Taking a Japanese Ferry – Unique Comforts on the High Seas
Japanese ferries are a great way to travel, if you have the time. We found ourselves in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku, needing to get back to Tokyo. The bullet train is fantastic but quite expensive. On the other hand, if you have 17 hours to spare, the ferry is a comfortable, different, and fun way to travel. We bought tickets for the overnight ferry from Tokushima to Tokyo. A ~$100 ticket gets you a bed in an open berth configuration of 4-8 beds.
Every bed has a curtain for privacy and is way more spacious than our bunks on overnight trains in Thailand or India. Some other types of Japanese ferries don’t have beds, opting for a large common deck with floor mats instead. That sounds fun too.
We arrived an hour and a half before our scheduled 11:30am departure. This was another chance for the Bromptons to save us money – full size bikes incur an additional fee. A folded and bagged Brompton is just another piece of free luggage to bring on board. The ticket window wasn’t open yet, so we settled outside with our usual breakfast of 7-Eleven onigiri (rice balls stuffed with tasty filling). That’s when we caught the attention of a ferry employee who approached and told us in halting but clear English: “On the boat: no alcohol. If want alcohol, please buy at convenience store.”
This was extremely valuable intelligence. We had brought along a small carton of sake, and doing the math on a 17 hour voyage, we quickly decided to double that ration and throw in a couple of cans of beer as well. Dmitry rode back to the nearest 7-Eleven (you’re never far from one!), while Mila bought the tickets.
There is no restaurant on the ferry – all the food and drink comes from a bank of around a dozen vending machines, including frozen noodles, soups, sushi rolls. Ice cream and soft drinks, but no booze, as we were warned. The ferry has a capacity of 150 passengers, but there were maybe 20 total on our boat.
We spent the first couple of hours exploring our vessel. The main deck houses the dining/vending area, and all the cabins. The upper deck has a sun room where you can relax on a floor mat, a room with a TV, a tiny arcade room with a couple of slot machines (!), and, most amazingly, a public bath! Yes, the ferry had an onsen.
As we set out into the Pacific, following the shore of Japan, the seas were pretty rough. Mila and I are pretty used to boats, but we both got a little woozy from the constant rollicking. Mila lay down for a nap and I decided to see if a soak in the hot bath would neutralize the constant motion. The onsen turned out to be clean, equipped with soap, and even large windows. Quite an experience, sitting naked in a slightly sloshing hot bath, watching the rolling waves of the Pacific through the porthole.
At dinner time, Mila opted to stay in bed, while I went out in search of some kind of vending machine dinner. Most of the other passengers were doing the same. As I was microwaving a frozen block of noodles back to life, I noticed that a middle aged couple kept sneaking glances my way. I had an inkling they were about to unleash some Japanese-style hospitality, and I was right. The man came over and invited me to sit with them at their table. A couple of minutes later, the three of us were happily chatting, and I had a glass of non-alcoholic beer (surprisingly common here). Not to be outdone, I ran back to my bunk and brought back my 7-Eleven sake to share. They didn’t really speak English and my Japanese is laughable, but we got on fine, talking about America and looking at photos from a wedding they’d attended in Chicago two years ago, still on the lady’s phone. They were very concerned about my “beautiful wife” who hadn’t made an appearance. I explained that Mila was sleeping, so they insisted on sending me back with gifts for her: two packets of instant coffee and a sachet of microwaveable beef curry.
At this point there wasn’t much left to do but lie back on the cot and let the Pacific rock me to sleep. The next morning the ferry docked at a Tokyo port at 6am. We wanted to disembark and ride off immediately, but the crew insisted that we take a 1 minute shuttle bus to the ferry terminal with the rest of the car-less passengers. This we did, and finally we were free to ride into Tokyo.
If you have the chance to try a Japanese ferry, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity. Sure, they’re much slower than a train, but they’re much more comfortable, cheaper, and allow you to save paying for a night at a hotel. If you get seasick, grab some meds. You’ll arrive rested and, clean, and maybe with a new friend or two.