Recently we embarked on a journey to Sapporo for their Snow Festival. We live in Sendai and there are only two airlines that have regular service to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Nearly all flight plans will take you through Osaka or Tokyo a.k.a. “the wrong direction” before they put you on the frozen tarmac of Hokkaido’s main airport. Flights are around $230 one way from Sendai! Then there is shinkansen or hi-speed train. If you live in Aomori City that is probably pretty reasonable. If you live in or around Sendai its about $180US one way and takes forever with multiple transfers. There is highway bus, but to go such a distance would likely take two full days of uncomfortably warm bus rides and two full nights of sleeping really poorly if you can even find a bus that does that particular route.
Then I stumbled across Taiheiyo Ferry. Taiheiyo Ferry services the ports of Nagoya, Sendai and Tomakomai. For prices as low as $40US one way you can get a ride from Sendai to Hokkaido in about 14 hours. The trip is done over night rather than during the day. This sounded like a pretty sweet deal so I decided to jump ship on land travel and head for the open sea.
The Digs and the Ride
The ferry is awesome. I’ve been on a few ferries and this one was very steady. There were times where I felt the pitch and yaw of the boat but not like the catamarans in Greece. The common areas are definitely nice. The decor is a little bland but its basically a floating hotel, unlike an overnight bus, which is basically a rolling prison sauna. There is a game center, 24 hour vending machines (with beer in them), karaoke room, several bars (with terrible hours but I mean, thats what the vending machines are for), ventilated indoor smoking rooms for those with a tobacco habit, a restaurant, a movie theater, live entertainment. Its basically a cruise ship lite. Incredibly clean restrooms, public bath (onsen style) although it’s more like a wave pool because of the constant swaying of the boat, as if it were on an ocean or something. The slippery floors in the onsen can be quite hazardous with the unsure footing of a sea faring vessel. There are a few comfy couches in the lounge area and some really not so comfy ones. Lots of plugs to charge electronics as well.
Sleeping arrangements were mediocre although we bought the two cheapest rooms available. I can imagine the suites and first class cabins are quite nice and on par with the common areas. On the way to Tomakomai we had individual berths which work like a capsule hotel and start at 5,000円 each, one way. Two levels of capsule style berths are available, one has a TV in it, the other doesn’t. We found that the berths with the curtains drawn got very stuffy and quite hot through the night. There is not a lot of room to store your stuff so I ended up cuddling with my snowboard. I was gentle.
The common room or “Japanese style” is the least expensive at 4,000円 per person one way. These are large tatami rooms with roughly twenty sleeping pads arranged around the room to fit as many people as possible. If the ferry is sold out (which I think is unlikely) you will get to know the people to your left and right very well. There are only about 5 or 6 inches of space separating the sleeping pads. Also the pillows in the common rooms are basically bricks. I’m not exaggerating. They are shaped like bricks, and while made of fabric, have zero give to them. Perfect if you are Japanese, horrible if you are used to actually being comfortable while you sleep. There are ladies only common rooms that require a key card if you are a lady and traveling by yourself.
(The cafe shakes… a lot)
I was a little disappointed with the lack of an outdoor deck because I am insane and I wanted to feel how crazy cold that siberian ocean air was.
My biggest complaint is very silly though. I understand that it is silly, but I’m still going to complain about it anyway. There was not even a pay as you go wi-fi available on the boat. Its like being transported back to the early nineties (the color scheme on the boat helped with the illusion of a time warp) when you didn’t have constant access to the interwebtubes. If we can get wifi on a plane, we can get it on a boat. Get with the 21st century. We brought our WiMAX+ device but at times out on the ocean we didn’t have any signal. Don’t count on any streaming services and download everything you want to watch/listen to on the boat before you get on the water. Service is shoddy after the boat leaves the harbor.
Pretty nice overall, the spartan sleeping conditions not with standing. B+
But how convenient was it?
Booking online is by no means particularly easy. There is a lot of rigamarole involved with an online ticket. First you have to sign up for an account and be able to use katakana on your keyboard. I also had numerous problems with their web page rejecting common characters as invalid inputs even though they were in Japanese. Adding Japanese characters to your computer input is easy. Just Google what you need for your operating system.
