In October 2018 we took our second cruise on Princess Cruises Diamond Princess on our second visit to Asia. This was our tenth wedding anniversary cruise, taking place on the same ship and with several of the same ports on which we’d taken our very first cruise on our honeymoon a decade before. You can read all the posts from our first cruise aboard Diamond Princess in 2008 here.
Getting To Japan
Whereas our first cruise had started in China and finished in Thailand, this one would be starting and ending in Japan; Yokohama to be specific. With a late morning flight from Heathrow scheduled we elected to travel up closer to the airport and stay in a hotel overnight to dispense with that stress of an early morning drive. We stayed at the Holiday Inn just off junction 4 of the M4, the main reason being its proximity to a couple of pubs so that we wouldn’t be trapped into dining and drinking at the hotel. The hotel was perfectly fine, the pubs were perfectly fine, the distance from the airport was great; it’s how we’d do it again in all likelihood.
We had the usual problem at Heathrow airport in that the boarding pass printers refused to work for us. We’ve never once got them to work but when we were coming back from this cruise and yet again my passport failed to get me through the automated check-in system I got talking to one of the border guards who explained that my name was flagged on their system so I’d probably always need a manual check in the airport. Someone with my name has been a naughty boy. So, an inconvenience I’ll have to live through whenever we travel. That done, though, it was to the airport pub for breakfast and a pre-flight drink and in hardly any time we were off to Japan. I never sleep on flights so for a trip like this that comes in at around eleven hours or so it does give me a chance to read quite a bit of whatever books I’ve carried on and watch some recent films I’d missed. Between this flight and the one coming back I saw Ready Player One, Solo, Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Tokyo Haneda Airport
There are two airports serving Tokyo: Narita and Haneda. Haneda is by far the most convenient airport. It’s closer to Tokyo if that’s somewhere you’re planning to go and is roughly equidistant between Tokyo and the port city of Yokohama. By contrast, Narita is about five times that distance away.
We had two small problems at the airport, both of which, sadly, could have been avoided with some pre-cruise information supplied by Princess.
Firstly, there was immigration. As we would discover on this cruise, the Japanese take immigration really, really seriously. Stupidly seriously. The Chinese and the Russians have a more trusting and open policy than Japan in our experience and that’s just all types of wrong. You get a card to fill in on the plane (side note to British Airways here: one per person in future, please; not one per couple as the Japanese don’t like that). What you don’t get is any idea what to fill in for the bits like where you’re staying, name of your contact, phone number of local representative, etc. Once you’re on the ship and about to hit a Japanese port or disembark at the end this information is supplied in your cabin but none of it is before you get to Japan. You can probably get through that if your border security person speaks English. Mine did not. Cue fifteen minutes of fun trying to play charades to explain what a cruise ship was, why I didn’t have an address or hotel in Japan, and pointing at various emails with numbers and addresses in an attempt to satisfy whatever security system was in place.
The second issue was our transfer to Yokohama from the airport. You can, of course, do your own thing when you reach the airport and make your own way to Yokohama cruise port but we looked into it and there wasn’t a direct way of doing so without spending an awful lot of money. On top of that we’d be in a country where the western alphabet wouldn’t be prominent if used at all. It’s one thing to try to work out names of places or foreign words written in an alphabet you understand; it’s another thing to look at characters like those used in Japan and hope you or your phone gets things right. We elected instead to use the Princess Cruises shared transfer as we’ve done it before and found it to be reasonable value for money and with less chance of getting lost. This did not go quite as well as we’d hoped.
When we’ve had Princess transfers in the past we’ve arrived at the airport, got our luggage, wandered through security, found our Princess representative, headed off to a coach, and been on our way in – at most – 20 minutes. Now, it turns out that the reason that happened that way before for us was because we’d either been on flights packed with fellow cruise passengers or there had been a few flights arrive close to one another with enough passengers on to allow us to get out of the airport quickly. But for this cruise we’d landed a little after 7 in the morning. We were told by our representative that the coach would not arrive until about 11 as there were more flights due to come in over the following hours. This was disappointing solely because we weren’t prepared for it. I really wish Princess had communicated that the transfer might involve a wait of three hours but it is what it is. We got talking to an American couple who’d been in the terminal since just after 4 in the morning so it could have been worse.
