The ferry to Hokkaido: a journey from Tokyo to Sapporo 

The gradual demise of sleeper trains around the world is a bugger for someone like me, who loathes flying and will do almost anything to avoid it. Up until a few months ago, you could take a sleeper from Tokyo up to Japan’s northernmost main island, Hokkaido. But with daytime Shinkansen now making their way all the way up (only 9 1/2 hours, guys), the old night train has been discontinued. 

So instead we took the ferry. It leaves from a port town to the north east of Tokyo proud of its association with an anime about a bunch of high school girls who wage pitched battles in a bunch of German WW2 tanks. So proud that there are posters, banners and cardboard cut-outs of the characters everywhere, including the port terminal.

The ferry was to take in the region of 20 hours. There were approximately 20 other foot passengers, but most came by car and truck. The truckers had their own private eating section, gambling section, and sento, so my dream of bathing with a bunch of Japanese truckers will have to remain exactly that. 

There was a choice of accommodation. There was an “economy room”, essentially a large shared space which looked like an evacuation centre. You bedded down on the floor wherever you fancied, only to be kept awake by the endless fiddle music and energetic dancing of Irish émigrés and star-crossed lovers. 

There were also private cabins, thank heavens.

I excitedly explored the ferry. It didn’t take long. There was a restaurant, a deserted kids’ play area, a games room, a sento, a handful of vending machines, and a shop selling nautical trinkets and tins of bear meat curry. 

I paid up front for dinner and the following day’s breakfast. The restaurant was a ridiculous buffet affair: expensive and a little bland by japanese standards, but still a million miles away from the fried beige offerings to be found on British ferries. I had korean pancakes, pickles, japanese style hamburgers, and other assorted treats. Then the ship got underway, with a rolling gait. The swaying was a lot more pronounced than I was used to on more modern ferries, and I thought of the character in three men on the Bummel who paid for a week’s all-inclusive cruise around the British Isles and found he couldn’t eat a thing. Mercifully, the sea didn’t turn our stomachs; it did make us a bit dopey.

The on-board sento also had a sauna. I sat and sweated, washed, and bathed. The rocking of the ship sloshed the bath water back and forth. I looked out the porthole, and the moon was almost full. I had the place to myself.

After a night of vending machine beer and ukulele pulp renditions, I slept pretty well, the rhythm of the boat rocking me to sleep. In the morning, we discovered Japan had been hit by an 8.5 magnitude earthquakes. There had been a handful of injuries, minor damage and no deaths.

Lunch was pasta or curry. I had curry.

The weather was glorious, and Hokkaido’s coast was visible from the port bow. After some mucking about  on deck, and some Mario Kart tournaments, we had arrived. Hokkaido! It’s real!  




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