Powder-white beaches and peaceful temples on a voyage around Japan

Lauren Ho
Mount Fuji - jiratto

It’s 6am and first light is peeking through the gaps in my curtains, casting a muted glow throughout my cabin. As I lie in bed gathering my bearings, the expected movement of the ship is curiously still, the comforting low hum of its engine, silent.

I have woken on the first morning of a 14-day journey onboard Ponant’s Le Lapérouse, the first in the French brand’s new six-ship Explorer series. We had boarded the previous evening in Hong Kong with the anticipation of venturing through the Taiwan Strait, past the port city of Keelung in the north of the island and then hopping through Japan’s southern archipelagos to Osaka.

But, soon after embarkation, the affable Captain Fabien Roché announced fluently in both French and then English that Typhoon Mitag – equivalent in strength of a category two hurricane in the Atlantic – was brewing in the South China sea. On target to cross directly over our path of travel, he said it didn’t make any sense to ‘throw ourselves into the pack of wolves.’

So, while the crew spring into action, amending itineraries, we spend the rest of the day on our ‘cruise to nowhere’, alternately eating and napping poolside and getting to know what is going to be our new home for the next two weeks. 

To start with, like the other five ships in the fleet, Le Lapérouse is intimate. More of a large yacht, there are only 92 cabins, one main dining room, a 188-seat theatre, a spa, a bijou gym and three bar-lounges. This includes the otherworldly Blue Eye Lounge, a popular underwater spectacle located in the hull of the ship. Only open at certain times on sea days, guests can sip on champagne as digital sea-life images dance across the curvaceous walls, around the two portholes, to a subaquatic soundtrack of whale and dolphin cries.

Ponant's Le Laperouse

Undeniably lovely to look at, the ship’s interiors, by French designer Jean-Philippe Nuel, are understated, with a strong focus on simplicity, layered in lots of natural woods and leathers. The cabins – minimal and beautifully furnished with modern designer pieces from brands like Ligne Roset – are all outward facing, each with their own balconies, while the four suites at the aft of the ship, have separate living and sleeping spaces and capacious outdoor terraces. The Grand Salon, which opens onto the pool deck, is where most of the guests seem to gather, but I find myself drawn to the Observation Lounge, a quiet top-floor space at the front of the ship, where I later learn is the best place to watch the world go by.

Okinawa is famed for its beaches Credit: GETTY

Finally on day six, after a further two stomach-churning days at sea, bumping along Typhoon Mitag’s residual swells, the movement of the ship dwindles to a gentle rock. When I prise open the sliding door of my cabin, condensation darts up the glass as the weight of the air envelopes me. The sparkling sea is a deep blue that stretches to the shores of Ishigaki, a southern Japanese island best-known for its brilliant dive-sites, powder-white beaches and tropical climate.

Once on land, we choose, instead to board a short 15-minute ferry to the tiny island of Taketomi, an authentic slice of Japan where we spend the afternoon meandering along sandy paths, past traditional red-roof houses fenced by low-lying coral walls. We end the day with a late lunch of steaming bowls of sōki soba (Okinawan pork rib ramen), followed by the cooling and deliciously sweet kakigōri shaved ice.

 

Our route itself is inspired by General MacArthur, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, who played a prominent role during World War II. This essentially means hopping along four of Japan’s five main islands: Okinawa, Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu. On Okinawa, we take a local bus to Naha, the island’s capital, where we stroll along Tsuboya, a quaint stone-paved street stuffed with pottery shops selling traditional Okinawan ceramics like shiisā (the ubiquitous lion-dog roof guardians). 

Sakura in Naha Credit: GETTY

In Uwajima, after a lovely port arrival performance of traditional drums, we begin with an early lunch at Kadoya, a bustling restaurant, which serves local favourites such as taimeishi (seabream sashimi topped with a raw egg) and jakoten (fried fish cake). We follow this with an electric bike ride – courtesy of Enjoy Uwajima Tour – which takes us along the waters’ edge past fishing farms and over a bridge to the tiny island of Kushima. With the late afternoon sun showering a golden light onto the tangerine-swathed hills around us, we peddle through the peacefulness of island life, past  low-slung pitched-roofed timber houses, Buddhist temples and friendly, curious locals. 

That evening, back on board, things kick off in the usual manner, with a preprandial drink on the Observation Deck as we wave goodbye to the day’s destination. Supper can be taken in Le Némo, an outdoor space that focuses on freshly grilled meats, but we head to Le Nautilus the sweeping main restaurant. Here, a small buffet of starters, salads, desserts and cheeses is boosted by a daily changing à la carte menu, which focuses on European classics from duck confit to roast chateaubriand béarnaise. Evening entertainment, meanwhile, is a choice between live music in the Main Lounge or a film in the Theatre, but we, instead, head back to the Observation Lounge to swap destination stories with fellow passengers.

Kushima Credit: GETTY

On our last day, following a harrowing stop in Hiroshima, spent mostly in the Peace Memorial Museum, I throw open our curtains to a dismal swathe of grey cloud, completely obscuring views of Mount Fuji. “She’s shy,” says our white-gloved, chauffeur-hatted taxi driver, who also kindly gives us a postcard picture of the snow-topped mountain to perk us up. We are on our way to the station where we board a train to Fujinomiya, a city on the southwestern slopes of Mount Fuji and the traditional starting point of the approach up the mountain. As we are more sedate, we instead meet up with En-ya Mt. Fuji Ecotours, for a walk around the city, past Fujinomiya Sengen Shrine – the most important in the region – and endearing fourth generation fruit shops and traditional knife makers while stopping to snack on local dishes like yaki soba (fried noodles), sponge cakes with red bean paste or sushi prepared in the shape of Mount Fuji.

Ota River in Hiroshima with the Unesco-protected Atomic Bomb Dome building on left Credit: iStock

Back at Shimizu Port, Mount Fuji still bashful, I head to the Observation Lounge. Surrounded by the warm chatter of the other passengers, I sip on my gin and tonic and watch as the luminous orange-pink wash of the sunset fades from the sky. The ship’s engines gently purring  as she begins the final leg of our voyage, I couldn’t agree more when one of the other passengers announces how sad she is that our journey is nearly at an end.

Essentials

Ponant offers an eight-night ‘Best of Japan’ cruise on board Le Lapérouse, from Maizuru to Osaka, departing May 12, 2021, from £5,330 based on two people sharing a Deluxe Stateroom. Inclusive of accommodation, all meals, open bar package and free Wi-Fi.