Our cruise was around Honshu Island, Kobe to Kobe. Our enjoyment of cruising around Japan is based on our visiting locations we would not likely visit otherwise, the out of the way ports that are not standard tourist destinations. This ... Read More
Our cruise was around Honshu Island, Kobe to Kobe. Our enjoyment of cruising around Japan is based on our visiting locations we would not likely visit otherwise, the out of the way ports that are not standard tourist destinations. This was our shortest cruise in Japan with the fewest ports but we were not disappointed.
We arrived in Japan a week early, anchoring our land vacation in Osaka, from which we traveled three days to Kyoto and once to Himeji Castle. Osaka is a bustling city, with lots of focus on food, and as we stayed at the Swissotel Namba, above the Namba railway and subway station, it was an easy place to call home for 7 days prior to the cruise.
Embarkation from neighboring Kobe was without problem, although we had already set sail before my luggage made it to our stateroom. Osaka is known for its jazz, and a jazz band sent us off from the pier with several upbeat numbers.
The Japan cruises on the Diamond do not have Anytime Dining. I understand this is because only some of the wait staff speak Japanese, and they make a concerted effort to be sure that Japanese passengers are served by staff who can speak the local language. We had requested a table for 2 at the early seating, and although the time was accommodated, we were put with 3 Japanese couples (because of our Japanese surname), somewhat problematic since we do not speak Japanese. The Maitre d' was very helpful in moving us, and although we had to move to late dining, we ended up sitting with another couple we had befriended beforehand from Cruise Critic; it worked out perfectly although it meant that we didn't partake in much evening entertainment because we like to relax before dinner and afterwards it was just too late.
Ports of call included Hakodate (on Hokkaido), Akita and Fushiki-Toyama on the Sea of Japan, and Busan, So. Korea. Because large passenger ships in many Japan ports are a relatively new occurrence, the passenger ports do not have sufficient depth for a ship as large as the Diamond. We docked in commercial ports, but the local community provided continual shuttle bus service into each of the cities for those of us who do not take Princess excursions. (We had previously experienced this issue on the Diamond when we cruised from Singapore to Beijing, and I swore that I wouldn't cruise on such a large ship again because of the long wasted commute time between the ship and the cities, but Japan is small enough that these commutes were only about 20-25 minutes maximum.)
We had been to Hakodate on a previous cruise so chose to take the shuttle to the JR Hakodate Station, where we wandered around the morning market (still open despite its being early afternoon) and enjoyed great very fresh seafood in a small restaurant. (You could buy live crab--the biggest I've ever seen--at the market and for a fee have the restaurant cook it, but we chose to order from the menu, which, typically for Japan, had photos you could point to; it was delicious.) Local high school girls were part of a welcoming committee at the JR Station, and they provided directions to the other places we wanted to visit in the afternoon. English may not be a strong point for them, but they were very helpful regardless.
I'll note here that whenever we asked for directions in each port we were always told our walk would only be about 10 minutes. Japanese must walk very fast because we always took 2 to 3 times that long and eventually learned that we were better off hiring a taxi. Cabs in rural towns have a minimum fare, generally not more than $6-$8 US, and it was worth the price.
From Hakodate we traveled to Akita. Akita does not have a very sophisticated bus system so it becomes somewhat problematic getting around. This also means that there are no Goodwill Guides in the city (Goodwill Guides are a free guide service available in many Japanese cities that you pre-sign up for, and we have used them extensively--visit goodwill guides in Japan on Google for information--but they use public transportation so I assume this explains why there are none in Akita), but there was an English speaking welcoming group at the shuttle stop, and they were very helpful. We took the Shinkansen from the JR Station (more than 10 minutes from the shuttle stop) to Kakunodate, an old samurai town about 45 minutes away. I had printed the train schedule from Hyperdia dot com so I knew the train times and could show that to the clerk at the station in order to purchase our tickets. This was a little problematic since she spoke no English, and it took a while for me to understand thru various gestures that she was asking if we wanted to purchase a reserved seat. We didn't, and had to move a couple of times because we sat in seats that others had reserved, but it turned out fine. We were quite taken with Kakunodate and would like to return on a future trip. (There is a Facebook page for Discover Akita, which I had visited several times before the cruise, sending messages with various questions that were quickly answered.) We also look forward to seeing more of Akita. We were sorry to have returned to the ship too late to see the special presentation from their annual lantern festival, which we had seen previously in Honolulu, so that, too, will have to wait for another time.
