by Brian – JAPANiCAN.com Staff
What is a yakatabune?
Put plainly, yakatabune are small ships equipped for dinner service and parties where guests lounge on tatami mats. Often referred to as Japanese “pleasure boats”, yakatabune have been around since the Edo Period (1603-1868). Back then, ornate yakatabune were a fixture of the upper echelons of Japanese society, with the likes of feudal lords and wealthy merchants using them for sophisticated activities like viewing cherry blossoms or reciting haiku poems while gently floating down a river. Nowadays, yakatabune are used primarily for dinner and drinking parties, but they retain the sense of elegance and refinement they gained in the Edo Period. Their range of uses has expanded significantly to include everything from cherry blossom-viewing parties in Spring and fireworks-viewing parties in Summer, to business dinners, wedding parties, and other special occasions.
In Tokyo, yakatabune excursions typically consist mainly of cruising around Tokyo Bay and the Sumida and Arakawa Rivers, from which passengers can enjoy a unique method of sightseeing. Cruises visit areas like Odaiba, Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Disneyland®, and other popular spots that afford good views from Tokyo’s waterways. Whether leisurely cruising through town in the afternoon or marveling at the gorgeous (romantic, even!) night views of this metropolis in the evening, delicious food and drink are an integral part of this unique, luxurious way to experience Tokyo.
The JAPANiCAN team went out for a dinner cruise with luxury yakatabune charter service Harumiya. Read about our experience below!
The Yakatabune Experience:
Having lived in Japan for some time now, I was always a bit disappointed in myself for having never gone on a yakatabune. So, naturally, when I was invited to join a cruise early this summer, I practically jumped out of my chair to salute and wholeheartedly accept my special mission. To be honest, having only seen yakatabune from afar, either peacefully docked under Tokyo’s myriad bridges or glistening in the middle of Tokyo Bay, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I can now say with absolute certainty that the good people at Harumiya, operators of a fleet of yakatabune and our hosts for the evening, did not disappoint.
The lively and welcoming crew met us at the fore deck of the ship, to collect our shoes and usher us aboard. As we shuffled aboard, the attractive, low-slung shape of the ship, adorned with glowing red lanterns, immediately captured my attention. Admittedly, I already felt pretty cool. Stepping through the entryway and into the main cabin of the boat, it took me a moment to remember that I was, in fact, on a boat. The cabin, floored in traditional, easy-on-the-feet tatami mats, was wider and more spacious than most of the restaurants I’ve had parties at in the recent past. Tables were arranged lengthwise along both sides of the boat with six guests at each, and our group of more than 50 had ample space to lounge and relax. The tables, like the tatami, were traditional-style low tables, with the accompanying seating consisting of zabuton floor cushions. For those who are not fans of sitting cross-legged for long periods of time, fear not; there were holes for your legs under the tables. The interior, from the tatami to the various fixtures and colors, was designed like a high-class Japanese restaurant.
After being sufficiently awed by the immediately visible features of our vessel, I took my seat at one of the tables. The low seating combined with the already low-riding design of the boat put me at just the right level to gaze out the windows across the table and out onto the water, my line of sight not far removed from the face of the bay itself.
Taking a peek downward for a moment, I was greeted by a variety of small dishes which constituted the first course of our meal. A great source of pride for our hosts, Harumiya, is that the cuisine served on their yakatabune is all hand-made, and I can personally attest to the fact that it is both of the utmost quality and, of course, delicious. As we began pulling away from the dock, we were greeted by the charismatic captain of our evening cruise. She walked us through both the rules and safety features of the boat, as well as the plan for the evening, in clear English. As we dug into our meals, the crew attentively responded to our calls for for beverages; the drink service was all-you-can-drink, including beer, wine, sake, shochu (Japanese liquor), whiskey, and soft drinks. As the meal progressed, the crew began delivering piece by fresh piece the main course or highlight of a yakatabune dinner cruise: freshly fried, light and crispy tempura (fried seafood and vegetables). Harumiya’s tempura, meticulously prepared on the boat as we floated into Tokyo Bay, was excellent, and it was brought straight to our tables fresh out of the bubbling oil. There were seasonal vegetables, sweet potato, shrimp, butterflied smelt fillets, and more, including Tokyo Bay’s famous anago (sea eel).
Though it was hard to tear my attention away from the delectable foodstuffs set before me, it was impossible to keep my gaze from wandering across the water as we cruised peacefully past the glowing Tokyo skyline, its glittering reflection dancing on the surface of the bay. As we made our way towards the Odaiba area, we opened the sliding windows behind our table, letting in the cool, salty sea breeze. As the flow of food slowed (and the girth of my gut approached critical mass), the yakatabune also slowed and came to rest in the bay, at which point we were invited to go topside to the ship’s spacious viewing deck. With the reflection of Odaiba’s luminescence shimmering on the water, Rainbow Bridge stretching out across the bay, and other yakatabune scattered across the harbor aglow with red lanterns, it was a sight to behold. As someone who has lived and worked in Tokyo for years, it was truly a moving experience to see it in such a different light.
After enjoying the panorama and returning below deck for a few more drinks, some of my coworkers decided it was time for a little karaoke fun as we made our way back to port. Backed by rousing renditions of some karaoke classics, we gently floated up to the dock, putting a fitting cap on the evening of maritime merriment (and the cap back on the bottle of sake). The crew bid us a warm farewell with smiles and bows as we filed back out onto the pier and back to our normal lives as Tokyo landlubbers.
More About the Boat, Harumiya & Their Services
In regards to features and facilities of Harumiya’s yakatabune, smoking is not allowed in the main cabin, but there is space and an ashtray at the lower aft deck for tobacco enthusiasts. With it being early summer for us, we enjoyed opening the windows to enjoy the cool sea air as we cruised around the bay, but the boats are also fully equipped with impeccable climate control (AC). For those worried about holding it for a few hours, allow me to put your hearts at ease; one of the most surprising things for me, in a good way, was the absolutely lovely bathroom facilities.
Established in 1901, Harumiya’s current fleet consists of modern, clean, and state-of-the-art ships which maintain traditional designs, and their level of service and hospitality is that of seasoned industry veterans. Harumiya’s yakatabune are available for charter from as few as 20 people (Monday – Thursday) or 25 people (Friday and Saturday), at JPY 10,500 per adult (tax included). The maximum number of guests per charter is 118, and ships are available for charter year-round to fit customers’ needs and schedules. Harumiya’s fleet includes yakatabune with special features like terrace-style viewing decks and karaoke machines. Even services like performances by geisha are available (for an additional charge). Special courses are also available starting at JPY 13,650 per adult.
Harumiya’s yakatabune are fit for a range of occasions including seasonal activities like cherry blossom viewing and summer fireworks festival viewing or special events like wedding parties and business meetings. Standard cruise courses include the “Odaiba Course”, which visits areas like the Sumida River, Odaiba, and Rainbow Bridge, and the “Maihama Course”, which visits Kaisai Rinkai Park and Tokyo Disneyland®.
If you would like to make a reservation for or inquiry about Harumiya’s services, please contact JTB Global Marketing & Travel at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Inquiries can be accepted in English, Chinese (simplified), and Japanese. Please note that package tours are no longer available, so only reservations for completely private boat hires are available (i.e., large, private groups).