Tokyo is an ideal destination for those visiting the east and a jewel in Japan’s crown but despite its many attractions it’s a vast working metropolis with a hectic pace. If you want a full taste of Japan during your vacation then you will need to reach further than its commercial centres and a perfect way of doing that in a relaxed way is by cruise!
Stereotypically cruises conjure thoughts of wealthy older ‘business-types’ boasting to neighbours about their exuberant holiday plans – things have changed, cruising is now affordable but still the most relaxing way to unwind and effortlessly enjoy multiple destinations in one trip.
Costa Cruises operate several interesting routes in Asia available via Cruise Planet in Japan which is part of the reputable H.I.S. travel agency – probably the most well known here. Their cruises even have H.I.S. reps on-board to make sure your holiday is smooth sailing and they were very well organised providing good documentation (in English too!).
I opted for a cruise around Japan on ‘Costa Victoria’, a huge sleek 13 deck colossus built by German engineers in Bremen. This fairly new itinerary circumnavigates Japan anti-clockwise from Tokyo (Yokohama Pier) via 8 destinations over 10 days including a mid-point trip across the pond to Busan in Korea for a refreshing hit of seafood, garlic and spice before returning via the emerald isle of Kyushu and the south of Japan. The 8 ports on my itinerary were Ishinomaki, Hakodate, Akita, Kanazawa, Pusan (South Korea), Sasebo (Nagasaki Prefecture), Osaka and arriving back at Yokohama lunchtime on day 10. Being a cruise first-timer, I was very excited!
If you’ve been busy following up midnight emails for your job or herding a family in the right direction then this is the trip for you to unwind. Foremost, you get to relax plus you get a healthy taster of a huge swathe of Japan and the ship’s great crew will do all the work. No crazy incomprehensible train itineraries or cramped flights and heavy luggage. Just step off the boat and enjoy the sights and sounds of an exciting new place each day – so simple. There’s something about boats and the sea that seem to time-stretch your vacation to let you unwind. Due to its immense size, the gentle motion of the Costa Victoria and the fresh sea air certainly work like magic on the relaxation glands.
In my case I was simply looking for a relaxing break interspersed with amazing sights in new parts of Japan so I took advantage of the many viewing decks for walks and coastal photography; the library and internet cafe for planning port stops and also a few visits to the gym to offset the very popular free Neapolitan style pizzeria on deck 11. At the beginning of the trip I thought 10 days would be a long time but it’s amazing how the time flew by once you settle into the rhythm of life at sea with all that cool fresh air.
You can book excursions for each stop via the tour desk onboard, make your own plans or just skip a port and chillax - it’s totally up to you depending on your schedule or budget.
It had never struck me before just how much vacation time was taken up by just travelling from place to place before settling and actually enjoying being there. The concept of cruises solves those issues as you check-in only once and most of the journey takes place while you are relaxing, partying or sleeping.
Embarkation was faster than an airline check-in. Baggage tags were provided by Cruise planet and bags were magically in my room as soon as I stepped aboard along with my Costa Cruise card which acts as your room-key and on-board identity for purchases on board. You can link your Costa Cruise card to your favourite credit card from a self-service terminal in the ship’s lobby and then it’s as good as money.
It’s impressive how much space and choice you have on board whether you’re a more cerebral lone bookworm or an eager social butterfly. If you’re travelling alone and feeling uninhibited there’s also plenty of opportunity to join in group activities or party. Costa Victoria has a great crew and their aptly named ‘Animation Team’ will get you animated with group exercise and dancing activities morning, noon and night poolside and in the public areas and bars of the ship. If you like to dance and don’t have a partner the 10 strong team from all over the globe is happy for you to join in anytime you like. The daily itinerary is placed in your cabin each evening and details the coming day’s itinerary complete with all the events. There was always something happening that you could get involved with.
