Notes from the Far East: Part 2
This is the second in a series of three blog posts. Read the first one, about our three days in Beijing, here.
Leaving China and Beijing behind, our cruise began with a day at sea, as we crossed the Yellow Sea, eastwards, past South Korea, towards Japan. Our first day on board, it was a welcome opportunity to explore the ship.
Quantum of the Seas
Cruise ship interior design is a divisive subject. Done well, ships can feel like really smart five star hotels. Done poorly, they can feel like gaudy American casinos. Our home for the next 12 days—the Royal Caribbean Quantum of the Seas—sits somewhere in the middle. Not the best ship I’ve ever been on, but certainly not the worst.
For the uninitiated, cruise ships of this size (5000 passengers at full occupancy) are effectively floating hotel resorts. As well as the pools and leisure facilities on the top decks, the Quantum has five main dining rooms, seven lounges, bars and cafés (including a ridiculous Disneyland-like recreation of an English pub), a 24-hour buffet, and half a dozen “signature” restaurants, which incur a small extra charge. It also has a 1400 seat theatre with broadway-style performances every night, plus a high-tech lounge/bar at the back of the ship with huge screens on fancy robotic arms. More on that in a future blog post.
People who haven’t been on a big ship like this often assume it’ll be crowded – but in reality, it’s just like a fairly busy hotel, with people milling around, shopping, chilling with a coffee, whatever. Only when it comes to pinch points—like disembarking for tours in the morning, or finding a seat in the theatre when you’re late for a show—do you notice how many fellow passengers there really are.
That said, after the immigration debacle which saw roughly a third of our fellow passengers denied entry into China (and forced to either make their own way to Japan so they could board the ship at its first stop in Fukuoka, or just pack it in and return home to Europe), the ship was oddly quiet for this first day at sea.
We decided to book the Wonderland restaurant for the evening of this first day at sea, because my parents had enjoyed the same venue on another ship before, and it was a good opportunity to celebrate my Dad’s birthday a few days earlier.
The meal starts with a “magical” invisible menu that must be revealed by painting water onto a canvas. It’s a nice touch.
Dishes are grouped into vaguely ‘elemental’ themes like Sun (“radiant vegetables playfully reinvented”) and Earth (“Dishes grounded in whimsy”). They’re going for some sort of combination of alchemy and Mad Hatters Tea Party.
The Heston-Blumenthal-esque tongue-in-cheek postmodern fare is a bit trite at this point, but they know how to dress it up to make for a memorable evening, and the service—as is the case everywhere on the ship—is never anything short of exceptional.
Our tour guide for the afternoon was the inimitable Michiko, who, we can only assume, must have been a schoolteacher in her earlier career, as she spent every spare moment on the bus telling us about her life in the city, with the assistance of beautifully low-fi cardboard signs and print-outs…
Teaching us how to talk and count in Japanese…
And handing out sweets and home-made souvenirs…
She was an absolute star.
Our first stop was Fukuoka’s Ōhori Park – a classic example of a Japanese strolling garden, built reusing the moat (“Ōhori” meaning “large moat”) from the 17th Century Fukuoka Castle, right in the centre of the city.
It’s a beautifully well-kept park, with a calming lake-side promenade, a meandering rocky stream, a dry landscape (“zen”) garden, and a little hidden teahouse.
The sand and stones in the zen garden represent water, waterfalls, and rocks.
Artificial hills surround the park, cutting off noise from the city outside. It’s apparently very popular with local families looking for exercise or a day out, and workers from the city spending their lunchbreak somewhere serene.
After the park, we headed across town to the Kushida Shrine, a public Shinto shrine or “jinja” dating back to 757 AD.
Shinto is Japan’s most prevalent religion, and Michiko explained to us that it’s centred around a belief in “kami” (spirits) and the pursuit of harmony with the natural world. As an outsider, it feels like Shinto shares a lot with Buddhism, and indeed, we were told many Japanese people celebrate parts of both religions.
Before you enter the shrine, you’re meant to perform a Shinto ritual of purification. You use the ladle to wash your left hand, then your right, then pour a handful from a hand into your mouth and spit it out, and then finally fill the ladle and tip it vertically to wash the handle.
