We are a family of four (Mom and Dad and two teenagers). We had wanted to visit Japan together as a family for some time. After researching various options for touring around Japan, this cruise seemed to be the best fit for us. Having done a number of cruises with Princess (we are platinum level cruisers), we knew that we all liked cruising with Princess, and that touring by cruise ship would allow us to explore Japan while having a familiar and comfortable environment we could return to every day to recharge our batteries.
I have set out some comments below about the cruise which, while they reflect our personal experiences, will hopefully be of assistance to those considering or planning a Japan-based cruise with Princess.
Ship: This was our third cruise on the Diamond Princess and the first since its major refurbishment earlier this year.
The atrium area has been beautifully redone. The Horizon Court Buffet has been given a nice makeover, including the More
addition of a pastry / dessert counter and Japanese noodle station (soba and ramen, I recall).
I also visited the new Izumi Japanese-style bath once during the cruise. It is a beautiful facility and while I would have loved to have made more use of it, I found the fee of USD20 per visit a bit steep and so limited my visit to just one time. I was there at a non-peak time (late morning, but on a sea day) but couldn't help notice how dead it was (in the men's area, just me and one other Westerner). It's possible it got more use at other times. Dress code was bathing suit in Izumi's outdoor area and birthday suit in the indoor bath areas.
Kai Sushi seemed like a bit of a boondoggle. Very nice looking restaurant, but with so much fresh seafood available on shore, we didn't see a need to try the sushi here. Many others must have felt the same, as each time we walked by there was no more than two tables occupied, and it was often empty.
Crew: Same high level of service we have received on our previous Princess cruises. We found all the crew members we interacted with friendly, professional and courteous. We celebrated Canada Day by giving out small Canadian flag lapel pins to the dining room staff serving afternoon tea; we were touched at how happy they seemed to be to receive the pins and how enthusiastic they were to wear them on their uniforms (many still had them on at dinner service).
Fellow Passengers: We were expecting mostly Japanese passengers but there ended up being a real mix of nationalities. Probably more than half were Westerners, mainly Brits, then Australians, followed by a mix of others including Europeans, some Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders. Japanese were probably the largest single group of Asian passengers, but there were several other Asian countries represented as well. The vast majority of Western passengers we interacted with were experienced cruisers (many "Elite" or "Platinum" status), pleasant and genuinely interested in the countries they were visiting. The Japanese were (of course) pleasant and polite, a pleasure to share the ship with. We have been on the Diamond Princess before when it was sold out and know what a full ship feels like. Our sailing was definitely not full.
Our teenagers spent a lot of time at the Teen Club, where they became fast friends with teens from other countries, including Australia and Hong Kong. Although the club facilities themselves seemed a bit basic, the cool thing for them was to enjoy meeting people their own age from other countries. The ship was a nice balance for us as a family as our teenagers were able to enjoy a reasonable amount of independence and time to themselves (and found lots to do with their new friends), which helped to make the time we all spent together as a family on and off the ship that much more enjoyable.
Stateroom: We chose two inside cabins on Baja (Deck 11). At our location, there were staterooms above and below us, and we were near the back of the ship. Therefore, our cabins were very quite and we never had any issues with noise or other disturbances. Choosing cabins near the coin laundry also made doing laundry a bit less of a chore as we didn't have to lug our laundry too far. A nice improvement since our last Princess cruise was the addition of larger flat screen TV's in our cabins with a nice selection of on-demand movies and several satellite channels in English (sports and news). Others have reported the installation of high tech Japanese toilets in their stateroom bathrooms. Alas, ours was the same, old school toilet we've had on other cruises (although we did see the newer Japanese toilets in some public toilets elsewhere on board).
Food: Food was very good and of similar high quality and good variety as we have had on other Princess Cruises. Princess has, however, made some modifications to the menus on Diamond Princess' Japan sailings to accommodate Japanese passengers. A set Japanese breakfast has been added to the breakfast menu in the dining rooms. Something else we found different was that, while on previous cruises one had the option of a daily breakfast "special" in addition to other regular offerings, the breakfast menu in the dining rooms was the same every day. On the dinner menu, the "Always Available" options were given a Japanese twist (e.g. salmon -> miso salmon) or replaced with Japanese options. Dinner portions were smaller, too, but our wait staff told us we could order larger portions if we wanted to. We never found this to be a problem at all and I actually preferred the smaller portions and the opportunity to try some of the Japanese options on the menu. And hey, it's a cruise ship - no one ever starves. And someone else does the cooking, serving and washing up. What's there to complain about??
Entertainment: Similar level of quality to previous cruises with Princess. Some were in English (Australian comedian) or Japanese (traditional Rakugo storytelling) but others were in a format that didn't require language (dancing or musicians) or were presented in both languages (an illusionist who spoke both languages). The one artist that stood out for me was a young Shamisen (Japanese stringed instrument) player who absolutely rocked the atrium just before (or after?) the sake barrel breaking ceremony at sailaway (I can't remember if it was before or after, probably due to too much sake I enjoyed from the barrel with a couple new Japanese friends!).
Ports: For us, this was the real highlight and the reason for our vacation! At each Japanese port, we were very impressed at the high level of organization demonstrated by the locals, many of whom must have been volunteers. At many Japanese ports, welcome centres were set up offering (depending on the port) food, souvenirs, draft beer, entertainment, loaner umbrellas and, importantly, free tourism information. Often, large groups of locals came to give a hearty farewell at sailaway.