The cruise package was all-inclusive allowing unlimited food, standard hot beverages, water and breakfast juices in the restaurants. It’s impossible to go hungry or thirsty as food is continually available even if you are a nightbird. You can also take breakfast in your cabin courtesy of the extremely helpful house staff but breakfast is served until around 11.30am so there’s really no rush. If you, like most Italians, can’t function properly without a serious mid-morning Espresso then you can join the officers on the pool deck bar for an inspirational hit of caffeine at a reasonable price.
If you're planning to celebrate or party on your trip there’s plenty of bars, entertainment, dancing and casino action to take care of that. You can buy drinks separately at very reasonable prices (Beer 5 USD, Wine 6 USD by the glass) or If you are a budding alcohologist, or unsure and just studying anyway, then you can opt for the cruise’s all-inclusive drinks package at around $34 per day which includes all soda drinks, house cocktails, house spirits, beer, wine and juices by the glass. There is also a cheaper non-alcohol option package too. If you are a brand junkie there are some great duty free shops on board which sell top brands of luxury items like cosmetics, watches, clothes, bags and even binoculars.
For couples wishing for a special experience you can treat yourselves in the Club Magnifico restaurant which costs $38 more but this allows extra exclusivity for a special occasion plus amazing sea views from the stern of deck 12. I didn’t go to that restaurant but I did walk past the entrance a few times and it smelled pretty good! If you want to go all-out you could even consider a day at their spa for a massage or facial.
For those with a family or elderly relations or friends a cruise is effectively a travelling hotel taking you and your heavy belongings to interesting new places with no personal effort allowing you to spend stressless quality time together. I also noticed a number of disabled passengers on board who were equally enjoying the trip with their partners and able to get around well using the many lifts. If you have any health concerns there’s two doctors on board and a full medical clinic and pharmacy.
Currently the cruise guests on this route are mostly Japanese but Costa and Cruise Planet are keen to entice more diverse international travellers on this unique route so maybe it’s time for you to enjoy this well kept secret. The staff of the ship are truly multi-national and proud of it. The Costa Crociere company is historically Italian and the ship retains that Italian theme with it’s officers, menus, drinks and classical italian performers. To be honest, they had me at "open-all-hours floating pizzeria’ but the music and Riviera holiday atmosphere was a nice contrast to the calm serenity of traditional Japanese towns.
A little about the ship and its 700 staff. The Costa Victoria is a German built half billion dollar vessel with 13 decks and was nicely refurbished in 2013 with a bright new Italian theme and many more balconies. Home for the ship is Genoa in Italy but the company has British and US owners and a truly multinational staff from Italy, England, Brazil, Philippines, India, China and probably a few more. Amazingly the staff stay with the ship for a full 8 month voyage contract with worldwide itineraries and everyone takes holidays at the end of their working year. I have to say that the staff were superb and really made the experience. It can’t always be an easy job for them but they also enjoy the excitement of visiting so many countries and experiencing the different cultures much as we do with our vacations.
Each port we visited offered local shopping and some celebrity-style welcome or send-off courtesy of local musicians or dancers. The highlight of this cruise for me was leaving the port of Osaka with its very picturesque skyline complete with huge looming ferris wheel and a large quayside band and dancers – they even played the very rousing ‘Rocky’ theme tune energizing us for the final leg to Tokyo. I noticed many a tear in the eyes of the passengers who were obviously going to miss the experience we had shared when they were on dry land again.
This trip was pretty extensive so I will also cover information about the destination ports on some upcoming articles. Prices of this 10 day itinerary start from around $970 USD (¥118,000) per person based on two sharing and internal twin cabin. Exterior window and balcony view rooms are available for a little more. If budget is not an issue you can opt for a spacious mini suite or suite either with or without balcony. Having viewed some showcase cabins, next time I would like to try a standard balcony room and read a book with my own personal sea breeze – very relaxing!
For more details you can visit Cruise Planet (English) and request English details if you prefer. Information request forms are currently in Japanese but here is an English language link via Google Translate.