Wednesday April 11, 2018

At 8:15 in the morning, August 6, 1945, in the final hours of WW2, an atomic bomb exploded without warning in the skies over Hiroshima, turning the city into blackened, flattened wasteland of smoking rubble, and raining indiscriminate death and destruction on its civilian population. Final toll: 200,000 – 70% of them children, women and the elderly (many killed instantly by the massive blast, many more dying slowly and lingeringly from burns and radiation).

Three days later, at two minutes past 11, August 9, 1945, in a blinding flash of light and a thunderous, terrifying roar, a second bomb was detonated fatally above the city of Nagasaki. The grim statistics this time: 73,000 dead – 75,000 injured – 120,000 left homeless.



Like most Kiwis of our generation, we’ve known for ages of these Japanese place-names and what they signify. But this week, as we’ve visited the vibrant, charming, attractive cities that have arisen from the ashes, we Mad Midlifers been confronted with and challenged by the grim statistics, the horrifying photos, the heart-breaking stories … and forced to think again about the sheer insanity of war and our planet’s desperate need for peace.

Delivered from Kyoto to Hiroshima by a 330kph bullet-train, we found ourselves amongst wide boulevards and welcoming people. It was cold and wet when we toured the sobering Peace Memorial Park & Museum and grabbed photos of the Atomic Bomb Dome (the only structure left standing in the area where the first bomb exploded). But the rain only added to the atmosphere … as did the small group of Japanese ladies, singing beautiful peace-songs under their dripping umbrellas.

The following morning (Saturday) we braved shivering temperatures and took a short ferry ride out to Miyajima Island, a small wooded outcrop on the Seto Inland Sea. There we eyeballed the famous Torii Gate, entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine, and known worldwide for seeming to float on the sea. We rode the Mt Misen Ropeway (gondola) for some up-high grey-sky views … visited the Daishon Temple, a sacred historic complex deep in the forest … inspected the Five Story Pagoda, a stunning vermillion-coloured masterpiece built in 1407 … witnessed a wedding … and shopped for souvenirs and yummy hot food (like the local speciality: okonomiyaki rolls) in Omotesando Street, the liveliest place in Miyajima.

Sunday found us another 90 minutes by bullet-train to the south, in the city of Nagasaki – today a unique Japanese gem that begged us to explore. We spent the afternoon studying more horror-photos and artefacts in the Atomic Bomb Museum … checking out the lovely sculptures displayed in the Peace Park (including a stunning stainless-steel Maori peace-cloak donated by Aotearoa New Zealand) … and reflecting on the moving message conveyed by a 10-tonne bronze peace-statue at the top of the Park.

Our hearts joined with the good people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in feeling, thinking, praying, hoping: “No more! Never again!”

That evening we rode a gondola up the Mt Inasa Ropeway to a magnificent observation platform (333 metres above sea level) when spectacular night-time views and another yummy Japanese feast awaited us. And the following morning we rode a rockin’ rollin’ ferry across a choppy sea to Hashima Island: once a bustling coal-mining community, now an abandoned ghostly attraction – recognised by UNESCO and known as Gunkanjima (‘battleship island’) because of its ship-like silhouette.

FINAL RANDOM THOUGHTS: Believe it or not, our Mad Midlife Adventure in Japan is over! We arrived back in Godzone yesterday morning and were greeted by a drenching downpour (the tail-end of a tornado).

Over the past two-and-a-half weeks, Japan has wowed us and impressed us – an even-better-than-expected travel experience that we’re not likely to forget. The people we met couldn’t have been more friendly, courteous, welcoming. The infrastructure, everywhere we went, blew us away, with hi-tech road-and rail systems that make New Zealand seem Third World. The facilities, without exception, were spotless and hygienic – and we’ve all come home wanting the combination toilets-&-bidets we encountered (and played with, of course!) in every hotel and public loo. The streets & parks are clean-as, free of rubbish and rubbish-bins (the public are taught to take their rubbish home with them). And the scenic beauty throughout our trip kept cameras running hot – gorgeous gardens, exquisite flowers, manicured shrubs, and of course those stunning ever-present cherry-blossoms.

The food was an adventure all in itself, and we literally ate our way around Japan – whether sushi (we even made our own) … or sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish and meat) … or shabu-shabu (cooked piece-by-piece in a hotpot, and eaten with dipping sauce) … or tempura (battered and deep-fried delicacies) … or yakitori (skewered and grilled chicken or pork) … or kaiseki (an intricate multi-course meal, with each item served in a tiny dish) … or eat-as-much-as-you-can-get-on-your-chopsticks Japanese buffet – all of it fresh and healthy and non-fattening.

We’ve had a BALL, we really have … and we’ve got memories and photos to prove it!

So “Sayonara, Japan!” Goodbye – and thank you!