There’s a bull near the entrance, which you’re meant to rub in the spot of any pain you have, to heal it.
The shrine is a popular place for couples to get married – like our tour guide, Michiko!
They also hold a festival at this shrine every July. Michiko told us participants wear happi coats with two crests on the back – one is the symbol for fighting, the other is a stylised cucumber slice. It’s like lent, with people forgoing food and drink for 3 days.
There are beautiful lanterns, incense burners, and drums all around the shrine. Michiko gave out coins for us to spend in the vending machine for O-kimuji, or “written oracles”. Nearby, there’s a fence with unwanted oracle strips tied to it – the idea being that, if the strip predicted bad luck, you leave it behind at the shrine, so it doesn’t follow you home.
On a street round the corner, there’s a small folk museum, featuring a recreation of a 19th Century textile merchant’s house, or “machiya”. While I was standing there taking photos, a lady turned up and silently started using the jacquard loom beside me!
With our day in Fukuoka nearly at an end, Michiko whisked us off to the waterfront, to visit Fukuoka Tower.
The tower has an unusual triangular cross-section, and as you go up the glass elevator, you get a fascinating view into the steel latticework, with mirrors positioned so you can see out as you rise.
At 234 metres, this is the tallest seaside tower in Japan, and the viewing platform at 123 metres up gives impressive 360-degree views of the city and coastline.
A lovely place to end our day in Japan, as the sun started to set!
After the frosty reception in China, Japan was a real breath of fresh air, and a single day here was clearly never going to be enough. I’d love to spend more time in Japan sometime in the future. The people were so friendly and professional, the streets so clean and tidy. And the cuteness – oh my God the cuteness. Everything in Japan is cute. Construction barriers, toilet rolls, water bottles. Everything has a mascot. It’s adorable.
Fast forward two days and, after another relaxing day at sea, we’d pulled up at Keelung in Taiwan, the port for the capital, Taipei.
Officially the “Republic of China” (not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China across the water), Taiwan has a history stretching back over 6000 years.
After spending 200 years as part of Qing Dynasty China, the island was ceded to Japanese control in 1895. When Japan lost the second world war, Taiwan again became part of China—at that point the Republic of China—until Chairman Mao’s communist party took control of the mainland, leaving Taiwan as, effectively, the last vestige of the republic.
A sort of cold war has continued to this day, with the PRC claiming ownership over Taiwan and refusing to recognise the legitimacy of Taiwan’s democratic government, while the Taiwanese authorities toe a fine line between full PRC incorporation and full independence. Having ourselves been exposed to some of the PRC’s hospitality at Beijing airport exactly a week prior, and having seen the protests sparked by PRC legislative overreach in Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the people of Taiwan during our stay.
If there’s one silver lining, though, it’s that this political history has left Taiwan with a strong sense of national and cultural pride. This rich legacy, combined with their outward looking approach, makes Taiwan a fascinating place to visit.
We started our tour with a visit to the Martyr’s Shrine, a monument to the country’s war dead. The shrine, built in 1969, is designed in a style reminiscent of the Forbidden City we’d seen in Beijing, with ornamented pillars and friezes, and golden tiled roofs. Every hour, a group of perfectly polished soldiers marches across the plaza, to perform the changing of the guard.
Before we knew it, it was midday and time for lunch. So, on to the next stop – Taipei’s spectacular Grand Hotel.
Built in the 1970s, it is one of the tallest examples of traditional Chinese architecture in the world, and was for many years the only five star hotel in Taiwan, making it a popular choice for dignitaries and foreign ambassadors.
Arriving on a boiling hot day, I’ll always remember the feeling of stepping through those gigantic front doors, into the hushed ice cool of a sophisticated international hotel lobby. It’s like something out of a movie. The interior mixes international style with traditional Chinese decorative elements. It’s very luxurious.
Carved four-fingered dragons sprawl across the lobby ceiling, above a gigantic arrangement of lilies. “Only the emperor is allowed five-fingered dragons,” our tour guide reminds us. We roll our eyes, having had quite enough of this “only the emperor” talk back in mainland China the weekend before. There are apparently 220,000 dragons throughout the hotel.
