The Enchantments of Japan

 

For several years now Cruise Express has been traveling throughout Japan, escorting hundreds of clients who have returned with cameras full of stunning imagery and minds full of unforgettable memories.

While Japan has increasingly become a bucket-list travel destination, our travel specialists are asked what the key attractions are for this somewhat mystical island nation. In no particular order, outlined below are a few of the sights and sounds our clients time and time again treasure:

Shrines & Temples

Two of the most common historical buildings you will find in Japan are temples and shrines, with over 2,000 in Kyoto alone, there are literally millions of different sizes and significance scattered throughout. They are not the same but what is the difference between the two?

Basically, temples are Buddhist, while shrines are Shinto. Temples have monks and often many Buddhist statues and sometimes have a graveyard attached on the site. Buddhism was originally brought from India to China during the Heian era, then spread throughout Japan.

Shrines are easy to identify as they generally have a large, often vermilion red sacred gate, standing in front of them.  Unlike Buddhism, Shintoism is indigenous to Japan, and is as old as Japan itself. It is believed that everything has a spirit, even stones, trees and mountains. It is believed there are millions of gods throughout Japan. Spirits of nature and ancestors are highly revered above all else.

A large number of wedding ceremonies are held in Shinto style. Death, however, is considered a source of impurity and is left to Buddhism to deal with. Consequently, there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries, and most funerals are held in Buddhist style.

Mount Fuji

No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to the country’s most symbolic geographical landmark, revered since ancient times, culturally, spiritually and physically. At 3,776 metres high, Mt Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 2013.

It’s not always easy to see this dormant volcano (no eruptions since 1707) though, as the weather and seasons can sometimes keep the mountain shrouded in clouds for days or weeks. While it seems that on average, early morning is the best visibility from Tokyo on a clear day (approximately 100km away) typically from autumn to winter – in particular, December and January are usually the best months for visibility.

Undoubtedly, Mt Fuji is the most popular tourist site in Japan, for both foreigners and Japanese, particularly in springtime when cherry blossoms frame the snowy mountain in full bloom shades of pinks and whites.

Upwards of 300,000 people every year embark on what many call a gruelling eight-hour climb to the summit, but the achievement and stunning sunrises are well worth it. It is often regarded as a sacred pilgrimage to summit the mountain with thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples along the way. Naturally, these climbs are usually done in the warmer months particularly between July and August, with lots of ‘huts’ to rest and refresh, so if a good hike is on your agenda then this may be the perfect destination for you!

Sumo Wrestling

Sumo is Japan’s national sport and the only country in the world where it is practiced professionally. Although many consider it a modern form of martial art, this unique style of wrestling (men only in competition and ceremonies) actually originated as a Shinto religious ritual over 1,500 years ago to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.

It is considered a trial of strength in combat and the rules, although having changed throughout history, are relatively simple. The first wrestler who has any part of his body touching the ground (soles of feet excluded),  thrown to the ground or who steps out of the ring, is defeated – game over – many matches only last for a handful of seconds!

Most of us are curious as to why Sumo wrestlers are so ‘fat’ – can’t be healthy surely? In fact, the early wrestlers were more wiry and muscular than today. This has occurred only in the 20th century since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler wants to be as big as they can be to use their weight in the ring.

These tournaments really do sell out quickly so please ensure you buy your tickets before you leave home unless you are on a Cruise Express escorted tour as this will be managed for you.

Cherry Blossom Time

Every spring in Japan the country comes alive in clouds of delicate pink and white as cherry trees blossom with new life – The Sakura Season – a truly symbolic image of this island nation.

The cherry blossom season is undoubtedly the highlight of the Japanese calendar and has been celebrated for hundreds of years. In addition to innovation, neon lights and sushi, the Japanese have long been known as leaders of cherry blossom appreciation.

It is really hard to predict when they will open and be at full bloom as it really is weather dependent – that week fluctuation of earlier or later is impossible to guess. Fortunately, geographical location is a reliable factor in determining blossom-time. The south always begins a lot earlier, often in January, while in the very north, it can be as late as May!

At the end of the day, picking the exact time to see cherry blossoms is not easy or guaranteed, particularly on a short trip. To avoid disappointment, we recommend you plan your holiday around so many other fabulous things Japan has to offer, and if you happen to time the blossoms right then consider it a wonderful bonus!

Shinkansen Bullet Trains

Shinkansen, translated to “New Trunkline” and quickly dubbed globally as the “Bullet Train” for obvious reasons, was originally built and operated by government-owned Japanese National Railways in 1964 and has been part of the Japan Railways Group since 1987.

