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Oceania Riviera in Japan – Discovering a Premium Experience: Part Eight (Kyoto & Shimizu + Internet & Culinary Issues Update)

My journey on the Oceania Riviera continues with an overnight in Kobe, Japan. And for that means, heading to Kyoto; one of my favorite cities. Well, it was one, as its success clearly is becoming its demise. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Mt. Fuji - seen from Shimizu, Japan
Mt. Fuji – seen from Shimizu, Japan

I met my guide at the ship for the one-hour train ride to Kyoto. A monorail to the train station and we were off. I had mentioned taking the Shinkansen bullet train but with timing, it would have only saved me about 15 minutes and, well, I had taken the Shinkansen the last time, so it seemed better for me to try the other option and compare.

Arriving at Kyoto Station, it was chaos with huge crowds everywhere; far more than when I visited in 2015. Much larger than normal even for 2023, I was told. It being a Friday, and the last weekend of Japan’s school Spring Break, it seemed that everyone was coming to Kyoto this weekend. So, when we left the station, the line for the buses was insane, as were the lines for taxis.  I said to my very reserved Japanese guide, “Let me show you how we do this in New York” and we crossed the street, flagging down a taxi before he got into the queue.

My guide was so excited (I guess to break protocol) he fell and injured his knee. He was in real pain, but tried to hide it. I told him he would have to drink with me for the rest of the day to ease the pain. (He didn’t disagree!) And, of course, I tried to keep to the plan, and not push things. (I’ve had a bit of sciatica, so the two of us were hobbling around a bit.)

Nishiki Market - Kyoto, Japan
Nishiki Market – Kyoto, Japan

First up was the famous Nishiki Market. I had been there before, and I don’t think it changed a bit…and it was crowded. But it was also filled with all “the good stuff” to eat: Barbequed unagi (freshwater eel), scallops, squid, grilled sparrow (a memory from Vietnam I had to tease my daughter about), uni (sea urchin roe), and small octopus.

It may not all have been prepared as well as they might have been, but the opportunity and energy can’t be beat!

Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) are finally starting to bloom
Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) are finally starting to bloom

As we started walking toward our next destination (one of my favorites in the world!), I needed to stop by a 7-11 for the ATM and along the way saw some Sakura blooming. (Next week will be amazing for Sakura!)

The chef at Kamogawa Takashi - Kyoto, Japan
The chef at Kamogawa Takashi – Kyoto, Japan

We finally arrived at Kamogawa Takashi, a restaurant that specializes in Omi beef.  There are very few places that serve Omi (or Ohmi) beef due to its rarity and cost. As special as Kamogawa Takashi is, if you don’t know it, you won’t find it!

Keep in mind that Omi is not served as a steak. Small portions, possibly “blessed” with a quick charcoal grilling, is the way to go. And with all that fat, it is definitely a case of “less is more”!

Omi Beef
Omi Beef

To understand, Wagyu simply means Japanese beef. Kobe beef is from Kobe. Omi beef refers to beef from the oldest line of Black Japanese cattle raised surrounded by water and nature. (No fabricated beer-drinking, massaged, cattle stuff.) It is known. for sumptuous fat and sweet, smooth flavor. In the Edo era, Omi was marinated in miso and served to the Shogun for its medicinal quality. 

Raw Omi Beef prepares your mouth with a delicious fat/meat sensation, setting you up for an amazing experience.
Raw Omi Beef prepares your mouth with a delicious fat/meat sensation, setting you up for an amazing experience.

I had been there in 2015, my son went there when he spent a summer in Tokyo and said it was the best part of his visit to Kyoto, and I was back. Would it be as good? Better?  A disappointment?

Omi "Sampler" of back, chest, and leg with three sauces + sauce...and Sake
Omi “Sampler” of back, chest, and leg with three sauces + sauce…and Sake

Oh, it was still the best: Just as I remembered it!  I won’t bore you with the details, but just know the sumptuousness of the fat bathing the meat in a unique rich flavor is indescribable. 

Omi beef served as if you were the Shogun!
Omi beef served as if you were the Shogun!
Omi beef served as if you were the Shogun!
Omi beef served as if you were the Shogun!

