


Posted on September 19, 2018 by Jo Johnston

Day -11, Grand Asia 2018

Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018 – Chicago:


I just got a second cabin upgrade offer today. I remember that last year a number of people on this cruise upgraded to balcony cabins in the week or so before the cruise, as Holland America made offers at reduced prices. Obviously the ship isn’t full. The cruise line must figure it is better to sell upgrades than do nothing. The window for new bookings has pretty much closed, especially because there isn’t time to get the Chinese visa required for the trip.


Cruise lines generally don’t discount their fares much these days. I remember years ago hearing about Florida residents who could virtually show up at the pier on sailing day and get a ridiculously low price if the ship wasn’t full. Those days are gone. A few years ago I got a great deal on a Princess Cruise about a month before it sailed. You can read about it here.I haven’t seen a similar deal in years.


So generally you might as well book as early as you can. That way you are guaranteed of getting on the ship before it sells out (and many do). In addition, you have the best choice of cabins. I’ve written before about how to choose cabin location.


I rolled the dice on this cruise and chose an inside guarantee cabin. That meant that Holland America could assign me any cabin on the ship, and I probably wouldn’t know which cabin until just before the cruise. I hardly ever take a guarantee because I am picky. On last year’s Grand Asia cruise, I booked early and got one of four inside cabins in the middle of Deck 6. It was pretty much my ideal location.


But this year I hadn’t really budgeted this cruise, and those four cabins were booked. I saved a couple of thousand dollars by taking a guarantee. When you are sailing as a single in a cabin, the fare is almost double that of a couple, so I decided it was worth the considerable savings to take a chance on a guarantee.


Then last week my travel agent called with a Holland America offer to upgrade to a nice ocean view cabin very close to the forward elevators. I liked the location and the fact that I would no longer be playing “cabin roulette,” so I took it. Had I booked this cabin originally it would have been a few thousand dollars more for a single occupant.


Today’s upgrade offer is for a balcony cabin, but again a “guarantee.” It could be any balcony cabin, even at the very front or rear of the ship. The upgrade price is very significantly less than the price of booking a balcony for a single from the beginning. Yet I turned it down. I was tempted, and if it had been a specific cabin that I liked, I might have splurged. But I can probably pay for all my shore excursions with my “savings” from declining the upgrade, and I’m happy with the cabin I have.


Besides, I have my eye on Holland America’s 2020 Grand World Voyage, and I need to start saving big time now.

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Here's my latest report! Once I'm on board, I will primarily post on my blog, at http://www.writerondeck.com (you can subscribe there via email), but I'll try to stay in touch here as well.



Day -2, Grand Asia 2018

Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, Chicago:


Just Waiting to Move to My Next Home


Today is my last day in Chicago until Christmas. Tomorrow I fly to Los Angeles before boarding the MS Amsterdam on Sunday for the Grand Asia 2018 cruise.


Being “homeless” since selling my house has really meant that I have multiple homes. Or at least I pay rent in multiple places. One is a bedroom in my sister’s home in Plano, a suburb of Dallas. My cats live there, and I plan to spend the winter there again this year.


I have a small apartment in Chicago, where my nephew lives along with his girlfriend and their newborn son. Last summer, I finished out his lease after they moved to a larger unit in the same building. I loved Chicago so much that I came back this summer. I think I will return again next year.


Technically, I guess I also pay “rent” for my storage unit in Plano. Next year I plan to rid of a lot of the things I thought I needed after selling my house a few years ago. I may move the few things I keep to a small storage unit near my other sister’s home in Fort Smith, Ark., where the rates are much lower.


And finally, I can almost say that my other home is on the MS Amsterdam. I spent almost three months there last year and will do the same this year. (If I decide to book the Holland America World Cruise in 2020, I will live there for almost five months.) Last year Holland America greeted us on the Grand Asia cruise with a large “Welcome Home” banner. It does feel like home.


I’m ready to go. Today I’m just filling time, spending most of the day in a coffee shop with my writing group. All I have left to pack is my carryon bag and a backpack with electronics.


I may go as overboard with electronics as I do with shoes. My list includes laptop, iPad, iPhone and assorted cables and accessories. I’m a bit nervous about my drastic decision to leave my DSLR camera and lenses at home. I’ll use my iPhone 8 and two Ollo lens attachments. Instead of lagging behind on tours to get the perfect shot, my intention is to lag behind while quickly sketching the scenes.


And that brings me to art supplies. Last year’s watercolor instructor Jack was generous with supplies. He had ample paint palettes, brushes and paper for our use in or out of class. We will have a different instructor this year, so I don’t know what to expect. Therefore I packed my own paper, paints, brushes and pens.


I’m eager to get on the “dam” ship already. Waiting isn’t fun.

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Between lack of Internet access and lots of ports, I've gotten behind in publishing. I'll catch up over the next couple of days. Meanwhile, for pictures go to www.writerondeck.com.


Day 1, Grand Asia 2018

Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, Los Angeles:

You CAN Go Home Again, But It May Be Different


Returning to Holland America’s Grand Asia cruise feels strangely different than embarking on the same cruise last year. Not better, not worse, just different.


In 2017 the ship banner that said “Welcome Home” seemed a bit out of place, as I hadn’t been on the MS Amsterdam in seven years. But it was a nice thought. Today my feelings upon boarding are more like that of returning home – to a home where I don’t have to cook or clean and where I get to visit exciting locations. I know which bank of elevators will be fastest and exactly where to find my cabin. I didn’t explore the ship much today because I know where everything is.


