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|Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2019
Japan and Alaska - part 1
This was a cruise with a number of district parts. The first section was similar to a sector of a world cruise - the Queen Elizabeth had come from Southampton and we joined in Japan for the sector to Alaska and Canada. At that point she started a series of short cruises out of Vancouver to Alaska involving the 'Inner Passage' - we continued our cruise to do the first of these which had little overlap with our inward passage to Vancouver giving a total holiday of 29 days, just inside our insurance limit. The full itinerary was Yokohama, Aomori and Muroran for Sapporo in Japan, then seven sea days to Kodiak followed by Anchorage, Juneau, Vancouver, Juneau for a second half day visit, Skagway, the Hubbard Glacier, Icy Strait Point, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria and Vancouver in Canada.
In Japan we were fortunate to just catch the end of the cherry blossom and both Aomori and Sapporo were new to us and were maiden ports to the Queen Elizabeth as, in fact, were all the remaining ports. As far as we can tell the last time Cunard visited any of the ports in Alaska was with the QE2.
The crossing to Alaska had seven sea days, including crossing the Date Line so we had the delights of Sunday 12 May repeated, which potentially confused our four cameras. In addition each day at sea was only 23 hours so that we would arrive at Kodiak with ship time identical to shore time. Unusually the time changes took place at 0900 in the morning so an hour went missing out of breakfast for those that rose late but much better for us as Pete still goes to the Gym at 0600 and an hour of sleep going missing would be a pain.
This was our first visit to Alaska: so what stood out? Wildlife, for certain - we saw Bald Eagles, Sea Lions, Otters and most memorable were the many sightings of Whales, some very close to the ship in pods of up to six. Also the native culture and races and, in particular, the many Totem Poles. We learnt a lot about the natural resources on which Alaska was built, initially the fur trades and above all fishing where salmon, crab and halibut come to mind and all were sampled. Gold, our readers will know we have an interest in gold mining, and Gold played a key role both in places such as the Juneau Gold belt and in the access routes to places such as the Klondike. And last but not least, the scenery - Alaska is is the home of thousands of glaciers and perhaps the most memorable day of the holiday was that of the visit to the Hubbard Glacier on a day which the pilot said was perhaps the best he had experienced in 20 years. The interface to the sea is seven miles wide and the glacier is several hundred feet high and is continually calving. The ice is this most incredible blue - we can not resist putting this panoramic shot into the introduction!
As well as our write up of the ports Pete has put together a few pieces of background which are interspersed with the visits. They include: Saki, the Juneau Gold Belt, Salmon and the significance of Totem Poles.
Having spent a pleasant 3 hours in the Airport Lounge at London Heathrow Terminal 5 there was just 1 hour left before we could board our flight which had been delayed due to changing the aircraft. Therefore our overnight BA flight from London arrived late at Tokyo Narita. There were 72 Cunard passengers on board and we were collected and installed onto 3 coaches for the journey to Yokohama port. There were no worries about missing the ship because we had Cunard transfers and the ship always waits. Narita airport is 35 miles from Tokyo and then Yokohama is almost as far the other side of Tokyo.
The coach journey was about 1.5 hours on fast roads and we expect a taxi would have been very, very expensive. Yokohama is the port for Tokyo and the two cities have grown together so they are almost joined. We had visited Yokohama on previous cruises and there are a number of interesting museums including the restored moored liner Hikawa Maru which cruised between Yokohama and Seattle in 1930-60. We had arrived late so there were no queues for checkin, and we were quickly on board just in time for the lifeboat drill at 1615. Our luggage arrived very quickly and the QE departed on time at 1730. Dinner sitting times have changed and are earlier at 1730 and then 1945. This was good news although we had assumed late dinner would be at the usual 2030 and only just got to the restaurant in time. We were pleased to find that Captain Thorhauge has moved to command the QE from the QV – we had last seen her on the QV Christmas cruise in 2016.
