A Travellerspoint blog

Traversing the Tropic of Cancer

27° 57' 8" North lattitude en route to Nha Trang, Vietnam

Here's our current position as we head to Vietnam.

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Although it's not shown on the above map of the Serenade's current position, we at sailing southward and will cross the Tropic of Cancer before traversing the equator. So what's the Tropic of Cancer, you may ask? The Tropic of Cancer is the most northerly circle of latitude on Earth at which the Sun can be directly overhead, 23° 26′ 10.2″ north of the Equator, and it occurs on the June solstice when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun to its maximum extent.

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The Tropic of Cancer passes through 16 countries on three different continents and six water bodies, including Mexico, the Bahamas, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, India, Myanmar, and China. The latitude got its name from the constellation of Cancer, the crab, as at the time of naming, the sun pointed towards the Cancer constellation during the solstice.

It's two months before June solstice so we won't be directly under the sun today. In fact, there's a strong breeze and it's predicted to be 77°
with possible rain showers. Probably not going poolside today!

Posted by Where2FromHere 22:00 Comments (2)

Some busy "Sea Days" ahead

32.09634 N / 133.84064 E en route to Nha Trang, Vietnam

As you can see from the map below, we've traveled the length of Japan and are now headed South. It will take us four days to reach our next port which is Nha Trang, Vietnam.
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I just finished reading the book, "The Women" by Kristen Hannah. It's a historical fiction that delves into the story of Frances "Frankie" McGrath, an Army nurse who serves in Vietnam. The narrative follows Frankie's journey from her decision to enlist to her experiences in Vietnam, where she faces the harsh realities of war, including mass casualties and the challenges of being a female nurse in a war zone. The novel portrays Frankie's struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and addiction upon returning home to a society that is unforgiving towards Vietnam veterans, especially women. "The Women" is a meticulously researched and well written novel that captivates the reader with its exploration of the sacrifices and dedication of women who risked their lives in war zones. It provides a poignant and immersive exploration of a turbulent era in our history, which I personally experienced as a college student during the war. The book underscores the heroism of women in challenging circumstances, making it a powerful and memorable read.

I've moved on to my next read, "Horse" by Geraldine Brooks, looking forward to immersing myself in it during the upcoming sea days. However, today I'll be occupied with planning our excursions for the African leg of our journey which are being released this afternoon. Alongside that, I'm committed to continuing the "walk a mile" program, having already covered 123,726 steps or 52.72 miles in April. And, of course, I'm diligently pursuing my studies to become an accredited genealogist. Each day at sea is filled with diverse activities, ensuring there's never a dull moment for me. As for Jeff, who knows ? - but I have confidence he'll find some way to amuse himself :)

Posted by Where2FromHere 23:14 Comments (0)

Final stop on our Japan Itinerary

Osaka, Japan


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

So today we make our final stop in Japan, in Osaka, which is home to significant cultural and historical landmarks, including Osaka Castle and numerous Buddhist shrines. Jeff, who said he can now construct a Buddhist Temple in his sleep, would like to know if you are as weary as he is of my blog showcasing shrines ... but, nevertheless, we did save one of the best for last - the Shitennoji Temple, one of Japan's oldest temples.The Shitennoji Temple was founded in 593 by Prince Shotoku, and the complex includes a five-story pagoda, a main golden hall, and a tranquil garden, all reflecting the spiritual and historical significance of the site.

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The Buddhist rituals we observed included lighting candles, burning incense, and bringing newborn infants to the temple which are significant practices in this religion.

Our next stop was the Osaka Castle, built in 1583, which stands as a symbol of Japan's unification during the 16th century. This castle, with its impressive five tiers on the outside and eight stories on the inside, was the largest and most formidable castle in Japan during the samurai era. The castle's strategic design included a large moat, high stone walls, and multiple turrets, making it a challenging fortress to conquer.

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As you can see the castle is in the midst of the city of Osaka, Japan. This was the view from various vantage points on the 8th floor of the castle:

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During our visit to Japan, we were struck by the country's vibrant and diverse culture, which includes a range of recreational activities such as baseball, horse racing, and gambling. Horse racing is a particularly well-established and popular sport in Japan, with a long and rich history dating back to the 19th century. We saw an impressive race track, and were impressed by the scale. However, as we learned in Hong Kong, betting is a significant part of the horse racing industry there as well, and it plays a crucial role in the economy. In fact, a portion of the betting revenue from horse racing, equal to 2 billion, is donated to charitable foundations, and the country as a whole wagers over 20 billion a year on horse racing!

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Baseball thrives in Japan, as evidenced by the vibrant presence of the sport. Dean Vogelaar, a friend of ours, can attest to the Kansas City Royals' engagement with baseball in Japan, highlighted by their memorable 1981 Japan Tour. During our time in Japan, we were impressed not only by the grand stadiums but also by the dedicated players of all ages who tirelessly practiced day and night.

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As I learned when I recently read the book "Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee, Pachinko is a popular form of gambling throughout Japan that resembles pinball, with a rich history and cultural significance, particularly in Osaka. The game involves launching small metal balls into a machine, aiming to direct them into certain pockets to win jackpots and accumulate more balls for further play. Interestingly, the game has its origins in a children's game from the US called the "Corinthian Bagatelle" in the 1920s, but it evolved into a unique form of entertainment in Japan.

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During our travels in Japan, Jeff found two things particularly intriguing:

  • Firstly, he was fascinated by the electronic toll gate arms that were timed perfectly to lift just as our bus passed through, creating a thrilling illusion of narrowly avoiding collision.
  • Secondly, he was captivated by the cleverly concealed incinerator smoke stacks, with one even mistaken for an amusement park tower.

