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A cruising guide to Japan: From mountains to manga

Destination Reviews

Japan offers an alluring mix of soaring skyscrapers, tranquil temples, snow-capped mountains, tropical islands and lush rainforest. Cities such as Tokyo and Osaka sit at the cutting edge of modernity, yet you're just as likely to encounter centres of tradition where the history of the country has been carefully maintained.

Japan is an archipelago of an astonishing 6,852 islands, the four largest of which - Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku - account for over 95% of the country's land area. The size and the expense of travelling in Japan makes an all-inclusive cruise a very appealing way to visit, allowing you to overcome some of the logistical problems and associated costs.

Japan experienced a surge in popularity as attention was centred on the country during the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the build up to the 2020 Olympics, and many itineraries, especially those timed for the spring cherry blossom, filled quickly. Then, at the start of 2020, the world's attention turned to Japan for the wrong reasons and the pandemic led to some of the world's most significant travel restrictions. However, after a delayed but successful Olympics the outlook is now much more positive, and tourists are once again being welcomed back as restrictions for international visitors start to fall away.

Geishas outside Sensoji temple, Tokyo

The appeal of Japan lies in the country's diversity. Tokyo, Japan's futuristic capital, is best known for its electric avenues of skyscrapers, neon lights and fantastic shopping malls. The city also boasts more Michelin stars than Paris, and the atmospheric Asakusa district is where you'll find Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple.

Osaka, Japan's third largest city and another common embarkation and disembarkation port, is a pulsating commercial hub, famous for its food, and the cityscape rivals Tokyo for neon-lit futurism.

Byodoin Buddhist Temple in Uji, Kyoto

Wonderful Kyoto is Japan's cultural and spiritual heart, scattered with tranquil gardens, traditional teahouses and some 2,000 temples and shrines. This was Japan's capital from 794 to 1868, and if you want to really get under the skin of Japanese culture then this is the place to come, with the chance to learn about everything from the importance of cherry-blossom season to the latest trends in manga.

Kanazawa rivals Kyoto for historical significance, though the city draws significantly fewer tourists. The 17th-century Kenroku-en garden is the jewel in Kanazawa's crown, filled with pretty ponds and waterfalls, and the city is also home to exceptionally well-preserved samurai and geisha districts.

Snow capped Mount Fuji overlooking the unique port Shimizu, Japan

Other notable ports include Hiroshima, with its sobering Peace Memorial Park, and Nagasaki. The reconstruction of both cities has been quite extraordinary; both are now vibrant, cosmopolitan places, with fascinating history that goes back a lot further than 1945. Shimizu is also a common call and one of the most spectacular ports in Japan, a sweeping bay in the shadow of the iconic Mount Fuji where you can spend some time admiring the views and wandering through peaceful pine groves.

In the north of the country the city of Niigata is set amongst snowy mountains on the west coast of Honshu, and is known for its ski resorts, seafood and hot springs, as well as producing some of the finest sake in Japan. Hakodate, on the southern tip of Hokkaido, was one of the first Japanese international trading ports, where historic streetcars still run and where you can tuck into delicious seafood or enjoy a revitalising dip in an onsen (hot spring).

Japanese macaques or 'Snow Monkeys' enjoy the hot springs in Hakodate, Japan

The tropical islands of southern Japan include the Yaeyama islands, an idyllic archipelago located closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan. Ishigaki is the most developed of these, with offshore coral reefs making it a popular spot for diving and snorkelling, and the jungle interior offers some great hiking opportunities.

When considering the best time to travel we recommend avoiding the cold winters and oppressive summers by travelling in the spring for Japan's cherry blossom season from March to April, or in September to October when the autumn colours complement the pleasant temperatures.

Meet the author

Alex is Director of Sales & Marketing at Mundy Cruising, having worked with the company for 10 years and in travel for over 18 years. Most recently he's cruised on Regent Seven Seas and has also sailed with Seabourn, Crystal, SeaDream, Tauck and Ponant. His favourite destination is South America however he's also enjoyed cruises in the Western Mediterranean, Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, India, Myanmar, South East Asia and Antarctica. When he’s not travelling he loves walking holidays; a favourite included a trek to Everest Base Camp.

More about Alex

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