After this experience, a pot of a tea of sorts was poured over sticky rice with wasabi and some other ingredients to make a delicious warm rice soup.

To finish the meal, a custard coupled with two rich rice cakes.

This entire meal, plus paying for my guide’s lunch and sake, came to only US$55.00. Imagine the cost if you could even find this in the U.S.

I could have finished my visit to Kyoto there, but there was so much more to see. However, there was no way I was heading over to the Gion district – where the geisha reside – because of all the reports of it being wildly overcrowded plus it being the last days of access, which ends April 1, 2024 (due to tourist abuses of the geisha and crowds).

Nijo Castle - Kyoto, Japan
Nijo Castle – Kyoto, Japan

With my guide hurting as was my sciatica, and with our changed plans, it was a taxi to Nijo Castle; home to the shogunate before Edo became Tokyo and the eventual home of imperial rule. (I am kind of a nerd about history making this of interest to me if not others.)

It was then off to Arashiyama and the Bamboo Forest. I had heard that other parts of Kyoto had become overrun with tourists, but I had no idea how bad it really was. It was a struggle to get anywhere near our planned destination, so we hopped out of the taxi and began to walk among unimaginable crowds. (Think Disney on a holiday weekend.)

Tenruy-ji Temple -Kyoto, Japan
Tenruy-ji Temple -Kyoto, Japan

My guide thought that we might have easier access if we entered through the gardens of the Tenruy-ji Temple. It certainly seemed like a good idea as there weren’t near the crowds and it was beautiful even if we didn’t make it.

Arashiyama - Bamboo Forest: INSTAGRAM VERSION
Arashiyama – Bamboo Forest: INSTAGRAM VERSION

There are times you wish you hadn’t returned to a magical place. I’m not talking about how, for example, Lake Tahoe has been overrun with tourists. No, I’m talking about how the last time I was the only person in the forest and found myself in a Zen state listening to the bamboo gently hit against each other in a gentle breeze, but now literally thousands of people were so cramped together you could hardly move.  I will never return…ever.

Arashiyama - Bamboo Forest: The SAD REALITY
Arashiyama – Bamboo Forest: The SAD REALITY

With my guide wilting from the pain in his knee, it was time to head to the train but with the crowds so thick, just getting to the train station became a real challenge. I offered to grab a taxi all the way to Kyoto Station. Well, on the way the taxi driver said the traffic was so bad around Kyoto Station, it would be faster to take the train from a nearby smaller station. Well, you know those stories about trains being so crowded you can’t move. Yup! (I’d have taken a photo, but I was unable to raise my hands or reach my phone!)  Eventually, I made it back to Kobe and the ship, sitting down for only the last part of the trip. (Note to self: Next time take the Shinkansen as there is no need to experience that again!)

As we overnighted in Kobe, I took advantage of being in port and worked for most of the morning, again having to hotspot to my phone. I worked from 1:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., noting the time frame just in case you don’t believe I am actually working when I am traveling.

UPDATE:  I was advised the reason for the disastrous delay in Immigration in Hiroshima was because – you guessed it – Oceania Riviera’s internet is intentionally made so restrictive, that Japanese authorities couldn’t get their systems to function properly. 

And then my phone rang at 8:40 a.m. with the internet manager calling me. Then again with a call from the restaurant manager. Then again from Guest Services, wanting to set up a meeting with the General Manager for that afternoon.

Ya’ see, it was not Oceania calling to see if there were issues. (I had forwarded my articles to its offices in Miami.)  It was not my reported concerns onboard being addressed. Nope. It was that someone had seen my prior posts online and it started to run throughout the ship. Oh, the Power of the Press!

Since I was awake, I figured I would head out into Kobe though I understood there wasn’t much to see, with the complimentary shuttle dropping folks off at Chinatown. The irony of Chinatown being a highlight of a Japanese city could not escape me. But as I got off the shuttle, I saw an upscale 7-11 and wandered in. Egg salad sandwich and tuna onigiri, thank you very much! (I ate them in the vestibule as is appropriate.)