After the long flight and the time difference we had decided to only book a short tour today which departed at 1100. We awoke in plenty of time to watch the approach to Aomori at the end of the bay. Aomori is the capital city of the Aomori Prefecture which is in the far north of Japan’s main island. Aomori Prefecture is known for its production of apples, sake and fresh seafood, and in late April is famous for scented cherry blossoms. Unfortunately the cherry blossom season had been declared completed just a few days earlier but there were still a few trees in blossom. Aomori was the main crossing point to our next destination on the island of Hokkaido (to the north) before the opening of the 25km Seikan Tunnel in 1988. Approaching the berth there was the distinctive ASPAM (Aomori Prefecture Tourist Centre) building (an A-shape but also similar to a Toblerone) in front. On the right was the Aomori Bay Bridge and the pink Sii Line Ferry Terminal with the Hakkoda-Maru ferry berthed nearby. We berthed at 0800 and were greeted by a large brass band, groups of local musicians, and dancing mascots.
The cruise terminal building had a baggage area with money exchange and free samples of the local delicious apple juice. There is a good pedestrian waterfront walkway which leads to the ASPAM, then continues to the Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse, the A-Factory, the railway station and the Aomori Bay Bridge. The ASPAM was open and we looked inside the tourist shops which sold local food, fruit juice, sake and souvenirs.
Our tour bus was loaded early and we set off to the Seiryu-ji Temple. The bus parked next to the vermilion hall which enshrines Kobo Daishi. The entrance path led directly to the Kaisando (on the right) and the Kondo, the main hall. On the left, the Five Storied Pagoda is the highest wooden pagoda to the north of Kyoto. It is made of Japanese Hiba cypress from Aomori. The approach to the seated Buddha statue is along the green corridor which has a stand of pin-wheels to remember deceased children. There is a large statue of Kannon which protects people from dementia.
The remains of a wall of cherry blossom faces the great statue of Japan’s largest seated Buddha which is made of bronze,is 70 feet tall, and weighs 220 tons. It was built in 1984. The second floor inside the statue has a room to pray for peace and pray to the war dead. Outside there is the Ichigan Kannon which will accept one wish, and then the statue of Fudo Myooh who brings people from the wrong path back to the right path. Returning to the Kondo there was just time to look inside, sit and listen to the music played on modern stringed instruments which were copies of traditional ones, and taste tea.
For the second visit, to the Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE, the bus returned to the port. The Nebuta Festival is a summer festival held every year from 2 to 7 August. There is a similar festival, Neputa Festival, held in nearby Hirosaki. A daily parade of enormous lantern floats is flanked by taiko drums, musicians and dancers. The floats are up to nine metres wide and five metres tall, made from painted special paper over a wire frame (often taking a year to build). They are powered by teams of people who manoeuvre them and spin for the crowds. The museum attempts to capture the spirit of the festival in sights and sounds as well as explain its 300 year history. The visit began with a performance by musicians at 13.10 and we arrived just in time. One float on display from the parade in 2018 was of Chinese mythology : "Queen Mother of the West (Chinese Goddess) celebrates universal peace". Another was of Japanese mythology "Dragon and Warrior Takeda in Iwaki River". For comparison there was a much smaller restored bamboo structured float which dated from the 1950s showing a scene from the Japanese popular play "Sogagoro and Goshogoromaru". Visitors were encouraged to touch partially completed work and to climb steps to look inside a float. There was much to see and we had permission to leave the bus here and spend more time at the museum, instead of going back to the ship. It was also the first time of experience of the famous Japanese toilet with its heated seats and technology in the museum.
