SUN PRINCESS, ROUND JAPAN WITH FESTIVALS, May 6 to19, 2013: Observations and Comments
INTRODUCTION: This was our 6th cruise, the 5th on Princess. It was our 2nd trip to Japan, although the 1st was over 30 years ago. We tend to stay away from Princess shore excursions since I think part of the cruise experience is in learning about the ports beforehand; I also prefer smaller and more personalized day trips than provided by the cruise line.
THE ITINERARY: Princess always has great itineraries, and this cruise was no exception. It was mainly ports in more rural Japan, but that was a wonderful experience. YOKOHAMA: A fun city, not at all what we expected. We took the train from Narita; the Information Office at the Narita Airport was very helpful in providing us with the tickets and explaining what we needed to do. We stayed at the New Otani Inn (comfortable but nothing exciting), which was right at the train station in Yokohama. From there we could easily walk across the walkway bridge across the bay to the shopping center and restaurants on the other side (there was also a shopping center adjacent to our hotel but we did not spend any time there). We also walked around the amusement park and to local sites. We could have easily spent another day or 2 in Yokohama. For embarkation, we took the public bus to the wharf (we could see the Sun Princess from our hotel). Our embarkation was an amazing experience: several hundreds of people came to see us off. This was representative of both our arrivals and departures from every port: wonderful entertainment and huge crowds.
AOMORI: A shuttle bus was provided and ran every half hour around the city. It stopped in town, at the A Factory (for apple products), Warasse (the festival float museum, right next to the A Factory, with amazing floats unlike anything we have ever seen), and ASPAM, the tourist center. We also took a taxi with another couple to Seiryu Temple, which was interesting to visit. (Another couple on the ship took the bus to Hirosaki Castle, which they said was beautiful, especially since the cherry trees were in full bloom.)
BUSAN: We had been to Busan a year earlier, at which time we took the shuttle bus into town and wandered around on our own. We chose not to repeat that so we took our only Princess excursion on this cruise, which was to go to Gyeongju Bulguksa Temple, Tumuli Park, and the National Museum. It was a good experience and an interesting way to spend the day. Although we did not need to use it, there was a mobile money exchange brought to the Busan pier so that passengers could purchase Won. I was told by several passengers that the exchange rates were good.
KANAZAWA: We were there overnight so had the time to do lots. We hired a guide, Takashi Murakami, for 8 of us. He was great, truly loves his city and what he does; we could not have seen or done nearly as much without his help. (Find him through Google.) Ship arrived in Kanazawa at 6 a.m. We were told the night before that no one would be allowed to disembark until at least 8:30 and disembarkation would be staggered. We were given a 9:40 disembarkation time. We were supposed to meet our guide at 8:00. The Passenger Service Desk told me that we might be able to get off at 8:30 anyway, to go to the waiting area at that time. One of the passengers in our group was on her 32nd Princess cruise but was told there would be no priority given. We had to cancel our shore plans because we would miss our bus. By 7:45 that morning, passengers were exiting the ship, and we were rather rudely allowed to join the passengers exiting about 8:10 but our plans for the day were already seriously disrupted. This was likely a problem with Japanese Customs but it seemed inexcusable that Carnival Japan had not cleared all of the potential issues beforehand. Fortunately, Mr. Murakami was able to get us on the bus after all but our plans for returning to the ship had to be rescheduled via the train instead of the bus, and we did not get back to the ship until after 8:00. (There is a shuttle bus provided from the port to a nearby shopping mall but I did not find anyone who used it; it seemed quite out of the way from anything else anyone wanted to visit. We took a taxi to and from the bus station. FYI, taxis throughout Japan will only take 4 passengers.) That day we went to Shirakawa-go. The mountains on the way there were still topped with snow, and they were quite a sight. The grass-roofed houses in Shirakawa-go are a UNESCO destination and are worth visiting; we went inside one, took lots of pictures, and walked through the town. Then we caught a bus to Takayama, an old Japanese village well worth the trip. Because of the delay in our day, we were not able to stay long but visited the Folk Museum and the old town with its fascinating shops. The 3-hour train ride back to the ship was along the river and through the mountains, a long trip but we saw scenery we would not have otherwise been exposed to. The next day we left the ship very early (about 7 a.m.) to get to Kenrokuen Gardens (spectacular) before the crowds and then to Kanazawa Castle. From there we visited the geisha district, including going inside an old geisha house, and went both to a gold leaf factory and a pottery kiln, both well worthwhile. We also visited the Ninja Temple, a fascinating architectural building (not really ninja but filled with hidden walls and floors, making a 4 story building, maximum height during the samurai time, into 7 floors); the 40 minute tour was truly worth it. We walked thru the samurai district and briefly stopped at Omicho Market, a large open-air market selling fish, fruits and vegetables, clothes, etc.
