A trip to Tokyo does not necessarily mean elbowing your way through crowds. You can get fine views of the capital from a boat on the bay.
With a drink or a meal, a short cruise is relaxing way to tour, and it shows parts of Tokyo and its history that cannot be seen from a sidewalk or a bus.
Operators are keen to tap the steady flow of foreign tourists but bemoan the lack of information reaching them.
At a recent gathering of industry representatives, some remarked about this missed opportunity, calling for greater efforts to publicize the many cruise options available to tourists.
The Japan Passenger Boat Association, which represents cruise line operators, invited travel agents for a trip around Tokyo Bay on Feb. 4 to show them what is on offer and what clients can expect to see.
Tokyo has a well-established network of canals and waterways once used for public transportation, so most of the cruises currently offered are not new.
For instance, several water bus services shuttle around the bay with stops at sightseeing spots.
The Tokyo Mizube Cruising Line water buses operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association ply the Sumida River, with the main route running from Asakusa to Odaiba Seaside Park, calling at points between.
The boats accommodate from 140 to 200 passengers and can be chartered for groups of tourists.
Tokyo Cruise Ship Co. offers water-bus rides aboard its futuristic ship the Hotaluna, which was designed by renowned manga and anime artist Leiji Matsumoto.
The streamlined ship boasts 3-D windows resembling teardrops and a promenade deck above its cabin that offers a 360-degree view of the capital. The vessel can carry up to 261 passengers.
Zeal, another firm, offers chartered cruises that explore Tokyo’s canals or view the bridges of the Sumida River. Private parties are a speciality.
Those seeking a more luxurious experience can board the restaurant ship Vingt et un, which offers high-class service and a full French cuisine while the bright lights of the city and its docks pass by. The name means “21” in French.
Cruise line operators say a cruise on Tokyo Bay is a good way to soak up local culture.
“Spots such as Hamarikyu Gardens and the Tsukiji (fish) market really show part of the Japanese culture,” said Hotaluna crew member Kazuha Tanaka. “And since this boat cruises along the Sumida River, foreign tourists should look at its historical bridges, all of which have different construction.”
Passengers can take in sites old and new, ranging from the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena to the Hamarikyu Gardens, once owned by the Tokugawa shogunate, and more recent landmarks such as the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Skytree.
Those interested in contemporary history may be interested to see construction work getting underway for the 2020 Olympics.
The operator of the Hotaluna said the ship has been carrying increasing numbers of Asian tourists, particularly from South Korea and Taiwan.
But overall it seems that communication between cruise line operators and travel agencies has failed to reach non-Japanese tourists, whose numbers reached a record high in 2015 and are expected to grow further as the 2020 Games draw near.
Some travel agents feel Japan needs to be better prepared to respond to the growing needs of foreign travelers.
“The problem is that in many cases there are few employees prepared to serve foreigners,” said Rei Kubota, who works in sales at Hankyu Travel International Co. She said more effort needs to be made in publishing information about what is on offer.
Others agree: “It’s true that first-time visitors from China usually come to shop or see the Golden Route,” said Haruka Noto of JTB China, a handler of inbound business. But she said a growing number of Chinese tourists are now visiting Japan hoping for a cultural experience, “to see the real Japan,” with cherry blossoms.
The Golden Route refers to the Tokyo-Kyoto itinerary, which takes in views of Mount Fuji and may include shinkansen travel.
“People from Thailand mostly come to shop … but they also head to spots like Tokyo Tower or Asakusa; they love it,” said Chinthian Pakamon, a Thai employee of travel agency H.I.S. Co.
Operators of low yakatabune roofed pleasure boats, for instance, offer passengers a novel glimpse of old Japanese culture. The boats boast wood cabins with tatami, red lanterns and offer karaoke and even geisha service.
The Tokyo Yakatabune Association, which operates the vessels, is trying to help operators tap foreign demand. It organizes workshops with foreign exchange students to practice responding to customer needs and learning about different customs. It has prepared brochures and instructions in Korean, English and Chinese to explain what is on offer — and to avoid cultural misunderstandings.
When it comes to language, some cruise operators offer tour-guide commentary in Korean, English or Chinese, but not all do this.
JTB’s Noto said announcements in Japanese will leave foreign passengers in the dark about what they are seeing, and this must change. “Guidance in English is a minimum requirement,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Shinagawa Tourism Association — Shinagawa Ward is adjacent to Tokyo Bay — is aware of the need to forge better connections with cruise companies. Its director, Ken Ito, said a network should be created to link local organizations with boat operators to lure more tourists.
“We lack tourist information centers within the city, at Haneda Airport, and in Shinagawa Ward … where tourists could find information on how to get around the city,” Ito said. “Even if travelers know such services are available, they need to be informed about what to see in the area once they board a cruise boat.”
Ito said despite efforts to entertain tourists and provide a wide range of offerings, information tends to be shared only locally. “We need a better system,” he said.