We flew from Australia direct to Tokyo with Japan Airlines, who were very impressive. I was able to experience Business Class on the way over and Economy Class on the way home. Business Class features fully lie-flat beds, and attentive service with a choice of Japanese or Western menu options. Economy seating is also generous with a 3 – 3 – 3 configuration and generous leg room. The seats in Economy did recline, but unlike with other airlines, I did not feel like my space was invaded when the passenger in front of me reclined his seat.
We were slightly delayed for landing upon our arrival into Tokyo due to some congestion at the airport, and it is the first time I have ever been personally apologised to by the cabin crew for the delay. (The other half of our group experienced Economy Class on the way over and Business Class on the way home, and they advised that the personal apology for the delayed landing was given by the cabin crew to all the passengers in Economy Class too).
When we did arrive in Japan it was an easy process through Immigration and Customs to the arrivals hall where we were met by our Princess Cruises Transfer. There were already posters up in the airport promoting the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.Tokyo Narita Airport is about an hour’s drive (depending on the traffic) from Yokohama Port, and the transfer was operated by a comfortable coach.
Once at the Port it was a quick embarkation process before we were lining up at the Horizon Terrace for a buffet lunch, before the mandatory safety drill in the Princess Theatre (performed in English and Japanese, as all general announcements were on board) and then we gathered around the Deck 5 Atrium to view the Traditional Sake Barrel Breaking Ceremony, which Princess Crew perform at the start of all their Japanese Voyages. Our voyage was made up of mainly Japanese Clients, but the sailing before had been about a 50/50 mix, and the sailing before that mainly English-speaking passengers.
We were lucky enough to have Balcony Cabins – BE Category up on Deck 14, which were Forward, but it was really easy to navigate our way from there around the ship, and we had easy access to the Buffet and the forward lifts & stairwells to get down to Deck 7, the heart of the ship and the main level for entertainment. It was nice to have a drink out on our balcony and watch the sun set over the East China Sea. The beds on Princess are super comfy, and the cabin was quite spacious, even when in a Twin configuration.
While on board we had lots of options for filling in our time, from lectures, to language lessons (Japanese for the English Speakers, and English for the Japanese Speakers, and even a basic Korean lesson before our arrival into Busan), and all the usual Cruise offerings like Trivia, Bingo, but also uniquely Japanese offerings, like Calligraphy Classes and of course Karaoke. The Japanese guests were also very big Zumba fans, with the Sun deck full of participants every morning.
I strongly recommend the Calligraphy Class – we gathered in the Wheelhouse Bar on Deck 7 and were handed a worksheet each. Some of the Japanese passengers who had volunteered to help came around and helped us write our names and fill out the sheet.Japanese writing is a combination of Chinese Characters and “Kana”, and we learnt some symbols in “Katakana”, a method they use to spell foreign words and names. There was a symbol for each sound, my name being made up of two symbols サラ “Sa” and “Ra”, the H not being a letter recognised in Japanese. It was lovely and relaxing to trace the characters and spend some time mixing with the other passengers.
One other activity I recommend is “Elevator Bingo”. Being familiar with it from a previous Princess Cruise, I encouraged our group to give it a go. We gathered at the Aft Elevators at the end of Deck 7, and we were divided into teams of three, and given four playing cards per team. We would take turns – one person from each team, to stand in front of one of the four elevator doors – essentially gambling which would be the next to arrive once the Entertainment Staff Member (and only they) pressed the call button. If your elevator did not arrive first you had to hand in your playing card, the losers cards then dispensed to those in the lucky guessing teams. It was a fun filled half an hour as we scared our unsuspecting fellow passengers in the elevators, with many cheers of victory and groans of defeat to be heard. The winners received bragging rights, and their choice of Princess branded notebooks, tote bags, fridge magnets and the like.
Evening entertainment was a mix of Stage-Shows (one of which featured a full-size Pink Cadillac as a set piece), a Violin Virtuoso and more intimate musical performances in the many bars and lounges. They also ran some evening game shows like “Majority Rules” and most evenings there was a “Movie Under the Stars” Experience, where the deck chairs were all lined up with pillows and blankets, and the crew came around with popcorn.
The food on board Diamond was without fault. The Horizon Court was mostly the choice for Breakfast with lunches split between there and the Main Dining Room. One night we sampled Sabatini’s, the Italian Speciality Restaurant on Board, and another night we had a highlight dinner at Kai Sushi, the Japanese Specialty Restaurant which served the freshest most beautifully presented Japanese cuisine you can imagine, and had their own Sake Menu.
