To Sendai on the Kitakami

. . .

This mid-April journey begins in the port city of Tomakomai on Hokkaido, in the distant north of Japan; farther south the country had just been battered by a once-in-a-half century typhoon but, before that, it had been possible to stroll around in t-shirt and shorts. In Hokkaido the winters are harsh and even with cherry blossom blooming across the country, up here snow could still be found lying on the ground and everywhere trees remained wrapped in their winter straw overcoats.

Tomakomai is perhaps the most important port on the island of Hokkaido, with overnight ferry routes heading south along the eastern, Pacific coastline with Taiheiyo Ferry (to Sendai and on to Nagoya) and MOL/Sunflower (to Oarai, nearer to Tokyo). A shorter service is provided by Silver Ferry to Hachinohe. A few kilometres from the main port lies Tomakomai Higashi (East) port, from where the masters of the Sea of Japan, Shin Nihonkai, maintain a regular service down the western coast of Honshu. This confluence of routes has seen companies serving the Tomakomai area receive perhaps the four most significant new Japanese ferries of 2011 and 2012 in Shin Nihonkai’s soon-to-be delivered Suzuran and Suisen, Silver Ferry’s Silver Princess and the new Ishikari of Taiheiyo. The latter was delivered in 2011 and has received many plaudits but, for this crossing, we are sailing on the earlier half-sister of the old Ishikari, the Kitakami of 1989.

The Tomakomai-Sendai-Nagoya is served by three ferries of which the Kitakami is the eldest.

The Tomakomai-Sendai-Nagoya is served by three ferries of which the Kitakami is the eldest.

A taxi from Tomakomai train station brings us to the port where earlier clouds have cleared to reveal clear blue sky. Passengers are free to amble along the quayside where we obtain up-close views of our vessel and of the adjacent Sunflower Furano. This pair of ships hold particular interest for admirers of the Greek ferry scene for they have each had close relations sailing there in recent years. The Nissos Rodos (ex-Kiso) of Hellenic Seaways has seen sparing passenger use since being sold by Taiheiyo in 2004 but was previously a close sister of the Kitakami. The Sunflower Furano, meanwhile, is the sister to the pair that for many years maintained ANEK’s Venice service, the Lefka Ori and the Sophocles Venizelos – those robust and speedy ships have recently left Greece for new lives in South Korea.

Tomakomai ferry terminal.

Tomakomai ferry terminal.

The Kitakami.

The Kitakami.

Sunflower Furano.

Sunflower Furano.

Walking to the small park adjacent to the port we observe the arrival of the brand new Silver Princess, a ship for whom pink is the new black and which boasts a slightly chavvy promotional theme. She turns and reverses onto the berth to the stern of the Kitakami. Returning to the terminal, a small port museum is located upstairs with models of some famous Tomakomai ships. More models can be found in the check-in area downstairs, where we are swiftly dealt with by the Taiheiyo Ferry staff. Although we have made a reservation, in Japan this does not involve payment in advance, so we hand over our 10,000 yen each for accommodation in capsule berths on tonight’s sailing to Sendai.

The Silver Princess.

The Silver Princess.

A model of an earlier Sunflower Sapporo in the museum - this ship is now Agoudimos's Ionian Sky.

A model of an earlier Sunflower Sapporo in the museum - this ship is now Agoudimos's Ionian Sky.

A fine model of the first Ishikari - which went on to become the Eritokritos of Minoan Lines and, later, Endeavor Lines before going for scrap after the 2010 season.

A fine model of the first Ishikari - which went on to become the Eritokritos of Minoan Lines and, later, Endeavor Lines before going for scrap after the 2010 season.

The Shiretoko Maru - more familiar to European eyes as Minoan's N Kazantzakis.

The Shiretoko Maru - more familiar to European eyes as Minoan's N Kazantzakis.

The Kitakami in all her scaled glory.

The Kitakami in all her scaled glory.

Taiheiyo Ferry check in.

Taiheiyo Ferry check in.

Tomakomai ferry terminal, seen from the ship.

Tomakomai ferry terminal, seen from the ship.

Kitakami deckplan. Click for larger image.

Kitakami deckplan. Click for larger image.

Boarding is permitted an hour and a half before departure and a quick look around confirms that this is a truly splendid ship. The five vehicle decks show why Hellenic Seaways were content to use her sistership initially only as a freighter but that was always a waste of the passenger areas. On the Kitakami these are spread over two decks, B Deck and C Deck. Accommodation is essentially split fore and aft with the forward sections primarily cabins; aft on C Deck are a small driver’s area, a small cinema and the public baths. The presence of the latter is important on Japanese ferries and helps to explain why, generally, so few of the cabins have en-suite facilities. The Japanese convention is to go to the public bathing areas, have a shower, followed by a quick five or ten minutes or so in the scorching hot baths. Many early bathers may subsequently be seen around the ship for the rest of the evening in the company-branded kimonos and slippers which are waiting for them on their berths.