Our plan had been to go independently to the Aomori Museum of History which was about 2kms away but instead we went to the Seikan Ferry Memorial Ship Hakkoda-maru. It was very close, we had seen the ship from the Queen Elizabeth, and the distinctive yellow hull was backed into the former railway loading berth. It is a Memorial Ship because it is on display as a memorial to all the Seikan ferries which used to travel from the port. We had only 1000 yen ($10) in cash which we had changed for postcards and tips, so we were really happy that it only cost 450 yen each to visit the Hakkoda-maru. The ship has 5 floors which can be visited. Entry is on the Superstructure Deck. Then there are stairs up to the Promenade Deck which has lots of interesting information and a number of displays using typical produce and mannequins dressed in clothes of the time. The first Seikan ferry was the Hirafu-maru which started operation in 1908. Hakkoda-maru began operation on August 12 1964 and was in service for 23 years and 7 months, retiring on March 13 1988 when it was replaced by the new tunnel. It is 132m long, 17.9m wide, just over 5,000 gross ton with passenger capacity of 1286 persons. It can carry 48 vehicles. The Promenade Deck has a row of first class reclining seats, several cabins including the captain, and a Seikan Ferry Memorial Hall full of equipment, models and memorabilia. The third floor is the Navigation Deck which has the Wireless Room and the Pilothouse and looks very similar to its original specification with equipment dated 1964 by Sperry. Typical for its age, the ship has variable pitch propellors and propellor-bow thrusters which are controlled remotely from the Pilothouse. There is a radar system and automatic pilot. From the Bridge it was possible to go outside and climb up inside the funnel for a good view of the harbour, the pink Sii Line Ferry Terminal and the Queen Elizabeth. A lift has to be used to go down to the Wagon Deck where there are several real railroad vehicles exhibited, and finally down one more set of stairs to the Engine Room. The leaflet said the engine is a single acting 4-cycle trunk piston engine with exhaust turbo. There are 8 units, each delivering 1,600 horsepower. Overall it was an excellent visit, the ship was in good condition, and the only challenge was that there was not very much information in English, and only cash was accepted. Some local visitors chatted to us and gave us information as we walked around, which was very kind.
Aomori Cider are in the A-factory (A = apple) opposite to the Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE and next to the Hakkoda Maru.The stainless steel tanks used to make their cider are visible from the front door and there is a Tasting Room upstairs. The A-factory also had a good range of local products. It was too late to look for other museums so the next visit was to the shops, hoping to purchase local apple juice and perhaps apple wine. The Sendai Regional Taxation Bureau were sponsoring a tasting of Aomori sake, for guests from the Queen Elizabeth. We had found the shops very confusing when we looked at the labels on bottles of juice, wine and sake, so this was a good opportunity to try samples of some of the local drinks and learn about them. We were also open to persuasion to buy if there was anything we liked. The tasting involved entering a long room, being given a very small plastic glass, and then a list numbered 1 to 60 which matched the numbers on the stalls around the room. It was a very interesting tasting event, we liked many of the sakes open for tasting, and eventually decided on 5 or 6 which we enjoyed and were priced at $15 to $20. Nothing could be bought at the tasting, we had to go to the supermarket/souvenir shop next door. Some of our favourites had already sold out, but there were others which looked good but we had not tasted. So we made several trips between the tasting room and the shop, with photographs of bottles, to check what was still for sale. It was a very enjoyable tasting arrangement and we did not need any wine with our dinner that evening.
Having tried so many different flavours of sake the following short article explains how sake is made and how to understand the different qualities and flavours.
Sake is a traditional alcoholic beverage in Japan. It is an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle and culture. Sake is made from rice, a staple food in Japan, by fermentation. The processes and methods of making sake are however quite a bit more complicated than those for making wine and beer. The traditional skills of chief sake makers, called toji, as well as modern scientific knowledge, have made it possible to produce varieties of high quality sake.
The major difference in the production of sake is that an extra stage is required as yeast can not convert starch, which is the main component of rice, into alcohol so the starch has to be first converted to sugar by enzymes produced by the koji mould. The koji mould has been used to produce sake since ancient times. Koji mould is also used for making such traditional Japanese products as shochu (a Japanese White spirit), awamori (an Okinawan spirit made with black koji only), miso, soy sauce, vinegar, and pickles.
