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.