Journey Log: Wonders of Japan Cruise: Cherry Blossom Season, March 29–April 11, 2023

Wonders of Japan Cruise - Cherry Blossom Season, March 29–April 11, 2023
April 2023

March 30, 2023 | Osaka

This warm, sunny day began with a choice of three enriching excursions. Some chose to visit the Kyoto Prefecture, seeing the elegant, gold-leafed Golden Pavilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After appreciating its beauty — and reflection in the nearby pond — we continued to the delightful garden, where the song of Japanese bush warbler and scent of azalea and forsythia filled the air.

Continuing to Tenryu-ji temple, Thomas Kirchner — a practiced American monk — discussed Zen Buddhism. Proceeding to the temple garden, we enjoyed a tremendous show. Due to unusual spring weather, sequentially blooming camellia, cherry blossom, quince, azalea and rhododendron were at once on full display. After a delicious shojin ryori lunch, we capped the day at Nijo Castle, the palace of Japan’s first shoguns and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Passing through the impressive entrance into the austere building, we found it floored with tatami mats, adorned with painted walls and screens and, as was typical of the period, free of furniture.

Others headed to the city of Nara in south-central Honshu. Beginning the day at Japan’s oldest temple, Buddhist Horyu-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we then sat down to a traditional lunch of spring delicacies — including bamboo shoots, butterbur and nanohana greens. Proceeding to the Buddhist temple of Todai-ji, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, we discovered the world’s largest wooden structure. Built from cypress trees, it housed a Buddha statue cast from more than 400 tons of bronze. Meanwhile, its grounds were frequented by tame Japanese deer.

Still others spent the day in the city of Uji. Visiting Fukujuen, we learned the proper way to brew sencha and matcha tea before continuing to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First, we saw the Shinto Ujigami Shrine, built as a guardian shrine for nearby Byodoin Temple. After a lavish, authentic bento lunch, we explored Byodoin itself. Strolling through the beautiful gardens, we admired the blooms; observed its spectacular Phoenix Hall; and wandered through the fascinating museum and shop.

Returning to our vessel, everyone gathered for a cocktail hour, accompanied by koto music. As the evening came to a close, we partook in a welcome dinner, complete with a Kabuki performance.

March 31, 2023 | Osaka

We set off on an afternoon excursion en route to the port of Osaka. Enjoying the gorgeously sunny, mild spring weather, we paused at Osaka Castle, where families celebrated hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season on its grounds. Among Japan's most iconic landmarks, the castle was built in the 1580s by the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, playing a significant role in the unification of Japan during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Attacked, overrun and destroyed by troops, the structure’s replication began in 1931.

Seeing the moat and sturdy, yet intricate, stone walls of the outer ramparts — the largest weighing more than 100 tons — we, too, admired the somei yoshino trees. Each breeze sent a cascade of pale pink petals into the air. Illuminated by sunshine, they gently wafted to the ground like out-of-season snowflakes. The scene could not have been more beautiful or emblematic of springtime in Japan.

Tearing ourselves away from this natural wonder, we passed through two sets of massive, metal-clad wooden gates, reaching the compound where the castle stood. Its stone walls were quarried from afar and ferried by raft along the coast and upriver. The human labour required to move and haul them was unimaginable.

Leaving the happily partying crowds behind, we headed for the port of Osaka, boarding our luxurious home away from home, ‘Le Soleal.’ Upon settling in, we enjoyed welcome drinks and afternoon tea, followed by a mandatory safety briefing. Welcomed aboard by Captain Antoine Paquet, our Cruise Director, Paul Carter, then introduced the vessel and our enrichment experts. As we set sail toward the island of Shikoku, Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira shared details about tomorrow’s exciting adventures.

April 1, 2023 | Takamatsu

Sailing 77 nautical miles overnight through the Seto Inland Sea, we awoke on a cool (but lovely) spring day in the city of Takamatsu in the Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, this region has a distinctive, Mediterranean-like climate — unique for Japan.

Some of us departed early by ferry for Shodoshima, appreciating vistas of the Seto Inland Sea and forested hillsides. We then ascended Kankakei Gorge by cable car, marveling at the unusual rock formations. Hiking down through the forest, we observed spring vegetation to the tune of Japanese bush warbler, enjoyed a delicious local lunch and continued to a flourishing olive grove.

Others opted to explore Naoshima Island, renowned for its modern art. After disembarking the chartered ferry, we split into two groups to discover the island’s art treasures. Accompanied by our resident culture experts, Marjorie Williams and Aya Louisa McDonald, we visited the subterranean Chichu Art Museum, seeing works by Claude Monet and other masters. We then delved into the work of Tadao Ando at the newly opened Valley Gallery. Moving on to the Art House Project, we discovered its art installations, comprised of abandoned houses, a temple and a shrine. Capping the day, we paid a visit to the Benesse House Museum, seeing its beautiful gardens; pausing for lunch with panoramas of the sea; and taking in works by recent and contemporary artists, including allegorical “Pumpkin” by Yayoi Kusama.

