From its ultra high-tech cities and world-beating food to its grand temples and bamboo forests, there really is no other country like Japan. Tuck into a steaming bowl of ramen at a station counter or watch a tea ceremony in an imperial castle, and you’ll see for yourself the wonderfully Japanese fascination with detail that has ensured that the country has one of the least diluted cultures in the world.
With over 6,800 islands in its archipelago, a cruise is one of the best ways of seeing Japan with itineraries taking in multiple cities and ports. Setting the tone for the country’s great metropolises are the towering skyscrapers of Tokyo, criss-crossed by neon-lit backstreets, pedestrian crossings and wooden shanty bars. It’s also got the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, not least Sukiyabashi Jiro, a three-starred sushi restaurant located in an unpromising basement adjacent to Ginza Metro Station.
Then there are the bright lights of Osaka, the perfect foil for nearby Kyoto’s incredible density of shrines and temples, and the warm, traditional Japanese welcome of Fukuoka. Home to a 17th century Edo-period castle, the latter is famous for its rich and tasty, porkbased Hakata ramen.
Moving east, while Hiroshima’s history is painfully overshadowed by the events at the end of World War II, today its Peace Memorial Park and leafy boulevards are well worth a visit. Nagasaki, once similarly blighted, is also coming into its own as cobblestone streets reward travellers with evocative shrines, churches and temples, framed by a sweeping harbour and hilly landscape. There’s even the Koshibyo Shrine, the only Confucius shrine the Chinese built outside of their homeland.
However, head out of the cities and you’ll find perhaps Japan’s best-kept secret – its spectacular countryside. Bisecting the main island, the Japanese Alps stretch from Tokyo until they fall dramatically into the Sea of Japan. Dotted with temples, tearooms and castles, they offer fantastic hikes, skiing and welcome respite in naturally occurring onsen hot springs. For warmer climes, the coral reefs, cobalt-blue waters and sweeping beaches of cruise-favourite Okinawa Island are more Bali than Japan. Ships often call at Shimizu where a shogun burial ground has fantastic views to the conical peak of Mount Fuji.
Itineraries also often include Hakodate, at the southern tip of Japan’s northernmost island. Take a tram through its historic streets to the hilly edge of town, sprinkled with wooden buildings and brick churches. For another blend of urban and rural, look to Kobe, Japan’s ancient maritime gateway. Be sure to take in the striking curves of its modern, portside architecture before sampling its most famous export, Kobe beef. Tenderly massaged, this impeccably marbled delicacy is recognised as among the best meat in the world.
When to go cruising to Japan
The best times to visit Japan are spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November). Spring is when Japan’s famous cherry trees bloom. Starting in March, the sakura zensen (cherry tree blossom line) advances northward, usually passing the main cities of Honshu and Hokkaido from early April. The autumn foliage line reverses the advance of the cherry blossom, starting in the north in October and peaking across Honshu in early-to-mid November.
Who to cruise with
Many of the world’s leading cruise lines sail to Japan, including Silversea, Azamara Club Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Seabourn & Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Scott Anderson is General Manager at The Luxury Cruise Company. The Luxury Cruise Company is your port of call for incredible cruise holidays.