As you’d expect of a five star hotel, the food was both visually and gastronomically gorgeous.
With our tummies satisfied, it was time to continue the afternoon’s tour with a visit to the National Palace Museum. The museum is home to over 700,000 items, brought over when the last Ming loyalists fled mainland China. Around 25,000 items are displayed at any one time, with the rest being stored in the cave system behind the museum.
The Jade Cabbage is the most popular item in the museum. It was hard to properly work out why this cabbage inspires such fascination, but apparently it has something to do with the green and white jade – green is pronounced “ching”, white is “bai”, and “ching ching bai bai” means virginity, or purity, tied up with ideas of fertility. It is, no doubt, skilfully crafted.
Jade also appears in the oldest item in the museum (an unassuming white jade necklace from the neolithic period) and the apparently famous Green Jade Screen (which was gifted to the Emperor of Japan and returned to Taiwan after the second world war).
It just goes on and on. The oldest tea cups in China (or not in China, depending on your perspective) – yours for only $36 million per cup. Clever revolving vases with fish that go round when you turn the top.
Buddhas, pearls, micro-carved ivory balls, a 100-piece nesting set of wooden cups, and a statue to the God of exams (!!) made out of red coral and green jade.
I liked these curio boxes for the emperor to keep his things in. Every item has its own uniquely sized niche or drawer and the three layers stack into an ornate red enamel carrying case. The drawers open in different directions – “making it fun to search for things” our guide said. Imagine being so rich and powerful that opening and closing drawers is the only way you can bring joy into your life.
After the museum, it was time for a quick stop at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. Dedicated to the Republic of China’s leader from 1928 to 1975, the memorial is styled after the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. We arrived just in time to catch the changing of the guard.
Outside, the main Chinese gate is the biggest in Taiwan, 30 metres tall, based on the one in the Forbidden City, and the gardens either side of the main ziggurat-like building are mirror images of each other, referencing the concept of balance that is an important aspect of Confucianism.
I noticed owls in the gift shop. When I said to the guide that I’d seen a lot of owls today, she explained that yes, owls are popular in Taiwan, because they’re a symbol of the God of protection.
Packed up back into the coach, and with the sun starting to set, we just about had time to take in a view of the city’s most famous landmark, Taipei 101, on our drive back through the city.
The skyscraper was designed to look like a bamboo tree, symbolising prosperity and continual growth, with eight segments, because eight is an auspicious number in Chinese culture. It was the tallest building in the world between 2004 and 2009.
When planning the cruise, we’d decided against the tour that actually goes up Taipei 101. Apparently you can spend an entire day queuing to get in. In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t!
Our final China-related stop was also the most worrying. In the preceding days, we’d all watched international news coverage, as civil rights protestors in Hong Kong were met with increasingly violent retaliation by government forces.
Since protests happened mainly at night, our originally planned overnight stay in port had already been cut down to daytime in-and-out. But many of us were worried, if the unrest continued, Royal Caribbean might skip our Hong Kong visit entirely.
As it happens, the visit went ahead, and we saw no sign of the troubles. We carefully tried to approach the topic with our tour guide, Regina, but she was having none of it.
The day’s tour started with a stop at Man Mo temple, on Hong Kong island. The area, Sheung Wan, is one of the oldest in the city, and formed part of the original British settlement (then named “Victoria City”) in the 1840s. Now the temple, a listed monument over 100 years old, is dwarfed by dirty great high-rise buildings on every side.
Like we saw in Taipei, wishes get tied to the tree outside the temple. I loved the bamboo-inspired ceramic pillars in the front fence. Beautiful combination of colours.
Entering over the high step (a common feature in old Hong Kong buildings – needed to keep the water out during storms) you’re hit by a deep, rich cloud of incense. There are spiral incense burners hanging from the ceiling, and incense burning in sand pots everywhere.
The temple is a working religious site for Buddhists and Taoists. Local residents use the site as part of their day-to-day life. As you’d expect, there are rituals – you’re meant to light three sticks of incense, for example, “one for heaven, one for the God, one for the earth,” our guide explained. And if you want good luck, you ring the bell three times, and then hit the drum three times.
