Although Japan is noted for its high speed, on-time bullet trains and its extensive network of railroads, Japan also offers various sea routes. Few tourists know about these routes however, as they are not very well publicized in English. Japan, made up of four main islands, has a 200-mile long inland sea as well as a chain of small islands that stretch from Kyushu all the way down to Okinawa, offering several options for the intrepid, budget-minded traveler.
Ferries are available from Hokkaido to Okinawa. If that’s not far enough for you, you can continue on to Taiwan. Ferries are definitely the long way to get anywhere but they are often cheaper than flying or using the bullet train. For example, the Seikan Ferry from Aomori City (top of Honshu) to Hakodate (bottom of Hokkaido) takes 3 hrs. and costs just 1,850 yen per person. Taking the express train from Aomori to Hakodate (which goes under the sea) costs almost twice as much. Miyazaki (Kyushu) to Naha, Okinawa takes 14 hours and less than 10,000 yen per person. If you can catch an overnight ferry, you can save on accommodations as well. For example, from Honshu you can take the ferry leaving Sendai at 8pm and arrive at Tomakomai in Hokkaido the next morning at 10:45.
Overnight accommodation is usually Japanese style, which means a large open floor space inside where everyone sits together (see photo). Just grab a corner of floor and set up camp. Some ferries, such as the one from Tomonokai to Tokyo have rooms, but they are not so private as they are large and meant for groups of people. Expect to share your room with others.
While some ferries are mainly passenger ferries, others (ex: Aomori to Hakodate) carry mainly vehicles: cars and commercial trucks delivering goods between regions.
Some other suggested routes:
Osaka to the hot springs of Beppu in Kyushu (13 hrs. 8,500 yen), then train it down to Kagoshima and take the ferry to Yakushima Island (4 hrs. 5,000 yen).
Explore Japan’s beautiful Inland Sea by taking a ferry from Osaka to any point on Kyushu. You’ll cruise among 250 islands!
If you’re traveling throughout Asia, you can pick up ferries/hydrofoils to Korea, Taiwan and Shanghai.
For domestic long distance ferry routes throughout Japan with schedules, prices and routes, see http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2355_01.html.
Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com