We have been cruising in Japan at least once each year since 2013, first on Sun Princess, earlier this year on Holland America Volendam, and the rest on Diamond Princess. The people, the culture, the history, the natural beauty, and the food keep drawing us back. Princess has developed the itinerary and many onboard activities to engage Japanese passengers, providing a feeling that each cruise is more than just a western-based ship sailing in Japanese waters.
Embarkation was smooth. Luggage was collected as soon as we entered the departure area on Osanbashi Pier in Yokohama, and it was delivered to our cabin only a short time after we arrived, leaving us plenty of time to meet our stateroom steward, unpack, grab a late lunch in the Horizon Court buffet, and enjoy sake barrel breaking (and sake sampling) prior to the muster drill.
First day was at sea with lots to keep us busy on board. Our first port was Aburatsu (listed on the itinerary as Miyazaki, which is a long distance away). We took the train to Obi Station (only 2 stops away), where we caught a taxi to Obi Castle ruins, where we were greeted by delightful high school students, offering to answer questions or guide us around. We wandered thru a cedar forest with the tallest and straightest cedar trees we've seen anywhere. Signs and maps around the grounds were written in Japanese and English so it was easy to get around on our own. After leaving the castle ruins, we walked around nearby, looking for the main part of Obi Town (which we didn't find), before catching a cab back to the train station.
Next port was Busan. Because we've been there several times, we opted to stay onboard and relax. This cruise was actually 2 back to back cruises, so we knew we would be back in Busan soon. We are not ship excursion folks but we have taken every excursion in Busan, and they have all been very good.
Because Busan in in South Korea, all passengers are required to go through Japanese immigration when back in Japan. This was in the port of Sakaiminato. Immigration was set up on the dock, and Princess was terribly disorganized in getting all 2600+ passengers through the process. Passengers on Princess excursions were given first priority; the rest of us were assigned times to wait in one of the dining rooms until we could be allowed to exit the ship. Naturally, few people paid attention to the assigned times, but even if they did, there was utter chaos in the dining room. We docked at 10:00 a.m., but we did not get through immigration until 12:15. We had friends waiting for us (and I'm certain other passengers had plans for the day that were thwarted by the delay); no one was happy.
Our friends took us to Matsue Castle (about an hour from port) and Yushien Garden. I believe Princess has excursions to both of these locations. They are worth visiting. We had dinner with our friends before returning to the ship, but it should be noted that when the ship is in port late (we didn't depart until 8:30), there is open seating in the dining rooms as opposed to the assigned times and tables required for the rest of the cruise.
Next port was Tsuruga. This is a new port for Princess, visited only once earlier this Fall. The town provided entertainment and lots of booths with local merchandise at the port. A shuttle was available into town (in previous years all shuttles were free but this year we had to purchase an all-day pass for the shuttle in each port, costing $5 or $10/day), and taxi tours were available. (We didn't take one but have previously. The taxi drivers don't speak English but they have set destinations with a set price, and they have been very worthwhile. If there are 4 passengers in the taxi, it becomes a very reasonable excursion.)
The people in Tsuruga were so welcoming. Where the shuttle dropped us, there were English speaking volunteers who could help with directions to local sights, and more volunteers were stationed on street corners to help when needed. There was a festival in town with local entertainment, food, and crafts. In addition, there was what was called a 100 Yen street fair, where local stores and individual vendors sold their wares.
Each passenger was provided with a small towel, folded like an apple, to commemorate the Jewish immigrants who briefly settled in Tsuruga after escaping from Nazi-invaded Lithuania at the beginning of WWII. (Local residents provided them with apples and other food to help them get established. There was a short movie at the festival about the Japanese consulate officer in Lithuania who aided in their escape, and there is a museum in town about him and the historical events.)
Note that Tsuruga is in the western end of Fukui prefecture. We spent several days in Fukui City earlier this year so did extensive sightseeing in the area. Tsuruga is too far away to get to the main sights on your own but Princess offers excursions to our favorite spots: the Dinosaur Museum (one of the 3 top dinosaur museums in the world), the Eiheiji Temple (an active monastery), and Asakura Clan Ruins. These locations are all worth visiting.
From Tsuruga we went way north to Akita. We took the shuttle into town and wandered around Senshu Park, visiting the rebuilt castle, and then walked to a small street fair near the train station. After returning to the vicinity of the shuttle stop, we visited the Octoberfest nearby, with lots of beer and entertainment. Note that we've been to Akita previously, and I would normally recommend taking the Shinkansen from the JR Akita Station to the samurai town of Kakunodate but the only returning train in the afternoon was a local train, and without the rapid transit, there wasn't time to make the round trip except by ship excursion.
