But, as ‘Akiko’ had shown me, on a boatload of international cruisers, acquaintances and friendships are easily made, even if they have a transitory, ships-that-pass-in-the-night feel to them. Soon enough, I was taken under the wing of Roseanna, a charming Russian-American who confessed to spending upto 250 days a year on cruises around the world; her only worldly care was whether the Norman Rockwell painting she had whimsically bid for and secured at a champagne art auction on board would elevate her Los Angeles living room.
The service and waitstaff on board the Diamond Princess, whom the cruise operators evidently train to a nicety in the art of hospitality and being engaging conversationalists, also enhance the travel experience. At the breakfast buffet at Horizon Court, the ship’s all-day diner, we would unfailingly be greeted with grace and good cheer by floor hostess Anna, from Ukraine, who had given up a career teaching Russian literature for the Good Life at sea; that literary influence animated her sparkling banter.
And at the formal, sit-down dinner in the stately International Dining Room, where we feasted nightly on soul-elevating repasts, Ni Made, a delightful member of the waitstaff from Bali, rounded off every meal with feisty (even if not flawless) renditions of popular Bollywood numbers for her guests from India. Of gaiety and jollity, therefore, there was no dearth on board.
One early evening at sea, when I had still not mastered the lie of the land, so to speak, and was floundering around mid-ship, I sought navigation aid from a besuited gentleman whose name-tag identified him as a member of the Princess Cruises team. Chris, it turned out, was a British pharmaceutical executive who lives in Japan with his Chinese wife, and was on board to give lectures — in Japanese — on (I kid you not) geomancy, quantum physics and the way to harness the power of the universe in daily life. Clearly, there were many more possibilities for amusement and personal enrichment than just playing tambola on the decks. And such is the spectrum of interesting folks you’re likely to meet on board a Pacific cruise liner that I half expected to encounter a character like Somerset Maugham’s Max ‘Mr Know-all’ Kelada.
The striking thing about über-luxury cruises such as these, particularly on the Asian circuit, is the, um, distinctive age profile of the critical mass of guests on board. Perhaps because cruises don’t exactly come cheap, and the largely slow-paced nature of life at sea may not appeal to adrenaline junkies, they are made up, in large measure, of retirees or Baby Boomers who made it good. The effect of that audience mix manifests itself in many ways — for instance, in the ripple of excitement that courses through the assemblage when the live band (which plays every evening at the ship’s atrium) strikes up an oldie tune from the 1960s and 1970s: nothing gets the partner dancers on their feet with age-defying agility quite like Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ or that timeless ‘Never on a Sunday’ number.
Given the Japan-centric nature of the cruise, this peculiar passenger profile also pointed to one of the country’s sociological realities: a greying demographic, with attendant socio-economic spillover effects. Only a day before we’d boarded, the front page of the Japan Times newspaper had showcased no less than four articles that mirrored this trend. The world’s oldest man, a Polish-American, had died in the US, which meant that a Japanese man, who was next in line, was now the world’s oldest; the world’s oldest woman is already Japanese. Just as significant is Japan’s low birth rate, and the same day, the government announced a policy to provide fiscal incentives for young couples to have three or more children. The demographic ‘time-bomb’ — of an ageing population and declining fertility rates — means that Japan needs imported labour, but a ‘foreign worker trainee’ programme was drawing criticism for alleged exploitation by employers. And, most bizarrely for a society that places great store by ethnicity, just that morning, Japan had ordained its first foreign Shinto priest: a blond, blue-eyed Austrian Japanologist.
The cultural characteristics that define Japan, it appeared, were in civilisational decline, which infused a certain poignancy to this cruise itinerary focussed on the Ancient Capitals of Japan. Clearly, something drastic needed to be done to check the slippery slide. So I stripped myself nude and headed for hot water.
The Izumi Japanese Bath, a distinctly Japanese experience that I savoured, harnesses the therapeutic properties of water, steam and open air in a panoramic ocean-view setting that offers supreme sensory gratification for the body and a becalming indulgence for the mind. Now, traditional Japanese baths are high on ritual, and although the Izumi, which was recently added to the Diamond Princess as part of a $30 million refurbishment, is plush in the extreme, it yields no concessions in the matter of abidance of bathhouse protocol. The leaflet provided by the giggly reception desk usherettes offers “helpful tips” for bathhouse patrons. “Traditional Japanese baths,” it notes, “are enjoyed without clothing. It is customary to bring a small towel into the bathing area to enhance your privacy outside of the water. Once you enter the bath, the towel must remain out of the water.”
Now, the “small towel” is in fact a micro-mini napkin that stands no earthly chance of enhancing anyone’s privacy, and typically the protocol requires dexterous wristwork and a masterly sense of timing in order to ensure that the vestment is whipped off at the precise moment of bodily ingestion into the communal swirlpool. In other bathhouses that I’ve patronised elsewhere in Japan on earlier visits, the menfolk appeared to place a premium on modesty and clung on to the figleaf like their lives depended on it. But on board the cruise ship, perhaps the clubby camaraderie that prevailed in such a posh setting had induced a marked diminution in the level of inhibition about nudity. No one seemed overly concerned about wholesale denudement, and beyond a cursory curiosity about the diversity of the human form — I shall say no more — no one really cared.
