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Cruising Japan with Princess offers immersive experience

Japanese Entertainment Director Mikoko (l) translated Executive Chef Nilo Palma’s (center) Culinary Show into Japanese.

Photo: Japanese Entertainment Director Mikoko (l) translated Executive Chef Nilo Palma’s (center) Culinary Show into Japanese. (Photos by Steven Weingart)




By Ellen L. Weingart

One pleasure of a cruise is sharing in an international experience. Cruising the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera or to Alaska, our fellow passengers have been mostly American, but we have enjoyed — and learned a lot about the world — conversing with crew whose homes span the globe.

On a Mediterranean cruise, we met many Europeans, including a couple from the English Channel Islands who told us about their hassles getting to the British mainland before beginning more distant adventures.

Our cruise around South America — with its many Latino crew members and passengers — introduced us to the differences between Chilean and Argentine Spanish, included Latin touches in the entertainment, such as tango demonstrations and a display of mastery with a whip. Australian passengers dominated our cruise of the South China Sea. From the moment we boarded the ship in Singapore, shouts of “Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” rang forth at the least provocation. Talking with any of them about our so far nonspecific plan to visit Australia brought adamant recommendations to discover the wonders of their home town, no matter where it was.

Japan Cruise an International Experience

Our recent cruise of Japan aboard the Diamond Princess brought the international experience to an entirely new level. We estimate that more than three-quarters of our fellow cruisers were Japanese, making us feel that we were in Japan onboard as well as in port, but better: There were none of the difficulties of dealing with a language barrier.

Japanese was the dominant language on the ship. Had we worked at it, the combination of dubbed movies, on-demand Japanese TV and occasional crew-led Japanese classes (there were also English classes for Japanese speakers) might have taken us beyond the handful of Japanese words we did learn — ohayou-gozaimas (good morning), konnichiwa(hello) and arigatou-gozaimas (thank you).

RELATED: The naked truth about the Japanese bath

But not to worry, we English speakers were far from forgotten. No indecipherable menus; there were English- and Japanese-language versions. No wondering what crew members were telling passengers; everything, from important announcements to trivia questions was presented in Japanese and English, sometimes by one fantastically bilingual person or by one native English- and one native Japanese-speaker.

Hearing Japanese Entertainment Director Mikoko’s ongoing and enjoyable English translation of Mr. Hashimoto’s narration during the Diamond’s scenic cruising through the Japanese Inland Sea and the Kanmon Straits, which he had sailed many times as a Japanese naval officer, meant we didn’t miss a word. Although sometimes expressing her concern that she wasn’t doing an adequate job translating, she was terrific. And delightful. Mikoko seemed to be everywhere during our cruise, generally translating into Japanese what English-speaking crew and entertainment staff had said, always energetic and convivial.

In fact we were far from the only passengers who noticed the entire crew’s seemingly constant good spirits. We have never had a bad experience on a Princess ship, but particularly on this cruise, the crew members with whom we came in contact — from the cabin steward to the dining room staff to the hotel desk to the cruise director’s team — always seemed to be especially enjoying their jobs and happy to see you.

Diamond Gets a Facelift

We had last been aboard the Diamond in October 2013 on a cruise of the South China Sea. About six months after that sailing, the ship went into dry dock for refurbishment.

While some of the updates were general in nature — new carpeting in public areas, upgrades to the Horizon Court buffet, a remodeled casino, new sports court, revitalized photo gallery and a variety of new luxury goods shops — with the ship destined to spend about half the year based in Japan, much of the work was focused on making it even more appealing to the Japanese market.

Izumi’s utaseyu bath offers cascades of hot water.

Izumi’s utaseyu bath offers cascades of hot water.

The centerpiece of the $30 million renovation is the Japanese bath area; at 8,800 square feet, it is the largest such bath experience at sea. Izumi, which means fountain or spring in Japanese, includes an open-air hydrotherapy pool surrounded by lounge chairs with individual sunshades, an outdoor shower and a footbath amid refreshing sea breezes and views of the ocean.

Indoors, a variety of warm to hot therapeutic water baths provide panoramic ocean views — the Cypress bath with its open-air skylight enables bathers to enjoy the sea breeze even indoors — and ultimate relaxation. There is also a traditional Japanese utaseyu bath with its cascades of hot water, a dry sauna with floor to ceiling windows and a mist sauna. Cordial staff is on hand to explain the facilities and how to use them.

