From Beijing’s Great Wall to Nagasaki’s Peace Park
After two days in Beijing, it’s on to Japan and our final ports of call: Nagasaki, Kagoshima, and Tokyo, the capital
By Monique Burns
Part 3: Holland America Asia Cruise
We’ve sailed seven days aboard Holland America’s ms Volendam, and with another seven to go, my fellow passengers and I are halfway through our 14-day cruise to China, South Korea and Japan. We’ve crossed Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour aboard a traditional Chinese junk, marveled at China’s futuristic skyscrapers in cosmopolitan Shanghai, and toured historic Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea’s graceful high-tech capital.
Now, cruising to Beijing, capital of the People’s Republic of China, our ship is backtracking 423 nautical miles west across the Yellow Sea. After two days in Beijing, it’s on to Japan and our final ports of call: Nagasaki, Kagoshima, and Tokyo, the capital.
For me, the next day at sea starts with morning Mass. Then there’s Chi Gong Meditation, followed by Tai Chi, with Master Kam, who that very day is giving a talk on the “Dynastic History of China,” part of an engaging lecture series that will turn the humble Hong Kong historian into the cruise’s rock star.
I’ve made a small donation in my mother’s memory to “On Deck for a Cause,” Holland America’s ongoing charitable campaign that has raised more than $5 million for worldwide cancer research since 2006. Though the Under $500 Art Auction keeps me from joining the five-kilometer walk around the Lower Promenade Deck, I wear my blue-and-white “On Deck” T-shirt proudly.
Next is a lecture about the famous Fabergé eggs crafted for the Russian czars. On loan to the ship’s Merabella boutique is my favorite, the blue-and-white Arctic Egg with a sterling-silver polar bear and her two 24-karat gold cubs inside. After the Singles & Solos Meet for Tea event, I head to the Wajang Theater to see “Sully,” the 2016 movie about Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic landing on New York’s Hudson River.
We drop anchor in the port of Tianjin, three hours south of Beijing, around eight o’clock the following morning. For the next two days, most of us will visit Beijing. But the ship’s Location Guides have warned us not to travel there on our own. The three-hour trip by subway and high-speed bullet train is difficult enough because of several station changes and a lack of English speakers and signage. But it can become nearly impossible if Communist authorities suddenly reroute traffic, close roads, take trains out of service or temporarily detain foreigners.
With seven Holland America Beijing shore excursions to choose from, most passengers are happy to take a tour. Some choose the two-day excursion, “Best of Beijing Overnight,” with a hotel stay and visits to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square as well as the Great Wall of China.
The adventurer in me opts for the 12-hour “Summer Palace & Great Wall of China,” starting with a tour of the Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northwest Beijing. A splendid lakeside complex of palaces, pavilions and gardens, it was once the home of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the Qing Dynasty’s “Dragon Lady,” who, for 47 years, from 1861 to 1908, effectively ruled China with an iron fist, silencing dissenters through house arrest, banishment and execution.
From the Summer Palace, we continue to Beijing’s northerly Chang Ping District and the Great Wall of China, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, built, starting in the 7th century B.C., to protect the country’s northern borders. From ground level, where there are a couple of souvenir shops and a coffeehouse, stone steps and ramps lead ever upward. I climb partway up to a stone terrace. From there, I glimpse the incredible sight of the Great Wall zigzagging across the hilly landscape. Though I see only a fraction of its 13,171-mile length, it’s still a thrill.
The next day, fog prompts Chinese officials to close the highway leading from the port to Beijing. As a backup, there’s a 75-minute bus ride to the city of Tianjin, with its artifact-filled museum, shop-lined Ancient Culture Street, and Pole Aquarium, featuring a dolphin show and dancing mermaids.
Several friends and I stay aboard ship, enjoying activities like the Basketball Shootout on the Sports Deck, Afternoon Tea in MIX, and a lecture on Japanese Manga, the country’s famous black-and-white cartoons. Around 5 p.m., the Volendam leaves China, cruising 739 nautical miles southeast, across the Yellow Sea, to Japan.
Celebrating our departure, we dine at Canaletto, the ship’s cozy Italian restaurant. From small plates like Antipasto All’Italiana with Biellese-cured meats, artichokes and red bell peppers to large plates like Ravioli Ai Gamberi, garlic-shrimp ravioli in a shellfish brandy cream sauce, it’s a splendid feast, complete with fine wines.
My next day at sea begins with an amusing “Art History in a Nutshell” lecture and slideshow, covering 30,000 years—from Austria’s zaftig “Venus of Willendorf” sculpture, circa 30,000-27,000 BC, to 1960s Pop Art—in 35 minutes. Then it’s standing room only in the Frans Hals Show Lounge for Master Kam’s “Modern History of China” lecture.
After lunch, a Jewelry Fashion Show is staged by a dozen fashionably dressed passengers, who clown with the audience as they prance through MIX, showing off necklaces, bracelets and earrings from Merabella boutique.
Evening brings our third dressy Gala Night and another superb dinner at the Pinnacle Grill. That’s followed by a full roster of nightly activities, including “Droom,” featuring the ship’s resident song-and-dance troupe in an original show about the ongoing fight between good and evil.
By one o’clock the next afternoon, we’re cruising into Nagasaki. On Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Nagasaki—meaning “long cape”—sits at the head of a narrow inlet. A longtime center of Roman Catholicism, Nagasaki was a regular port of call for Portuguese and Dutch traders from the 16th through 19th centuries.
