Japan’s long-distance ferries are a great way to explore the country, especially with a Japan Ferry Pass 21. To show how enjoyable it can be, I recently took a trip from Kyoto to Hokkaido and back (mostly) by ferry.
Suisen ferry from the air – image © Taiheiyo Ferry Company
Until recently, I had a very dim view of Japan’s long-distance ferries. I considered them to be the “Greyhound buses of the seas.” The last time I took one was the marathon 26-hour trip from Tokyo down to Chichi-jima Island, in the Ogasawara Group. The trip was as horrible as the island was beautiful. The second-class sleeping “berth” was a huge tatami-mat room where groups of people drank and chatted right through the night. I arrived bleary eyed and I spent the next few days dreading the long trip back to Tokyo.
So, when my friend Jun Kitayama told me about the new Japan Ferry Pass 21 (follow the link for my full writeup about the pass) and suggested that we take a journey to test it, I was less than enthusiastic. Jun lives in Kyoto but hails from Hokkaido and he usually takes the ferry to visit his hometown. He’d been telling me for the last few years how comfortable the new long-distance ferries are. I was doubtful, but I agreed to check them out.
So, this past April, as the cherry blossoms were dropping in Kyoto, Jun and I head from Kyoto to the Nagoya ferry terminal to catch the Taiheiyo Ferry Company’s Kiso ferry, which sails from Nagoya to Tomakomai Port in Hokkaido, via Sendai. It’s a two-night trip, with one night between Nagoya and Sendai and one night between Sendai and Tomakomai.
Jun and I met at Kyoto Station to start our journey.
Kyoto Station – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s a picture of me leaving Kyoto Station:
Chris at Kyoto Station – image © Jun Kitayama
Here’s Jun at Kyoto Station:
Jun at Kyoto Station – image © Chris Rowthorn
We took the shinkansen to Nagoya, a quick trip of 40 minutes. Once at Nagoya, Jun recommended that we try the local specialty: kishimen (thick udon noodles in a rich broth). He said that the shops on the local platforms are better than the ones on the shinkansen platforms, so we headed to the local platforms. The shop Jun likes is called Sumiyoshi Kishimen, which is a simple “tachi-kui” (stand-and-eat) joint. Here’s a pic:
Sumiyoshi Kishimen – image © Chris Rowthorn
The noodles were excellent. Here’s a pic:
Kishimen – image © Chris Rowthorn
We exited JR Nagoya Station via the Hirokoji Exit.
Hirokoji Side Exit – image © Chris Rowthorn
We walked to the nearby Meitetsu Bus Center, which is clearly marked in Japanese and English.
Meitetsu Bus Center Sign – image © Chris Rowthorn
The ferry company runs a shuttle bus from Nagoya Station to the Port of Nagoya (Y550). The ride takes about 35 minutes.
Shuttle Bus – image © Chris Rowthorn
When we arrived, we saw the Kiso at the pier, looking great in the late afternoon sun.
Kiso – image © Chris Rowthorn
The check-in procedure was painless (we had reserved in advance). We walked through a gangway that was more like an airport jetway and entered the ship. We were warmly welcomed on board by the crew of the ship, who were standing in the lobby like the staff at a department store at morning opening.
Here’s the atrium of the ship:
Atrium – image © Chris Rowthorn
I headed off to my private room (the JPF21 ticket covers a second-class berth, but I had upgraded). I was delighted to see that it was spacious, clean and comfortable, with its own en suite bathroom, including a tub and shower. It was like a room in a good business hotel.
Private Room – image © Chris Rowthorn
I later went down to check out Jun’s second-class berth. It looked quite comfortable. There was only one other person in his room and he had plenty of privacy. There was a curtain that he could lower when he wanted to sleep.
Second-Class Berth – image © Chris Rowthorn
We then headed up onto the deck to watch as the ship left port, after which we headed to dinner at the buffet restaurant. I have to say, it was a pretty impressive spread. It was a far cry from the restaurants on the ferries I had been on in the past. There were all kinds of Japanese, Chinese and Western dishes. We ate dinner and enjoyed the lights of coastal Aichi Prefecture in the distance.
Buffet – image © Chris Rowthorn
I’m a huge fan of the Japanese sento (public bath), so after dinner, we headed for the daiyokujo (great bath). It was like a very good sento. There were windows, so you could sit in the tub and watch the lights. The sauna was particularly good, with big windows allowing a view outside.
