'Thank you for coming back to Japan'

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Ships are often greeted by waving crowds. But there was a very particular reason why 'Orion II' attracted well-wishers. Adrian Mourby explains

It was hot and humid as we steamed into Aomori. The calm water dazzled. The wide, concrete harbour was empty, but its quayside throbbed with taiko drummers and waving port officials. Musicians were everywhere we went. The Japanese are always welcoming, but this was more than hospitality.

"Thank you for coming back to Japan," announced the wafer-thin port manager as he bowed to Captain Frank. Travelling down Japan's west coast, it became apparent that the vessel I was sailing on, Orion II, was the first tourist boat seen here since the "Great East Japan Earthquake", as it's known here. "Had we more notice of your visit, our mayor would have been here to greet you!"

Personally, I didn't need the mayor on the quay or any of the guys in suits with flowers for Captain Frank, the purser and chief engineer. The longer the ceremonial welcoming, the less time we would have on land. However, this visit was especially important to Aomori. The newly commissioned Orion II had been scheduled to begin its Sea of Japan cruise here, but after March's tsunami we were switched to Otaru because of the damage. Then, just as we left Otaru, reports of a typhoon in the Philippines persuaded the skipper to spend a day in Aomori after all. So, the Orion did turn up – as did everyone who could carry a drum, flowers or presentation plaque.

Meanwhile, the ship's expedition leaders were already ashore improvising a day tour for us. Justin, a huge, amiable Australian teddy bear of a man was with Hayakawa Sensei (Master Hayakawa), who claims to be the last samurai in the Aomori prefecture. Hayakawa was at home. He apologised that his dojo (school for the martial arts) was not completed, but he could meet the Orion passengers at the Seiryuu-ji Temple.

Justin was relieved to hear this but, being a man of some magnitude, bumped into Hayakawa Sensei's dog as he left. The dog was sitting on a low pedestal in full samurai armour. "Don't touch my dog," growled Hayakawa.

Two hours later, there we were. Sitting on white plastic chairs in the sun beneath a Dainichi Buddha, more than 21m high, while Hayakawa Sensei read out a prayer for our safe travels. Chieko-san, one of our guides, translated. Master Hayakawa sat before us on a stool in classic samurai position, legs akimbo. His tall black hat resembled the one worn by Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. Then he stood and blew into a giant conch shell – the signal for battle – before disappearing to change into less ceremonial costume. While he was gone, Chieko-san explained that the sensei has a very strong Aomori accent, and she could only really understand him when he spoke English.

On his return, Master Hayakawa appraised a line of rolled-up tatami mats. As the cicadas' din rose to a spaghetti western crescendo, he drew his blade before each "opponent", sliced it through with a roar, bowed to his victim, then ceremonially struck the blood from his sword before wiping it and slipping it back through his fingers into the sheath.

Later, when we had the chance to hold the blade, it proved heavier than I expected and very, very sharp. You would have to be very careful slipping that blade through your fingers. Hayakawa Sensei answered our questions patiently even though he was being mobbed by 30 sweaty gaijin who wanted photos with him. To me, he said he was 58. To someone else, 68. Either way he looked good on it.

"How d'you get to be a samurai?" asked a rotund spectator.

"You are born samurai," he replied.

We spent the afternoon looking at floats used in the annual Nebuta festival. These are huge constructions, 5m high and 9m wide, made from painted paper stretched over a wire and wood frame. Each one is illuminated from inside by light bulbs and pulled by a team that is encouraged by the Aomori townspeople yelling "Lasela Lasela!".

Each float depicts a hero in samurai costume squatting energetically as he fights a dragon, sea monster, leopard or unidentified scary phenomenon. The floats are kept in a big dark warehouse where they glow with pent-up violence. The idea of the Nebuta festival is to wake up the people of Aomori in the hot summer months so they get on with farming. Unfortunately, on this baking day, it was considered fun for the visitors to learn how to pull the floats and do the Lasela Lasela dance.

I did my stint lugging a float but sat out the dance, watching the one teenager in our group prancing round ring-a-roses style singing "Lasela Lasela! Lase Lase! Lasela!" as taiko drums banged and cymbals crashed and a flautist did his best.

"Well done," my wife said to the breathless girl.

"No choice," she replied, glaring at her mother.