Outdoor areas are co-ed with swimsuit required; indoor areas are segregated by sex and nude only. There is a nominal fee for Izumi — $15 for up to 90 minutes when we visited. It was phenomenally relaxing and had there been more sea days left on our cruise, we would have pampered ourselves several more times.

Inside the Kai Sushi restaurant

Inside the Kai Sushi restaurant

Also adding to the Japanese atmosphere is the Diamond’s newest specialty restaurant, Kai Sushi, serving sushi, sashimi, seafood cocktails and a variety of regional sakes, with both table seating and a sushi bar. Unlike the ship’s other specialty restaurants, the Sterling Steakhouse and the Italian-themed Sabatini’s with set cover charges, Kai Sushi is priced by the order. We confess to not being sushi eaters and never tried Kai Sushi (indulging ourselves instead with the always excellent Sterling Steakhouse), but the restaurant was beautiful and popular.

Even without a visit to Kai Sushi, there was ample opportunity to indulge a taste for food with a Japanese flair, chop sticks optional.

Breakfast Surprises

Miso soup at breakfast may not be on everyone’s mind, but it was available at the breakfast buffet at the Horizon Court, along with various Japanese noodles — and of course a wide array of what we Americans think of as more typical breakfast foods.

The lunch buffet featured a noodle bar, with different types of noodles each day, along with tubular fish cakes, bamboo shoots and wakeme (a dried seaweed).

A make-your-own sushi station within the buffet’s main food area included sheets of nori (a dried seaweed) for a wrap, fried sliced bean curd, shredded dried fish cakes, omelet strips and vinegared rice.

The make-your-own sushi station at the Horizon Court buffet

The make-your-own sushi station at the Horizon Court buffet

Along with what seemed to be endless options of salads, sandwiches and hot meals, lunch also offered Japanese-influenced dishes, such as teriyaki chicken or steak, a miso-sesame salad dressing that I opted for just about every day, tofu, the ever-present miso soup and what rapidly became my favorite item, Japanese pickles. Not just cucumber pickles, which seem to come in almost every color of the rainbow, but eggplant, peppers and plums; I still miss them.Running a close second to the pickles, was soft-serve green tea ice cream, available any time I wished at the ship’s ice cream stand.

In the main dining room, an appetizer of yaki (grilled) eggplant and mushroom served with a balsamic-based sauce was something I ordered each time it appeared on the menu. The “anytime” dining option of grilled salmon, available no matter what else was on the menu that evening, was given a Japanese update with a miso-based sauce, miso soup, rice and what had become a mini-addiction for me, those Japanese pickles.

Of course there were indulgences beyond the Japanese. Princess has launched a partnership with celebrity chef Curtis Stone and features three of his dishes, on a rotating basis, in the dining room. The chicken and leek pot pie I had one evening was rich and delicious.

Also new to the Princess dining experience since our previous sailing were desserts by chocolatier Norman Love whose Chocolate Journey creations are too tempting to turn away. I was convinced with my first taste of his Chocolate Soufflé with White Chocolate Sauce.

Smaller Japanese touches included the electric kettles in each cabin for making tea.

Topnotch Entertainment

Providing Princess’s topnotch entertainment would seem like a challenge, but was accomplished, for the most part, by not relying on language or on entertainers who, without word-for-word translations, used both Japanese and English in their acts in ways that everyone could follow. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy the imaginative use of a full-size pink Cadillac in the production show “Born to be Wild” or the incredible talent on display in “Bravo,” or the tunes in “I Got the Music”? Soloist Monique Dehaney used her beautiful voice to sing in both English and Japanese while violinist Chris Watkins needed no words to demonstrate his artistry.

Instead of a comedian telling jokes, comedy juggler/magician Dave Rave provided laughs, and no translations were needed for illusionist Daniel Craven.

Other evenings sparkled with Japanese flair. A Kobe “folkloric show” featured the amazing taiko drumming of Yuchi Kimura and Special Sauce. And Diane Kichijitsu entertained both Japanese and English speakers with rakugo, a sit-down comedy routine with the performer, using only a paper fan and a small cloth as props and never standing up, telling a complicated comical story involving dialogue between two or more characters depicted only through pitch, tone and slight turns of the head. Kichijitsu, a native of Great Britain who has spent more than half her life in Japan, did one show in Japanese and another mostly in English, both to highly appreciative audiences. She also “taught” a lesson in laugh yoga, which we try to practice every day.

Combined with our port stops in Japan — and Taiwan and South Korea — this was by far the most immersive cruise experience we ever had. All the exoticism we could have wanted with all the comfort of Princess.

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