Mount Fuji, the tallest peak in Japan at 3776 meters (12,388 ft.) is still classified an active volcano although it has remained dormant since its last eruption in 1707. Located 100 km (62 miles) southwest of Tokyo, it is the most popular tourist attraction in Japan, attracting over 200,000 visitors each year to climb its slopes. Mount Fuji or Fujisan was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013 for its universal sacred and artistic value. (According to the World Heritage website (https://whc.unesco.org/en/faq/19) “World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.”) In my opinion, Fujisan is certainly worthy of protection for future generations.
We began seeing views of the mountain soon after departing from Tokyo although there are views of the mountain from within the city as well. (You’ll see one later in this post.)
Our friend, Tomo, took us first to a restaurant at Lake Yamanakako, the largest and closest of the Fuji Five Lakes at the base of Mount Fuji. The #1 ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor in Yamanakako-mura, Koshu Hoto Kosaku, serves delicious hoto, a regional dish made with flat noodles and vegetables in a miso soup. Patrons remove their shoes inside the door of this traditional style restaurant before sitting on tatami cushions. (Click on the photos below to see a larger version.)
Following a delicious lunch, we drove around stopping at numerous viewing spots to take in the captivating beauty of Fujisan and to capture some of it in photos.
As we walked the trail along Lake Yamanakako, Lori even made friends with an especially engaging beagle.
Upon our return to Tokyo, the timing was perfect for a visit to the Tokyo Tower. Modeled after the Eiffel Tower and built in 1958, the Tokyo Tower is 13 meters taller than the Paris version and an outstanding way to enjoy views of the largest city in the world.
After purchasing tickets for around $10 each and a quick elevator ride to the main deck, we arrived in time to enjoy Tokyo at sunset from high above the city.
Jim chose to go to the top deck where he captured Mount Fuji in the distance at sunset, definitely my favorite photo of all we took from Tokyo Tower.
He also took photos of each direction from the top deck which gives you an even better impression of the vastness of Tokyo.
We left the tower just after sunset but I’m sure the views of the lights of Tokyo after dark would have been amazing as well.
Tomo delivered us safely back to our hotel where Lori and I visited the women’s bath before calling it a night. The next day we would see a few final sights including a walk through Old Tokyo before Tomo delivered us to the airport for our flight back to the U.S.
Our friend, Tomo, met us at our hotel, Mitsui Garden, to show us more sights in Tokyo on day 2 of our visit. If you missed the first two posts about Tomo and Tokyo, you can find them here and here.
The public transport system in Tokyo is world renowned. I’ve read it’s quite easy to use but for us, it couldn’t have been easier because we had only to follow Tomo as he shepherded us from place to place. These photos in a train station were taken later in the day but they’ll give you an idea of our experience.
Our hotel was located very close to the Gotanda Railway Station and Tomo led Lori, Rick, Jim, and me there to take the train to our first tourist sight at Shibuya Crossing. It was raining so we purchased umbrellas but unfortunately, Jim and I only bought one to share which he immediately commandeered so I was wet and crabby whenever it rained throughout the day.
Reputed to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world with as many as 3000 people crossing at once during peak times, Shibuya Scramble Crossing is a well-known tourist attraction in Tokyo. The rain may have kept other tourists away, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm one bit. The second floor of the Starbucks which you can see behind Tomo and Jim in the photo below is a popular spot for photos from above.
Nearby Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken was constructed in 1920 and reconstructed in 1958 after it burned during WW2. The 122nd emperor of Japan, Emperor Meiji and his consort reigned from February 3, 1867 until his death on July 30, 1912. He led the modernization of Japan, ending feudalism and 250 years of isolation. The emperor and his wife were prolific poets, having composed over 130,000 waka (traditional Japanese poems of 31 syllables) between them. One of the poems written by the emperor follows:
Were we to neglect
The completion of a task
Because it was hard,
Nothing would be done at all
In this human world of ours.
