Japan with a French twist

Green tea by day, foie gras by night: It's a cross-cultural experience cruising around Japan.

As we leave Kanazawa, a Japanese city known for its tea ceremonies and gold-leaf artistry, the dockside scene borders on the melodramatic.

Sentimental music straight from the climax of a tragic Hollywood love story swells over loudspeakers as flag wavers appear to almost stagger under the weight of their multi-coloured banners. Women in blue kimonos dance and a crowd of Kanazawans wave glowsticks.

A Le Soleal crew member, meanwhile, is waving back at them with a giant white cut-out of a hand on a stick. His colleagues cast off and we are away. A woman on the dock is screaming "Bon voyage".

I am on the bridge with Captain Remy Genevaz and his officers. In contrast to the hullabaloo outside, no one is speaking in the darkness. Steering a ship is serious business.

Still, I had not expected the silence, punctuated only by need-to-know navigation information, issued by these straight-backed Frenchmen in their crisp white uniforms.

On this seven-night Japan cruise around the southern end of Honshu island, which includes shore days in Kanazawa, Sakaiminato and Hiroshima, as well as a dash across to Busan in South Korea, comes the opportunity to experience two distinct and mighty cultures.

Le Soleal is the newest of four yachts operated by Compagnie du Ponant. The 264-berth boat is all French sophistication, subtlety, even hauteur, from the decor to the menus to the clientele.

This is your milieu as you sail between ports, surrounded by mostly French speakers of a certain age and immaculately groomed status.

Leave the yacht and you are immersed in the kaleidoscope of Japan, where ancient Shinto temples and Samurai castles meet you at one turn, futuristic neon cities at another.

The French themselves are no slouches when it comes to ensnaring tourists. To wit, if you are tired of Paris, you are tired of life. But it also takes no time to gain an insight into why so many travellers I know rate Japan an experience without compare.

As the yacht sails further from Kanazawa on its way to Sakaiminato, "gala night" gets under way. The dress code is formal and the captain's cocktail party is to be followed by the captain's dinner.

Strangely, the cocktail party is a sit-down affair in the Theatre Cassini, glasses of champagne distributed at the entrance by crew members in glamorous floor-length gowns, while waiters with canapes negotiate the rows of seats inside.

The tall and handsome Frederic Jansen proves the rule that no cruise director is an introvert. Belgian by nationality but resident in Spain when not sailing, with a passion for astronomy and starry nights at sea, he introduces the captain who introduces his senior officers.

Before we leave the theatre for dinner, Frederic utters the immortal words, "Ladies, thank you for your elegance. I have to say you make this boat look like a garden of roses."

Given most of the passengers have spent part of their day in Kanazawa's magnificent Kenroku-en Garden, it is a fitting piece of hyperbole.

Known as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en is 100,000 square metres of green loveliness with bridges, ponds, shrines and streams, and grand historic buildings to explore. There may not be roses, but there are spectacular, sprawling pine trees whose tentacle-like networks of branches are buttressed by logs and pruned by helmet-wearing men perched on ladders.

In the midst of the gardens is the Shigure-tei teahouse, where tea ceremonies, one of the high traditions developed in Kanazawa during 300 years of feudal rule by the powerful Maeda family, are performed for 700 yen a pop.

At this point I have not had much time on Japanese soil. After boarding in Otaru we have been mostly on the boat, which has spent 36 hours ploughing through the edges of a deadly typhoon as usual ship business has gone on: entertainers singing middle-of-the-road classics with piano accompaniment; mixing of the daily cocktail specials by bartenders from countries such as Mauritius and the Philippines; luxury cabins serviced twice daily; lunch, a seafood buffet, served at 12.30 on the dot; and a Japanese lesson in the Galilee lounge before dinner.

In the quiet and clean-lined simplicity of the Shigure-tei teahouse, I sit on my heels on the tatami matting; before me, a woman in a kimono kneels and presents a bean paste bun, bowing and uttering ritualistic words in Japanese.

