The Slow Boat to China (Utopia has a Japanese Bath House)

The day had come to leave Japan for China. I was to catch an overnight ferry from the port city of Shimonoseki to the Chinese port of Qingdao. I had gone to great lengths to pre book my ticket; the ferry company’s website had no online booking function, so I had paid a premium to a booking agent to ensure I didn’t miss out on a spot on the bi-weekly sailing of the “Utopia”, operated by Orient Ferry Line ( Check in time for my ferry was from 10:00 for a 12:00 boarding, so left my hotel and walked down to Kokura station to catch a local train to Shimonoseki. Although Shimonoseki is on the island of Honshu, my Northern Kyushu rail pass was valid for the journey.

415 Series EMU at Kokura on a service to Shimonoseki.

415 Series EMU at Kokura on a service to Shimonoseki.

At Kokura station, I found that my local service was operated by a very lightly loaded blue and white, 4 car 415 series EMU. Built in the 1970s, 415 Series are dual voltage, capable of operating on both the 20 kV AC overhead power system on Kyushu and the 1500 V DC system on Honshu. The aging EMU jolted into motion and we made our way out of Kokura towards Moji, passing the large marshalling yard of the Kitakyushu Freight Terminal where many freight trains were being loaded or waiting their departure time. At Moji, we stopped for 2 minutes (a timetabled stopover). The carriage lights went out briefly and then came back on again as our train changed voltage between the two railway power systems. Shortly after departing Moji, we entered the Kanmon tunnel; a rail tunnel linking the islands of Honshu and Kyushu running beneath the Kanmon Straits. The tunnel, built during WWII, actually comprises of 2 single tracked tunnels (northbound and southbound), both are approximately 3.6 km long.

A 31 Series railcar stands at Shimonoseki station.

A 31 Series railcar stands at Shimonoseki station.

We emerged from the tunnel and passed the Shimonoseki railway yard, full of JR West EMUs and DMUs, before arriving at Shimonoseki station shortly after. The ferry company website had directions to access the passenger terminal of Shimonoseki Port, suggesting it was 10 minutes walk. From previous experiences of international ferry terminals, I had my doubts, as all had been accessed by long walks through industrial areas. But this was Japan and I had learned to trust instructions and directions given by Japanese. I left the station and found an elevated walkway leading in the direction of the ferry terminal. I followed the walkway and 7 minutes later, I arrived at the drab, utilitarian Shimonoseki Port International Terminal.

I entered and found the terminal almost empty. This concerned me as it was just before check in time, I wondered if I had the right day, or was I late? As I arrived (or maybe because I arrived), the ticket window opened. I told the attendant that I wanted to check in and was told “excuse please, no English”. The young lady who had opened the window left for a moment and came back with an older lady (presumably a supervisor), who spoke to me in excellent English. She asked me if I had a booking, which I thought to be a strange question, as the ferry was due to sail in less than 3 hours. I handed over my booking slip and passport, she asked me for ¥610 port tax (about A$6.50), which I paid in cash and was then given my back passport with a boarding pass. I was told “The ferry is late, we will commence boarding at 13:15”. As it was now just after 10:00, I asked if I could leave the ferry terminal and come back later. The lady seemed surprised and said “Yes, of course. Just come back before 13:15”.

A monorail emerges from Kokura station

A monorail emerges from Kokura station

Thankfully, I still had my rail pass, so I headed back to the station. The only place that my rail pass would take me from Shimonoseki  was back to Kokura, so after carefully checking which train I had to catch to make it back by 13:00, I headed back south through the Kanmon Tunnel. At Kokura, I spent some time photographing the monorail (this time without the looming threat of a typhoon), before taking a final trip on a Sonic Limited Express to Kurosaki to see the little trams of the Chikuho Electric Railroad Line. I just had time for some pictures at the terminus before travelling back to Shimonoseki and the ferry terminal.

