One fascinating way of exploring the Land Of the Rising Sun is with an ocean cruise, like the Costa neoRomantica. Japan’s port cities have an enduring charm, and my favourite is Kanazawa, where we roamed around a centuries-old castle, were treated to handcrafted Japanese sweets, and sampled the freshest seafood from the markets.
Japan’s sixth largest city is most famous for ramen. If you arrive at night in the downtown district of Hakata, head to Nakasu Island for a meal at the yatai (open air food stalls) along the river. Try the Hakata Ramen, a heavy noodle dish with a milk-coloured broth that has a thick buttery taste. If you have the day, try Ramen Stadium inside Canal City shopping centre, where a collection of eight restaurants serve up different interpretations of the Hakata Ramen.
‘Kyoto By The Sea’ is known for kamaboko, a cured fish cake. At Kamaboko Hand-Making Experience factory, a master will show you how to make kamaboko, chikuwa (grilled fish paste) and tempura (fried fish paste). Drive down to Amanohashidate, a naturally formed land-bridge named as one of Japan’s Top 3 most scenic views. Take a cable ride up to the viewing deck on Mt Monju, and look at the view from between your legs – when you bend down, you can see a “dragon” ascending to the skies.
Gold leaf production is popular in Kanazawa, a city whose name means “marsh of gold”. Treat yourself to a gold leaf soft-serve ice cream, or the more luxurious gold leaf skincare. Get some fresh air at the stunning Kenroku-en Garden, and cross the main road to enter the centuries-old Kanazawa Castle, which has retained its beautiful stone and wood structures. Be adventurous and try the raw oysters and sea urchins at Omicho Market. And stop by the Higashi Chaya tea-house district for a performance by the geisha who lives here.
Relive the samurai life at Matsue Castle, where the fearsome warriors once trained. The five-floor structure has very few windows and steep wooden steps which make climbing a challenge, but great views await at the top. At the Matsue History Museum next door, you can try wagashi (Japanese sweets) by grandmaster Tsugio Itami, who has been making them by hand for over 60 years. Take a boat ride from Horikawa to spot rows of samurai houses in their distinct black exterior. Don’t miss the Adachi Museum Of Art, voted Japan’s best garden every year since 2013. Consisting of six different spaces spread over 165,000 sq m, the garden looks like a living Japanese painting. Pro tip: Download the Sanin Pass mobile app to gain access to multiple areas with one pass.
Busan, South Korea
Spot your favourite South Korean stars’ plaques at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) Square before crossing to originally started by Korean War refugees. It gained international recognition as Gukje Market after the highly successful movie Gukjesijang (Ode To My Father) was filmed here in 2014. Visit Gamcheon Culture Village, dubbed the Macchu Picchu of Busan for the houses built in staircase-fashion on the foothills by the coast. Check out the vibrant wall art created by residents along the alleyways.