05-41 Nagasaki - farewell banquet (1024x768)

PEOPLE-NEWS: Some last-minute Yellow Duckies have quacked their way into the hands of proud new owners …

  • EVELYN scored our ‘Mixing Her Drinks’ Award at breakfast the other morning – for pouring herself what she thought was a nice big glass of water, only to discover it was a nice big glass of sake (potent Japanese rice-wine). Evelyn is still giggling.
  • PATTY ran away with another ducky plus our Cards Anyone?’ Award – for losing her hotel key-card not once but twice in the same day, requiring her to seek replacements from the reception-desk. (Turns out she found the missing cards later – in her bra!)
  • HEATHER B won our late-entry Make It Unclick’ Award – for attempting (not once or twice but 10 times, according to her husband) to vacate her seat on successive coaches without first un-clipping her seatbelt. (If you don’t believe me, she’ll show you the bruises!)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. Our upcoming 2019 TOURS are filling nicely. But there’s still room for you – why don’t you join us?

  • in March 2019 we’re off to Vietnam & Cambodia for an eye-opening tour plus luxury river-cruise: MIDLIFE MADNESS ON THE MEKONG
  • in May 2019 we’ll enjoy a grand tour in the colourful lands of flamenco, sangria and tapas: MIDLIFE MADNESS IN SPAIN & PORTUGAL
  • in Sept 2019 we’ve schedule a rail-adventure through the Canadian Rockies plus a luxury cruise up the glacier-clad shores of Alaska: MIDLIFE MADNESS IN ALASKA

For more details and a free Tour InfoPack, phone Glen (our booking manager at House of Travel Ellerslie) on 0800 323 333 … or email midlifemadness@hot.co.nz.



Thursday April 5, 2018

We’ve spent the past two days in Kyoto – one-time Imperial Capital and geisha-girl centre, on the island of Honshu. Known for its Buddhist temples, gorgeous gardens and colourful shrines, Kyoto has been dubbed “Japan’s cultural heart.” And having just wandered, meandered and ambled our way around the finest and best of those temples, gardens and shrines – shopping for souvenirs as we went, and mingling with vast crowds of happy devotees, onlookers and families – we can vouch to the truth of that statement.

I could try and impress you by listing, naming and describing each temple in turn, but that would mean little to you – and I’d probably get my Kinkakujis confused with my Ryoanjis, and my Kiyomizus mixed up with my Tenryujis. So how about I just post another 40 photos and let you get the general impression for yourself?



You can sit back and enjoy the pix. But, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go to bed.

COMING UP: In the decades since that dreadful day in August 1945 when an atomic bomb rained death and destruction from the skies, Hiroshima has rebuilt itself as one of Japan’s most laidback, vibrant cities. I’ll tell you more soon, so don’t go away …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Yes, nominations continue to trickle in, and Quacky Yellow Ducks continue to be awarded to deserving Mad Midlifers …

  • ALLISON claimed her second duck by winning our ‘Agatha Christie Murder Mystery’ Award – after returning to the coach yesterday and promptly announcing ‘the Case of the Stolen Camera’ (which was no longer where she’d left it, in the seat-pocket in front of her). But five minutes later she amended that to ‘the Case of Sitting on the Wrong Seat on the Coach’!
  • MARJORY won a cute little duckie, along with our ‘Lost in Translation’ Award – when she was mistaken for a Japanese tour guide by one of the hotel staff. Our group was waiting in the lobby, and despite Marjory’s denials, the staff member kept telling her goodness-knows-what in rapid=fire Japanese.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Tuesday April 3, 2018

Sunday began with something none of us had ever done before on a Sunday (or any other day of the week, for that matter). We visited one of Japan’s largest wasabi farms where, once we’d seen how they grow and make this potent green mustard, we tried our tastebuds on wasabi paste, wasabi pickles, wasabi noodles, wasabi crackers, wasabi peanuts, wasabi ice-cream and wasabi chocolate – yum!

We then headed for Matsumoto Castle, the oldest surviving wooden samurai fortress in Japan. Built by the Ogasawara clan in 1504 and painted a brooding black to deter would-be attackers, it was nicknamed ‘Karasujo’ (Crow Castle).

Later, after a 90-minute drive to scenic Lake Kawaguchi, we toured the Ichiku Kubota Museum, named after the artist who revived the lost art of Tsujigahana kimono silk dyeing. It was here we caught our first (hazy) sighting of Japan’s highest and most worshipped mountain: Mt Fuji.

Following breakfast yesterday we enjoyed a leisurely cruise on picture-perfect Lake Ashi – then rode the Hakone Ropeway (cable-car) up Mt Owakudani, gliding over rumbling, steaming sulphurous vents. Japanese legend says that, if you eat a hard-boiled egg cooked in the surrounding volcanic hot springs, you’ll add seven years to your life – so, of course, most of us had to try, gobbling down one (or more) of these strange looking eggs, their shells turned black by the sulphur. (Watch us closely for signs of improved longevity!)

We ended the day with a hi-speed ride on one of Japan’s legendary bullet-trains – to Osaka (population a mere 10 million, second-largest metro area after Tokyo).

