On an eight-night Princess Cruises voyage that visits some of the Japanese archipelago’s lesser-known ports, Eleni N. Gage falls under the spell of cherry-blossom season.
From my bird’s-eye perch in the women’s sauna, 15 decks up on the 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess, I watched the Sea of Japan glide by, its deep cobalt waters cut by choppy waves. The ship has the largest Japanese-style spa at sea, and it follows traditional onsen rules in terms of layout and etiquette — men on one side, women on the other, with a sauna and hot pools in each indoor section. A shared outdoor pool sits in between them, but I was content indoors, where the sauna provided warmth away from the chilly spring air and the floor-to-ceiling windows framed impressive ocean views. The steam eased my body, and the endless expanse of sky and sea soothed my soul.
When I think of cruises, I picture plying the Mediterranean coast or zipping in and out of Caribbean islands, both of which I did in my twenties. It never occurred to me to sail around Japan. I always imagined that some day I’d hit up Tokyo for the high-gloss shopping malls, then hop a bullet train to Kyoto to see the temples — in other words, the trip that nearly every first-time visitor to Japan takes. But when I came across this eight-night itinerary, circumnavigating the island of Honshu (with a quick stop in South Korea), a cruise suddenly made a lot of sense. Japan is a maritime nation, after all.
Princess Cruises does 77 sailings a year there, from three-day weekend jaunts from Tokyo to Taipei to 22-day voyages that encompass Japan, China, and Vietnam. This trip, timed to the blooming of the sakuras, the famous cherry trees, would dip into lesser-known ports, like Sakaiminato, on the main island of Honshu, best known for the 153 bronze statues of yokai (animist spirits) that line its Mizuki Shigeru Road, and Hakodate, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, which was the first Japanese city to open to international trade, in 1859. Depending on how far north or south in the archipelago you are, the flowers are in various stages of blooming, and by traveling all corners of the country, you have a better shot of seeing them at their peak.
My husband, Emilio, and I began with a night in Tokyo, where we spotted young women with hair the color of cherry blossoms strolling through Harajuku in their platform shoes. There, the sakuras had come, awed everyone, and gone. After boarding the ship in Yokohama and sailing the Kanmon Straits, past the island of Kyushu, we were able to see a few late bloomers at the Tottori Flower Park outside Sakaiminato, our first Japanese port of call. But they were not nearly as impressive as the miles of tulips, planted in star-shaped formations at the front of the park, or the orchids hanging from the hothouse ceiling.
Later on, at the Adachi Museum of Art, home to a dry garden and paintings by modern Japanese artists, we saw remarkable landscapes by the renowned pre–World War II painter Yokoyama Taikan. His pieces were neither abstract nor figurative; Autumn Leaves reminded me of iPhone photos with filters applied, so that the red of the maple glowed against an electric blue, watery background. The paintings exhibited what our guide, Shun Adachi (no relation to the museum’s founder), called yugen, a concept that he translated as “mysterious profundity.” “A flower has visible beauty,” he explained. “But its yugen comes from the fact that it survived wind and rain and sun — and from the knowledge of its future, that it’s dying.”
The excursions opened our eyes to Japanese culture, but so did the ship. The majority of the passengers were Japanese, with the rest a mix of North Americans, Europeans, and Israelis. On sea days, as we made our way north through the Sea of Japan, I found myself hopping next to Japanese senior citizens during a folk-dance class and being wrapped in a yukata (a summer-weight kimono) by women who had volunteered to help me dress in the ship’s collection of traditional garb. During lunch at Kai Sushi, the chef taught me how to season sushi properly. (It turns out that you don’t mix a soy-wasabi slushie in your dish, but rather place a dab of wasabi on top of the nigiri and then gently tap the fish side only in your soy sauce.)
In Hakodate, a historic port on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, we took an elevator to the top of the 351-foot observation tower next to the Goryokaku, a fortress built in 1864. From there you can see the moats that shape the grounds into a pentagram, and the entire five-pointed star was planted with sakuras. Budding and hung with lanterns, the cherry trees were lovely, but not quite in full bloom. After touring the Motomachi district, where the first Westerners to arrive in Japan had built a Roman Catholic church and a Russian Orthodox church, Emilio and I explored the new part of town, ducking into a teppanyaki restaurant for sautéed snow-crab legs.
The next day, after we had rounded the northern tip of Honshu and headed south again, we docked in Aomori. This city, as our guide Naoko explained, is home to more cows than people (not to mention snow monkeys and black Asian bears in the surrounding birch forest).
It was outside Aomori, in the neighboring city of Hirosaki, that I had my Goldilocks moment: The sakuras were just right. Hirosaki Park, home to 2,500 trees and a 17th-century fortress, was a sea of pink and white. Blossoms covered branches so completely that the treetops looked like bowls of popcorn. Hundreds of picnickers were setting up blankets and buying snacks of fried squid balls, octopus on a stick, and soft serve made with the revered local apples. It took traveling more than 2,100 nautical miles from Tokyo, but I could finally experience the beauty of the flowers — and appreciate their yugen. (12-night sailings from $2,399 per person.)