After today, our travels will take us southward once more. We have found our visit to the nation that was once responsible for the bombing of Pearl Harbor to be a fascinating experience, as we have been met with warmth and appreciation during our stay. Japan is a country steeped in history and natural beauty, from the delicate cherry blossoms to the awe-inspiring volcanic mountains, and a deep-rooted culture that values religious practices such as Buddhism and the pursuit of enlightenment. We feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore this nation, learn about its people and their customs, and experience such a warm welcome throughout our journey.

Posted by Where2FromHere 23:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

An Awe-Inspiring Symbol

Mt. Fuji, Japan


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

Today is a chance to immerse ourselves in nature with a vist to one of the most famous sights in Japan. Mount Fuji became a symbol of Japan due to its natural beauty, cultural significance, and religious importance. The mountain's symmetrical shape and snow-capped peak have inspired awe and respect among the Japanese people for centuries. It has been an object of worship in both Shintoism and Buddhism religions. Mount Fuji is an active stratovolcano composed of basalt, a dark-colored, fine-grained igneous rock formed from cooled lava flows. It erupts about every 500 years, the most recent eruption being on December 16, 1707.

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Mount Fuji stands at 12,388 feet tall. It can be seen from from all prefectures (districts) of Japan inclulding cities of Yokohama, Tokyo, and even from space during a space shuttle mission.

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Mount Fuji is an active stratovolcano composed of basalt, a dark-colored, fine-grained igneous rock formed from cooled lava flows. It has a high eruption frequency, with approximately 180 eruptions over the last 5,600 years.The last confirmed eruption of Mount Fuji in reliable records is the "Hoei eruption" in December 1707, which lasted more than half a month and resulted in a considerable amount of volcanic ash falling even in Edo (current Tokyo).

We visited the Mount Fuji World Heritage center on a crystal clear day, affording us majestic views of the country's highest mountain.

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We also visited the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha Shrine, located in the foothills of Mt. Fuji and built in the early 1600s, a period of intense volcanic activity on Mount Fuji. The shrine features a unique, two-story construction built in the Sengen architectural style. There, of course, Jeff found a statue of a mounted archerer, Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate in the late 12th century. The statue commemorates his hunt in 1193, and the shrine tradition tells the story of the origin of Sengen Taisha, which was built to appease the kami of the mountain and to protect the inhabitants from the many eruptions of Mount Fuji at the time.

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After a brief break we left the Shrine and Mt. Fuji and started to make our way back to port and to reboard the Seranade of the Seas, aka home.

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It was about an hour trip back to "home" and along the way we saw vast fields of green tea. ount Fuji, is one of Japan's most prolific tea-producing regions, with 40% of Japan's green tea grown there. The area is known for its fertile soil and clean water, which are rich in minerals due to the volcanic activity of Mount Fuji. There were also cemeteries in the area near Mount Fuji are typically located adjacent to temples, and they are quite different from cemeteries in Western countries. The graves are always cremated, and the grave markers are uniquely shaped, with Buddhist influences. And, as I mentioned in my blog post Tokyo, we couldn't help but notice the gleaming trucks and I thought my brother and nephew would be interested in this road construction job.

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(Proud to have been born into a trucking family, I'm always a dedicated advocate for trucks and impressive transportation infrastructure.) Back at the ship, we had quite a send off from the locals with music, crowds gathered at the shore and fireworks. It was nice to be so welcomed in a foreign country. Oh, and one last photo of Mt. Fuji from our balcony on the ship as we departed ....

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Posted by Where2FromHere 01:09 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

A Day in a City of Contrasts

Toyko, Japan

Tokyo is a unique and dynamic city that offers a diverse range of experiences and opportunities for both residents and visitors. Its contrasts between the old and new, its advanced technology and infrastructure, and its rich cultural heritage make it a fascinating city to explore. Tokyo is a blend of the past and the future, with historic neighborhoods and traditional wooden temples standing alongside modern glass buildings and cutting-edge architecture. Despite having a similar size to New York City, Tokyo is renowned for its cleanliness, with rooftop parks and green spaces scattered throughout the metropolitan area, as well as its impressive infrastructure. My brother Jack, nephew David and son-in-law Steve would appreciate the fact that every truck we saw appeared as though it had just come off the showroom floor, including the garbage trucks. Jeff marveled at how even the frames were immaculate!

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[I think others in the bus were wondering why is this woman taking all these photos of trucks! [ ...and Jack - interestingly, as I'm writing this the band is playing "yellow bird" :) ]

Our initial destination in Tokyo was a visit to the Imperial Palace grounds, encircled by moats, imposing stone walls, and stone bridges. While the palace itself remained concealed from sight, the surroundings, including unique Black Pines, offered a serene oasis amidst the vibrant city.

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We first stopped at the bronze statue of the renowned samarai, celebrated for his unwavering loyalty to Emperor Go-Daigo, which added a touch of historical significance to the area.

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Continuing our exploration of the Imperial Palace grounds, we came across a captivating sight: the Nijūbashi bridges, also known as "double bridges." This name stems from the original bridge being constructed atop another wooden bridge, creating the illusion of two separate structures. The setting, enhanced by the towering stone walls and blossoming trees, was a pleasant surprise on an unexpectedly warm day in the heart of Tokyo.

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On our way to the next stop we moved through the Ginza shopping district where one square meter (about 10 sq. ft.) of property costs 360,000 dollars. Every high-end store you could imagine lined the streets as well as Michelin restaurants and the home of the grand performing art of kabuki.

