Liz Jarvis sets sail on a Silversea Japan cruise from Shanghai to Tokyo on the trail of Japan’s feted cherry blossom.
They call it sakura, those ethereal clouds of cherry blossom that bloom across Japan in spring; capturing their beauty on camera, or simply marvelling at the delicate buds and soaking up their sheer loveliness is a national pastime. With over 200 varieties of blossom, and colours ranging from cerise to white, get the timing of your Silversea Japan cruise just right and you will be rewarded with endless displays set against perfect azure skies.
So it is with a lot of anticipation that I join Silversea’s luxurious flagship Silver Muse in Shanghai, where it is docked with a spectacular view of the Bund and the futuristic skyline. That night I enjoy dinner al fresco on board at The Grill, with the city lights sparkling in front of me.
Unfortunately bad weather delays our departure from China slightly and we are stuck on the Yangtze a bit longer than expected. This does however give me time to take full advantage of the incredible facilities on board Silver Muse, including the spa, and relax in my immaculately appointed stateroom, with its sumptuous bed, or with a book and cappuccino in the Panorama Lounge.
By the time we reach Hiroshima the clouds have started to dissipate, enabling a stroll along the beach at Miyajima to the iconic Great Torii Gate, followed by a meander along the intriguing side streets, where every so often a wild Sika deer appears (they are protected and roam freely, though you’re warned to ignore their doe-eyed appeals for food, and they really will eat anything, including maps if they get close enough to you).
We wake up in Osaka, where Silver Muse overnights, to blazing sunshine and a clear blue sky, the ideal backdrop for viewing cherry blossom. I opt for the Kyoto On Your Own excursion, which involves a coach trip to the main train station with the assistance of an extremely helpful guide. I’m looking forward to travelling independently but I don’t want to get lost, so she writes down for me exactly which trains will take me to Arashiyama, for the Sagano Bamboo Forest (travelling by train in Japan is a joy – clean, cheap, always on time, with signs in English as well as Japanese for confused travellers.)
You may have seen photographs of the bamboo grove in Arashiyama, with its towering stalks; the reality is slightly less impressive, as it’s smaller than you might imagine and rammed with tourists. If you want to go off the main track and into the forest you have to do it by rickshaw, and there’s a fee. But despite this I still enjoy the sound of the breeze rippling through the jade-coloured leaves (it’s been designated one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan) and while it feels as though I’m never alone for more than a second, it is still peaceful.
Later I jump back on the train and head for the suburb of Fushimi-ku and its famed 15th-century Inari shrine, beloved by Instagrammers for its vermillion pillars, though the throngs of people lured by the sakura makes taking any photos a challenge.
One of the constant joys of travelling around Japan at this time of year is seeing so many exquisite silk kimonos, in every conceivable pattern and hue; Japanese women and occasionally men wear traditional dress for special occasions (celebrations, viewing cherry blossom), and every time I think I’ve glimpsed the most intricate kimono, along comes another one; I have serious kimono envy.
While there are too many food and souvenirs stalls for the experience of visiting the shrine to feel particularly spiritual, the temple complex is fascinating, particularly for the different kitsune (fox) sculptures dotted about, and it’s fun trying to spot them all. I’m intrigued to discover that the sakura obsession extends to snacks, cakes – Japanese cakes are delicious – and drinks; there’s even a cherry blossom tea, though that’s definitely an acquired taste.
The following day I catch the ship’s complimentary shuttle into Osaka, and then the subway (again very user-friendly) to the castle, which dates back to the 16th century, though it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. While the skies have clouded over, the sakura is everywhere in the grounds, and some of it is falling, like snowflakes.
The custom of enjoying the cherry blossom is known as hanami, and the Japanese will make a day of it, bringing picnics and staying until late when lanterns illuminate the blooms. I stand a while with a few Japanese people shrieking with delight under a canopy of cascading blossom, and it really feels as though we’re in a Hayao Miyazaki animation.
Silver Muse has several excellent included restaurants. Among these are Atlantide for superb seafood, the Asian-fusion Indochine, and Italian La Terrazza, which has outside space. But on my final night I opt for dinner in the speciality Japanese restaurant Kaiseki, enjoying the exquisitely presented menu including teppanyaki and miso black cod.
My Asian cruise adventure finishes in the endlessly enthralling city of Tokyo. I’ve booked an overnight stay, so I disembark Silver Muse and head for the Hoshinoya hotel in Otemachi, close to the Imperial Palace, making the most of the glorious sunshine with a stroll around the palace gardens, which are resplendent with sakura (there are over 200 cherry trees here).
Cherry blossom are revered by the Japanese because they are thought to represent the beauty and fragility of life, and they’re a symbol of rebirth. My experience of hanari and sakura and cruising around Japan has been full of wonder, and I leave Tokyo full of the joys of spring.
Where to stay: Hoshinoya Tokyo
Located close to Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace, this is probably the most unique luxury hotel in the capital, because it channels a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn), complete with sliding screens, tatami floors (no shoes allowed), and an onsen (natural hot spring). Complimentary kimonos are provided to wear throughout the day, and at dinner.
Breakfast is served in bento boxes, and the restaurant serves meticulously designed dishes prepared with Japanese ingredients and seasonings and French flair. There are stylish contemporary touches, including complimentary drinks and snacks in the communal lounge on each floor, as well as daily sake or wine tasting, tea ceremonies and typically Japanese entertainment. The overall ambience is one of stylish, elegant tranquillity (rooms from £487 per night (hoshinoya.com/tokyo/en).
Silversea Cruises offers a 14-day cruise from Hong Kong to Tokyo on board Silver Muse from 22 March to 5 April 2021 from £6,100pp based on two people sharing. The price includes return economy class flights from the UK, one-night pre-cruise hotel stay and overseas transfers. For more information call 020 7340 0700 or visit silversea.com.