7 Best Japan Cruises for Every Type of Traveler
Whether you’re enchanted by Japan’s natural marvels or curious about its culture and cuisine, whether you want to sail in extreme luxury or with a locally owned boutique ship, there’s a perfect Japan cruise for you.
With its intriguing combination of traditional and modern architecture, ancient history and popular culture, Japan has become one of the most sought-after cruise destinations in Asia—not least because so much of the island-nation, with its long coastline, is accessible by water.
International cruise lines finally returned to Japan in March 2023 after a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19 border closures. The result has been pent-up demand for Japan cruises, and cruise lines have responded by introducing a wide variety of sailings in Japan for this year and next. You can cruise Japan on a smaller, more intimate yacht, an expedition vessel, an ultra-luxury ship, or a large cruise ship with more than 2,000 passengers.
Regardless of which ship you choose, the best Japan cruises feature itineraries that include neon-and-skyscraper cities, tranquil shrines and temples, beautiful parks and gardens, and hot springs and snow-capped peaks, including Mount Fiji. Depending on the time of year you choose to sail, you can enjoy springtime’s cherry blossoms or the crimson leaves of fall. Cruise passengers will also get to experience a wealth of cultural encounters, from local food and customs to colorful arts and entertainment.
For those who are as excited as we are about the return to Japan, here are our picks for the best Japan cruises.
Abercrombie & Kent
Best for viewing cherry blossoms or fall foliage
If your goal is seeing Japan’s famous cherry blossoms, luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has chartered a Ponant ship for the height of the season, from March 27 to April 9, 2024. A similar fall sailing will show off Japan’s fall foliage. The cruise is on the Le Soleil, capped at 199 passengers. With its expedition team and local guides, A&K is focusing on cultural experiences such as private performances by the world-renowned Kodo taiko drummers, Kabuki warriors, and geishas as well as time spent in scenic Japanese gardens. In Hiroshima, passengers will meet a storyteller who will discuss the World War II atomic bomb attack. Onboard lectures and presentations will be led by specialists in Japanese history and culture.
Abercrombie & Kent’s 13-night Wonders of Japan cruise from Osaka to Sapporo starts at $21,485 per person (includes two nights at the Ritz-Carlton Osaka).
Best for families
The 2,138-passenger Celebrity Millennium, complete with an alfresco movie theater and a supervised Camp at Sea program with more than 500 activities, is the perfect option for families; it will cruise in Japan from May to early October 2024. The line’s Best of Japan sailings embark from Yokohama, near Tokyo. After exploring the vibrant capital city, key ports will include Kobe (known for gourmet marbled beef) and Hiroshima, as well as lesser-known gems (on select itineraries) such as the hot springs of Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido. All sailings include an overnight stay in Osaka, with time to head to the celebrated temples, shrines, and overall beauty of Kyoto (one hour away)—or passengers can stay in Osaka and visit the world’s largest aquarium and Universal Studios Japan.
Celebrity’s 12-night Best of Japan cruises start at $1,799 per person.
Best for local immersion
For something different, try a destination-immersive luxury floating hotel on Japan’s island-rich Seto Inland Sea with a local company. An artisan-built ship called Guntû does three- to five-day itineraries. Carrying only 38 passengers, it’s designed by the Japanese architect Yasushi Horibe to resemble a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. The decor is minimalist and modern, with lots of wood and glass details. For a splurge, some of the suites come with their own open-air tranquil onsen baths. When you are not off exploring remote villages, dine on cuisine envisioned by a renowned Tokyo chef Kenzo Sato from Shigeyoshi, indulge in seafood-rich creations at the sushi bar, sip craft cocktails, and participate in tea ceremonies. In the spa, there’s a communal bath, where you can join other guests while taking in water views.
Three-night sailings with Guntû from Hiroshima start at $4,127 per person.
Best for a mix of culture and nature
Lindblad Expeditions is exploring Japan with a couple of new itineraries in August and September 2023 and again in September 2024. The 16-night Coastal Japan: Imperial Dynasties and Modern Culture route (which includes two hotel nights in Tokyo) sails between Niigata and Kobe and will focus on both cultural attractions, such as temples and art studios, and natural wonders, including on Japan’s subtropical islands. A 15-day Sailing the East China Sea: Japan, Okinawa, and Taiwan itinerary includes the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. The ship is the 138-passenger National Geographic Resolution, with attractions that include a NatGeo-certified photographer onboard to help you capture Japan’s beautiful scenery with aplomb.
Best for getting off the beaten cruise path
Upscale French line Ponant explores Japan with its 184-passenger Le Jacques-Cartier and is doing some of the most innovative cruise itineraries currently available in Japan—in an expedition style, with naturalists leading landings in inflatable Zodiacs. The area of exploration is the subtropical southern islands with a focus on the Okinawa archipelago and the Yaeyama Islands in the Ryukyu Archipelago, and the lush Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Seven-night itineraries in March and April 2024 include time on pristine beaches on islands such as Ishigaki and Kume, as well as snorkeling excursions and diving opportunities. Out of the water, you’ll visit traditional villages for cultural experiences such as drum and dance performances.
Ponant’s seven-night sailing between Keelung, Taiwan, and Kagoshima starts at $6,470 per person.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Best for ultra-luxury cruising
All-inclusive luxury cruise line Regent Seven Seas Cruises is sailing to Japan in October on the Seven Seas Explorer, one of the world’s most luxurious ships. Fares include shore excursions, such as indulging in hot springs on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu; exploring Kagoshima, known as the “Naples of the East” for its caldera bay and volcano; and learning porcelain traditions in Sasebo. Among other stops, guests will also visit Kyoto and Shimizu, for views of Mount Fuji.
Regent Seven Seas’ 11-night Japan cruises start at $15,199 per person, with business-class airfare included.
Best for cuisine
Windstar Cruises, the official cruise line of the James Beard Foundation—and with dishes from prestigious chefs featured on the ships’ menus—is exploring Japan in September and October 2023 with its 312-passenger, all-suite Star Breeze. A 10-night Grand Japan sailing between Yokohama and Osaka affords deeper exploration of smaller ports, including in the Seto Inland Sea (larger ships can only get so deep into the island region). From Kagoshima, Windstar passengers will visit the lunar landscapes and lava fields of Sakurajima Island and from Shingu, the mountain-perched Kamikura-jinja Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site. As part of the James Beard partnership, Tracy Chang, chef/owner of Pagu restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will be onboard cooking, doing demonstrations, and leading a market tour, on a September cruise. Her cuisine celebrates Spanish and Japanese tapas, paired with wines and sakes.
Windstar’s 10-night Japan sailing starts at $3,499 per person.