Special varieties of rice are used for sake making, called shuzo-kotekimai, just as wine is made from wine grapes. Fine polished white rice, not brown rice, is used to make sake. Rice contains protein as well as starch. The koji enzymes also break down protein to amino acids and peptides. These compounds provide umami (savory taste). However, if there is too much amino acids and peptides, then the taste will become too intense. The oil in the rice grains also prevents the development of a fruity aroma. Therefore, sake breweries polish off the outer layer of the rice grains, the bran, which contains a lot of protein and oil, so that the sake will develop its special aroma. Table rice is polished to remove about 10% 0f the outer layer. For sake at least 30% of the grain is polished away, which means that 70% is left. The proportion of rice remaining, not the proportion removed is called the rice-polishing ratio and is one indication of quality which should appear on the label, 60% seems typical.
The polished rice is then washed and soaked in water. The type of water used is critical as even traces of some impurities such as iron effect the taste and colour even at 0.02 parts per million ie at a level many times below that acceptable in drinking water. The amount of water adsorbed into the rice is also critical and controlled to ~1% for the next stage which is steaming to ensure the grains do not stick.
The first step in making koji is to cool down the steamed rice, and bring it into a koji room where the rice is spread out on a long table called toko, and spores of koji mould are scattered over it. Then, the mass is mixed well so that the spores adhere evenly to the steamed rice. After that, the rice is heaped up and covered with cloth to keep the temperature and humidity of rice constant. The scattered spores germinate and extend their hyphae. During this process, the temperature of koji rises from the heat generated by the koji's metabolism. In order to keep a suitable temperature, moisture, and the growth of hyphae uniformly, the koji is mixed and the pile is spread out again. As time goes by, white areas called haze extend across the surfaces of the rice. Approximately two days after the rice is placed in the koji making room, the koji making is finished. The koji extends hyphae not only on the rice, but also into the rice grains. While the koji mould is growing on the steamed rice, it produces enzymes. The enzymes play a key role in the sake making as it is the enzymes from the koji that convert the starch in the rice into sugar which can be used by yeast.
In parallel a yeast starter is produced. This used to be a complex task taking many weeks and several stages just to get a medium in which the yeast would thrive and any bacteria would be killed off. Modern methods use lactic acid produced for brewing rather than an initial lactic acid fermentation process and one of a number of special yeasts developed by NRIB (National Research Institute of Brewing). This lactic acid prevents the growth of bacteria as well as providing the acidity for the starter to grow rapidly. The classical kimoto process was fascinating and is worth looking up.
The main elements for making sake are now ready. The fermentation mash (moromi) is made by putting the steamed rice, rice koji, water, and starter into a fermentation tank. Batches vary between 100kgs and 10 tons and the ratio is typically 77 kg steamed rice, 23 kg rice koji and 130 litres water. The fermentation is done in three stages with portions of the mash added in sequence to avoid lowering the yeast density and the acid level in the mash and to prevent bacterial contamination.
On the first day, the entire quantity of fermentation starter, 1/6 of the total volume of steamed rice, rice koji, and water are used. The yeast is left to grow for two days then on the third day another 1/3 of the steamed rice, rice koji, and water are added. On the fourth day the remaining 1/2 of the steamed rice, rice koji, and water are added. The mash is mixed every day and is kept at a low temperature (about 15°C). After three weeks the alcohol concentration will reach 18% and fermentation will stop.
The fermentation mash still contains a lot of solid substances so it is pressed. There is usually has an addition of distilled alcohol to the sake before pressing to adjust the flavour and preserve it from bacterial contamination.
The new sake is almost always pasteurized to kill bacteria that cause deterioration during storage and to prevent further enzymatic reaction. After the heat sterilization (at about 70 deg) the sake is stored for a period of 6 months to a year. Then it is diluted back to about 16%, a more acceptable strength for drinking, bottled and shipped. Usually there is also a final pasteurisation before bottling or even in the bottle. Only recently has the technology allowed long intentional storage and most sake was and still is drunk young, usually under a year.