In order to pay respect when visiting the shrine, one engages in ritual cleansing of the hands and mouth at the Temizuya (font). Fill the dipper with water; rinse your left hand then your right hand; pour water into the palm of your left hand to rinse your mouth; rinse the handle with the remaining water and return the dipper to its original position.
Sake brewers throughout Japan offer barrels of sake wrapped in straw every year to honor Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. In the spirit of world peace and friendship, wineries from the Bourgogne region of France offer barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Jingu.
On our way to the Imperial Palace, Tomo took the photo below of Jim and me, Lori and Rick in front of Tokyo Railway Station.
The Imperial Palace, a 10 minute walk from Tokyo Station, is located on the former site of Edo Castle and has been the residence for Japan’s imperial family since the emperor moved here from Kyoto following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Edo Castle was home to the Tokugawa Shoguns who ruled Japan under military government from 1603 until 1867 when the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was ousted in a coup which restored imperial rule to Japan.
A popular tourist attraction in Tokyo, free tours of the Imperial Palace grounds are offered twice a day but require a ticket which can be obtained online here or in-person on a first-come first-serve basis. We queued for tickets and then waited in the Visitor House for the guided tour to begin while watching an informational video. The tour is offered in English, takes about 75 minutes, and does not go inside any of the palace buildings. Despite the limitations and the dreary weather, we found it interesting and informative.
Following our tour, we were feeling a little peckish so Tomo led us to Nemuro Hanamaru at Sapporo Station for conveyor belt sushi. A friend who had visited Japan told me about it and I was keen to give it a try. All the foods and drinks circle around the restaurant on a conveyor belt and the patrons reach out and take whatever appeals to them. The plates are color coded and your bill is figured by the number and color of the plates.
Our last stop of the day was a walk thru the Imperial Hotel. The original, designed by famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was constructed beginning in 1917. In 1968 the hotel was replaced with a new structure but the main lobby was dismantled and moved to Meiji Mura, an open air architectural museum in Aichi Prefecture. Although nothing of the original remained in this location, we were interested in seeing where the original hotel stood because of our connection to it. You see, we were visiting from Mason City, Iowa, the home of the Historic Park Inn, the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world. Although I’m no expert on architecture, my impression was the new Imperial Hotel follows the Prairie School but in a fresher more modern style. Compare my photos below to the original.
Our first full day touring Tokyo was fascinating and I’m sure we couldn’t have accomplished so much on our own. We ended the day excited to see what day 3 with Tomo would bring. Please join us next time.
I gave our friend, Tomo, a list of sights we’d like to see in Tokyo but told him to use his own judgement. Since we had only three days and no knowledge of public transportation in a city of nearly 14 million and a metro area in excess of 37 million, it was essential to have a plan and I was grateful not to be in charge of it. In the end, we were delighted with his choices and the efficient use of our time.
Tomo picked up husband Jim, friends Lori and Rick, and me at Narita Airport following our flight from Singapore and whisked us off to Mitsui Garden Hotel Gotanda. He had approved our choice of location in the ward of Shinagawa in advance and we were exceedingly pleased with our accommodations.
We were so impressed with Mitsui Garden, I want to share more photos with you. (Click on each photo to expand.) I am not, however, receiving any remuneration for my rave review.
The lobby and lounge area including an outdoor garden were attractive and comfortable.
Our room, though small, was well-appointed, clean, comfortable, and well worth the total price of $157 per night.
Breakfast, included in the price of the hotel, was generous and delicious. We like to eat a big breakfast, have a snack or protein bar for lunch while sightseeing, and enjoy a nice dinner at a restaurant. It saves time and money to eat one meal out. This breakfast fortified us for the day.