The first 515km section of the original line between Tokyo and Osaka was opened in 1964, just before the start of the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. The many innovations including kilometre long welded sections of track and prestressed concrete ties were internationally acclaimed.

Although very expensive, one incredible invention has been ‘Maglev’, a railway based on magnetic levitation. Electromagnets levitate the train slightly above the tracks and without the friction of typical rail, it’s these magnets that create the thrust that moves the train.

Interestingly, the initial concept pre-WWII was to run lines to Beijing, a tunnel to Korea and Singapore, and build connections to the Trans-Siberian Railway and other lines throughout Asia. Due to the worsening of Japan’s position in 1943, these plans were abandoned.

What did continue to develop was 2,765km of railway throughout Japan connecting distant towns, islands and cities to the capital to promote growth and development. Since inception, and now with speeds up to 320km per hour, the Shinkansen has carried over 10 billion passengers and there has never been a fatality due to a train accident such as a collision or derailment, despite all the typhoons and earthquakes Japan endures.

Sushi Making

Last but not least, what’s a visit to Japan without a class in how to make sushi. This is always a hit with Cruise Express clients, even those that don’t eat sushi have a great time, learn new skills to take home to impress family and friends, but most importantly have a lot of laughs. Ask about gold leaf painting classes too!

Click here to find out more about our 2020 escorted holiday to Japan that is selling fast!

A Little Rail with a Big History!

Spectacularly Australian

Although we are relatively young, Australia is full of rich diversity and intriguing history, and our railways are a testimony to that!

Here are some interesting facts about what was happening in Australia in 1907:

  • NSW Rugby Football League was formed in Sydney, introducing League to Australia for the first time
  • The first telephone call was made between Sydney and Melbourne
  • The first Australian exhibition of art by women was held in Melbourne
  • Edward VII was on the throne and Alfred Deakin was Prime Minister
  • The Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club was formed
  • Traveling to London took 5-6 weeks one way
  • And, the Victorian Railways A2 Class steam locomotive was introduced (see photo below)!

A few other key dates for Australian railway history buffs are outlined below:

1907 – ‘Yarra’ Parlor Car

Built in 1907 for the Sydney or Melbourne Express, this is one of two cars built for the service where first class passengers paid extra to be seated in the Parlor Car. The car has an observation balcony at one end, a large lounge and two compartments.

Placed in storage in 1937 until the late 60s this car is a rare and spectacular survivor.

 

1907 – Locomotive A2 986

Entering service in 1907, A2 986 is the sole operable survivor of 125 locomotives in the class. For over forty years, the A2 class was the main express passenger locomotive on the Victorian Railways, hauling intrastate and interstate services.  

A2 986, was withdrawn on 2 December 1963. Put on display in a park in Warragul it was rescued in the mid-80s and taken to Newport for restoration – a process that took nearly 30 years!

Today, this former express locomotive is back in top form and ready to take Cruise Express passengers travelling on The Rail Spectacular in July 2019, for a full day of steam hauled fun. On this tour, the A2 986 will become the first A2 class in over 56 years to haul by itself between Ballarat and Melbourne via Bacchus Marsh.

 

1912 – State Car 4

Built in 1912, State Car 4 was based on the then state of the art wooden E type carriage design. It features an observation balcony at one end, Governors and Ladies bedrooms, dining room, kitchen, Gents and Ladies bathrooms and accommodation for Ladies in Waiting and other support staff.

Ride in a car that has literally been used by royalty!

The Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), on the balcony of State Car 4 in 1927.

1956 – Locomotive 4204

Based on an American design, the 42 class entered service in NSW in 1956 as the first ‘streamlined’ locomotives in the state. Hauling well-known passenger trains of the time including the ‘Brisbane Limited’ and ‘Intercapital Daylight’, by the late 70s they had been superseded by more modern and powerful locomotives.

The 4204 was withdrawn in 1983 and entered preservation with Lachlan Valley Railway. One of two remaining in service, this locomotive represents a long-gone era when style mattered and everyone travelled by train.

If you are interested in experiencing any and all of these locomotives and carriages, Cruise Express is running The Rail Spectacular, a 5-day tour throughout NSW and Victoria in July 2019. Visit heritage rail yards where you can go behind the scenes and meet the volunteers who dedicate countless hours to keep these remarkable trains going – for our pleasure!

Click here for more information about this tour.

