If you're a frequent Princess cruiser, Diamond Princess may come as a surprise to you. Rather than the usual, predominantly North American passenger list, this ship is a floating United Nations -- with heavy Japanese representation, thanks to its homeport in Yokohama.
If you love to meet and mingle with folks from around the world, this ship makes for a great opportunity. Conversely, if you find it annoying that information, safety drills and programming is usually provided in two languages, Diamond may not be for you. But on our voyage, we felt the benefits far outweighed any slight inconveniences.
A big advantage is the way Princess has embraced the destination -- far more than you'd find on the average cruise ship. There are basic Japanese lessons (and English lessons for Japanese passengers); the chance to try on a yukata (summer-style kimono), with help from Japanese volunteers; origami classes; package-wrapping; Japanese festival dance classes; tales performed by a Japanese storyteller; and many other cultural activities. Many of the classes offer an opportunity to interact with Japanese passengers, who come to both learn and help.
Diamond Princess is the only ship in the Princess fleet with a bona fide sushi restaurant, as well as the only one to carry a traditional Japanese bath facility. The buffet restaurant has a ramen bar (hearty Japanese noodle soup) where you choose your own ingredients, and a cold noodle bar. Even Swirls, the ice cream shop, adds green tea soft serve to the mix.
As avid cultural explorers, we really appreciated all the opportunities to expand our knowledge of Japanese traditions -- however, there was plenty of typical Princess programming to keep other passengers happy, too. And, in fact, Japanese cruisers are aboard partly to sample a different lifestyle (evidenced by the line for burgers at Trident Grill).
On shorter cruises (there are a number of four-night sampler voyages), the passenger list trends toward very few non-Japanese, which can be a bit overwhelming to some folks. The number of children onboard increases dramatically on these trips, too. (Some passengers on our ship were unaware that our 11-night itinerary was also sold as separate seven- and four-night itineraries and the passenger shift was a bit disconcerting to them.)
Diamond Princess was last refurbished in 2014, and the ship still gleams. The three-deck-high Piazza atrium, with a subtly Asian-influenced chrome sculpture covering the elevators, is the center of many activities. While some other artwork and decor around the ship gives a nod to Asia, it never seems hokey or forced -- and, in fact, there are also Italian touches found among inlaid marble floors and buffet restaurant paintings, as well as clubby atmospheres (Wheelhouse and Churchill's lounges) and a splashy, after-hours dance club. This ship is no Asian theme park.
Diamond Princess was at full capacity when we were aboard, which resulted in some waits at sit-down restaurants and overflows at some theater performances. In general the crew handled it well, although we could notice some stress among waiters and buffet cooks. Particularly on shorter cruises, Japanese passengers are intent on sampling everything the ship has to offer, so they are generally out and about, rather than vegging in their cabins. There's a large number of staff who are bilingual in Japanese and English (and even an additional Japanese cruise director), who help smooth out any confusion and generally keep things running well.
On its longer cruises (seven nights or more), Diamond Princess typically carries about 60 percent Japanese passengers; the rest is a mix of Americans, Canadians, Australians and a few Europeans -- but that can vary. On our cruise, for example, there were large groups of Russians and Israelis. Also, on the longer itineraries, the age skews toward retirees, with baby boomers in the majority. On shorter cruises, the age drops dramatically, with far more youngsters and extended families onboard.
Announcements, signage, menus, enrichment and some entertainment are all bilingual. The only time this got really tedious was during the muster drill, when the entire safety spiel had to be done first in English, then in Japanese, and all passengers had to sit through both. In many other instances, bilingual crew flip back and forth between languages, line-by-line, so you're never waiting long for a translation.
You may find yourself reflexively bowing when fellow passengers bow to you, and you'll soon learn to point upward or downward when an elevator door opens, to indicate which direction it's headed. We suggest crossing the language barrier to learn a few Japanese greetings before your trip. You'll get a great reaction from your shipmates.