Maizuru is a quiet seaside town in the prefecture of Kyoto, largely unvisited by tourists and famous as the closest Japanese Navy base to North Korea.
When it was still legal for North Korean cargo ships to dock at Maizuru, people told of spy spotting and how the cargo ship crew would take back with them things like used bicycles, which were melted down into weapons for North Korea’s military.
These days, the only signs of North Korean activity are in the occasional reports of lightless boats zipping mysteriously into Maizuru’s coves at night. Visitors no longer come here on the off-chance that they might meet a North Korean spy. Instead, Maizuru’s allure lies in its location off Japan’s well-beaten track, away from the hordes of tourists and temples, and in its excellent, inexpensive food.
To get here, most visitors hop on a two-hour train ride from Kyoto. But there’s a far more bucolic transfer to be had by cruise ship. Costa’s NeoRomantica, an elegant 57,130-tonne ship, offers Maizuru as a stop on her summer itineraries, which runs from April to October every year.
These itineraries span four to seven nights, all of which begin in the port of Fukuoka. From there, they sail on through quiet coastal destinations such as Kanazawa, Sakaminato, and as far as Busan in Korea and Vladivostok, Russia. Many of these places remain relatively unknown, which is part of their appeal. Who doesn’t want to venture where few other tourists have gone before?
Each day, NeoRomantica docks at her ports of call by late morning, allowing passengers to wander the destination till dusk. Dinner is served at the ship’s six Italian restaurants, which include a pizzeria, a fine dining eatery, and a buffet restaurant for those who want a quick, simple meal. There is no more idyllic way to visit multiple destinations without changing hotels or navigating the local transportation system. At the end of each day, one retires to a wellappointed cabin or suite, and awakes to a new destination with the sun’s rise.
Travellers with a yen for naval attractions will find plenty to engage them in Maizuru. Tours of the pier where the vessels of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Forces are docked can be arranged, while Maizuru’s World Brick Museum showcases how the art of building brick structures has evolved over the centuries.
As riveting as these may sound (or not), most visitors to Maizuru prefer to make a beeline to Kasamatsu Park for a view of Amanohashidate Sandbar. Formed over thousands of years, this 3.6-kilometre sand bridge is regarded as one of Japan’s three greatest natural sceneries, and is a beloved landmark on Kyoto’s northern prefecture. Kitschy Kasamatsu Park offers the best view from its look-out point 130 metres above the sand bar. The charming chairlift ride to the area alone is worth the trek. At the look-out point, it’s not uncommon to spot people standing on a bench, bent over with their heads between their legs. Seen this way (upside down, really), the sand bar appears like a trail towards the heavens, hence its name, which translates to ‘bridge to heaven’.
Another Day, Another Destination
Kanazawa is another mainstay of NeoRomantica’s summer itineraries and for good reason. Old and new mingle in harmony in the form of a historical castle park, a geisha district, a museum of contemporary art and a fascinating market that’s been in operation since 1721.
In the morning, stroll through one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens, spread over 11.4 hectares. Tranquil Kenrokuen Garden is located outside the gates of Kanazawa Castle and belonged to the Maeda family, who ruled the Kaga Clan in feudal times. Much remains from the garden’s early days, including Japan’s oldest fountain and a teahouse built in 1774. For a more modern spectacle, visit the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, whose most popular permanent exhibit is Leandro Erlich’s The Swimming Pool. Viewed from the deck, the pool appears to be filled with people walking underwater.
A wander through these sights works up an appetite, which is best addressed by a leisurely traipse through Omicho Market. In this, Kanazawa’s oldest fresh food market, sup on giant oysters shucked to order, slurp up fruit-flavoured shaved ice, and duck into one of the many restaurants serving Kanazawa’s prized kaisen don, bowls of swimmingly fresh local raw fish served over hot rice.
Save dessert for Higashi Chaya-gai Geisha District where old geisha houses have been converted into restaurants and souvenir craft shops. Slink into one of many traditional teahouses that serve wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and settle in for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Then follow the crowds to Hakuichi, a souvenir shop selling gold leaf products, the most popular of which is soft serve ice cream coated in shimmering edible gold leaf.
Something For Everyone
Even as the days sail past in a peaceful blur on the cruise, all that day-tripping can get tiring. That’s when you make plans for fewer stops at destinations like Busan, where an afternoon at Haeundae Beach or grazing on street food like hotteok (a sweet fried pancake stuffed with brown sugar and seeds) provides just enough activity before retiring to the welcome confines of NeoRomatica.
At all hours, entertainment abounds on board the ship. Cabaret shows, dance classes, karaoke sessions, cooking classes, and burlesque and magic shows are just some of the activities guests can participate in. Children have programmes tailored to various age groups, with staffed activities for kids between three and 11 during port calls, so parents can venture out of the ship without their brood.
In the evenings, events like a Venetian Ball or the Captain’s Ball, where ladies get a chance to dance with their favourite men in uniform, give guests the opportunity to dress up, celebrate, win prizes and get to know the friendly crew.
By the time NeoRomantica returns to port at Fukuoka, the sense of revelry and adventure typically proves enough for even the most intrepid of travellers. Should that be the case, there’s only one thing to do before heading home: hotfoot it to Fukuoka’s markets or supermarkets and stock up on mentaiko, or spicy cod roe, which the city is best known for.
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s December 2017 issue – The Festive Issue, ‘Destination’