Most visitors to Hokkaido fly in, but to do it overland you have two options – bullet train or ferry.
If you have the JR Pass, the train’s the way to go – with the bullet train having recently been extended from Aomori through the Seikan Tunnel to Hakodate, you can now reach Hakodate (specifically Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Sation on the edge of town) in 4 hours with a direct Hayabusa train from Tokyo. However from there it’s still another 3.5 hours to Sapporo on the Super Hokuto express train – the shinkansen is currently being extended to Sapporo which will allow for direct Tokyo-Sapporo trains taking just 5 hours or so, but that won’t be finished until 2031.
For those without the JR Pass, the ferry is way, way cheaper than the shinkansen (so is flying of course, but the ferry is a nice scenic overland alternative). And if you’re aiming for Hokkaido overland from Kansai or Nagoya, the overnight ferry is surely a cruisier option than the train dogleg through Tokyo.
(There is actually one more option – using the local trains. But having spent 2 days of my life getting back from Sapporo to Kyoto this way (following a bizarre encounter with a scary scissor-wielding lady after my ferry was cancelled) I can say it isn’t a good idea unless you break it up and make plenty of stops (e.g. by using the Seishun 18 Kippu). There’s certainly plenty to see in the Tohoku region to justify it – though it’d be more fun with the JR Pass!)
Anyway, back to the sea routes. Ferries to Hokkaido’s ports of Otaru and Tomakomai leave from multiple ports on the main Honshu island; in addition to the shorter crossings from Aomori Prefecture, there are these long-distance routes:
Maizuru (Kyoto Prefecture)-Otaru
Tsuruga (Fukui Prefecture)-Niigata-Akita-Tomakomai
Oarai (Ibaraki Prefecture)-Tomakomai
I’ve taken the ferry to/from Hokkaido 5 times and it was a pleasant journey on every occasion. The one shocker was when my return ferry got cancelled due to storms, leading to above-mentioned ridiculous 2-day journey – I had to be back in time for work so couldn’t risk chilling & waiting for the next ferry. All of which goes to say, be aware of the possibility of cancellations and prepared to be flexible should that happen.
From Aomori Prefecture: as well as the above long-distance routes there are also a few shorter crossings from Aomori Prefecture at the northern tip of Honshu, which would be best if you’re road tripping it:
The Shimokita Peninsula is home to Osorezan (Mt Dread or Mt Fear), an otherworldly volcanic landscape which serves as the gateway to the underworld in Japanese mythology. It’s a fascinating place and if you are on your own wheels, or are travelling through Tohoku taking your time with stops, this is a good route to take. Ferries cross to Hakodate from Omasaki at the tip of the peninsula.
How to Book Japanese Ferry Tickets
The easiest way is online in advance with Direct Ferries here (I’ve never used them for Japanese domestic ferries as I haven’t taken one for a few years, but regularly do so for Japan-Korea ferries and they’re easy & reliable)
You can also just rock up on the day and buy a ticket in the terminal – I’ve done so every time (before the rise of OTAs) and never had a problem (no guarantee of course). Next time I’ll use Direct Ferries.
Ferry Terminal Access
Otaru is an attractive little canal town with good train connections to Sapporo (30-45 minutes); if you’re heading to Niseko you can do so directly from Otaru (as I once did) by staying overnight then taking a morning train to Kutchan (and local bus or taxi from there). The nearest station to the port is Minami-Otaru, a 20-minute walk away; Minami-Otaru is one stop east of Otaru Station i.e. one stop before Otaru Station when coming from Sapporo.
Tomakomai is the other way from Sapporo and slightly further out, an industrial port which I mostly remember for this bizarre situation I once found myself in there. It’s an hour-and-a-bit by train from Sapporo Station (or 45 minutes if you take the limited express), but then you have to get from Tomakomai Station to the port. Easiest way is by taxi, or you can take the bus from the bus stops outside (to the left when you com out of the north exit). If you don’t read Japanese you’ll need to ask for help with working the bus out; I’m not putting the bus times & numbers here as they change and there’s no easy way to keep track of the changes. To further complicate matters, ferries to Sendai/Nagoya/Oarai and Akita/Niigata/Tsuruga leave from different ports – Tomakomai Port (10-minute bus ride) for the former and Tomakomai East Port (30km away) for the latter. When departing from Tomakomai you’ll need to catch the bus from the bus stops outside the train station (ask someone to help you find the correct stop) or jump in a taxi. The navigation’s easier when arriving in Tomakomai, as they have buses waiting when you disembark, including buses direct to Sapporo Station (you should definitely take this option if heading to Sapporo); if you’re heading east first to Kushiro, Shiretoko Peninsula, Abashiri etc then take the bus to Tomakomai Station and the train to Minami-Chitose where you can transfer to the limited express trains coming though from Sapporo to points east.
The port’s a 20-minute walk from Maizuru Station, if you take the fastest route. On ferry days there are buses meeting passengers off certain trains (ask the JR staff at the station), or a taxi will do it in 10 minutes. Walking takes you through the town centre – nothing too lively but you’ll find ramen joints and convenience stores etc. Arriving to Maizuru in the evening you can just about catch the last train that makes the connection to Kyoto at Ayabe (with a second change at Sonobe; double check this using Hyperdia as details may change), but you have to absolutely leg it; if you take a wrong turn you’ll miss it. If you don’t fancy that, have heavy luggage etc, you’ll want to have a taxi pre-booked to meet you off the ferry, or just book a room in Maizuru (not a bad idea – it’s a lovely bit of coastline and you can visit nearby Amanohashidate, one of the so-called 3 Great Views of Japan)
Although not in Kyoto Prefecture, the port of Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture is actually more convenient than Maizuru for Kyoto City, being just 50 pretty minutes away on the Thunderbird express via the Kosei Line running up the western shore of Japan’s largest lake, Biwako (or about 2 hours by local trains with changes, check Hyperdia). From Tsuruga Station it’s a 10-minute taxi ride to the ferry terminal. You can get a meal or stock up on snacks in the vicinity of Tsuruga Station.
Niigata is a fairly large city and the port’s a few miles out from the centre. Eat & stock up in the busy shopping area near the station then take a taxi (15 minutes) or bus (use Google Maps) to the ferry terminal.
The terminal’s a 20-minute walk from Tsuchizaki Station, which is one stop north (7 minutes) of Akita Station.
This one’s a bit of a trek from central Sendai; either take the Senseki Line to Nakanosakae (20 minutes) then a taxi (10 minutes) from there, or the bus direct from Sendai Station. The routes are clearly explained here. When disembarking in the morning from Hokkaido, buses wait to take you direct to Sendai Station.
You can actually buy combo bus & ferry through-tickets all the way from Tokyo (Mito Station) to Sapporo, see here.
If you prefer to make your own way to the port use the Joban Line from Ueno Station, it takes around 2 hours taking the JR limited express then switching to the private Kashima Rinkai Railway (see Hyperdia for details), and the ferry terminal’s a 20-minute walk or quick taxi ride from Oarai Station.
The ferry terminal’s a 20-minute walk north of Kinjofuto Station, the last stop at the southern end of the Aonami Line (25 minutes from Nagoya Station).
From Aomori Station you can walk it in half an hour, or jump in a 10-minute taxi.
Any questions about any of these routes? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
Search & book Japanese ferry tickets on Direct Ferries.
Check out my quick guide to Sapporo