My wife and I are inveterate travelers but had never been to Japan, even though it had been high on our list of places to go. As well, we love to take cruises and had heard good comments about Crystal Cruises and its reputation as one of the best.
We read the brochure and found that Crystal's 11-day Ancient Treasures cruise started in China and ended in Japan, the ideal itinerary. We could visit Japan while checking out this luxury line.
We signed on and early last May we flew to Beijing on a Tuesday and boarded our ship, the Crystal Harmony, Wednesday, ready for an afternoon departure. Many of our fellow passengers had flown in three days earlier to take a pre-cruise tour of Chinese historical sites, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. We had been to China, so we decided to forego this part.
Our first two days were at sea, giving us a much welcomed chance to relax and get over our jet-lag, as well as time to become acquainted with the ship.
The thing that distinguishes Crystal Cruise ships is the elegance of the interior, from lush carpets to the mirrors on the corridor walls. Overall there is a feeling of spaciousness. A grand center court, the Crystal Plaza, spans the width of the ship and opens above as well. From midship, a crystal and brass staircase leads up to the Tiffany Deck and to the Atrium.
Our stateroom was very comfortable with a king-size bed and a sitting area that included a love seat and vanity and large closets. But what made the room definitely above average was a spacious verandah. (On our ship 85% of rooms had verandahs, many more than on most other large lines.) The public areas onboard are large and comfortable, and contained several high-end shops. There was an auditorium for movies and speaker presentations and a large theater for after-dinner productions and entertainment acts.
We especially liked the spacious Promenade Deck where we took morning walks on days at sea. Afternoons we joined those around the swimming pools and took a rehabilitating soak in the Jacuzzi spa. For those who like to exercise in a gym, there is a full fitness center as well as deluxe spa where massages and treatments were offered.
During a chat with Hotel Director Josef Lumetsberger, we found out that capacity for the Harmony is 940 and that our cruise was about 2/3 full, the majority being Americans, with the rest mostly Europeans, along with 90 Asians.
Lumetsberger says that the ship caters to an upscale clientele and that above-average service is stressed. The staff numbers 545, many of whom are Eastern Europeans. We observed that there were more women working than we see on most lines. Cabin stewards were women, and there were even a few women servers, surprising in an area dominated by men. We could attest to the quality of the service. If we ordered breakfast in our cabin, for example, it was delivered piping hot 15 minutes later.
For dinner, we chose the 8:30 serving in the main dining room. There were six at our table, couples from Manchester, England, and Banning in Southern California. During our excellent four-course dinners, we looked forward to visiting with them and sharing the day's experiences.
We were not restricted to the main dining room, however. Two alternative restaurants were available-Prego for Italian food and Kyoto for Japanese. The food was so good in both, we opted to eat twice in each.
The talk of the ship was the mushroom soup in Prego. Served in a crusty bread cup, this creamy, thick soup of assorted mushrooms was outstanding. We had heard good comments about the roasted rack of lamb as well, and it was excellent-both times we ordered it. In Kyoto, we particularly enjoyed the Salmon Shio-Yaki, pan-roasted Alaskan Salmon with Pozo Sauce, and Beef Teppanyaki, a grilled-to-order filet on a bed of sauteed onions.
After two days at sea, our first stop Saturday was Shanghai. We had been to Shanghai in 1987 but were not prepared for the amazing changes in the city. Before it was a dingy, crowded place with streets congested with bicycles and pedestrians. Now with 12 million people, it's still crowded but this time there are a lot of cars among the bikes. The big surprise is the amazing growth in the infrastructure. Skyscrapers stand in areas which were formerly swamps. In an expanding Chinese economy, this is the vibrant business capital of China.
During our two days in port, there were several shore excursions offered by the ship which took passengers to favorite tourist attractions, including an overnight trip to Xian to view the world famous Terra Cotta warriors. Since the main sites were fairly close to the dock and Chinese cab fares were very low, we decided to tour the city on our own.
It was raining our first day, so we chose to stay dry and take in the highly regarded Shanghai Museum of Art and History, in an impressive new building. On our previous 1987 visit, its treasures were in dank poorly lit rooms. Now the art is displayed in an architecturally splendid building in the shape of an ancient wine vessel. We spent the better part of the rainy day there but it still wasn't enough time to fully appreciate the 100,000 examples of the country's finest bronze, ceramic and jade sculptures as well as the exquisite art and calligraphy.
The second day broke sunny, and we decided to take in parts of new and old city on foot. On the way to Yu Yuan Gardens, we walked down the alleys of the old city to see how people have lived for centuries, tending their birds in front of their dwellings, selling their wares and visiting with neighbors.
On our way to the gardens, we passed through a bustling market place. It was Sunday and it was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. Food, crafts, virtually anything anyone wanted to buy was on display.
Yu Yuan is a classic Chinese garden over 400 years old, with trees and flowing streams, an oasis in the crowded city. Its traditional red walls and upturned roofs are artfully topped by the undulating form of a dragon.
Next we took a cab to the Jade Buddha Temple, a "must-see" in all travel books. The colorful temple is a hive of activity with tourists filing through, monks in pastel robes and the devout praying. On display in the main building is a magnificent six-and-a-half foot, 455 pound Buddha, exquisitely carved from white jade and precious gems.
