A Guide to Japan’s Passenger and Automobile Ferries

While Japan is a whole country, it’s actually a conglomeration of many different islands that span from the coast of Korea out into the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, they have developed an entire intricate network of ferries for people to travel between the islands.

For foreigners and tourists, using this vast ferry system is a great way to take in much of Japan’s beauty in as little time as possible. The best way to do this is by signing on to the Japan Ferry Pass 21.

JFP 21

The Japan Ferry Pass 21, or JFP 21, is a new offering by the Japan Long Course Ferry Service Association (JLCFSA). Instituted in 2017, it allows people to take up to six ferry trips over the course of 21 days.

For this three-week journey, it costs ¥21,000 ($175). While this may seem pricey, it’s less than the price for a week-long railway pass, which costs ¥59,350 ($493).

The price is the same per passenger over the age of six. Children under six years old can ride for free.

Foreign Travelers Only

What makes it special is that only foreign travelers and tourists can get this, it’s not permissible to Japanese citizens or permanent residents.

The only time foreign tourists can’t book a pass is during Golden Week in early May, Obon in mid-August, and Shogatsu in February. 

Ship Amenities And Facilities

Each ship has different facilities and amenities. Longer routes have restaurants, bars, and onboard cafés. Some of these will have hot springs (onsen) and coin-operated laundry facilities.

There are certain ferries that offer a daiyokujo, or great bath, or rotemburo, an outdoor bath, that also accompany a sauna.

Smaller routes have a snack bar or convenience shop. Both small and large routes always have vending machines.

Sometimes they offer small movie theaters, a gym, music performances, and/or dances. However, ferry lounges and deck areas allow you to relax, read or enjoy the scenery.

Room Types

There are also several room types, which you can upgrade upon arriving to board the ferry. For overnight stays, there are second-class berths and fully private rooms with beds or futons.

There are other options as well, such as suites and bathrooms specifically for handicapped travelers. Newer long-distance ferries offer the standard second-class berth or royal suites. This latter room type does have an upgrade fee.

But it’s important to note that not all ferries have different room types available. Older models will only have a shared area with a tatami mat for you to sleep on.

But, more luxurious and upscale ferries will give you the option of which style of room you’d like such as Japanese, Western, or a mix of both. They call these toku yoshitsu.

The following is a brief sample of some of the types of rooms you can get:

  • Second-class (B Shindai or Tourist A): This is the standard with a JFP 21 pass. There’s a reading light and a curtain for privacy.
  • First-class Western-style (itto yoshitsu): This is a standard private room with its own toilet and shower.
  • First-class Japanese-style (itto washitsu): Comes with futons and tatami mats along with showers and toilets.

Booking a Ferry Pass

It’s easy to book a JFP 21 online. You start by selecting the desired route(s). There are several, so it’s a good idea to examine them individually. However, the following is an overview of the 15 routes available.

