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An island nation isolated from the outside world for much of its history, Japan is distinctly different from any other place on earth. It’s the land of the geisha with her elaborate kimono and hairstyle, the highly ritualized tea ceremony and the indigenous Shinto religion with its worship of nature. But it’s also cutting edge, a forerunner in robotics, the epicenter of manga and anime, and a trendsetter in fashion and arts. Japan’s traditional cuisine is so unique it’s on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and that doesn’t even begin to describe the country’s vast regional specialties or contemporary creations.
Add unique experiences ranging from the tea ceremony to soaking in hot springs, and no wonder Japan seems to be on everyone’s bucket list, even for people who have already been there. Although I’ve been traveling around Japan and writing about it for more than 30 years, I sometimes feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
That’s why Japan is such a perfect fit for a country-specific cruise, one of the hottest trends in the cruise industry. Circumnavigating Japan by ship allows you to see more than you could ever hope to cover in the same amount of time by land, not to mention that you don’t waste time packing and unpacking, jumping on trains and buses, and worrying about language and cultural norms.
"Because Japan consists of islands, it’s a cruise-friendly destination,” says Yohko Scott, regional promotion director of the Japan National Tourism Organization in Los Angeles. “We have so many ports, offering easy access also to many other destinations as well. From Yokohama, for example, you can visit Tokyo, Hakone or Mount Fuji. Cruising is also a great opportunity to get off the beaten track, take a wonderful day tour and see Japan’s beautiful natural landscapes.”
And with more tourists flocking to Japan than ever before, plus events like the 2019 Rugby World Cup, 2020 Olympics and 2025 World Expo that are sure to draw even more visitors, cruising is also a way to avoid the crowds and to sail from port to port effortlessly while relaxing at sea.
“Japan is getting more crowded, but if you’re on a cruise you don’t have to worry about such things as transportation, hotels and meals,” Scott says, adding that Japan’s safety and legendary hospitality are also huge draws for visitors.
One of the benefits of joining a country-intensive cruise to destinations like Greece, Cuba, Italy, New Zealand and Japan is that it presents the opportunity to explore different parts of the country and provides an in-depth look at history, culture and customs through on-board enrichment programs and shore excursions led by locals. Japan’s rich cultural landscape can be especially difficult to navigate, so taking a country-specific cruise that focuses just on Japan can be much rewarding than visiting a port or two and then moving on.
Azamara, which has been an innovative cruise industry force in creating country-specific itineraries, is one line that offers a great variety of shore excursions for both first-time visitors and those who have been many times before. You can visit Japan’s top temples, shrines, and other highlights but if you’ve seen those you might instead choose to sample sake, soak in hot springs, stroll through bustling seafood markets, visit a local high school or experience the tea ceremony.
In addition, whereas large vessels of most cruise companies are at port only during daylight hours, if you select a cruise itinerary that includes multiple days in ports and late-night departures you don’t lose out on experiencing nightlife. Azamara, for example, provides another dimension with some late sailings and overnight stays.
“We all know that there are amazing experiences to partake in after the sun goes down, as well,” says Michael Bush, manager of destination experiences at Azamara, “and we are able to offer these to our guests because of our late sailings. We can offer special gastronomy experiences, theater productions and other unique opportunities that often are only available in the evening.”
Because country-specific cruises are likely to include both first-time and repeat visitors, you may want to choose a line that offer a greater variety of excursions, from tours to signature and little-known attractions to in-depth immersion experiences into local culture.
“Through our Local Immersions series of excursions, we allow guests to dig deeper with specialized experiences that connect them to the people, traditions, natural wonders and cultural riches of our destinations,” Bush tells us. “They can walk historic streets, meet local families, explore the outdoors and share local cuisine. These excursions are limited to just 26 guests, so they enjoy the time and space to ask questions, exchange ideas and really connect.”
Examples of Local Immersions offered by Azamara include tours of the Adachi Museum of Art, which combines works by Yokoyama Taikan (also known as Sakai Hidemaro) and other painters with award-winning gardens, treks to the coast of Miho no Matsubara with its 54,000 pine trees and views of Mount Fuji, and Kobe beef dinners.
“For guests who are looking for more of just the 'highlights' of the destination, we offer our Locales and Landmarks series,” Bush adds. “These curated sightseeing tours reveal the hidden gems, local secrets and signature sites of a destination. Whether a cultural immersion, self-guided tour, panoramic drive or guided visit, this series makes it easy to enjoy an authentic destination experience.”
Tokyo and Kyoto are Japan’s most-visited cities, and deservedly so. Tokyo, a chaotic mix of futuristic skyscrapers, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and wacky pop culture, is probably my favorite big city in the world. Kyoto gets my vote for Japan’s most romantic town. Throughout the decades, my travels have also brought me to other equally compelling destinations so far removed from the usual tourist circuit, there’s a chance you’ve never heard of them.
What follows are a few of my favorite port cities, each one different and scattered among Japan’s four main islands. I’m crazy about the groves of fairy-sized pines in Takamatsu waiting to be sold in bonsai nurseries, and I can never get enough of Kobe’s diverse ethnic cuisine. If I could, I’d spend all my money on exquisitely made crafts in Kanazawa, and I love the night-time view from atop Mount Hakodate, mostly because the camaraderie seems to unite every spectator up there.
For much of its history, Hakodate was a frontier outpost on Hokkaido, which even today ranks as Japan’s wildest and least developed island. In 1854, after U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry demanded that Japan end its 250 years of self-imposed isolation, Hakodate was chosen as one of the first ports open to international trade. First came U.S. whaling ships, followed by commercial vessels from the U.S., Britain, France and Russia. They left their mark with waterfront brick warehouses, now housing shops and restaurants (I can never resist stopping for a craft brew at the Hakodate Beer Hall), and I especially love exploring Motomachi, a delightful neighborhood of broad, sloping streets lined with turn-of-the-20th-century clapboard Western-style homes, embassies and churches.
