In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry

I too board the ferryboat alone.
Staring at the freezing seagulls, I cry.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene…
Farewell my love, I’m going home.
The wind shakes my heart, just brings tears.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene.

Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene, Sayuri Ishikawa, 1977

“Nostalgic sea route” says the nostalgic black-and-white poster in the ferry corridor, opting for the English word for “nostalgic”, rendered in katakana, over the Japanese one. It chronicles how services started on the Oma-Hakodate run in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, with the redoubtably named Daikan Maru. Another boat was added in 1965, another in 1968, another in 1969, another in 1970, and another in 1971, the year of the Nixon shock. A former ferry crewman tells on the poster of a dozen round-trip sailings a day on the then two hour, now a hundred minute, voyage back in the Showa Forties (1965-1975); later, on a 1971 timetable at the ferry operator’s website, I count 15 sailings, many deep in the night.

Then something goes awry: no more new ferries join the route and the older ones are pensioned off, I believe, in the seventies and eighties. In 1988 the ferry to whose walls this poster is pinned, the bafflingly named Vayu, is commissioned, and these days she is the only one left on the Oma-Hakodate run, which is down to two sailings a day—and she was not even a third full on the off-season weekday I found myself poring over this poster. What went wrong? It can only be speculation, but I would wager that growing affluence and falling airfares robbed the ferries first of their foot traffic and then the spread of the rental car and the cult of convenience robbed them of their vehicle traffic. No trains or planes link tiny Oma with the rest of Japan; the only passage in is a crawl along the top of Honshu, three hours and a hundred miles north of an expressway.

White squares of paper inscribed in nautical blue with our destination—not that there are ferries out of Oma to anywhere other than Hakodate—placed on our dashboards, we clang up the gangramp and—“Fold your mirrors!” shout the orange jump-suited ferrymen over the thrum—clamber up the steep steel staircases to the passenger deck. At the stern, exposed to the elements, are rows of backward-facing plastic molded bucket seats bolted to steel bars, and into one I slump as the gritty tang of diesel fumes, so foreign to these antiseptic shores and so welcome, begins to bite, as a storm brews over the mountains behind Oma to the south and the sun from the east illuminates a wheel-handle of what if any consequence I know not, dripping with white paint-icicles that foretell this autumn morning of the winter ahead.

In their world of drab industrial greens, a world no stranger to the ship will ever know, the ferrymen winch in their python ropes that tie us to land and the Vayu shudders and judders into awful life.

Departure is a process of shedding, of casting away, the sloughing off of the skeins that tangle us on land, an escape into a purer, elemental world of sea and sun and sky, a world bereft of pachinko parlors and home improvement centers and Y100 thrift stores—although we carry with us the grubby landlubber crimes (no seafarer would doubt our guilt) of instant noodles and ancient coffee.

Flitting from port to starboard, starboard to port, leaning on the low balustrades with their topmost rail the texture and color of teak, I marvel at the guts of the ferry, the slathered coats and recoats of paint, the hooks and eyes, the stencils and hoops, the lifeboat gantries and the modern crows’ nest and the icy lights, drinking in every last clasp and bolt.

The Vayu is in her last seasons of life in this incarnation: after a quarter of a century plying the Tsugaru Straits, she is to be replaced by a new Daikan Maru in spring next year. Will she see another quarter of a century of service in some poor, watery nation like the Phillipines or Bangladesh, I wonder, or is she destined to head straight for the scrapyard? Allusive press releases on the ferry operator’s website speak of a ferocious tussle fought by Oma to keep the route alive against the operator’s will, of compensation for losses incurred in recent years, and of promises by Oma to shoulder the entire cost of the new ferry in return for a pledge by the operator not to downsize. So the new ferry will be longer, heavier, and able to carry more passengers (478 versus 470, to be precise) than the Vayu. Not that a sparkling new ferry, regrettably, will make the route viable again without lashings of subsidies, subsidies that Oma may be gambling that it can afford with its half-finished and now hugely controversial nuclear power plant.

Half-way out, half-way home, somewhere on the roiling, oily-black waters of the Tsugaru Straits—where it matters not—current tugging the boat east into the Pacific, engine and propeller fighting back, we cross the invisible Blakiston Line, the silent marker of a biogeographic discontinuity much less familiar than the Wallace Line that seperates Southeast Asia and Australia, named after the Victorian gentleman of leisure and adventure Thomas Wright Blakiston (1832-1891), he of the largest and rarest Fish Owl, a man once described as having an acute “sensitization to the strange”, who first hypothesized—correctly, as it turns out—that the deep Tsugaru Straits, unlike the shallower La Pérouse Straits that separate Hokkaido and Sakhalin, never permitted a land-bridge to form between Hokkaido and Honshu during the last glacial maximum, which explains elegantly, among many other natural phenomena, why there are grizzlies on Hokkaido and black bears on Honshu and macaques on Honshu but not on Hokkaido. It’s this, the Blakiston Line, I come to appreciate after ten days of botanizing with Dr. T, as much as any human intervention, which renders Hokkaido and its birch-white forests so other-worldly to a visitor from the south.

My fellow passengers are listless; for them ferry time is a caesura in the prosody of their lives. A lanky lad, encrusted with barnacles of silver jewelry, yaps animatedly into a mobile then crumples into a heap. Most sprawl and splay, sleep or read, chat or stare idly into space on their little shoeless islands.

Port side, another ferry, this one steaming up from Aomori, appears on the mirage of the horizon first as a trio of grey grain elevators, then as a gunmetal battleship jacked up out of the water as if on hydrofoils, as shearwaters skate across the polite whitecaps and the lipstick slit of a Korean VLCC (very large crude carrier) sidles westward into view.

