A guy I knew via Facebook once asked me: What would be the best flight to catch from Osaka to someplace in Kyushu? His plan was to land in Japan at the Itami Airport, change location to Kyushu, then travel north across Japan on a bicycle. I told him it would be much better to take a ferry. On an airplane, nobody talks to you. If you try to strike up a conversation with the passenger next to you, you will be treated as a nuisance. On a ferry, you always make friends. Truckers are always partying on the ferry from Osaka to Beppu. If you have a large piece of luggage like a fold-up bicycle, you can carry it right into your chamber. The food is better than on the plane and you can even use the shower. He followed my advice and was grateful for it.
There used to be thousands of ferry lines connecting the over four hundred inhabited islands of the Japanese archipelago. But that number has been steadily declining since the islands became increasingly connected by bridges and tunnels. It is a shame that we no longer have such charming little lines as the Tako Ferry. But despite the arguably diminished demand, some ferry lines are still alive and well.
The Seikan Ferry, for example, which once transported numerous goods and people between Honshu and Hokkaido, stopped carrying passengers entirely for a while after the Seikan Tunnel was completed. Rumors of its demise was premature, however. The company, after changing hands several times, has made a comeback. It now not only connects Hakodate and Aomori as the name implies, but offers five different routes, including a 19 hour cruise that connects Tomakomai harbor in Hokkaido to Oarai harbor in Ibaraki, which is two hours away overland from Tokyo.
The bridges and tunnels that connect Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and the smaller islands are fabulous marvels of architectural engineering. And although they have effectively decimated the ferry industry, there are still over 30 companies operating ferries in the Inland Sea alone. There are nearly a hundred ferry companies in Japan today operating hundreds of routes.
You can sail from Sendai to Nagoya, Otaru to Maizuru, Tokyo to Tokushima, or Tokushima to Kitakyushu. The Japan Long Course Ferry Service Association, which includes eight major ferry companies, offers the “Japan Ferry Pass 21”, which allows you to use any of the 14 ferry routes a maximum of 6 times within a 21-day period for 21,000 yen. Not a bad deal when you compare it to the price of airplanes and trains.
The ferry is economical if you don’t insist on luxury. The Sunflower ferry, which connects Osaka to Beppu, offers the “tourist” class (a nice way to say “economy” class) which costs 7,900 yen for a one-way overnight trip. Significantly cheaper than a hotel and you travel while you sleep. But the accommodation is spartan. There is only the bare floor with an excuse of a carpet and some blankets to serve as futons. There are no beds and, since everybody sleeps on the same floor, no privacy. The “deluxe” cabin has two semi-double beds in a spacious chamber with a private bath, but costs 39,600 yen one way. That is not only expensive, but negates the advantage of ferry travel entirely, which is social interaction. I recommend the “tourist bed” class for 11,200 yen, which is basically the “tourist” class with bunk beds. There are several class of rooms between “tourist” and “deluxe”, including the mandatory Hello Kitty themed room. If your cabin does not have a private bath, there is still the communal bath on board. It is better to be the early bird at the bath before all the hard working truckers have taken a dip. Otherwise, you can just use the shower.
The Inland Sea, being a narrow stretch of water between Honshu and Shikoku, is very calm and the ferry glides on it like a sleigh on ice. The ferries that travel on the open sea are not as smooth, particularly in the winter. In midsummer, most of the waters around Japan are very calm. If you are especially prone to motion sickness, you can avoid rough seas by not taking open sea ferries in any time other than July and August, when the sea is calm and the water is like a mirror. But if you are not so prone to motion sickness, modern large ferries are equipped with stabilizer fins and the discomfort is minimal anyway.
I am a resident of Beppu, which used to be a cross point for several ferry lines. We only have the Sunflower ferry and Uwajima ferry now. There used be ferries that connected Beppu to Hiroshima and Kure. Other ferries used to stop at Tokushima and Matsuyama. I have many fond memories of big metal boats. The economy cabins had tatami mats back in the day. Middle aged ladies sat in groups drinking tea out of thermos bottles and gossiping. In the days before instant ramen, you could order hot noodles from busy on-board cooks. The ferry that connects Kobe to Oita, my neighboring city, used to be called Diamond ferry. It has now been acquired by Sunflower ferry and sports the sunflower logo on its hull. I still use the original Sunflower ferry though. It is more convenient for me and I like the bigger boat. The atmosphere is friendly and everyone is partying on board.
When you are planning your next trip in Japan, try the ferry. It beats feeling alone in an airplane seat and you will get a fresh look on Japanese travel.