Ten destinations in ten days sounds like a traveller’s nightmare, doesn’t it? But when you visit them on a cruise like this, it’s a dream, says Verne Maree. Read about our pick of Japan’s top ten tourist sites here.
The itinerary from Cruise West gets a big thumbs-up. It’s a wonderful mix of both mainstream and eclectic sites, with museums, temples and shrines nicely leavened with opportunities for shopping and hanging out on your own. The whole caboodle was efficiently managed by Meriwether, who gave daily briefings and ensured a smooth flow of the complex logistics. Her young sidekick Kate, once an exchange student to Japan, gave a tea ceremony demonstration, origami lessons, and talks on local etiquette and customs based on her experience of living in the country. With ninety potentially difficult passengers to please, the unflagging enthusiasm and cheerfulness of this pair was a marvel.
Apart from the ten highlights covered here, we saw so much more: a green tea factory in Kagoshima; a museum commemorating the 1,036 mostly young kamikaze pilots who met their deaths in the dying days of the Second World War; a Buddhist temple famous for its eccentric monk with a passion for flying squirrels and a penchant for inventions; Okayama’s Kurashiki district, where canal-side rice storehouses from the Shogunate-controlled Edo Period have been converted into cafés, shops and museums, including Ohara Museum, whose amazing collection boasts a clutch of French Impressionists and its pride and joy: an Annunciation by El Greco.
A brief departure from Japanese waters berthed us in the South Korean port of Ulsan, where, in nearby Gyeongju, we were treated to a Korean wet market bursting with a thousand varieties of kimchi and the biggest, reddest octopuses I’ve seen. Boisterous schoolchildren thronged the World Heritage site Bulguksa Temple, and the fascinating excavated 8th century tomb in Tumuli Park, all disarmingly eager to practise their English on us. And lunch was the traditional bulgogi, beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil and garlic, cooked on a tabletop griddle with vegetables, and eaten wrapped in lettuce and sesame leaves. Mouthwatering.
Three buses were provided each day for the 90 passengers, led by a tour guide from the Japan Tourism Board. They travelled with us throughout the trip – except to South Korea, where local guides were provided.
Issued at the start of the cruise with little radio receivers with earphones, at each site – park, museum, temple or whatever – we could wander around but still hear our guide’s detailed commentary without having to cluster around him or her. What a godsend!
Apart from the comprehensive information provided by our guides, no effort was spared to immerse us in Japanese culture. Onboard historian Gerry Jordan – a delightful Englishman with an affinity for Asian and particularly Southeast Asian history, he spent a number of years in Singapore teaching history at NUS – gave a series of fascinating and insightful lectures in the lounge.
Food and Service
Breakfast, dinner and some lunches were served onboard, either in the lovely dining room or more casually at the outdoor bistro on the fifth deck (except dinner). Sometimes we had lunch on shore. One day we had a version of a kaiseki meal at a ryokan (upmarket guesthouse), on another a traditional Korean beef barbecue, and on our last day, take-away udon soup slurped on the wharfside; but the culinary highlight for us was a tiny sushi bar we winkled out for ourselves just off the Motomachi shopping arcade in Kobe.
I was amazed by the adventurous palates of our fellow passengers, mainly Americans in their sixties and seventies. The same generation of British passengers would be a different kettle of fish. Seating wasn’t pre-allocated, so we got to meet many of the guests during the course of the trip – generally a delightful, well-educated and well-travelled bunch of people.
The ship’s food was varied and plentiful, breakfast being full American and the other meals offering a choice of two appetisers, soups and salads, four main courses and a couple of desserts. And the service was efficient, warm and friendly.
Described as all-suite accom-modation, the cabins on this ship are all of a good size. We were charmed with the little balcony off our fifth-deck cabin; being able to open doors and step outside made all the difference. And a walk-in wardrobe and nifty little drawers throughout mean plenty of room to stow your stuff away.
We thought the website reference to a library of VHS videos was evidence that the site hadn’t been updated for years, but no – there they were. Another area for improvement is the ship’s ineffective internet system. Apart from temporary security issues that disallowed internet access while in port, the service, when it did operate, cost US$25 an hour and was feeble at best.
The absence of a swimming pool wasn’t an issue in the sometimes chilly spring weather, and as far as I know, the hot tub on the bistro deck went unused. But with a busy schedule of daily tours, briefings and – of course – eating too much, it wasn’t that kind of cruise anyway.
Vending machines : There is said to be a vending machine for every twenty Japanese people. Our favourite was one that ground, brewed and served a dozen varieties of coffee while displaying a video of the process to keep you entertained.
Washlets : Toilets that pamper your bits with heated seats, botty-sprays and “women” sprinkles, fan-dry them, vacuum out any smelly air, and – for the über-shy – even make a flushing sound to camouflage the tinkling of your wee.
Baths : Apart from the most high-tech Toto washlet imaginable, our Osaka hotel (the Crown) boasted a superb modern Japanese bathroom. You perch on a low stool in a scrubbing and rinsing area, first getting clean before you soak yourself up to the neck in hot water in the adjacent big, deep bath.
Singapore Airlines flies to Osaka daily at 1.10am and arrives at 8.40am. Japan Airlines also has daily flights, departing at 11pm and arriving at 6.25am. The flight time is 6½ hours, and Japan is one hour ahead of Singapore. Cruise West’s agent met us at Kansai Airport and saw us onto a minibus for the hour-long hotel shuttle service to Kobe, where we spent the first night at the five-star Hotel Okura before hooking up with the tour group in the morning.
Though big enough for only about 120 passengers, the Spirit of Oceanus is the biggest and most luxurious of American company Cruise West’s fleet of small ships. The beauty of their relative smallness is that they can dock at more out-of-the-way places, mainland ports, and islands that the big ships cannot access. Please visit their website for more details. www.cruisewest.com
|Day 1 Kobe|
Day 2 Okayama
Day 3 Uwajima
Day 4 Yakushima Island
|Day 5 Kagoshima|
Day 6 Nagasaki
Day 7 Kyongju, South Korea.
|Day 8 Hagi|
Day 9 Hiroshima
Day 10 Takamatsu