27 Day Japan based itinerary 5/20/14
The Diamond Princess has just come out of a refurb to not only update its interior but to add many Japanese oriented features. Our cruise although listed as a 27 dayer, was actually three 9 day cruises done back to back. About 500 hundred passengers joined us on this complete itinerary while others were on for 1 or 2 of the legs.
After reading some the earlier reviews of the Diamond since its refurb in Singapore, we had some trepidation about how we would like the ship and its new itineraries. We are Elite passengers on Princess so we have cruised many times with this line and have enjoy their ships.
Now having returned after 27 days on board, we are happy to report that our earlier hesitations were unfounded. The ship is beautiful and the crew has melded it’s cosmopolitan self into a single well functioning unit that is both extremely friendly and efficient. Although we visited several ports outside of Japan, the focus on the Diamond’s itineraries for the rest of the season is on Japan. It was a surprise to us that although there were many Japanese passengers, the majority were from elsewhere with only a hand full from the US. Australia (which we were surprised to learn) is as many air miles away from their country as ours (US). Aussies comprised the largest percentage of english speakers.
On board the basic language is still English, thankfully. There is Japanese translation for all important activities and a full staff of Japanese speaking cruise personnel. There were only a couple of totally Japanese events and several english only events. Several of the comedians, for instance, were Aussie and not translated. Other entertainment was non-language oriented (magic, juggling or dancing) or translation provide by the performer. We were quite amazed at the several performers who were multilingual and provided comments sequentially in both languages.
Food service provide to be interesting as they try to offer selections from such diverse cuisines. A portion of the renovation was to the Horizon court which now has Japanese food stations. These seemed to be quite popular with all passengers and certainly adds a sense of diversity to the menu. The main dinning room menu has also been altered to include Japanese selections and of course a menu in Japanese. We were reminded again and again that the portions have been reduced to accommodate smaller Japanese tastes. Unlike any other cruise, we were encouraged to take two or more entrees or double up the portions. Portions were much smaller than normal, but lets face it, it is hard to starve on a cruise so this was not a problem for us. The Japanese itineraries not offer anytime dinning, only traditional 2 siting (5:30 & 7:45). With about 60 percent of usual Princess passengers choosing Anytime, the move to standard seating perplexed us. The inside story is that the Japanese passengers dislike anytime (too many choices) and prefer really a single seating at 5:30. During our later seating there were almost no Japanese passengers present. Princess even when closed down 2 of the restaurants during second seating due to lack of demand. I have a feeling that the Horizon court was much busier for dinner that on usual itineraries. The specialty restaurants were very underutilized during our cruise. The new sushi specialty restaurant was nearly empty on mosts nights. This, I believe, is because of its fairly expensive ala cart menu. The other speciality restaurants are flat fee ($25), but this new is a first with an ala cart menu. We would have given it a try, but not knowing in advance the cost of our meal put us off. It would have been easy to spend $50 pp on a meal. Princess needs to rethink this approach for fine dinning.
Arrival and departure from Tokyo was smooth and handled professionally be Princess. The Yokohama port facility easily accommodates the ship and its passengers without delays. The trip to the airports and Tokyo is fairly long so appropriate planning needs to be made. Our table mates spend about $900 in R/T transportation from Tokyo. This was not necessary but can happen if proper plans are not made in advance. Customs and passport control were well staffed and efficient so there were delays in boarding. As an aside, starboard cabins have the best view on the cruise as a whole. In all but one port we docked on the starboard side so the port entertainment was easily viewable from our cabin - and quite entertaining.
Cabins are pretty standard for Princess, but they have upgraded the TV system in all cabins. Each now has a 40” LCD TV (huge) with digital channels most in standard definition. The channel selection was not to our liking and limited. The only American channels was CNBC (24/7) and ESPN. Two of the eight channels were Japanese. I was pleased that these new TVs had HDMI inputs (for watching computer based movies on the big screen) however, there was NO input selector or any means of switching to another video source. These were Samsung TVs with several inputs available, but the remote control was very specialized for this on demand system. The on demand system did provide quite a selection of free feature films, but our favorite tradition of watching the Love Boat while cruising on Princess is no longer an option.
The ports visited reinforce our earlier impression of Japan that it doesn’t have world class scenic attractions. We kept saying to our selves that we could see better mountain vistas, lava flows, lakes or what ever was on the tour itinerary for the day elsewhere in the world. However that would be doing Japan an injustice. It is not about the scenery (although the tour descriptions would make you thinks it is), it is about the culture, religion, and history. After 27 days we got a major dose of these and we found it to be repetitive. Visiting multiple ports in a single country tends tends to give tour guides a sameness as they give the same basic country/language information at each port. I am not sure if this can be avoided. You might want to limit your tours to a select few of the most interesting. Free shuttle buses to town where provided in most of the Japanese ports.
All in all we had a good time because we enjoy cruising, but we would not put this at the top our list of favorite itineraries. It is probably not a good choice for novice cruisers. With that said, according to the Captain Circle party, only about 40% of the passengers were repeat passengers with only 165 Elite cruisers. These are very low numbers for a typical Princess cruise. We did the Baltic cruise last year were over 80% were repeat passengers. This is a new and growing market for cruising and Princess, so it may take some time to gain passenger loyalty in Asia.