But two surprises made this hotel the best ever. First was the public bath in the hotel. Lori and I were keen to try it out but the men voiced a hard pass. The public bath or sento is a very old tradition in Japan. Originating in the 6th century for cleansing the body and spirit according to Buddhist teaching, by the 12th century the wealthy had also adopted the ritual. Finally in the late 16th century the masses, who didn’t have bathtubs in their homes, adopted the custom of communal bathing. At one time sento etiquette allowed mixed bathing but eventually the sexes were separated. Other rules of etiquette require the removal of shoes before entering the bath house and cleansing oneself before entering the bath. No soap or washing is allowed in the bath itself. The bath is for soaking, relaxing, and conversation. Honestly, Lori and I were relieved to be the only ones in the women’s bath so we didn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of sharing the bath with others while nude. No photos are allowed in the public bath so click here to see photos on the hotel website. The photo below is Lori and me ready to go to the public bath in the spa clothing provided by the hotel.
The other surprise at the hotel was the toilet, or I should say the Shower Toilet, as I read it was called on the instructions. It looked just like toilets we’re accustomed to but it was actually bidet equipped.
I’ve seen bidets all over the world but I’ve never used one and now that I have, I’m a believer. In my opinion, no bathroom should be without this remarkable hygiene equipment. I think I was always a little put off by the fact that the bidets I’d seen previously didn’t have a seat or instructions for use. This one had both. Ours at the hotel included a heated seat, too, which was a nice addition. I’ve read you can also get a dryer on the bidet to totally eliminate the need for toilet paper which, you may have noticed, has gotten pretty expensive. File this under TMI, if you must, but I’m telling you the Shower Toilet was a Eureka moment for me.
We first arrived at our hotel late in the day and Lori wasn’t feeling well so she and Rick stayed in while Tomo took Jim and me out to dinner. For our first meal in Japan, we went to Ootoya for authentic home style Japanese comfort food. Ootoya serves an extensive menu of teishoku which is similar to prix fixe, a set number of courses at a fixed price. Teishoku consists of miso soup, rice, a main dish and several sides. It is served on a tray and is typical of the meals that Japanese eat at home.
Following dinner, we returned to our hotel for an early night. The next day we had a full schedule of sightseeing which included Shibuya Crossing, Meiji Shrine, the Imperial Palace, conveyor belt sushi, and the Imperial Hotel. Please come back and I’ll tell you all about it.
Before I share our experiences in Japan with our friend, Tomo, let me tell you how we became friends. Jim and I were at a fundraiser in the summer of 2018 when a former colleague asked me if I knew anyone who might be willing to house a Japanese student who was attending the local community college. I immediately responded we might be willing and dragged him over to share the story with Jim. He told us Tomo arrived at the Mason City airport on a bitterly cold evening in January 2018 looking for public transportation to the dorms at North Iowa Area Community College. A local architect explained there was no public transportation to the college at that hour but in the tradition of Iowa Nice, Randy offered him a ride which began their friendship. Tomo lived in the dorms for a bit, then shared an apartment with another international student but what he really wanted was to experience living with an American family. Well, Randy told Mark who told us and the rest, as they say, is history.
In a brief interview with Tomo he explained he chose NIACC because his research revealed it to be a high quality program at a relatively low cost. We explained our kids were grown and live in Des Moines so it wouldn’t be a family experience in the sense of parents with children at home, and we had a young political staffer currently staying with us. I’m not sure how much of this information Tomo understood as his English was limited and our Japanese was non-existent, but I’m sure we were the only offer on the table so we arranged for him to join our household in July.
Tomo told us he had a strong desire to see the world and he took several trips during the six months he stayed with us. Jim and I are also travelers (or we were in the Before Times, before COVID, that is) so we were gone part of the time, too. When our schedules permitted, however, we tried to share as many experiences with Tomo as possible and he seemed to enjoy most of them except maybe watching the TV show Ozark which he soon gave up on.
He insisted Jim let him mow the lawn and when I asked him about his mask, he explained it kept out contaminants. Wise pre-COVID lesson… Our 20 X 40 garden impressed him and he willingly helped Jim harvest our abundant crops. He even seemed to like shoveling snow but I suspect that enjoyment may have worn off after one winter.
