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Galaxies beyond on the Hamanasu

by Amy Chavez

Have you ever taken a ferry in Japan? The English word feri (ferry) is used in Japan only for boats carrying vehicles. Passenger ferries are just called fune (boats). There are many long-distance ferries passengers can board, however. Traveling by ferry is for those who prefer to travel around Japan rather than barging right through it.

I once took an uneventful four-hour trip from Aomori-ken to Hakodate in Hokkaido on a ferry. It was one of those ferries where the entire thing is like one large billion-mat tatami room where all the passengers sit on the floor.

This is to account for human sprawl, which is kind of like urban sprawl, except that it takes place in large populations riding ferries. You can have hundreds of people sprawled out on the floor at one time. It’s almost like a large playroom for kids, who are nice enough to share it with sprawling adults.

On these ferries, they give you a pillow the size and shape of a brick. This brick, a piece of firm foam covered in green vinyl, is something that looks like it would be handed out at a 24-hour restaurant like Denny’s, to use while you are waiting for your order at 4 a.m.

But these brick pillows are standard ferry “amenities.” Even the car ferry that goes out to my house on the island, and only takes 40 minutes, provides these bricks for the 40-minute sprawler. As if you couldn’t wait that long to put your head down on a real Japanese pillow at home, such as a soba makura (buckwheat pillow) or the other style of pillow with the gravel in one side. Hmm, maybe the brick isn’t so bad after all.

Needless to say, I was a bit hesitant to take the Shin Nihon Kai Ferry from Otaru, Hokkaido, to Maizuru in Kyoto, a 20-hour ferry ride. But the brochure promised “stylish cruising.” I was definitely up for some of that.

The Hamanasu (beach eggplant?), written in hiragana letters on the side of the boat, was a new five-story, 224.5-meter boat that could carry 820 passengers. It was named Ship of the Year in 2004 by the Japan Society of Naval (gazing) Architects and Ocean Engineers (God?). Hamanasu sparkled like a cruise ship with its chrome banisters going up the plush staircase in the reception room. Gloved staff greeted us as we stepped off the gangway and onto the ship.

We had the cheapest accommodations, which turned out to be two bricks and two blankets for sprawling on the floor with 12 other people, slumber-party style. When I saw the bricks, I immediately upgraded to the ¥11,500 bunk beds, which included two gravel-style pillows, two blankets and two sheets, plus a privacy curtain. My sprawling days are definitely over.

There were four beds to a compartment and eight compartments to a room. Although there were a lot of people, Japan is one of the few places where the honor system still exists. The what? You say. The honor system? Yeah, it’s an understanding among people that “you don’t touch my sushi, I don’t touch yours.”

I know it sounds crazy, but it is an ancient system that still exists in many parts of Japan. Basically, it means you can be 99.9 percent sure no one is going to steal that expensive Hello Kitty diamond necklace you brought on board. Sorry to disappoint you.

There was an ofuro bath with large window panels overlooking the sea, where you could relax in a hot bath while looking out over the sea. It was perfect. But after we settled in and walked around the ship, I got the sinking feeling that perhaps we had boarded the wrong kind of ship.

I first noticed this when I passed the “Astronaut Smoking Room.” Then I had a meal at the “Cafe Galaxy,” which sits right next to another restaurant called the “Cosmos Grill.” The hallways had photos of exploding stars, comets and pictures of galaxies that were far too close for comfort. The hallways had wall lamps in the shape of space ships.

I was obviously missing something, mainly the millions of millions of millions of kilometers of space between sea level and the universe. The idea of a ferry boat made up like a space ship is not as down to earth an idea as it probably seemed to the engineers at the time.

I wonder what they were thinking? Perhaps that any space-related theme would give the boat an air of modernity, a prevalent misconception when you consider that the universe and its galaxies are billions of years old!

Before I knew it, we had been to the outer edges of the universe and back. We had arrived in Maizuru in a flash. Wow. Far out. Cosmic.