Consisting of several thousand islands, Japan is naturally home to an extensive network of ferry routes. Japan's four main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku) are connected with each other by bridges and tunnels, but many smaller islands can only be reached by ship. But even between the main islands, ferries can be an interesting, if not particularly fast alternative to trains, buses and planes.
Most ferries transport people, vehicles and cargo. While shorter routes are served by small ships, able to carry a couple of cars and a few dozens of passengers, large liners are employed on longer routes. Large ferries can carry hundreds of vehicles and passengers and are usually equipped with a range of amenities such as public baths and a restaurant. Some come close to being luxury liners.
On most long-distance ferries, passengers have the choice between three classes, 2nd class, 1st class and special class:
2nd class without bed the cheapest option Common space with a carpet or tatami mats to rest on.
2nd class with bed typically 20%-40% more expensive than 2nd class w/o bed Dormitory with about 4-12 beds.
1st class typically twice the cost of 2nd class w/o bed Room with about 2-4 beds.
Special class typically 2.5 to three times the cost of 2nd class w/o bed Room with about 2 beds.
The cost for taking a car onto a ferry usually depends on the length of the car and includes the fare for the driver but not for additional passengers. Advance reservations are possible and recommended on some routes, but are not needed on routes with relatively frequent departures.
Bicycles can also be taken onto most ferries. As a rule of thumb, the cost for bringing a bicycle is about 100 yen for each hour of travel. So, on a 9 hour trip, for example, a bicycle will cost around 900 yen.
Ferry tickets can be purchased through the ferry companies directly (by phone, online or at the ferry terminal) or through travel agencies. The availability of English speaking staff cannot be counted on. Some ferry routes can be reserved online in English through Direct Ferries.
Major Ferry Routes
Below are maps and lists of major domestic ferry routes:
Otaru, Hokkaido Otaru Ferry Terminal is a 10 minute bus ride from Otaru-Chikko Station or a 30 minute bus ride or 10 minute taxi ride from Otaru Station. Otaru is located 30 kilometers east of Sapporo (640 yen, 30-45 minutes by JR train). More details.
Tomakomai, Hokkaido Tomakomai is located 70 kilometers south of Sapporo (one hour, about 3000 yen by JR limited express train, 75 minutes, 1450 yen by JR local trains or 100 minutes, 1310 yen by Hokkaido Chuo highway bus). Tomakomai has two ports, Tomakomai East Port (used by Shin Nihonkai ferries) and Tomakomai Port (used by most other ferries). Tomakomai East Port is located 30 kilometers outside of the city (bus connection from Tomakomai Station), while Tomakomai Port is just a short bus ride from the railway station.
Muroran, Hokkaido Muroran is located 140 kilometers south of Sapporo (150 minutes, 2060 yen by Hokkaido Chuo highway bus or 100 minutes, about 4500 yen by JR limited express train). Muroran Port is within walking distance from Muroran Station.
Hakodate, Hokkaido Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferries and Seikan Ferries have separate ferry terminals in Hakodate, both being located about a 20 minute taxi ride north of the city center. The Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry terminal can also be reached in a 15 minute walk from JR Nanaehama Station, and the Seikan Ferry terminal in a 25 minute walk from JR Goryokaku Station. Donan Ferry is using the same ferry terminal as Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry. More details.
Aomori Aomori Ferry Terminal is about 2 kilometers, a 10 minute taxi ride or a 30 minute walk northwest of Aomori Station.
Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture Oarai is located 130 kilometers northeast of Tokyo: 100 minutes, about 4000 yen by limited express train (JR Joban Line from Ueno, transfer to Kashimarinkai Railway at Mito Station), 2.5 hours, 2590 yen by local trains (same route) or two hours, 2150 yen by Ibaraki Kotsu highway bus (from Tokyo Station). The port is a 5 minute taxi ride from Oarai Station.
Niigata Niigata is located 330 kilometers north of Tokyo on the Sea of Japan coast (2.5 hours, about 10,000 yen by JR shinkansen from Tokyo Station or six hours, about 3500 yen by highway bus from Ikebukuro or Shinjuku stations). Niigata Port is a 25 minute bus ride from Niigata Station.
Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture Tsuruga is located 90 kilometers north of Kyoto on the Sea of Japan coast (50 minutes, about 3000 yen by JR limited express train from Kyoto). The port is a 10 minute bus or taxi ride from Tsuruga Station.
Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture Maizuru is located 100 kilometers north of Kyoto on the Sea of Japan coast (100 minutes, about 3500 yen by JR limited express train or two hours, 2400 yen by bus from Kyoto Station). The port is a 10 minute taxi ride from Higashi-Maizuru Station.