One big difference this year is that a hundred or so passengers boarded a week ago in Seattle. Last year no one embarked early, so almost 1,000 excited people boarded at the same time in San Diego.


By noon we had boarded and were eating lunch in the Lido. I ran into friends from last year’s cruise and took the time to catch up. I had the whole afternoon to relax and unpack, interspersed with some sail away parties. Two of my suitcases were delivered by 2 p.m., and the third not too long afterward.


My balcony cabin is a real treat. It is slightly bigger than my inside cabin last year, but with the sitting area just inside the balcony. As I wrote earlier, I had paid for an upgrade a few weeks ago to an Ocean View (window) cabin from a guaranteed inside, and then turned down one to a yet-to-be determined balcony cabin. A week later my travel agent said the balcony upgrade was still available, this time with a specific cabin number. I liked it and took it. She said 82 days in a balcony cabin might ruin me for future cruising. I’ll see.


It didn’t take long to unpack. I know I bring too many things – little organizing cubes, an over-the-door shoe bag for toiletries, lots of charging cables, paper and binder clips, notebooks, extra art supplies, etc. I always bring the laundry bag my mother made that I took to Girl Scout camp, with my name embroidered on it. This year I even threw in a small stool I may use while sketching ashore.


We departed the San Pedro port at 5 p.m., right on time. When I got to the back of the ship on the Lido deck to watch us leave, I realized I had left my smartphone with its camera in the cabin. But I did have a sketchpad and pen, so I quickly tried to capture the busy commercial port encircled by cranes. My perspective was off as the ship changed heading in the channel. But as usual, adding a bit of watercolor later improved the attempt.



Edited by readytocruiseagain!

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Learn to Roll with Differences -- They May Be Better


Day 4, Grand Asia 2018

Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, At Sea:

There is a danger in taking the same cruise for the second time. It is tempting to compare everything to last year. The first time I had no concrete expectations. Everything was fresh and new – “golden,” as Ponyboy Curtis might say in The Outsiders.


Now if something isn’t what I expect, my first inclination can be critical of the fact that it is different – before even considering whether it might be better. It’s a habit I fight, and this cruise is a good place to work on it.


Take watercolor: On the first morning I was excited to see what the classes will be like. I fell in love with watercolor painting on last year’s Grand Asia cruise and came prepared to immerse myself in it again this year.


The first day we didn’t paint. Our instructor Mary gave a 15-minute overview of her plans to provide a project for each day. The classes – either at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. – will last an hour, “give or take.” We will use paint palettes Mary provides, starting with just two or three colors.


On the second day we created an abstract painting to learn how the colors mix on wet paper. Mine was a disaster; abstract is not my forte. I used too much water and the blue, red and yellow paints merged into mud. I did have time for a quick sketch of Barbara, whom I met on last year’s Grand Asia cruise. No one would recognize her from the sketch, but now it is part of my trip sketch journal. (I think of a mediocre or worse sketch in a new journal like a door ding in a new car – disappointing, but once it’s there, you lose that urge to be perfect.)


If you read my blog posts about painting with Jack last year, you know that he provided very little instruction but generous supplies. He put paper and paint in front of us and said we would learn best by doing. I struggled initially with no clue as to how to use watercolor paints amid the many options he provided (tube paints, paint pans, watercolor pencils and markers). It was a frustrating start for me.


Eventually Jack did teach us more about the nature of watercolor painting, how to mix colors and how important our underlying drawing was to the finished project. He showed videos teaching us new techniques and encouraged us to use all the materials he provided. He could bring bins of supplies because he lives in San Diego, our port of departure. And he kept our room open the entire day, encouraging us to paint as long as we wanted. I usually stayed through lunch.


I can see that Mary’s classes will be more structured, but I know I can learn a lot from her. She has organized her projects with a purpose. Start with just a few colors to see how they work with the water. Do some simple paintings early to learn about tones and values. Keep each lesson short and focused to emphasize the lesson of the day.


So it’s not exactly what I was expecting, but different doesn’t have to mean better or worse. The two styles most likely will complement each other. And Mary reassured us that we don’t have to do exactly what she is offering each day.


On the third day, we moved on to a landscape of mountains and snow in Antarctica. I was more in my element and actually had a result I think I will hang on my cabin wall.


Fortunately, I brought a good supply of my own paints, papers and brushes, so I can paint to my heart’s content after the short morning class. Or I can join the knitters and crocheters in the Explorer’s Lounge. I just happened to bring a small quilt appliqué project with me.


As I go through these early days on the MS Amsterdam, I plan to take each new activity and experience as it comes – different from last year, but often in good ways. It’s time to make new memories.



Edited by readytocruiseagain!

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A Cool and Foggy Beginning


Day 6, Grand Asia 2018

Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, At Sea:


I woke up this morning to the rocking and rolling of the ship. Capt. Fred Eversen warned us of 10-foot-plus seas. By early afternoon yesterday my wine tasting in the Crows Nest (high in the front of the ship) was canceled. But the Amsterdam singers and dancers made their performance look easy last night, despite the rough seas.


From high on the ship’s decks the swells don’t look that big, and they look deceivingly flat in photographs. But many people coming to breakfast in the Lido this morning are lurching this way and that. It is the most common topic of conversation at the tables around me.