A 3 section articulated tram stands at Kurosaki-Ekimae on the Chikuho Electric Railroad Line

A 3 section articulated tram stands at Kurosaki-Ekimae on the Chikuho Electric Railroad Line

Back at the ferry terminal, there were still very few people around, but a gate had been erected at the customs entry with a sign in Japanese, Chinese and English: “Utopia – Qingdao. Check in 13:30”. It was just before 13:00, so I sat and waited in the large waiting hall, wondering where all of the passengers were; the Utopia holds 350 people and I could only count a couple of dozen. We were invited to put heavy luggage on a pallet, which would be winched aboard the ship and made available in the lobby when we boarded. 13:30 came and went, and the gate was still not opened. Finally, just before 14:00, the customs officials opened the gate, and I passed through the security checkpoint with about 20 other people. Our passports were quickly and efficiently checked, and we were directed out the rear of the ferry terminal, down several flights of stairs and to a waiting bus.

The Utopia sits at the wharf at Shimonoseki International Passenger Terminal

The Utopia sits at the wharf at Shimonoseki Port International Terminal

The bus drove us about 250m along the wharf to the waiting ferry, and was more to keep us safe from the endless parade of trucks and forklifts than it was to save us the walk. I climbed the simple gangway from the wharf to the ferry and found a single escalator which took me up into the lobby of the ship. I handed in my boarding pass to the purser and was given a key to my room. There were still very few passengers around, and I asked the purser how many passengers were booked to travel. The response astonished me; 22. 22 passengers booked on a ferry that holds 350! I later discovered that the ferry makes its money from cargo carried on trucks, and the passenger service is just a side business. The journey takes about 23 hours longer than flying, and is not that much cheaper (it is, however, definitely more comfortable and relaxed).

I looked around the ferry’s lobby; it was spacious and had once been luxurious, but was now old and slightly shabby, with faded walls and marked carpet. I was travelling in a 4 berth first class room, and had been wondering if I would have to share. As there were only 2 passengers travelling in first class (the majority of passengers were students, travelling in second class dormitory accommodation) I had nothing to worry about.

I made my way up the grand, sweeping staircase to the second floor and found my room. The room was clean and compact; directly inside the door was 2 pairs of bunks, with a wardrobe and wash basin opposite each other directly inside the door. Past the bunks was a carpeted Japanese style sitting room, with no chairs and a low table. On the table was a tea set with a Japanese teapot and 4 small teacups. There was a porthole on the far wall, and on top of a cabinet was a 34cm CRT television. There was a compendium of information on the ship’s facilities, mostly in Chinese and Japanese with a token attempt to translate the information into English.

After dumping my luggage in my room, I went out onto the deck to watch the seemingly endless parade of trucks being loaded into the cargo area below. It was now well past our scheduled departure time of 12:00, and at round 16:30 the last of the trucks was finally loaded. We pulled away from the quay about 5 hours late and sailed slowly through the Kanmon Strait, around the north-west tip of Kyushu and past Iki Island as the sun was setting.

Around 18:30 (Japanese time), an announcement was made over the PA system in Japanese and Chinese. From the timing of the announcement, I guessed it must be for dinner time. In the large cafeteria, about half of the 22 passengers had assembled with 8 crew members acting as waiters. In one corner was a vending machine, where diners selected their meal and paid. In return, a receipt was issued. The waiters took the receipt and gave it to the chef to prepare. I selected a Japanese style curry chicken with rice, which was delivered quickly by the bored looking waiter.

The cafeteria was a large open plan room with tables and chairs securely fastened to the floor. It was dimly lit, but had a large number of portholes looking out onto the Genkai-nada Sea. The ship had started a gentle but constant roll in the open water, and the ship was creaking, groaning and swaying; the waiters moving almost rhythmically to keep their balance as they stood waiting for something to do.

