Even the locals may not have visited the southern islands of Japan. But from next year, French luxury expedition line Ponant will become the first company to take international travellers to the subtropical Ryukyu Islands where time has stood still.

“These tiny fishing villages and remote coastal towns have been preserved in a time-capsule, untouched by Japan’s rapid modernisation. They have retained a charm of their own, insulated from Japan’s tourist hot spots of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

“Even the local Japanese people may not have visited these rural fishing villages,” says Ryo Ijichi, Ponant’s expedition leader, Japan & Korea in an interview with Cruise Passenger.

Expedition leader Ryo Ijichi

From March 2023, Ponant will debut three bespoke, eight-day itineraries on Le Soleal for intrepid cruisers to experience first-hand what life is like on these small villages dotted along the Seto Inland Sea – the oldest sea route of Japan – which can only be reached by Zodiacs.

“Many of the buildings and houses date back to the Edo period between 1603 and 1867. In the village of Onomichi, which is beautiful and rural, their temples are steeped in both Buddhism and Shintoism. In other villages such as Mitarai many abandoned houses have been revitalised and turned into cosy cafes by Japanese people relocating to rural areas because of Covid.”

The Ryukyu Islands run in a long curving chain for almost a thousand kilometres between Taiwan and Kyushu, the country’s southernmost main island.

Charming fishing village of Mitari

The first expedition itinerary onboard Le Soleal which can only accommodate 246 passengers will depart Keelung in Taiwan on 24 March 2023 and sail for seven nights, before finishing in Osaka.

“There’s no better way to visit the Ryukyu Islands. Otherwise, you will require complicated flights and ferry rides which take up too much time just getting from one village to another.

“Instead, while you are comfortably asleep onboard Le Soleal, you will be taken in Zodiacs to discover new landscapes and immerse yourself in a different culture,” Ryo added.

Okinawa which is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, is the only one which some Australians might be familiar with especially its scintillating seas, fish-filled reefs and leaning palm trees, all layered with years of history and culture – thanks to the trade and political interactions between Japan and China. It is an intriguing destination where you can also spot the Iriomote cat and crested serpent eagles.

Quaint town on the Seto Inland Sea

Accompanied by Ponant’s team of expert naturalists and expedition leaders, you will gain a deep insight into this unique culture and landscape.

You will also be taken to snorkelling and diving spots.

One of Ryo’s favourites is Kume Island with its rich, tradtional culture created through trade between Japan and China.

“You will the chance to observe traditional dances, folk drumming and purchase delicate silk woven goods from Kume.”

Le Soleal will then sail to Zamami islands, known for its startling blue waters , which are surrounded by corals, home to sea turtles and a kaleidoscope of tropical, colourful fish.

There’s also the remote Ishigaki outpost with its Mykonos blue waters, golden beaches and lush hillsides. Here snorkelers can float with manta rays and go on a hike to discover a hilltop observatory, Shinto shrine and World War II sites.

There will be two other itineraries scheduled to depart Hokkaido on April 11 2023, sailing along the western sea of Japan to Honshu and a May 15 departure from Osaka to discover the Seto Inland Sea.

Okinawa’s Kumejima island

Ryo said that Ponant is finalising details of 12 itineraries for 2024 which will be announced in November 2022.

“Japan does not have a history of playing host to expedition cruises. The country’s island mentality means that the people and Japanese authority at state and municipal levels are very conservative particularly in the face of the pandemic.

“Our biggest hurdle is getting approval to have an expedition ship operate in Japan. It has been a long and slow process. But because I am Japanese, I understand the culture and I can speak the language. During the pandemic when Japan closed its borders, I spent a lot of time visiting these fishing villages to gain their support and approval. By 2024, we hope to get our expedition itineraries in Japan fully operational.

“Australians love expeditions. Many are choosing to cruise closer to home, so they should first cruise to the Kimberley where Ponant is operating, then go on an expedition cruise to Japan’s subtropical islands – only a 10-hour flight away,” says Ryo.

For more information visit uk.ponant.com/asia-expedition-in-the-seto-inland-sea