Explore Gorgeous Northern Japan by Sea

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Jul 06, 2015

by SUSAN KUROSAWA, Travel Editor at The Australian

Who knew that the northernmost island of Japan is a place so gorgeous that it can make you gasp? 

With my fellow passengers (mostly Japanese, American and Australian) aboard the good ship Diamond Princess, we approach Hokkaido at a slow and measured pace. It steals up on us as we cruise north from Yokohama, the port for Tokyo, on the east coast of Honshu, the main island and the one that gets all the attention. First stop is Kushiro, known as the city of mist, with its woolly morning skies, wetlands and sacred cranes and vast stretches of deep purple fuki, a rhubarb-like plant with the sheltering span of an open umbrella. The landscape is comprehensively green and mostly empty, like a last frontier. “Japanese people come here from down south just to breathe,” says guide Mitsuko-san.

Hokkaido is, of course, a prime winter destination for Australian skiers but this is a summer cruise, albeit brisk and cool as Diamond Princess progresses farther north, rounding the island’s top and skirting the Sea of Okhotsk.

There is something snug about a voyage that all but hugs coastlines. Land is frequently sighted, it feels like being lightly tethered to destinations, and ports are plentiful. Diamond Princess is a supremely comfortable base camp for this nine-day round-trip and has myriad features that set it apart from ships of comparable class. It was built in Nagasaki in 2004, has been revamped recently to celebrate its 10th birthday, and is based in Japan from April to October. Rather than the generic fit-out of a typical liner, there are Japanese design elements and a cultural sensibility that makes it feel like a hovering satellite. We are in Japan, and of Japan, and when we venture ashore, the people and the cultural niceties and the little eating joints with their head-high curtained doorways already seem familiar as if we have been gently prepped for the experience. The daily Princess Patter newsletter includes primers on conversational Japanese; there are language lessons in the Wheelhouse Bar, lubricated with Midori cocktails. “Kanpai!” exclaim the pretty teachers, toasting their students’ success.

We gaijin (foreigners) find ourselves bowing to the Japanese passengers, shedding self-consciousness about wearing bathrobes and slippers in public to trot to the serenely beautiful cedar-and-stone Izumi Bath House and then stripping off for the onsen-style pools. These are segregated for men and women and if modesty is an issue you can wear a swimsuit, but most passengers seem happy to get starkers and scrub down, sluicing with a trad­itional wooden bucket and ladle, bobbing in the poaching-hot baths and whirlpools and cooling off in showers infused with eucalyptus.

So, a Japanese bath house on a ship? Who would have thought? Ditto for Kai Sushi, where chefs Hide and Dennis show off their considerable knife skills as we sit up at the scrubbed wooden counter and order sashimi piece by delicious piece for lunch, with nips of sake rice wine on the side.

Then, suddenly, we are in Russia, at the port of Korsakov on the south of Sakhalin Island, ceded to Japan after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and returned after World War II. We board a mini-bus with bobble-fringe curtains and lacy anti-macassars on the headrests. It feels like a front parlour on wheels; our Japanese yen has been exchanged for rubles, and guides Olga and Elvira urge us in their announcing voices to learn the Russian word for please. “Spasiba!” we chorus, obediently, as we head to the capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

There’s the wooden church of St Nicholas topped with a golden onion dome, and a very good regional museum erected during the Japanese occupation.

A massive statue of Lenin looms soldier-straight over the square named in his honour; in the city hall, stalls have been set up to welcome the tourist invaders but we eschew the big fur hats and nests of babushka dolls for crystallised fruit and flaky pirozhki filled with cabbage, mashed potato and onion, rather like an exotic cousin to the Cornish pastie.

Olga is underwhelmed by our meagre shopping ­choices and sceptical about Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk’s recent fame as a “major world oil boomtown”. It was previously a prison island where notable intellectuals such as Anton Chekhov were exiled. As we pass rows of apartments that look as bleak as cell-blocks and rusted tanks lined up in an army “graveyard”, Olga makes her final pronouncement about the advent of all this new wealth, “Not all boats rise on a tide.”

There are three days at sea on this leisurely itinerary that are pleasurable, too, with time to explore the ship. I lie on a lounger, rugged up with blankets, and watch a Hollywood hit one evening at the Movies Under the Stars poolside area on the Lido Deck. There are Hawaiian parties and karaoke “power hour” sessions, talent quests and loads of fun entertainment in the Princess Theatre, where you can take an escorted backstage tour and get lost among the glittery costumes and props. “It’s bigger back here than anything in London’s West End,” says cruise director Dan, forever with a bounce in his step.

At the Lotus Spa, therapist Uka-san whispers during my massage as if we are in a shrine, and perhaps we are, a place to worship beauty amid sliding shoji rice paper doors and pebbled gardens and tinkling wind chimes. And I enjoy the spaciousness and seclusion of a balcony suite with a sitting area, two flatscreen tellies with movie channels and copious storage space. There are 1353 staterooms, of which 740 come with balconies, and it’s certainly worth the extra cost for this breezy outdoor space. But be prepared for the multi-function Japanese toilets in the ensuites and their baffling control panels of press-buttons that appear capable, at the every least, of delivering you a toasted sandwich.

