A Japan cruise has been a bucket list destination of ours for many years. This April we ticked it off in grand style! We chose a cruise around Japan as the best way to get a flavour of this enchanting country. We expected history, culture and good food. What we found was much greater, allowing us to fall in love with the places, the culture and most definitely the people.
We cruised to places I’d never heard of before, saw things we didn’t know existed and learnt a lot more about this amazing place.
When planning a cruise holiday I am never really sure what to expect. I have been lucky that all three of my cruises (Venice to Dubrovnik, Vancouver to Alsaka and now Japan) have been amazing but it sill feels a bit like pot luck. I share this blog in the hope it helps you choose the right cruise, or inspire you to take your own Japanese Adventure!
Kobe to Osaka With Silversea
Our cruise was the Kobe to Osaka (voyage SM230412014) starting in Kobe, travelling around the entirety of Japan retuning to Osaka two weeks later. This was very much a culture/history cruise rather than a wildlife cruise.
After the itinerary, I have added a little about each stop in the hope that one day I get to write up every destination! Please use the links to jump to bits that interest you.
- Kobe Departure
- Day at Sea
- Kagoshima, Japan
- Nagasaki, Japan
- Busan, South Korea
- Day at Sea
- Kanazawa, Japan
- Nigata, Japan
- Sakata, Japan
- Hakodate (Hokkaido), Japan
- Aomori, Japan
- Day at Sea
- Yokohama (for Tokyo), Japan
- Osaka Arrival
Our trip started with a few nights in Tokyo, staying at the Shangri-La which we booked independently of the cruise. Many cruise guests flew directly to Kobe but we wanted the chance to get acclimatised and to check out this mega city before we picked up the Bullet Train heading for our connection at Kobe.
We arrived in Kobe to torrential rain, hopping in the tiniest taxi that somehow swallowed our luggage (OK, it was hanging out the trunk tied down with straps) and headed for the cruise terminal. Boarding the ship meant there was no time to explore the city but we did catch glimpses of the big wheel, the Kobe Ohashibridge and the old port buildings which took me back to a famous aerial scene from You Only Live Twice.
Departing late in the evening, our next destination was a day away giving us time to check out the ship, and get burnt to a crisp! Much like our time in Alaska, I wasn’t expecting sunshine so did not pack accordingly!
Our first stop, Kagoshima, was a city that beautifully juxtaposed modernity with tradition. We visited the Senga-En which was the location where Japan’s Industrial Revolution began. What looked like a beautiful, traditional garden also included the original furnaces and machinery that transformed the country. I guess it would be the equivalent of visiting Arkwright’s inventions at Cromford Mill, or the cotton mills of Beverley MA (where the UK and US industrial revolutions began.)
We took a stroll around the house lived in and loved by generations of the Shimadzu family, and enjoyed the views out to Kinko Bay, and Sakurajima beyond. Because time was tight we had a brief look at the gardens but would loved to have stayed longer.
Our tour bus then took us on the ferry over to the smoking Sakurajima volcano and the lunar landscape that has evolved through lava flows. You can get up close to this smoking volcano but it was a pouring wet day so we didn’t linger.
I wanted to visit Nagasaki, and see for myself the city that was devastated by a nuclear bomb at the end of the Second World War. I was not expecting to see such a verdant and vibrant city.
There were almost three parts to the city – the huge port, the old city and the modern city including ground zero and the peace park.
Almost over the road from the Cruise Terminal was the old Dejima city. Back in the day Japan was closed to outside visitors with only this small village open to outsiders between 1636 and 1869. Now preserved and restored this small area gave us an insight into how Japan would have looked like back in the 17th century. It is somewhere we had read about, but never understood the connection to Nagasaki.
And then we had the modern Nagasaki and it’s connection to still recent history. Obviously the Museum was going to be a challenging to visit, and I wasn’t sure if I should be writing about this afterwards. But a simple sign at the entrance of the museum stated that we must tell this story – it has to be kept alive to ensure everyone understands the sheer horror of a nuclear explosion. The museum excelled in telling the story from both sides. There was no pity and no blame for the actions, just facts and stories.
I was honestly stunned to stand at ground zero and look up where the nuclear bomb had been triggered, just 500 metres off the ground. To put that in context the bomb exploded lower than the peak of the Tokyo Skytree. The park was peaceful and verdant. The trees had grown back, the flowers were in bloom and the grass was green. The neighbouring Peace Park with it’s magnificent sculpture just reinforced how resilient nature can be.
I am very grateful to have visited Nagasaki, the people were all so friendly and welcoming. They have every right to despise a cruise ship with ‘allied’ tourists but it was the complete opposite. If you want an example of the resilience of nature and the kindness of strangers then do visit Nagasaki.
Busan, South Korea
The second largest city in Korea is pronounced Pusan. Who knew?
We’d booked a tour which took us 90 minutes out of the city so I can’t say much about the city itself. From our balcony we could see a modern and rapidly growing city from the modern buildings like the port area, to miles of skyscrapers heading into the countryside. The shoreline around the Port Terminal is undergoing a transformation ahead of the 2030 expo in a few years time. We missed visiting the world’s largest shopping mall which would have been interesting.
Our trip, however was very unexpected. Either we booked the wrong thing or got on the wrong bus. Either way, we were treated to the most gorgeous ancient temple, a trip to the Korean equivalent of the pyramids, lunch and a stroll through cherry blossom with the locals.