I hope you’re not getting tired of cherry-blossom photos, but we couldn’t possibly have timed this trip better. It’s springtime here in Japan, and the nation’s iconic ‘sakura’ (cherry-blossom trees) have “erupted in a magical blaze of pink-and-white” (to quote a website I found), “blanketing town and country in soft, colourful splendour.” There must be multiple millions of these beautiful trees (I kid you not) … and everywhere we’ve been, the glorious blossoms have been there too.

They seem to be especially glorious in Osaka, and a river-cruise this morning gave us an eyeful – with kilometre after kilometre of blooming cherry trees lining both banks. You can’t really appreciate the impact they make until you’re here, seeing them for yourself.

We got some pix of impressive Osaka Castle – one of Japan’s most famous landmarks (which played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century). Then we drove to the city of Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital (crammed with World Heritage Sites, temples and cultural significance) where we checked out the colourful Todaiji Temple (its Great Buddha Hall houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha) … wandered through Nara Park (with its herds of free-roaming, white-bottomed deer) … and stared in awe at the huge Shinto Kasuga Shrine (first built in 768AD by order of Emperor Shotoku).

COMING UP: We had dinner tonight in the city of Kyoto – Japan’s cultural heart, known for its Buddhist temples, stunning gardens and magnificent shrines. And tomorrow, well, stay tuned …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our Mad Midlifers keep doing silly things, and Quacky Yellow Ducks keep getting handed out to acknowledge and punish these mishaps …

  • SANDRA scored our new ‘Moonshine’ Award – after her curiosity got the better of in her hotel room the other night. She took a bottle of whisky out of the mini-bar vending-machine in her fridge just to see how it worked, then couldn’t get it back in – and had to do some fast talking to avoid paying for the unwanted liquor!
  • ALLISON romped home with our ‘Ring of Confidence’ Award – after getting her bathroom tubes muddled up and cleaning her teeth with something other than toothpaste!
  • PATTY won her second duck this trip – our ‘You Can Take Her Anywhere’ Award – when, at a ‘shubu-shabu’ restaurant last night, she was spotted eating with a soup ladle (!) instead of her chopsticks …
  • CATHERINE (it turns out) did exactly the same … so she got a ducky, too!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)



Saturday March 31, 2018

On Thursday, while folk back home were getting ready for Easter and a long weekend, we Mad Midlifers left fast-paced, hi-tech Tokyo and drove two and a half hours into the countryside where (for something utterly different) we plunged into Japanese history and culture. The town of Nikko was a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries. It sits at the entrance to a scenic National Park, and is most famous for its World Heritage shrines and temples – including the lavishly decorated Toshogu, final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years (until 1868) … and Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu.

We Kiwis toured both sites, then took a leisurely wander through the Tamozawa Imperial Villa – a splendidly restored imperial palace dating from the Edo and Meiji eras.

That night (and the night after) we were guests at the Kinugawa Park Hotel – a small, traditional Japanese inn (‘ryokan’) that allowed us the chance to experience traditional Japanese hospitality. We traded our shoes for traditional Japanese footwear … our Western-style clothes for traditional Japanese gowns … our beds (if we chose) for traditional Japanese ‘tatami’ mats, made from woven rushes … and our normal breakfast and dinner options for traditional Japanese food. We also had the chance to join traditional Japanese guests for a soak in a traditional ‘onsen’ – a steaming rock pool fed by thermal springs, men one side, women the other, and not a stitch of clothing allowed!

Yesterday, we braved chilly winds and countless hairpin-bends in the snow-splashed mountains surrounding Nikko so we could eyeball a stunning lake-cum-summer-resort. Then we were off to Edo Wonderland – a fun-filled theme-park that took us back in time to the 17th century era of Japanese merchants, craftsmen, peasants, ninja warriors, samurai swordsmen and kimono-robed courtesans.

Finally, this morning, we drove four hours to the temple-town of Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics), where we went in search of some apes that reportedly enjoy a hot bath in the middle of winter. The Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to large groups of Japanese Macaques – also known as Snow Monkeys – that regularly soak themselves (and their cute babies) in the steaming natural spa-pools.

It wasn’t cold enough for them to be soaking today, but we Kiwis were nevertheless enchanted! And we had to tear ourselves away for one last-but-not-least visit to Zenkoji Temple (revered for more than 1400 years as Japan’s primary Buddhist centre).

COMING UP: Tomorrow we check out a ‘wasabi’ farm … an extremely old wooden castle … and the ancient Japanese art of silk-dyeing. So don’t go away …

PEOPLE-NEWS: More of our world-famous Quacky Yellow Ducks have been flapping their wings and finding new owners …

  • JOHN S walked away with our coveted ‘Cutlery’ Award – after being spotted during a dumpling dinner last night trying (unsuccessfully) to use his chopsticks like a knife-&-fork – holding his food down with one, and trying to saw it into pieces with the other!
  • LLOYD, our Japanese guide and mentor, won, for the first time ever, our ‘Slave-Driver’ Award – after making us climb at least a zillion stone steps to photograph a stupid stone cat.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)