It was a beautiful place. A little oasis of calm in the bustling city.
After the temple, we crossed the city, to take the tram up to Victoria Peak.
Opened in 1888, the tram took three years and the equivalent of 300 million Hong Kong Dollars to build. Each carriage seats 120 people. You get some pretty freaky photos when you look out of the windows on the way up!
Apparently, before the tram, the primary means of transport up to the peak was an hour-long sedan chair ride, costing a month’s salary for a typical worker – each way.
Even on a foggy day, the view from the top is pretty spectacular.
The peak is always 2–4 degrees cooler than downtown. Hong Kong residents will book restaurants up on the peak for 8pm, so they can watch the Symphony of Light display on the waterfront below at night.
Speaking of the waterfront, it was time for the next part of our tour – a water taxi ride along Aberdeen Harbour. Now this felt like something out of a movie.
The harbour is home to Hong Kong’s “floating village” which houses a few thousand people, many involved in the city’s fishing trade, on ships of all shapes and sizes, some lashed together, some free floating. Some boats act as restaurants, serving their own seafood specialities, freshly caught that day. Everything is dirty and grimy, wires and recycled ropes form a tangled mess between the ships, while diesel motors and AC units splutter and hum at the water’s edge. You can see why this place inspires so many dieselpunk / cyberpunk tropes.
Getting dad onto the sampan proved somewhat tricky!! These boats definitely weren’t designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind. But with me and a couple of friendly fellow tourists putting our backs into it, we got him where we needed him.
The taxi ride was followed by a dim sum lunch at Jumbo Kingdom – an apparently renowned tourist attraction and floating restaurant in the harbour.
From the outside, the whole thing looks like it’s about to collapse into the sea – chipped paint, broken windows – very much the sort of place you’d expect James Bond to be interrogated, in a meat freezer, by a Chinese mafia boss. Inside, the food was fine, but not a patch on the Taipei Grand two days before.
We finished the day with just enough time to visit Stanley Market. An open air market in typical Hong Kong style, this place used to be known as a source of bargains, but to be honest it’s all a bit crap and touristy now, especially when compared to the markets we’d see later in the week, in Vietnam.
Still, it was a nice way to get another view of the city, before our escape to the air conditioned cool of our cabin for the early evening sail-away!
Part 2 verdict
Over halfway through our cruise now, and it’s been a pretty diverse experience.
Japan was utterly beguiling – I felt like we’d only scratched the surface there, and the little we did see convinced me that it’d be amazing to spend more time in the other Japanese cities like Tokyo, Nara, and Kyoto. I’ve read stories about how oppressive the strict rules and customs of Japan are for foreigners who move there, but when everything looks so goddamn kawaii I wonder whether maybe it’s worth it 😉
On Taipei – I’m not sure there’s a culturally sensitive way to say this, but Taipei felt like an alternate universe vision of China without the authoritarianism. The country may be only 30 years out of a military dictatorship, but Taipei already feels a lot closer to somewhere like Fukuoka or Singapore, than it does to Beijing. The Palace Museum was the kind of place you could easily spend an entire week in, and I would definitely return to sip cocktails in the lobby of the Grand Hotel one day.
Finally Hong Kong. I’m sorry, what a disappointment. The city has a fascinating history, and I would have loved to see more of the contrast between the Kowloon-Walled-City-esque chaos, and the smart business districts. But our tour really didn’t do it justice. I think maybe, too, after years of hearing about Hong Kong as this sort of mythical hybrid between East and West, high technology and cyberpunk grunge, my expectations had been built up too much. It was also an uncomfortable time to visit the city, especially for someone involved, as I am, in democracy and civil rights. In the months that have passed since we returned from our trip, the political situation in Hong Kong has gone from bad to worse, even if the western media has rapidly grown tired of reporting on it. There’s also a touch of shame in the mix for me, since it was British colonialism that got Hong Kong into the mess it’s in today. When are we going to learn to stop fucking up other people’s countries?
On that cheery note – next up in part 3, we experience the rural and the urban in Vietnam, and finish our cruise in the high-tech playground of Singapore.