Entrance to the men's bathhouse with storage lockers adjacent. With so much open-plan and shared accommodation the latter are an important feature although theft is, frankly, unlikely.

Entrance to the men's bathhouse with storage lockers adjacent. With so much open-plan and shared accommodation the latter are an important feature although theft is, frankly, unlikely.

Public bath.

Public bath.

There is a quite broad range of accommodations. At the top end, there is a small selection of deluxe suites forward on A and B Decks. First and special class cabins, the latter without facilities, come in both ‘Western’ and ‘Japanese’ styles (i.e. with beds or bunks or, in pure ‘Japanese’ rooms, only tatami mats). “A-bed berths” are the capsules in which we have reserved for the evening – on this ship these come with upper and lower capsules in a room accommodating 48 in total. “B-bed rooms” are dormitories with bunk beds. Traditional Japanese ferry travel persists in the form of open plan rooms, where a blanket and thin fold-out mattress are provided to lay across the floor. This is the cheapest option and still very popular.

Suite, as found forward on A Deck.

Suite, as found forward on A Deck.

Deluxe Japanese-style cabin.

Deluxe Japanese-style cabin.

First class cabin corridor.

First class cabin corridor.

Western style cabin.

Western style cabin.

Special class cabin corridor.

Special class cabin corridor.

Central passageway running through the "A" and "B" bed areas forward on B Deck. Whilst the Kitakami is a one class ship in her public spaces, there is a clear hierarchy with regard to the accommodations and the corridors reflect this, becoming progressively less luxuriously finished the further down the scale one travels.

Central passageway running through the 'A' and 'B' bed areas forward on B Deck. Whilst the Kitakami is a one class ship in her public spaces, there is a clear hierarchy with regard to the accommodations and the corridors reflect this, becoming progressively less luxuriously finished the further down the scale one travels.

"A bed" capsules.

'A Class' capsules.

Complete with personal TV, air conditioning and reading light this capsule will be my home for the night.

Complete with personal TV, air conditioning and reading light this capsule will be my home for the night.

"B Class" dormitory.

'B Class' dormitory.

The cheapest way to travel is in the open plan sleeping areas, as shown.

The cheapest way to travel is in the open plan sleeping areas, as shown.

It would be the height of rudeness for passengers to enter this area in normal footwear so these are discarded at the entrance in favour of either slippers or stockinged feet.

It would be the height of rudeness for passengers to enter this area in normal footwear so shoes are discarded at the entrance in favour of either slippers or stockinged feet.

Aft on the port side of C Deck, freight drivers are given their own dormitory .

Aft on the port side of C Deck, freight drivers are given their own dormitory.

Drivers also have this separate lounge area.

Drivers also have this separate lounge area.

Entrance to the small cinema, amidships on C Deck.

Entrance to the small cinema, amidships on C Deck.

Inside the cinema.

Inside the cinema.

C and B Decks are linked by the ship’s grand staircase which opens onto lobby spaces on either level. With the lack of en-suite facilities, ample toilet and washbasin facilities are provided nearby. On the upper level can be found reception and a small shop along the forward side with a bar counter aft (the ‘Ferryca Club’). No alcoholic beverages are available here, however; for whatever reasons these can only be procured from the myriad number of vending machines found in corners all over the ship.

The Kitakami’s overarching design theme is that of an English country house or hotel and aft of the B Deck lobby can be found, to starboard, the Grosvenor House buffet restaurant. Echoes of the Red Bar and the Rink Bar at the Grosvenor House hotel can be found in details through the ship in styling, ceilings and colour schemes. On the port side is the main arcade, a most comfortable place to recline with a drink or a book whilst, right aft, is the Star Dust show lounge.

The lower lobby, complete with English-esque telephone kiosk.

The lower lobby, complete with English-esque telephone kiosk and vending machines discretely concealed behind curtains.

The dramatic central staircase.

The dramatic central staircase.

Lobby at B Deck level.

Lobby at B Deck level.

Reception...

Reception...

...and the adjacent shop.

...and the adjacent shop.

The 'Ferryca Club' bar area.

The 'Ferryca Club' bar area.

On the starboard side, just forward of the entrance to the Grosvenor House restaurant.

On the starboard side, just forward of the entrance to the Grosvenor House restaurant.

Inside the restaurant, looking aft.

Inside the restaurant, looking aft.

Looking across to port in the central section of the Grosvenor House.

Looking across to port in the central section of the restaurant.

Back on the port side of the ship, this is the main arcade heading aft.

Back on the port side of the ship, this is the main arcade heading aft.

The entrance to the 'Star Dust' showlounge, aft.

The entrance to the 'Star Dust' showlounge, aft.

The lounge awaiting the evening's entertainment.

