Without knowing the language, Japan can be a mighty difficult destination for independent travel. My first visit to Tokyo and Kyoto was mystifying and all too brief. Searching for a way to return, I found a spring cruise that circumnavigated the country’s four principal islands.

Some ports had familiar sounding rings – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hakodate – while others – Hagi, Kanazawa, Miyajima, Uwajima, Okayama and Sado Island – were utterly unknown, at least to me. The hefty dose of Japan I wanted also included a bonus call in South Korea.

My ship, the 110-passenger Clipper Odyssey, was originally constructed in 1989 for the Japanese cruise market. After 10 years operating in East Asia, she passed to Spice Island Cruises, then US-based Clipper Cruise Line. From May 2008, she is under long-term charter to Zegrahm Expeditions of Seattle, with Abercrombie & Kent staffing half the cruise programme, including the Japanese itinerary.

Arriving in Kobe in a bit of a daze after too many hours in the air, the dazzling night scene framed by my cabin window included a blue-lit Ferris wheel, a bright-red, hour-glass-shaped port tower and neon-colored advertising signs. But soon we were under way south through the Inland Sea leaving modern Japan astern.

My cabin, as with most, was roomy for a small ship and fitted with a queen-size bed, settee, coffee table, vanity and chair, ample storage space for a casual cruise, TV, a radio with music channels, fridge, safe and decent-size bathroom with a square Japanese-style tub and shower. On the highest deck, eight larger cabins had private balconies.

My typical day began either over a light breakfast in the Day Lounge or a more ambitious full menu in the restaurant. Lunch had similar arrangements while the seated dinner offered hot and cold soups, tender meat dishes – rack of lamb, venison steak – and freshly baked desserts. Dress was casual, with most tarting themselves up a bit for the first and last celebratory dinners.

With open seating, single travellers could easily join others. Passengers were English-speakers with a genuine interest in the country, while the crew long-serving Filipinos and the veteran captain Australian.


Culture Spot

Two lecturers, one recently retired from an American university and the other an artist who loved things Asian, introduced us to Japan at talks before dinner and during sea time.

Then, for on shore trips, two Japanese national guides accompanied us throughout, each hosting a coach during the inland drives.

At Miyajama, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples dotted the hillsides while the pedestrian lanes offered a carnival atmosphere of food and souvenirs.

Japan’s farmed oysters come from these waters, here enjoyed grilled in their shell with a squirt of fresh lemon juice. Gooey seaweed concoctions and octopus on a stick were sampled once – but not repeated!


The first call at Okayama-Uno opened a window on Japan’s feudal period, the 260 years up to 1868 when the shoguns held sway and this castle town was one of the then fragmented country’s most powerful cities. After the Meiji Restoration, an emperor ruled the entire country from Tokyo and most castles were demolished, but not Okayama’s.

The impressive six-storey tower, a symbol of power, overlooked the late 17th century Koraku-en Gardens, blooming with purple iris, red, white and pink azalea, wisteria and dogwood, the last-named in an exchange with the US for Japanese cherry trees.

We, and hundreds of Japanese pouring off ferries from Hiroshima, next landed at Miyajima (shrine island), one of Japan’s most revered Shinto sites, established in AD593 and dedicated to the goddess of the sun. A bright orange-red torii, a stylish wooden gate planted in the sea, marked the entrance, one that often appears in Japanese travel posters.

The Peace Memorial Park and Museum at Hiroshima held memorials to those who died on August 6, 1945, and its aftermath. The park’s centerpiece, the A-Bomb dome, stands along the fringing river. Built as an exhibition hall in western style in 1915, the skeletal ruins remain a poignant reminder, much in the way the Kaiser Wilhelm Church does for Berlin’s World War II devastation.

Within the museum complex, a city model and photos depicted a thriving industrial Hiroshima before the bomb and another set showed burn victims immediately after the attack. Display cases contained a charred school uniform, bicycle, bottles and china, and children’s drawings not so innocently revealed what they witnessed in the initial days after the attack.

At Nagasaki, three days later, the Atomic Bomb Museum had similar exhibits, further deepening the effect these two horrific events had on all of us. Because of poor visibility, the second bomb landed north of the heart of the city and steep hills prevented more widespread damage. Only one-third of the population were killed or injured by the blast, heat rays and radiation.

Hiroshima, a handsome, planned city built on a street grid contrasted with Nagasaki’s centre ranging around an attractive harbour hemmed in by tree-lined slopes. Glover Garden, a collection of 19th century western-style buildings set in a sloping park, revealed the influence Nagasaki’s foreign community had in establishing beer brewing, coal mining, railroads and shipbuilding (Mitsubishi). Today’s shipyard was in full view in the port below.


Culture Spot

With time to explore Hiroshima independently, 100 yen coins got us aboard the city’s trams for rides to a waterfront promenade and a lively covered shopping and restaurant arcade.

With the help of picture menus, we chose an attractive lacquer tray lunch of noodle soup with shrimp, octopus, rice and dumplings, plus sweet little extras costing only �3.


Calling at Uwajima on the island of Shikoku, some in our group went hog-wild buying cultured pearl jewellery, the pearls originating in the waters just outside the shop. The Japanese wrap everything so artfully, be it an expensive purchase or something as simple as a decorative bookmark.

The Clipper Odyssey crossed the narrow strait between Japan and the Korean Peninsula to spend the day in a country once known as the Hermit Kingdom, the North Korean portion still qualifying as such today. The huge South Korean container port of Pusan is overlooked by frighteningly stark apartment complexes with some building clusters 30 to 50 storeys high.

