There’s nothing quite like a luxury stay at a traditional Japanese inn. Exceptional service, exquisitely prepared food of the highest order, long soaks in healing hot water, and all the other touches make each stay in these establishments, known in Japan as “ryokan,” a hotel experience unparalleled anywhere in the world. It couldn’t get any better right? Well, what if you were able to have all that while floating through some of the most amazing scenery Japan has to offer? “Welcome to guntû,” chirps our hostess with the cheery disposition of someone who truly enjoys her work. And why wouldn’t she, getting to travel in a state of the art luxury ship in some of the world’s most scenic waters?
There are times I envy people’s career choices. Billing itself as a “small floating hotel,” guntû (pronounced Gantsu) is part of an emerging market for luxury boutique cruising, a world away from the super-sized floating hotels normally associated with the cruise ship market. guntû is certainly no run of the mill cruise ship. Our hostess explains that the ship’s designer, Horibe Yasushi, was set the task of making a ship as elegant and beautiful as the Setouchi itself — “In a way that the ship would become part of the Setouchi, rather than stand out as being different.” The result? A perfect marriage — the best of an exclusive traditional ryokan, with the finest craftsmanship and creative interior design possible to situate on a ship. Any way you look at it, a trip on guntû is going to be a treat. With nineteen double rooms, at most 38 people get to stay on board — just enough people to find comfortable conversation without feeling overwhelmed. Of course, the rooms are so luxurious and beautifully appointed one could hardly be blamed for barely even leaving the cabin. I did a double take on seeing the “Grand Suite,” a spacious 80sq/m or so of polished wood and tasteful decoration, is as fine a hotel room as I can imagine, and then some more. The super-comfy bed faces a glass wall looking directly out onto the Seto Inland Sea, and to my surprise I find a generously sized hot tub nestled in the corner. With this room, as with every room on the ship, I have the perfect window seat for an amazing view directly over the water to the islands beyond. Actually, it’s more than a perfect view because the scenery constantly changes. guntû cruises exclusively in the Seto Inland Sea, and its relatively shallow berth and smaller size allows it to enter waters inaccessible to many other cruise liners.
Passing through numerous narrow straits brings you right into the everyday lives of islanders, the charm of a different pace of life hooks you in as you float on by. Expect to have the locals waving at you on the ship as you pass by, as fans of guntû abound in Setouchi. The ship is a rather unfamiliar color for a cruise liner, its distinct gray-silver allows it to reflect the sun, the water and the light of the Setouchi, effectively becoming part of the scenery and magnifying what is already distinctive and beautiful about its surroundings. For example, with the setting sun, the ship takes on the color of the last embers of the day to appear with a deep red glow.
A marvelous setting for enjoying one of the world’s premiere seascapes. At every point on our tour of the ship, we learn of the detail, craftsmanship, and tradition incorporated into guntû’s design. In many ways, the ship is a showcase of the very best Setouchi has to offer. Tables and chairs made by master craftsmen — cushions, towels, seemingly every object has a story to tell. “The roof is deliberately peaked so it can better match the buildings facing the sea lanes,” says our hostess. In fact, all the windows and ceilings are designed to accentuate the view, giving a perfect frame to help capture the dazzling scenery. Time and time again you will be reaching for your camera while onboard.
The design fusion of hotel and ship takes many forms. Pristine white spiral staircases, on-deck hot tubs, and oh so many more creature comforts of land have made it on board. I’m particularly taken with the upper deck engawa, like a wrap-round house porch, it’s the shared zone between the inside world of a traditional Japanese house and the garden beyond. The guntû version allows you to sit on a raised platform above the deck to gaze upon the ever-changing scenery as you sip on freshly made matcha tea. A quintessentially Japanese experience. Green tea is a big thing on this ship, and all crew have been trained in the traditional tea ceremony and can perform it whenever you desire.
There is even a matcha set in each room and they will make it in front of your eyes. “Matcha tea ceremony in bed” — a very modern take on this cornerstone of Japanese tradition. Before long we find ourselves in the ship’s lounge area — a bright, open space with traditional shoji sliding doors separating our sparse, Zen-chic interior from the perfectly framed sea beyond. We’re watching a master confectionery chef creating traditional wagashi sweets before our eyes. Amazing skill, and a rarity to even witness an artisan plying his trade. I enquire about the little crab-shaped sugary delight on my plate. Turns out it’s a rakugan sweet that has been pressed into the shape of a guntû — a small crab ubiquitous in Setouchi, and found in family miso soup pots throughout the region.
Even in naming the ship, the people at guntû prioritized connecting with the locals. Unsurprisingly, a glance at the menu tells you that you’re eating local, as the bounty of the Seto Inland Sea can be enjoyed in all forms. Freshly created at the Sushi Bar, or delightfully prepared by master chefs, your meals will be a sumptuous delight in a restaurant where every table has a sea view. Between the elegant surroundings, the sublime food and drinks available, and the plush rooms on offer, it is some wonder that anyone would want to actually leave this stunning, floating ryokan.
However, the good folks at guntû have given great thought to a stimulating array of onshore activities. Rising with the sun and going for morning walks on deserted islands, experiencing a fishing village in its waking hours, or beating the crowds to world heritage sites like Miyajima, traveling by ship provides a different kind of travel experience. With luxury onboard and adventure on shore, cruising is unsurprisingly one of the most enduring luxury travel options. I have decided to forgo a coffee a day and pay it toward my next visit to this amazing ship. I will be saving for a while yet, but the reward will surely be worth it. Photographs by Peter Chordas & Tetsuya Ito Courtesy of Setouchi Cruise Text by Steve Jarvis