We had definitely left the tourist trail behind for this experience. Strolling in the park with the locals dressed in their Sunday best was a real treat. We’d love to come back to South Korea but the ship cruised back to Japan.
Next, we docked in Kanazawa, known for its well-preserved Edo-era districts; park and fish market. Walking off the ship we crossed into the huge market that sold many types of fish including giant crabs and other stuff we didn’t fancy!
We skipped the tours and went out to discover the city on foot. Despite the rain, we enjoyed the Kanazawa Castle Park with it’s lakes and ornamental bonsai before wandering over to the old Geisha district. This was really beautiful and gave us a feeling of how much of Japan would have once looked. Passing a marriage photoshoot made for some great pictures! A poke around the train station department store rounded off a great self guided day in this city.
The morning took us to the ancient Shibata castle, about half an hour drive North East of the cruise terminal. We visited a beautiful ancient castle (they are all wooden and white) framed beautifully with cherry blossom, before moving onto a tranquil garden with koi ponds.
Back in time for lunch we decided to walk into the city and discover the local areas. We picked [what turned out to be] a great local restaurant where we had to point at the menu and hope for the best. Eating lunch, watching Japanese baseball with the locals was an experience. We also discovered some cool second hand shops before heading back to the ship.
Sakata won hands down for the best cruise ship greeting. Some ports had a banner or a small greeting party. For Sakata the whole town came out to say hello! There were local dance troupes, gigantic dragon heads, Samurai warriors and food trucks right there on the dock! We like!
Another bus trip out to see some big pagodas. A visit to the Ideha Bunka Museum explained the history of pilgrimage to these sacred mountains before we were taken down the path to see the Hagurosan Gojunoto (Five Story Pagoda) which was truly impressive. We chose to walk up the mountain (about a half hour hike) instead of taking the bus up to see more temples at the mountain top. A lunch of local dishes at the Saikan showed us the diet for these early pilgrims. It is amazing what you can make from a mountain vegetable.
Back at the cruise terminal and there was a party in full swing. More pictures with the Samurai, and a chance to enjoy some food truck chicken (it was delicious!) We took loved the the fan dance that serenaded our departure. Sakata certainly left us with such a warm feeling for the locals.
The squid capital of Japan! Nothing to do with Squid Game, that was South Korea.
The front cover of our onboard bulletin showcased those beautiful monkeys sitting in warm ponds surrounded by steam. But there was no such trip on the itinerary so we Googled where to see them. Whilst we couldn’t go into the wilderness on our own, we could see some in captivity at the local botanic garden. With Google translate we took a taxi out through a city that had seen better days – our cabbie explained that a lack of prospects had meant the youngsters had moved onto bigger cities.
Seeing the monkeys was cute, if a little sad, as they were clearly expecting us to throw food (we did) but it was nice to see something we’d pictured for years.
Another white gloved taxi into town dropped back at the cruise terminal from where we ventured out to discover the famous historic red wharfs, now converted into some shopping. The place looked like it would come alive in the evening but we had to get back to the Silver Muse. But not before a detour to find the squid post box.
Another day, another castle with cherry blossom. Travelling an hour South to Aomori Castle we got to enjoy a day out with the locals. Not only did we see a small beautiful castle, but we experienced some of this ‘Cherry Blossom Madness’ where everyone comes out to enjoy the blossom and take pictures. There were plenty of food stalls to try some local delicacies (I wasn’t sure about the pink bananas) and it was certainly good to see a good showing of cherry blossom that had eluded us on much of this trip.
Watching a show at the Tsugaru-han Neputa mura Village was pretty spectacular and photogenic, before I ate some more local apple pies and headed back to the city. A cup of tea on the top floor of a deserted department store was welcome if a little surreal.
Yokohama is about 30 minutes by Bullet train from Tokyo and the two cities kinda merge into one megacity. Most of the tours from here were to Mount Fuji or back into Tokyo. As we’d already done Tokyo (and heading back to the Shangri-La after the cruise) we opted to stay in the city.
We’d done a lot of history so it was cool to see a modern city where most of the spaces seem to be in vast skyscrapers that took up the city centre. We witnessed the phenomena of a capsule store store, enjoyed a cuppa in Le Salon de Nina’s (from Paris, apparently) and saw the giant Gundam Robot stand up! . But the city really came alive at night – the giant big wheel lit up and the old Nippon Maru Sailing Ship looked beautiful against the modern backdrop. Seeing the gigantic Gundam robot was a cool, modern thing and ‘very Japanese’. We chose not to visit the Cup Noodle museum as we’ve got to have a reason to go back!
Yokohama was our last stop before a day at sea before disembarkation at Osaka.
A wet disembarkation was made a little easier by the crew organisation and local volunteers who made sure we got into the right cab. A coffee at Tullys in Osaka station was about as much as we saw of the city before we boarded the Bullet Train back to Tokyo.
We loved our Japan cruise. It gave us a great flavour of this ancient city and a great warmth for the people of Japan. The lack of wildlife both in the cities and in the sea was a little concerning but this wasn’t billed as a wildlife cruise. It was our first cruise with Silversea which was good, but I’d suggest not the ‘great’ we had with Crystal Cruises. We’ve seen places we will never go back to but they will live on in our memories and our photos.
I’d definitely recommend a Japan cruise from Kobe to Osaka as it covered the entirety of the country giving you a different flavour (and weather) in the south, east, west and north of the country.