Yokohama Cruise Port
Once the coaches arrived we were on our way to Yokohama Cruise Port, a journey of around 45 minutes. The outskirts of Yokohama that we passed through looked compact and quite industrialised but as we crossed the bridge over the city’s harbour (where we caught our first glimpse of the Diamond Princess) we passed into a greener, cleaner district on our approach to Osanbashi terminal, the modern, international cruise terminal in the city and probably the nicest cruise terminal we’ve been through with lots of glass, lots of curving, dark wood, lots of open space.
As Platinum level Princess cruisers we then got to walk past the several hundred people waiting in seats in two large sections of the terminal building to join the priority queue and within 5 minutes we were boarding the ship. This is a fabulous way to start any cruise.
We’ve got more than a passing familiarity with Grand-class cruise ships now so even though we hadn’t been on this particular one for a month shy of ten years we knew our way around and headed straight to our cabin. We tend to book a room in roughly the same location every time, Caribe deck on Princess ships if we can because of the extra large balconies, towards the front to get some decent motion from the ship as it hits swells, on the starboard side so that we know the direction of our room is to the right whenever we exit an elevator (except for the ones around the atrium).
Our cabin was C235 for this cruise. This was quite different from our last cruise on Diamond Princess where we had an inside room but otherwise exactly what we’ve come to expect from more frequent cruising over the past few years.
Even though we’d come through the cruise port just minutes earlier we had to step out onto our balcony and take a look at the view. The top of Osanbashi is covered in grass and you can see the wave-form, undulating lines of the building. Docked alongside us in Yokohama was the Holland America cruise ship Amsterdam.
Two features in the room were quite distinctive and both due to the fact that Diamond Princess cruises target both the Japanese and Western markets. We’re not fans of kettles in state room because to us that feels like something you’d get in a hotel and a cruise is so much more than that. However, the Japanese like their tea and so you’ll find kettles and green tea are in every room. The second feature is a special bonus for UK passengers because, in case you didn’t know, Japan uses the same plug socket as us. For this reason a universal plug socket is in each cabin. We would love to see this on all cruise ships.
The television in the room carried six TV channels for most of the cruise, only one of which was of interest to us, that being the Australian feed of ESPN. This meant we could watch some live American Football on a few sea days early in the morning. A decent selection of movies, all free to view, are also available and we watched The Shape of Water in our room one day while we tried and failed to get through A Wrinkle in Time on another.
Room checked out and with quite a while before our luggage would turn up we set off for a quick wander around the ship.
A place we thought we might end up spending a lot of time was the Wheelhouse Bar. We had fond memories of this space on our first cruise on Diamond Princess where it quite often had traditional Chinese musicians entertaining us. However, we ended up visiting here far less than expected partly because we weren’t massively keen on the music which was your more typical cruise ship performer covering tracks with a bit of a latin leaning. That said, we would have one drink at least in here on most sea days and we got very friendly with the staff. While we didn’t have any major staff service issues on this cruise at all it was the staff in the Wheelhouse who still managed to stand out with their general friendliness and willingness to chat and memory for names and drinks ordered.
We were on the ship early so it was still mostly empty. Nevertheless, there was some music welcoming people aboard at the bottom of the ship’s atrium (piazza on Princess ships).
The next venue you encounter as you continue along deck seven towards the aft of the ship is the Explorers Lounge. As near as we could tell this was identical to any other Explorers Lounge on a Princess ship and may well have been unchanged from our first visit.
The main difference between Diamond Princess and most of the rest of the Princess Cruises fleet (with the exception of Sun Princess) is the presence of a sushi and sashimi specialty restaurant called Kai Sushi. Being used to seeing Princess ships over the last few years we know the look and feel of their venues on board but Kai Sushi was notably brighter, airier, fresher-feeling, and we liked the look of it very much. We’d already decided we were going to try the place out one day because you’ve got to take advantage of experiences when they present themselves (we’ve never eaten sushi before) and this sealed the deal.
Club Fusion and Crooners completed the drinking locations on this deck and we had to have our first drink on board in Crooners while we were there. It’s the law. One thing we didn’t like were the nibbles that often accompanied drinks. On other ships these tend to be quite tasty but on Diamond everything that wasabi in it. Wasabi is just all types of horrible.
We had a quick nose at what was off the piazza staircase on the two decks below. Again, nothing we weren’t already completely familiar with and already described elsewhere on this site and linked in this post. We did pop our heads into Churchill’s which is promoted as a sports and cigar bar. We don’t smoke but we could stand a little bit of cigar smoke if we were watching a game as it’s often quite sweet and can enhance an atmosphere. Sadly, Churchill’s smells exactly like what it really is which is an inside haunt for every chain-smoker of cigarettes on board. The smell for a non-smoker is beyond repulsive which is a shame as it’s a lovely-looking lounge.