SAKAIMINATO: We had prearranged to meet a Goodwill Guide from nearby Yonago, and we spent a wonderful day. We had told him that we would like to experience a day in rural Japan, and he accomplished that for us. We visited a painting class in a community center, an umbrella factory, a Japanese inn for lunch, and a Buddhist temple (where one of the guides, whose father is the monk at the temple, translated for us while he provided us background on Buddhism.
MAIZURU: A shuttle bus was provided by the city to the train station, so we took the train to Amanohashidate, about 45 minutes away. There was a woman at the train station there whose English was excellent and provided a map and directions for things to do for the day. We rented bicycles and rode across the pine-tree covered sandbar, took the cable car up the mountain on the other side, then took the chair lift back down, and rode a boat back to the other side of the bay, before heading back on the train. NAGOYA: We were only in port about 5 hours, not long enough to do justice to the city. We visited Nagoya Castle (5th floor has a wrap-around view of the city, lower floors contain museum collections and historical info; the castle itself was destroyed during WWII so this is a replica), and then traveled across town to the Tokugawa Gardens and Museum. The garden is pretty but nothing in comparison with Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa. The museum had items that had been collected by the Tokugawa family during their long period in power, some of which were national treasures but most of which were items given to the shoguns by heads of state from other countries.
TOKYO: The city of Yokohama provided a shuttle bus from the port to the train station. There was an information counter at the pier when we disembarked, where we were told that taking the shuttle was by far the best way to get to the train, and that someone at the station would be able to help us catch the right train to our hotel. Unfortunately, no one in the ticket booth/information office at the train station spoke enough English to be helpful but we did manage to get on the right train. When we got off in Tokyo, we found another information counter with a very helpful woman who directed us to the right subway to our hotel. We stayed at the Capitol Hotel Tokyu, a beautiful hotel near the Imperial Palace, with the subway station in the basement. We would happily return there, especially because we pre-registered with the Preferred rewards program (I Prefer) so that we were given an upgraded room, on the opposite side of the tower from the Library, where we were welcome to tea, soft drinks, and cocktails, all without additional charge. Our reservation included breakfast (western or Japanese), which was delicious. (We chose Japanese.) Once we got used to riding the subway, we were hooked on using it for transportation in the city (taxis are very expensive). The ticket machines have a button you push to have the directions in English, and the fares are posted on a sign on the wall with stops in both Japanese and English. If you know you are getting on the right subway line but you are not sure what the fare is to where you will be getting off, we were told to buy the cheapest ticket possible since you can pay the difference when you exit the subway station when you reach your destination. We only stayed in Tokyo one night (for the festival there; I think everyone should attend at least one Japanese festival in a lifetime for the fun, lights, and energy that abounds) and caught the airport express bus to Narita the next day. We could have easily stayed much longer and cannot wait to go back. FYI, we bought yen before we left home because the exchange rates were so good but many passengers used ATMs in Japan. Heather, the port lecturer on board, said the ones that were sure to take foreign ATM cards were at 7-11 stores and usually at post offices. We also charged a couple of items, and our credit card company also provided an excellent exchange rate (although they also charged a 2% fee; be sure to check with your credit card company before leaving home in order to let them know you will be gone and to ask what their foreign transaction fee is. One other card we have charges 3%.)
THE CRUISE AND SHIP: Cruise was touted as being marketed to the local Japanese but it was basically a Western focused cruise with a translator and with written material available in Japanese. That is fine but not what was anticipated, based on the marketing.
JAPANESE FOCUS: We greatly enjoyed the Japanese focus, which was initially strong: sake making and samples upon embarkation, one meal with a small sushi counter available, miso soup always available, ramen/udon bar in the buffet at lunch. A full sushi bar was always available at dinner for an added fee. Japanese movies were available on the Movies Under the Stars and on the room TV but the same movies were shown over and over. A geisha performance was available one evening. A 2-part series involving the Hawaiian flute was given in one of the lounges during sea days. However, we felt that for a 12-day cruise, the Japanese focus was somewhat slim. We understand that about 50% of the passengers on our ship were from Japan. (The Golden Week cruise was apparently over 90% from Japan.) Princess needed to figure out how to engage the Japanese. The bars rarely had anyone in them. (It is very strange to come out of an evening show and find the bars and lounges more or less deserted since on the other cruises we have taken, they were a regular place for people to hang out in the evenings.) Japanese gamble (at least Japanese Americans do) but there was almost never anyone in the casino. There were problems with the slot machines, and the video poker machines never worked. But it was rare to see more than one or 2 slot machines with anyone there (and never any Japanese) and the only time we saw anyone at the tables was for a tournament. One comment: The casino is in a very strange location, which basically has to be a destination. Normally, that would be fine (I do not like some Princess ships that have casinos that serve as a pass-thru from one area to another) but this location just did not work.