Up looms Mount Hakodate, atop which a statue of Blakiston watches over us; soon I can pick out to the west the Kami’iso cement works, with its monstrous marine centipede of a loading jetty marching out a couple of kilometers into the ocean.

Interminable announcements presage arrival and send us scurrying down into the bowels to our cars and campervans, past tires strung up as improvised cushions and inscrutable numeric runes, impatient for the giant yellow and green gape of the ferry’s jaws to slack open, and as we wait, I reflect back on how, gazing from the starboard balustrade at the great sweep of the straits out into the Pacific, it felt as if the Vayu was the sister of every boat, from coracle to catamaran, that had ever sailed, just a boat, like all boats, in sea and sun and sky, a naked bridge between two worlds.

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20 responses to “In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry

  1. Another evocative essay! And again you’ve incorporated subsidy battles over once-prosperous transport links and the spectre of atomic energy in to your work.

    • “And again you’ve incorporated subsidy battles over once-prosperous transport links and the spectre of atomic energy in to your work.”
      And the next few posts are going to be on the same themes… Call me a broken record.

      • I do not consider the Spike Japan blog, nor its honorable author, Pachiguy-san, to be a broken record. Quite the contrary: every posting gives new insight into Japan.

        But there are mysteries. At the moment the chief mystery is the precise identity of the “highly toxic Veratrum sp. herbs” sought, with a subordinate question about the interest of Pachiguy-san’s buddy, the “mad botanist and evolutionary biologist amigo, Dr. T”, in Veratrum.

        Enlightenment is awaited.

      • “I do not consider the Spike Japan blog, nor its honorable author, Pachiguy-san, to be a broken record.”
        Oh, but I do! I just fondly like to think that I’m more Ella Fitzgerald than Maria Carey, say.
        “At the moment the chief mystery is the precise identity of the “highly toxic Veratrum sp. herbs” sought, with a subordinate question about the interest of Pachiguy-san’s buddy, the “mad botanist and evolutionary biologist amigo, Dr. T”, in Veratrum.”
        You’ll have to ask him… No Veratrum, AFAIK, will ever bring anything other than intense pain to those who ingest…

      • Was not intended to be a negative observation!

      • Not taken as such at all!

  2. This is gonna be such a good series of posts. I can hardly wait for the next.

  3. Lovely reflections on the joys of car ferries; I can never understand those folk who stay in their cars rather than enjoy the sensory stimulation of the deck, although perhaps on the Vayu one has no choice.
    I hope to read more of Blakiston and his brother-in-law Edwin Dun.

    • “I can never understand those folk who stay in their cars rather than enjoy the sensory stimulation of the deck, although perhaps on the Vayu one has no choice.”
      No, no, no, on the Vayu you cannot stay below deck in your car, you have the choice of the little shoeless islands and TV or the staggering interplay of sunlight, waves, cloud, and water. 90% of people choose the former. And that would be, I think, pretty universal–it’s not just Japan at all.
      Blakiston was a very interesting man and worthy of a decent biography; maybe one day…

  4. You, Rickshaw, are sensitized to the strange. And thank god for it. I love knowing that someone is looking. And I love knowing: it’s you. I’d be there looking with you. Meanwhile, you’re my eyes on all that industrial beauty. Thank you for this ~
    Jules

  5. Borne on the Vayu.
    Looking forward to more…

  6. “My fellow passengers are listless; for them ferry time is a caesura in the prosody of their lives.”

    It’s not often that I have to use a dictionary twice in a single sentence. Good job!

  7. I thought the ferry’s decline coincided with completion of the Seikan rail tunnel, more-or-less like the decline of the ferry service with the completion of the Seto Ohashi?

    • Ah, the Seikan tunnel, now wasn’t that a Bubble boondoggle? I considered and rejected the Seikan as a cause of the ferry’s decline, as I suspect it was too late (1989) and because the Oma-Hakodate run was always about foot passengers and cars. The Seikan has always been primarily about freight. Yes, you can ride the train through it, say on the Super Hakucho from Aomori to Hakodate (for about $60 one-way), but that is a very specialized and localized market. AFAIK, you can’t take your my car through the Seikan, although I’m happy to be proven wrong. You don’t need to go much further than the English Wikipage for the Seikan to see what happened from say 1970 to 1990:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seikan
      By 1988, before the tunnel opened, passenger traffic across the Tsugaru Straits was already less than a third of its 1970 level. Planes killed the ferries before the tunnel had a chance to.
      And now we’re in the throes of another lunatic construction spree, the Hokkaido shinkansen, which will only be time- and cost-viable for the market that needs to travel between Sapporo and Morioka. Not a big market, that.

  8. I love the post! Very evocative. I had never heard of the Blakiston Line before. As you wrote, it`s relatively unknown compared to the Wallace Line. I asked my Japanese roommate and he`d never heard of the term either.

    I don`t think Vayu is such a baffling name for a ferry though – “God of the Winds” sounds quite apt for crossing the Tsugaru Straits!

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Brilliant catch–Vayu, the Hindu deity of Wind. I was too immersed in puzzling out what the Japanese might mean to think sufficiently laterally. Even by the standards of Bubble-era nomenclature, though, that stands out as a real oddity–whoever came up with it? And what percentage of Vayu ferry passengers can tell you why the boat on which they sail is called the Vayu, I wonder?

  9. Great piece of writing!

    If you are still active…I would love to discuss Hokkaido with you, specifically its decline, as it is now a year on since your post!

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