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Japan has many beautiful parks like Ritsurin Park in Kagawa, Japan. (Photo: John Roberts)

The Pros and Cons of Taking a Japan Cruise

Japan has many beautiful parks like Ritsurin Park in Kagawa, Japan. (Photo: John Roberts)
Colleen McDaniel

Last updated
Mar 28, 2024

Read time
9 min read

Japan is a destination that calls out to visitors around the world. Its fascinating history, renowned culture, beautiful scenery, delectable food and bustling cities lure you in and promise a life-changing experience. Japan cruises in particular give travelers the opportunity to explore the island country in a different and convenient way.

Whether on small luxury vessels or large, mainstream ships, Japan cruises visit the biggest and most-historic cities the country has to offer as well as some smaller, culturally fascinating towns.

With a country that is in such high demand, you have so many options for crafting the perfect visit, which might have you wondering whether a cruise to Japan is the best way for you to see it. Here are the pros and cons of taking a Japan cruise.

A Japan Cruise Feels Easy and Hassle-Free: Pro

Guests onboard Star Breeze watch from the ship as teens perform a farewell concert in Karatsu, Japan. (Photo: John Roberts)

One of the things we adore about cruising is that it takes away all the hassle you’ll get with other vacation styles: You unpack once, all your meals and entertainment are handled onboard, and the cruise line can arrange everything for you, including shore tours and transportation. Japan cruises are no exception.

For a cruise around Japan, this is especially meaningful, as most itineraries will visit at least eight ports (depending on the cruise length) around Japan and Korea, with few sea days in between to catch your breath.

If you were to take on an ambitious trip like this by land, you would have to unpack and repack in every destination, as well as look for ways to get from one city to the next. While Japan has an excellent rail system, navigating in a country where you don’t speak or read the language can be a real hurdle. This is further compounded by the fact that less than 30% of Japanese people speak any English, and less than 10% are fluent, according to various surveys.

Peace Park in Nagasaki, Japan, is a popular cruise port, and it's popular for student field trips. (Photo: John Roberts)

For shore excursions, cruise lines ensure guests have access to fluent English-speaking guides, who are trained (and certified) in giving tours.

On land, you’ll likely find guides on your own in bigger cities like Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Osaka, but you might struggle in destinations that are smaller. And let’s be honest: You probably wouldn’t think of visiting some of the hidden gems cruise ships visit, like scenic Aomori City or commercially important Sakata.

The cruise line can even handle items like airport and hotel transfers.

Check out 9 Reasons Why You Should Sail to Japan.

Your Time in Port is Limited on a Japan Cruise: Con

Chiran Samuri Residence Gardens in Minamikyushu, Kagoshima, Japan is a popular visit on cruise ship excursions. (Photo: John Roberts)

Cruises around Japan move surprisingly fast. Yes, you probably will have many days onboard, and you will spend, on average, eight to 10 hours in ports. Yet, in some places, this simply won’t feel like enough time.

We took a Japan cruise and fell in love with pretty much every port we visited, yet we found ourselves feeling a bit like we had only scratched the surface at each one. We often felt rushed and unable to spend enough time lingering and learning.

This is especially true through ship-organized shore excursions, where you often spend more time on a bus than actually visiting Japan’s beautiful Shinto and Buddhist temples or historic castles. If you’re on a big cruise ship, your tour groups are going to be large, meaning you’re only as fast as the slowest person on the trip. Things that interest you might not interest others, and vice versa.

We didn’t have the opportunity to try one of the country’s famous onsens for a soak in the hot springs or to eat ramen from a vending machine.

One of the draws of a cruise is that it’s a great introduction to an area: You get a sampler of a destination, which whets your appetite for another visit. We’re already planning our next visit.

Find out more about the advantages of cruising anywhere.

You Have a Wide Variety of Cruise Lines and Itineraries Cruising in Japan: Pro

Silver Muse docks in Busan, Korea, a popular spot on Japan cruises. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Itineraries for cruises to Japan run from eight days to as many as 30 days or more, depending on the cruise line you pick, so you’ll have many options. They also run seasonally around events, such as cherry blossom season, the Nebuta (summer) festivals or Kumano fireworks fests.

Large cruise lines cruising in Japan include Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises. These lines are the ones on which you’ll find more budget-friendly options, with some itineraries starting around $1,000 per person.

A slew of small-ship and luxury lines also cruise to Japan, including Crystal, Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Azamara Cruises. Ships in these cruise lines hold fewer passengers and tend to offer longer itineraries. They can also be more inclusive. Of course, they also tend to come with a higher price tag. Expect to pay anywhere from $5,000 per person to upwards of $15,000, depending on the itinerary and cruise line.

Gyeongju-si Garden in Busan, Korea. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Itineraries vary tremendously, though most cruise lines will focus on visiting Japan’s main island, Honshu. All cruises in Japan also will have a stop in another country -- most likely a quick jaunt to Busan, Korea. For legal reasons, cruise ships that leave from a Japanese port are required to visit another country before returning (this is similar to the Passenger Vessel Services Act in the U.S.).

