The Joy of Cross-Cultural Friendships aboard a New England Voyage

by Richard Thompson

Richard and Shannon with Yoko in Kyoto, Japan
Richard and Shannon with Yoko in Kyoto, Japan

A lifetime ago, as a young Navy medic, I stood 50 feet away from General Douglas MacArthur and heard him speak.

The year was 1950, and MacArthur had been diverted from his work rebuilding Japan to Inchon, South Korea at the start of the war. I had followed MacArthur’s career very closely. I was greatly impressed by the human respect he gave our former foes, and how he had directed our engineers and technologists to help Japan return to peace.

In some ways, General MacArthur’s example led me to always greatly respect other people, no matter their national origin.

I never told my dear cruise ship friends, Yoshio and Yoko Okamura this story, but I think our close connection has its roots in my MacArthur moment.

We met over dinner on Regal Princess, on the first day of a 10-day New England cruise. My wife, Shannon, and I immediately struck up a conversation with the couple. They charmed us with stories of their lives in the old, royal city of Kyoto, where Yoshio was the chief financial officer at the city’s famed university and Yoko worked in the library.

Others were at our table, but for whatever reason, they didn’t get involved with us. They missed out on meeting an incredible couple. Yoko didn’t speak any English but Yoshio was pretty fluent. He’d go back and forth between talking to us and translating for his wife.  

Something about the four of us worked. We just hit it off. Conversation flowed over our nightly meals. On shore excursions, we’d look out for them. In Quebec, we were all taking pictures of the cathedral when I spotted a horse-drawn buggy. I booked an hour-long ride and we toured the city in fine style.

After our cruise on Regal Princess, we kept in touch. We’re all avid cruisers, so we’d particularly stay current on travel adventures. Each December, Shannon and I would send a New Year’s card—Yoshio and Yoko are Buddhist, so no Christmas cards—and we’d receive a delightful holiday letter in return.

When I emailed them about a cruise vacation we were taking on Sapphire Princess from Osaka to Seattle on its maiden voyage, they invited us to spend five days with them in Kyoto.

Yoshio booked us a hotel in Osaka. Then he sent a snail-mail letter with instructions in both Japanese and English on how to get there from the airport, along with 3000 yen for the cab, bilingual instructions to show the driver and a 500-yen phone card with their number taped to the back, so I could call them on arrival.

After an overnight in Osaka, Yoshio took us to Kyoto where we spent a delightful five days seeing the major sights and places foreigners never see, including a tea shop that had been in the same family for 600 years.

Toward the end of the stay, Shannon and I took them out for dinner. Yoshio ordered for us. Each precious dish came in separate servings; there must have been eight courses in all. At the midpoint of this fine meal, we were taken to a little side theater, where a beautifully adorned geisha sang for us.

When our visit ended, Yoshio took the train with us back to Osaka and accompanied us to the cruise ship. We’d told him our stateroom was on the Dolphin Deck, starboard side. Being a Princess Cruises person, he knew exactly where to spot us. He must have stood on the pier for half an hour.

Now that Yoko is retiring from her job, we hope that she and Yoshio will be able to travel more themselves. If another trip stateside is in their plans, we hope that we will have the opportunity to mirror the respect and friendship they so generously gave us in Kyoto.

I think it takes a cruise to really get to know new friends, and Shannon and I are enriched by our friendship with the Okamuras. Experiences such as this are one of the reasons retirement has been such a wonderful time of life for us, and we treasure how cruising has expanded our world.

Richard and Shannon once owned their own boat, but after discovering cruising, decided to sell it so they could enjoy sailing without the maintenance duties. They’ve now cruised on 13 voyages and have another cruise to Hawaii booked in the fall.