We found that with advance planning, we were able to enjoy a wide variety of sights and experiences at each port we visited. We decided in advance of our trip that it was important for us to experience various aspects of Japan and Korea, not only historical things but also nature, society, culture (including modern pop culture), etc. So, while visiting historic places was just part of what we wanted to do, we did take into consideration the fact that not unlike other countries that have seen war and disaster, Japan has lost many original landmarks, and in some cases reconstructions have been built in their place. With a bit of planning and research we were able to easily visit temples, shrines, castles and other historic places that were the original, real deal. A bit of advance reading on Japanese history and culture also helped us to better appreciate the places we visited and their significance.
A word about the weather... early July is the rainy season in Japan. The weather is generally hot, humid and wet, but can vary greatly. During our trip it ranged from sunny and super hot, to misty rain, to downpours, to cool and windy. Overall, we didn't find the weather got in the way but we were glad we had read about the weather before we left home and packed appropriately.
Yokohama (pre-cruise): We stayed at a small budget hotel in Yokohama for two nights prior to embarkation (Comfort Inn Kannai). We took the Narita Express Train from the airport to Yokohama then transferred to a local train, then a short walk to our hotel - easy. The day before departure, we visited historic Kamakura (about an hour from Yokohama) where our teenagers were wowed by the Great Buddha bronze statue, cast in (estimated) the year 1252. Also awesome exploring the atmospheric tunnels and caves at Hasedera (a Buddhist Temple). Rounded out the day back in Yokohama at the very modern Minato Mirai shopping and restaurant complex, including a visit to the Pokemon Centre. Embarkation day was an easy taxi ride from the hotel to Osanbashi Pier.
Kanazawa: It was super easy to get around this relatively compact city. A port shuttle bus took us from the ship to the central train station. From there, there was a tourist bus operating on a loop route connecting Kanazawa's more famous sites. We enjoyed the peace and beauty of Kenrokuen, one of the great gardens of Japan and which dates back many hundreds of years. Kanazawa's 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art was a delight, as was Omicho fish market where we had a light sushi lunch at a "kaiten" (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant inside the market. Many fish merchants also offered fresh sea urchin, scallops and oysters at their stalls for enjoying on the spot (can't get any fresher!). Strolling Kanazawa's well preserved Higashi Chaya District gave some insight into what it must have been like to live in this castle town during Japan's Edo period.
Maizuru: We took the "Kyoto on Your Own" excursion. Although it is a full day excursion, given the distance between Maizuru and Kyoto City, this excursion only provides part of a day in Kyoto, a city which really deserves several days to visit. Therefore it is important to plan in advance what one wants to see, as Kyoto is a large city and many of its attractions are spread out among different areas of the City. The tour bus delivered us to Kyoto station. From there, we opted to visit the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. This included a brief hike up a mountainside to visit the Iwatayama Monkey Park (teenagers' choice!). We had a much less strenuous stroll through the Arashiyama neighbourhood and its famous bamboo grove before returning to Kyoto station to meet the bus.
Sakaiminato: Free port shuttle to the Sakaiminato train station, where we boarded a coach which delivered us to Matsue's feudal castle for a reasonable fare. The castle, which dates back many hundreds of years but is well preserved, was a family favourite. A very impressive structure and great views from the top!. Back to Sakaiminato where we spent time at a local grocery store exploring the aisles and discovering all sorts of cool products.
Busan: We took a Japanese language excursion tour to Jagalchi Fish Market and Beomeosa Temple. We booked the Japanese tour as it was cheaper than the same tour offered in English (and when you are buying four tickets, it adds up...). I wouldn't recommend booking a Japanese tour however, unless you speak Japanese (as I do). Our tour guide seemed genuinely panicked when she saw us boarding the tour bus but gave a sigh of relief when I spoke to her in Japanese (she only spoke Korean and Japanese and no English). We enjoyed the tour and I learned a lot from her commentary about the history of Busan. Also spent an hour or so on our own in and near a Lotte department store. Again, fun exploring the basement food floor, nearby shops, etc. Although we were only on the tour for a few hours, and mostly with the larger tour group (which limited opportunities for interaction with locals), we found all of the Korean people we did interact with friendly and courteous.
Nagasaki: A must do is the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. Much information is available on these places elsewhere on the internet, which I can add little to, other than to say both were very worthwhile to visit. Sailaway from Nagasaki is impressive as the ship sails out of the harbour past massive shipbuilding and other industrial facilities. Truly impressive.
Yokohama (disembarkation): All went smoothly. There was a free shuttle bus to a local JR station, where we took the train one stop to Yokohama Station, then took a coach to our hotel in the Tokyo Disney Resort area, which we used as our base for our last few days in Japan. Visited several areas in Tokyo including "hip" Harajuku and Omote Sando. Also enjoyed the Tokyo Disney Resort, in particular the Tokyo DisneySea Park, in our opinion the best Disney park in the world.
In summary - a wonderful, worthwhile family vacation, with lots of treasured memories of family together time. We would definitely "cruise Japan" on the Diamond Princess again given the opportunity, possibly to other ports (I have been eyeing the Hokkaido cruise...). Time to start saving for the next cruise! Less
Diamond Princess Cruises to Asia