Pausing at the city’s vast produce market, the fish and shellfish stalls displayed species that bore no resemblance to anything I knew. One passenger, while photographing a fishmonger who did not want her picture taken, had an octopus hurled at her. Our Japanese guide said this volatile reaction would never happen in Japan.

The day’s principal destination was Gyeongju, once the capital of Korea, and now a beautiful Buddhist Temple complex built high on a wooded hill to the north of Pusan. A Korean/Japanese lunch followed – sardines, kimchi, dumplings, sushi, sashimi and seaweed, plus some familiar western dishes.

Returning to Japan’s west coast, the mayor of Hagi greeted the ship at a formal ceremony, exchanged gifts with our Australian captain and introduced some beautiful costumed dancers.

Other ports provided rousing welcomes by mythical creatures, sword dancers or young children engaged in amazingly synchronised drumming. Often, the Clipper Odyssey is the sole cruise ship that calls.

A visit to a traditional wooden Japanese house, its sliding doors separating the rooms, included a fine collection of traditional drawings, dolls and ceramics. Nearby, hundreds of stone lanterns lined a forest path leading to a burial ground.

Back aboard, the sunny day produced a lavish barbecue lunch on the aft lido deck, and while eating, I spotted a diminutive version of Mt Fuji a couple of miles away. Deciding it needed to be climbed, a small contingent of like-minded souls walked through the fishing port and deep into the woods, seeing nothing but trees until we reached the rim and a splendid view of the Sea of Japan and inland mountains.

Further up the coast at Matsue, the private Adachi Art Museum and Gardens instantly became everyone’s favourite stop. Inside, the art collection included beautiful scroll paintings and screens depicting birds, flowers and trees set in the four seasons.

The museum’s rectangular windows framed sections of the enchanting garden beyond, planted with bonsai pine trees, sculpted bushes, moss, flowers and ferns amidst swaths of white pebbles, rocks, tiny shrines, streams, waterfalls, arched bridges and stone walkways. The distant hills, referred to as borrowed scenery, formed a backdrop of tall pines, maples and other deciduous trees that are awash with colour in the autumn.

Then, at a Japanese barbecue, we formed groups of four to cook chicken, beef, mushrooms, carrots and green peppers on a gas grill.


Culture Spot

The country drive back to the ship from Matsue skirted lakes, flooded rice paddies and seed beds. On all our outings, we saw no aggressive driving, no honking of horns or any impatience behind the wheel.

Calmness and polite behavior seemed to permeate our host country (though I know from experience, such is not the case during the big city rush hours). Trains tend to be more packed than in London or New York, and just to get on, one has to sally forth! But most of our Japanese journey was outside of the big cities.

Returning to the ship, the adjacent pier was strewn with thousands of battered bicycles, washing machines and refrigerators bound for North Korea via trans-shipment in China. No direct trade exists since Japanese fishermen were kidnapped to be trained as infiltrators.


At Kanazawa, we strolled through a beautiful garden that overlooked the city and visited the central market where travelling Japanese send home seafood parcels. We enjoyed a Japanese meal overlooking the Shinto gate entrance to a strikingly modern railway station. In the afternoon, we experienced a traditional Japanese tea ceremony with all the elaborate steps and responses, a most serene and memorable occasion.

On Sado Island, we had a lesson in making soba noodles with buckwheat and wheat dough and ate the results in a delicious soup. Later, we toured a once important and now abandoned gold mine, descending deep into the shafts.

En route to the top end of Honshu, Clipper Odyssey ploughed through our only heavy seas. Now, almost 600 miles north of the most southerly point at Nagasaki, temperatures were considerably cooler and the cherry blossoms and tulips were in full bloom. From the port of Aormori, we drove to Hirosaki, a castle town set in the shadow of snow-draped Iwaki Mountain, another imposing, snow-covered Fuji lookalike.

Crossing overnight to the island of Hokkaido, we disembarked and flew directly south to Tokyo, where our veteran guide, dressed in a brown suit that made him resemble a character in a 1940s film, led us to the imperial palace grounds followed by an excellent lunch atop the New Otani Hotel.

A final stop at Asakusa Temple located in a northern precinct formed the centrepiece for a huge outdoor shopping bazaar. It was Sunday, and Tokyo’s youth was out in force, presenting an ultra mod contrast to the traditional Japan we had visited over the last 10 days.

Checking into the Imperial Hotel, I recalled that, four decades ago, I stood across the street from the old Imperial Hotel built by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early part of the 20th century. While it was one of the few buildings that survived the massive 1923 earthquake, I watched the wrecking ball demolish his masterpiece. The porte-coch�re survives in a Japanese museum.

Walking the Ginza after dark, the neon-lit shopping street where every major international clothing designer displays its wears, provided yet another dramatic contrast of Japan’s complex presentation to the world.


CLIPPER ODYSSEY FACTFILE

Built: 1989, refurbished 1999
Tonnage: 5,200
Length: 335ft
Beam: 51ft
Draft: 14ft
Speed: 14 knots
Passengers: 110
Crew: 73
Passenger Decks: 4
Registry: Bahamas


Itineraries: spring, Japan and Far East; summer, northern Europe, including Russia and Bering Sea, and Alaska; winter, Australasia and South Pacific.

More info: In the UK, call Abercrombie & Kent on 0845 618 2200 or visit www.abercrombiekent.co.uk; in the US, call 1800 554 7016 or www.abercrombiekent.com