In any case, given the vantage location of the Japanese bathhouse complex — on the sun deck 15 aft, at the tail end of the ship — there were far more enchanting and serene views to be had — of the blue-green waters of the Pacific, which seemed to stretch from here to eternity. Later, seated in the alfresco, unisex hydrotherapy pool, where powerful underwater jets massaged my limbs, I felt the cool caress of a summer breeze. All around me, neck-deep in the tub, were convivial visitors from far corners of the earth, united in the shared luxury of that moment, and more generally the cruise experience. The pleasures that one savours, it has been well said, are enhanced manifold when they are more widely shared. I rejoiced in the splendid serenity of that Zen moment.
A 10-day luxury cruise experience such as this saddles you with delicious daily dilemmas about where to eat and what to do. The Diamond Princess spoils you for choice: it has five main dining rooms; there’s also Horizon Court, the all-day diner; three speciality restaurants (a sushi restaurant; an Italian; and a steakhouse); a patisserie; a pizzeria (which serves pizzas by the poolside!); a grill that dishes out burgers and hot dogs; a wine bar; an ice-cream bar; and several lounges and bars spread all over the ship. Of course, you also have 24-hour room service, but to be cooped up in your cabin, however swank it may be, would be a shame. But if you wanted to indulge yourself, you could opt to dine on your private balcony.
A walk-through of the galley area showed up kitchen and cleaning operations on a military scale. On an average, the ship takes in about 110 tons of food for a cruise — from fine cheeses (sourced from Italy, France, England, the US, and Scandinavia) to fine wines to fine everything. Some 6,000 assorted pastries and about 200 litres of ice-cream are prepared daily. On an average, some 70,000 dishes and 24,000 glasses are washed daily, with sanitisation standards emphasised to the point of obsessive-compulsion. The heightened sense of hygiene extends to the housekeeping service in the cabins, which are made up several times a day, and where the shower heads are changed every few days.
Life on board the ship was so high on luxury and comfort that it required a battle with inertia to head out for the five shore excursions that had been lined up for us. The port calls at Kanazawa, Maizuru, Sakaiminato, Busan (in South Korea) and Kagoshima had a shared cultural history that traced back to the era of Japanese shoguns. What they also shared was the evolved sense of aesthetics that characterises public spaces in Japan, particularly the serene Zen gardens, where you can quite literally spend hours gazing at beauty in stone and sand. My favourite pitstop was Maizuru, a busride away from Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital, where life ambles slowly by like the beautiful women in colourful kimonos, elegant umbrellas and wooden clogs that go clippety-clop.
I was also looking forward to the Kagoshima stopover, which held out the promise of a climb up the Sakurajima volcano , one of whose peaks remains active to this day, sending up giant puffs of fire and ash almost on a daily basis, which the local population have learnt to take in their stride with admirable equanimity. But a midsummer rain proved a bit of a dampener, and although we did climb to one of the dormant peaks to gaze upon a plaque immortalising a haiku by poet Takanu Suju, the more enchanting sight of the smoke-spewing mountaintop remained resolutely hidden behind a blanket of rainclouds.
Every shore excursion ends in a dockside farewell hosted by the local council, at which cultural performances native to the region are showcased. Cheery, outsized mascots and pretty women in traditional attire line up for photo-ops, and cruise passengers scurry about in a last-minute scramble of souvenir-hunting. The air is decidedly festive, and it’s easy to get caught up in the exhilarating mood of the moment. And, yet, on the last evening out in Kagoshima, as the dockside band struck up a soulful Japanese folk tune, a lump formed in my throat in fond remembrance of new acquaintances and old. A school of seagulls circled lazily overhead, and looking up to see if Akiko too had come by, I became aware that my face was moist. But perhaps it wasn’t me being foolishly sentimental; perhaps it was just the midsummer rain.
I flew Delhi-Tokyo on All Nippon Airways. Most international airlines fly from Indian metros to Tokyo. Return fares for New Delhi-Tokyo flights start at Rs 110,000 (business class) and Rs 37,000 (economy).
You’ll need a double-entry Japan visitor visa to go on the cruise. Visa fees: Rs 500, Apply at vfsglobal.com/japan/india.
You’ll also need a single-entry South Korean visitor visa. Visa fees: Rs 2,400. Apply at vfsglobal.com/korea/india.
1 Re = About 1.75 Japanese yen
1 Re = About 17 Korean won
All prices on board the Diamond Princess are US$-denominated $1 = Rs 60.7
The Diamond Princess is a 15-deck luxury cruise ship that can carry up to 2,670 passengers (and a crew of 1,100). There are 1,337 cabins in four categories: suites; outside cabins with private balconies; ocean-view cabins; and interior cabins. The cruise-only fare for an interior cabin starts at $40 per person per day or $360 for a nine-day itinerary. The mini-suites start at $132 per person per day; the ultra-luxurious Grand Suite comes at $1,004 per person per day. Port charges, taxes, and gratuities extra.
Each shore excursion costs an additional $50-150. Details at princess.com.
The Diamond Princess will sail in Japan till mid-October 2014, after which it will be redeployed in Australia/New Zealand offering 12-day itineraries from mid-December 2014 until mid-February 2015.
For bookings from India, contact Cruise Professionals, (+91-120-4643838, toll-free: 1800-103-0306); email@example.com; cruiseprofessionals.in.
What to see & do
On board the Diamond Princess, you can do it all or do nothing at all. Those who seek a bit more action will be spoilt for choice. Everything from fitness centres to spas to countless entertainment and self-improvement options (movies under the stars, frontline showbiz performances, discotheque, karaoke, casino, lounge bars, library, culinary courses, wine tasting, classes in art history, navigation, arts & crafts, champagne art auctions, party games, the works). Plus, of course, there are the shore excursions to choose from. But those given to lethargy can practise the ‘beached whale’ routine by the poolside.