The remainder of our group headed to the capital city of Takamatsu, beginning the day at the Ritsurin Garden. At the Kinashi Bonsai village, we viewed the nursery’s venerable collection, including trees up to 200 years old and rows of pine trees in various stages of development. Taking time to appreciate the tranquil grounds, we observed a half-moon bridge over an ornamental lake framing an onsite teahouse. Before returning to ‘Le Soleal’ for lunch, some of us opted to visit picturesque Tamano Park and shop in the heart of town.

Back aboard, we gathered in the evening for a local dance performance and calligraphy demonstration. Ready to set sail, we spruced up for a cocktail hour and sat down to an elegant gala dinner, hosted by our Captain.

April 2, 2023 | Hiroshima & Miyajima

Today was an opportunity to learn about the city of Hiroshima, which arose from the ashes of war.

Choosing from three excursions, some of us visited Shukkeien Garden, appreciating cherry trees in full bloom. After visiting a small bamboo forest, we continued to Hiroshima Castle, residence of the great lord of the Hiroshima Domain. We then visited the poignant Peace Memorial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where a survivor of the WWWII bomb attack shared her impactful story. The day concluded viewing the Atomic Bomb Dome and exploring its museum.

Others began their day at the Peace Memorial Park, learning about Hiroshima’s moving history and appreciating the architecture, designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Kenzō Tange. Boarding a chartered boat to the delightful island of Miyajima, we next visited Shinto Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its "floating," iconic Torii Gate. Some of us then continued to the nearby Daisho-in Buddhist temple, while others enjoyed street food and local shopping.

The rest of us set off for an energetic excursion, ascending Mount Misen by cable car to a high trail. Hiking to the mountain-top, we took in aerial views of the sea, flowering cherry trees and ancient temples before descending the mountain for lunch at a local restaurant. Ending the day like our fellow travellers, we explored Itsukushima Shrine, Daisho-in and bustling main street with its many shops.

Back onboard ‘Le Soleal,’ we enjoyed a musical and dance performance by the Hiroshima Junior Marimba Ensemble. Tonight, we continue westward to Uwajima on the western coast of Shikoku Island.

April 3, 2023 | Uwajima

We arrived in the sleepy town of Uwajima on the rural western coast of Shikoku, where we were given several enriching experiences to select from.

Some of us began our day at Nanraku-en garden, sampling a somen noodle dish enroute. We then admired a Japanese garden in full bloom before visiting a historic tea house, where we learned how to prepare authentic matcha from a tea master. After lunch aboard our vessel, we proceeded the local michi-no-eki (roadside station), its market brimming with citrus and other local products.

Others explored the work of architect Kengo Kuma, who designed Japan National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games. Then, we delved deeper into his wooden constructions, visiting the town’s government building, library and theatre, where we watched a Kagura dance performance. After regrouping for lunch aboard ‘Le Soleal,’ we too wandered through the local michi-no-eki.

Those embarking on a tour of Uwajima tour instead visited remote Yusu Mizugaura, known for its potato production. After an opportunity to dig potatoes, we enjoyed them alongside shochu and morning tea. Proceeding to a pearl farm, we discovered the production and harvesting processes. Pausing for lunch aboard our floating home, we spent the afternoon at Tensha-en, a tranquil, wisteria-scented strolling garden with a koi pond and ornamental bridge.

Our last group wandered through the picturesque streets of Ozu, visiting the Garyu Sanso villa, where we appreciated views of the lush landscape. At Yokaichi, we meandered along the river amid blooming cherry trees before enjoying lunch at a local riverside restaurant. We then explored Uchiko’s Old Town, visiting the wax museum; seeing a traditional residence; and learning about the art of candle-making at a Japanese candle shop. Before returning to ‘Le Soleal,’ we observed wooden Uchiko-za theater in the heart of town.

Returning to Uwajima, we all were entertained by a rousing taiko drum performance, later setting sail in through narrow Kanmon Straits toward Karatsu in northern Kyushu.

April 4, 2023 | Karatsu

Arriving this morning in the port city of Karatsu, our day began with an enriching talk by Aya Louisa McDonald, spanning Japan’s cultural pre-history through the Meiji era.

