It’s taken a long time, with months stretching into years, but cruise companies are gradually returning en masse to Asia after the COVID pandemic.
Even as cruising had returned in most destinations, ongoing restrictions across Asia hampered its reappearance on itineraries, with many lines delaying their return until this year.
One of those was Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which based Seven Seas Explorer in Japan from March for a series of voyages from Tokyo before sailing for Vancouver in May.
Cruise Critic got on-board a 14-night round-trip voyage from Tokyo earlier this month (April) featuring a range of stops in Japan and South Korea.
At the time of my sailing, Japan still required proof of Covid vaccinations and a booster in advance of travel and those were rigorously checked upon arrival. However, the country has since announced a further relaxation of this regime and from April 29, travelers will no longer need to present either proof of vaccination or a Covid-19 negative test certificate, bringing an end to three years of Covid border measures.
On my trip, cruise passengers were also required to present a negative Covid test result taken within 72 hours of embarkation, regardless of their vaccination status.
Upon arriving in Japan, it was clear vigilance was still uppermost with numerous signs in public areas recommending social distancing and frequent hand washing. Nearly all public officials and a great many locals wore facemasks, though these were not compulsory.
Despite such lingering caution, there was no mistaking the warm welcome in the ports we visited.
Some turned up the pomp and ceremony with official welcome delegations accompanied by dancing troupes and brass bands who performed on the quayside. A smattering of locals even turned out to watch as we docked in Nagoya.
In many of the places we visited, it seemed Westerners had yet to return in abundance as many tourists were seemingly from other areas of Japan or countries within Asia.
As the recovery of tourism gathers steam, however, this has presented another problem with a shortage of guides – many of whom turned to other careers during the pandemic – and a lack of coaches and cars as transportation companies previously serving the tourist industry have gone out of business.
Thankfully, this didn’t affect the tours I took with Regent or the standard of guides.
The rich, distinctive flavors of Japan’s customs and traditions are, arguably, this country’s strongest selling point.
Visiting some of Japan’s most notable attractions on Seven Seas Explorer provided an easy way for guests to dip into Japanese tea ceremonies, Buddhist temple rituals and diverse local cuisine.
Flying into Tokyo, from where my cruise departed and ended, offers a cosmopolitan introduction to Japan, with pristine streets and multi-lane highways untouched by litter (I don’t think I saw a single piece of trash during my entire stay), potholes or graffiti (ditto).
Everything is orderly and controlled, yet we were also able to have experiences that are exclusively Japanese.
For instance, in the spa city of Beppu, famous for its network of hot springs and vents of hot steam scattered throughout the streets, sampling one of the “onsens” or bathhouses with their networks of thermal pools is a must.
Visitors are welcome and this is an ideal way to experience this Japanese ritual. Be aware this involves bathing naked, as swimming costumes are forbidden. Also note that in some onsens, tattoos are not allowed, although Beppu city guides on the internet can help you find one that's ink friendly
Another city where the past lives alongside the present is Japan’s third-largest city, Kyoto.
The city is still well known for its geisha, women who have been trained in traditional Japanese arts (which have been misrepresented, often, in various media). As you stroll along the atmospheric streets in districts such as Gion, you'll see these elaborately-dressed young women as they walk between their okiyas -- lodging houses where they train -- and the tea houses where they entertain, averting their gaze from paparazzi-like hordes of tourists trying to snap the best shot.
Atmospheric restaurants serving kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine, sit alongside the tea houses, set on narrow streets and side alleys lined with traditional wooden machiya merchant houses.
Visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across the country opens another window into Japan, as you witness chanting monks, wafting incense and lines of praying faithful knelt in quiet contemplation.
At first glance, the South Korean city resembles a concrete jungle, with tower blocks protruding like Lego bricks, making it unrecognizable as the fishing village it used to be.
You have to leave this industrialized hub behind and venture into the forested hills where you’ll find the Beomeosa Temple amid strings of rainbow-colored lanterns and the quiet hum of prayer to discover Busan’s spiritual heart.
This is a complete contrast to the city’s thronging streets where stallholders do a roaring trade on fish counters containing a mind-boggling array of marine life.
But with this being South Korea, you’re never too far away from the modern phenomena that is the K-pop (as in Korean) boy band scene.
Shops in the adjacent World Market are packed to the rafters with cushions, T-shirts, posters and everything else you can think of, adorned with the beaming clean-cut faces of these young pop princes who have taken the music world by storm.
The benefits of cruising on Seven Seas Explorer, which takes just 746 guests, means you can enjoy lesser-known ports and docking more centrally in others.
On our sailing, the flavor of the country was brought onboard with a visiting troupe from Kyoto, who performed an authentic Japanese Taiko drum show.
Some speaker sessions tackled chapters of Japanese history, including its role in World War II with the Pearl Harbor attack and the lasting impact of post-war American occupation of the country, while the history of Modern Korea was another topic handled.
In the ship’s Pacific Rim pan-Asian speciality restaurant, regional flavors naturally come to the fore with delicious signature dishes that include the classic Peking Duck & Watermelon Salad and Miso Glazed Seabass, plus Korean Style Barbecue Lamb Chops and Thai Red Chicken Curry – with a side order of Japanese mushrooms and yaki sauce.
Japanese cuisine also featured on menus in the main Compass Rose dining room with a different destination dish featured each evening, including Furikake Panko Crusted Salmon Fillet and Ginger-Soy-Glaze Grouper Fillet.