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The Shin Nihonkai ferry to Hokkaido

Enjoy a journey through the Sea of Japan

As the sun set to the west, casting a spine of glimmering orange across the slice of sea in our view, shutters snapped from the front deck of the Hamanasu, the ferry we boarded in Maizuru, Kyoto the night before that would soon arrive in Otaru, Hokkaido.

The daily route operated by the Shin Nihonkai Ferry company is just one of the sea-based ways to get between Hokkaido and Honshu. Going by ferry takes time, of course (in this case, about 20 hours), and even opting for the cheapest tickets will cost you more than an average one-way flight on a low cost carrier. But we had a car along for the ride and a summer vacation to fill before starting new jobs, so the ferry was a perfect fit.

For some travelers, the experience itself may be worth the time and money, although that experience depends heavily on your choice of lodging and the relative calmness of the sea.

We lucked out on on both fronts. Thanks mainly to procrastination, we were left with only one choice when it came time to book: a private room on the upper level of ship featuring a deck overlooking the sea. This comes at a price of about 30,000 yen per person, not including other costs for the car. The room itself looks and feels like a business hotel, complete with a mini-fridge and a TV.

The weather behaved as well, with partly cloudy skies offering interesting views and the lack of wind saving us from any potential sea sickness. The ship is large enough that if you travel on a calm day, you'll hardly feel any movement at all, aside from a steady vibration only noticeable when you're still.

And stay still we did, crashing soon after the post-midnight boarding and sleeping through sunrise, waking only for a brunch made up of groceries we had carried on board. There are restaurant choices as well, but the operating times are limited and we were content to relax in our room. But when our snack supply ran dry, a late afternoon mission to the ship's convenience store left us disappointed, as it too was only open for set periods of time. We were left with beer and french fries produced by vending machines near the shuttered shop.

We also spent time exploring the rest of the ship's features and entertainment options. A quick glance at life in the lower decks revealed what the cheap option would entail, namely shared and cramped accommodations.

A small movie theater drew a solid crowd for an afternoon sowing of Super 8, dubbed in Japanese without any subtitles. After muttering something about my dislike of dubbed movies, I swept aside my negativity and did my best to enjoy the show.

Elsewhere, seating areas with sea-facing windows are widely available, though it was sometimes hard to find an open chair (no problem for those with a private room, of course, but for people staying in shared rooms, such space probably offers a welcome break). The rear deck is also open to passengers in need of some fresh air. If the weather is nice, photography buffs can get in some work as well, aiming for the sea, the sun, or the first sightings of land as the destination nears.

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