With a plethora of excursions to select from, those wishing to experience Karatsu’s highlights made their way to imposing Karatsu Castle (Dancing Crane Castle), a 20th-century structure built on an ancient foundation. After appreciating the views of the city, blooming cherry trees and sea, we entered the castle, discovering its history; viewing a collection of Karatsu ware pottery; and witnessing a potter at work. Changing gears, we next observed 14 extraordinary festival floats, learning about the annual November event. From there, it was on to the expansive, elegant private residence of the Takatori family, where we explored Japanese domestic architecture of the 19th and early 20th century.

Others immersed themselves in Karatsu’s cultural side, first taking in panoramic views from atop the Kagamiyama Observatory. In the afternoon, we proceeded to Kinshoji Temple to partake in a matcha tea ceremony, complete a dance and musical performance, featuring traditional Japanese instruments. After a riveting Ningyo Joruri puppet show, we proceeded to a ceramic studio, concluding the day with a pottery demonstration and opportunity to peruse the shop’s wares.

Another group explored Mifuneyama Rakue. Set amid a spectacular geological formation thrusting vertically from the landscape, the garden depicts the 500 disciples of Buddha. Although its cherry blossoms began dropping their petals, the first purple, pink and coral Satsuki azaleas arrived in full bloom. Next, at centuries-old Gen’emon Kiln and workshop, we watched artisans silently paint yet-unfired ceramic in hues of cobalt, copper and iron, according to centuries of tradition.

Our final excursion focused on Kyushu’s most renowned pottery, distinctive Imari and Arita ware. First, we gained immersive insight into pottery production at Arita’s 260-year-old Gen’emon Kiln and workshop. Later, in mountainous Okawachiyama Village outside of Imari, we witnessed craftspeople at work, with a chance to purchase beautiful Nabeshima-yaki pieces right from the source.

Back on board, we enjoyed a taiko drum send-off from Karatsu, followed by a recap of the day and briefing on tomorrow’s activities in Busan, South Korea.

April 5, 2023 | Gyeongju, South Korea

We crossed the Tsushima Strait from Japan into the Republic of Korea overnight. Arriving in the bustling port city of Busan this morning, we were undeterred by rain, embarking on a choice of immersive excursions.

Part of our group proceeded to the slopes of Mount Toham, visiting Bulguksa Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, it is home to the Dabotap and Seokgatap stone pagodas, the Cheongungyo and Baegungyo bridges, and two gilt-bronze Buddha statues.

The rest of us began the day at Royal Tumuli Park, home to three groups of royal tombs. Wandering through the expansive grounds, we entered the Flying Horse Tomb, viewing replicas of lavish artifacts that were found during its excavation.

Everyone then gathered for a delicious buffet lunch, complemented by a concert, performed on traditional Korean instruments.

Returning to ‘Le Soleal’ in the late afternoon, we enjoyed an enlightening discussion on chanoyu, the art of tea-making. As the day ended, Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira and her team prepared us for our return to Japan, in the coastal city of Sakai.

April 6, 2023 | Sakai Minato, Japan

We arrived at the quiet port city of Sakai Minato early this morning, once again choosing an immersive excursion to shape the day.

Some began the day at a local beer hall, enjoying an interactive, yakiniku-style lunch of grilled Kobe beef. After an ice cream cone from the shop below, we continued to Matsue Castle, one of the few remaining feudal Japanese castles in its original wooden form. Ending the day on a tranquil note, we visited Yuushien, a traditional water garden. Accompanied by our horticulture expert, Simon Rickard, we gained insight into the beautiful flora, including its vibrant, blooming peonies.

Others intersected the countryside, passing lakes filled with duck, heron and egret; beyond agricultural fields; and into the forested hills. Arriving at an onsen in the woods, we sat down to a local lunch before exploring the Adachi Museum of Art. Housing a collection of modern Japanese art — including pieces from Yokoyama Taikan — its windows frame a masterful, carefully tended garden. Later, in the town of Yakumo, we visited a studio dedicated to the art of Japanese papermaking (washi), not only learning about the ancient tradition but also creating postcards firsthand.

The rest of us headed ashore in the afternoon, visiting the breathtaking Yuushien garden before strolling and shopping along Mizuki Shigeru Road in the coastal city of Sakaiminato. Named for the late, eponymous manga artist who called the town home, the arcade is lined with more than 150 bronze sculptures of yokai — supernatural characters in Japanese folklore.

This evening, we continued through the Sea of Japan toward the city of Kanazawa, known for its well-preserved Edo-era districts.

April 7, 2023 | Kanazawa

Ready to explore the fascinating, historical city of Kanazawa on this rainy day, we had four exciting excursions to choose from.