While in Shanghai, at cocktail hour with night coming on, it was pleasurable to sit on top deck, and look at the neon illuminated skyline. This view was dominated by the gaudy, futuristic Oriental Pearl TV and Radio Tower. Below, brightly lit tour boats passed by, and photographers on board were out en masse.
Hoisting anchor Sunday midnight, our ship departed for another day at sea on our way to Nagasaki, first stop in Japan. On sea days experts gave informative talks regarding the next ports to be visited. They filled us in on the area's customs, culture and sites to visit. As well, we were given informative handouts and instructed on common Chinese and Japanese phrases.
During these leisurely travel days, there was time to for shopping, gambling in the casino, seeing a current movie or just relaxing around the pools or on our verandah reading a book. Every evening there were after-dinner shows in the Galaxy Lounge.
Crystal's shows were some of the best we had seen on cruise lines. The ship's company of young energetic singers and dancers performed original productions based on the music of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, plus a '60s night featuring favorites from that era. On alternate nights there were professional performers, including classical pianist Avner Arad. For night owls there were disco dancing and karaoke singing.
On our Tuesday morning arrival in Nagasaki, first item on our agenda was to visit Glover Mansion, highly touted by travel books. From the ship, it was a short walk up Dutch Hill to its location overlooking Nagasaki's beautiful harbor. On our way we passed by an assortment of shops, immaculately clean (the usual standard for Japan), all vying for sightseers with brightly colored displays. Fans in all shapes and sizes, plastic toys, ceramic bowls and vases and wood carvings were available as were some clothing items, but not the usual stand after stand of t-shirts ubiquitous in other countries.
Thomas Glover was an American entrepreneur who immigrated in 1860 and married a Japanese woman. He went on to introduce the steam locomotive to Japan. The period architecture and lavish gardens of his estate look much as they did over a century ago.
Said to be Puccini's inspiration for "Madame Butterfly," this spot is especially meaningful to opera fans, containing statues and of Puccini himself and Madame Butterfly as played by a famous diva. Viewing the sparkling harbor below, it's easy to see why the composer was inspired.
Nagasaki, as well as Hiroshima, was hit by an atomic bomb near the end of World War II, and this momentous event is commemorated by Peace Park, where a black obelisk marks the epicenter of the bomb blast. Nearby is the Atomic Bomb Museum, containing a collection of relics and photos of the devastation. A visit here is a sobering experience indeed.
Maybe it was because it was near the end of the school year, but everywhere we went to visit historical locations, we ended up in the midst of masses of Japanese school children, from elementary to high school. They were a charming sight in their school uniforms, but a little much when you tried to get close enough to see a museum display. Nevertheless, the students were fun to visit with and were especially curious about America. A few times we were approached and asked to fill out questionnaires given as an assignment by their teachers.
Our next stop was Osaka, the center of Japanese commerce. Although there is much to see in this lively port, the city provides an excellent base for excursions to Japan's most popular destinations, the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Both are a couple hours away on bus excursions from the ship. Since we were going to Kyoto on a post cruise layover in Tokyo, we opted to visit Nara. After getting advice from a seasoned Japanese traveler onboard, we decided to go on our own via a high-speed train. We were glad we did.
Not as fast as the famed bullet trains out of Tokyo but plenty speedy. It took us only 31 minutes from Osaka station. This was our first introduction to the marvels of Japanese efficiency. Trains here are always on time. If the schedule says 11:59 departure, be ready to go on the minute.
Nara was capital of Japan in 710 A.D. It is the location of some of the world's most revered Buddhist temples and shrines. After getting off the train, we walked a short distance to Deer Park where most of the sites are located.
At the park entrance we were greeted by a herd of deer. Altogether, there are 1,200 dears who live in the park, all seemingly looking for handouts. Venders, obligingly sell biscuits for tourists to feed them. Many locals believe the nodding motion of their heads is actually a respectful bow and are convinced the animals are messengers of the gods.
There are three main places to visit here: Kasuga Shrine, built in the 8th Century, featuring 3,000 stone lanterns lining the walkways to its tranquil core; Kofukuji Temple, with its five-story pagoda reflected in the tranquil waters of a nearby pond; and, the most impressive, Todaiji Temple, also from the 8th Century, reportedly the largest wooden structure in the world. It houses a wealth of Buddhist art and, looming over all, is the awesome carved wooden Buddha which has come to symbolize Nara.
That evening the Crystal Harmony departed for Shimizu, our last stop before Tokyo Saturday. On arrival, each port city put on a welcoming ceremony. Shimizu, however, staged the best-bands playing, school children marching in file, dancers in traditional costumes-definitely a carnival atmosphere.
Shimizu is called the gateway to Mount Fuji, which has come to be the symbol of Japan. We naturally had to see it, so we signed up for the excursion to Nihondaira Park, reportedly one of the best view spots. We were warned beforehand that many days it is impossible to see the mountain because of cloud cover. That Friday, though, we were in luck.
Just before arriving at the park, one of the guides on the bus let out a shout. There it was, the snow covered tip, pushing though the clouds, just like in the pictures. We got off the bus and hiked out to get the best photos.
Now, at the end of the cruise, ready for our three-day stay in Tokyo, we were fully convinced that this had been the best way to introduce ourselves to Japan.
For your Crystal Cruise
Crystal Cruises are never inexpensive but the quality is worth every cent. Before booking, be on the look-out for discounts which are often offered. (866) 446-6625 or visit the web site: www.crystalcruises.com.