Daiyokujo Entrance – image © Chris Rowthorn
Jun took this picture of the daiyokujo with his panorama camera.
Daiyokujo – image © Jun Kitayama
After the bath, we made a quick tour of the ship. The features are pretty impressive. The shop has all the snacks and sundries you might need on a voyage.
Shop – image © Chris Rowthorn
There’s a theatre and they had a piano and vocal performance several times while we were on board. They also show movies.
Theatre – image © Chris Rowthorn
For light meals, there’s the Mermaid Café. Jun favors this place for breakfast.
Mermaid Café – image © Chris Rowthorn
All around the ship, there are comfortable lounge areas where you can work, relax, talk with friends, or just sit and watch the scenery.
Lounge – image © Chris Rowthorn
There’s a free tea machine in one of the lounges, where you can get hold and cold tea, as well as hot and cold water.
Free Tea Machine – image © Chris Rowthorn
If you want to know where you are at any time, you can check out the position monitor in one of the lounges.
Position Monitor – image © Chris Rowthorn
Families with young children will be pleased to see the kids room.
Kids Room – image © Chris Rowthorn
And, this being Japan, you can be sure that there’s the full compliment of vending machines, selling both soft drinks and alcohol.
Vending Machines – image © Chris Rowthorn
After exploring the ship, Jun headed to his berth and I headed to my room. I’m a huge fan of ocean journeys, having crossed the Atlantic at the age of two on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth liner and having taken a freighter down from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in Chilean Patagonia. I love nothing more than sleeping at sea. I find that the gentle rocking of the boat is very conducive to a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, I woke up to find the sun streaming through my window. I looked out to see the blue Pacific rolling by my window. I sat down and did a quick bit of work:
Morning in Cabin – image © Chris Rowthorn
I then headed up on deck to enjoy a beautiful morning at sea.
Morning on Deck – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s a shot Jun took that morning.
Deck – image © Jun Kitayama
I then headed to the restaurant to sample the breakfast buffet. It was excellent, with both Japanese and Western choices.
Breakfast Buffet – image © Chris Rowthorn
Jun had breakfast at the Mermaid Café. Here’s a picture of their deluxe morning set:
Deluxe Morning Set – image © Chris Rowthorn
In the late afternoon, we arrived in the port of Sendai. Jun and I disembarked and walked into town. En route, we saw this sign that showed how high the tsunami waters rose during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. It was a scary reminder of that terrible day. Had we been in that spot when the tsunami came, we would have been toast.
Tsunami Mark – image © Chris Rowthorn
Jun likes to eat the local specialties when he travels, so he insisted that we try to local Sendai specialty: gyu tan (been tongue). He led the way to a restaurant called Zenjiro:
Zenjiro – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s a picture of the gyu-tan teishoku (beef tongue set meal) that we ordered:
Teishoku – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s a close-up:
Tongue – image © Chris Rowthorn
When we finished dinner, we did a bit of shopping and then walked back to the ship.
Kiso in Sendai – image © Chris Rowthorn
After another lovely night at sea, we woke to another beautiful day. At some point during the morning, there was an announcement: “We will soon pass our sister ship, the Ishikari, heading the other way.” This meeting, called a “sure-chigai” in Japanese, is apparently a big deal for ferry otakus. Jun headed up to watch it on deck. I stayed in my room and watched from my port.
Sure Chigai – image © Jun Kitayama
We continued steaming north up the coast of Tohoku.
Wake – image © Chris Rowthorn
Around 10am, we caught sight of the snow-capped peaks of southern Hokkaido. I hadn’t expected to see snow-capped peaks in April and this close to the coast.
Arriving in Hokkaido – image © Chris Rowthorn
We docked at the Tomakomai Ferry Terminal at around 11am, after a journey of 40 hours.
Tomakomai Ferry Terminal – image © Chris Rowthorn
Jun and I took a taxi and train into Sapporo. Jun then led the way to his favorite jingisukan restaurant. Jingisukan is the Japanese name for grilled mutton. It’s a Hokkaido specialty named for the famed Mongol warlord Ghengis Khan (who presumably loved a nice lamb BBQ). Here’s a shot of the restaurant, which is called Tsukisapp Jingisukan Club:
Tsukisapp Jingisukan Club – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s a picture of the main dish. Damn, it was good!
