Insider's Choice: Treasures of Japan

Mason Florence, January 2004

When I arrived to live in Kyoto 12 years ago, I had my mind set on discovering the "real Japan." The first thing I did was invest in a good set of regional maps and begin charting my excursions. Ever since, as a travel writer, photographer, and expedition leader, I've been canvassing the country from top to bottom, from tracing the poet Basho's footprints through the "deep north" right down to the steps of Buddhist monk Kukai around Shikoku's ancient 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

Whether by train, bike, bus, plane, or on foot, Japan is, for me, the ultimate travelers' paradise. Not only steeped in rich history, art, culture, and customs, it's safe, fascinating, a culinary heaven, and is home to perhaps the most gracious hosts on the planet.

But what better way to explore the Japanese archipelago than by sea and on board a vessel such as the Clipper Odyssey, with its fleet of portable Zodiacs and expert crew. Aboard the Odyssey, this year's Treasures of Japan expedition follows a remarkable sea route leading to several of the country's most important historical temples, castles, parks, and shrines, as well as to a carefully chosen selection of striking natural preservation areas.

Our journey begins in Naha, tropical capital of Okinawa and once the political and cultural center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Today Okinawa is just about as "Japanese" as Hawaii is "American" -- the landscape, culture, and customs here are utterly unique, as is the island music, food, and spirit of the indigenous people. Like Hawaiians, Okinawans share both a rich and a stirring past, and Naha is a perfect springboard from which to explore the historical sights. Those joining the pre-extension will discover a chance to investigate further several of Okinawa's secluded southern islands.

Once on board the ship, we'll navigate the crystal clear waters north to the lovely and seldom-visited island of Amami-Oshima en route to mountainous Yaku-shima, hands-down my favorite travel destination in all of Japan! Much of this incredible, rain-drenched island is now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site; Yaku-shima is a nature-lover's delight boasting gigantic ancient cedar trees, myriad flora and fauna, and excellent local seafood.

After sailing to a medley of important sites in the Inland Sea we'll thread the narrow Kanmon-kaikyo straits heading for the remote Tsushima Islands. Positioned like steppingstones between Japan and Korea, Tsushima was a key historic stopping point along the famed Silk Road. After a short but fascinating stopover in Korea we'll crisscross back to the Japanese mainland via the Sea of Japan to the celebrated castle town of Kanazawa and finally on to Sado Island, once an island of exile and today home of the internationally renowned Kodo drummers.

Last April I had the exciting opportunity to accompany Zegrahm cofounders Susan and Werner Zehnder on the scouting trip to the Okinawan islands for the Treasures of Japan, and between the must-sees and the wild, off-the-beaten-track spots, I am looking forward to being back on board this spring with my fellow staff and passengers.

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