After my surprisingly tasty meal, I decided to try one of the ship’s more curious features; a Japanese Bath House. There were 2 on my floor (a male and a female) and I entered the humid, empty changing room. There were pictographs on the walls indicating acceptable behaviour (nudity mandatory, wash yourself before entering the bath, etc). Inside the bath house itself was a public shower area beside a large bath (about 1.5m deep, measuring about 6m x 2m) tiled in pea green. The water was gently sloshing about as the ferry rolled in the open sea, but the action was not violent enough to spill the water over the edge of the bath. I stripped off and showered before gingerly lowering myself into the almost scalding bath. The combination of very hot water, steam and the gentle roll of the ship was very relaxing, and I found myself almost dozing off as I sat. After about 30 minutes I left the bath, showered again and returned to my room. Outside, night had fallen and as I was still relaxed from my soak, I had no trouble falling asleep as we made our way sedately around the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula and into the Yellow Sea.

I awoke the next morning refreshed, with bright sunlight piercing the threadbare curtains on the porthole in my room. I looked out the window, but could only see a few fishing boats on the glassy sea. I looked at my watch, which was showing almost 7am. As the ship operated on Chinese time I added an hour; 8am – breakfast time! I headed down to the cafeteria but found no one in attendance; in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone since I left my room on the level above. I was beginning to wonder where everyone was, when I saw a clock on the wall showing 6am. I realised my mistake; I should have subtracted an hour for Chinese time instead of adding! I went back to my room and read for a couple of hours until the Japanese and Chinese announcements were made for breakfast.

Breakfast was a buffet with Chinese style breakfast food. Small sweet and savoury buns and congee (rice porridge) were laid out on the table, with the crew of waiters busily shooing flies. After eating my fill, I went back to my room to check out what was available on the small television. There was a single channel, showing C & D grade English language movies with Japanese and Chinese subtitles. I watched the only thing that was on; a melodramatic and poorly acted earthquake disaster movie, perfect for whiling away the hours at sea in my comfortable cabin.

As we chugged on through the yellow sea, time ceased to exist and the day seemed to stretch on for hours. It was not an unpleasant sensation; the sunlight streaming through my porthole made me drowsy, and a dozed. After lunch, I decided to go for a walk around the ship. It was like a ghost ship, with long empty corridors and silent rooms at less than 10% capacity. I found a gym, which looked promising from afar. I entered the compact room, and found three ancient pieces of exercise equipment; all broken.

I visited the purser and enquired about currency exchange from Japanese Yen to Chinese Yuan. The rate was surprisingly good, so I changed my remaining Yen in preparation for arrival into China. Beside the purer’s office was a small duty free shop with trinkets, gifts and cosmetics. The bored sales assistant looked like she hadn’t made a sale in the whole trip (or the previous several trips).

We were still running about 4 hours late, and finally saw Qingdao as dusk was falling. The phone in my room trilled for the first time in the whole trip and after I answered in English, a hesitant voice said “you bring key please”. I guessed (correctly) that it was the purser, and took my room key down. I was told “we arrive 1 hour”. So I brought my bags down and sat with the other passengers on the worn but comfortable sofas in the lobby.

Disembarkation was orderly, quick and simple and we were greeted by solemn Chinese soldiers with machine guns slung over their shoulders who ushered us onto an old bus. The bus was in a poor state of repair with a cracked windscreen, dented bodywork and chipped paint. The bare metal floor inside the bus was scuffed and scratched, and we lurched along the wharf to the passenger terminal. A head count was done at the terminal, before we were waved through into customs. I walked into the “All Other Nationalities” lane and made my way up to a scowling customs official. She examined my Australian passport suspiciously, thumbing through the visas until she found the current one, stamped it with contempt and thrust the passport back at me.

I exited the ferry terminal onto the street; the scene that greeted me was a shock after the orderly and well maintained Japanese environs. People pushed and spat, rubbish lined the cracked pavement and cars stopped anywhere they wanted in the chaotic forecourt. Several people pushed in front of me to get the scarce taxis, but I finally snared one after pushing away another would-be queue jumper with my bag. I was missing Japan already.


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