The process works like this: Fill out an online application form with your personal info to open an account. Once you get the email confirmation you can log in (you need a phone number for this, likely a Japanese one). Once you have confirmed your account you start by finding the route you want to take, then you’ll get a calendar and you choose your dates. They do not allow you to book very far in advance but if you wait too long the special deals will not be available. About 8 weeks before the departure date is ideal. The online advance booking price is half of the normal list price. You must book online and you must pay in advance. Our berths would have been 10,000円 and 8,000円 each respectively if I hadn’t booked online during this special window. To book a return trip is really easy because you can go into your confirmed trips and click a button that says book reverse direction.
For online booking, it’s one of the more headache inducing set ups I’ve worked with, but you can book online so there is that, brush up on your Japanese for a successful booking. B-
I waited a bit too long on the return trip and they had “sold out” of their capsule berths at the 5,000円 price, so I booked the common rooms instead of which there were only two spots left. One in the all women room and one in the standard. Once we got on the boat I decided I would inquire about the upgrade price to regular berths. If you do change your mind about your quarters the upgrade price to change rooms on the boat is equal to the remaining half of your advance booking price plus the difference in price between the two berths or rooms.
My berth was 4,000円 (regular price is 8,000円) which I paid in advance. To change to the capsule berth, one grade above the common room was an extra 6,000円, more than I paid for the room in the first place. The regular price for the capsule berth is 10,000円 so they figure if you really want it you should pay regular price. I didn’t pay for the upgrade but it did make me think, “Did they just preserve their pricing structure or did they lose a sale?”
I went and had a peek back in the capsule berths, an entire wing of them was completely empty. I don’t know if they have security do a bunk check or anything but after 9:00PM I didn’t see any staff from the boat wandering around. If you hate your common room you can probably find and empty capsule without paying for it. What are they going to do, kick you off the boat? Since they had unsold berths, I would have gladly paid the 1,000円 difference in my booking prices to upgrade, but not more than I paid for my original berth. So they effectively turned away a sale which they didn’t have in the first place. You could sell an extra two bunks for 1,000円 each or make no money at all and have empty sleeping quarters that wont be filled because the boat already left the dock, which makes more sense?
Enough of that, it’s just bad business to turn away money.
Speaking of extra cost, getting to and from the ferry terminals was actually much easier than I thought it would be. Once in Hokkaido there is a Chuo bus (reservations not necessary) and Donan bus (not sure about reservations) that go to Tomakomai station and Sapporo JR station. If you are planning on using JR trains to get to central Sapporo from the ferry terminal its about 2,200円 one way. If you fly to Sapporo your extra train cost is about 1400円 from the airport to downtown. The Chuo bus is 1,270円 all the way to Sapporo and you’ll have to get on that bus anyway unless you take a taxi to the train station. I would recommend taking the bus all the way; no transfers, it saves you money and it isn’t that long of a ride. In Sendai there is a city bus that goes from Nakanosakae station to the ferry terminal, but in the evening the timing may not be reliable. We took a taxi and it was 900円 to be dropped off right at the door.
The value compared to the very pricey travel methods of flight and hi-speed rail is phenomenal, especially if you book in advance. From Sendai, it’s sort of like paying for one night in a hotel, except you can’t leave the hotel, well, you could… but … never mind. What I’m saying is, if you can book in advance and don’t mind the sleeping arrangements, it is by far and away one of the best ways to get to Hokkaido. If you are on a tight schedule or prefer regular accommodations, the value starts to slip as you will eat up a lot of time getting to and from the ferry (and being on it). Lastly if you have to pay regular price, you are looking at 20,000円 round trip for a private sleeping berth. Flights start to look much more attractive at that price and if you live near a major hub, like Tokyo or Osaka, there are probably less expensive flight plans than what Sendai has to offer.
Overall I thought the ferry was actually pretty cool. We had a really good time hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and just relaxing in general. It is a very hassle free way to travel. If you are in Sendai and want to go to Hokkaido in summer or winter, the ferry is a good way to go.