That night we sailed south to Kanazawa and Captain Frank held a cocktail party. Life on board catered very much to Western tastes. Our meals contained local ingredients, but we neither ate nor drank Japanese style. We also had three Japanese guides who prepared us for what we were visiting and held interpretive sessions afterwards. They came to the captain's cocktails in kimonos but changed into cooler Western clothing after a while – and for good reason. The Sea of Japan is a first for the Orion company and its new ship, Orion II, had teething problems. Neither the air con, the lift, nor the Jacuzzi worked. Any one of those could have made life on board a lot cooler. That night, my wife and I slept with the sliding doors open, listening to the surge of a sea that had grown quieter during our diversion into Aomori.

The next morning, there was more taiko drumming and officialdom on the quayside at Kanazawa. I noticed that Captain Frank, having sailed these waters for many years, could bow almost as low as the mayor.

We were loaded into coaches and taken to the Higashi District, a traditional entertainment area. All the buildings are two storey and made of wood. The streets reminded me of Kyoto. Walking en masse to Kaikaro, the biggest tea house in Hagashi, we passed a dispensary that has been in operation since Shakespeare's time.

At Kaikaro, we were met by smiles and kimonos and ushered, shoeless, upstairs to where a lady knelt before us to explain she was the owner. Hanako Baba told us that she was not geisha but, knowing that we were all excited by the idea of geiko (as she called them), she had employed three that morning for the entertainment of her customers.

Kaikaro itself still operates the system of ichigensan okotowari, which means "refuse first-time customers". Soda-san, our guide, translated this as meaning that everyone has to be recommended by an existing customer. No money changes hands in advance. Afterwards, a bill is sent to the customer. If there is any problem settling this, the person who recommended you is blacklisted from all tea houses. It's an intelligent system in which customers police each other.

My wife drank everything in. Of the two of us, she is the true shinnichi (Japanophile), with a particular interest in geisha. The first geisha knelt to play the shamisen, a guitar of sorts with an elaborate ivory plectrum. Her name was Miss Fukutarou. She was followed by Miss Masami (a thoroughly modern geisha, I discovered, with a husband and child). The third was Miss Suzaka, whose name translates as "Little Bell". Miss Bell was everything one might hope for in a geisha. Tall and slim she looked like a porcelain doll, her beautiful face forever fixed on a faraway place where happiness resides.

A dance with fans described the four seasons in Kanazawa (according to Soda-san). After this the two geishas wrapped red ribbons round their shoulders and did some energetic drumming. Finally, audience members were invited to come up and try drumming. Our teenager went forward but was upstaged by Hunter, a four-year-old Australian boy. The geisha was delighted and amused as he pounded the drums. I was pleased to see that, while Little Bell smiled, her eyes were still on that faraway place.

That afternoon we went to the Kenrokuen Gardens opposite Kanazawa Castle, one of the three best gardens in Japan. While we have Top 10s in the UK, everything in Japan is rated in threes. In Nagasaki, Madama Butterfly is described as one of the Three Best Operas. In Matsue, we ate one of the Three Best Leaf Pickles.

Kenrokuen is famous for its kotjii lantern, which looks like something you can buy from JapanGarden.co.uk. And yet, people travel across the country to photograph it because it is the original. We were served powdered green leaf tea in a tatami room by two very gracious ladies, Kyoko Yachi and Uarumi Kita. My Aussie neighbour, not happy to be squatting in his socks, told me Liptons do you a much better tea for a fraction of the price.

When Soda-san returned us to the quay, she gave a little speech thanking us for all we had done after the Great East Japan Earthquake. I was embarrassed. All we'd done was go on holiday. But there was a festive atmosphere all round.

Hanako Baba and her girls turned up to wave us off. "Sayonara, Baba San!" I cried. And she blew me a very un-Japanese kiss. We were sorry to be leaving Kanazawa. This was Day Three out of 10, and already Japan was proving unforgettable.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Before boarding the Orion II, Adrian Mourby stayed at the Sheraton Sapporo (00 800 325 35353; sheraton.com/Sapporo), which offers rooms from £55 per night. Orion Expedition Cruises (020-399 7620; orionexpeditions.com) has two departures next spring for its 10-day Sea of Japan cruise, on 21 May and 20 June. Cruises cost from £5,615 per person, including all meals, entertainment, educational programmes, excursions, port and handling charges, and tender transfers. Adrian flew to Japan with All Nippon Airways (020-8762 8977; ana.co.uk), which offers return flights from £1,098.

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