Set sail in search of cherry blossom in the land of the rising sun

Emma Justice enjoys a pink-hued cruise around Japan to see the country blooming in spring.

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Immaculately dressed children wave and smile sweetly; geishas bow, faces white, lips like rosebuds; taiko drummers beat rhythmically and local samurai warriors appear fierce and friendly at the same time (a skill in itself). I’m on the deck of Silversea’s Silver Muse, sailing into the port of Sakata on the Sea of Japan, and we’re getting what feels like a state welcome (or the closest mere mortals like us ever get to one). 

Half the town has lined up by the side of the dock to greet us, along with volunteers dressed as the local mascot—a tiger that looks cute rather than terrifying. Known as yuru-chara, these characters come in many guises, from giant turnips to scary squids, and we spot them promoting everywhere and everything in Japan—even the high-tech toilets with heated seats! 

As we disembark to a rousing welcome song, language students keen to practise their English direct us to local teahouses and sushi restaurants; the rice grown here is revered as the best in the country. But, for once, our stomachs will have to wait. We’re here for horticulture: our aim is to admire cherry blossom (sakura) in its infinite varieties as it reaches a glorious annual peak.

Hanami—or cherry blossom viewing—is a national pastime in Japan and involves mindfully enjoying the transient beauty of these ethereal flowers. Shops are filled with pink-hued cakes and sweets (there’s even a sakura-flavoured KitKat), and young and old alike enjoy picnics under the blooms. In Osaka, where our two-week voyage begins, thousands of cherry blossom trees line the canals, sweeping up and around the elegant park and five-tiered, 16th-century castle in the centre of the city. It’s breathtaking and makes my first visit to the land of the rising sun feel like I’m in a flower-filled fairy tale.

With fewer than 500 passengers on board Silver Muse, we make friends quickly, bonding over the daily cherry blossom forecast. First, we travel south to Kagoshima, nestled at the foot of a gurgling active volcano, where we dip our feet into steaming geothermal springs and buy pots of pickled daikon radishes. But when I spot bare trees and the last few cherry blossom petals fluttering like confetti to the ground, I start to worry—have we missed them? Luckily, our ship chases after the blooms, following the coastline west and north to ever-more remote areas where temperatures are cooler and the buds just beginning to form. It’s like travelling back in flower-filled time. 

Even bullet trains couldn’t transport you so effortlessly to three of Japan’s five main islands in just two weeks—not to mention to another country entirely. Our third stop is Busan, South Korea’s high-tech second city, where we admire blossom again, this time surrounding the magical Haedong Yonggungsa Sea Temple and outside modern malls blaring out K-pop. We also wander through a creaking bamboo forest on the edge of the city, which we’re told is a popular set for martial arts films. 

But it’s the sakura in Nagasaki’s Peace Park that I find the most poignant. Swaying gently in the breeze around the Atomic Bomb Museum, they symbolise hope and regrowth after the devastating nuclear explosion here that killed around 75,000 people in 1945. The moment is preserved eerily by a wall clock stopped at 11.02am (the exact time of the blast).

One of the best things about sailing with Silversea (and there are many) is the excursions included at every port. There’s a huge choice covering every possible interest, from history to cooking and crafting, and you can prebook them online months before you sail. All are run like clockwork by the experienced cruise director and friendly guides. 

Japan can be confusing and impenetrable, so getting the opportunity to meet local experts who eloquently explain their culture and history is invaluable. As a result, we eat gold-leaf ice cream and watch geisha perform in the historical Higashi Chayagai District of Kanazawa (often called ‘Little Kyoto’), ride a cable car to the top of Mount Hakodate on the island of Hokkaidō, drink sake in Niigata and visit the fascinating Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse in Aomori, on the northern tip of Honshu. The 300-year-old Nebuta festival, held here each August, involves ornately decorated floats, each brightly lit and painted with historical kabuki figures from Japanese folklore, being paraded around the streets at night accompanied by music and dancing. Aomori is also famous for its red apples (which I can confirm really are the juiciest in the world) and Japan’s largest seated Buddha statue, which we gaze up at in the serene Seiryū-Ji temple.

With so much to do in 11 ports, we’re grateful to return to our luxurious suite to relax each evening and make the most of the ship during four days at sea. With a TV cleverly hidden behind a mirror, a huge marble bathroom with Bulgari toiletries, two sinks, plenty of shelving, a walk-in wardrobe and our own butler, we couldn’t have asked for anything more (and if we did, he brought it to us). 

The food on board was as good as any on land, with speciality restaurant Kaiseki serving Japanese teppan-yaki dishes such as Wagyu beef and miso black cod, all cooked on a sizzling hotplate in the centre of the dining room. There’s also La Dame for decadent French classics such as caviar and Perigord duck, delicious cacio e pepe at Italian La Terrazza (where breakfast and lunch are served) and a moreish caramelised banana and coconut sorbet at Indochine. 

But for every joyous welcome party there was an equally sad goodbye and after a whistlestop tour of Tokyo, we finally disembarked in Kobe (of Wagyu beef fame). Locals waved us off to the sound of a school band and, as the last few cherry blossom petals fluttered to the ground, I knew our magical flower-filled voyage was over–for this season at least.

This piece originally appeared in the November 2023 print edition of Good Housekeeping, UK