Akita was the last stop before returning to Yokohama for turn-around day for the 2nd cruise. On this part of the cruise we headed north to Aomori and back to Akita. Aomori is easy to wander around on your own, having fresh fish lunch at Furukawa Morning Market, sampling the delicious local apples, and visiting the nebuta float museum. We took the train to the town of Odate, where the dog breed Akita Inu originated, to visit the Akita dog museum (where I had prearranged having an English speaking dog breeder meet us to take us through the museum). From Odate, we took the train back towards Aomori, stopping in the town of Hirosaki. The Autumn Leaves and Chrysanthemum Festival was going to begin the next day, and although we missed the festivities, the castle grounds were beautifully decorated and well worth the stop.
Back in Akita, we took the train to Oga Peninsula to the Namahage Museum and next door Folklore Museum. We had to prearrange for OK Sightseeing Taxi to meet us at the JR Hadachi train station to get us to the museums, followed by a drive to Mt Kanpu for a view down the Sea of Japan. As with our previous experience, the taxi driver didn't speak English but he was very pleasant and made sure we saw everything we came to see. I believe Princess offers an excursion to Oga Peninsula. If interested, watch a video on YouTube about the namahage so that you have some context for what you will see.
We were supposed to next go to Fushiki-Toyama but Typhoon Lan was threatening so the ship skipped this port. (Too bad since we've spent a couple of days in Toyama and nearby Takaoka, and it's a nice and very welcoming port to visit.) We were on the Diamond Princess in October, 2014, when we encountered 2 super typhoons. Although it turned out fine, communication to the passengers was nearly non-existent. Not this time. The captain forewarned us at the beginning of this cruise segment that the itinerary might need to change in order to get ahead of the typhoon, and the typhoon's progress was illustrated on the stateroom tv's and on the outside movie screen. We appreciated being kept up to date about the storm. While in port in Busan, a tugboat spent the day pushing the bow of the ship against the pier so that the force of the wind and storm surge wouldn't break the mooring; we were glad not to be at sea!
Busan on this cruise segment was the second port where Princess failed to adequately serve the passengers. The cruise director announced that they had tried to put some excursions in place for this unexpected extra day in Busan but to no avail. That was understandable. The shuttle into town was made available at no charge but the cruise director (there has not been a port lecturer on board Diamond Princess for a couple of years) failed to mention that shops don't open until 10 or 11 so most passengers disembarked about 8:00, took the shuttle to town, and turned around and came right back. Likewise, there was no mention that there was a festival going on in Chinatown (the destination of a 2nd shuttle, provided by the city). Not having more local information available was a disservice by Princess.
From Busan we sailed to Kagoshima. We again had to go through immigration. This time it was held onboard. We just ignored meeting in the dining room but went straight to the lounge where the Immigration staff were processing the passengers, and we quickly went through the process. We were told later that there was the same chaos in the Savoy Dining Room as there had been on the first cruise. We find this inexcusable because it would be relatively easy to organize everyone who wants to get off the ship.
In Kagoshima we were met by Goodwill Guides who took us to Senganen Garden (beautiful) and the ferry to Sakurajima (active volcano). It was a delightful day. The town provided a late-night fireworks show at the port just before we sailed.
Back in Yokohama, we disembarked easily on our own, and took the train to JR Odawara Station, where we met a Goodwill Guide who took us to Hakone, where we took a cable car and then a gondola to see the active hot springs, viewed Mt Fuji, and took a "pirate ship" around Lake Ashi, before returning to Tokyo to catch our midnight flight home.
The cruise attracted passengers from all over the world. We always enjoy cruises with a large number of Japanese passengers but there weren't that many this time. Princess has learned to cater to the local environment, no longer hawking $2 bottles of water at each port (Japan is the king of vending machines, where you can spend 100-160 yen to buy just about anything), and bringing in some local entertainment. Miso soup is available every morning in the buffet, and there is a ramen station at the buffet lunch each day, along with a make-your-own sushi station several days. The menu in the main dining room is standard Princess fare (good but certainly not fine-dining), with a couple of Japanese offerings each night. Our waiters (both from Peru) were wonderful.
We were in a balcony cabin, A108. At nearly the front of the ship, we were concerned about potential rocking but it wasn't much of an issue. The room was basically comfortable except that the bed (configured as a queen) had definite body shapes in the mattress so wasn't conducive to sleep.
We continue to recommend the Diamond Princess for the itineraries. We will be back in 2018.