Asia comes alive during its countless festivals. Visiting during one of the region’s annual celebrations offers travellers a chance to delve deeper into the local psyche, promising richer insight into the traditions on which the country is built and an opportunity to share experiences with the locals themselves. And with demand for hotels and local transport often exceeding supply throughout the festivities, there’s no better way to go than cruising.
1. Gion, Tenjin and Nebuta Festivals, Japan
Why settle for one festival, when you can savour three in one fell swoop? Mid-summer heralds matsuri (festivals) aplenty in Japan, and Princess Cruises has planned an entire itinerary around some of the country’s most historic and famous celebrations, such as the six-day Aomori Nebuta Festival. Parades featuring ornately crafted paper floats in kaleidoscopic colours – some up to 30-ft tall – file through Aomori during the festival, typically depicting mythological Japanese characters.
There’s also Tenjin – a two-day festival that originated in the 10th century and celebrates a local deity – where processions of dancers, costumed characters, drummers and portable shrines fill the streets, and a 100-boat parade floats down the Okawa River. The festival’s pièce de résistance is a 90-minute-long fireworks display.
Kyoto’s biggest festival, Gion, meanwhile, lasts for the entire month of July and boasts street parties replete with hawker stalls and parades.
Princess Cruises’ 16-night ‘Grand Japan with Gion, Tenjin and Nebuta Festival’ cruise is a round-trip voyage from Tokyo, which includes seven ports of call in Japan, plus stops at Vladivostok (Russia) and Busan (South Korea). From £2,699pp excluding flights, departs July 19, 2020 (princess.com).
2. Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, Taiwan
Stand and stare in quiet contemplation as more than a hundred thousand paper lanterns sail into the night sky at this annual festival. The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival takes place on the last day of the Lunar New Year (February 8 in 2020) and has been a local ritual for more than a century. But visitors to this hillside village can send a tiāndēng (sky lantern) up into the heavens at any time, for the cobbled streets of Pingxi are lined with lantern shops.
The meaning of this spring festival is twofold: in part it serves as an offering to ancestors, yet it’s also an opportunity to wish for blessings in the coming year. Festival goers inscribe their prayers on the lanterns, before lighting the soybean oil lamp and releasing it in into the sea of golden lights above.
Celebrity Cruises’ 14-night Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan cruise embarks at Singapore before taking in several stops in Vietnam, two cities in Japan, Taipei (Taiwan) and Hong Kong. Celebrity also offers a dedicated shore excursion during the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. From £919pp excluding flights, departs February 1, 2020 (celebritycruises.co.uk).
3. Golden Week, Japan
One of the busiest periods in Japan’s calendar, Golden Week encompasses four national holidays within the space of seven days, with almost every inch of the country launching into full-on festival fever.
On Cunard’s seven-day Golden Week cruise you’ll soak up the festival atmosphere in the seaside cities of Kagoshima and Fukuoka; enjoy Showa Day (the birthday of the late Emperor Showa) in Tokyo; experience Midori no hi (Greenery Day) in Nagasaki; and return to Tokyo for Constitution Memorial Day.
Expect parades, performances, ceremonies and decorations galore, particularly in the capital. Tokyo is, for example, host to the Spring Grand Festival, held at the famous Meiji Shrine, as well as the Wisteria Festival held at Kameido Tenjin Shrine. If you’re lucky you may even catch the last blooms of sakura (cherry blossom) season here too.
Cunard’s seven-day Japan (Golden Week) cruise aboard the Queen Elizabeth is a roundtrip sailing from Tokyo, that also visits Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Jeju Island (South Korea) and Fukuoka. From £1,949pp excluding flights, departs July 19, 2020 (cunard.com).
4. Tet, Vietnam
A time to start afresh, to mark the arrival of spring and to forget the troubles of the year that was, Tet (or Vietnamese New Year) is the biggest event in Vietnam’s calendar and a cause for national celebration. Buddhist temples throng with worshippers who come to give donations and get their fortunes told; markets overflow with flowers considered auspicious, such as yellow apricot and peach blossoms; festive banners that read “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (Happy New Year) adorn shopfronts and restaurants; and street food stalls spring up, peddling mut (technicolour candied fruits) and banh tet (squares of glutinous rice mixed with mung beans and pork and wrapped in banana leaves).
Seabourn’s 14-day Thailand & Vietnam cruise aboard Seabourn Ovation embarks at Singapore, and then heads north, exploring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam along the way, before disembarking in Hong Kong. The cruise line’s January 18, 2020 departure coincides with Tet (January 25, 2020) in Ho Chi Minh City. From £11,999pp, based on two sharing a Veranda suite, excluding flights (seabourn.com).
5. Diwali, India
Marking the triumph of good over evil, Diwali (or Deepavali), is a five-day festival and a tradition that dates back more than 2,500 years. Observed by Sikhs and Jains as well as Hindus, the so-called Festival of Lights is also the biggest of its kind in the country.
Cities and towns and temples and homes all glow with the soft light of small earthenware oil lamps, known as diya. These clay lamps are set adrift on rivers and streams across the country too, or placed neatly on ghats (the steps that lead down to a waterway). Watch on as fireworks streak the night sky with colour; firecrackers sputter, spilling light and plumes of smoke into the streets; and children wave fizzing sparklers like magic wands.
Avalon Waterways’ 13-day Colourful India and The Ganges package begins in Delhi and takes in Agra and Jaipur before guests fly to Kolkata, where the cruise along the Ganges starts. The cruise line’s November 5, 2020 departure coincides with Diwali (14-18 November, 2020). From £5,437pp, excluding flights (avaloncruises.co.uk).