Jim and I have always eaten dinner at the table together and we welcomed Tomo to join us. We cooked our usual fare and Tomo seemed to appreciate everything he ate. He introduced us to the polite Japanese customs of saying “Itadakimasu” (Let’s eat) before meals and “Gochisosama deshita” (thank you for the meal) following the meal. To hear the correct pronunciation, just click on the word. Tomo also took his turn at cooking and we enjoyed many memorable meals together. The sushi was exceptional!!
Of course, we went out to a number of restaurants as well. Tomo especially liked Mexican food so the Pastime Gardens in Mason City was an obvious choice. Kate even taught him how to cook some of her specialties and shared some culinary secrets with him but, try as we might, we couldn’t get him to spill the beans with us. The iconic Northwestern Steak House in Mason City was another definite favorite.
We took a couple of short excursions around Iowa. Friends near St Ansgar hosted a musical concert in their home so he accompanied us there and we stopped at a historic site, Fort Severson, on the way.
In Des Moines we visited the State Capitol, the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, the New Oriental Food Store, and Fong’s Pizza.
When Tomo wasn’t attending school, traveling, or performing volunteer work locally, we introduced him to leisure activities including my mahjong group (they loved him), tailgating at Iowa State football games, and Friday night wine drinking with my girlfriends although he didn’t drink. He accompanied us to a Christmas party hosted by friends and Jim even took him to a volleyball game at NIACC and they joined our sons in Ames for a wrestling meet at Iowa State.
But this rendition of Happy Birthday performed by Tomo and our neighbor, Brian, ranks right up at the top of memorable experiences.
Arigato gozaimasu, Tomo and Brian.
We enjoyed our time with Tomo so much that when he left in January 2019 to return to Japan, saying goodbye was difficult. It was made easier, however, knowing we would travel to Japan in March on our way home from a cruise around Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Tomo even helped me find our hotel in Tokyo. When I asked him about a hotel I was looking at, he laughed and said, “You don’t want to stay in that area. That’s where the yakuza and red light district are.” Yakuza are Japanese organized crime or gangsters and you know what red light district is. Thankfully, I had Tomo to steer us in the right direction!
We took Tomo to the airport on a bitterly cold morning one year after he had arrived in Mason City, Iowa. I hope he found his experience valuable. I know we did.
In my next several posts, I’ll share our experiences with Tomo in Japan.
After an ample breakfast at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Clarke Quay, we set off to Marina Bay to see the attractions we missed the previous day. Our first stop, the iconic Merlion, the official mascot of Singapore, is a water spewing 8.6 meter tall statue of a mythical creature which is half lion half fish. Unfortunately it was shrouded in screens and tarps for refurbishment so we took photos of the nearby small replica.
The views from the Esplanade of Marina Bay and the modern buildings surrounding it were all worth a second visit, however. I was especially drawn to the Art and Science Museum which looked to me like an open clamshell and the Helix, a nearby pedestrian bridge, inspired by strands of DNA.
Since our HoHo ticket wasn’t expired, we hopped on a bus on the red route to catch a ride to Little India although we could have used the mass rapid transit system, if necessary. Little India presented quite a contrast to Marina Bay. The neighborhood was vibrant and colorful with small historic shophouses rather than the new skyscrapers of Marina Bay but still very well-kept and clean.
Indians first arrived in 1819 with Sir Stamford Raffles who established a trading settlement for the British East India Company. They soon congregated in the Serangoon Road area where they engaged in brick making, quarrying lime, and raising cattle. Today the Indian culture continues to flourish in this neighborhood.
Named for the goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, dating from 1855, according to a Singapore Government Agency website, Roots. We removed our shoes as required and joined the worshippers inside.
Leaving Little India, we found the nearby neighborhood of Kampong Glam, the Muslim Quarter. This area was ceded to Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah in the 1820s by Sir Stamford Raffles as part of the deal struck handing over Singapore to the British East India Company. The Sultan soon built a palace and moved over 600 family and friends to the area. The palace was followed by a mosque built in 1824 to provide the Sultan’s entourage with a place to worship. Both have been replaced and rebuilt several times but the Malay Heritage Center occupies the palace built in the 1840s and the present Sultan Mosque was built in 1928.