As we approached the final tour stop, I almost thought Jeff was going to have a panic attack when he saw the crowd - not one square inch of breathing space.

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Considering Tokyo's population of 13 million, it seemed like every single person was at the Sensoji Temple today. It is a colorful Buddhist Temple know for its curative powers of smoke that billows from the bronze urn burning incense. According to legend, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon out of the Sumida River in 628, and despite their efforts to return it to the river, the statue kept coming back to them. They eventually enshrined the statue in a small hut, which marked the beginning of Sensoji Temple. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo's oldest temple.

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There was a brief parade that we enjoyed in front of the temple (this is called being at the right spot at the right time!)

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Throughout the day we caught glimpses of the locals, many dressed in beautiful komonos and even a few wedding couples.

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Tokyo is a must-see destination with a captivating fusion of traditional and contemporary elements, boasting excellent infrastructure such as the renowned bullet train, alongside picturesque parks, thus ensuring an unforgettable visit.

Posted by Where2FromHere 09:59 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

A Journey through the Land of the Rising Sun

Tokyo, Japan


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

Today we visited Kamakura, a coastal city situated just south of Yokohama. Kamakura was once Japan's ancient capital and the seat of the Kamakura shogunate from 1185 to 1333, making it a city with a rich historical background. During our visit, we had the opportunity to explore several historic landmarks, including the bronze Great Buddha, or Daibutsu, which is a national treasure.

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This 13th-century bronze statue of Amida Buddha, initially housed in a huge wooden hall which was washed away in the tsunami of 1498. It is the second largest seated Buddha in the country, weighing 121 tons and is really impresssive.

Kamakura's historical significance and cultural heritage make it a fascinating destination for anyone interested in Japanese history and culture. Our tour proceeded to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, which dates back to 1063. To reach the shrine, there is a long, wide path, lined with trees filled with cherry blossoms, that started at Kamakura's waterfront and extended through the entire city center. The main hall was situated on a terrace at the end of a broad stairway.

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After climbing the stairs to the main hall, we leisurely walked around the shrine's grounds, appreciating the tranquil ponds and serene natural surroundings.

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A few miscellaneous sights that caught our eye were - the cones that were unlike our stark orange traffic cones in the US, the fences of bamboo and the barrels of saki in storage.

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After our return to the ship, we embarked on a second excursion, this time to downtown Tokyo for an evening tour that did not disappoint. We made our way to the iconic Tokyo Tower, which stands at 333 meters tall and is a prominent landmark in central Tokyo. Completed in 1958, it is the world's tallest, self-supported steel tower, symbolizing Japan's post-war resurgence as a major economic power. In the photo below you can see the tower's nighttime illumination that cast a reflection on a distant building.

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As we stood on the observation deck, we marveled at the dazzling lights of Tokyo stretching out below us. Glass panels were strategically placed on the floor in several spots, offering a thrilling view of the distant ground beneath the tower. Among the many photos I took, my favorite was of a young Japanese boy captivated by the view below as he peered through the glass.

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Posted by Where2FromHere 11:02 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Let the Good Times Roll

33.13948 N / 135.80151 E en route to Yokohama (Tokyo), Japan

We're headed north towards Tokyo and it's another "Sea Day" here on the Serenade of the Seas. Tokyo shares the same latitude as Athens, Greece and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We're hoping for some more Spring-like weather upon our arrival tomorrow.

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Meanwhile, this was an exciting day for us at Sea -

  • Gary and Linda are our good friends who we met in December of 2022, when Royal Caribbean invited all the Ultimate World Cruisers to Florida to meet one another and to sail on the Wonder of the Seas for a weekend. Gary gave Jeff some new hatbands for his cowboy hats. They were made in Montana state prison out of horse hair and are quite unique.Today, we celebrated the fact that Gary and Linda achieved Pinnacle status, the highest Loyalty level with Royal Caribbean. One great thing about this world travel experience is connecting with acquaintances, who are almost like family at this point, from all over the globe.

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  • Also, our cabin steward, Leo, from Bali, Indonesia, was nominated for Employee of the Month from "Front of the House." He does a fabulous job and is so well deserving of this honor. Great job Leo! (Can you come home with us to Wyoming when your contract ends to maintain our house? We will certainly miss you when this trip concludes!!)
  • Thanks our accountant, Mandy Brisko, we were about to take care of all of our IRS requirements while traveling in the Pacific Ocean today. We greatly appreciate all that you do for us!
  • We learned recently and our long-time friend, Juergen, who we first met on our New Zealand cruise, will be joining us for the part of our cruise that leaves from Cape Town, Africa. The cruise of Africa was not part of the original plan but when Royal Caribbean made adjustments to the itinerary, to prevent the dangerous voyage in the Red Sea, this portion was opened to friends and family of World Cruisers. And, so we're thrilled that Juergen and his wife Agnes will be onboard with us to share in the African adventure!!
  • And, today, we learned of the exciting excursion opportunities that await us in Segment Three of our World Cruise - Africa! The ones we are considering in addition to the African Safari that has already been arranged include:

-East Turquoise Sailing, Port Louis, Mauritius
-Piton Maifo & Geranium Distallery, Le Port, Reunion Island
-Sibuya Private Game Reserve, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
-Gin Creation and Food Pairing, Mossel Bay, South Africa
-Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
-Foodies on Foot, Cape Town, South Africa
-Kolmanskop: A Dessert MiningTown, Namibia, Africa
-Anlo Ewe Voodoo Experience, Tema, Ghana
... and several other exciting possibilities we'll be sharing with you in the upcoming months ahead.