She returns with the tea and rotates it once before placing it in front of me, bowing repeatedly and smiling sweetly before shuffling off in her ceremonial slippers.

One of the ship's guides for this cruise, a Japanese man who calls himself Gin Tonic (so people will remember him, he tells me), has told us while the tea ceremony was historically a means for the powerful to show loyalty to the even more powerful, citizens of Kanazawa these days love to perform the ceremony for ordinary people. I am struck by the grace and the formality of it.

Just as, days later, on my way to the airport in Osaka, the behaviour of the train conductors as they enter and exit carriages, turning around to face the passengers and bowing their heads every time, confirms the Japanese reputation for ritual politeness.

The French, on the other hand, have a reputation for the opposite, particularly their waiters.

It is one point of divergence, among many, between these two cultures. But there is much they share as well, including a passion for food and fashion: the Japanese are regarded as among the best French chefs outside France, while Japanese clothes designers have won favour in France. It is a mutual admiration society of sorts, and the Japanese particularly are known Francophiles. Indeed, a Frenchman on board tells me about Paris Syndrome in which Japanese tourists in Paris, unable to reconcile their deeply romantic preconceptions of the city with a reality that includes grumpy locals, have psychiatric breakdowns.

The 86 French passengers on Le Soleal seem perfectly relaxed and, well, polite. They are on holiday after all. Among the other French-speakers on board are 22 Belgians and 15 Swiss. With the language barrier I am sure to be missing many nuances but just because it is a French ship doesn't mean you won't find anyone to talk to, especially if you're happy to trot out any French language skills you might have.

The multicultural manifest also includes 37 Japanese, four Americans, four Canadians, four Germans, two Australians and two Argentinians. All announcements, information and menus are in English as well as French. Evening trivia competitions too are bilingual.

On the night of the Captain's Dinner, this united nations sits down to a five-course degustation amid the whites, creams and beiges of L'Eclipse restaurant.

The menu fuses French and Asian ingredients, but the techniques are all French: first course is an Asian-style salmon tartar with seaweed chips; my favourite is the Japanese sea bream fillet with lime beurre blanc, lemony butternut mash and beef foam, closely followed by the slow-cooked boiled egg with caviar.

The dinner menus are elaborate, sophisticated and, on non-Captain's Dinner nights, a la carte. French palates are famously discerning, after all. One night I eat Aveyronnaise-style tagliatelle pasta with duck confit, another night, foie gras with hibiscus jelly and housemade toasted brioche.

At lunch the buffets are themed: one day it's Scandinavian, another Italian, another Japanese. On Chef Buffet day, the steak tartare comes with fat, crinkle-cut French fries; that night my soup is a Perigord-style garlic and egg white consomme.

Le Soleal is a floating five-star boutique hotel. It is not a floating resort or, quelle horreur, RSL. It is as far removed from the sparkling shazam of the big cruise liners as a Japanese teahouse is from Notre Dame cathedral.

There is no casino, but there is a library, a spa and beauty centre, a gym, a steam room and swimming pool, and two restaurants.

A nine-strong team of dancers, musicians and singers, called the Ballet Paris C'Show, entertain during the day and at night in the two lounge bars and the theatre. Every morning, early, one of the dancers takes a stretching class on the theatre stage. As well, they hold dance lessons: passengers can learn line dancing, or how to do the cha cha.

There is also the opportunity to bone up on Japan. The flame-haired, well-travelled Paule Viallard lectures in French and English, on Japanese history and religion and, before the stop in buzzing, cosmopolitan Busan, about Korea. Included in the grand sweep of her presentations is how the minimalism of zen architecture and its indoor-outdoor flow has influenced the way Europeans like to live today - so far removed from the gilded, ornamental ways of European royalty.

It reminds me again of the differences between the ostentation of the mega liners and a small ship like Le Soleal, on which there is always the option of down-time in your stateroom, as high-end and discreetly decorated as the rest of the ship.