The lounge awaiting the evening's entertainment.

This saloon has a rather more informal, European-style feel to it when compared to the equivalent spaces on the ship's fleetmates, which lack the booth seating, tables and corner bar counter in favour of a more rigid theatre-style layout.

This saloon has a rather more informal, European-style feel to it when compared to the equivalent spaces on the ship's fleetmates, which lack the booth seating, tables and corner bar counter in favour of a more rigid theatre-style layout.

The last of the public spaces, and one perhaps easily overlooked by many travellers, is the forward observation lounge – certainly it enjoyed little patronage on this overnight sailing but when the ship used to sail south to Nagoya during the day it may have been better used. The Kitakami travels that path infrequently now, primarily being restricted to back and forth operations between Tomakomai and Sendai with the legs farther south being covered instead by her two more modern fleetmates, the present Kiso and Ishikari.

Forward observation lounge.

Forward observation lounge.

The company goes to the trouble of advising “first time” (and other) passengers of an appropriate timetable of events to ensure they get the best from the crossing. Not wanting to look out of place, this we duly follow with buffet in the restaurant being taken just before departure; the food was fine, with Taiheiyo Ferry branded wine accompanying cooked-to-order steaks.The evening’s entertainment in the show lounge commenced at 8pm and, headed by a team of three shamisen players, lasted an hour or so after which we turned in for the night.

Buffet food.

Buffet food.

A nice bottle of Taiheiyo red.

A nice bottle of Taiheiyo red.

The evening's entertainment was headed by a team of three shamisen-players and lasted an hour or so after which we turned in for the night.

Another clear blue sky greeted us the next morning as we motored towards our 10am arrival in Sendai. A buffet breakfast was on offer in the restaurant but, after a stroll on the outside decks, I took a book to the observation lounge – but not before a further consideration of some of the ship’s idiosyncratic pieces of signage and artwork.

Kitakami miscellany

Kitakami miscellany

Kitakami miscellany

Kitakami miscellany

Kitakami miscellany

Kitakami miscellany

Kitakami miscellany

Kitakami miscellany

The view from the observation lounge.

The view from the observation lounge.

What we casually refer to as the port of Sendai is actually in the city of Shiogama, and its official name is now Sendai-Shiogama Port. This was particularly badly devastated by the 2011 tsunami although, one year later, most of the evidence of that day has been removed and rebuilding has been carried out in earnest – look closely, however, and many hints remain, in particular the large amounts of scrap metal piled on the quayside.

Waves coming ashore at Sendai.

Waves coming ashore at Sendai.

Glowering on a hillside in the distance is the Miyaga Stadium, one of the venues from the 2002 football World Cup.

Glowering on a hillside in the distance is the Miyaga Stadium, one of the venues from the 2002 football World Cup.

And so we bade a sorry farewell to the Kitakami, at the end of a splendid crossing on a splendid ship. Although Taiheiyo do not have any new vessels on order at present, this 1989-built classic is approaching the veteran stage, certainly by the standards of Japanese coastal and overnight ferries. Her sister, the old Ishikari, has been sold on to Chinese owners and, when the time comes, the market is such that this ship will probably remain in the far east rather than come to Europe. For now she continues to provide valuable and comfortable service on the routes for which she was built.

A procession of cleaners head aboard as we disembark.

A procession of cleaners head aboard as we disembark.

Inside Sendai ferry terminal.

Inside Sendai ferry terminal.

A model of the old Ishikari remains on display here.

A model of the old Ishikari (now the Grand Spring) remains on display here.

The Kitakami at the port of Sendai-Shiogama.

The Kitakami at the port of Sendai-Shiogama.

7 Comments

  • By Victor H, June 13, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    I Found your website through Ferries of Southern Europe maybe one or two years ago and I use to read your posts (a little difficult for me because my english is a little poor).
    The posts are quite well, always, but this is really wonderful because the extent and explanations, and for show us about theese far away ferries for europeans.
    Just congratulations and keep up the good work!!!

  • By Dominik, June 14, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    Really a great report and nice to see how japanese ferries look like before comming to greece 😉

  • By Ann, June 24, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    A fascinating tale of travelling in a Japanese ferry – thanks.

  • By marco barsotti, July 1, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

    yes it looks like my beloved lefka/sophocles!

    what else do you know about them? I was told they are not sold, just leased, and still have their Anek colors.

  • By Miles, October 4, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    It’s quite amazing to see photos of so many different parts of the vessel without any people there whatsoever! A little spooky even, but fanatstic and very interesting. I love the contrasting style Eastern / Western cabins, and the public baths. Thanks for such a great post!

  • By jasa seo, November 28, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    wowww,, its amazing photos! its very fantastic, i love that very much

  • By nico Greenbrg, August 27, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

    Indeed a great temptation to get onboard!
    But where and how to do it?
    Thanks!

Other Links to this Post

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes