Very few foreign tourists use Japan’s long-distance ferries, but they’re a fantastic way to explore Japan, especially with a new ferry pass aimed at foreign tourists. The Japan Ferry Pass 21 allows you to make six ferry journeys during a 21-day period for only Y21,000 (less than the cost of a one-week rail pass).
Ferry Kiso from the air – image © Taiheiyo Ferry Company
- The Japan Ferry Pass 21, or JFP 21, is a new pass offered by the Japan Long Course Ferry Service Association (JLCFSA). It was introduced in 2017 and it allows foreign tourists to make up to six ferry trips on the 14 JLCFSA ferry routes during a 21-day period. The pass costs only Y21,000. Thus, it’s a very attractive alternative to a 21-day Japan Rail Pass, which sells for Y59,350.
- The pass, which is only available to non-citizens and non-residents of Japan (ie, foreign tourists), can be used any time of year except Golden Week (early May), Obon (mid-August) and Shogatsu (New Year’s period). The price is the same for anyone over the age of six (those below six ride for free).
- On overnight routes, the pass allows you to stay in second-class berths, which are generally private berths in shared rooms. However, for a relatively modest surcharge, you can upgrade to fully private rooms with beds or futons. This makes it a great option for families traveling with children.
Ferry Suisen from the air – image ©Shin Nihonkai Ferry Company
Here’s a route map showing all the routes covered by the JFP 21. Note that the routes connect several ports on the main island of Honshu with Japan’s other three main islands: Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. The pass does not cover ferries to Okinawa or the southwest islands of Kagoshima Prefecture.
How to Buy the Pass and Book Travel
Buying the pass is relatively simple and clearly explained in English on the JFP 21 site. First, you visit the site and select a route. Then, you make a booking on the site for the date and time you’d like to travel. You will get an automatic confirmation of your tentative booking from the ferry association. Then, you will receive an actual confirmation email from the ferry company that operates that route.
Screencap of the JFP 21 reservation page
When you show up on the date in question to board the ferry, you must show your passport, your reservation number (important!) and pay the Y21,000 in Japanese yen cash (no other payment methods are possible). At that time you will receive your ferry pass (ie, you receive your JFP 21 pass when you board your first ferry, not before). It sound a little complicated, but I’ve tested the system and found that it works well.
Taiheiyo Ferry Nagoya check-in counter – image © Jun Kitayama
When you check in, you can upgrade your sleeping arrangements from the standard second-class berth to a private room by paying the difference in price between a B berth and the private room of your choice (see more below for details).
How to Make Following Reservations
You use the same booking system on the JFP 21 site to make all your following bookings. And, you must bring your JFP 21 pass and passport to board your following sailings.
Typical Ferry Facilities
If you sailed on any of Japan’s long-distance ferries in the past (say, 10 or 20 years ago), you might not have fond memories. Second-class sleeping accommodations were shared tatami-mat rooms that were usually occupied by groups of noisy travelers who tended to stay up all night drinking. Food was usually limited to instant ramen and curry rice, and the ships tended to be a little grotty.
However, Japan’s new long-distance ferries are completely different. Many of them seem more like small cruise liners than simple ferries. While ships vary in facilities, here are some features you can usually expect:
Sit down buffet restaurants, similar to the buffet at a mid-range hotel:
Buffet restaurant on the Kiso – image © Chris Rowthorn
A smaller snack-bar/café serving light meals and drinks throughout the day:
Café on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
A “baiten” (small shop) selling snacks, alcohol, drinks, souvenirs, toiletries and other sundries:
Shop on the Kiso – image © Chris Rowthorn
A good selection of vending machines (this is Japan, after all):
Vending machines on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
Several lounge areas where you can sit with friends, read, or just enjoy the coastal scenery:
Lounge on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
A deck or two where you can enjoy the scenery, soak up the sun or do some exercise:
Upper deck on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
A coin laundry (super useful for those on long trips):
Coin laundry on the Suisen – image © Jun Kitayama
A daiyokujo (great bath) that is similar to a good sento (public bath). These usually have sauna and some even have a rotemburo (outdoor bath). Believe me, sitting in an outdoor bath with the ocean breeze on your face is an experience not to be missed!
Daiyokujo on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
Some of the newer and larger ferries might also have some of the following features:
A theatre where you can enjoy a movie (almost always in Japanese and usually lacking subtitles) or musical performances:
Theatre on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
Gym on the Suisen – image © Jun Kitayama
Barrier-free suites and bathrooms for handicapped travelers:
Barrier free bathroom
The new long-distance ferries have a wide variety of rooms, ranging from the standard second-class berth, which you get with the JFP 21 pass for no extra fee, to Japanese-style and Western-style private rooms, all the way up to “royal suites.” Here is a sample of the rooms on the Shin Nihonkai Ferry Company’s Suisen ferry. I’ll list the Japanese names for each type with the English translation in parentheses. Note that not all ferries will have the same types of rooms as those shown here. But, this will give you an idea of what is possible.
Second-class berth (B Shindai or Tourist A):
This is the standard berth that you get with the JFP 21 pass. There’s a curtain to shut for privacy, as well as a reading light.
Second-class berth on the Kiso – image © Chris Rowthorn
First-class Western-style private room (itto yoshitsu)
This is a standard private room. To give you an idea of how much it would cost to sleep in one of these while using the JFP 21, on the Taiheiyo Ferry from Nagoya to Hokkaido, you would have to pay a surcharge of Y5,100. So, it’s not a bad deal at all. There are en suite toilets and showers in these rooms.
First-class Western-style private room on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
First-class Japanese-style private room (itto washitsu)
The rates are similar to the Western-style room above, but there are tatami mats and you sleep in futons. This is a good choice for people with small children. There are en suite toilets and showers in these rooms.
First-class Japanese-style private on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
Special Western-style private room (tokuto yoshitsu)
These rooms are very comfortable. There are en suite toilets and shower/baths in these.
Special Western-style private room on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
Special Japanese-style private room (tokuto yoshitsu)
This is the Japanese version of the above. These are great for families with children.
Special Japanese-style private room on the Kiso – image © Jun Kitayama
For a special trip, perhaps a honeymoon, this would really make for a memorable experience.
Royal suite living room on the Kiseo – image © Jun Kitayama
Royal suite bedroom on the Kiseo – image © Jun Kitayama
Note that there are several other variations, like mixed Western/Japanese-style rooms and so on, but this will give you an idea of what to expect.
A Few Model Routes Using the JFP 21
To give you an idea how you can explore Japan with a JFP 21, we’ve created two sample itineraries.
Course 1: Tokyo, Shikoku, Kyushu, Kansai and Hokkaido
This course is the “grand course” that allows you to sample all of Japan’s four main islands. This course has it all: culture, nature, onsens and mountains.
Explore Shikoku (Iya Valley etc) and travel overland to Takamatsu.
- Takamatsu>Kobe (by Jumbo Ferry, not covered by pass)
This brings you to the same port as your next ferry.
Explore the onsens and mountains of eastern Kyushu.
This brings you back to Kansai, where you can explore Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.
Next, head north to the wilds of Hokkaido.
- Tomakomai>Oarai (near Tokyo)
This trip gets you back to Kanto, where you can do the final short overland journey back to Tokyo.
Start in Tokyo and travel overland to Niigata, where you catch the ferry north to Otaru, in Hokkaido. Explore the mountains and onsen of Hokkaido.
Travel from Hokkaido, via Sendai, and down to Nagoya, which can serve as your gateway to Kansai. Explore Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Koya-san etc.
Travel from Kobe via the island-studded Inland Sea to Oita, in Kyushu. Soak in onsens, explore volcanoes and enjoy great
Travel from the northern tip of Kyushu via Tokushima in Shikoku and back to Tokyo.
For more details and pictures of what a trip on Japan’s new long-distance ferries is like, check out our Ferry Trip to Hokkaido 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
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy - here's how.
- Get travel insurance for Japan - we recommend World Nomads (and here's why)