The sun is shining when Le Soleal arrives in Hiroshima, the last port before the cruise ends in Osaka. While there are shore excursions on offer I strike out alone, until the nearby tram stop at least, where I bump into Pietro and Alex, two Italian members of the entertainment team who have a few hours of R&R.

Pietro, a dancer, is stretched out and soaking up rays, face turned to the sun; before Japan, Le Soleal was a month in the North-West Passage and other cold climes.

Pietro has sorely missed the warmth and tells me about an elderly woman who never once ventured off the ship and told him by way of explanation: "I came here to see that there was nothing to see."

In Hiroshima, there is much to see, and a good way to do it is via its charming tram network, along which trundles a vintage fleet of streetcars as well as ultramodern "Green Movers".

A green number of the classic variety delivers us to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which commemorates the victims of the infamous day in 1945 when the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on the city. Dozens of monuments throughout the park include a series of transparent cabinets, like big telephone boxes, filled with origami cranes made by school children from around the world. There is a cenotaph shaped like an ancient tomb with a stone chamber at its centre that contains the names of the 290,000 people who were exposed to the bomb.

A symbol of the city is the Atomic Bomb Dome, the ruins of a building which was the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall before "little boy" exploded above a point 150 metres away.

The park's centrepiece is the wrenching Peace Memorial Museum which shies from nothing in its depiction of the devastating human toll. I can't imagine it, and the rest of the park, has ever left a dry eye. Reads one survivor's account: "A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence. I stood up, took my cap in my hands and was about to catch the dragonfly when ..."

When I return to the yacht, a handful of crew members have taken to a grassy expanse beside the ship and are kicking a soccer ball around in the late afternoon sunshine.

Not long afterwards, at the cocktail party to mark the final night of the Otaru-Osaka cruise, all of the 240 crew are being thanked by the captain for their "energy and willingness" to help everyone on board, every day.

So that's one French stereotype that has not endured on this journey: the politeness of the Japanese on land has been matched by the service on board.

The next morning in Osaka, senior members of the crew are lined up on the gangplank to farewell the departing passengers. After the ritual of Kanazawa, the poignancy of Hiroshima and an immersion in things ancient, the full blast of a major Japanese city awaits.

Sarah Maguire travelled courtesy of Travel the World.

THREE MORE MUST-SEES IN JAPAN (AND KOREA)

MATSUI CASTLE

Located on the top of a hill in Matsuyama City, a one-hour drive from Sakaiminato, the three-storey Matsui Castle, with its rare three-wing structure, was built by a famous samurai in 1603. The stairways are precipitous and have to be negotiated without shoes, the displays of old samurai kit are fascinating and the views of the sea, mountains and city from the top are panoramic.

BUSAN FISH MARKET

South Korea's largest fish market, the Jagalchi Fish Market, next to Fisherman's Wharf in Busan, was established by women fishmongers during the Korean War. Like all great fish markets, it is a major sense-assaulting spectacle, with stalls still staffed mostly by women.

UMEDA SKY TOWER

Two 40-storey towers joined at their 39th floor by the Floating Garden Observatory, Umeda Sky Tower may not be Osaka's tallest building - it is No. 12 - but it is a spectacular one, with views to match. The building's standout features are two escalators which give the effect of being suspended in thin air as they cross between the towers at their upper floors - a ride not recommended for sufferers of vertigo.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Osaka for about $1145 return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. You fly to Singapore (about 8hr) and then to Osaka (6hr 15min); see singaporeair.com. This fare allows you to fly back from other Japanese and Asian cities.

CRUISING THERE

Compagnie du Ponant's l'Austral cruises Asia from October to April; eight-night Best of Japan cruises between Osaka and Maizuru take place in April next year and include stops in Kagoshima, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Busan and Sakaiminato. Berths from $3220, based on twin-share. See traveltheworld.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION

en.ponant.comjnto.org.au.

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