Smaller ships will visit some smaller ports and off-the-beaten path destinations. Don’t discount the big ships, though, as they might spend more time in the Southern Islands, or shoot up to Hokkaido or over to Okinawa.

Some Ports in Japan Can Feel Redundant and a Bit the Same: Con

Japan offers beautiful temples, but after awhile, they might start to feel the same. (Photo: John Roberts)

Because you’re not spending a ton of time in ports each day, most cruisers tend to hit the highlights. In Japan, that means temples, castles and shopping malls (arcades). (Don’t let the term “shopping mall” turn you off. In Japan, these are vibrant pieces of the cities that essentially are the heartbeat.)

By hitting the highlights, you tend to see a lot of the same kinds of features, which, after a while, can definitely feel redundant. Don’t get me wrong; each city has its own personality. It’s just that it’s easy to miss it when you’re seeing your 15th temple in three days.

We did the research ahead of our cruise and booked a handful of cruise ship excursions as well as tours through private companies Cruise Critic’s sister company, Viator, and our parent company, Tripadvisor.

We also visited a few places with no real plan -- just a map and a vision of trying local food or walking through a park. This helped us ease some of the potential monotony by spicing it up with some variety.

Be warned, though: Many spots where ships dock are a good distance from the attractions, so if you go on your own, be prepared to walk a lot (we averaged north of 10 miles a day), take public transportation and/or work with taxi drivers who might not speak English.

You’ll Have Onboard Lectures, Food and Opportunities to Learn: Pro

Passengers participate in a sushi-making class on Star Breeze. (Photo: John Roberts)

Onboard programming is a major part of the Japan cruising experience, and most cruise lines will deliver stellar enrichment in the form of lectures, hands-on classes (like origami or calligraphy) and entertainment.

On our cruise, we had an excellent American lecturer, Howard Roitman, who spoke on a different topic every day, often covering the ports we were visiting. He also spoke on things like Japanese culture, traditions, the nation’s love affair with Hello Kitty and the rise of manga and anime. Lectures were well-attended daily, and we spoke with other guests who talked about how much richer the experience felt because of the lectures.

A Japanese culturalist, Masako, also sailed with us. She is a Japanese native who held regular sessions on the art of paper folding as well and the importance of fine writing. Even better, she regularly made the rounds with passengers, answering questions in a casual way and helping us better understand our interactions ashore.

Chefs on our sailing taught classes on sushi making, and menus routinely reflected specialities of the ports we were visiting. (Each one had its own famous dish.) This made for a safe introduction into the sometimes challenging but always thrilling Japanese food scene.

You Won’t Have as Much of a Chance to Dive into the Fantastic Food Scene: Con

Ramen is incredible in Japan, and offered at restaurants and even via vending machines. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

If you’re heading to Japan, you’ve probably read about the incredible cuisine. You’ll find sights, sounds and smells at seemingly every corner. The markets, where residents and businesses do their shopping most days, are truly a sight to see.

Ahead of our Japan cruise, we had dreamed of the amazing food we were going to try. I told people I planned to eat my weight in ramen and sushi, and try everything I was offered.

The reality is, we simply didn’t have enough time on our own to really dive into the food scene. When we did ship shore excursions, meals were mostly included, and lunches often consisted of a westernized version of traditional dishes.

Sushi is abundant in Japan, and it's an art. (Photo: John Roberts)

We often arrived to port too late to experience the markets in their full, fascinating frenzy, so we missed the skewered meats and fried bowls of deliciousness.

Schedules on ships are closely adhered to, so we didn’t want to risk venturing out too far and potentially missing the cruise ship.

The best solution for this is to add an extension, both at the front and end of your cruise, if you can. This will allow you to spend a little more time in the big cities -- likely Tokyo and Yokohama, or perhaps Osaka, Japan's culinary capital. (Most cruises will start from Tokyo cruise port, which actually is in Yokohama.)

We added a day in Tokyo and two in Osaka’s charming neighbor, Kyoto. In both cases, we wish we had spent more time visiting. Here, we ate incredible ramen, tried wagyu beef hot pot, crammed into stalls to enjoy takoyaki octopus dumplings and soak in everything.

Should You Cruise to Japan?

A woman prepares tea in Chiran Samuri Residence Gardens in Minamikyūshū, Japan. (Photo: John Roberts)

Japan offers an unforgettable experience, no matter how you visit. For people who want to explore the Land of the Rising Sun but want some level of measured hand-holding, cruising to Japan can provide a great entry into areas that otherwise might feel less accessible to people who don’t travel often.

It also comes with excellent enrichment, which is built into the cost of your cruise fare, as well as a comfortable environment where you’ll speak English and meet guests who have similar interests and wanderlust.

If you’re looking for deeper exploration, consider cruise ship extensions, which are arranged by the cruise lines and feel similar to the experience you’ll have onboard.

If, however, you are comfortable charging ahead so you can deeply learn and try out a range of experiences that might be well out of your comfort zone, a visit by land might be a better option.

Publish date March 15, 2024
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