I boarded the Su Zhou Hao, laden down with M&S goodies, sea sickness pills and enough fruit to ward off any possible outbreak of scurvy. As it turned out, I didn't need any of them, although the snacks were nice. The sea was calm and the sun shone gloriously for the two days of the crossing from Shanghai to Osaka in Japan.
The ship was half empty and so I shared my four-berth cabin with one other person, a friendly Japanese man who was a translator and spoke good English. There were a few other foreigners, but the rest of the passengers were, yes, you guessed it, a Chinese tour party. As I had become used to over the past month, they didn't so much have conversations as sustained simultaneous monologues. They played table tennis, did tai chi in their pyjamas and hung their laundry out to dry on deck. I read, listened to music and watched the sun glistening on the East China Sea as we moved slowly away from China and further to Japan. It really is a great way to travel, much better than being confined to a cramped airline seat.
I've been in Osaka for three days and I'm happy to report that so far I love Japan. The contrast with China couldn't be more different. The people are incredibly polite, even the traffic police smile and wave their batons when the green pedestrian crossing light comes on and bow. In fact, everyone bows. All the time. The food is excellent, although even pricier than in China. The restaurants are often quite small, but beautifully decorated, with wooden sliding doors and strips of material hanging from the top emblazoned with Japanese writing. I went to a little sushi bar where there was only room for about ten people sitting round a bar watching the sushi chefs at work. Naturally, I had to order some sake, mainly to try and steady my nerves at the worry over the bill.
Japan is a modern country, but unlike China it's been developing at a steady pace and there are still many little traditional lanes to explore off the main roads. There are quaint old restaurants right next to vending machines in the street. In some places where I have eaten, you have to feed money into a machine, select your meal and then hand the ticket to the waiter.
I had a day trip to nearby Kobe on Saturday which has a strange European district. It could have been quite cheesy and yet there were few crowds, just some tourists and local artists dotted around the narrow streets painting the incongruous buildings. Today I went to a great little Buddhist temple, the Shitenno-Ji, which even on a hot Sunday morning was peaceful and not overrun with tourists. It also cost a fraction of what I paid for similar temples in China.
Osaka doesn't have many must-see sights, but it's been fun just to acclimatise myself to a new country, explore the streets, try to learn a few words of Japanese and generally delight in being in a city where everyone is so polite and respectful.