 

Japan in Full Bloom

Lasting for only a week or two, every spring with clear blue skies, Japan comes alive in clouds of delicate pink and white as cherry trees blossom with new life – Sakura – a truly symbolic image of this island nation and a dream destination for any photographer. We love the cherry blossoms of Japan!

The cherry blossom season is undoubtedly the highlight of the Japanese calendar and has been celebrated for hundreds of years. In addition to innovation, neon lights and sushi, the Japanese have long been known as leaders of cherry blossom appreciation.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

Increasingly, the people of Japan celebrate this beautiful change of seasons with cherry blossom (and also pretty but to a lesser extent, plum blossoms) appreciation parties, picnics and even street festivals called ‘Hanami’ (flower viewing). Families and friends get together in these blossoming gardens to stop and reflect on the beauty of life and its changing nature. This is not a new tradition, there are records dating back to the eighth century of imperial courtiers celebrating with picnics and poetry.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

So, when is the best time to see Sakura in full-bloom? While the temperatures coming out of winter is a factor, the geographical location is key to determining blossom-time.  In the north, this can be as late as May while in the south of Okinawa, it can open as early as January! Typically for the rest of the country including Osaka, Hiroshima and Kyoto, very late March to early April is a safe bet to see mother nature at her utmost prettiest!

We love ‘Hanami’ (flower viewing) in so many areas of Japan including Tokyo and Osaka, as well as Mt Fuji and her Five Lakes, yet one of the most outstanding has to be Hiroshima, a city that quietly demands reflection and appreciation. With hundreds of shrines and temples, Kyoto is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and is also a truly magical destination during the cherry blossom season.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

Truly steeped in culture and tradition, Japan is increasingly a popular tourist destination. If you are planning on visiting this stunning nation, there is of course much more to see and do other than the cherry blossoms, depending on what time of the year you plan to visit. We love the ski fields of Hokkaido or Honshu, Onsens, snow monkeys in Nagano, sumo wrestlers, sushi making classes, tea ceremonies, Shinkansen bullet trains and of course the countless shrines and palaces.

To join one of our fully escorted tours to Japan please call 1300 766 537 or click here.

To see more photos of one of our recent 2019 tours, please click here.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

Benefits of Cruising with Friends

As the old saying goes, we can’t choose our family but we can choose our friends – and let’s face it, everything’s better with friends – they get us (and forgive us)!

On a cruise holiday, your friends are there to share when you order everything on the main menu, they are on your team for trivia, your dance and silent disco partners, as well as backup singers for karaoke.

Cruising with friends is not just the basis for a wonderful time, they keep us in a holiday mindset and together, you’ll create memories to talk about for decades to come.

The Best of Everything

The best thing about cruising is that it offers something for everyone, and you don’t have to do everything together all the time. On your days at sea, or in port you could go in different directions, and still meet up for a cocktail and dinner in the evening, and then explore the shows and nightlife.

Less Organising

Depending on the type of cruise, duration and number of friends you are travelling with, a cruise holiday overall requires less organising, so no-one has to be the coordinator!

Although specialty dining, dining times, and shore or self-tours are something you may want to consider planning before you go so as to avoid any issues onboard, particularly if you are with a large group, numbers may be tricky to book for at the last minute. Your trusty cruise specialist travel agent (i.e. us!) can help with this.

You have a Security Blanket if Cruising Makes you Nervous

Having a friend to help keep you calm or make you laugh when the waves are rocking the boat a little too much is priceless.

If you are away on a longer trip, having a friend or two can help feelings of being homesick. Not only do they get you, but they’ll also get your ‘Aussieness’, and most importantly, understand why you miss Vegemite!

Your Kids have BYO Friends

If you are traveling with other families, the kids usually know each other and are hopefully on good terms. Depending on the age of the children and your need for a little time-out, there can often be no need for kids clubs when they have friends from home to hang out with.

Ring in the Holiday Festivities

A cruise with friends can be so much more than a relaxing (or partying) trip to the islands. Festivities from across many cultures and continents are celebrated onboard most cruise lines, including Valentine’s Day, Sunday Super Bowl, Dr Suess’ Birthday, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and even Cinco de Mayo.

Don’t forget your fancy dress outfit if you are really planning on getting into it!

Love of Themed Cruising

Increasingly popular are an almost countless number of ‘themed’ cruises being offered on the high seas. If you have friends who have the same interest as you, this may be a great option for you to consider.

Themed cruise holidays range from food and wine appreciation to rock, operatic and country music cruises, holistic/wellness, yoga, astronomy, political, religious, LGBT, golf, history, gardening, poker, crochet, fashion, fitness, and sci-fi themed (to name a few). There are even nude cruises!