Diamond Princess is also unique within the Princess Fleet in that she has a Japanese Bath or “Onsen” on board. In addition to the usual Fitness Centre, Beauty Salon and Spa, the IZUMI Japanese Bath is divided into Male and Female Areas, as well as a shared outdoor hot tub area (where swimsuits are required. In the Gender specific areas, clothing is optional).
Our first port of call for our cruise was the city of Nagasaki, infamous as being one of the sites decimated by a nuclear bomb on the 9th of August 1945.I elected to take a Princess operated shore excursion which visited the Peace Park, Ground Zero, and the Atomic Bomb Museum – all located within proximity to each other. The Peace Park was very moving with its’ 10m tall Peace Statue, paper crane displays, and many memorials from different countries from around the world (including once from Australia, called “Tree of Life: Gift of Peace”.)The Fountain of Peace was also quite moving, after hearing that many of the people who survived the initial blast went on to die of thirst.
Nagasaki has an interesting history pre-second world war, as it was the only port open to trade during the period of National Isolation – though only open to trade with the Netherlands, China and Korea. Upon return it would be worth a visit to the Museum of History and Culture to learn more about this time in Japan’s history. At the end of our tour we were presented with our own paper crane and instruction sheet. There were also some locals with stalls set up at the port selling local handicrafts and souvenirs.
The second port we visited during the cruise was Busan, South Korea. Another bustling city, Busan was just as clean, ordered and friendly as Japan had been, and I again elected to take one of the Princess Shore excursions on offer. Our first stop was Gamcheon Culture Village, where nestled on the side of a mountain, a former slum is now a collective of colourful little houses frequented by tourists. You can also purchase traditional Korean food and handicrafts, and some of the locals like to hire traditional costumes and have professional photos taken – a popular photo spot being near the statues of the Little Prince and the Fox, famous from the novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
From there we headed back to the ocean to walk along the Songdo Skywalk, a wooden structure out over the ocean – and saw the sculptures in the ocean, and the surrounding city and mountains. We headed to the Jagalichi Fish Markets next, and I was surprised when I saw the markets were full of tanks containing live fish! (And tanks with lids on for the octopus, so they could not escape.) The main market was contained in a building with lots of individual stalls and rows upon rows of tanks. On the upper level there were a series of restaurants which would cook your fresh purchases for you.
We then had free time to look at the other extensive markets, full of everything from Korean Pop-Star souvenirs, to Designer Clothes & Accessories, Children’s Toys and Clothing, Beauty Products – even shops dedicated for outfits for your canine children.
Our final day at sea we were treated to a Bridge Tour, Behind the Scenes Theatre Tour and a Tour of the Galley and Food Storage Areas. It was interesting to see the inner workings and behind the scenes of the ship. The Captain informed us during the Bridge Tour that the sister ship of Diamond Princess has a Captain who he has quite a close relationship to – his brother! It was amazing to go behind the curtain in the Princess Theatre and see the extensive costumes and props on board (and learn where they store the Cadillac), and meet some of the Princess Singers & Dancers. The Galley is very impressive, and the stores too, and we were treated at the end to a sample of desserts.
Upon our return to Yokohama, the disembarkation process was just as seamless as embarkation had been, and we were quickly whisked to our hotel for one last night in Japan – at the brand-new InterContinental Yokohama Pier 8 Hotel.Our ship was the first passenger vessel to dock at the pier and the hotel had opened only a few days prior to our arrival. It is the second InterContinental property in Yokohama, with the larger InterContinental Grand being the hotel of choice for many passengers adding on nights pre- or post-cruise.The InterContinental Pier 8 is a low-rise building with large rooms, a rarity for Japan, and a very modern look. We had a tour around the hotel after dropping off our luggage, then a quick drive across to the Grand for a look around. On the day we were there no less than 7 wedding receptions were happening at the InterContinental Grand – so you can imagine how huge that property is!
For our last free afternoon half the group took the train into Tokyo and did an afternoon city tour where we went up the World Trade Centre building for a view of the city (and the famous Tokyo Tower), then we did a walk past the Imperial Palace, and had free time at the Asakusa Buddhist Temple and the Nakamise Shopping Street (our first encounter of a crowd in Japan), and a cruise along the Sumida River. I am glad we got to see some of Tokyo – the other half of our group elected to do a Mario Carting tour, and they had a lot of fun, but did not get to see a lot of the city from their low fast seats!
Diamond Princess was a lovely way to explore Japan and South Korea in comfort and style – unpacking once and being able to experience the country. Japan and South Korea are certainly two locations that will remain on my bucket-list to explore deeper one day in the future.
Writer Sarah Pogson