Inside the Malay Visitor Center, we found a temporary exhibit titled Undangan ke Baitullah: Pilgrims’ Stories from the Malay World to Makkah. Hajj, Arabic for pilgrimage, is the requirement for all able Muslims to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The exhibition presents hajj through the personal accounts of people making the journey. As the departure point for the steamship journey to Mecca from Southeast Asia, Singapore has played a major role in the religious history of the region.
After a stroll down picturesque pedestrian Bussorah and Arab Streets, home to quaint shophouses and tempting international cuisine, we were ready to move on to one last ethnic area of the city.
China Town is the largest ethnic neighborhood in Singapore. Although there is evidence of the Chinese trading in Singapore before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles, Chinese immigration exploded with the establishment of the colony. The city plan devised by Raffles in 1822 located the Chinese inhabitants south of the Singapore River where China Town is still found today. My reading indicates the area was sordid, dark, and dirty with narrow lanes where Chinese were crowded together in poor living conditions among legal opium dens and illegal gambling houses and brothels. Today the neighborhood is bright and welcoming and, like all of Singapore, clean. We visited soon after Lunar New Year and many of the decorations were still evident. As you can probably guess when you see the photos, it was the Year of the Pig.
One sight which piqued my curiosity was the large spiky fruit sold in produce stalls for $15 each. I found out they are durians, a tropical fruit grown in southeast Asia. The popular fruit is expensive because demand exceeds supply. I’m told it’s delicious but the smell is terrible. In fact, they smell so bad they’re not allowed on public transport in Singapore.
When we found Food Street in China Town, we felt a little peckish so why not try some authentic cuisine from one of the many hawkers? Fried Kway Teow Mee is a popular stir-fried dish with flat rice noodles which is cheap and tasty. Jim and I shared a plate for around $5 and it was plenty for both of us.
Honestly, we barely scratched the surface of Singapore in two days. We could have spent several more days and enjoyed many more attractions. If you’re thinking about traveling to Asia but feel hesitant, Singapore is a great place to begin your exploration. It’s culturally diverse; safe and clean; has great food, shopping, and nightlife; and has many gardens and a tropical climate. I would welcome the opportunity to return and explore further.
But for now, we had a plane to catch to meet a friend in Tokyo.
As we arrived in Singapore on our cruise ship, the Norwegian Jewel, in March 2019, the morning views were spectacular. Although we felt a little sad about our 19 day cruise ending, our excitement and enthusiasm to explore this city increased with everything we saw. During the taxi ride to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Singapore Clarke Quay, we peppered our driver with questions. “Is it true chewing gum is illegal in Singapore?” “Yes, so is spitting.” It’s also illegal to litter which accounts for the squeaky clean appearance of the city. ” How’s the traffic?” Not really too bad because the number of cars allowed on the roads is limited by a system of auctioning expensive permits to own a car. Voting is compulsory in Singapore. The population is diverse, comprised predominantly of Chinese in addition to Malays, Indians, and Eurasians. Fortunately for us, one of the four official languages is English. Our driver was very responsive to our curiosity and volunteered a great deal of information about this city-state of 5.7 million inhabitants.
Because it was too early to check in, we deposited our bags in the hotel’s storage and set off to the nearest stop for the Ho Ho (Hop-on Hop-off) Bus. We decided to use the Ho Ho for transportation to some of our “must see” tourist attractions. Our first goal was a morning visit to the Singapore Botanic Gardens before the heat and humidity in this equatorial city completely drained our energy. After a longish wait during which we questioned whether we were in the right place, the bus finally arrived and we were on our way.
Designated the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Singapore in 2015, the Gardens were originally established in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society on an abandoned plantation. Admission to the 60 acres of tropical gardens is free but there is a small charge to visit the National Orchid Garden which is totally worth it to enjoy more than 600 varieties of orchids.