And, most importantly, Today is Make-A-Wish on the Royal Caribbean fleet. Fortunately, we won the auction for the ship model of the Serenade of the Seas signed by our Captain. We hoped to put Serenade of the Seas at the top of the list of the cruisers who want those who are less fortunate then we to have a wish granted. This is a special opportunity for us to give back and make a difference in the lives of others.

"When a wish comes true, so much more can happen, too.
A heart can open. A spirit can heal. And a child in need of strength can find the will."

Royal Caribbean® is proud to partner with Make-A-Wish® — an incredible organization granting the wishes of children with critical illnesses. Every penny collected across the fleet goes directly to Make-A-Wish. No donation is too small. And when it comes to these deserving children and their families, anyone can turn wishful thinking into steadfast believing.

Please consider adding to our donation at the following link https://secure2.wish.org/site/Donation2;jsessionid=00000000.app20012a?df_id=5485&5485.donation=form1&mfc_pref=T&NONCE_TOKEN=78C69F0FAD6811AB4D8F63DBAAB03C36

Together, we can make the world a better place for those struggling with unimaginable challenges. Thank you for your consideration and joining us in this worthy cause!

Posted by Where2FromHere 07:36 Comments (0)

Volcanic Wonders and Samurai Legacies

Kagoshima, Japan


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

Today we're visiting Kagoshima, the southernmost area of mainland Japan.

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Along with learning about the culture in foreign countries on this trip, Jeff and I are undergoing a geography lesson as well. Both of us commented this morning as we sailed into Japan that we never realized how highly mountainous Japan was. This is due to its location along a number of plate boundaries and within the greater Pacific Ring of Fire, which makes it prone to frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. In fact, our day began with a ferry trip to the most active volcano in the world, Sakurajima. The volcano was formerly an island, but lava flows from the 1914 eruption connected it with the Ōsumi Peninsula, turning it into a peninsula. It was surprising to see that there are residents living here.

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As we trekked along the path encircling the volcano, we were impressed with the remarkable "artistic creations" that resulted from the volcano's numerous eruptions. The landscape was adorned with unique formations, each bearing the distinct imprint of molten lava that had cooled and solidified over time. Additionally, we observed protective structures and helmets that were strategically placed for safety purposes, serving as a stark reminder of the volcano's potential for destructive eruptions.

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Then we went to see Sengan-en garden which is one Japan's finest examples of a samurai lord's garden. It is a 17th-century traditional garden positioned alongside the bay with breathtaking views of its surroundings. The garden includes small ponds, streams, shrines and a bamboo grove.

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Upon our return to the ship I noticed, once again, that the United States flag was flying right alongside the flag of Japan. We were enthusiastically greeted by the locals. It was nice to feel so welcomed in a foreign country.

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Our next port of call is also in Japan. We'll be spending two days in Tokyo following tomorrow's sea day. Until then ....

Posted by Where2FromHere 22:22 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

A Journey through Time and Culture

Nagasaki, Japan


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

Nagasaki is a city with a rich history that has been shaped by its unique position as a port open to foreign trade. The city was first opened to the Portuguese in the 16th century and later to the Dutch and Chinese in the 17th century, becoming a center for information on Western technology and science during a period when Japan was closed to the West. The Tokugawa shogunate was a period of a military dictatorship marked by the consolidation of political power around the Tokugawa clan and was characterized by a near-complete withdrawal from international trade and relations, with Christianity being suppressed and European missionaries expelled from Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate banished all foreigners from Japan, with one exception: Dejima, a fan-shaped, manmade island in Nagasaki harbour, which we visited today. From 1641 until the 1850s, this tiny, 3.7 acres Dutch trading post was the sole sanctioned foreign presence in Japan where trade was conducted only with the Dutch and Chinese.

Below is a model of Dejima as well as a few photos of our visit to this historical island:

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In the late 19th century, Nagasaki became a major port for trade and a leading East Asian coaling station, serving as the winter port of the Russian Asiatic fleet until 1903. The city also became a major shipbuilding center, and it was this industry that led to Nagasaki's being chosen as a target for the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan by the United States during World War II. The bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945, and destroyed the innermost portion of Nagasaki, killing between 60,000 and 80,000 people. The city has since been rebuilt and Peace Park was established under the point of detonation of the bomb.

We observed a scenic harbor with a large ship building operation as we sailed inro port:

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Later we ascended Mount Insa's peak, having navigated a significant portion of the mountain's densely populated slope, which included residences, a school, and a cemetery, all seamlessly integrated into the hillside. We rode in the slope car which transported us to the summit, where we were treated to a breathtaking, panoramic view of Nagasaki from an elevation of over 1000 feet above the surrounding urban landscape. I thought it was a little scary when I realized that this car-load of people was resting on just one rail as we ascended the mountain. But we made it ....

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The view from the top was worth the ride, as you can see ...

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Afterwards, we returned to the Serenade of the seas. With such a beautiful spring day it was hard to imagine what the world was like 80 years ago when the atomic bomb was dropped on this city. There's a lot of research that shows that the death tolls, had the US not bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been many multiples of the death tolls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a brutal equation. It's just - the point here is that wars are easy to get into, but they are hard to get out of. And at the time it appeared to be the only way out.

Upon our arrival in this port, I observed the American flag of the United States and the Japanese flag flying side by side at the same level. It was a striking visual representation of the significant strides made in the relationship between our two nations over the course of several decades.

