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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.