Yakatabune: Party boats ply the bay
The yakatabune -- which literally means 'roof-shaped boat' -- was traditionally enjoyed during the fireworks season of late summer, when the views of the Sumida River offered something other than industrial sites. But the boats can now be rented throughout the year and are much in demand for end-of-year parties, school trips and wedding receptions. Why drink to excess in a basement izakaya when you can do it outside -- in a gently rocking vessel?
The canals near Shinagawa are the overnight mooring spots for these boats, which start their journeys from nearby piers. Uniformly low and broad, passengers need to be careful not to bang their heads on the roof as they descend into the boat's long open room.
The food -- and the way in which it is served, at low tables with guests sitting cross-legged -- has not changed in the last hundred years. Typical fare includes zensai appetizers, such as handmade tofu, followed by salmon, tuna, shrimp and scallop sashimi. Next is a course of fish and vegetable tempura, including prawns, eel and squid with pumpkin and mushroom. Then noodles. The final course may be fruit -- or if you're unlucky, Japanese pickles.
The real draw, however, is the 'all you can drink' offer, which is ultimately why the trip is limited to two and a half hours. Otherwise a brigade of lushes might sink the fleet.
After the meal has been cleared away, some boats employ musicians and singers of traditional Japanese music, often in kimono, while others bring out the modern DIY form of entertainment -- the karaoke machine. Understand in advance that you are pretty much trapped. The only means of escaping a tone-deaf "My Way" is a wet exit.
An evening on a yakatabune works out to around ¥10,000 per person, roughly the same as a long night of eating and drinking at a Japanese restaurant. Anyone wanting to arrange a night on the water that coincides with one of the fireworks festivals needs to book well in advance -- months, if not years.
For further information, contact Yakatabune Harumiya at tel. 03 3644 1344 or visit www.harumiya.co.jp.