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Bounded by the islands of Honshū to the north, Shikoku to the south, and Kyūshū to the southwest, and surrounded by a gently hilly shoreline, the Seto Inland Sea stretches roughly 250 miles from east to west. It’s been an important commercial waterway between the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan for millennia. And while pleasure boats have long navigated its waters, it’s a good bet that none have been as luxurious as the new Guntû, a small, exceedingly comfortable cruise ship with ultra-minimalist décor that bills itself as a “floating hotel.”
The 266-foot-long vessel, designed by Tokyo-based residential architectYasushi Horibe, couldn’t be more Japanese. Stepping aboard at a private marina in Onomichi, a port town near Hiroshima, I noticed that the only adornment in the ship’s lobby was a polished slice of tree trunk that supported a vase holding a single lily. My wood-paneled cabin, which had floor-to-ceiling windows, was outfitted with simple handcrafted furniture. There were crisp cotton kimonos in my bathroom, fresh ginger juice in my fridge, and books on bonsai in my snug sitting room. It was like the inside of a dream ryokan — only afloat.
The three-decker boat contains just 19 cabins — the largest is an airy 295 square feet — making it feel more like a private yacht than a ship. The top deck is designed as a single living area, but I rarely bumped into the other (elegantly dressed, Japanese) passengers during my three-day journey. Some were relishing their private balconies with outdoor tubs; others were having spa treatments or soaking in the onboard bathhouses.
The Seto Inland Sea has 3,000 islands, only some of which are inhabited, and I took daily excursions on the ship’s two speedboats. On Kashima Island, I saw fishermen bringing in nets full of coveted pin-size baby sardines. After landing at Miyajima Island one morning before the crowds arrived, I explored its cobblestoned streets, climbed the ancient stone stairs leading to the top of a forested hillside, and got a closer look at Itskushima, the famous sixth-century Shinto shrine that appears to rise out of the bay during high tide.
Mostly, though, I reveled in the Guntû’s refined spaces. I was served an unforgettable 11-course dinner created by Tokyo chef Atsuhisa Furukawa from local seafood and Wagyu beef so tender I could cut it with a chopstick; each tiny course was served on a different handmade plate. I also took advantage of the many masters on board: a shiatsu masseuse who unknotted my back; a pastry chef who taught me the intricacies of making and drinking matcha; and a star chef, Nobua Sakamoto, who showed me how to cut and roll sushi. There can be few lovelier places to learn how to make — or to eat — maki than at his six-seat wooden bar, as forested islands drift by and passing fishermen wave from their boats.