However, the ship’s movement and spray of the waves did not keep the determined morning walkers from their revolutions around the teak deck of the Lower Promenade.


We are sailing in the North Pacific Ocean, where the odds of cloud cover are pretty great this time of year. Our first port is Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where we are scheduled to arrive tomorrow. We missed this port in 2017 due to rough seas outside the harbor entrance, but so far our visit odds are looking good, although the forecast is for possible rain in the morning.


I didn’t remember much about the weather and seas from the early part of last year’s Grand Asia cruise, so I went back to my blog entries to see what I had reported.


Interesting that both last year and this year we started out with heavy fog on the first morning out of port. During the early hours Monday I heard the foghorn blowing its forlorn blast every couple of minutes. When I got up we were encased in fog, and it stayed that way pretty much all day. Mist covered my balcony.


By Tuesday afternoon the clouds broke up and we had periods when the sun poked through. With outside high temperatures hovering around 60 degrees, I haven’t sat on my balcony yet. The cabin has some afghan throws, but at the speed we are moving it is too windy for comfort.


I’m staying busy indoors on these sea days. The mornings are filled with breakfast and catching up on the news,, then watercolor class followed by doing a little hand quilt appliqué with an informal group who stitch, crochet and knit. After lunch there are lectures to attend, happy hour in the Crows Nest and perhaps a brief nap. I’ll write about all of this later during the cruise.


Pictures are at www.writerondeck.com


Edited by readytocruiseagain!

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First Cruise Stop in the Last Frontier


Day 7, Grand Asia 2018

Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, Dutch Harbor, Alaska:


Rugged mountains, eagles and whales – Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska delivered it all.


The day started out with questionable weather as the predicted rain came in late morning. The lines for the three school buses that transported us two miles into town were long. I was thankful that I wore layers – shirt, hoodie and all-weather coat – and carried an umbrella as the heaviest rain fell while I waited for the next bus.


By afternoon the weather improved with just occasional sprinkles and mist – not enough to need the umbrella but too much moisture for my sketchpad.


For the Amsterdam passengers, the “center of town” was the Safeway. Its signage and layout are familiar except for the tall industrial shelving with stocks of food and other supplies. Boats in the fishing fleet, made famous by the Deadliest Catch TV series, can run up bills in the thousands of dollars when they provision.


Ship passengers wandered through the store while waiting for the rain to let up. For some it was an opportunity to pick up things forgotten in initial packing. But mainly I saw people stocking up on snacks and chocolates. I easily moved on without making a purchase – the two dark chocolate bits on my pillow each night will suffice, along with the possibility of endless meals, snacks and desserts onboard.


We really weren’t in the “center” of town that is about a mile or so away, as the roads stretch along between the hills and the water. Some people took taxis to the Russian Orthodox Church and other points of interest in the real town center two miles away. Many visited the nearby Museum of the Aleutians and the World War II Museum.


The stacks of huge crab cages, end-of-season wildflowers and rugged mountains drew my attention. I experimented with my new Ollo lenses on my iPhone and briefly wished I had my DSLR camera with its telephoto lens when eagles perched on light poles. But I know from last year’s experience that I would seldom use that relatively heavy lens in the other ports.


I heard some restaurants had crab on the menu, but the season hasn’t started so I figured they weren’t local. Instead I feasted on halibut fish and chips at the Great Aleutian hotel’s restaurant – perhaps the best fish and chips I ever ate.


The Crow’s Nest was full and lively during sail away, although without the band that played Anchors Aweigh last year. As we sailed out of the harbor along Unalaska Island, several pods of whales passed us going in the opposite direction. Their surface blows alerted us to their presence, and then they crested the waves and disappeared for a bit. Despite requests from the Crow’s Nest crowd, the whales didn’t breach and flip their tails above the surface. The sight of so many whales was thrilling nonetheless.


As we sailed west, I watched the passing island chain from my balcony. Even this late in the season snow covered the northern slopes of the mountains. I was especially glad we made the port and the passage after missing them last year due to adverse sea conditions.




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What Shall We Do Today at Sea?


Day 9, Grand Asia 2018

Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, At Sea:


Many of my friends think the many sea days on a long cruise would be a showstopper. What will you do just sitting there on a ship all day?


Our day ashore in Dutch Harbor last week interrupted a long string of sea days at the beginning of this cruise. We have just two ports in the first 14 days. The attraction of this cruise for many passengers is seeing Asia and the South Pacific without flying there. That means a lot of sea days.


I love sea days. In the 1990s, I took repositioning cruises that only had sea days. After 14 days at sea with not much to do, we finally docked, got off the ship and flew home. I can be so good at doing nothing on sea days that I have written about it twice before – in 2013 and again in 2017. But if you want something to do on sea days, the ship delivers.


The When & Where, our daily program, lists several organized events every hour on sea days. For its Grand cruises, Holland America brings experts onboard. This cruise we have instructors in tai chi, watercolor, bridge, and arts and crafts. The schedule also includes sea day informal gatherings: sit and knit (or crochet, cross-stitch, quilt, etc.), Bible study, mahjong, etc.


Starting at 7 a.m. with morning stretch, sea days include a number of free workout and exercise classes, such as abs class, sit and be fit, aqua aerobics, stretch and release, walk-a-mile and a popular afternoon dance class. If you want more, you can take yoga and spinning at $12 a session.