Back on the HoHo bus, we enjoyed the drive along Orchard Road, the famed shopping district, which boasts the flagship Apple store, flagship H&M, and numerous other high end shops where crazy rich tourists love to shop. We, however, had no interest in shopping. We were intent on finding our number 1 tourist attraction, Marina Bay Sands. If you saw the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, you can’t forget the scenes of the infinity pool on the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
After some confusion and wandering, we finally found the entrance to the hotel and asked where to buy tickets to the Sky Park Observation Deck. A helpful employee told us we could pay $26 to spend an hour at the observation deck or we could go up to the Cé La Vi Skybar for drinks and enjoy the view for free. Well, that was a no-brainer. We headed up to floor 57 in Tower 3.
The bar wasn’t crowded and we felt no pressure to give up our comfy seats so we lingered over our drinks and appetizers while we savored the views of Singapore. I don’t remember exactly what it cost us but a beer was around $15, a glass of wine was around $18-$20, and cocktails around $20. We felt the price was well worth it for such a memorable experience.
Directly outside the Marina Bays Sands Hotel we discovered Gardens by the Bay, home of the 16-story tall Supertrees and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. We didn’t have enough time to do justice to this 100 hectare park so we contented ourselves with the views below.
Singapore is proud of their environmental responsibility; over 47% of the island is covered by greenery including rooftop gardens and green walls; they recycle over 20% of their waste; and they are one of the 20 most carbon efficient countries in the world. I also recently read Singapore is one of the 10 cleanest cities in the world (clean meaning green.) An impressive record, to be sure. We saw these examples and many more from the HoHo bus.
Singapore has an excellent subway system called Mass Rapid Transit but we preferred to discover the city using the HoHo. For $35 we bought a 24 hour pass which oriented us to the city while we listened to the audio commentary about all the major landmarks. Although we preferred to sit on the open-air upper level, it was nice to have the optional air-con down below when the heat and humidity threatened to overwhelm us. Our hotel is circled in white on the HoHo map below so when we were done seeing the city, we disembarked and had a relatively short walk to our accommodations.
We chose the Holiday Inn Express Clarke Quay for its location, amenities, and price and we were delighted with all three. For 2 nights, we paid $325.79 which included an outstanding breakfast, wifi, rooftop garden with infinity pool, and workout facilities. And, we were close enough to walk to many of the tourist attractions we planned to see the next day.
Singapore has much more to offer. Come back and read what these crazy (but not) rich tourists saw on day 2 in Singapore.
The largest port city of Central Java Province in Indonesia with a population of more than 1.5 million, Semarang is the main producer of Jamu which is why it’s called City of Jamu. You may be thinking, “What is Jamu?” A traditional Indonesian medicinal tonic, Jamu is made from herbs, spices, and fruits. I didn’t know this, however, until we returned home. I could kick myself when I travel somewhere and find out later I missed something major like this. When I read it’s on menus everywhere throughout Indonesia, I was stunned. How had we missed it?
Then when I saw the pictures and description, it looked and sounded so healthy and tropical, I was determined to give it a try. Since it’s not on menus here or sold in stores, I’d have to make my own. After considerable research, I settled on a recipe which I revised to substitute turmeric powder for turmeric root. I have no idea where to get turmeric root and I have the powder on hand. I created the recipe below then reduced the proportions down by 75% so I’d have 1 cup of Jamu rather than 4 cups just in case we didn’t like it.
FYI: I used the plastic squeeze container of fresh ginger rather than grinding my own. With turmeric powder and the fresh ground ginger, I didn’t have to strain my Jamu after simmering either.
When it was done, I tasted it, added more lime juice and more honey, and tasted it again. I added still more honey but it didn’t help. I gave Jim a shot glass full. He took a sip and was noncommittal but he was in no hurry to finish it which spoke volumes.
