As an island nation consisting of several thousand large and tiny islands, it may come as no surprise that Japan has an extensive network of ferries connecting its ports with other ports all over the country as well as with those in mainland Asia. Although journey times are longer, ferry travel is often significantly cheaper than making the equivalent journey by train, and ferries can be a great way to see another side of Japan and explore some of its lesser-known islands and towns.

At the other end of the scale are high-end luxury international cruises that include stops at Japanese ports such as Kobe, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kagoshima in their itineraries.

If you've got your sea legs at the ready, then boat is an unbeatable way to explore the Japanese archipelago's nearly 7,000 islands of all shapes and sizes, whatever your budget.

Lake Ashinoko cruise

Domestic Ferries

Domestic ferry routes vary from short hops between islands, to long distance services linking various ports on the main island of Honshu with other parts of Japan, such as Hokkaido in the north, the central island of Shikoku via the spectacular Seto Inland Sea, and the southern islands of Kyushu and Okinawa.

Although journey times are longer, ferry travel is often significantly cheaper than making the equivalent journey by train. Many long distance ferry services run overnight and offer accommodation ranging from a simple futon rolled out on the floor of a large shared room to more expensive private cabins with western-style beds. 

Ferries can be a relaxing and novel way of getting around and are the perfect way to explore some of Japan's magnificent coastal scenery and lesser known islands or port towns. While Japan’s main islands are connected with each other via a series of modern bridges and tunnels, travelling to some of its smaller islands by ferry can open up a whole new realm of Japan travel possibilities.

Reservations can be made with the ferry companies directly by telephone, online or at the ferry terminal, or through a travel agency. Ferry schedules are subject to seasonal changes and may also vary according to the weather. If in any doubt it is best to confirm schedule details with the relevant ferry company.

Short Distance Ferry Routes

The most popular and useful routes for ferry-hopping over shorter distances in Japan are those connecting its handful of main islands. These include ferries linking the largest island of Honshu with two other main islands, namely Hokkaido in the north and central Shikoku.

Another popular route links the main island of Kyushu in the south with the smaller but extremely popular tropical beach and jungle destinations of Okinawa and Yakushima.

Aomori - Hokkaido
Aomori - Hakodate: Seikan Ferry or Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry (4 hours, 1,600-2,200 yen)

Inland Sea (Seto Naikai)
Wakayama - Tokushima: Nankai Ferry (2 hours, 2,000 yen)
Kobe - Takamatsu: Jumbo Ferry (2 hours, 1,990 yen)
Hiroshima - Matsuyama: Setonaikai Kisen (3 hours, 3,600 yen)
Matsuyama - Kita-kyushu: Matsuyama Kokura Ferry (7 hours, 5,450 yen)
Yawatahama - Beppu: Uwajima Unyu Ferry (3 hours, 3,100 yen)

Kagoshima - Okinawa/Yakushima
Kagoshima - Amami-Oshima - Naha: A Line and Marix Line (26 hours, 14,610 yen)
Kagoshima - Yakushima: the Yaku-2 ferry departs every morning (4 hours, 4,800 yen) or there is the high-speed Toppy jetfoil (from 2 hours, 8,800 yen).

Long Distance Ferry Routes

The following are the approximate cheapest one-way fares and journey times for some of the most popular long-distance domestic ferry routes in roughly north to south order. Prices given are for foot passengers and second class accommodation without bed. Most routes cost around 24,000 yen to take a car onboard, although a few routes charge more at 35,000 yen.

Sendai/Niigata - Tomokomai: from Sendai by Taiheiyo Ferry (15 hours, 7,200 yen), from Niigata by Shin-Nihonkai Ferry (18 hours, 8,640 yen)
Nagoya - Sendai: Taiheiyo Ferry (22 hours, from 6,700 yen)
Tokyo - Tokushima - Kita-kyushu: Ocean Tokyu Ferry (Tokyo - Kita-kyushu: 34 hours, 16,750 yen)
Kobe - Kita-kyushu: Meimon Taiyo Ferry (13 hours, 4,460 yen)
Osaka - Beppu, Kobe - Oita: Ferry Sunflower (12 hours, 11,200 yen)
Kobe - Miyazaki: Miyazaki Car Ferry (12-15 hours, from 9,870 yen or from 6,000 yen for early bird bookings)

Toppy Ferry Kagoshima

International Ferries

For those on a budget or for those who simply have a sense of adventure and some time to spare, travelling over sea between Asia or over land and sea between Europe and Japan can be an attractive alternative to air travel. 

There are several different such routes to Japan, many of which combine ferry transport with long distance rail travel on services such as the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian Railways. At the end of the day, however, Japan is an island nation, so if you are not using air then the last step of your journey will always be made by boat.

Although journey times are often considerably longer, travel by ferry is generally much cheaper than the cost of flying, and there are direct connections linking several major Japanese port-cities with nearby mainland Asian countries. The following PDF outlines some common international ferry routes between Japan and Korea, China and Russia. Ferries between Japan and Asia (JNTO)

Many international ferry services are very popular so advance reservations are strongly recommended. They can be made directly with the ferry company, through major travel agencies within Japan, or in person at the port of departure. Ferry schedules are subject to seasonal changes and may also vary according to the weather. If in any doubt it is best to confirm schedule details with the relevant ferry company.

Takamatsu Port

Cruise Ship Holidays

If you are the type of traveller who wants to enjoy the experience of getting there just as much as the destination itself, and you have a taste for the finer things in life, then a luxury cruise ship holiday is an ideal way to enjoy a visit to Japan as part of a relaxing and reinvigorating ocean voyage. 

Many  international cruise companies feature Japanese ports such as Nagasaki, Kobe, Hiroshima and Kagoshima in their itineraries. Many also offer shore excursions, giving passengers the opportunity to explore some of Japan's popular inland attractions such as the ancient capital of Kyoto with its many exquisite shrines and temples, and the pottery town of Arita on the island of Kyushu. 

The following PDF lists some popular cruise companies featuring stops at Japanese ports in their itineraries. Cruise ship holidays to Japan can be booked through cruise and Japan specialist travel agents. Cruise companies operating to Japan