Those taking in the city’s highlights began at stunning, storied Kenrokuen garden. appreciating the two-legged kotoji stone lantern and magnificent, 300-year-old Karasaki pine. Switching gears, we continued to indoor, Edo-era Omicho Market, seeing its bustling stalls filled with regional and seasonal specialties, from fiddlehead fronds to blackthroat sea perch. From there, it was on to the Higashi Chayagai District, its streets lined with wooden buildings, handicraft shops and teahouses where geisha perform. Visiting a nearby studio specializing in Japanese gold leaf, we learned about the ancient art and created postcards of our own. Ending the day at Kutani Kosen kiln, a fifth-generation family member demonstrated how its custom creations are made.

On another excursion, we travelled inland through misty mountains to the charming village of Shirakawa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its well-preserved, Gassho-style architecture. Strolling its narrow streets lined with shops, we entered a traditional home with an open hearth, observing the tools used in daily life and learning about the silkworm cultivation. After taking in vistas of the landscape from an overlook, we concluded the day over a local lunch.

Others first wandered the labyrinth of stalls at Omicho Market, stopping for sushi at the sibling of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Moving on to the oldest sake brewery in Kanazawa, we discovered the process and enjoyed a tasting. Our final stop was at a local culinary school, where a master chef revealed how to prepare tempura and jibuni-style chicken, having it for lunch alongside miso soup, rice and mochi.

Our last group travelled inland to the mountain town of Kaga, crossing a footbridge on foot, following the rushing river upstream, and observing the multi-hued mosses, ferns and other flora fringing the pathway. Ending on a serene note at Yamanaka Onsen, we relaxed in the ryokan’s soothing water before sitting down to a lavish lunch.

Back on board ‘Le Soleal,’ we saw a special geisha performance, capped with a photo session. Tonight, we set sail for Sado Island, the largest in the Sea of Japan.

April 8, 2023 | Sado Island

During a leisurely morning at sea, we attended an enriching talk on geisha and ukiyo-e artwork by resident culture expert Marjorie Williams.

Although we planned to visit the city of Ogi, weather thwarted our plans. Our nimble Expedition Team quickly altered course and we continued along Sado Island’s east coast. Cherry trees were in full bloom along the coast, offering a stunning contrast to distant, snow-capped mountains.

Further enhancing the day, Aya Louisa McDonald offered a fascinating discussion on Japanese Buddhist art. Our photo enrichment expert, Mark Edward Harris, then shared images from his book, The Way of the Japanese Bath. We practiced origami in the lounge over afternoon tea, followed by a daily recap and briefing before dinner. Keeping us entertained, Cruise Director Paul Carter wrapped up the day with an amusing team quiz.

Turning in, we readied ourselves for another day at sea enroute to Hokkaido.

April 9, 2023 | Sea of Japan

We continued cruising northward, free to relax, celebrate Easter and enjoy a full, varied lineup of enrichment throughout the day. Whether sighting northern fur seal, enjoying an origami session over afternoon tea or taking in a lovely sunset, we never wanted for something to do.

For some, that meant a talk on the art of the Heian period or a presentation on bonsai cultivation. Others delved into contemporary Japanese art or partook in an Olympics-themed photography discussion.

Our evening cocktail hour — elevated with a caviar station — was followed by a farewell dinner hosted by Captain Antoine Paquet. Turning in tonight was bittersweet, knowing our journey would soon come to a close.

April 10, 2023 | Otaru & Sapporo, Hokkaidō

Bright sunshine greeted us in Otaru, where snow lingered on the mountainsides. As the day warmed, we chose from several intriguing ways to spend the day.

Some of us explored Sapporo, stopping at a market full of fresh, local ingredients. We then strolled through a park populated by red squirrel, as bird songs carried on the breeze. After visiting Shinto Hokkaido Shrine, we paused for a Mongolian barbecue lunch, accompanied by Japanese beer. Finishing the day, we meandered through a covered arcade lined with shops, among them a store specializing in Japanese knives.

Those in Otaru learned the history of its commercial canals, which are now lined with converted warehouses. Proceeding to the Aoyama Villa, we saw firsthand how wealthy herring merchants once lived, seeing the ornate, zelkova-wood structure and gardens on a guided tour. We ended the day at a sake brewery, discovering the production process and sampling the beverage right from the source.

Our remaining group began with a guided tour of the Aoyama Villa. Taking time to stroll through the gardens, we then picked up last-minute souvenirs from the gift shop. Afterward, we ascended the hillsides to the Shukutsu Panorama Observation Deck, appreciating panoramas of the city and boat-stippled sea. Before returning to our vessel, we walked through Otaru’s canal district, visiting famous Kitaichi Glass, a shop renowned for its hand-hewn wares.

This evening, our photographic expert shared poignant images from our voyage, a bittersweet reminder of tomorrow’s goodbyes.

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