Due to its promotional partnerships with Microsoft and America’s Test Kitchen, Holland America features computer classes and cooking demonstrations on every cruise – not just grand voyages. Microsoft techies and ATK chefs lead the sessions,


The twice-daily team trivia contests can be the most competitive 30 minutes of the day. The cruise staff also hosts daily coffee chats with various guest entertainers and staff members. The EXC (excursion) staff holds talks on each port to cover history, geography and options for tours and exploring on your own. The casino staff schedules poker tournaments, slot competitions and complementary gaming lessons. Members of the spa staff give talks about rejuvenation, acupuncture and other services they offer. If you like jewelry or designer accessories, you can attend short talks led by the staff of the shops on board.


Some of the most popular activities are the guest lectures. Right now we have two guest speakers on board. Dan Benedict talks about astronomy and Michael Hicks talks about the Pacific Ocean and the countries we are visiting, mostly from a geopolitical perspective.


At 3, 6 and 9 p.m., you can watch the daily movie in the theater. They aren’t the latest releases, but movies that were released within the last year or so. On our first day at sea, the show was Adrift, about a couple lost at sea during a hurricane. Some passengers thought it wasn’t a good way to start out. Other recent examples include Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, Ocean’s 8 and The Bookshop. These movies are repeated the following day on the in-cabin TV channel. Or you can check out any of a few hundred DVDs to watch in your cabin.


One of my favorite sea day activities is late-afternoon happy hour in the Crow’s Nest. It’s a fun time to chat with fellow passengers and watch the ocean pass by.


Of course, you can do your own thing, which for many means reading, napping and relaxing by the pool. The large library is full of passengers by mid morning. Some are reading, others are using the computers or working on the large jigsaw puzzles. And, truth be told, a few are dozing off. I haven’t read my e-books or kept up with the daily New York Times crossword. I haven’t touched projects I brought along, such as my intention to clean out email, which I thought would be easy to tackle during these early sea days.


That being said, of course I occasionally find myself bored with the options before me. That’s when I remind myself that I get bored sometimes at home, too. I can report that I prefer to be bored on the high seas.



Since leaving Dutch Harbor, our Internet service via satellite has worsened to the point that I’m only able to sometimes check email and never get to the web. So you may notice that my blog posts are delayed or several are showing up at one time. I hope the situation will improve by the time we get to Japan.






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Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?


Day 10, Grand Asia 2018

Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, At Sea:


I went to bed Monday night and woke up on Wednesday. No, I wasn’t exhausted from being pampered by the wonderful Holland America staff. We crossed the International Date Line during the night. (I may have written about this same observation last year, but I am not going to look it up so I don’t have to rewrite my lede if my suspicion is true.)


As I learned last year, the time changes on a Grand Asia cruise can be a bit jarring. When they come night after night, it’s almost like experiencing jet lag.


Dutch Harbor, far west in the Aleutian Island chain, remains on the same time as the rest of Alaska, far to the east. In fact, the International Date Line jogs west in the North Pacific just to keep all of Alaska on the same day as the rest of the United States. So we are a bit “behind” in changing time zones. It is dark well into the morning.


We also are relatively far north, where the time zones are close together. So we are gaining an hour every night this week. If we were at the equator, these time changes would be about three days apart.


All of Japan is in one time zone, so during our week there I should adjust and stop waking up an hour earlier every morning. Despite its size, China maintains one time zone for the entire country. Russia has 11.


In Australia, there are five time zones, but only three daylight savings time zones, as some states and territories do not use DST. So on our trip, Cairns, in Queensland, is one time and Sydney in New South Wales, directly south of Queensland, is an hour off. The Northern Territory is 30 minutes behind the states to their east. There actually are a few other areas around the world that are 30 minutes ahead or behind instead of the more typical hour.


As we travel through Southeast Asia, we may be setting our clocks ahead one night and back the next we change countries.


Last year I tried to keep track of the time difference from each location and my family in Dallas. It was made even harder by the end of Daylight Savings Time at home and its end or beginning along our journey, depending on whether we were in the North or South Hemisphere. Now I am hoping my Apple watch will do the calculations for me.


By crossing the International Date Line, we now are ahead – time wise – of the United States. I’ll try to let you know if anything interesting happens in the future! All I can say so far is that our Internet service is getting slower.




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Volcanic Russia


Day 11, Grand Asia 2018

Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Russia:


If Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are perfect pictures of snowy mountains and rugged coastlines, Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula is similarly beautiful. Perhaps their breath-taking beauty is no surprise. Both are along the edges of tectonic plates of the earth, the northern edges of the Ring of Fire that surrounds the Pacific Ocean.


Kamchatka is home of much of Russia’s submarine fleet, but if any were nearby they stayed well below the surface.


The Kamchatka Peninsula also is home to 29 active volcanoes. Several ring the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, including the towering Koryaksky, Avachinsky and Kozelsky peaks. We had a stunning view of these from Trinity Cathedral, a recently built white church on a hill with bright blue roofs and gold dome accents. I tried to quickly sketch them during our too-short stop.


After days at sea with clouds and rain, we were blessed with a sunny, crisp fall day, making the gold domes glisten and the snow-capped volcanoes stand out against a cloudless blue sky. Standing by itself across Avacha Bay, the Mutnovsky volcano was magnificent.


Almost all the Holland America tours include several city highlights. In addition to the cathedral, they stopped in the center of town, at a market and at a scenic overlook. I don’t remember much of the basic Russian I studied before a trip to Russia, Ukraine and Moldova a decade ago. But I could still recognize and sound out the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet to read the directional signs to major cities, such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Paris and Tokyo.


What differentiated the various tours was which museum each visited. Choices include military, Soviet history, cultural and – for me – the Vulkanarium, or volcano museum. Our guide Sergio was eager to explain the physics and life cycles of volcanoes. At the same time, I thought he spoke as a romantic poet about the beauty of volcanoes and their relationship with the people of the Kamchatka Peninsula.


This was a new port for me, as it wasn’t on our itinerary last year. Originally we were slated to anchor and tender to shore, but we lucked out and instead docked at the cruise pier. It took a while for a number of Russian officials to clear the ship – I spied them enjoying a nice breakfast on board while we waited.


Russian law requires most visitors, including Americans, Canadians and Australians, to have visas. However if you are part of a tour organized before you arrive, (whether by Holland American or private) your visa is part of your tour purchase. Many who have cruised the Baltic Sea to Saint Petersburg are familiar with this rule. So we could not exit the ship until our tour commenced. Mine was scheduled for 2 p.m., leaving me several hours to sketch the area around our pier from my balcony. It was the first day with weather nice enough to sit out for a while.


Our planned 6 p.m. departure was delayed by two hours, so we left Avacha Bay as we had arrived – in the dark. That meant we missed seeing Три Брата, the rocks called Three Brothers that protect the bay entrance from tsunamis. Earlier we had painted them in our watercolor class.



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Kushiro Welcomes Us Back to Japan


Day 14, Grand Asia 2018

Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, Kushiro, Japan:


For the second year in a row, the fog escorted us into Kushiro. It isn’t known as “the town of mist” for no reason. As we neared the port, a fog bank hung just off the balcony. From the other side of the ship, the sunrise was spectacular through layers of clouds and fog.


Once we docked, the fog disappeared and we had a mostly sunny day in the 50s for our first Japanese stop.


Kushiro is on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It has hosted Olympics and is known for its beauty and fishing.


Japanese immigration is thorough. We are called by assigned group to the Explorer’s Lounge, where there are nine stations staffed by Japanese officials. They review your embarkation and debarkation forms, check your passport and take fingerprints and a digital picture.


Joyce and I explored town on our own, just as we did last year. We met on a cruise in 2011, and it is nice to visit ports with someone you know. We each remembered different things about Kurshiro, but the highlight again this year was the Washo fish market about a 15-minute walk from the ship.


The market is full of booths, most with fish but others with candy, small toys, chocolates and other packaged foodstuffs that were a mystery to us. There is little if any English labeling.


For “katte-don,” the iconic dish at the Washo market, you start at a booth that sells rice, choosing one of five sizes. Then you go to the sashimi booths and pick your fish. I went with the familiar ahi and yellowfin tuna, shrimp, mackerel and crab. Each tray is marked with the price in yen. (The quick and dirty currency conversion is to move the decimal two numbers to the left for the U.S. equivalent – it’s close enough.) I had lots of Japanese coins left from last year, and the vendors were patient as I counted out my 1080 yen for the lunch.


We saw lots of “ship people,” as we call our fellow passengers, wandering through the market but seldom eating. I’m sure some are just waiting to eat back on the ship. Others say they aren’t adventurous. I knew I survived last year’s katte-don lunch so assume I will again this year.


As we walked the major streets of this small city, we were struck by the nearly constant voices coming from loudspeakers along the way. We later learned they were warnings to cross the roads safely. That seemed excessively cautious to us, but it was Sunday morning so the streets were pretty deserted.


There are helpful instructions everywhere. The sidewalks have rows of yellow raised lines with dot patterns anywhere the lines make a turn – we assume this is for the blind. The changing of crosswalk lights is accompanied by the chirping of different birds. Loudspeaker warning voices – alternating male and female – are constant on busy streets, broken occasionally by the sound of children singing. Our impression was that it is a noisy city on a quiet Sunday morning.


It also is a beautiful city. They have placed scenic pictures on the backs of the overhead directional signs, for example.


We managed to find the cosmetics shop where Joyce wanted to replace the eyeliner she bought there last year, and it was one of the few shops open on Sunday. We briefly browsed a second-hand bookstore, but didn’t see much in English other than some familiar LP albums.


The friendly Japanese people welcomed us to every port last year, and this year is starting out the same. Near the pier are two buildings called the MOO and the EGG. The MOO is full of fish and souvenir kiosks. The EGG is an enclosed atrium where Japanese volunteers offer to dress us in traditional clothes and teach us various crafts. We wrote our names in Japanese calligraphy and made folded paper cranes.


There are crane motifs everywhere in Kushiro, because it is one of the few places where the rare tancho (Japanese) crane makes its home in the marshes. Several ship tours went to the crane preserve, or you could take a bus from the train station. I sketched some of the crane motifs found on the city’s light posts and manhole covers.


I spent my last hour ashore at the visitor’s center near the dock, where the WiFi was free and fast. The ship’s WiFi is barely working – I can get email and texts, but no images and can’t load any websites. My blog posts were stacking up, so I used the service ashore to post a couple and to load a lot of pictures to the blog site for future posting. There was a rumor someone was coming aboard in Kushiro to fix the WiFi, but we haven’t had any communications from the ship staff about the problem or potential solution. Maybe in Yokohama.


