Tuesday, 7 October 2014

DIAMOND PRINCESS Ancient Capitals 9 day cruise to Japan and South Korea

Just got back from a truly amazing cruise.  Never intended doing this one but it found us when it jumped out of a news paper back in May.

The deal from Travelbag had a lead in price of £1199pp for a 14 day package - return flights from UK, 3 nights hotel in Tokyo with 2 full day tours, 9 night cruise and transfers.  We opted to go for the balcony at £1399 but somehow got myself up sold to £1500 but that's another story.

We're not used to packages and usually book flight only then make everything up as we go along but this time we needed an easy option.

Mistake number one was not fully appreciating that after a 3 hour then 12 hour flight we would arrive at Shiba Park Hotel in Tokyo after 9pm.   We had to be ready to go on tour at 8am next morning and with the 8 hour time difference from England this was a tough call.  With hindsight we should have negotiated a deal where we flew in a full day earlier.

The tours were a great introduction, one a city tour and another to the countryside and invisible Mount Fuji.

Day 3 we were transferred to Yokohama port to board the enormous Diamond Princess.
Cabin B607 on the Baja deck had a balcony and was not overlooked unlike most balcony cabins.  It also had cabins above and below so was nice and quiet.

The ports of call turned out better than expected and easy to do on your own.  In each port a Tourist Information stand was set up, free wi-fi was offered and except Nagasaki a free local shuttle bus was provided.  Finally when we left port the locals put on a wonderful send off show.  Never known anything quite like it in terms of hospitality.

These are our ports of call and what you can do on your own -.

KANAZAWA - Take the shuttle bus to the train station.  At the far end of the building you will find the bus station where you can buy an all day bus ticket for Yen 500 (£3).  Using the loop in either direction you can easily hop on and hop off and we managed to see the fish market, samurai district, Kanazawa castle, Kenrokuen Park and the geisha district with plenty of time to spare.
You can take part in a green tea ceremony in Kenrokuen Park but on busy days there is a wait so if you want to do this it might be a good idea to go there first and book in before wandering around the gardens.

MAIZURU -  At the port information desk you need to buy the special Yen 1600 (£10) day pass to go to Amanohashidate.  (The pass includes local transport in Maizuru, some museums in Maizuru, train to Amanohashidate , boat, bike hire, chair lift and funicular.
The free shuttle drops you at the railway station where you board a single carriage train along the coast. It's a short walk through the village to the pier where you can take the boat across the bay.  (If you buy the Yen100 (60p) chips the birds will feed out of your hands).
At the other side leave the boat then walk past the temple to the funicular and chair lift station.  If you are going to do both then I'd recommend the funicular to go up and the chair lift to come down but we opted for the chair lift both ways.  It's rather unusual and like a suspended office chair with no safety bar - however you are only ever a few feet off the ground or a safety net.  Once you alight you will appreciate the views of the amazing bay with the sand bar.  2 things you should do here are first to bend over and view the sand bar between your legs turning it into a bridge to heaven.
Next you need to buy (or hang around near a tour guide to get them free) special flat stones and for luck you must throw one through a hoop.  You can climb a bit higher to an area with a large bell or just take the chair back down.  Back at the pier you can pick up bikes to cycle across the sand bar or you could just walk.  Steve went for a swim and pronounced the water to be refreshing.  I just enjoyed the cycle and looking at the different temples and shrines en route.  Back to Maizuru on the train and there you can walk back to the ship around the mountainside.  This way you pass Budhist temples and Shinto shrines.  One was open and a monk was inviting people in for green tea and to show them around which was very special.  This would probably be a tied first place with Nagasaki as our favourite outing.

SAKAIMINATO - Again a free bus to the train station and then another free bus to Yushien gardens.

At some point it is well worth a walk along the main street to admire dozens of "spirit monster" statues and other related art work around town.  As you walk along some of the posts start playing the theme tune music and there is another street that you must drive down at 50kph in order to hear the whole theme in time.
 Yushien gardens are delightful (Yen 400 £2.40) and there's a nice cafe at the end with panoramic glass windows.  Around Yen 500 (£3) for a drink but it includes biscuits and a glass of water and is a lovely place to sit.  With a local host I also went to Matsue Vogel Park with incredible flowers but I'm not sure how you would do that freelance.

BUSAN (SOUTH KOREA) Yet again a free bus that drops you off outside the Phoenix Hotel in the main street.  It was pouring with rain due to a typhoon the day we were there so it was handy to have all the underground shopping malls.  This would make a nice circular walk especially on a nice day!
With your back to the hotel turn right then turn right again up the Busan International Film Festival street.  At the top of here you will reach the main modern thoroughfare with all the top name shops.  Turn right and wander along enjoying the music blasting out from each one.  You will spot lots of interesting sculptures on the footpath.
When you get to a junction with a nice sculpture in the middle take a moment to check out a small side street to your right, this will link in with a cross street with street art on the walls.  Continue along the main drag and you will either see the signs pointing to or the escalator on your left leading to Yongdusan Park.  After you have wondered around return the same way then continue along the main street to the junction at the end. Here you can drop down into the subway and cut virtually straight across and up a ramp to Lotte department store.  (If you happen to arrive at about 10.15am before the store opens you will be served free drinks in the lobby and then see the opening ceremony with staff lined up inside)
Once you enter begin by admiring the fountain in the atrium, if your timing is right you will also catch the musical display.  Take a lift to the top floor and emerge on the open air roof top with a cafe, min zoo and lots of great viewing points in all directions.  Leaving the store cross the main junction by taking the underpass to emerge on the opposite side of the street you started on and by the fishermens' stores.  From here you can meander to the port area and the huge fish market.  Leaving the fish market head up the street with the archway then drop down into the underground shopping mall.  (Note most stores don't open until 10.30am).  Head to the left and finally emerge by the Phoenix Hotel by taking the street exit on your right.  Back in the port the adjacent Maritime Museum is free of charge and also has a free wi-fi hot spot.

NAGASAKI No shuttle buses needed here.  Within the port building there is an information desk where you can buy a Yen 500 (£3) all day tram passe and pick up a street map. A short walk left along the street takes you to the tram stop.
I suggest you first head to Nagasaki Peace park from which you can either walk up hill to the famous Ukrami cathedral then circle back to the Atomic bomb. Yen 200 (£1.20).  museum area or you can back track and go straight there.  Don't miss the Peace Memorial Hall and opt for the longer circuit where you go underground to see the columns and also view a 3D movie of the day the bomb dropped.  Return to the tram via the Hypercenter and catch a tram to Suwa Shrine (a 250 step climb).  Back track to the tram stop and use the subway to cross the road.
From here you can make a really pleasant walk following the river bank passing numerous attractive bridges as well as the famous Spectacles Bridge.  You can now either hop on a tram or continue to walk to visit China Town and then on to Dutch Slope (didn't find the particularly spectacular).  I walked the Dutch slope and emerged at the other side opposite the sky walk to Glover Gardens.  It's then only a short walk back to the cruise terminal.

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