East Asia -- defined within the cruise industry as Japan, China and Korea -- still holds an air of mystery for many Americans and Europeans. No wonder: The region boasts a myriad of exotic experiences, from exploring bustling skyscraper cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai, to witnessing the simple, traditional quotidian of a rural village. Visitors to this part of the world get a peek into both an ancient culture and a fast-growing, fast-paced society. The delightful blend of old and new, foreign and familiar, is an intoxicating lure for travelers, especially seasoned tourists who have already experienced other popular regions of the world.
East Asia is rich in culture and tradition and beautiful landscapes, dotted with sacred temples and shrines, historic UNESCO sites, grand palaces and castles, and world-class museums. Visitors can hike the Great Wall of China, browse the colorful street markets in Tokyo, visit the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, tour the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei and cruise through the stunning Three Gorges along the Yangtze River. Many cruise lines also offer unique opportunities to experience local customs and culture: dim sum cooking classes, Tai Chi and calligraphy lessons, meals in local homes and visits to traditional sumo stables to observe Japan's famed wrestlers.
The best part of cruising in East Asia might very well be the ease of traveling in this vast and diverse region. Hop on a cruise, and you'll be able to visit many of the great cities and villages of Asia in one vacation -- only to whet your appetite to return.
Beijing - Visitors to the sprawling, crowded capital city of China, will want to spend at least a couple of days there to get a general, scratch-the-surface overview. There are lots to things to see in Beijing.Visit the Temple of Heaven, built during the Ming Dynasty, and stroll its gardens and pathways, designed to symbolize the relationship between heaven and earth. Tour the Summer Palace, a UNESCO-designated site and former retreat for the Imperial family during the late Qing Dynasty.
Hong Kong - Chaotic Hong Kong Island boasts the largest concentration of high-rise buildings in the world, a mesmerizing, modern landscape of steel, glass and stone, ablaze in neon lights. The best view of the iconic skyline is from the burgeoning Kowloon neighborhood, across Victoria Harbor, or take a funicular ride up to Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, where you'll have sweeping views of the skyline, harbor and distant territories. Still not worn out yet, try some of these other attractions.
Shanghai - Today, it's one of China's most modern metropolises. The Bund, stretching between the Woosung River and Old Town, along the waterfront, is a popular must-see tourist sight. Walking the waterfront promenade, particularly at night when the city lights shine, is a great way to take in Bund's unique skyline, which is a mix of colonial, European-style buildings and towering, commercial high-rises. Other city experiences include a walk through Old Town; a visit to Mt. Jiu Hua, a sacred and remote Buddhist temple complex.
Tokyo - The capital of Japan, one of the most populous cities in the world, has more than 13 million people, and it's the country's center of commerce and culture. Tokyo looks brand new and is a thriving city with a sprawling mix of lively neighborhoods. Downtown Ginza is a shopper's mecca, with blocks of famous designer shops. Neighborhoods like Shibuya, Shinjuka, Ropponji and Asakusa hum with youthful energy, and they're overflowing with bars, street vendors and local shops, all linked by a modern metro system.
Kyoto - Which once served as the capital of Japan and the emperor's residence for more than 1,000 years. Today, it's home to several impressive UNESCO World Heritage sites. Major attractions include the famous Kiyomizu-dero temple, dating back to 780. Set over a waterfall, the temple includes a stage with sweeping views of the tree gardens below. Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion) is a striking sight, set on the shores of a reflective pond and surrounded by bonsai trees.
Takayama - Visitors who long for peace and quiet after the hustling pace of Japan’s big cities may want to head to the tourist town of Hida-Takayama where they can experience life in a rural setting. Located near the northern Japan Alps, Takayama is well known for having one of the best-preserved old towns in Japan. The prettiest section of the old city is called Sanmachi. It consists of three narrow lanes packed with wooden buildings housing sake breweries and little boutiques.
Seoul - The vibrant, modern city of Seoul definitively lives up to the ‘24-hour party’ tag that other cities can only pay lip service to. A buzzing urban expanse that is striving to reshape its hardened concrete and steel edges with gorgeous city parks, cultural landmarks and tasteful design. You’ll find a host of exciting places to eat, drink, shop and relax, whether you’re in Hongdae’s chic bars and restaurants or the stylish boutiques of Apgujeong. Those shopping for arts, crafts, jewellery, antiques or souvenirs, should head to the wonderful markets and shops of Insa Dong.
While Seoul is embracing all that is modern, it is also rich in history. In the city there are five major palace complexes, which were built under the Joseon Dynasty and provide fine examples of traditional architecture. Whilst all of the palaces are worthy of a visit, Changdeokgung Palace with it's beautiful Secret Garden and the ornate Gyeongbokgung Palace which has an hourly changing of the guard ceremony with soldiers dressed in Joseon-era uniforms are highly recommended.
Busan - The country's second-largest city, dubbed the "Summer Capital of South Korea," is a lively seaside resort town, ringed by picturesque mountains. Passengers often elect to spend time at Haeundae Beach, with nearby seafood stalls selling local delicacies like lobster and live octopus. Visit Beomeo-Sa temple, set in the mountains outside the city center, and the seaside Haedong Yonggunsa temple. If you're hungry and feeling adventurous, head to Jokbal Golmok (Pig Feet Alley) for a local favorite fast food dish: a plate of sliced pig's feet served in a soy, ginger and garlic sauce.
Gyeongju - Once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla, Gyeongju is a coastal city in South Korea with a rich selection of cultural and historical attractions. Its Silla heritage stretches back over 1000 years, with ancient sites, relics and ruins found throughout the city. The Gyeongju National Museum is home to countless treasures and the 23 ton Emille Bell cast in AD771. Gyeongju's other highlights include the scenic Anapji Pond, Tumuli Park which is the site of incredible giant grass-covered burial mounds and the ancient UNESCO World Heritage Listed Bulguk-sa Temple.
Just out of town, dramatically located on the slopes of Toham Mountain, Seokguram Grotto is another must see! Gyeongju is the historical and cultural heart of South Korea, providing an unrivaled insight into the country's history, religion and culture.