I could not bring myself to walk into Chinatown and its crowds, but found a nearby street/mall and strolled in. Nothing exciting, so I began looking down the side alleys…and then: There it was.

Travel Tip: Don't let U.S. cleanliness standards affect your decision to eat somewhere. The food was fresh, super-hot and delicious.
Travel Tip: Don’t let U.S. cleanliness standards affect your decision to eat somewhere. The food was fresh, super-hot and delicious.

The tiny local restaurant I was looking for!  Vegetable ramen with a side of gyoza paired with a beer I think they were making in the basement.

Vegetarian Ramen with Gyoza
Vegetarian Ramen with Gyoza

It was then back to the ship for a bit of work and then a lazy afternoon before my meeting with the General Manager and the Food & Beverage Manager. While I appreciate the effort made, it was quite frustrating. I won’t get into our conversation, but suffice it to say, that the issues I encountered were not mine alone. And to be sure, it is hard to deny the reality when there are photographs.

Efforts were made to appease, but honestly, not enough, and way too late. And, ironically, frustrating. What do I mean? They arranged for me to dine at Jacques that evening and it was perfect! Yup. Oceania can deliver…if it wants to!

Oceania Riviera's Jacques perfectly prepared foie gras
Oceania Riviera’s Jacques perfectly prepared foie gras
Oceania Riviera's Jacques nicely done Goat Cheese Souffle
Oceania Riviera’s Jacques nicely done Goat Cheese Souffle

I am of the mind that my concerns should have been identified and addressed before long before I stepped on the ship; not only first recognized after I published an article.

Problems start at the top and failing to recognize – or worse, admit – issues can be worse than not addressing them.

My final day aboard Oceania Riviera was in Shimizu, Japan. Once again, there wasn’t a lot to see here, and many folks were off on a couple of hour tour to see Mt. Fuji. I was, however, planning on going to the Fish Market as I heard there are restaurants attached to it that offer the freshest of seafood.

The market was fairly small and interesting. And the adjoining building was filled with restaurants on two floors. But I saw a small restaurant within the market that was filled with locals. OK, I think I only saw one other Westerner eating in the market. That’s the place!

As it was my last real meal in Japan I went for it. (OK, I would have probably done the same even if it wasn’t my last meal, but humor me.)  Fatty tuna, albacore tuna, red tuna, raw shrimp, raw squid, uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), miso soup, and rice. Oh, I had to get three giant fried oysters too!

When I left, I saw cars lined up to get into the fish market for lunch.  Clearly, this is the thing to do in Shimizu, Japan on a Sunday! But while they sat in their cars waiting, I, will a full stomach, thought I’d wander the docks for a bit and saw hundreds of steel bins marked tuna. That got me thinking about how the Japanese blatantly overfish some of the most sensitive waters and pressure so many fish stocks. It troubles me.

I looked up and there was Mt. Fuji. It wasn’t something I felt I needed to see, but Shimizu is known as a jumping-off point to see it with multi-hour tours offered, including by Oceania. And I saw it from a dock right in town.  (I have been told that 70% of the time you can’t see it, so I guess I was lucky.) It’s good to get one’s head out of having to get to a predetermined location and Google Maps, so see what else is right in front of you!

My last Japanese adventure was to find a taxi back to the ship. I wandered through downtown Shimizu and it was like a ghost town. Surreal.  But I knew there would be taxis at the train station. It was then back to Oceania Riviera one last time…and one last club sandwich in my suite.

My Butler Extraordinaire: Bhavya
My Butler Extraordinaire: Bhavya

I need to take a moment and personally thank my butler, Bhavya. He cared; I mean he really cared. More than charming, polite, and efficient, Bhavya didn’t merely listen, he heard me and worked to be a voice to make my experience better in any way he could. Bravo!

I disembarked in Yokohama and headed to Villa Fontaine Airport Hotel, which is attached to Haneda Airport’s Terminal 3. The joy of having actual high-speed internet can’t be fully explained. My day room (booked for four hours at about $115) had everything you would desire…including a Japanese toilet seat; the last one I will use until my Costco order arrives when I get home!

Next up: Reflections.

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