A cruise with Princess Cruises on Diamond Princess around the Japanese islands from Tokyo is an opportunity to see the country’s exquisite natural beauty, discovers Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis

The Oirase Stream, Aomori, Japan

Striking colours along the banks of the Oirase Stream, Aomori, JapanThere’s a collective ‘ooh’ from the passengers in our cable car as we fly over the tops of the trees that clad the Hakkoda mountains, giving us a bird’s eye view of the magnicent autumn colours below: ruby, topaz and gold, interspersed with shades of green. We all smile at each other and laugh; few of us in the car may speak the same language, but we can all appreciate the natural beauty of the stunning fall foliage.

Our leaf-peeping excursion was one of many highlights on an extraordinary cruise that began in Yokohama, an hour outside Tokyo. We’d already spent a few nights in the Japanese capital and acclimatised to this endlessly fascinating country: from the Blade Runner-esque neon signs at Shibuya Crossing to the toilets with their heated seats and myriad of controls which we were, frankly, too nervous to investigate. We’d also seen something of the other side of Japanese culture, with a traditional wedding at the Meiji Shrine, and our hotel was close to the Imperial Palace and its magnicent gardens.

A cruise round the Japanese islands, though, gives you a unique perspective of this intriguing country. You expect to see high-tech gadgetry and weird things in Japan; its landscapes are simply astonishing.

And the newly refurbished Diamond Princess is the ideal way to see the islands. The ship was actually built in Japan, and every attention to detail has been thought of, skillfully blending elements of local design and culture. There’s an authentic Japanese bath (a word of warning – you do have to be naked for this. We wimped out); the very peaceful adults-only pool has a Buddha and Japanese music playing, and every night there are Japanese options on the menu in the main dining room and at breakfast and lunch in the Horizon buffet (including some very good teriyaki chicken).

All the bars serve chilled sake (pronounced ‘sakay’, never ‘saki’). Most spectacular of all, though, is Kai Sushi, an exquisitely decorated restaurant where you can watch the chefs freshly preparing delicacies including sushi and sashimi. It’s extraordinarily good and it’s tempting to eat there every night of the cruise.

Traditional-'geta'-shoes
Traditional ‘geta’ shoes

Our first port of call was Kushiro; the main attraction here is the fish market, where you can walk around trying various fish and seafood. The rest of the town has a slightly strange atmosphere, and there is constant piped music and announcements played over tannoys throughout the city, which is very bizarre.

As we discovered, you’re better off hanging around the indoor market right by the port, where there’s a stall offering the chance to be dressed in a real silk kimono, at no charge. It gives you a real appreciation of how heavy kimonos are to wear. You’re dressed in layers of silk and they even dress your hair; the ‘obi’ or sash holds you in, and is tied in an elaborate bow at the back. The final challenge comes with trying to walk in the whole ensemble while wearing heavy wooden shoes. Not easy, but we had great fun trying.

After a day of scenic cruising the next port of call was Korsakov, which is in the Russian Far East, on the southern tip of Sakhalin Island. It has been a tug-of-war territory (between Russia and Japan) and was seized by the Soviets in 1945. You can’t actually disembark without either a visa or joining an excursion; we opted for the very reasonably-priced walking tour ($15) and were transported by tender to what is essentially Russia: it’s decidedly more chilly and there’s even a statue of Lenin to greet you in the main square. We were treated to a rather entertaining music show, which involves audience participation (my niece was invited up on stage, given a Cossack hat to wear and encouraged to dance, which was very funny).

Day five of our cruise took us to Hokkaido Island and Otaru, which is the most enchanting Japanese town, with a pretty canal running through it and a high street crammed with beautifully-presented boutiques, some in traditional machiya (Japanese houses). It also has an unexpected but welcome proliferation of bakeries: the Japanese eat very healthily but they love their cakes.

It’s all too easy to walk along gathering samples as you go, particularly of the excellent ‘fairy’s forest’ cake, which is lighter than air and totally moreish. Hokkaido is known for big brown bears, and bear-themed souvenirs are a thing here. No one does cute quite like the Japanese, either – we spotted a little china cat and kitten outside one shop, with a saucer of salt for luck.

Kakuuntei Teahouse
The beautiful Kakuuntei Teahouse at the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

And then, a definite highlight: Hakodate. We opted for an excursion to Fukushima that took us to the fascinating Yokozuna Sumo museum, where the very tiny sister of a Sumo giant (in every sense) told us about life for the wrestlers.

Sadly the much-anticipated sumo demonstration did not materialise, but from here we were taken to the Fukushima Shrine, where wrestlers pray to the god of Sumo, and then on to a traditional sitting-on-the-floor lunch where we ate chanko-nabe, the protein-rich stew served to Sumos, that tastes a lot better than it looks.

That afternoon, a visit to a stunning Trappistine Convent and the chance to try delicious fresh ice cream made by monks. Along the way our charming guide, a former teacher, taught us various phrases and gave us insights into Japanese culture. Everyone got off the coach at the end of the day able to count to at least 10.

Our excursion in Aomori, on the northern tip of Japan’s main island Honshu, and the dormant volcanoes of Mount Hakkōda, was the pinnacle of an extraordinary week in more ways than one. The day began admiring the breathtaking waterfalls of the Oirase Stream; a trip on a boat across the bright blue water of Lake Towada gave us our first glimpse of the fall colours (the Japanese word for autumn leaves is ‘kōyō’) and thrillingly, seahawks diving for fish. After a traditional lunch it was up into the mountains for that cable car ride and the spectacular foliage, which became more intense in colour the higher we got.

We disembarked Diamond Princess in Aomori feeling as though we had immersed ourselves in Japanese culture and tradition; a ride on the bullet train or ‘Shinkansen’ back to Tokyo adding to an already extraordinary experience. Sadly the advent of a typhoon meant we couldn’t see Mount Fuji when the train sped past as it was covered in swirling fog: a reason to return to Japan in the spring, when the cherry blossom appears.

GETTING THERE: A nine-night cruise with Princess Cruises on Diamond Princess from Yokohama, Japan, calling at Kushiro; the Shiretoko Peninsula, Japan; Korsakov, Russia; Otaru; Hakodate; and Aomori, Japan, starts from £989pp (based on two adults sharing an inside stateroom), not including flights. Price includes accommodation, all main meals and onboard entertainment. For more info or to book princess.com/discover.

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