Plan Well to Avoid Pitfalls

While travelling with friends (or family) with no one having to cook, clean or think too much, can seem like a great idea, we do recommend a few things so that this isn’t the first or last one you have together. Before you go, please consider:

  • Differences – interests, budgets, travel style, ability and fitness/energy levels.
  • Be True to You – don’t feel you have to do what everyone in your group is doing, it is your holiday so if you want to sleep, dance, be lazy, hit the gym – just do it! Perhaps discuss this up front.
  • Appointing a Leader – it’s great to appoint someone who is happy to wear the co-ordinator hat, research pricing for the cruise and shore tours and basically communicate it all to the group. Use What’s App!
  • Planning Ahead – we mentioned this earlier if it is a large group you will have a hard time getting the ship or cabin you may want, dinner reservations, shore tours etc.
  • Staying an Extra Night – if you are traveling from interstate or overseas, don’t book your flight to or from the ship on the same day as embarkation/disembarkation, anything can and does happen with travel and you may literally miss the boat!

The Kimberley – Your Guide on What to Expect, When and Why

With its grand yet unforgiving landscape, The Kimberley is often referred to as Australia’s last great wilderness frontier, boasting some of the largest intact natural areas left on the planet and certainly one of the most unspoiled destinations in the world.  

Formed billions of years ago, the 2,000km Kimberley coastline is famous for its awe-inspiring rugged beauty and stunning diversity. The abundance of wildlife and waterfalls, indigenous rock art, gorges, volcanic remnants, mangroves, rainforests and islands, and can often only be accessed by smaller ships and zodiacs.

The region’s remoteness and tropical climate can make exploring this part of the world difficult. Cruising, especially small expedition ships, will allow you to discover this vast and expansive coastline with ease, taking you to destinations that aren’t accessible by land.

With so much diversity we often get asked when is the best time to cruise The Kimberley and what will you see during the different seasons?  Generally, the optimal time is from April through to September. Although you can travel from October through to March, it is extremely hot and humid with substantial rainfall and thunderstorms, often flooding and closing main roads – so perhaps not such an appealing time for most!

Remember, that Mother Nature still determines everything, so please take this as a guide not as gospel!

Waterfalls – April to May

This coast is known for its iconic waterfalls,  including Mitchell, King George and Horizontal Falls and early in the dry season these falls are at full force. The falls are fed by the regions wet season so the earlier in the season you go the more vibrant and spectacular the falls are going to be. The region will also be very green during this time due to the rain. The weather during this period can still be a little grey with quite high humidity and there can be the occasional rainy day, so it is still a little bit of a gamble, particularly in April. However, seeing the falls at their fullest will surely make up for the changing weather.    

Peak Season – June to July

This is definitely the most popular time of year to visit The Kimberley. Primarily because it is cooler, the weather is dry, the skies are blue and generally speaking the temperatures are comfortable. The falls will still be flowing although they will most likely not be at their fullest.

The roads are pretty much in good condition by now and the waterfall swimming pools are full and clean. Remember that the nights in certain areas like the Bungle Bungles can be cool.

Whales – August to September

By August most waterfalls have dried up to a trickle, and most rockpools, although starting to get low, are still clear and great for swimming. This late in the season it is unlikely that Mitchell Falls and King George Falls will still be flowing.  

However, this is the season for wildlife encounters. Being a world-class whale watching region, The Kimberley is home to the world’s largest population of Humpback whales. Up to 30,000 Humpback whales swim from the Antarctic feeding grounds to the warm waters of The Kimberley to breed and give birth.

In addition to Humpback, Southern Right and Blue whales make their way along the coast, sometimes coming close to shore with their calves. The best time to observe these gentle giants tail-slapping and breaching is around noon, when the sun is directly overhead, although it can happen at any time!

An expedition cruise during these months brings you up close a personal with these majestic mammals, watch on as they often put on playful displays around the ship.

But wait – there’s more…

This spectacularly vast region is also one of the last remaining healthy refuges for many threatened and endangered marine species, including six of the seven species of marine turtles, dugong, and countless varieties of sharks, dolphins and fish.

The coastal areas of The Kimberley also offer sanctuary for many species of native mammals and marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, some that no longer exist in other parts of Australia. It is also home to many species of birds, rare plants, freshwater crocodiles and fish, including catfish and barramundi.

Cruise Express offers luxury expedition cruises to this region with Ponant. These do sell out quickly so enquire today to secure the sailing date and cabin you want. For details on our 2020 options see here.