Posted by Where2FromHere 12:52 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

A Gradual Departure

37.30041 N / 123.30651 E en route to Nagasaki City, Japan

It was slow going leaving China - we had an all aboard time of 2:30 PM but due to the Chinese immigration personnel wanting to recheck the ship's manifests and match them with the passports they had reviewed, we had to wait in port until after 6:30 PM. Apparently, they didn't want anyone to be left behind in their country. To make matters worse we missed our allotted time slot and therefore couldn't leave the port until 9:30 PM.

But now we are well on our way and headed back to Japan (red arrow in photo below) where we will be touring for the next several days.

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I spent about 3 hours today getting our India E-Visas. Had to figure out how to compress the passport photos. Then the application even required the names and nationalities of our parents. It continues to amaze me what we all have to do to get into the foreign countries in Asia. Tomorrow requires a second time for us to be finger-printed and do a face-to-face meeting with Japannese Immigration officials. At least this time it should serve us for the next several ports in Japan :)

Great Dinner tonight - the chef continues to feature foods from the countries we are visiting. Tonight's entree was Spicy Schzwan Chicken over white rice. We're sure going to be spoiled by the time we return back home!

Posted by Where2FromHere 01:57 Comments (0)

Stunning Structures

Beijing, China


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

In addition to the breathtaking beauty of the thousands of miles of meticulously manicured and landscaped roadways, we encountered another unexpected finding during our visit to China. My previous misconception was that the Oriental population was always very "Pushy". I attributed this to the fact that since they lived in such a heavily populated area they had to "push" to get anywhere in the massive crowds. Quite the contrary, we found the Chinese people to be remarkably friendly and welcoming. I imagine that after the long pandemic and period of isolation from foreign "big-nosed" visitors (as they affectionately refer to Westerners), they were pleasantly surprised and delighted to see the thousands of us who had come to explore their country. It was really apparent they were not accustomed to seeing tall, blond, blue-eyed individuals. Our distinct physical features seemed to pique their curiosity and fascination. Adding to the immersive cultural experience was the unique local dress worn by the Chinese people. Their traditional attire, so distinct from our own Western styles, served as a tangible reminder that we were fully immersed in the heart of Chinese civilization.

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As part of our World Cruise, Royal Caribbean arranged a day for us to explore the Forbidden City and the Wonder of the World, the Great Wall of China. The Forbidden City is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Beijing, offering a unique insight into China's imperial past. It was the political and ritual center of China for over 500 years, serving as the home to 24 emperors, their families, and servants during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. It was named "Forbidden City" due to the fact that commoners were forbidden access to the complex, emphasizing the elite and exclusive nature of the emperor's domain. The Forbidden City was constucted between 1406 and 1420 by over 1 million laborers. It is composed of more than 90 palace compounds including 98 buildings. According to legend, it has 9,999.5 rooms, as supposedly having 10,000 would incur the wrath of the God of Heaven. It was transformed into the Palace Museum in 1925 when the last emperor, Puyi, was expelled.

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The Forbidden City is divided into the Outer Court and Inner Court, with the Outer Court being where emperors had absolute godly power and held solemn public ceremonies, and the Inner Court being where emperors enjoyed domestic bliss. It is not just a palace but also a fortress, with each level designed to protect the emperor and throne at the center. The outer walls are 25 feet high, and the whole city is surrounded by a moat 170 feet wide. The giant gates were always locked, and no one could enter or leave without the emperor’s permission, hence its name.
The Forbidden City is a micro-city in its own right, with hidden symbols everywhere. The roofs are decorated with tiny statues of creatures, such as the Phoenix, lions, Pegasus, dragons, seahorses, and goats. The most important people had nine statues on their roof, as nine is the most important number in Chinese culture.

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The Forbidden City is over 178 acres and it took us about 2 hours to walk the entire, fascinating complex, with its unique architectural design, exquisite decorations, and historical significance.

Outside of the Forbidden City was observed everyday life in the densely populated city of Beijing, including food vendors, a scooter store and the "bird's nest" for the 2008 Olympics and 2022 winter Paralympics.

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We saw a glimpse of the Great Wall of China in the daylight just before arriving at the restaurant where we were treated to a fabulous Chinese meal, featuring appetizers of Beijing Style Marinated Beef, Poached CHicken with Crushed Peanut, Blanced Spinach, Fresh Walnut Salad and Lotus Root, Seafood Hot & Sour soup, served family style on a large glass lazy-susan in the center of our table. We also feasted on entrees of Peking Duck, Mandarin Fish, Pork Tenderloin, Braised Beef Belley, Kungbao Chicken, Wok-fried Asparagus, Fried Egg along with a Chinese beef and Refreshing Riesling wine.
Following dinner we had a chance to visit a "regular Western style" restroom which was a nice chance from the squat toilets which are so prevalent throughout ladies rooms in China. Then we were off to our next adventure ... truly the highlight of the trip and the primary motivation for my desire to sign up for the World cruise.

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Before coming to China I never realized that The Great Wall is not a single wall but rather a collection of fortifications. They were built across the historical northern borders of China to protect the Chinese Empire from various nomadic groups. Its construction began in the 7th century BC, with sections built by different states during the Warring States period. The most extensive and best-preserved version of the wall dates from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and stretches for approximately 5,500 miles. The construction of the Great Wall involved the backbreaking toil of tens of thousands of people, including conscripted soldiers, slaves, convicts, and ordinary people. The wall was built using local resources, such as stones from the mountains and rammed earth in the plains. In some cases, glutinous rice flour was used in making the mortar or binding material to bind the bricks. It is estimated that 400,000 workers lost their lives while building the Qin wall alone. The architectural style of the Great Wall is a marvel in the history of construction, with walls, passes, watchtowers, signal towers, moats, and other defensive structures. Royal Caribbean organized local performers in costumes at the base of the wall and a laser light show. Plus the world travelers were given the opportunity to walk the wall at night without other visitors present. It was an incredible sight!

