For the traveler, Japan has a host of wonderful modes of transportation. No matter where you want to go- there is a way to get there.
Most people think of the four main islands of Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido but, in reality Japan is a land of thousands of islands. Japan's extensive ferry system was birthed out of necessity because access to most of the smaller islands is only possible by ferry travel.
We travel around Japan as often as possible and I've found that I much prefer ferry travel for the longer distances. Ferries run between our port in Kitakyushu and other major ports in Osaka, Kobe, Tokyo, Matsuyama and beyond. We always book the overnighters and a typical voyage to Osaka or Kobe takes around twelve hours. Although we haven't taken it yet, the voyage to Tokyo is longer.
Since boarding time is usually between 16:00-19:00 hrs. and arrival in the destination city is anywhere between 17:00-20:00 hrs., most of the time onboard is spent sleeping. What's more comfortable than that?
There are several ferry companies to choose from but, the two we usually make bookings on are Hankyu or City Line.
Compared to taking the train, riding the ferry is much more comfortable. Yes, it can take a bit longer but it's much cheaper, more relaxing and much more fun!
Sleeping accommodations and pricing for each varies. Fares ranging from 6,300 yen per person for the cheapest accommodations to around 25,000 yen for the most expensive. If your children are in elementary school you'll pay about half an adult fare for them.
Many ferries also allow passengers to bring their cars, motorcycles, bikes or trucks onboard for a fee. You can also bring your pets onboard in some cases but, it's important to check with the ferry reservation staff first.
The cheapest fare will get you a communal style tatami room. You'll be sharing that co-ed space with many other people. The size of the communal room will vary from ship to ship but they are all basically the same- large open tatami rooms with lockers and cubby spaces for passenger's belongings. If you are comfortable with this setting and are on a budget then it's a great way to go because it's cheap!
I have seen smaller sized communal tatami rooms that are marked "women only", a more comfortable way for women on a budget to travel.
The communal tatami rooms do not have any sinks or toilets in them. Passengers can use the public showers, onsen and toilet facilities that are located throughout the ship.
The first time we traveled from Kitakyushu to Osaka we had elderly family along so, we booked a private family-sized tatami room that could accommodate up to six futons. There was no sink or toilet but there was a television, bedding, slippers and hand towels. There were ample electric outlets in the room for charging phones or using a personal hairdryer. Granted it was not the cheapest room but considering that we needed some privacy it was a very comfortable way to accommodate all of us together in one room.
It was only 700 yen more than the communal bunk room that we had originally booked.
Bunk-type rooms are a step up in pricing from communal tatami rooms and there are several types.
The cheapest of the bunk-style rooms are communal and co-ed and hold 4-12 bunks. There are no sinks or toilets but there are small closets that can fit small travel bags. If you are carrying large suitcases you may want to check with the front counter to see about bag storage. The bunk rooms are a tight fit. There is not much extra space for personal belongings and privacy is minimal. However, each bunk has a curtain that can be completely drawn around it for privacy within your little bunk space. Passengers are also provided a light blanket and small pillow. Cabins tend to be on the warm side and people usually bring light comfortable clothing to wear while on board the ship.
As with the large tatami rooms, "women only" bunk rooms are also available.
First class bunk rooms hold between 2-4 bunks and from my experience always have a sink in the room. Other amenities include wall outlets, a television, a cotton kimono or "yukata", slippers, and a hand towel. The yukata can be worn while walking to and from the bath or shower room, while lounging in your bunk room or walking around the ship. Small luggage closets are also provided for hand carry bags.
In the sink area there is a small table and cushioned bench perfect for enjoying a snack or a cup of tea.
These cabins are also a tight fit with not much room for moving around but, they are comfortable enough. Each bunk has a privacy curtain, electrical outlets for charging phones or other small appliances and a small reading light.
My favorite ship accommodation is the two bed cabin. They are definitely not the cheapest but compared to taking the train, are still a much cheaper option. These cabins offer two beds side by side versus stacked bunks-perfect for older passengers who may not be able to climb up to the top bunk.
Included in the room is a sink area, luggage closets, a small Japanese style table and two zabutons. There is also a television, an electric hot water pot, tea cups and complimentary tea. There was also a thermostat and we were able to adjust the temperature to something that suited us. We were quite cool and comfortable!
The most expensive room on board is the Western-style suite room with beds and full amenities. Something that I personally have not experienced however, the photos look grand!
Except for the Western-style suite room, all passengers use the public toilets and shower rooms. Shower rooms can get a bit crowded in the mornings. If you need a morning shower it’s best to plan on getting up before the crowd. A few hair dryers are available however, it is easier to bring my own to use in the privacy of my room.
You can also experience taking a traditional style bath in the ship's onsen! Men and Women each have their own onsen area complete with a large window for viewing the ocean!
For an extra charge you can have your meals in the ship's dining room. The experience depends on the ship line. On the City Line Ferry meals were served buffet style. All you could eat and drink for a certain amount. Beer was not included but could be purchased separately.
The Hankyu Ferry served more "cafeteria style" meals with small individually wrapped dishes that you could choose from. Drinks were also purchased separately. It was not an "all you can eat" fare however, you could get coffee and rice refills at no extra charge.
There are scores of vending machines available and you can purchase instant noodles, drinks, sandwiches, pastries and snacks from the gift shop. As well as toiletries and other small items. Scattered throughout the cabin hallways are hot water and ice stations. You could purchase a bowl of instant noodles and eat it in your cabin or at one of the many window-side seating areas throughout the ship. Ship meals tend to be a bit pricy though and many people bring their own food.
There is a variety of entertainment available onboard ranging from a wide-screen television, a few pachinko and video games, beautiful deck views and even a karaoke room available for a small rental fee.
I must add that one of the best parts about taking the ferry is meeting new people. We have met some really interesting people onboard while wandering the ships deck or relaxing on couches while viewing the ocean.
If you are worried about sea-sickness like I was the first time, fear not! There are really effective motion-sickness medicines available at drugstores in Japan and usually in the gift-shop on board.
Once you reach your destination port there are busses and taxies right outside of the terminal building waiting to take you to your next adventure!
If you are planning long-distance travel in Japan why don't you give ferry travel a try? It's really a fun experience, one that I personally have come to enjoy!
Japan guide - Link to Ferry Schedules