So we got on our way, sailing out through Shanghai’s harbour with inland lights blurred through the fog. The Captain of the Ship gave us periodic up-dates of our progress through the PA system. I doubt that he showed up at anyone’s dinner table that night, however, because the news was not good. We would be pulling alongside Okinawa the next day to ‘fulfill immigration formalities’, but not getting off.
Our table mates at dinner, like us, had signed on to this cruise largely because of the glorious itinerary. Unlike us, the two husbands had a history with Okinawa, and were eager to return and see it again without the stress of military service during the Korean War. With our schedule drastically cut short by the foggy lull, our stops would all be effected.
But the brou-ha-ha in Okinawa became nearly a tease. We sailed into the harbour in the late afternoon. The onshore teams fastened the ropes, and there we stayed on-board, watching the lights emerge into nighttime, a literal footstep away. My disappointment was minimal. I roamed the ship, seeing the area from every perspective, watching the harbour traffic and the business day wrap up and the traffic flow home. I rather enjoyed my quiet observer’s viewpoint from far away. But for my table mates, the disappointment must have cut deep. For me, it was just one more city in the world to almost-visit. For them, it was a lost chance to replace memories with a renewed feet-on-the-ground experience.
On we sailed, with a shortened day in Keelung, Taiwan next.
It wasn’t only the cleanliness of Osaka’s streets that caught our attention. It was the artistic attention to detail that graced the very sidewalks. Stanley was the first to notice, fascinated as he is by a city’s mechanics: how does the subway work, where are the utility lines, what is that beautiful manhole cover doing in the middle of the sidewalk? I might never have glanced down, and if not, I would have missed one of those items that most aptly described the place we were visiting. Manhole cover works of art – who would ever have guessed – and each one we saw was different from all the others.
That discovery led me to thinking how wonderful are those visits that are put together by a surprise of coincidence. Like this one to Osaka, starting with that rousing welcome I gratefully witnessed from the balcony. No one can plan this experience.
Close to the end of our day, we walked into a food court, expecting some food. We found colors, flags, streamers, paper kites, and outside the opposite door, a crowd of people clapping in time to a performance of some sort. We decided the food could wait; we went to see what was holding the crowd’s attention. A young juggler spun flaming batons, then tossed them into the air, catching as they came down. He spoke constantly to the crowd through a tiny microphone strapped to his ear, and they laughed and clapped in response. The music was loud, the crowd delighted, the entertainer vibrant. The flaming torches added just that touch of danger and sparkle.
It was time to return to the ship. We sailed away as the enormous ferris wheel on the wharf lit up. To predict cool weather the next day, blues would appear, warm weather would lite up with red. After a day filled with man hole cover works-of-art, an Instamatic camera buff, metropolitan young men, a geisha on the subway, a torch-swirling comedian, a slow ferris wheel softly lighting the night and predicting tomorrow’s weather should not have surprised me.
It had all started with booms from a bass drum as the band welcomed us to Osaka. If we had been in the room we paid for, we would never have seen this heart-warming welcome. Especially when we travel on cruise ship, we look for the best travel deal possible. We had reserved and paid for a cheaper interior room. We’d really only be there to sleep, so what’s the big deal? A couple weeks before we sailed, we got an email announcing an upgrade. We’d been moved to a balcony room. A day after that, we received a second email announcing another upgrade – to a mini-suite. Until we arrived in Osaka, I hadn’t been all that impressed. An interior room on a ship is nice; the mini-suite is also nice, just more spacious. But I was very happy to see the welcome that Osaka gave that morning, and I have the balcony to thank for that.
We had high expectations for Osaka, where our ship would dock in the city center. The day before, we had attended the ship’s port talk, the first time we had used this source of information. Turns out, we had been missing some good advice all those times we skipped the lecture. The presenter had great slides and instructions about how to use the subway, and what to see in the city. We planned what we wanted to do: long walks to the fun shopping streets, long walks to a castle, long walks to find udon noodles, long walks to buy comic books. Our itinerary filled up, and we put ourselves to bed the night before with hopes of a fabulous first day in Japan.
I slept well. Until I started dreaming about marching bands. The steady boom of a bass drum keeping up with a row of trumpets, and the ting of a triangle entered my peaceful rest. Marching bands? When the ripple of snare drums started up, I decided I better open my eyes. The edges of the curtain told me morning was approaching. The band played on, despite me waking up. I got out of bed and opened the curtain, then the patio doors and stepped onto the balcony*. Right below on the dock, nine stories down, there stood a dozen members of a marching band, playing ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ like the whole world should hear them. And the world whole should have – their rousing music took my breath away. Too soon, the song ended, the band flourishing at exactly the right moment. In Osaka’s early grey dawn, applause sounded from the ship as a Japanese band marched away to the fading notes of an old American patriotic standard.
Welcome ashore. Rubbing up against the wharf in a tight hug, we had a city to reach out and touch. As we had slept, we’d been guided to a different country. This is the best advantage of cruising: you get to a fabulous place while you sleep in comfort. Workers on the dock finished tying the ropes that would hold us in place at the port of Osaka. It was time for Stanley to get up and smell the Udon broth waiting for us along the bright, clean streets of the first Japanese city we will ever have visited.
The subway provided us with a perfect introduction. Though it was well-used, there was a quiet order about the ride. We stayed on to the end of the green line, retraced our steps then took the blue line to find some comics, back on the brown line to the castle, a little bit of everything to get us back to the ship. I love getting lost in places that are new to me, and though I tried in Osaka, I did not get lost. It was disappointing and reassuring at the same time. We sat next to a hundred or more young men in tailored dark business suits and one young lady in geisha-wear. We sat near a family from San Jose, California, Japanese-Americans, who looked at their new surroundings with the same expressions as were on our faces. I admired the outfits that the young women wore: short pumps, nylon stockings, tailored skirts, flared jackets. I knew that the conservative attire of the daytime might change dramatically for fun and frolic at night. Sitting on the subway, watching another culture’s day begin is more fascinating to me than the most thorough history book.
On the Osaka Castle grounds, a young man approached and bowed. He handed me an Instamatic camera, a type I had never seen before, and mimicked taking a photo. Without speaking, he gave me a couple instructions, then stepped back, framed by a cherry-blossomed tree, and I snapped the photo. Through hand motions and expressions, he asked me and Stanley to pose, and handed us the developing picture when he was finished. Without a word of common language, we had a memorable exchange.
We stopped at the vibrant comic stands and bought a Manga comic, stopped at the wild tee-shirt shops and bought two outlandish shirts. But really, the only souvenir I value from Osaka is my under-developed photo of Stanley and me standing beside the cherry tree on the castle grounds, taken by a fellow whose name I will never know.