Tokyo The Tokyo Ferry Terminal is located on a man made island in Tokyo Bay, not far from Odaiba. The closest railway stations are the Kokusai-Tenjijo-Seimon Station on the Yurikamome elevated train (20 minutes from Shimbashi Station) and Kokusai-Tenjijo Station on the Rinkai/Saikyo Line (30 minutes from Shinjuku Station). More details.
Osaka Most domestic ferries leave from Osaka Nanko (Osaka South Port). The closest station is Ferry Terminal Station on the Nanko Porttown Liner, which can be reached in 10 minutes from Cosmosquare Station, the terminal station of the Chuo Subway Line. The Hankyu Ferries for Kitakyushu leave from Izumiotsu Port, reached by shuttle bus from Izumiotsu Station on the Nankai Line (20 minutes from Nankai Namba Station).
Kobe Kobe has several ferry terminals, including the Kobe Port Terminal (used by Jumbo Ferries to Takamatsu and Miyazaki Car Ferry to Miyazaki) and the Rokko Island Ferry Terminal (used by Ferry Sunflower Ferries to Oita and the Hankyu Ferries to Kitakyushu). The Kobe Port Terminal can be reached in a short bus ride or 15 minute walk from Sannomiya Station or a short walk from Port Terminal Station on the Port Liner. Rokko Island Ferry Terminal can be reached in a short bus ride or 20 minute walk from Island Kitaguchi Station on the Rokko Liner. More details.
Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture Matsuyama's ferry terminal (Matsuyama Sightseeing Port) is located a 3 minute bus ride or 10-15 minute walk from Iyotetsu Takahama Station, the last station on the Takahama Tram Line (20 minutes, 410 yen from Matsuyamashi Station). There are also buses from JR Matsuyama Station to the port (20 minutes, 460 yen).
Yawatahama, Ehime Prefecture Yawatahama Port is a 5 minute bus or taxi ride from JR Yawatahama Station. Yawatahama Station can be reached from Matsuyama by limited express train (45 minutes, about 2500 yen) or by local trains (100-120 minutes, 1280 yen).
Sukumo, Kochi Prefecture The Sukumo ferry terminal is a 10 minute bus or taxi ride from Sukumo Station.
Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture Kitakyushu is Kyushu's second largest city, located just across the straight from Honshu. Kitakyushu's Kokura Station is a station on the Sanyo Shinkansen. Kitakyushu has two ports, Shinmoji Port, which is used by most ferries and Kokura Port, which is used by the ferries from Matsuyama. To reach Shinmoji Port from Kokura Station, take a JR local train to Moji Station. From there, it is a 20 minute taxi ride to the port. Kokura Port is a 10 minute walk from Kokura Station. More details.
Beppu, Oita Prefecture Beppu Port is a 10 minute bus ride from Beppu Station.
Usuki, Oita Prefecture The ferry terminal in Usuki is a 15-20 minute walk or short taxi ride from Usuki Station.
Saiki, Oita Prefecture The ferry terminal in Saiki is a ten minute walk from Saiki Station.
Miyazaki Miyazaki Port is about 15 minute bus or taxi ride from Miyazaki Station.
Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture Shibushi is located 90 kilometers east of Kagoshima and south of Miyazaki (150 minutes by bus from Kagoshima or 2.5 hours, 2130 yen by JR local train from Miyazaki). The port is a short taxi ride from Shibushi Station.
Kagoshima Kagoshima's Port consists of a main port and a new port. The main port (used by most ferries) can be reached in a 10-15 minute walk from Izurodori tram stop or a 15-20 minute bus ride from Kagoshima Chuo Station. The new port (used by A-Line and Marix Line Ferries to Naha) can be reached in a 10 minute taxi ride from Kagoshima Chuo Station. More details.
Naha, Okinawa Prefecture Naha has three ports: Naha Port, Naha Tomari Port and Naha New Port. Most long distance ferries use either Naha Port or Naha New Port. More details.
Japan Ferry Pass 21
The Japan Ferry Pass 21 provides up to six trips on selected long-distance ferry routes across Japan within a 21 day period. The pass costs 21,000 yen and is not available to residents of Japan. Pass holders are entitled to ride ferries in the 2nd class and have the option to upgrade to a higher class or bring vehicles by paying extra. The pass cannot be used during peak seasons, including Golden Week, Obon and New Year. Ferries must be reserved at least five days in advance.
The routes covered by the Japan Ferry Pass 21 are shown below: