Navigating the Seto Inland Sea ferry services


Someone wrote to me and, rather emphatically, told me to give them the ferry schedule for Matsuyama (population 420,000), Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku to Shiraishi Island (population 659) where I am. I was sorry to have to tell him that swimming would be faster.

You see, there is no ferry service from Matsuyama to Shiraishi Island. If there was, that guy would be the only one on board. People in Matsuyama have never heard of Shiraishi Island and although the people on Shiraishi have certainly heard about Matsuyama, most have never been there, probably because there is no ferry service to get there.

The ferry systems throughout the Seto Inland Sea are confusing. In addition, there is little information in English on how to get to the smaller islands. To understand it properly, imagine a big “string art” board, with lots of colorful strings crisscrossing back and forth and connecting different pins. These strings represent the ferry routes and the board represents the Inland Sea. Many ferries service the 150 or so islands in the Inland Sea. Now, imagine yourself jumping straight into the Inland Sea of the string art exhibit. You’re bound to get tangled up in all those strings, possibly even drown.

Now, if you’re still alive, you have a good idea at what it takes to navigate the ferry systems through the Inland Sea. Make sure your travel companion is CPR-certified.

Many Japanese people tell me they find the system of 50 “United States” confusing, because each state has its own laws. While I can understand this confusion, it doesn’t come close to the string artistry necessary to get around the Inland Sea on ferries.

For example, just because you can see the major port of Fukuyama on the mainland just 11 km from Shiraishi Island, it doesn’t mean you can get there. Unless you have your own private boat, your boat license is up to date, your boat’s inspection is up to date (including mid-term inspections) and you have enough life jackets for everyone on board. And, by the way, don’t forget your flares. Wow, all that just to get 11 km!

The real reason you can’t get to Fukuyama by ferry from here is because, guess what? It’s in a different prefecture (Hiroshima). Even though Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku is only 24 km from Shiraishi Island (Okayama), there is no easy way to get here from there, except by taking the highway over the Seto Ohashi bridge to Honshu on the opposite side of the sea. That’s 75 km in order to get to Kasaoka, where, after driving all that way, you still have to take a ferry 8 km to Shiraishi. With the exception of Thursdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., that is.

A ferry does leave from Shikoku to Shiraishi (with two transfers) twice a week at this time. So if you take the Saturday ferry, for example, you’ll be stranded here till Thursday when the next ferry comes.

Now I ask you, is this a ferry service or a ferry disservice? Should you choose to go to Honshu from here instead, you have an array of seven ferries a day leaving Shiraishi (sorry, they all only go to one place, Kasaoka). But don’t expect to be able to get this ferry schedule at the port in Shikoku because, guess what? This is a different prefecture!

What Japan needs is a national ferry service that would connect more islands across several prefectures. But there probably isn’t enough demand as it seems many Japanese people have little interest in the Inland Sea. To them, the islands are about as unique as a county fair.

Perhaps they’re right, I say, while lying in my hammock watching the sunset with a margarita in my hand. Besides that, the Japanese prefer places they can drive to. They like waiting in bumper to bumper traffic like all the other advanced nations. “Who do you think we are, Odysseus? Christopher Columbus? They did those kinds of things. Not us! We have cars. Why take a ferry 24 km when you can drive 75 km instead?” So close, so close and yet so car.

Besides that, to many Japanese people, these islands only exist on TV. NHK occasionally airs a broadcast about the islands telling people all the things to do here. But to me, they’re missing the point: These islands are not here to entertain people with the latest video, restaurant, coffee shop or fashion item. Why do you think all the young people moved away?

Instead, the islands are here to allow people to sit, meditate, reflect and just enjoy the quiet surroundings and scenery. What you come to find on these islands, is inner peace. Especially the kind obtained with a hammock and a margarita. At least it’s worth it when you finally get here.