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Sunflower Furano: 18 hours on a ferry from Sapporo to Tokyo
Japan's passenger ferry is a grueling experience that will test your patience as well as your seaworthiness, but if you're looking to escape the world for a while it could be worth a shot
Planes are for wimps. To get up to Sapporo from Tokyo for the Snow Festival in February, I took the 16-hour Hokutosei sleeper train. So coming back, there was only one option that could be even more masochistic and irrational: the 18-hour sleeper ferry.
Boats may now be a relatively obscure means of travel between major metropolitan areas in Japan, but shipping company Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) runs its Sunflower ferries between Sapporo and Tokyo for both leisure and commercial travelers. The giant vessels that make the evening runs have huge storage areas for trucks and cargo, but the upper decks are something like a low budget cruise ship. They are outfitted with passenger rooms, a game center, baths for both sexes, an observation deck, multiple TV rooms, a kids' play area and a restaurant.
Although the ferry makes the most sense for truckers carrying dairy shipments to Honshu or those who want to bring their car up to Hokkaido, they can also be a cheap way to travel for the common man if certain conditions are met. Whether cheap or not, however, they are definitely always an adventure.
Not quite Sapporo to Tokyo
The first thing to understand is that when MOL says Sapporo to Tokyo, they are fudging the truth a bit. The boat actually goes from the Hokkaido port city of Tomakomai to the Ibaraki Prefecture port city of Oarai. Both of these cities are more than an hour from the listed destination cities.
Getting from Sapporo to Tomakomai takes around two hours on a local bus, which leaves for the port from Sapporo station at 3pm (¥1,270). The port is nowhere near JR Tomakomai station, so unless you want to take a cab, the bus is the easiest and cheapest option. The bus, however, makes dozens of local stops, and in my case, took so long that passengers were dangerously close to mutiny.
Although the ferry has a restaurant and a shop with snacks, conscientious travelers are best advised to pick up food in Sapporo or at the convenience store within the Tomakomai ferry terminal. The ferry has several hot water stations so instant noodles can be a good bet. There are also plenty of vending machines aboard so drinks should not be an issue.
Social divisions by room type
While the sleeper train attracts a strange contingent of families and train obsessives, the ferry is unambiguously low-rent. The boat population is about 85% men. A plurality of passengers are truck drivers whom the boat company clearly tries to separate from leisure passengers at every opportunity. For example, the truck drivers have their own low-priced cafeteria so that they do not cause a scene in the main restaurant. Despite these attempts, the truck drivers spill out into the lounge, baths and game rooms.
My particular voyage was shared with mostly random retirees. A few families were also on board, with their children loitering in the game rooms or positioned for 18 hours in front of the manga library.
Most time on the boat will be spent in the sleeping quarters, so booking the right accommodations makes the difference between 'romantic cruise' and 'refugee camp.' The economy rooms (¥8,500 off season, ¥11,000 peak season) are basically giant open tatami spaces with blankets, pillows and palettes piled up. They look like a mix between kindergarten nap time and a Red Cross hurricane shelter. The TV is always on, and this is where most of the truckers sleep, eat and smoke. The casual room (¥11,000 off season, ¥14,000 peak season) is a step up from the steerage: an open room but with individual beds. This is a favorite of college kids.
Looking for basic levels of comfort, I opted for the standard room (¥14,500 off season, ¥18,000 peak season), which is like a no-frills hotel suite. Each room comes with two pairs of bunk beds. Reserving as a single person will get you an entire room to yourself, but you then have to pay 75% the cost of the other beds in the room. Luckily during the off-season, you only have to pay for one other bed. In general, however, booking a standard room only makes sense if you come with friends or family. Otherwise the price becomes as prohibitive as taking the train or a plane.
Compared to the economy rooms, however, the standard room feels like serious luxury, with its own sink, a small sofa and table, a window view of the ocean and a TV/DVD player that sporadically receives digital transmissions from random Tohoku prefectures. You can rent DVDs on board, as long as you like watching Tora-san films and minor new releases.
If in a private room, there are few distractions when sleeping. The engines rumble and rattle softly, which ear plugs will help to minimize, and besides that there's a bit of rocking too.