Today, Nagasaki is best known as the scene of the Atomic Bombing of August 9, 1945, which destroyed one third of the city, killed nearly 75,000 people and left another 75,000 injured. On the five-hour “Nagasaki Peace Park & Mt. Inasa” tour, including a mountain gondola ride, our first stop is Nagasaki Peace Park, dominated by a 32-foot-high Peace Statue of a muscular man, in a Buddha-like pose, with one arm pointing skyward toward possible nuclear threats and the other arm spread outward in a gesture of peace. Throughout the park are more than a dozen memorial statues given by various cities and countries.
At the Nagasaki Peace Bell memorial, I meet Inosuke Hayasaki, an elderly bombing survivor and representative of the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace. When the blast hit, young Hayasaki hid behind a column at the Mitsubishi Arms Plant and was miraculously saved. I make a small donation and Mr. Hayasaki, now in his 80s, hands me a ladleful of water to pour over potted chrysanthemums. Water has special significance in Nagasaki. Because most drinking water was contaminated by the blast, survivors never forgot how thirsty they were.
Before I leave, Mr. Hayasaki grasps my hand and looks at me with such love and forgiveness that tears well up in my eyes and flow down my cheeks. At the Fountain of Peace, steps away, a Japanese boy, no more than 6 or 7 years old, turns toward me, smiles and flashes a peace sign.
Equally moving are the artifacts at the nearby Atomic Bomb Museum, including a clock with hands stopped at 11:02, the time of the morning blast, a helmet with part of a human skull fused to it, and melted rosaries found near Urakami Cathedral, once East Asia’s largest Catholic church. In Nagasaki Hypocenter Park—the blast’s center—stands a remnant of the cathedral’s brick wall. A sign of the city’s resilience, 500 cherry trees were planted in the park. When I visit, the trees are in full bloom.
Aboard ship, the night’s revelry includes Japanese-themed entertainment: a screening of the 2016 Matthew McConaughey movie, “The Sea of Trees,” set in a Mt. Fuji forest, and two concerts by award-winning Japanese pianist Tomono Kawamura.
At eight o’clock the next morning, after cruising 173 nautical miles from Nagasaki, we arrive in Kagoshima, a pretty port city best known for its active volcano, Mt. Sakurajima. Though Sakurajima-san erupts thousands of times yearly, scientists don’t expect a major blast until the 2040s.
On the “Best of Kagoshima” tour—designed by American travel magazine AFAR—our Mt. Sakurajima pilgrimage begins with a 15-minute ride from the city docks aboard the Cherry Queen, a New Orleans riverboat-style ferry. Once there, a motor coach takes us to the Arimura Observation Point, where wooden walkways stretch alongside Kinko Bay and extend over black lava fields dotted with phantasmagorically sculpted volcanic rocks. Most striking is the Sakurajima daikon, a basketball-sized white radish grown in the rich soil.
In contrast to Mt. Sakurajima’s desolate beauty is the lush splendor of the Japanese-style Sengan-en Garden, once owned by the Shimazu Clan, which ruled the region for nearly seven centuries starting in the 1180s. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a sprawling wonderland of pines, ornamental trees and flowering shrubs, with traditional Japanese pavilions, and bridges arching over koi-filled ponds. After paying my respects at the Cat Shrine, I join fellow passengers at the garden’s Shofu-ken restaurant for a Japanese bento box-style lunch with shrimp and other delicacies. Then we stop at a shochu factory to sample the region’s potent rice-and-sweet potato liquor.
Our ship departs Kagoshima at 6 p.m. that evening and sails the entire next day, cruising 582 nautical miles north through the Pacific Ocean to the port of Yokohama, 25 miles south of Tokyo. A near-gale, with winds averaging 35 mph, sends passengers grasping for the rails and water sloshing around in the ship’s swimming pools. But little dampens our spirits. Outside, sea and sky are a mournful gray, but inside, we’re happily enjoying the day’s activities.
There’s early-morning fitness class, then Chi Gong Meditation and Tai Chi with Master Kam. The Grand Finale Art Auction offering hundreds of contemporary works. A Texas Hold’em Tournament, $25,000 Jackpot Bingo game and $230,000 Paradise Lotto drawing. LGBT and Singles & Solos Meetups. Health seminars on acupuncture and fitness walking, several Digital Workshops, and lectures on Chinese history and Japanese ramen noodles. An International Wine Festival tasting and a Martini & Cocktail Sampling. And, as always, there’s plenty of good food all day long.
On our final night aboard ship, I join several new friends at their Passover Seder celebration, then meet another group in the Crow’s Nest for cocktails, followed by a festive Rotterdam farewell dinner. The night ends in the Frans Hals Show Lounge with a screening of Frozen Planet Live, a splendid BBC film about the world’s polar regions accompanied by the Volendam’s own musicians.
We arrive in Yokohama the next morning, after cruising 3,153 nautical miles across Asian seas. Some of us will spend a few days in Tokyo, the Japanese capital. After nearly three weeks on the road and at sea, I’m headed home. But the places and people I’ve encountered while cruising aboard the good ship Volendam will remain in my heart and mind for many months and years to come.
IF YOU GO
Log on to www.hollandamerica.com or call 877-932-4259.