A lively crowd marked our Kushiro sail away during happy hour in the Crow’s Nest, and the band played Anchors Aweigh as we cast off our lines. We have a sea day tomorrow and then five straight days in Japanese ports.




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Seeing the Real Yokohama While Sketching


Day 16, Grand Asia 2018

Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, Yokohama, Japan:


I had debated about whether to take a tour to Tokyo today. My strongest memories of last year’s visit there are of rain. I felt like somehow I had missed seeing the Tokyo I expected to see. But the ship’s all-day tour was $200, and it seemed scheduled to spend a lot of time just driving by places and then shopping.


So instead, I explored a small part of Yokohama on my own, and it turned out to be a wonderful day.


The passenger ship terminal is conveniently located near parks, shopping and the world’s biggest Chinatown outside of China. After getting a map and directions from the friendly visitor’s information booth in the terminal, I walked a little more than half a mile to a park alongside the bay.


I found a bench and sat down to sketch a memorial to the Indians lost in an earthquake, with the Diamond Princess cruise ship behind it. The Princess ship was doing a turnaround, disembarking nearly 3,000 passengers and taking on that many more. It dwarfed out ship, the MS Amsterdam. It also made a pretty scene for my sketch, which will look better when I have time to add watercolor.


I wandered around the park and then headed a few blocks to Chinatown. The narrow street I chose to enter along was lined with restaurants. A couple of blocks later I came upon dozens of shops. It reminded me of Chinatowns in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, just much bigger and without seemingly anyone who spoke English. I finally sat down for a snack – not Chinese, but a pumpkin gateau for the season with a hot chocolate. Yes, the Japanese celebrate Halloween.


After seeing manhole covers in Kushiro decorated with cranes, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the Yokohama covers – with maps of that area of the city. I guess if you are lost, they come in handy.


Beyond Chinatown is Yokohama Stadium. They love their baseball here. It is being renovated and is encircled with blue tarp. But along one side is a wonderful park. Pedestrians cut through on their way to the metro, but I found a quiet corner with a Peace Lantern in a pond. I sat to sketch it. Despite being in the middle of a city with more than 3 million people, I only heard the occasion sweep of the gardener tending the park.


When I decided to repeat this Grand Asia voyage, I told myself I would leave behind the professional camera equipment and concentrate on my sketching. Today showed me how right that decision was. Travel is so much more than checking off tourist sites. While sketching, I noticed the squirrels, the fat black cat living in the park, and the many Japanese with their dogs in strollers.


I also ran into two people I know! Connie, a friend who also is repeating this Grand Voyage, found me sketching in the first park. And I ran into Joyce on the city street while a few blocks from the ship. Not too coincidental, I know, but serendipitous nonetheless.


Before my adventure in Yokohama, I spent a couple of hours in the terminal taking advantage of the fast free WiFi. After having virtually no connection for the past few days, I had a lot to catch up on – email, Facebook and my blog.


The day ended with a gal’s dinner, with Joyce, Rosemary and Melissa at the table. The rest of the dining room was quiet. I was exhausted and in bed before 9 p.m. It was one of the best days.



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Giant Buddha, Shrine and Shopping in Kamakura


Day 17, Grand Asia 2018

Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, Yokohama, Japan:


I liked the nearby town of Kamakura so much last year that I signed up for a tour to go back. It’s a nice alternative to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and is less than an hour from Yokohama. Kamakura is one of the ancient Japanese capitals. It is known for the Giant Buddha at the Koutokuin Temple and the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. And for Komachi Street shopping.


This year I didn’t board the ship with plans for every port. I knew I could navigate some one my own. Because I booked late, many of the private tours organized over the CruiseCritic.com roll call website were full.


I was a bit disappointed I didn’t have a plan to redo Tokyo this year, after visiting in the rain last year. But my day yesterday in Yokohama was most enjoyable, and the ship’s Tokyo tours were long and somewhat repetitive of my last visit. So I decided to take a 5-hour ship’s tour to Kamakura.


It was a good destination for sketching, as I had already visited the major sites. I sketched the giant Buddha fairly quickly and was pleased with the result. The area was full of Japanese schoolchildren on field days. And one of their assignments was to interview people using English. I guess my friendly face made me a good target.


They all wanted to know where I was from. I told the first boy interviewer I was from Dallas, Texas. He wasn’t familiar with either, but hopefully suggested “America?” Sure, I said. They also all asked what my favorite thing about America was. I tried to come up with different answers for each kid: The Grand Canyon. New York City, shopping. What is my favorite Japanese food? Sushi and sashimi.


The students spoke English well, and at the end of the interview presented me with a thank-you gift of intricately folded paper. I asked for a photo with them in return.


We had two hours at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine and the nearby Komachi Street. I didn’t climb the 60 steps to the shrine again this year, but took the opportunity to explore the grounds and sketch. Japanese families bring their children to the shrine at ages 3, 5 and 7 – dressed in traditional finery.


Then I went off to shop. It was fun to wander down the street, but there really wasn’t anything I needed or wanted. I perused the beautiful Japanese umbrellas, but after buying three of them last year, I moved along. I had thought I would sit and have a Kamakura beer, but didn’t find a good place. The street was crowded with school children (all buying ice cream) and young tourists who rented kimonos to wear for the day.