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Here's a link to a video of an aerial view of the Great Wall of China, which might help you see its scale and structure better.
https://youtu.be/UhFjBGCbac4?si=_VI5mORUi5hZPTT2
Although what we saw was only a small portion of this amazing feat of the Chinese to protect their border, it was truly spectacular!!

Posted by Where2FromHere 01:54 Archived in China Comments (0)

Sometimes you just have to see for yourself

Beijing, China


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

You may know the image - my wife and my mother-in-law shown below. At times, our preconceptions "color" our thinking and we think we know, from what we've heard, what we're about to "see." Such was the case for me, expecting what Beijing would be like through my "American" eyes, only to find the totally unexpected!

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After navigating the tedious and thorough Chinese immigration process, we were met by your guide, Jason. Our grandson, also named Jason, might be interested to know his name is an acronym. Our guide told us his Chinese name was long and meant "Soldier" which he didn't care for, so he "picked" the name Jason out of a book, and found it interesting that it could stand for: July, August, September, October, November.

As it turned out, we were the first large contingent of American visitors to return to Beijing since the COVID-19 pandemic. Jason was a mature Chinese national, well-traveled, fluent in English, and had a sense of humor. Despite the pervasive presence of cameras on the buses and throughout the city, he was surprisingly candid in his commentary about communist China. This openness was somewhat unexpected, given the typically guarded nature of discussions around sensitive political topics. Jason began the tour by discussing what he called the five "T's" - the key factors that have caused conflict between the Western world and China. Can you name them?
Trade: This includes disputes over trade policies, tariffs, and economic competition between the West and China. As a major topic in the news, this was an easy one for the fellow Americans to guess.
Taiwan: The Taiwan Strait remains a source of ongoing tensions and potential conflict between China and Taiwan, with the U.S. playing a role in trying to maintain stability in the region. This is part of the disagreements over territorial claims in regions like the South China Sea.
Tiananmen Square: The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were a pivotal moment in modern Chinese history, as the government brutally suppressed a large-scale pro-democracy movement, with lasting political and social consequences. For those readers, perhaps not alive at the time or too young to be aware, the uprising began in April with students who gathered in the square to call for greater democracy, free speech, and an end to corruption. By May, the number of protestors grew to an estimated million. Premier Li Peng, decided to impose martial law and use force to end the protests. On the night of June 3-4, the military moved in and opened fire on the protesters, killing hundreds if not thousands of civilians. Troops also crushed protesters with tanks and armored vehicles. The crackdown was a major turning point, crushing the pro-democracy movement and reinforcing the Communist Party's authoritarian control.
Tibet: China invaded and occupied Tibet in 1949, leading to ongoing tensions, conflict, and human rights abuses against the Tibetan people. The Chinese government tightly controls and represses Tibetan culture, religion, and political expression, making it a highly sensitive topic.
Technology: There are conflicts over technology transfer, intellectual property rights, and the race for technological dominance between the West and China. This last point was recently emphasized with the meeting in March between Chairman Xi and businessmen from the US and around the world. Beijing is trying to revive confidence and stabilize foreign trade and investment as the country faces its biggest economic challenges in decades.
My "western" vantage point remains skeptical and this was further reinforced by the article I recently read in Harvard Business Review, What the West gets wrong about China. It's attached in case you're interested. https://hbr.org/2021/05/what-the-west-gets-wrong-about-china#
One additional "T" was hinted at, but not mentioned (perhaps because it was just too political) relative to our upcoming election, and Presidential candidate, Trump.

While the "T's" - Trade, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Technology (and Trump) - represent the key areas of tension between China and the West, our recent two-day visit to Beijing revealed some unexpected observations that went beyond these well-known points of conflict.
Specifically, we were surprised to encounter the vibrant cultural traditions of Buddhism on Tomb Sweeping Day, as well as the phenomenon of China's "ghost cities" - vast, modern urban centers with very few actual residents. Additionally, we were struck by the sheer beauty, cleanliness and grandeur of Beijing itself, with its iconic landmarks and meticulously planned cityscape within a country of 1.4 billion people.

Tomb Sweeping Day, also known as Ancestors' Day, is an important traditional Chinese festival centered around commemorating and honoring one's ancestors. The key activities include visiting gravesites, cleaning the tombs, making and burning ritual offerings, and engaging in ancestor worship. The festival is celebrated 15 days after the Spring Equinox, so its exact date varies each year but always falls in early April. This year, it was observed while we were there. As we drove from Tianjin port into the city of Beijing, a 3-hour journey, we were struck by the prevalence of tomb sweeping rituals throughout the landscape. Mounds of dirt covered in flowers were visible not only in sizable cemeteries, but also in fields, along major highways, and in wooded areas.

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What we expected was a smog-ridden country. Our guide joked that since it was tomb-sweeping day when burning of paper ritual, it was bound to be hazy. Yet we were greeted with a beautiful, spring day with clear sunny skies and trees bursting with flowering buds.

As you may already know China is the world's second most populous country. It has experienced rapid urbanization in recent decades, with the urban population now accounting for 64.6% of the total population. Beijing, the capital city of China, the country's second largest city after Shanghai, is home to a staggering 22.19 million people. Given the immense size of Beijing's population, one might expect to encounter a city plagued by slums, homelessness, and unsightly graffiti. Additionally, the fact that China is a communist-governed country gave me the previous impression that the people live under the oppressive "thumb" of the government. It is true that Beijing has an extensive network of surveillance cameras monitoring the movements of both locals and visitors. This pervasive use of technology for security and control purposes is a well-documented aspect of life in China.