ENTERTAINMENT: The entertainment was good. The shows in the Princess Theater were well done and full of energy. There was a duet in one of the lounges playing oldies, which we found very enjoyable. The pianist who regularly appeared in the atrium was relaxing to listen to.
FOOD: We always enjoy the food on a cruise but despite the Japanese focus, the food on this cruise was basically just Princess standard. Since this was our third Princess cruise in a little more than a year, maybe it was just too much sameness. The menus were little different than on previous cruises, and the regional focuses on various evenings were the same regional focuses we have had on Mediterranean cruises. Somewhat Japanese items were available (one appetizer, one main course) but no focus. Maybe it would have been too expensive or difficult to engage a chef while they cruise in Japan who can cater to Japanese tastes, and maybe that would have turned off the people on board who were not Japanese. I probably could have figured this out before we left home but I did not. Again, because of the pre-cruise marketing about the Japan cruises this year being geared towards the Japanese, it left me disappointed. I am not complaining about the food; as usual for a Princess cruise, it was good and plentiful.
IMMIGRATION ISSUES: On-board, our passports were collected, then returned, several times. We were told we needed to carry them ashore, then that we only needed to carry copies, then that we needed the actual passports. Likely Japanese Customs was the problem but you would think Carnival Japan (which was responsible for the shore excursions) would have worked this all out beforehand. When the ship returned from Busan, each passenger had to go through an immigration inspection before we could disembark.
PORT STOPS: The reception we received in each port was overwhelming in the enthusiasm, warmth, and welcoming. Whoever coordinated this should be commended. Every port had English speaking information helpers and tourist maps and info about the city in English. We had 4 sea days for this 12 day cruise. But 3 of the 4 were in the first 5 days. That made the port days intensive and exhausting later since there was no down time. There were lots of activities on the sea days but similar activities often overlapped.
STAFF: Heather, who provided port lectures, is to be commended for the information she provided. The wait staff in the dining room and lounges were friendly and helpful and provided great service overall. Our cabin steward was great, as well.
CHARITY WALK: I always do the charity walk on Princess cruises, and I liked that the one on this ship was Japan focused. But although it was mentioned early in the cruise, and despite having 4 sea days, it was not done until the morning of the day we stopped in Nagoya. To have the morning jammed with Zumba and the charity walk and the afternoon with port excursions, it came across as poor planning.
THE PHYSICAL SHIP: As for the ship itself, paint was falling off in large pieces (as big as 4 inch squares) from metal pipes everywhere, including all over the floor of our balcony and in several places along the promenade deck. Very tacky. I hope the ship will soon head to dry-dock.
DINING ROOMS: The ship layout was strange. The pizza restaurant was more of a hallway, and would probably have been better utilized if it were restricted to seating on either the port or starboard side and actually using the other side as a hallway. It was not inviting to go there because there were always people walking through, probably just to get to the elevators on the other side. For a ship with 2 formal dining rooms, it made little sense not to have open seating in one of them. We had early seating (the late seating was just too late if we planned an excursion the next morning), which meant we usually missed the sail-away festivities in each port. On a previous cruise on the small Pacific Princess, we were fine with set seating, but one of the reasons we have always liked Princess is being able to enjoy the dining room whenever and with whomever we wanted.
CABIN: The TV in the cabin never had the outside temperature or the sea conditions, etc.; that info was just stated as unavailable for the entire cruise. The telephone info in the stateroom manual had incorrect info for calling to other cabins since the deck numbers did not correctly match to the proper first digits that should be combined with the stateroom number when placing a call. Until we realized the error, we twice called other staterooms and left messages in the wrong cabins.
OVERALL EXPERIENCE; We are considering another Japan cruise on Princess next year. We love the country, the people, and being in rural ports that tourists (especially foreign tourists) would not normally visit. Because cruises next year in Japan are being marketed to the US (unlike for 2013), they are part of the exotic cruise series, and I assume there will not be the marketing focus on the Japanese-ness. They are offered on either the Sun Princess or the Diamond Princess. After our Asia cruise last year on the Diamond Princess, we swore we would never cruise on such a big ship again because having to be shuttled from container ports in most stops was very undesirable, but we found the Diamond to be a preferable experience to the Sun. That said, we love to cruise and would repeat this experience on the Sun or otherwise, if we have the opportunity.