Travelling in Japan is expensive. If you are willing to put in a bit of extra time (and deal with a bit of discomfort), it is surprisingly easy to save some yen.
One of these is the ferry from Aomori to Hakodate (in Hokkaido). I wanted to visit not only the Hirosaki Neputa festival and Aomori Nebuta festival, but also the Hakodate festival (and just generally explore the city). The two-hour Shinkansen bullet train between the two cities was 5,540yen (one way).
The Ferry, on the other hand, was only 2,000yen and takes about 3 hours.
1. They never run out tickets (for passengers without a vehicle) on the ferry.
You don’t have to buy tickets in advance. You don’t even have to reserve them in advance. All you need to do is know the ferry schedule and show up at least thirty minutes (though showing up 45 minutes early would probably be the best) ahead of time at either the Aomori port or Hakodate port.
Unfortunately, you have to take a taxi (or walk 20 minutes) to get to the port, which adds another 1000yen.
And by ferry, of course, I mean giant boat transporting cars and cargo trucks with a couple people on board. The ferry between Hakodate and Aomori makes the bulk of its money from vehicles (after all, while people can ride a train under the sea to get to Hokkaido from the main-land, cars have no way of crossing the sea). Motorcycles are about 1 man ($100); cars are 2-3man ($200 – $300); Cargo trucks are much, much more expensive.
Which explains why it’s so cheap for people.
2. The ferry gets most of its money from the cargo trucks and cars fare, not the passenger fares
I’m not complaining. I love cheap.
But cheap comes at a price (ironically enough), and this price is “looks sketchy as hell.”
When you first board the cargo ship / ferry (after waiting for cargo trucks to board before you), you have to walk through a poorly lit room that looks like the torture scene from a horror film and smells like rotting fish and gasoline.
Don’t worry. I mean, I was worried, but that was only because I had no idea what to expect.
This room is where they store the cargo trucks. The next two floors hold cars and motorcycles. The top floor is for people.
At the end of this passage-way is a fancy escalator that will take you up to the top floor of the boat. It looks like a (cheap) cruise ship from here on out.
3. The ferry does not have seats.
What do you mean the ferry doesn’t have seats? I mean that aside from the couple plushy chairs in the “lounge” and”viewing area” and the stools in the slot machine room, the rest of the ship doesn’t have chairs. It is nothing like the cruise boats in Matsushima. Instead, all of the rooms are open areas with small black pillows. You just throw your stuff down, claim as spot, and sleep through the trip.
4. Most people sleep throughout the entire voyage.
The dull hum of the engine and the lull of the waves is perfect for putting you to sleep. I slept for two of the three hour voyage comfortably (each time). It was wonderful.
As I mentioned before, the ship has one “lobby,” a room full of vending machines, a room full of slot machines, and a room full of tables (with more vending machines). The rest of the ship is a series of about 6 massive rooms with tan carpets where people curl up with their baggage and sleep.
5. The people who aren’t sleeping either have kids, are eating, or are outside on the deck.
Surprisingly enough, the Japanese kids on board each of the ferries were remarkably well behaved. No crying, very little laughing, and even fewer amounts of screaming. I was impressed. If a child showed signs of “cracking,” one of their parents would pick them up, tiptoe around the other sleeping patrons, and take them out onto the deck to get a breath of fresh air.
You are allowed to go outside and walk around the ship. Sometimes it is cold and gloomy; sometimes it is sunny and wonderful.
6. They have sushi in vending machines. And lots of other “fresh” food.
I’ve heard whispers of sushi in vending machines from foreigners in Tokyo. It’s just like the mystical “vending machines that dispense used women’s underwear;” I’ve heard of them but never seen them. No one seems to know where they are.
Well, I finally found them. They’re on the ferry from Aomori to Hakodate. They also served mabu tofu, ramen, fried rice, and several types of beer in the vending machines.
It was like vending machine heaven.
7. You will be the last person to get off the boat.
When you dock, the cargo trucks depart first. Then the cars. Then the motorcycles. Then the “regular” passengers. If you’re lucky, they will let you stay upstairs while everyone else departs. If not, you might be stuck in the decaying fish and gasoline smelling basement, watching cars and motorcycles speed by for ten minutes.
But hey, it’s less than half the cost of a Shinkansen ticket – and you can sleep the entire way. I totally recommend it.
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