Once again the Welcome Home banner was out as I returned. It started sprinkling just as we were about to leave Yokohama. That didn’t deter the crowd that gathered at the terminal to see us sail away. I missed the send-off, as my travel agency host had invited to dinner at Canaletto, the specialty Italian restaurant on board. Fellow passenger Joyce got a great photo of the Yokohama skyline as we were leaving.



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Shimizu: The Friendliest Japanese City


Day 18, Grand Asia 2018

Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, Shimizu, Japan:


I’ll start at the end. Leaving Shimizu was our best sail away ever. A large crowd gathered on the pier and for at least 15 minutes elementary-school children entertained us with song and dance. It was a like halftime celebration at a football game. They had learned multiple songs with intricate marching and dancing routines. But their enthusiasm peaked with a rousing performance of YMCA, complete with arm motions resembling the letters. We all joined in from the outside decks.


The kids were surrounded by people in a festive mood. A blue mascot for the city. A woman holding a large dog wearing a witch hat. A group of senior citizens in wheelchairs. A crowd standing behind a banner saying “See You Again in Shimizu.” And as the ship pulled away from the pier, fireworks.


I remember a similar but smaller send-off from Shimizu last year, when it was raining. Shimizu reinforces our impressions that the Japanese are some of the friendliest people we see along our travels. While I was walking a few blocks from the ship terminal, a man on a bicycle stopped to ask me if we could chat so he could practice his English, which was very good. After about 10 minutes, he left me with a beautiful sash of fabric.


When we left the ship, a large group of Japanese volunteers helped us with directions. Crossing guards were ready to stop the non-existent traffic when we crossed the streets.


Joyce and I walked to the Baiinji Temple, and as we neared it, volunteers appeared to make sure we didn’t miss the turn through a narrow passageway to find it. I sat to sketch. It was hard to decide just what to include – everything is interesting. We toured the home of an early Shimizu resident, Jirocho, who helped develop this port town near the larger city of Shizuoka. We found interesting soccer art in a wall.


Earlier in the morning, I left the ship to sketch the town’s Ferris wheel with the ship in the background. I knew the small mall next door wouldn’t open early (last year we stood waiting for 20 minutes to go inside). It was a nice quiet morning along the marina walkway, which I appreciated after a few days in busy Yokohama. It doesn’t take me long to lose myself while I am sketching. I wear my bag across my shoulder because otherwise someone could take it from my side without any awareness on my part.


The city provided a shuttle bus to take us to a nearby train station, but most people who weren’t on a tour just explored the marina area. Shimizu is best known for its close views of Mount Fuji, but while the sun did come out, there were still heavy clouds on the horizon and we didn’t catch a glimpse of the mountain. I guess I will just have to return and hope for better luck next time.


Our mid-afternoon departure left us time to clean up for a gala dinner – this one a Japanese theme. We were invited to wear our kimonos, which of course I don’t have. Instead I wore the Chinese jacket I bought in Chicago’s Chinatown a year ago. I will wear it again for the upcoming Chinese gala night. The dining room staff wore Japanese attire, but as usual I got away without getting good photos at the table.



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When in Kobe, eat Kobe steak


Day 19, Grand Asia 2018

Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, Kobe, Japan:


There was a time when I wouldn’t eat a meal ashore while on a cruise. After all, I had “paid” for my meals on the ship, and they generally are very good.


Today I not only ate ashore, but I also spent almost $100 on the meal. It was worth every yen.


We docked in Kobe, which is just west of Osaka, where we stopped last year. The city is best known for its 1995 earthquake, which killed 6,000 and damaged much of the port city’s infrastructure. It’s also known for Kobe beef, and that is what eight of us had for lunch. A fellow passenger researched the best places to eat on Trip Advisor and chose Steak Aoyama on Tor Road. The tiny restaurant only has one large grill-top table, so we had the undivided attention of the Chef Shuhey and his family.


We puzzled over the size of a 150-gram steak, and decided to go for it. First we had a salad with tastes of tuna, salmon and roasted chicken and a wonderful cream soup. After Shuhey cooked the accompanying mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, tofu and peppers on the immaculate grill, he started on the two-plus pound steak.


He briefly grilled one side and then started breaking it down into smaller pieces – first eight slices, then splitting each slice further and further until he had bite-sized pieces. As he suggested, we ate it with dried garlic slices.


It did indeed just about melt in our mouths. And the Japanese beer I had was perfect for washing it down. Having lived in Kansas City and Dallas for much of my life, I know a good steak. This was one of the best.


After lunch I noticed a Tokyu Hands a few blocks away. This Japanese chain store carries a variety of crafts, gift items, toiletries, etc. I had wanted to visit one since last year but never found a convenient location. This store was built on about six stories, each with sections a few steps up or down. I found an English store map and headed for 5C – the art supply floor. I didn’t really need any art supplies, but that didn’t stop me from spending a happy hour browsing. I bought a couple of paint palettes – one in pearlized silver, pewter and gold and another with a variety of blacks – yellowish, blueish, greenish, etc. I’m not sure if the latter is watercolor paint or calligraphy ink, but it will be fun to play with.