Route NameSummaryDistanceTotal TimeCompany ; Ship
Niigata-OtaruCovers the immense distance of the ocean gateway from Niigata on Honshu to Otaru in Hokkaido692 kilometers
(430 miles)
18 hoursShin Nihonkai Ferry 652 feet (199 meters) long   Lavender Azalea
Maizuru-OtaruService between Kyoto Maizuru port-known as the town of redbrick and Otaru on Hokkaido1,061 kilometers (659⅓ miles)20 hoursShin Nihonkai Ferry 734 feet (224 meters) long capable of 30.5 knots per hour   Hamanasu Akasia
Tsuruga-Niigata-Akita-TomakomaiSeveral routes from Tsuruga to Niigata to Akita to East Tomakomai. This links the main harbor cities along the west coast of the Japan Sea.1,074 kilometers (667¼  miles)    31 hours   Tsuruga-Niigata 12 hours   Niigata-Akita 6 hours   Akita-Tomakomai 10 hoursShin Nihonkai Ferry   Lilac Yuukari
Oarai-Tomakomai Route from Orai to Tomakomai with two services each day: one late afternoon and another at midnight. This links to Hokkaido and the Tokyo metro area.754 kilometers (468½ miles)19 hours (Sapporo/Furano)   18 hours (Daisetsu/ Shiretoko)MOL Ferry Sunflower Sapporo Sunflower Furano Sunflower Daisetsu Sunflower Shiretoko
Tsuruga-TomakomaiFrom Tsuruga to east Tomakomai948 kilometers (589 miles)20 hoursShin Nihonkai Ferry 734 feet (224 meters)   Suzuran Suisen
Hokkaido (Tomakomai) – Sendai-NagoyaRoute from Nagoya to Sendai to Tomakomai on HokkaidoHokkaido (Tomakomai)-Stopover at Sendai-Nagoya 1,330 kilometers (826¼ miles)   Hokkaido (Tomakomai)-Sendai 560 kilometers
(348 miles)     Sendai-Nagoya 770 kilometers (478½ miles)  
Hokkaido (Tomakomai)-Stopover at Sendai- Nagoya 40 hrs   Hokkaido (Tomakomai) – Sendai 15 hrs 20 min   Sendai-Nagoya 21 hrs 40 minTaiheiyo Ferry   Ishikari Kiso Kitakami
Tokyo-Tokushima-KitakyushuService between Tokyo on Honshu, Tokushima on Shikoku, and Kitakyushu on Kyushu islands1,151 kilometers (715 miles)  34 hoursOcean Trans   Ferry Bizan Ferry Shimanto Ferry Dougo Ferry Ritsurin
Yokosuka-Shinmoji Travel between Kanto and Kyushu islands976 kilometers (606½ miles)  21 hoursTokyo Kyusyu Ferry   28.3 knots traveling at 52.4 km/h (32½ mph)   Hamayu Soleil
Osaka-ShinmojiDaily service available with a breathtaking view of the Japan Sea and Akashi Kaikyo Bridges455 kilometers
(283 miles)  
Kyoto II/Fukuoka II – 12 hours 30 minutes   Osaka II/Kitakyushu II – 12 hours 40 minutesMejmon Taiyo Ferry   Ferry Kyoto II Ferry Fukuoka II Ferry Osaka II Ferry Kitakyushu II
Shinmoji-IzumiotsuHigh tech ferries that travel between Izumiotsu and Shinmoji458 kilometers (284½ miles)  12 hours 30 minutesHankyu Ferry   Izumi Hibiki
Shinmoji-KobeConvenient travel to and from the ports of Kobe and Shinmoji454 kilometers
(282 miles)  
12 hours 30 minutesHankyu Ferry   Yamato Settsu
Osaka-BeppuStarting at Osaka of the Kansai district to Beppu418 kilometers
(260 miles)
12 hoursFerry Sunflower   Sunflower Ivory Sunflower Cobalt
Oita-KobeTravel from Kobe to Oita 411 kilometers (255¼ miles)  12 hoursFerry Sunflower   Sunflower Gold Sunflower Pearl
Osaka-ShibushiRoute connecting Kagoshima Prefecture with Osaka583 kilometers (362⅓ miles)  14 hours 40 minutesFerry Sunflower   Sunflower Satsuma Sunflower Krishima
Kobe-MiyazakiSeveral routes; express ferry between Kobe on Honshu and Miyazaki on Kyushu495 Kilometers to Kobe (307½ miles)   494 kilometers to Miyazaki
(307 miles)
12 hours 20 minutes (to Kobe)   13 hours 30 minutes (to Miyazaki)   14 hours 40 minutes (Sundays to Miyazaki)Miyazaki Car Ferry   Miyazaki Express Kobe Express

Japan Booking And Ferry Service Guide Official Website

Confirmation Emails

Once you’ve finished selecting your routes, you then select the days and times you want to travel. The JLCFSA will send you a confirmation email. Afterward, you’ll get a confirmation email from the actual ferry company.

Day of Arrival

On the day you plan to board the ferry, you must present your passport, reservation number and pay the fee in cash. Then, they’ll hand you a ferry pass for your entire trip.

When you board additional ferries, you must also present your pass along with your passport.  

Only when you check-in can you upgrade your accommodations. You can get a private cabin or other spaces with sleeping arrangements. 

Japan’s Newest Ferry Service

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.