Next stop was Fushiki-Toyama. The principal excursion from here is to Kanazawa (not to be missed) or to see the grassho houses at Shirakawa-go, but we had been both places before, and we were happy to wander around on our own. The local tourist bureau had arranged for volunteers at various locations around the city (wearing either yellow or red vests, depending on whether they spoke Japanese or English), which was very helpful. We wanted to visit Takaoka, an area within the Toyama vicinity that is known for centuries of copper work. (Most of the old temple bells in Japan were forged there.) From the shuttle drop off point, we were told it was only about a 10 minute walk (a very very long 10 minutes) but we had fun stopping in little merchant stores along the way. At one point a volunteer called to us from across the busy main street, offering the suggestion that we visit their new Takaoka Mikurumayama festival museum, containing one of the floats they use in their annual festival. It was only a couple of blocks away, and she cheerfully escorted us there. Although we didn't expect to enjoy it, we had a delightful experience. There were various hands on exhibits and a 20 minute video (in Japanese but very easy to understand even with no knowledge of what was being said). From there we walked to the Takaoka Copperware neighborhood, where we were again met by local volunteers, who explained the local history and briefly guided us around.
On our return from Takaoka, we stopped at the Daiwa department store, where they were holding a Japanese food festival. It was a feast for the eyes, and we could buy small amounts of various foods, sampling others as we wandered around.
From the port of Fushiki, we had a sea day to and from the port of Busan in So Korea. We have visited here several times so this time we just wandered around the fish market (huge) and the tourist shops, and returned to the ship. (This is one port in which we have taken Princess excursions on prior visits, including temples both at seaside and in the country, and the national museum. These were all worthwhile.)
Princess is known for its great itineraries, and this one was no exception except we would have liked one more Japan port. Ahhh-next time.
The ship itself is big but easy to navigate once you get used to it. We attended shows in the Princess Theatre twice, the first typical Princess entertainment and the 2nd a Shinto ceremony, which was enjoyable and fascinating. At the various ports a sail-away show was provided, generally by local students, and that was great fun to see. My husband enjoys dabbling in the casino but it was often closed (Japan regulations) and there was no video poker (his game of choice; previous cruises on the Diamond had had video poker). There was often entertainment in the Atrium. On our last Japan cruise there had been Japanese-English classes but not this time. There was a daily carpet bowling contest outside of the internet cafe, and it was well attended; the Japanese passengers appeared to enjoy this. Our port lecturer, Heather Hopkins Clement, was excellent. Although her lectures were in Japanese, she followed them with a lecture in English, which was also available on the stateroom television, and she had late afternoon sessions at her desk for any additional questions.
Our cruise had about half of the passengers from Japan, and that added to the overall positive ambiance of visiting their country. Breakfast in the Horizon Court always included miso soup; lunch always had a ramen station. Dinner in the dining room was traditional Princess fare with at least one item of each course available with Japanese food. One thing we noticed (maybe an anomaly) this cruise was that it had much less emphasis on the sale of items, especially beverages, which were noted as available in the Princess Patter but not pushed on the passengers, as we have previously experienced. Although we didn't attend the Izumi baths, we did enjoy massages, a first for my husband. Asians are not shy about their bodies, so although there is every opportunity to be modest in the spa, I was initially taken aback in the women's locker room by women sitting around talking while wearing only their birthday suits. (The baths are communal, alternating areas available to men or women by the day; the locker rooms are same-sex only.)
Disembarkation in Kobe was not as smooth as embarkation had been. We were going to spend the night in Arima Onsen in the hills above the city so we wanted to ship our luggage directly from port to Kansai airport, and that became an hour-long ordeal since there was only one English-speaking staff person for the luggage transport service. In the long run it was well worth the $25US that it cost us not to have to lug around our bags, and they were waiting for us the next night when we arrived at the airport. We took the train to Taketoritei Maruyama in Arima Onsen, where we actually did not even need our carry-on bags since our stay included traditional Japanese clothes, a fabulous kaiseki dinner and equally elaborate breakfast in a private dining room, and a hot spring in our hotel room; we could have arrived with little more than our toothbrushes (although they provided those, too).
We love visiting Japan. You cannot experience more open and welcoming people. Besides the nightly sail-away performances, the ship was greeted in each port by folks from the tourist organizations, providing visit information and maps in English or Japanese. In Fushiki-Toyama, they even had bicycles available, free of charge, for anyone who wanted to visit the general area. We will be back. Read Less