Apparently, the key word in the description was medicinal and I should have paid more attention to that word. It tasted strongly of turmeric with a hint of ginger. I didn’t taste much lime and I don’t think you could add enough honey to add sweetness. This concoction is widely used by Indonesians to maintain good health and I’ve read the medicinal properties are currently attracting even more attention as a preventative and/or remedy for COVID-19. Although there is no scientific evidence to support this view, anything that improves your immune system can’t be all bad–even if it tastes bad.
Jamu wasn’t the only thing we missed in Semarang. We missed much more because we hadn’t done enough research in advance. One port of many on a 19 day NCL cruise aboard the Norwegian Jewel, we hadn’t booked an excursion in Semarang. The excursion to Borobudur, the largest Budhist temple in the world, appealed to us but the travel time on the bus was 2 hours each way and the cost was around $150 per person, neither of which appealed to us. It’s always a risk to book a private excursion even though the cost is lower since the cruise ship makes it clear they won’t wait for you if you’re delayed for any reason. Instead, we opted to explore the Old Town (Kota Lama) of the city on our own.
Not realizing we couldn’t just walk from the ship, we were unhappily surprised to learn the cruise line had a deal with local taxis to drive us to Old Town. The cost was $40 for the four of us to go one way and round trip was an additional $40. We weren’t sure how long we would want to stay and we didn’t want to commit to meet the driver at a pre-arranged time so we declined the roundtrip option. The guy who worked the deal assured us we wouldn’t find a taxi later to return us but we decided to take a chance.
The driver, who spoke no English, dropped us at Blenduk Church in Old Town. Built by the Dutch in 1753 and remodeled in 1894, this Protestant church is the oldest in Central Java. The hundred year old pipe organ is still used in church services today.
The garden in front of the church provided welcome shade for tourists including these school girls.
As we looked around wondering which way to walk to see more of the Old Town, we decided to follow other tourists thinking they might know where they were going. We walked and walked in the heat and humidity but saw nothing which looked like Tawang Railway Station or Lawang Sewu, Thousand Door Building, the two historic sights we had hoped to see. We asked several locals along the way showing them our map but no one spoke English.
When we reached busy streets, we realized we’d left the Old Town and, rather than turn around and go back, we abandoned our plan to see more there.
We saw a western-looking hotel and decided to stop in for cold drink and hopefully, a wifi connection. Although no one in the NewMetro Hotel spoke English, we were able to communicate our needs and soon we had a Bintang with wifi for a little over $3 each including tax and service.
Following our refreshments, we managed, in spite of the language barrier, to convey our need for a taxi to the staff at the front desk, no small task considering we also needed to obtain local currency to pay the taxi driver. Thankfully, the staff were very kind and helpful and before long the taxi appeared and returned us to the port. Amazingly, the return trip cost about $3 for the four of us.
We later talked to a young couple from Wisconsin onboard the ship who had booked a private excursion which broke down on the return. The bus from the cruise line’s excursion stopped to pick them up because the passengers on board chanted, “Pick them up, pick them up” until they stopped. They never would have made it back in time if that bus hadn’t stopped. What a great adventure story with a happy ending!
While we didn’t see much of Semarang, we did experience the bustle of a busy Asian city and the friendliness and helpfulness of the Indonesian people. Until next time, terima kasih (thank you).
We had arranged for a private tour on day 2 in Bali with Bali Paradise Tours as recommended by Toni and Brad, the delightful Australian couple we met in Darwin, Australia. Since we prefer to book directly with local providers, we were happy to learn about this independent tour operator. The owner and guide, Wayan Yasa, was there to meet us as arranged and helped us narrow down our interests to use our time most efficiently. Although the island is small, the traffic is challenging and we didn’t want to spend the majority of our time in the vehicle. In the end, we left it up to Wayan’s best judgment and we were happy with the results.
We took off in Wayan’s large, comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle and headed first to the iconic Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK) Cultural Park. Completed in August 2018 after 28 years of construction, this collossal monument of the mythical bird and national symbol of Indonesia, Garuda, ridden by the Hindu God Wisnu is decorated with kencana (gold), hence the name GWK Cultural Park. Taller than the Statue of Liberty and visible from many locations throughout Bali, the monument stands 121 meters (397 ft) tall and is reportedly the third tallest statue in the world.