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However, beyond the omnipresent surveillance, we also observed the ingenuity and adaptability of the Chinese people. For example, we witnessed the local version of "door dash" - a creative system of food and goods delivery that has flourished in response to the city's dense urban environment and high population. Additionally, we were struck by the innovative ways in which Beijingers have found to keep warm and clean while navigating the city on motorcycles. They have developed unique solutions to ensure their comfort and hygiene on the go, with blanketed handlebars and skirted fronts on their cycles.

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Perhaps the most striking and unexpected finding during our visit was the sheer scale and sophistication of China's infrastructure, even in the most rural areas. As we traveled through the countryside, we were amazed to encounter massive cities seemingly materializing out of the landscape, connected by wide, well-paved roads and an expansive network of highway bridges.

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Interestingly, most of the buildings are vacant as a result of the combination of overbuilding, debt-fueled development, real estate speculation, (90% of the population owns property compared to only 7% invested in the stock market) and uneven urbanization patterns which has resulted in the proliferation of these "ghost cities," remaining largely unoccupied despite the massive investments in their construction.

What was particularly remarkable was the incredible cleanliness of the environment. Not a speck of litter could be seen anywhere, even along the highways. Furthermore, the roadsides were adorned with magnificent plantings of trees and shrubs, showcasing the country's commitment to large-scale landscaping and environmental preservation. The level of development, connectivity, and environmental stewardship that we witnessed far exceeded our expectations. Other than the fact that China has a large workforce and a huge population to house, It was truly beyond comprehension how China had managed to construct such an impressive and well-maintained infrastructure, even in the most remote rural areas. This challenged our preconceptions and left us in awe of the country's remarkable achievements in urban planning and public works (especially in light of the lack of results in the USA from programs such as "build back better", etc. whose massive financing was intended to improve roads, bridges and urban areas across our country.)

We had an interesting discussion with fellow travelers of the differences as a result of our country's economic policies vs. China. Much has to do with the differences between China's approach to quantitative easing (QE) and the approach taken by the United States:

  • China's central bank (PBOC) has a much smaller proportion of government debt on its balance sheet compared to the US Federal Reserve. Chinese government debt is only 3.8% of the PBOC's balance sheet, while it is 55% for the Fed. This gives China more flexibility to use monetary expansion through QE to support financial stability and structural reforms, rather than just stimulating the economy.
  • China is still running a current account surplus and has a net investment surplus of over $2 trillion (10% of GDP). This provides China with ample space to use monetary expansion through QE. In contrast, most major central banks, including the Fed, are now having to tighten monetary policy aggressively to combat high inflation.
  • While the Fed and other major central banks have used QE primarily to stimulate the economy and support financial stability, China was able to use a more targeted "QE with Chinese Characteristics" to support specific policy goals like making vast infrastructure improvements and environmental beautification.

One thing that remains constant, no matter whether we are in Asia or America, is that kids will be kids. This universal truth was on full display during our visit to a local shopping mall, where we stumbled upon the most amazing "Playland" within a store. This vibrant, interactive space was filled with an array of engaging activities and attractions. From live bunnies and chicks to goldfish and race cars, there was something to captivate the imagination of children of all ages. A go-cart track, a platform for practicing dance moves, and bins of toys to win through games - and every imaginable form of entertainment offered a wonderland of fun!

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Although I would never trade the personal freedoms and civil liberties granted to all U.S. legal citizens, I have to admit that our visit to China challenged some of my previous perceptions. What I witnessed with my own eyes was incredibly different from the image I had envisioned.
Stay tuned for my upcoming blog with more insights and reflections on this surprising part of the Asian world.

Posted by Where2FromHere 04:51 Archived in China Comments (0)

Disconnecting Briefly

38.22554 N / 121.85131 E en route to Tianjin, China

Today we are traveling toward the Yellow Sea. The Yellow Sea, bordered by China, North Korea, and South Korea, is a significant body of water known for its yellowish sand originating from the Yellow River, coloring its waters. It is one of the largest shallow areas of continental shelf globally, with an average depth of 44 meters and a maximum depth of 152 meters. The sea is also referred to as Huang Hai in China and the West Sea in North and South Korea. It is an arm of the Pacific Ocean, merging with the East China Sea.

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We are setting off for the port in Tianjin and then spending the following two days in the captivating city of Beijing, China. During our time there, we have planned to visit two of China's most iconic landmarks: the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. The Great Wall of China is an expansive defensive structure that was constructed in ancient China, renowned as one of the largest building projects ever undertaken. Comprising multiple walls that were built over two millennia, the Great Wall stretches for miles, showcasing the remarkable ingenuity and perseverance of the ancient Chinese people.

In addition to the Great Wall, we will also be visiting the Forbidden City, an imperial palace complex in Beijing that served as the residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty (1420 to 1924). This magnificent complex is a testament to the grandeur and power of imperial China, and we are eager to explore its many halls, courtyards, and gardens.

As we embark on our journey to China, our access to Starlink, SpaceX's satellite internet system, will be unavailable starting this evening. This is due to the Chinese government's opposition to Starlink's presence in the country, as a result of China's disapproval of SpaceX providing Starlink to Ukraine, a nation currently at war with Russia, a Chinese ally.

Regrettably, this means that my blog posts may be limited or non-existent briefly. However, rest assured that we will make the most of our time in China and return with exciting photos and insights to share. We look forward to reconnecting with you all upon our return and sharing our experiences from this captivating country.

