A different drum
As expedition cruising grows in popularity, Ben Hall goes in search of the real Japan.
It's the first full day of our 10-day journey through south-western Japan and, as in most ports in this country, a welcome committee has assembled. This time, however, it's not fronted by local officials with school marching bands. Instead, it's a troupe of about 20 senior citizens hammering traditional taiko drums to herald our arrival.
The youngest drummer is 72, the oldest 93 and the vigorous demands of the performance have produced a mini betting plunge on board our ship: How long can they last? "Five minutes, tops," is the first prediction. Few others are willing to put money on them going for longer.
In the warm morning sun, the seniors don't miss a beat for 45 minutes and all bets are off; the performers reveal a stamina and passion for their craft that would put most twentysomethings to shame.
This reception at Uwajima is uniquely Japanese and sets the scene for a day of touring the area, which takes in the serene Tensha-en Gardens and the Doi Pearl Farm, where we find out how to look for pearls in oysters and how to grade them.
The final stop of the day is at the Dairakuji Temple, also known as the Flying Squirrel Temple - and they do have flying squirrels. As the animals are nocturnal, we don't see them but the fresh scratch marks on the tree indicate they're around.
Because we're in Japan, we expect to see some kind of 3D mock-up of the flying squirrels in action. Thankfully, we're treated instead to a serene exploration of the small and beautiful temple by its abbot, Gyogon Asano, followed by tea in his home with his family.
Few foreign visitors make it this far, to the western end of the island of Shikoku. However, the itinerary is typical of the cultural experience CruiseWest organises. On board the Spirit of Oceanus, our 10-night Hidden Treasures expedition began in Kobe and took in 11 destinations in south-western Japan, along with the fascinating ancient South Korean city of Gyeongju.
The Oceanus is a comfortable small ship for 120 passengers and is the most luxurious of the nine expedition-style vessels in the CruiseWest fleet. Its small size and shallow draft mean the Oceanus can access waterways and small ports in out-of-the-way places.
Every morning and most afternoons, port tours combining sightseeing, culture and optional shopping are offered. It's a busy and active cruise and the dress code is casual. The emphasis is on unique destinations: after Kobe and Uwajima, it was on to Okayama and the Korakuen, one of the top three gardens in Japan, and then to one of the country's best-preserved ancient cities, Kurashiki, with its samurai quarter. The historic district is set along charming canals and it's a popular place with the locals, who queue to take a punt along the waterways.
Nagasaki, the second Japanese city destroyed by an atomic bomb in 1945, also proves a highlight. At the city's Peace Park, thousands of schoolchildren suddenly descend in a whirl of colour and laughter, carrying balloons to begin a rally to remember the city's history. Far from being in a gloomy event, the children are encouraged to sing and clap in a celebration of life - albeit one with a respectful view to the past. It sums up modern life in Nagasaki.
During the voyage, tour buses are staffed by at least one local English-speaking guide, along with cruise ship exploration guides who explain the history and culture of each region and village we visit. Passengers who then want to explore on their own are encouraged to do so and given a little inside knowledge.
Each day offers something unique: from the ancient rainforest of the remote island of Yakushima (also known in pop culture as the birthplace of Godzilla's frequent foe, Mothra) to the island of Miyajima, where the deer pickpocket tourists as they photograph the famous O-torii gate; and from the kamikaze museum at Chiran to the serene beauty of Takamatsu's famous gardens.
The point of expedition cruising is to become immersed in the culture, sights, sounds and smells of diverse and difficult-to-reach places and when it's done well, it can inspire even the most-travelled souls.
The writer was a guest of CruiseWest.