Combining an action-packed stay in Tokyo with a more leisurely Princess Cruises voyage makes for a hassle-free way to explore Japan. Jo Kessel embarks on an adventure laced with castles, geisha and an unusual take on bathing.
Within six hours of landing in Tokyo, I feel practically native. I’ve visited the Buddhist Senso-ji temple, browsed its market, bought a kimono, a silk purse and a bag of rice crackers to munch en route to Shinjuku, Japan’s Times Square equivalent. I’ve enjoyed an authentic noodle ramen (made from sardine broth) and drunk in a teensy bar for six. Then I’ve returned to the Capitol Hotel and my room on the 25th floor, where not only am I relaxing in a bubble-filled bath but also enjoying the view from it – that of Japan’s crazy capital sprawled beneath me.
I’m in Tokyo for two nights with my husband Marc before a week’s cruise around Japan and South Korea. The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Tina Turner all stayed at this hotel, where the decor is east-meets-west (think low beds and sliding paper doors) with an atrium designed by the creator of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic stadium. The next morning we wake to that same view from a king-size bed – the Imperial Palace and Houses of Parliament are within spitting distance – and soon we’re back at street level. Apart from an hour in a Japanese garden (next to the Meiji Shrine), the day is spent brushing shoulders with strangers. Crowds in the streets, shops and at road crossings are thick and slow-moving.
Marc dubs it “organised chaos”. We cram more into 36 hours and walk more miles than in a month at home and no sooner have we boarded Diamond Princess in Yokohama (a 40-minute drive away) than we’ve collapsed on sun beds by the ship’s main pool.
As first-timers to Japan, we thought a cruise would be a stress-free way to see as much of the country as possible in a short time. Too right. The second I hit that sunbed, I’m relaxed and I remain glued to it for a heavenly three hours.
But the respite is short-lived. The next morning we dock in Nagoya. With a guidebook and having mastered Tokyo’s subway, we’re confident about sightseeing independently. Clients may prefer to join a ship excursion, although there isn’t one to our planned destination: Japan’s oldest castle.
Two trains and an hour or so later,we alight in Inuyama Yuen station and discover a contrasting rural world. No crowds, few people, silence. A 20-minute riverside walk leads us to Inuyama Castle, a fairytale, three-tier fortress atop a forested hill. When we buy our entrance tickets (£3.50pp), we’re flabbergasted. It’s a myth that everything in Japan is expensive.
Public transport, food and entrance fees are great value. The walls of this Japanese keep, built in 1537, ooze with the history of samurai and shoguns – and smell divine too, made from the same fragrant camphor wood as the stairs that wind to the top for a giddying view from a wraparound balcony.
The castle and its grounds (there’s a long food-market street opposite the entrance) make a perfect day trip. The only smack of commercialism is the ninja warrior – not a real one – guarding the fortifications.
The next day is a welcome one at sea and a chance to recharge. Most passengers hail from Japan and Diamond Princess has Asian touches that set it apart. Green tea ice-cream is served poolside. There’s an exercise class called Radio Taiso (like Tai Chi on speed). And it’s the only western cruise ship to have Japanese baths – a unique spa designed to replicate “onsen”, the hot springs for which Japan is renowned. I’m about to go in when I’m warned that the indoor tubs require 100% nudity. “I’ll think about it,” I promise.
Diamond Princess was built in our next port of call: Nagasaki. It’s hard to believe that this verdant, hilly city reminiscent of San Francisco was devastated by an atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War. Like us, clients will probably want to visit the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. Be warned – there are graphic images, but there’s another side to the city too.
There’s Glover Garden – a World Heritage Site five minutes from where the ship docks. And there are geisha. Today Japan’s geisha tradition is strongest in Kyoto, but a small community still exists in Nagasaki. We experience it at the exclusive Ryoutei Hashimoto restaurant, where a geisha called Kikoko is our hostess during a 12-course shippoku feast – a Japanese/ Chinese fusion cuisine native to Nagasaki. She pours us sake and serves us soup, sashimi, fish and dumplings in little red and black lacquer bowls. Later Kikoko dances for us and she is utterly mesmerising.
According to Princess Cruises’ Tony Roberts, vice president UK and Europe, I’m not alone. “We have had strong demand from the UK market for our Asia and Japan cruises, with Asia now our second most popular destination.” Like me they combine a land holiday with a shorter sailing.
“It’s easy for guests to experience more of this fascinating country on a cruise and there are so many options. A voyage might incorporate the cherry blossom season, for example, or a national festival,” says Roberts.
The next day we’re in Busan, South Korea, where, for a change of scenery, we head to Haeundae Beach, a strip of blond sand between clear green sea and a promenade. Walk one way and you reach an authentic Korean food market and in the other direction you’ll find Dongbaek Island, whose trails offer views across to Japan as well as Gwangan Bridge, Korea’s longest two-deck suspension bridge.
Our last stop is Kagoshima, on Japan’s southern tip. It’s hard to believe this city isn’t better known considering it is home to Sakurajima, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It smoulders in the distance from the glorious gardens of stately home Sengan-en, where we enjoy a traditional tea ceremony before taking a ferry ride across the bay to the foot of the mountain. A lava trail leads to a public foot onsen, where we soak tired toes in warm volcanic water while eating a tub of volcanic ash ice-cream. It’s about as memorable a holiday experience as they come.
There have been many firsts on this trip – first geisha; first green tea ice-cream; first volcano. But there’s one more to come. Back on the ship, I visit the 100% naked Japanese baths. Towel on, towel off; towel on, towel off, until eventually the towel stays off and I’m soaking in a very hot tub full of women in nothing but their birthday suits. My first time, yes, but it feels so good that I hope it won’t be my last.
Book it: Princess Cruises offers an eight-night round trip from Tokyo, departing October 8, 2018 from £998pp excluding flights. A double room at the Capitol Hotel Tokyu costs from £298. Geisha entertainment at The Ryoutei Hashimoto, Nagasaki, must be reserved via email at least three days in advance (ryoutei-hashimoto@ uma.bbiq.jp).