Ja­pan Comes into Bloom

On an eight-night voy­age that vis­its some of the ar­chi­pel­ago's lesser-known ports, Eleni N. Gage falls un­der the spell of cherry-blos­som sea­son.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CRUISE -

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 would 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 fa­mous sakuras 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 sakura flow­ers are in var­i­ous stages of bloom­ing, and by trav­el­ing all cor­ners of the coun­try, you have a much 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 kilo­me­ters 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 ac­tiv­i­ties on board 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 by women who had vol­un­teered to help me dress in the ship’s col­lec­tion of tra­di­tional garb. Dur­ing lunch at on-board Ja­panese restau­rant Kai Sushi, the chef taught me how to sea­son sushi prop­erly. (Yes, I fi­nally learned 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 75-me­ter 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 that is planted with sakura groves. Bud­ding and hung with lanterns, the cherry trees were lovely, but not quite in full bloom. Af­ter tour­ing

Cherry blos­soms cov­ered branches so com­pletely that the tree­tops looked like bowls of pop­corn

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 a dish of 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 for­ti­fied cas­tle, was a sea of pink and white. Cherry 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 3,890 kilo­me­ters from Tokyo, but I could fi­nally ex­pe­ri­ence the beauty of the flow­ers—and ap­pre­ci­ate their yu­gen. princess­cruises.com; eight-night sail­ings from US$1,399 per per­son.

FROM LEFT: The grounds sur­round­ing Hirosaki Cas­tle of­fer some of the best sakura view­ing in Ja­pan; the 18-deck Di­a­mond Princess cruises across the coun­try and the con­ti­nent.

FROM LEFT: The ship does mul­ti­ple itin­er­ar­ies, cov­er­ing Ok­i­nawa in the south and Hokkaido in the north; the on­sen­style spa on board the Di­a­mond Princess has sev­eral pools and saunas.

The out­door on­sen on the Di­a­mond Princess.

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