A need to clear the smell from our nostrils and potentially in all our clothes sent us scurrying to the top deck for a quick nose around there too.
Forward and to the starboard side of the ship we had plenty of views of the city of Yokohama. As is pretty common when you’re cruising around the world these days a large and colourful ferris wheel was present along the water’s edge.
Alongside us on the starboard side, as we’d already seen from our balcony, was the cruise port terminal. It was interesting to see how many local people were walking around it, almost treating the place like a public park. Obviously, the ships were a big draw for people here too with many taking photos of us or the HAL ship nearby and even a few making sketches.
From the port side we spotted an interesting and obviously old-looking ship not too far from where the Diamond Princess was berthed. This turned out to be the Hikawa Maru, a museum ship these days and a vessel that was launched in 1929.
We returned to our room where we didn’t have to wait too long before our suitcases arrived and we were able to unpack everything. That’s still one of the big plus points for cruising as far as we’re concerned: you unpack just once at the start of the cruise and you pack just once at the end while your hotel accommodation takes you around the world and brings its wonderful sights to your eyes.
Muster on Princess Cruises is always a good opportunity to see who’s not read the instructions or been on a Princess ship in a while as despite you no longer needing to bring your life jacket with you (which means you don’t have to lug the thing back to your room after) a lot of people still do.
With muster done we set ourselves up on our balcony to watch the sailaway from Yokohama as the light started to fade from the overcast but mild day. More local people started to pack out the dockside area, glowsticks started to make an appearance, and tannoy announcements from the port in Japanese started to gee the crowd up.
As Diamond Princess began to push itself away from the port to start our Asian cruise for real the clouds on the horizon thinned enough for the setting sun to ignite the sky in an orange glow. I’d like to think Princess timed it just so. At the cruise terminal the Japanese crowd waved and cheered and we could hear people from balconies all around us and on the deck obviously cheering and waving back at them in the brief moments of relative quiet when the ship’s horn wasn’t blasting out its departure roar. As sailaways go this was by far the most fun and engaging group we’ve ever left a port to and as the cruise would go on we’d come to suspect this was just something in the Japanese nature; a tendency to simply take part.
In order to get out to sea from Yokohama it’s necessary to cruise under the Yokohama Bay Bridge. This was the second time on a cruise we’d been awake and outside as our ship slipped under a bridge, the first time occurring in 2017 aboard Crown Princess when we got up close and personal with the Great Belt Bridge.
The short video below covers the view from our balcony of Yokohama, the sailaway from the cruise terminal along with its ebullient crowd, and the ship’s cruise under the bridge.
Obviously, drinks were imbibed that evening and we went to Skywalkers to listen to music and maybe have a little dance because these things are constants for us on any Princess cruise although we tried to be a little bit sensible because our body clocks were very much out of sync with the local time.
Main Dining Room
The only thing that was different for us for this first day was the evening dining arrangements. Because Diamond Princess has a mix of passengers with a mix of language needs it wasn’t possible for us to book the Any Time dining that we normally go for as not every member of staff would be bilingual. To cater for that it was necessary for us to go Fixed Dining for the first time which we initially weren’t too pleased about so we made sure to request the late sitting (we’re more European in our dining preferences and always eat late) and a table for two so we wouldn’t be stuck with the same people for two weeks. As it turned out we had a fantastic dining experience on Diamond, mostly down to some incredibly good service from our waiter Alexander from Macedonia (I know). Friendly, funny, and fast, this was arguably the best main dining room experience we’ve had on any ship and we’d certainly not have any qualms with fixed dining in the future based on this although we still like the idea of wandering in when we like.
In terms of food variety over the course of the cruise this was a little bit disappointing but only slightly so and it is understandable. The kitchens need to cater for two very different palates with the western and eastern passengers aboard. Things repeated fairly often with only slight differences and even if you’re prepared to try “the other culture”‘s dishes you’d probably run out of different meals reasonably quickly. We had no real complaints here and the quality of the food couldn’t be faulted. We did hear some people moan about the portion sizes which in fairness were a little smaller than we’ve become accustomed to but, again, is something that’s easily explainable because of the dual-culture nature of this cruise and, let’s be honest, doesn’t really do anyone any harm.
To finish off this first post describing our Asian cruise aboard Diamond Princess starting in Yokohama here’s what we ate that first night while the ship headed roughly southwest on its way to our first port of call, Kagoshima.