Owning a car in Japan is a luxury that most of us cannot afford. Lucky for travellers, Japan offers a myriad of ways to get around without a vehicle. The train network is nothing short of excellent and Shinkansen (bullet trains) are the perfect way to get to your destination on time and in style, though they can be a little on the pricey side. For those of us with cash limits, highway buses are an attractive option. While it’s not as comfortable or as quick, it does usually come at around 50% of the price of a regular Shinkansen ticket.
But have you ever considered taking the ferry? As a nation built of islands, Japan has an extensive network of ferries that has been active for around 200 years with various different companies offering a vast array of routes and a large range of prices depending on how luxuriously you wish to travel.
Ferries are best considered for long haul trips, the kind you would consider using air travel for as most ferries are overnight, or over many days. Internationally, the most common route is perhaps Fukuoka (Kyushu) to Busan (In Korea). Domestically, the most popular routes to take include Niigata to Sapporo (in Hokkaido), Nagoya and Sendai to Tomokomai (in Southern Hokkaido), Tokyo to Naha (Okinawa) and Osaka/Kobe to Beppu/Oita (on Kyushu), the latter of which I took recently on a weekend trip with some friends.
We boarded The Sunflower (a domestic ferry owned by the MOL company) at around 8pm on Friday night from Osaka Port. Apparently, it is recommended that you arrive at least an hour before this time however my friends and I arrived with about 20 minutes left of boarding time and there didn’t seem to be any problem. Best thing was, as our car was one of the last on, it was also the first off in the morning.
Without a car, Economy Class (the lowest) costs only about 8000 yen per person. (depending on the route/company). However taking the car costs only an extra 2000 yen per person. Compared to a 17000 yen Shinkansen ticket, it’s a real bargain. Not to mention the experience that is travelling by ferry.
Don’t get your hopes up however. Even third class on the Titanic was more luxurious. Economy class is basically a large tatami mat room full of futons lying side by side. For the basic, no frills traveller there can be no fault. However, if your more into your own privacy, you do have the option of booking a suite room (be warned, they start at about twice the economy price).
The boat itself is quite large and it never feels cramped or crowded. There are ample bathrooms, shower rooms and even a large dining area. Be aware however that dinner is served pretty much as soon as you leave. If your after something more substantial than cup noodles or 24 hour hot food from a vending machine, don’t waste time drinking on the upper decks. (As my friends and I found out to our stomach’s dismay)
If dinner isn’t a priority then I recommend spending as much time on the deck as you can, especially since the further out to sea you go, the colder it’s going to get. Also, the night lights leaving the port provide an excellent photo opportunity for people with the fancy, expensive cameras.
The great thing about taking the ferry is that if you are fortunate to have a friend with a car then you can travel a great distance overnight without the inconvenience of choosing between being really tired and sober or not taking the car. Everyone can have a drink and sit around without worrying about getting to your destination. You’ll be there by morning.
A few extra pointers include:
- Make sure you take enough alcohol and snacks for the trip. Everything on the boat either comes out of a vending machine or is ridiculously expensive. They’ve got you trapped, you are on a boat after all.
- Don’t leave anything you need in the car. You cannot access the hull after the ship has left port. Unless you lie through your teeth like my friend claiming that you didn’t apply the hand break. (Staff will notice that your holding a bottle of Umeshu that you weren’t holding before).
- Most ferries arrive at their destination early in the morning, therefore wake up call is even earlier. Breakfast starts at 6am (So if your planning on eating on the boat, don’t sleep in till 8am – like I did)
It’s defiantly a wonderful experience, something different to the cramped seats on a highway bus or the expensive Shinkansen ticket you just can’t afford.
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