History: It is not exactly known just when people began making sake in Japan. However, it is believed that an alcoholic beverage made from rice was already being made in the Yayoi period (300 BC-250 AD) when rice cultivation was brought from China to Japan. It was during the last half of the Nara period (710-794) when the methods of rice growing became stable. A special organization called Sake-no-Tsukasa was established to produce sake for the Imperial Court. During the Heian period (794-1185), sake was made in temples and shrines, as well as among the people. Sake breweries appeared in the Muromachi period (1333-1573). Because of this, the Muromachi Shogunate started charging taxes on sake production, as a source of revenue for the government. In the last half of the 16th century, people started to polish the rice grains for sake making, and to press the fermentation mash to separate the sake. A heat sterilization (pasteurization) process called hiire was also invented during that period. By this time, the technique to make large wooden tubs had been developed, which enabled sake breweries to make and store a large volume of sake at one time.
Manufacturing sake became a thriving industry during the Edo period (1603-1868). During that period, they devised a technique to add distilled alcohol to sake in order to adjust the flavour and preserve it from bacterial contamination.
In 1904, the National Research Institute of Brewing was established in the Ministry of Finance. It is a unique national research institute for alcoholic beverages in Japan that conducts scientific research on sake making and develops new techniques for sake making. It has had a major impact on the way sake is now made. Much of the above has been based on scientific papers from NRIB.
Quality: There seem to be a number of quality designations. The most important is ginjo or ginjo-shu which is made by a special method using highly polished rice (under 60% polishing ratio), a low temperature fermentation and with little or no alcohol added. Diagingo-shu must have an even lower rice polishing ratio of under 50% and hence should be even higher quality. The term junmai means that no alcohol has been added so a junmai diagingo-shu is from 50% or under polishing made by the ginjo method with no alcohol whilst plain junmai-shu has no alcohol added but has no polishing or production method constraints. The lowest quality designation is honjozo-shu where alcohol is added at up to 10% of rice weight before pressing and a polishing ration of under 70% is required. There is also an addition quality prefix of tokubetsu for junmai-shu and honjozo-shu which seems to reflect excellence. The majority of sake has no special quality designation and is allowed more alcohol to be added and also saccharides and acidulant if marked on the label.
All of the 32 sakes available at the tasting we were invited to seem to have been at the higher quality ratings – none admitted to being only honjozo-shu! We wish we had more background before we went.
Hokkaido is the second largest island of Japan, and the furthest north. Muroran is 122 nautical miles north of Aomori and our arrival there was a contrast. Our berth was in a small container port, next to a mound of brown sand or gravel, rows of parked trains, a farm of solar panels and lots of large round storage tanks which we presumed were oil. Various chimneys belched white smoke. Although the berth was isolated, buses of local people arrived to wave flags and welcome us and set up rows of stalls to sell handicrafts. The city of Muroran was 20 minutes drive from the port by complimentary shuttle bus. There was no cruise terminal building and the advice was to go directly from the ship to the tour buses because there was nowhere to wait outside.
Although marketed as the port of Sapporo, the drive east along the coast and then north inland from Muroran to Sapporo is just over 2 hours. We try and avoid long bus trips, preferring to visit local museums and interesting sites. Sapporo is the capital city of Hokkaido and is Japan’s fifth largest city. It is a winter sport holiday destination and has a famous annual snow festival that includes snow statues, ice sculptures, music performances and events each February. It is held in the Odori Park in the centre of the city with around 400 snow statues within 1.5km. During the rest of the year the Odori Park is a beautiful park to visit and the ship’s tours to Sapporo arrive there. The ski jump stadium built for the 1972 Winter Olympics which were held in Sapporo is another tourist attraction. The Okurayama Observatory at the top of the hill can be reached by chair lift and provides views over Sapporo
The island of Hokkaido is famous for its active volcanoes, hot minerals springs and forests. We paid $164 each for a full day excursion which began with a crater walk, then a boat trip on Lake Toya, a Japanese luncheon and finally a trip on the Usuzan Ropeway to the top of Mount Usu. These interesting places are close to each other and about 45 minutes along the coast to the north and west of Muroran. It is all part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. There are a number of very active volcanoes and there have been major eruptions in 1943, 1977 and 2000 in the area we visited. For our crater walk we arrived outside the former Fire Station at the Toya Caldera and Usu Volcano UNESCO Global Geopark near to Toya-ko Onsen town. The word Onsen indicates there are hot mineral springs and there are about 2000 of them spread through the four main islands indicating how active the whole ‘ring of fire’ is in Japan. In April 2000 the main National Highway 230 was broken and uplifted by an eruption when a new pond was made. Multiple faults and craters were also created and roads and houses were damaged. The area was not abandoned, people still live here, there are shops and cafes, and some of the damaged houses remain as memorials of the disaster. There was only one walking route open through the volcanic area, on a wooden walkway. It was a brisk 40 minutes return to visit two viewpoints and continue to see the remains of some of the houses. The complete walk from the Northern Gate to the Southern Gate would have been 1.6kms; the walk as far as the two viewpoints was 800m. It began by walking along a road parallel to Highway 230, which had been uplifted in 2000. The first lookout gave a view into a caldera. The second lookout showed the peak of the 2000 Cryptodome, and there were views towards the ocean and down of the destroyed sweets factory and concrete houses next door. There was plenty of time to continue along the wooden walkway to see the damaged properties below before returning to the bus parking. The former Fire Station is now a Memorial Hall.
