Sunday, September 27, 2009

[Travelogue] The many (unseen) sights of Sendai

We arrived in Sendai on the main island of Japan to another warm welcome, including a troupe of students in traditional Japanese outfits doing a fan dance on the pier. The fans were yellow on one side, purple on the other, and they moved in perfect synchrony. It was quite beautiful to watch.

Regent usually does a very good job of controlling logistics, but every now and then they drop the ball and things spin wildly out of control. Today was one of those days. We were in Sendai for a very short stop, only six hours from docking to sailing. (I really wish they'd stop scheduling stops this short. With all the overhead, it's really not enough time to do anything.) We signed up for a shore excursion called "The many sights of Sendai." Unfortunately, so had everyone else on the ship.

Normally when everyone on the ship is doing the same thing they break people up into groups and stagger the schedule a little so not everyone shows up at the same time. Today they didn't. Not only that, but there was an extra process in which everyone had to exchange the normal tour ticket for a bus ticket. The result was 350 people converging on the gangway at the same time. I guess it could have been worse. It might have been 700 people (the ship is only half full on this leg). The upshot was that it took nearly an hour just to get everyone off the ship and onto their busses. The "many sights" of Sendai turned out to be only two sights, a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. Both were beautiful, as far as I could tell as we whizzed past them with barely enough time to take a snapshot.

I'm exaggerating a little. The tour was very rushed, but it wasn't quite that rushed. And we did see a couple of other things, but I honestly can't remember any of the details. it was *that* rushed. At one point I got a little fed up with being herded through this thing and that thing that I decided to break away from the group and just wander around on my own. That was a lot of fun, and ultimately for me a lot more worthwhile. Japan is superficially very similar to the U.S. In fact, Hakodate was so similar to L.A. that if you didn't look very closely we could almost convince ourselves that we were back home (except the mountains were too green). But you only have to scratch the surface a little to find really substantial differences. In Sendai, the big thing is these little hole-in-the-wall fast-food stands that serve freshly cooked squid and cuttlefish. They make no attempt to disguise the fact that it's squid and cuttlefish. In many cases, the critters are grilled up and served whole. (They have no bones.) That is just not something you see in the States very often. But you can't walk a block in Sendai without tripping over half a dozen of these little stands.

Because everyone was on the same tour and the schedules weren't staggered, everyone got back to the ship at the same time as well, so there was another backup on the pier as people waited in line to get back on the ship. Then there was a mad rush to get to the dining room before they closed to grab a quick lunch, since there had been no chance to get food on the tour. (The dining room staff did an admirable job of dealing with the mob.) I am given to understand that this sort of thing is common on other cruise lines, but this is the first time I've ever seen it happen on a Regent cruise, and we have a fair number of data points by now. I hope this turns out to be an aberration and not a new way of doing business.

Still, what we were able to see of Sendai was lovely. I wish I could have stayed to see more of it.

Tomorrow we're in Tokyo. We're there overnight so it won't feel quite so rushed, but of course we'll be in government-enforced radio silence while we're there so no blogging until we leave. I found out why they do this, by the way. Some of the ship's operations are dependent on Internet access. We can't use our own link, so the ship has to buy access from the Japanese. So it's a shakedown, pure and simple. I am loving Japan, but learning this makes me a little less inclined to hurry back.

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