Tokyo to Hokkaido without stepping foot in an airport? Take the Sunflower to find out just how much fun a ferry trip can be!
Like an Ocean Cruise from Tokyo to Hokkaido
If you heard you could cruise along the coast from the Tokyo area all the way up to Hokkaido, snacking on local specialties and letting the salty ocean breeze blow through your hair, would you ever bother with the airport? The Ferry Sunflower takes all the stress of travel and turns it on its head, providing a relaxing overnight ferry trip that takes you from Oarai, Ibaraki (north of Tokyo along the coast) to Tomakomai, Hokkaido (just outside of Sapporo). So this spring, with Hokkaido cherry blossoms in mind, we reserved our rooms on the Sunflower, made our way to Oarai Ferry Terminal, and set out for Hokkaido with a mission: to make the most of everything on board the ship. Now, we want to share everything we found aboard the Sunflower with you!
Tokyo~Hokkaido Ferry Sunflower (フェリーさんふらわあ)
Official Website (en)
Enjoy the Ferry… In Your Room
You’ve made your reservations, gotten to the ferry terminal, and finally boarded the Sunflower – where do you go first? There’s a lot to see on board, but most people head straight to their rooms first thing, to drop off their luggage and take a minute to unwind. The Sunflower has a variety of cabins to suit a variety of travelers, from affordable dorm-like Tourist and Comfort rooms, to slightly more spacious rooms for families or groups of friends, and even suites with a little added luxury. Wherever you choose to rest your head at night, each of the cabins provides some space to stretch out and relax.
All of the rooms on the Sunflower come with TVs on the wall like any land-lubbing hotel, so you can watch all the Japanese variety shows and dramas your heart desires. No matter where you find yourself on the ship, however, there’s plenty of entertainment to be found. As the ferry skims along the Japanese coast, cellphone service comes and goes, so instead the Sunflower comes equipped with its own entertainment system accessible via any smartphone or tablet. Open up the SSQ (Sunflower Smart Quest) page and scroll through the English menus to check out a variety of Hollywood blockbusters, Japanese movies, and even some simple phone games!
Speaking of games, if you’re traveling with friends or family, games you can play together are a great way to pass the time. You can pick up a pack of playing cards, UNO, or even a little portable reversi board at the onboard gift shop!
If you’ve got a private cabin, we’d recommend grabbing some drinks and snacks at the shop while you’re there, to nibble on back in your room. (Try the Hokkaido soup curry flavored potato chips and the Abashiri Okhotsk Blue Ryuhyo Draft beer that’s actually a crystalline blue color.) If there’s no space in your room, just set up shop at any of the tables in the shared space instead! But anyone staying in one of the fancier rooms with a private balcony will definitely want to make the most of that space as well.
Enjoy the Ferry… Out on Deck
Even for Sunflower passengers without their own private balcony, there’s plenty of space out on the deck to enjoy the salty sea air and the views of the Japanese coast. We recommend heading outside at three specific points during the trip. First, don’t miss departure time! If you take the evening ferry from Oarai and head out around 7:45 pm, you can wave goodbye to the port staff and watch the bright ferry terminal lights disappear over the horizon as the ferry starts moving!
If you’re an early riser, you won’t want to miss sunrise either. The exact time varies throughout the year (when the Japankuru team took our trip, it was about 5 in the morning!) but if you can get yourself up and out on deck to catch the sun coming up over the Pacific, it’s a magical moment.
The last must-see is also early in the morning, just about halfway along the ferry route, when the ferry going the other direction passes right by! There’s something otherworldly about watching the mirror image of the ship you’re on passing right by you, out in the open water of the ocean.
At the information desk, you can borrow a pair of heavy-duty binoculars to really see way out across the water! While you’re there, we recommend borrowing a “captain’s uniform” as well, so you can live out your sea voyaging dreams (and take some funny pictures too).
Enjoy the Ferry… At the Buffet
The Sunflower trip from Tokyo to Hokkaido lasts almost 18 hours, so your stomach is going to start growling sooner or later! Fortunately, food options on the ship aren’t just limited to snacks from the gift shop. There’s a whole restaurant, and it serves three meals every day. For the first one, you can stop by the restaurant for dinner before the evening ship even leaves the harbor. There are a few set meal options, but most passengers choose the shipboard buffet, full of dishes made with local ingredients from Ibaraki (where the ship departs) and Hokkaido (where it arrives). On this trip, passengers piled their plates high with seared fresh bonito, seafood yakisoba noodles, braised pork belly buns, and a whole salad bar packed with different fixings.
The breakfast buffet is similarly plentiful, with Japanese staples like rice, fish, and miso soup, continental classics like fluffy toast and pastries, plus some more unique options. Ever wanted to eat Japanese curry for breakfast? Or maybe gyoza?
Since the ship arrives in Hokkaido a little late for lunch, the Sunflower offers some light options for an hour from 11:30 as a sort of lunch/cafe menu. This spring, that meant options like Japanese curry rice, udon noodles, and a cake set served with seasonal strawberry milk! You can only pay for food at the restaurant using cash, so make sure you bring plenty of Japanese yen with you on board.
Enjoy the Ferry… All Around the Ship
Looking for some entertainment that you might never expect to find on board a boat? The Sunflower’s got some surprising facilities, and our favorite might just be the traditional bath and sauna area! Soak in the shared baths and watch the bathwater gently slosh from side to side as the boat sways, or take a dip in the morning hours to watch the Japanese shoreline go by through the giant windows. Don’t forget to try out the steamy wooden sauna while you’re there!
It’s tradition in Japan to drink milk after your bath, and you can get a carton right from the vending machines outside the baths, but we recommend drinking it while enjoying one of the massage chairs placed nearby! The chairs are each tucked away in their own little private cubby, making it a great place to keep the relaxation of the bath going a little longer.
For something a little more flashy, head to the game corner instead. It’s not quite a full arcade, but if you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at pachinko, this is your chance.
Last but not least, the gift shop is calling, and it’s not just full of card games and potato chips! For a small shop onboard a ferry, the gift shop has a pretty impressive selection. There are everyday necessities and popular Japanese snacks side by side with Hokkaido souvenirs featuring ingredients like blue honeysuckle and Japanese mint, a selection of ice creams made with Hokkaido dairy, plus a refrigerator stocked with Hokkaido beer and Japanese sake, not to mention all the cute Sunflower ferry-themed merchandise. To commemorate the trip, we rather liked the cute stackable Sunflower mugs, or the socks with little ships on them! Just like the restaurant, the gift shop only takes cash, so make sure you’ve got enough Japanese yen on you to stock up on snacks and souvenirs.
Enjoy the Ferry All the Way to Hokkaido!
Tasty meals and blue Hokkaido beer, movie marathons in your cabin complete with Hokkaido snacks, relaxing baths and sauna breaks, plus a spectacular view of the sunrise over the water – there’s a lot to enjoy on the Sunflower, and you too can spend all 18 hours of the trip finding the best ways to have fun on board. (Well, except for a few hours of sleep, maybe.) A plane might be the quickest way from Tokyo to Hokkaido and back, but for travelers with a little time to spare for a trip over the ocean waves, a ferry ride on the Sunflower is almost certainly the most fun!
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