Since ancient times, Japan has relied heavily on commerce by the seas to link the chain of islands. Today there are many ways the country can be crossed, from bullet trains to planes, but boats are still important to the identity of Japan. Docked in Aomori Bay is a ferry ship that played an important role in the identity of northern Japan, the Hakkoda-Maru.
Photo by Angaurits on Wikipedia. The Hakkoda Mountains with Aomori in the foreground.
The Hakkoda Maru is named after, the Hakkoda Mountains, a series of volcanoes that Aomori sits at the foot of. The Hakkoda Mountains are also known for being the setting of the worst mountaineering incident in history when, in January of 1902, 199 of Aomori’s 5th Infantry Regiment perished during a training exercise in preparations for the seemingly inevitable Russo-Japanese war.
The ferry line carried passengers, goods, and trains from Aomori to Hakodate in Hokkaido across the Tsugaru Straits from the 1890s to 1988, when there was no need for a link to the JR Tohoku Main Line (now the Aoimori Railway). This was due to the opening of the Seikan Tunnel from Aomori to Hokkaido, the longest tunnel in the world until 2016.
This particular boat that is docked in Aomori Bay now ran from 1966 until the lines closure, but it shows visitors through documentary movies and exhibits what life onboard was like throughout the long history of the ship for all of those that journeyed across the straits, both crew and passengers.
The first exhibits display to visitors, that all walks of life were part of what made riding from Aomori to Hakodate an exciting journey. There are apples everywhere in the exhibit that attempts to recreate what the culture of the boat was like during its operation. This is done with almost too lifelike dummies, period pieces, and recordings. Pilfering crows, cats, and a guy caught in the act of stealing from a vendor. Fresh fruit could be purchased, dogs would steal fish from unsuspecting vendors, while others simply enjoyed the view of Mount Hakkoda shrinking away from their first class seats as they traveled towards Hokkaido. The three documentaries presented are in Japanese as you make your way through this section of the boat. One is 2 hours long, while the others are about ten minutes long. Information is presented primarily in Japanese, however English is used for general descriptions of objects and events.
After witnessing what it was like to be part of the crowd during the ferry’s operation, the story of the ferry line is told. War and weather spelled disaster for the ferry during its long history, however the ferry was a major boon to Aomori. The emperor even travelled to Hokkaido on it before the jet age made air travel possible to Hokkaido from Tokyo.
Next, you continue on to see the bridge of the ship where you can look north to Hokkaido from the perspective of the ferry captain. The bridge includes all sorts of navigational curiosities, great sights of Aomori and beyond, and a shrine for crew members. This section is neat if you are a nautical buff, but there’s more to come.
An elevator takes you down to see the belly of the ship, where trains were loaded on to complete their route from Tokyo to Sapporo. This part of the boat has a totally different feel from the rest, it’s very open compared to the tight quarters of the rest of the boat and has an air to it that makes one feel they are experiencing Japan at its industrial peak. Be prepared for more of that industrious feeling, plus a rather strong smell of oil, when you enter the engine room of the boat. It’s truly impressive to see how much machinery was needed to make the boat operate smoothly.
The tour ends after you head back upstairs, but there is much more to do within the vicinity of the museum. Nearby sites include the Nebuta Museum: Warasse, A-Factory, and the Aomori Prefectural Museum.
¥500 per person. If groups of more than 20 visit the fee is reduced to ¥450 per person.
The Memorial Ship is a 5 minute walk from Aomori Station.
Aomori Station is 3 and a half hours from Ueno Station in Tokyo via the Tohoku Shinkansen and JR Ou Line.
By air, Aomori is a 1 hour and 20 minute flight from Haneda, plus a 35 minute JR Bus ride from Aomori Airport to Aomori Station.