I’m enjoying a pina colada when I look out from my balcony onto the azure blue ocean and ask myself a simple but also profoundly complicated question: Why do we travel? Sure, in the 1960s, people traveled to perhaps “find themselves.” Others traveled to see and experience new aesthetics, while some went to meet new people and submerge themselves in unknown cultures and languages. None of these, to be honest, have matched my experiences. I realize that it’s possible to believe that we travel, in a ridiculously dichotomous quandary, to come home or to some kind of home. To feel the essence of a sense of familiarity and friendship and the beauty of our home in a new land and, possibly, to become ourselves again.

ocean water waves cruise japan

Photo by Jörgen Axelvall

Maritime Moments

The history of Italy-founded and Geneva-based MSC dates back to 1675, when the Aponte family was involved in maritime transportation to and from Naples. The modern-day MSC, however, was founded in 1970 as part of the Mediterranean Shipping Company and deals in the global shipping container business in addition to offering a very fine array of luxury cruise experiences.

I find myself on one of their cruise ships, the stunning MSC Bellissima, which, on this particular route, is taking approximately 4,000 passengers and over 1,000 employees around Japan from Yokohama. First heading southward to Beppu and Kagoshima, the MSC Bellissima will then travel to Busan, South Korea, before returning to Japan and stopping in at Sakaiminato, Kanazawa and Hakodate. From there, the ship will sail back to Yokohama.

Ten days and nine nights on board a gargantuan multi-floor city on the sea. It’s a particularly novel way to see and experience Japan, outrageously different from airplanes, cars, buses or shinkansen. It’s also a real experience, meeting fellow passengers from every corner of the world, making friendships, talking with and developing relationships with the MSC staff, who provide such an unbelievable level of service that it surpasses some luxury hotels. Every need or request is taken and attended to with such grace and attention to detail that I actually feel ashamed that my friends and family haven’t had the opportunity to experience this level of hospitality.

With pools, theaters, shopping arcades, numerous restaurants, bars and lounges, it actually has more facilities and amenities than my hometown in Japan. You are never bored, and in theory, you are able to indulge yourself in becoming a Rabelaisian glutton. Or you can just sit back and watch the sea as it unfurls in front of you in all its mysterious intensity.

Perhaps it’s human nature that everyone on the MSC Bellissima, after a few days of finding their sea legs, is drawn to particular areas of the ship. I find myself favoring the Sky Lounge, Cigar Lounge and Horizon Bar overlooking a smaller pool with the sea sitting behind. I meet countless new friends, try some new cocktails and often sit content within my own thoughts, which occasionally drift toward poetry. Beyond the ship’s amenities and activities, each stop along the way brings novel experiences and encounters.

Beppu, Oita Prefecture

Beautiful and lauded Beppu, home to some of Japan’s top hot springs, castles and parks. However, as we dock in the city, we’re welcomed with torrential rain. Being avid walkers and, to an extent, amateur psychogeographers, my friend Jörgen (the photographer for this article) and I decide to walk from the port to Beppu Station, with a few stop-offs along the way. We come upon some hilly walkways that lead to the steaming mountains, chat with shop staff, who are genuinely friendly, and make our way, drenched by this point, to Beppu Station, which is charming and has some popular souvenir stores and retail options.

volcano japan mountain clouds

Photo by Jörgen Axelvall

Kagoshima, Kagoshima Prefecture

MSC organizes plenty of excursions for guests at each port. On this occasion, the outing is to see Sakurajima, the active stratovolcano that looms over Kagoshima. Guests, however, are free to make their own itineraries, and Kagoshima is ripe for adventure. I become a trainee umarell, observing the goings-on of the area as we stroll from Marine Port Kagoshima into a small town with a charming mall. Slightly sunburned, we meet some locals who regale us with stories about the legendary local shochu and direct us to a nice sushi spot near the mall.

Busan, South Korea

Another country. Busan is a thriving port city with a multitude to offer visitors. We traipse through the streets, visit a few street vendors, sample local beer and coffee — all slightly cheaper than in Japan — and enjoy chatting with the friendly locals in a global mash of Korean, English and Japanese. The people are warm, inquisitive and make me want to return one day for more.

Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture

Essentially a small town made famous by Shigeru Mizuki’s adored character GeGeGeno Kitaro, a statue of which can be seen near the main station. We also swing by the beautiful and adorable Sawai Coffee for some sublime brews and sweets and then head onward to the much-recommended Tairyomaru Sushi for fresh sashimi and sushi straight from the nearby sea.

ocean horizon sea japan blue travel

Photo by Jörgen Axelvall

Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

I guess the highlight of our tour is the idyllic city of Kanazawa, which is similar to Kyoto in terms of history and culture. We rent electric bicycles at Kanazawa Station and head toward the samurai district with a stop-off at the particularly charming Townsfolk Coffee. We then scoot around to the spectacular 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA architecture studio. With beautiful grounds, attractions for kids and some of the country’s most acclaimed exhibitions, this could be, in theory, a day trip in itself. We also indulge in supreme sandwiches and Danish pastries from Pan Brothers bakery in the Katamachi area of the city.

Hakodate, Hokkaido Prefecture

The final stop, a pure joy of a city, a temporary home. Hakodate is reminiscent of many Scottish fishing communities, including Oban on the country’s west coast— the people, the smells, the ramshackle makeshift seafood markets, the generosity,the innate wish to make connections and congregate. Hakodate has everything I could ever need.

We ascend the Mount Hakodate Ropeway, which hosts some of Japan’s most spectacular views, and walk past a beautiful Roman Catholic church and temples, shrines and ornate coffee shops that dot the mountainside. We sample, naturally, Hokkaido’s Sapporo beer and generally have an absolute ball. As the sunset surprises us with its burnt orange glow, we set sail, once again, for Yokohama.

circle sea cabin hole japan cruise

Photo by Jörgen Axelvall

Remembrance of Things Past

When I return home to Tokyo, I’m unable to shake the colors of the sea, the people, the different languages and characteristics, the dignified and superb service. I can’t forget the exquisite beetroot risotto at Lighthouse, the main dining restaurant, the sugary madness of the margaritas at Hola! Tacos & Cantina and the elegance and refined atmosphere at Butcher’s Cut with its array of steaks and sides.

I sat and watched families and children from different countries and continents eat with each other and share something that an Instagram photo can never really capture. We are so very different, but we are ostensibly the same. Hakodate is in Japan, but everything about it reminds me of Scotland; Kanazawa is a little Kyoto (perhaps better), but the quiet streets and coffee shops remind me of my own sleepy neighborhood in Tokyo.

The Japanese family we had drinks with one night mirrored my Glaswegian aunts and uncles. Our favorite staff member, the exceptional Gurram Sunny Andrew who hails from Delhi in India, kept us endlessly entertained and showed a real depth of character and compassion which, in my memory, transports me to nights with my closest friend.

Travel, for me at least, is about searching, finding and channeling the best parts of home but through new experiences and places. I’ve been away from Scotland for more than 20 years, but on my MSC cruise, I found my country, my people, my empathy and my compassion once again. On my final night before disembarking at Yokohama Port, I looked out into the ever-changing traces of blue, almost transparent, possibly terrifying for some, and I imagine myself swimming in the North Sea with my father, as he put his arms around me as we swim, swim toward some feeling of home.

More Info

To find out more information about MSC cruises and to make a reservation, please visit the official website.