Aspects of bicycle touring in Japan By Bill Macher

Japanese Ferries...
a Treasure for the Bicycle Tourist!

What makes the car ferries so great? Well... they are clean, often travel overnight so you can sleep on them, include a Japanese bath, are not too expensive, and more. Often they remind one of a passenger liner, with reclining chairs on the decks, framed photos hanging on the walls, television viewing rooms, and even saunas sometimes!

The rather extensive ferry system in Japan is probably the only roll-on bicycle transportation service available. I suppose trains are an option, if you are willing to break down your bike and bag the bike for taking aboard the train. For me, I do not feel that this is an viable option with a fully fendered, dual-racked loaded touring bike which, with gear, weighs 41 kg (90 lb.) or thereabouts. But with the ferry, you just buy your ticket, pay a bit for the bike, and go to the head of the line. Bicycles board first with the motorcycles, and disembark first too!

ferry entranceFerries can be a way of getting somewhere, if you do not have time to do a loop ride. For example, there are ferries that sail between Tokyo and Hokkaido, and any other number of other places. You could take a ferry from Tokyo, and ride back. Or, if you run out of time, chances are you can find a ferry to get you back days earlier than you could ride. Or just cut out a portion of the return leg if you want. Ferries can be a time to relax and rest. You do not have to sit, you can lay down on a clean, carpeted floor and sleep, or read, or talk, or...sip a beer!

The way it works is you get your ticket and with it a slip for the bicycle. Then you go to the head of the line of cars and trucks that are waiting to board the boat.

ferry insideAfter the ferry is unloaded, someone will check your slip to verify that you paid passage, and a seaman at the entrance will wave the motorcycles and bicycles on. You ride up the ramp, onto the ship, and another seaman will point you to the spot where you are to lash your bike to a wall. Be careful, the painted metal deck of the ship can be slippery! Hand signals do the job need to speak the language at all. There is always something to lash the bike to, and often the seamen will want to put his rope on the bike to, even if you secure it with your own.

When the ship arrives at your destination, try to get down to the bike and have it packed up before the exit doors open. This will let you exit first and before the cars and trucks. If you are late, you will be breathing fumes and wishing you could hold your ears as you are exiting along with the traffic. Not a real problem, but not as pleasant as being the first out, for sure!

You will find even the older ferries amazingly clean. If the trip is an overnight one, there will certainly be a full-blown Japanese bath to enjoy. Sometimes with windows that let you view the sea as you bathe, no less. The customs for this bath are the same as for all other Japanese baths; be sure you know the rules and enjoy.

ferry carpet roomExcept for the shortest ferry routes, the ferry will have carpeted rooms where you sit (or lay down) and relax. You will be wearing your shoes as you enter the ferry and go to the room where you will spend you passage. These carpeted areas are off limits to shoes, naturally. The floors of these rooms are about 10 cm above the floor where shoes are permitted. You step out of your shoes and up onto the carpet. Blankets and pillows may be provided, but you also have the option of using your sleeping bag as your blanket if you desire. Sometimes you have to pay a couple hundred yen extra for a blanket. The sleeping bag works fine.

The long distance ferries have restaurants that are open for three meals, and machines sell snacks and drinks, including sake' and beer. Prices are a bit higher than on land, but not too much. You can bring whatever food and drink you want on board with you, and this is probably a wise thing to do, as you can save money this way.

You should bring everything you will need with you when you come up from the hold, where you left you bike, because technically no one is permitted to go back down until arrival at the destination. However, you will likely be able to covertly return to the bike if you need to. But maybe only once or twice.

ferry loungeOne ferry I took from Ogi, on Sado ga Shima island in the Sea of Japan, to the mainland was so fantastic that I still hardly believe it was a car ferry. I almost cried when I had to get off! I really learned to love the relaxing time abroad the ferries, when I would lay and read my maps and write my journal, often while sipping a beer. This ship must have been a really new one, as it was all marble and gold plated metal, with automatic glass doors everywhere, including the entrances to the rest rooms! Unfortunately, it was only a four-hour ride. The photo I took of the main lobby is one of my favorite "Guess where I took this?" photos. Not one has guessed yet that it was the main deck of a measly car ferry. The answer I am more likely to get is "the Imperial Hotel?"

As you bicycle tour in Japan, keep the possibility of taking a ferry in mind. Doing so might give you one more enjoyable memory. Sure did for me!

uploaded:16, 11, 2006

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