People-watching on a ferry in the fog

by Mads Berthelsen

Special To The Japan Times

Rust streaked down from the anchor hole in the ferry’s bow. The only noticeable color in the harbor — a bright-red sun rising out of the gray water — was painted on the side of the white ship. There was no sound except the soft clanging of tools from the crew preparing to cast off.

With a blaring of its horns, the Sun Flower Sapporo pulled out of Oarai harbor on the Pacific coast of Ibaraki Prefecture around 100 km northeast of Tokyo — and sailed straight into a thick, bright cloud of fog.

The passengers were unpacking in the dormitories and cabins below, mostly truckers trying to escape the highways for a night, but also low-level yakuza and a motley crew of people seemingly bent on getting far away as cheaply as possible. And then, of course, there was me. Standing alone with my backpack on the outside deck, I was thinking about what I was doing there.

I was lured by the price, off course — ¥10,000 to go from Tokyo to Sapporo, Hokkaido, seemed like a fantastic idea. The problem is that the ferry extends the train’s roughly 10-hour journey time to a 30-hour voyage by bus and boat, enough to scare away even the most laid-back salaryman.

To me, however, ever since I was a kid, ferries have spelled adventure. One of the first drawings I ever did was on a ferry when I was 3 — it was a graphic of utter fear. My family and I were on our way from Denmark to Norway when the ship got caught in an Armageddon-like storm. The boat’s wild rocking, and the panic in the eyes of adults I trusted, frightened me to my core. It inspired me to do a drawing of an enormous, dense cloud in red, black and brown.

When I got a little older I discovered that, at the same time as being a vessel, a ferry is a different world all in itself; a world of carpets and bright lights, uncomfortable couches and buffets.

Walking around the Sun Flower Sapporo, it was clear that ferries hadn’t changed much since my childhood: the green deck with little dots of rust and the railing smothered in white paint; the red lifeboats with disturbingly incomprehensible instructions. There was another blast from the foghorn before I went inside.

To the tune of an elevator version of “Up Where We Belong” I tried to find my berth for the night. Curiously, my ticket indicated it was in a cabin numbered 352, even though there couldn’t possibly have been more than 70 or 80 rooms on the entire ferry. Maybe it was a way to make the place seem bigger — a bit like lining a wall with mirrors or painting a room white.

Mystified in more ways than one, I roamed the halls and corridors with my backpack until I found the 30-bed dormitory — in a room numbered 352 — and my sleeping mat in there, numbered 12. I noticed there were only four others sharing my overnight accommodation — and that a dormitory on a ferry is apparently not a place for casual greetings. The men unpacked in silence.

I left my backpack and toured the gift shop in the reception that sported all the things a trucker needs: earplugs for the noisy economy dorms, razors, batteries, ¥500 bottles of Scotch. And, of course, there was some stuff the truckers didn’t know they needed. How about a ferry-company-themed box of chocolates? Or a dry blueberry cake in the shape of the newly opened Tokyo Sky Tree? And, for ¥420, who could say no to a Hello Kitty modesty towel?

For ¥2,500 I bought access to the dining hall, where the dinner and breakfast buffet was served. More than anything, the hall looked like a facility at an abandoned theme park. The restaurant was draped in pink and light-green colors with a thick blue carpet to match. Just next to the sitting area, a kids play area was completely abandoned with its toys neatly stacked at the sides.

I filled my tray. Bendy tempura, gray tofu, delicious sashimi and, surprisingly, the best cherry tomatoes I ever had in Japan. Just a few men were sitting in the restaurant, which could take well over 100 people, and each of us was occupying our own four-seater table, eating in silence.

On almost every table in use, there was a cap with an American motif on it (John Deere, Lake Tahoe, etc) next to the food tray. The truckers were drinking coffee and half-bottles of red wine and eating ice cream. Some lunatic had decided to put raisins in the all-you-can-eat soft ice. I looked around for signs of the ensuing riot, but no one seemed to share my outrage. A lonely TV showed how the view would have been, had we been able to see anything outside. On the small screen, the hills of Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture rose behind a calm ocean, all lit up by an orange sunset — it was absolutely beautiful. In the real world, I could barely see the railing through the fog.

A surprising luxury on the Sun Flower Sapporo was an onsen (hot communal bath). An engineerical miracle, I thought. As I opened the door to the steamy room, though, it was clear that the bath was in the same shape as the rest of the proud ship. The white tiles on the walls were spotted with yellow dots and little stripes of lime ran down the dark windows.

As I eased in and sat down on the bottom of the pool, I could feel the engine humming through my body. The lukewarm water gulped from side to side, rolling with the ship. Where is this water coming from, I thought. We couldn’t have been far off the coast from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — did they just pump in sea water, filter it and let us soak in it, even though it was too dangerous to fish in? I let it go and looked around.

Ever since I first came to Japan I have loved the idea of the onsen. The Japanese say that the onsen is a great social leveler, that being naked lets the CEO rub shoulders with the lowest employee. It’s amazing to me that you can hide your identity by revealing your body. But that was not the case in the Sun Flower Sapporo’s onsen.

Just a few men were using the baths that evening. Shifting between the shower and the pool, they tried to walk straight while coping with a rolling ship and slippery floor tiles. I tried not to stare, but I had never seen naked truckers before. They all had round little potbellies, telling stories of lives spent sitting down.

Next to me was a piebald guy in his late 40s, his hands as pale as his stomach, the color changing abruptly by his wrists to a dark brown — apparently he worked with gloves on. Sitting at the shower in the far end was a young guy. His upper body was covered in complicated tattoos. He was washing himself ferociously, scrubbing his crotch in a way that didn’t seem pleasant. The lines from his tattoos ended abruptly at the middle of his thighs, unfinished. Maybe he was a low-level yakuza, transporting goods from the South to the North?

Sure, I was judging these people. How were they judging me, I wondered.

Someone had turned off the light in the dormitory. Even though there were about 20 spare mattresses, a man across from me slept on the floor. He had made a bed out of a few newspapers and two umbrellas were shielding him from the rest of the room. Dirty white socks stuck out between them. Every time he turned, the newspapers crackled beneath him. This is how homeless people rest, I thought while trying to fall asleep myself. Maybe he was migrating north for the summer, just like me.

The Sun Flower Sapporo woke up in the same fog in which it went to sleep. Out in the unmanned reception, some of the truckers were sitting in the plastic-covered ¥100-a-go massage chairs, occupied looking at maps. A usual way for a trucker to spend his free time, I guess. Pictures of spring flowers and the eerie sound of a choir streamed from the TV and dissolved into the theme from “A Summer Place” playing in the hallways. The mix of the solemn choir and low-tempo cheery piano made me expect I’d bump into David Lynch and his film crew round the next corner.

I did reps to the coffee machine at the breakfast buffet and sat looking at the non-view, head buzzing from caffeine. The pixilated TV map told us the trip was almost over. We gathered on the outside deck, the truckers striding from side to side of the boat to stretch their legs before sitting down to work. The fog cloud, which had followed us on the entire journey, left little specks of water in the hairs on our arms. We could hear land before we could see it, as the foghorn, sounding for the last time, resonated off the containers standing on the quayside at Tomakomai Port.

There was no one waiting for any of us; no cheery waves to greet any passengers as we walked ashore. The truckers got back into their offices and started the engines. I boarded the empty bus toward Sapporo. After an hour on the road, the bus left behind the white cloud and mountains appeared in the horizon. It was then I knew the ferry hadn’t just gone to sea and sailed in circles for 20 hours before returning to the same harbor. It could’ve fooled me.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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