After we purchased our tickets for 125,000 rupiah each ($8.46), Wayan loaded us onto a golf cart for the ride to the statue. I’m not sure how far the monument was from the entrance to the park but the golf cart was a welcome relief in the blazing hot sunshine accompanied by high humidity. We didn’t complain about the heat but sunscreen, a hat, and water were absolutely essential!
Notice the use of black and white buffalo check fabric called Saput Poleng in the photo below indicating balance to create harmony according to the philosophy of Rwa Bhineda. (You can read more in my previous post here.)
It’s possible to take the elevator up into the monument for a view of Bali from the top but the sign at the elevator indicated it was closed for maintenance during our visit.
The enormous cultural park also includes venues for events, an amphitheater, daily cultural performances, restaurants, and shopping but we were ready to move on.
As we drove, Wayan told us he was the oldest child in his family. In Bali the oldest male or female is always named Wayan, Putu, or Gede; the second-born is Made, Kadek, or Nengah; the third child is Nyoman or Komang; and the fourth is always Ketut. (You may recall the Balinese medicine man in Eat Pray Love was named Ketut.) If the family has more than four children, they simply begin the rotation again. That information explained our experience upon disembarkation from our cruise ship. A number of guides offered us tours to which we responded, “We’re looking for Wayan; we booked with him.” Many laughed and reponded, “My name is Wayan” which, in retrospect, was probably true. We got quite a chuckle out of that.
I asked Wayan why we saw so much discarded rubbish everywhere. He responded that it’s actually much better than it used to be and it’s an issue of education. The people need to be taught not to discard their garbage on the roadways which is an effort the government is working on. In fairness, we did see many motorcycles carrying large loads of plastic bottles for recycling so there is an outlet for recycling. I mention this not as a criticism of Bali but to prepare other tourists. I’m always disheartened when I visit areas where the environment seems neglected and I was happy to hear about the government efforts in this area.
We stopped next at Lumbung Sari Coffee Plantation for a tour and a free tasting. Even Jim, who is not a coffee drinker, enjoyed several of the coffees, teas, and cocoa.
Lumbung Sari also serves the famous Luwak coffee which required a fee to taste but we were game to try it for a mere 50,000 rp ($3.40). Luwak coffee is made from partially digested coffee beans defecated by the Asian palm civet. Think “cat-poo-chino.”
Reputed to be the most expensive coffee in the world, it, honestly, didn’t taste any better (or worse!) than any other coffee but the idea of coffee made from poop is kind of a turn-off regardless of its reputation or cost. The employee accompanying us explained that the civets, which are nocturnal, roam freely around the coffee plantation and forage for coffee berries during the night and rest in the cages during daylight. When I later read treatment of the luwak (civet) is considered unethical because they are confined to cages and their diet is restricted to coffee berries to produce more of the kopi luwak (civet coffee), I was glad we didn’t buy any to take home. We did help the local economy, however, by purchasing another Bali coffee, mango tea, and cocoa to take home to our children.
We told Wayan the one “must see” on our list was a beautiful Bali beach. After all, isn’t that what Bali is known for? He took us to Padang Padang Beach which was also featured in the movie, Eat Pray Love. For a nominal fee of 10,000 rupiah ($.67) we entered the beach while Wayan waited for us in the parking lot across the street.
As we descended the stairs to the beach, we were charmed by an added bonus, long-tailed macaques everywhere.
When we reached the beach, it was even better than the view from the street. Padang Padang, also called Pantai Labuan Sait, exceeded my expectations with the surrounding cliffs and jungle giving it a feeling of seclusion and intimacy. Reportedly one of the better surfing areas, no surfers were in the water while we were there, but the board rentals confirmed surfing was an option.
We’ve visited many beautiful beaches around the world and I would place Padang Padang among the best. As we headed back up to the street level, we couldn’t resist more photos of the macaques.