Earlier, the release of colorful balloons marked our 9 a.m. arrival in Kobe. The terminal had a convenient train station, but we took the provided shuttle to the middle of a shopping district, anchored by a large department store much like a Nordstrom or fancy Macy’s.


I walked about 10 minutes to Meriken Park to visit the Kobe Maritime Museum. Frankly, it was a disappointment. A replica of a wooden boat was the only thing visitors are allowed to photograph. Otherwise, the museum was full of models of ship – mostly 20th Century ships. I even saw the Titanic, which as far as I know had no connection with Kobe. I generally find maritime museums are a good way to learn about the history of a port city, but not this one. Oh well, it only cost about $5 to enter, and it’s sweeping design made for a good sketching subject.


Nearby was the Earthquake Memorial Park, which preserves part of the severely damaged waterfront. Groups of touring school classes ate lunch all over the grassy areas of the plaza, using their chopsticks to eat from little bento boxes. A Frank Geary-designed fish sculpture adorned a restaurant. I admit to stopping in the Starbucks to use the strong WiFi to make a couple of calls back home.


After my big lunch, I just had a light bite in the Lido for dinner as we sailed away. We have two more Japanese ports before our next sea day, so I’m committed to catching up on my blog before bedtime.



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(The photographs are included at www.writerondeck.com)


Papermaking Tour in Japanese Countryside


Day 20, Grand Asia 2018

Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, Kochi, Japan:


The Japanese coast is dotted with port cities of various sizes. This island nation of mountainous terrain is most easily traversed by water, especially for commercial shipping. A few cities are well known to Americans -- Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki and Hiroshima come to mind.


The beauty of this cruise (and last year’s) is that we are visiting many smaller Japanese ports. By smaller, I don’t mean small. Many are cities of considerable size. Our ship usually docks in a commercial shipping port area, and the cities provide shuttle buses to a convenient location in town. That can make it easy to see a bit of the city. But it doesn’t get you into the surrounding countryside. That’s where tours can expand your view.


On my ship’s tour today, I got a view through the bus window of the city, the suburbs, smaller villages and the countryside. I‘ve found it frequently doesn’t matter the destination of the tour, as long as it gets out of town and shows me the area.


Our destination was Tosa Washi, where they have been making paper for more than 1,000 years. During our ride there, our guide described the process of gathering pulp from behind the bark of bushes to make the paper. Once at the site, we each got to get our hands in the pulpy water, filling a wooden frame with a screen backing and then shaking it while the water slowly dripped out. When we removed the frame, we had eight postcard-sized cellulous rectangles still very wet but holding their shape.


The pages went into a pneumatic press to expel more water out and then to a back room for further drying. We went back on the bus and continued the tour, returning to the papermaking facility a couple of hours later to get the postcards we made.


The paper is surprisingly strong – we saw a beautiful wedding dress made of paper. I had fun participating in the process, knowing how much my mother would have enjoyed it. She founded a company manufacturing paper quilling paper, books, kits and supplies that grew to be the largest in the relatively small world of the craft.


Once we had left Kochi, our bus followed the Niyodo River, the other feature of the tour. Typical Japanese rivers are small and frequent, starting high in the mountainous terrain. This one is known for its clear water, which makes it look blue when the sky is cloudless as it was today. It meanders through a fairly wide valley, but when typhoons come, the river expands to both shores.


That’s why many bridges are submersible, as our guide described them. Back home we would call them low-water bridges, although they are a few feet above the typical water level. Building them low allows the limbs and other debris of raging floodwaters to pass over rather than become entangled in the bridge structure.


Initially our guide said we would not go out on the bridge because it was too windy and the bridge was narrow without side rails. By the time we arrived, there was little wind. I estimate the bridge was at least eight feet wide. So we all headed out.


Do you remember the recent viral video of the weather channel reporter fighting against the hurricane winds when two young men walked calmly through the background? Our tour guide reminded me of that reporter.


She leaned against the breeze, warning us that she couldn’t swim to rescue us if we fell. (I think after three weeks eating on a cruise ship, it would have taken a mighty wind to blow any of us off.) Needless to say, we all survived the experience.


We stopped for Kochi Ice, a cross between ice cream and sherbet, and watched two kayakers on the river. We also visited a Shinto shrine (must be a requirement of Japanese tours), where the shinshoku (priest) was blessing a new car. The surrounding fence sported funny masks.


At our shrine visits I have learned the purification ritual. You take a long-handled ladle of water in your right hand, spill some over your left hand, then switch hands and repeat. You can pour a little water in a cupped hand and rinse your mouth if you want. Then you hold the ladle vertically to allow the remaining water to rinse the handle.


At the shrine, you can ring the bell, make a small donation and then deeply bow twice, slowly clap and then bow once more. If there is a statue of the shrine’s deity, you can rub different areas for different blessings. The shrine we visited on this tour had a prosperity deity.


On a hill overlooking the city of Kochi is the Kochi Castle. We drove along the moat, or honmaru, as we returned to the ship. Many passengers who took the shuttle to town climbed to the castle (and commented on the ordeal later at dinner).


As we sailed away from Kochi, we had our most professional send-off yet. Dancers entertained us with traditional moves and music.


We have one more port before leaving Japan for China, although we will return to Japan before moving on to Hong Kong and Vietnam. This is our longest stretch of port days in a row – six – and I think everyone is looking forward to a couple of sea days to recover. I know I haven’t had any trouble getting in my 10,000 daily steps.



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