We are not sure who exactly stays in the luxury deluxe rooms, but they are full-out hotel-grade accommodations (¥21,500 off season, ¥26,000 peak season) with their own bath and toilet as well as a real comforter on the bed. There are also Japanese-style deluxe rooms with tatami and futons. MOL throws these high-rollers free restaurant coupons.
What to do when you aren't seasick
The Sunflower boats are so large that the tossing and turning small vessels often experience at sea is not supposed to apply. In my case, however, the strong winds made the boat leisurely roll at acute angles. More sensitive types should bring some Dramamine or purchase it in the boat's gift shop.
When not eating in the restaurant or gawking at the hazy Tohoku scenery on the observation deck, there is not much to do on the boat. The game center is filled with crane games and some mahjong consoles. There is a small manga library, a few TVs set to the usual networks and a few film screenings. (Of course during my voyage it was the original Tora-san classic "Otoko wa tsurai yo.")
Like with the Hokutosei train, the best way to kill time for some may be drinking. There is no bar though, so vending machines are the closest thing to a bartender. Young yankii truck drivers in track suits will be buying lots and lots of third category beer but since this is still a Hokkaido trip, Sapporo Classic should be the brew of choice. The gift shop also sells ice and small bottles of liquor in case you want to get more serious. Heavy drinking does not go too well with seasickness but there are small porcelain vats for vomiting in the main area bathrooms in case things get out of control.
A good way to relax on the boat is getting in the baths. These are set up much like any low-priced hotel: a room for changing and a large room with baths and sitting showers. I was happy to learn that the water is treated to prevent Legionnaire's Disease. Soap and shampoo are provided, and the baths are amply warm. The only problem is that the boat's rocking makes sitting in the tub like being in a tide pool. And the truck drivers would not appear to take the 'shower before bathing' rule overly seriously.
Many passengers congregate in the lounge during the daytime. There are twenty or so comfy chairs placed in front of the windows and a row of massage chairs. A lot of women crochet. Scenery is nearly invisible at night, but in the morning, parts of Fukushima can be seen. The only problem is that the scenery reel moves about one inch per minute. For an even better view, passengers can go outside on the deck, which, depending on the weather, will be either refreshingly windy or brutally cold.
The long haul to Tokyo
Sunflower Furano arrives in Oarai around 2:30pm, but you've only made it to the next step of travel: Oarai to Tokyo.
The easiest way to start is to take the 14:40 bus to Mito (¥600). I instead called up a ¥740 cab to JR Oarai station -- a quaint place yet to install electronic ticket gates. I then took the adorable "one-man train" to Mito station (¥310), where I boarded an express train from Mito to Ueno (¥3520). There are buses from Mito station to Ueno Station, but they don't always coincide with the ferry arrival time.
Was it worth it?
Personally speaking, I was on this boat due to an obscure desire to see Hokkaido without using a plane. But was the ferry an appealing way to travel for the other people on board?
I asked two older women drinking beers with their bentos why they chose the ferry. Sisters Kazumi and Sunama Usami told me, "We came on this Yomiuri Tour from Hamamatsu with 27 other people. We are both retired so we've got plenty of time. It was super cheap."
20-something Nakaya Sugawara echoed this 'economics over efficiency' argument: "I wanted to go to Sapporo, and I had time, but no money. So I went with the casual room."
MOL's Sunflower boats are relatively pleasant, and there are no real complaints about the accommodations, but at the price I paid, the ferry makes very little sense as a means of transportation. The travel to Tomakomai and from Oarai tacks ¥5,000 on to the ferry ticket and takes four hours total. The boat generally lacks any of the sleeper train's romantic ambiance, and the gentle rocking can be uncomfortable. And I still felt like I was on a swaying boat for at least two days after returning home due to inner ear confusion.
Based on my experience, I can only recommend the ferry to someone looking to intentionally get away from the world for 18 hours. The cell phone reception is terrible, and the boat's culture will not inspire you to run around making friends with other passengers. The ferry from Sapporo to Tokyo is the perfect means of transport for self-isolation, but that may be it.