Jingis Khan – image © Chris Rowthorn
We then did a bit of standard sightseeing in central Sapporo. I find Sapporo to be a bit confusing: It’s Japan, but it feels slightly un-Japanese. Yamato Japanese history is rather shallow here, and the Ainu culture didn’t leave a big physical imprint. The scenery and a lot of the architecture looks almost American, and then suddenly you see a Japanese temple or a shrine. And, of course, there’s Sapporo TV Tower.
Sapporo TV Tower – image © Chris Rowthorn
After sightseeing, we decided to try some of Sapporo’s famous ramen. We went to a place called Misono, which is in the Sapporo ESTA Building. There’s a ramen “village” on the 10th floor of this building called the Sapporo Ramen Kyowakoku (Sapporo Ramen Republic).
Misono Ramen Sign – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s the dish that I ordered: Misono Deluxe Ramen. Take note of the huge pat of butter on the right of the dish – as if the broth, the chashu and the pork weren’t rich enough!
Misono Deluxe Ramen – image © Chris Rowthorn
After dinner, we took the train back in the direction we had come. Of course, we were in Hokkaido, so we made a quick stop at Morinoyu Onsen en route. The onsen is a short walk from Kami-Nopporo Station on the JR Chitose line. After soaking in the onsen, we headed on to Minami-Chitose Station, where we caught a shuttle bus to Tomakomai-Higashi Port (Y1,000).
At Tomakomai-Higashi Port, we boarded the Shin-Nihonkai Ferry Company’s Suisen ferry. This ferry runs from Tomakomai-Higashi Port in Hokkaido, through the Tsugaru Straights between Hokkaido and northern Honshu, and straight down the Japan Sea coast to Tsuruga, which is in Fukui Prefecture, a 70-minute train ride from Kyoto.
The Suisen is a beautiful ferry that was launched in 2012. As soon as we entered, we saw that we were in for something special. Everything was spanking new. Here’s the atrium:
Atrium – image © Chris Rowthorn
By the time we boarded, it was late. We ate a quick meal and went to our rooms. Again, Jun had a second-class berth. I had upgraded to a private room. My room was a Stateroom A Japanese-style room, which had tatami mats on the floor and a futon. It was pleasantly odd to find this Japanese-style room on a ship.
The next morning, Jun and I toured the ship. Here’s the Café Ariadne, which serves light meals:
Café Ariadne – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here are two pictures of the children’s playroom:
Children’s Play Room – image © Chris Rowthorn
Kid’s Room – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here are two pictures of the lounges. The lounges are very comfortable and perfect for reading books or daydreaming.
Lounge – image © Chris Rowthorn
Lounge – image © Chris Rowthorn
If you want a workout, you can use this gym. I’m not a big gym guy, but I regretted not bringing my jump rope and doing a quick workout on the deck.
Gym – image © Chris Rowthorn
Travelers will definitely appreciate the coin laundry.
Coin Laundry – image © Chris Rowthorn
It was nice to see that the ship has a barrier-free bathroom, in addition to a barrier-free suite.
Barrier Free Bathroom – image © Chris Rowthorn
The ship has a great sento on board.
Sento – image © Chris Rowthorn
The sauna was fantastic, with big windows looking out to sea.
Sauna – image © Chris Rowthorn
But, the real highlight was the rotemburo. I loved sitting in the tub feeling the cold wind on my face and watching the ocean roll by.
Rotemburo – image © Chris Rowthorn
On our last day at sea, Jun and I enjoyed a nice French meal in the sitdown restaurant on the ship. It’s called the Grill Daphne and it’s really lovely. There was only one other diner there when we were there.
Grill Daphne – image © Chris Rowthorn
I wasn’t dressed for it, but I didn’t let that stop me from enjoying it immensely.
Chris at Grill – image © Jun Kitayama
Here’s Jun at our table:
Jun at Grill – image © Chris Rowthorn
The starter was a slice of quiche.
Quiche at Grill – image © Chris Rowthorn
The main was pork wrapped in cabbage.
Main – image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s the dessert:
Dessert – image © Chris Rowthorn
After lunch, I did some reading in my room. But, before long, I dropped off into a very pleasant afternoon nap.
Room with a View – image © Chris Rowthorn
Finally, we docked in Tsuruga and took an express back to Kyoto. It was a great trip. I’d recommend this as a great way to travel around Japan.
Here’s a map of the whole route we traveled:
For more details on the JFP 21, see our full JFP 21 page.
For information on other ferry routes in Japan, including routes to China and South Korea, check out our Ferry Trips from Kyoto page.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com - usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too.
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router.
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass - here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- Get travel insurance for Japan - we recommend World Nomads (and here's why)