Add clanking streetcars and Hakodate still retains its provincial port-town ambiance, making it a favorite shooting location for Japanese movies. Be sure to spend time on Mount Hakodate, accessible via cable car from the city’s center and famous for its glittering night views (you’ll need a sweater, even in summer), and at Hakodate’s morning market with its 250 stalls selling huge crabs, fresh seafood and breakfast seafood rice bowls. I also recommend Onuma Park for its scenic mountains, lakes and forests, but what could be more relaxing than Yachigashira Bathhouse with its indoor and outdoor hot spring baths? A statue of Perry, by the way, stands in Motomachi, commemorating his stop here after signing the trade treaty with Japan.
Kanazawa was once the reigning domain of a powerful feudal-era clan whose rule extended for 14 generations and whose generosity supported an unprecedented flourishing art scene. Today, this former castle town retains much of its former glory. There are old geisha enclaves, samurai quarters, temple districts and the lively Omicho Market, which has served as “Kanazawa’s kitchen” for more than 280 years. Spectacular Kenrokuen, once the feudal lords’ private grounds, is considered one of Japan’s top three gardens and is my favorite in the entire country.
My personal picks for getting an inside look at historic homes are elegant Seisonkaku Villa, lovingly built by a feudal lord for his widowed mother, the Nomura Samurai House and Shima Geisha House, a former teahouse where geisha once performed. Kanazawa also offers a wider selection of exquisitely made arts and crafts anywhere outside Kyoto, made by artisans using techniques passed down for generations and including porcelain, pottery, textiles, lacquerware and items covered in gold leaf. For memorable fine dining, try Kotobukiya, serving set meals of mostly fish and vegetarian dishes in a former 170-year-old merchant’s house. My favorite excursion from Kanazawa is to nearby mountain villages with their patchwork of rice paddies and thatched-roof farmhouses, now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hiroshima has the unfortunate distinction of being the first city ever destroyed by an atomic bomb, on Aug. 6, 1945, but that tragedy is also what draws Japanese schoolchildren and visitors from around the world. Peace Memorial Park, which commemorates the 280,000 people who died from the blast and its aftermath, is a somber reminder of the horrors of war, home to a heart-wrenching museum and more than 75 memorials and statues.
Hiroshima today is also a thriving, attractive metropolis, threaded with many rivers and wide, tree-lined boulevards. Reconstructions showcase the city’s most famous historic sites, including Shukkeien Garden, first laid out in 1620 by a master of the tea ceremony, and Hiroshima Castle. Hiroshima also serves as the gateway to Miyajima, a jewel of an island in the islet-studded Seto Inland Sea and considered one of Japan’s three most scenic spots. Sacred since ancient times, Miyajima is home to the Itsukushima Shrine, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and to free-roaming deer, considered messengers of the gods. A ropeway delivers visitors to Mount Misen with its sweeping panoramic views and hiking trails. But whatever you do, be sure to sample Hiroshima’s famous oysters, among the largest I’ve ever seen.
Shikoku is the smallest and least visited of Japan’s four main islands, which is exactly why I like it. It’s most famous for its 88 Temple Pilgrimage, a circuitous route thought to bring enlightenment for those who complete it. Takamatsu, which translates as “High Pine,” is famous for Ritsurin Garden, once the summer retreat of feudal lords and now ranked as one of Japan’s most exquisite strolling gardens, with spring-fed ponds plus pines and cherry trees. Takamatsu is also renowned as Japan’s largest bonsai-growing region, with a history stretching back 250 years and with nurseries offering both young and ancient specimens.
Shikoku’s most popular Shinto shrine is Kotohira, perched atop a mountain and dedicated to the Shinto deity of seafarers and voyagers. Among Shikoku’s most famous 88 temples is Zentsuji, where the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi was born in 774 and who serves as the inspiration for the pilgrimage. For a satisfying meal, stop at one of many restaurants serving Takamatsu udon, thick, chewy noodles that can reach an astonishing 2-feet long, A short ferry ride away from Takamatsu is Naoshima which tops my list as Japan’s most surprising destination. An island in the Seto Inland Sea, it’s devoted to cutting-edge art, including two museums designed by famous architect Tadao Ando. There’s nothing else quite like it.
Blessed with the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea and a protected harbor, Kobe opened its port to foreign trade in 1868. I consider it one of Japan’s most beautiful cities, squeezed between a lively waterfront and rising, undulating hills. It’s also one of Japan’s most cosmopolitan cities, home to foreign-nationals from more than 120 countries and known for its Chinatown, a former hillside settlement of Victorian- and Gothic-style homes, churches and synagogues and restaurants serving international cuisine in addition to Kobe’s famous beef (I’m especially partial to Bistrot Cafe de Paris with its people-watching outdoor terrace and Pinocchio with its handcrafted pizza).
Kobe boasts a compact but thriving nightlife and Japan’s largest herb garden, but its central location also provides easy access to many other iconic destinations. Foremost is the ancient capital of Kyoto, packed with Japan’s largest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Kiyomizu Temple with its cliff-defying architecture and the dazzling Golden Pavilion.
Beth Reiber’s career as a full-time freelance travel writer has spanned more than three decades and taken her to more than 50 countries, including seven years living in Germany and Japan. She now resides in Lawrence, Kansas, with a dog, cat, and menopausal chickens. People always ask what her favorite destination is, to which she always replies, “the place I haven’t been to yet.”