Meals across a variety of venues, from five main dining rooms to the Sterling Steakhouse and lovely Sabatini’s Italian brasserie, are uniformly good and the Horizon Court on Deck 14 is open all day and reliable for buffet fare and snacks. Maitre d’Hotel Jean-Francois Ferat glides between restaurants in his impeccable dark suits, smooth-talking and eagle-eyed, as professional as the host of any Michelin three-star restaurant.

The executive chef, Philippines-born Nilo Palma, presides over eight galleys and “a little United Nations” of about 155 staff. He says “authentic Japanese ingredients” are loaded in Yokohama and adds with a wide grin that the increasing number of Australian passengers are looked after, too, with beetroot on the burgers at the casual Trident Grill and sachets of Vegemite on the breakfast buffet. Palma is happy to give passengers recommendations for dishes to try ashore, particularly in Otaru, where ishikari-nabe, a miso-flavoured stew of salmon, vegetables and tofu, is one of his favourites.

On our return loop to Yokohama we stop at Aomori on the tip of Honshu and now we are in apple country. We eat apple-flavoured cookies and drink cloudy yellow-green juice. There are more than 50 varieties, we are told, that “sleep” in cold storage through winter after the mid-November harvest. We try yellow-skinned kinsei and kiou and jolly red Fujis, which are super-sweet, almost honeyed in taste. We crunch and crunch, and it’s as if we have never really tasted apples.

The nine days have passed too quickly. Captain Graham Goodway announces we have sailed 3882km at a maximum speed of 18.8 knots. All has been ship-shape, the only snafu being inclement weather as we navigated the Shiretoko Peninsula on day four, amid “local dense fog and strong wind”. The serving staff at the alfresco Swirls ice cream bar were wearing padded jackets with pulled-up hoods.

“Relaxation in progress” says the do-not-disturb sign I hang on my door on the final night, as I have each evening. I sleep, as ever, in a deep and content hibernation, like a wintering Hokkaido apple.

Diamond Princess’s port excursions are not included in the fare but reasonably priced, and there’s a good selection at each stop. There is an enjoyable food focus to many of these outings, including a visit in Kushiro to Washo seafood market, where snow crabs are lined in regimented rows on beds of ice and the fish catch of the day is so silvery it looks hand polished. We buy sashimi to pop on to a bowl of rice; disposable wooden chopsticks, a dipping dish of soy sauce and a knob of wasabi are provided. We follow with pancakes filled with red bean paste, warm and gooey from the vendor’s hotplate.

In Hokkaido’s west coast port of Otaru, we take a cable car up Mount Tengu to scramble along nature trails and enjoy reaching views of the port and scoff yet more green-tea ice cream cones. Then it’s off to the Otaru Canal lined with restored warehouses that have been converted to cafes and galleries. Shaded by willows, artists have set up their easels and paints in the afternoon sunshine to capture the seasonal colours on canvas. Strolling vendors sell music boxes and a chap in full samurai kit poses for corny photos at a souvenir store crammed with Hello Kitty collectibles.

Inland from Hokkaido’s southern port of Hakodate, we visit a museum that honours sumo wrestling and two local grand champions of the sport; one of our group volunteers for a practice session and is defeated within seconds. We stroll through groomed gardens and cobbled streets, see handpainted floats and drums being prepared for a merry festival.

A mini-bus ride from the port of Aomori on the top of Honshu takes us to Hirosaki Castle, where we jostle for vantage points to snap the moated stronghold, erected in 1611, struck by lightning in 1627 and not rebuilt until 1810. Now there are ­barricades in place as restoration work begins to shore up the building’s foundations.

We are allowed to creep inside, and climb up two flights of punishingly steep wooden stairs, feeling as stealthy as phantom ninja, to look over parkland where red humpbacked bridges cross ponds of fat koi and more than 2600 ornamental cherry trees blossom in spring.

Throughout these port visits, it feels as if we are flipping a wall calendar of impossibly perfect pictures. Taxi drivers wear spotless white gloves. Customs and immigration officials bow to us at 90-degree angles. We sit cross-legged on tatami matting at traditional eateries and can’t get enough of bowls of silky udon noodles. We buy exquisitely packaged rice crackers with fillings of black sesame paste and powdered green tea to take home as souvenirs but they are too tempting and don’t ever survive the day. Whoosh. Gone. And then so are we, back to Yokohama, off to Tokyo, vowing to return.

Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Princess Cruises.

This article originally appeared as North to Hokkaido on www.theaustralian.com.au and is re-published here under license. Susan Kurosawa is a writer at The Australian and is not affiliated with Qantas.