Lake Toya is a circular volcanic caldera lake of 43kms circumference that features the four Nakajima Islands at its centre. The area is popular for its forest walks and picnic spots. Boat trips leave the pier every 30 minutes. Our cruise was on the Yotei which could carry 506 passengers and was named after Mount Yotei which was just visible in the distance, 1893m high and covered with snow. The 25 minute journey to Oshima Island passed the smaller island of Benten-jima. There was 30 minutes on the island before catching the next boat back and there was only time for a short walk through the gateway into the larch forest. The larch forest is said to be home to sika deer. Our return boat was not in sight and there was just time to continue on the short walking path past the three shrines to the Japanese god of fishermen, the god of scholarship and the god of fortune. Our return cruise was on the larger and very ornate vessel, the Espoir, which even has turrets. The return journey passed between Kannon-jima island and Manju-jima island.
It was now time for lunch and the coach drove about 200metres to the lake-front restaurant which was in the Wakasaimo building. Wakasaimo manufacture confectionery and a sample was included in our Japanese-style lunch. The lunch was scallop soup, rice with hot poached salmon with mushroom and cabbage in a ginger sauce cooked at the table, and bowls of seaweed and noodle salads. The shop gave the chance to taste more of their speciality sweets, including one made from sweet potato. They also sold a limited amount of juices and fruit wines, including the local apple juice which was offered with lunch. Toyako Onsen celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016 and there is a hand soak bath outside the Wakasaimo entrance. This water from Mount Usus is pleasantly warm, but not suitable for drinking.
The final visit was to the Volcano Village, Kazan-mura, the base station of the Ropeway (cable car) which goes up Mount Usu. We were lucky and walked on to a waiting cable car just in front of a large school group. Each cable car holds 106 people and takes only 6 minutes to reach the summit to admire the stunning panoramic views. Once at the summit, there is a further 7 minute walk to the Crater Basin viewing platform, up a line of 136 steps. This gave good views of the Ropeway Summit Station, of Ginnuma crater, the largest crater created by the 1977 eruption and still quietly steaming, and Volcano Bay. There was a good view down onto Showa-shinzan, which translates as new mountain because it appeared following the 1943 eruption and is still growing. It would then have been a further 40 minutes walk to the Outer Rim Observation Deck which has only recently been reopened following the 1977 eruption. Unfortunately there was not time to do it all. Back at the Ropeway Summit Station there was just time to admire the views from the Lake Toya Viewing Platform while waiting for the next cable car. Before the 1977 eruption it was possible to see Mount Yotei and Nakajima islands from here but due to the magma intrusion between 1977 and 1982 the Ousu lava dome was displaced, blocking the view. The 1977 eruption was detected in advance because the outwards movement of the eastern rim resulted in a shortening of the rope of the cable car. We had been instructed to catch the cable car down at 1530 and we descended slightly early so there was just time to rush across the gardens at the Volcano Village to see the statue which commemorated the surveyor. We were 2 minutes late back at the coach, but were not last. There was then 45 minute drive along the Doo Expressway and back to the port.