Posted by Where2FromHere 07:44 Archived in China Comments (0)

A fusion of Culture and Innovation

Seoul, South Korea


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

South Korea offers a captivating blend of modernity and tradition, where the cutting edge of technology coexists with the timeless allure of Confucian heritage. The Seoul Capital Area accounts for over 50% of South Korea's total population of 52 million, and a density of about 45,000 people per square mile! There are 31 bridges that connect the south and the north in the city of Seoul over the Han River.

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Today's exploration of Seoul's cultural gems, from medieval fortresses to modern museums, has been a testament to the country's unique and multifaceted identity. Following a 90-minute drive from the port, we arrived at a location merely 15 miles away from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), in the capital city of South Korea, Seoul. During our visit, we explored Seoul Sky, situated in the Lotte World Tower, which ranks as the world's fifth tallest building, standing at 123 stories and 1820 feet in height. The observatory offered an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of the city. Some of the above photos were take from the 120th floor. However, the journey back down proved to be the highlight, featuring an illuminated elevator ride.

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Our subsequent destination was the captivating Bongeunsa Temple, a repository of over 3,000 Buddhist scriptures, decorated with vibrant lanterns and featuring a majestic 91-foot-high stone statue of Maitreya, the Future Buddha.

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Before our next stop, we indulged in some Korean cusine with a luncheon of delicious Korean-style pork barbecue.

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After that, we proceeded to the National Museum of Korea, which showcases both traditional and modern Korean art, as well as numerous archaeological artifacts dating from the fifth to the 12th century. We spent some time in the Calligraphy and Painting Gallery, where we gained a deeper understanding of the elegance of traditional Korean paintings and calligraphy, expressed through brushstrokes and colors. We admired a range of exceptional calligraphic works and large Buddhist hanging scrolls used for outdoor rituals.

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Leave it to Jeff to find an ancient saddle, armor for the warrier AND for the horse!

Our travel plan was to include a stop at the grand palace grounds, but due to the significant traffic congestion in Seoul, we arrived after it had already closed for the day. Despite this, I was able to take some photographs of the palace's exterior and the locals donning traditional Korean attire known as Hanbok as they exited the palace. Hanbok, which includes a blouse shirt or jacket (jeogori) and a wrap-around skirt (chima) for women, and a jeogori with loose-fitting trousers (baji) for men, is typically worn during festive events, celebrations, and ceremonies in South Korea.

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The day was exhausting yet enlightening, reflecting on the nation's history and its strides in enhancing literacy rates, the remarkable advancements exemplified by companies like Hyundai and Samsung, and the deep respect for Buddhism proved to be captivating. Seoul's cleanliness, given its high population density, was commendable. However, the sheer magnitude of the city, coupled with the heavy traffic and the overwhelming number of people, would make the prospect of living there seem quite daunting.

Posted by Where2FromHere 07:33 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Bountiful Botanical Bonanza

Jeju Island, South Korea


View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

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Today we find ourselves on Jeju Island, a renowned tourist destination off the southern coast of South Korea. The cherry blossoms are currently in peak bloom, scattering petals in the gentle rain.

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Our port of entry is shown on the above map with the small red arrow. This is our opportunity to visit Hallim Park, (shown with longer red arrow) a globally recognized attraction known for its botanical and bonsai gardens, a miniature traditional village, and a lava-tube cave, which is part of a 10 mile-long lava-tube system, said to be the only lava caves in the world to contain stalagmites and stalactites. The establishment of Hallim Park in 1971 can be attributed to the visionary efforts of Song Bong-gyu, who started planting palm seeds on a 25-acre expanse of desolate sandy terrain. Over the years, this once barren land was transformed into a lush paradise, becoming a tropical haven for adventure. The park's unique features are unparalleled, creating a truly one-of-a-kind experience. To fully appreciate the magnitude of the transformation, take a look at the photo below, which shows the park's humble beginnings in 1971, and compare it to the photo taken today of the same location within the park. It's truly remarkable what a bit of creativity and ingenuity can achieve.

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Given Jeff's past experience in cultivating bonsai trees, we decided to explore the Bonsai gardens. Bonsai is a Japanese art form that involves growing and shaping miniature trees in containers, which originated from the Chinese art of penjing. This art form entails the careful cultivation and styling of trees to produce a miniaturized and sometimes stylized depiction of a tree in its natural setting. There were so many great creations, it's difficult for me to select the ones to show you. Some were as old as 100 to 300 years. Here are but a few from this vast garden, along with a couple of the workers diligently pruning various trees.

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Jeju Island, South Korea's most notable volcanic island, was formed through persistent volcanic activity, culminating in a variety of unique and captivating rock formations. These range from simple, intriguing shapes to more complex lava tubes, which we discovered in this island garden. Do you see the face in the photo preeding the blue diagram?

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The park is renowned for its diverse animal population, featuring an array of bird, reptile, and mammal species. Here are some of the fascinating creatures we encountered, and Jeff, true to form, even found some equine "specimens."

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The final stop on today's visit of Jeju Island, was the Seogwang Tea Garden, the largest green tea plantation in the area. You'll notice the small, bright green tips on the tops of the plants. These are meticulously cultivated by hand to produce the green tea for brewing. Additionally, we had the opportunity to observe the process of roasting and packaging, which are crucial steps in preparing the final product for sale.

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There's nothing like a soothing cup of freshy-brewed green tea to conclude the visit to Jeju Island's impressive garden. Now Jeff's inspired to learn how to crack a whip, raise a falcon and renew his interest in creating a bonsai tree. He can hardly wait to get started!!

Posted by Where2FromHere 01:34 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

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