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Fully catered boat trips with entertainment that is
a little bit different

Yakatabune floating on Tokyo Bay (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)

Yakatabune floating on Tokyo Bay (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)

    In Japan, people have long since taken sightseeing trips on small boats, enjoying parties and meals on the water. Even today, boat trips are popular in Japan. There are boats that you can use at your own convenience for a low price, and increasingly these are used by young groups of friends. Why not try some Japanese entertainment that is just a little bit different?

The history of Yakatabune

    Small boats with a roof and a tatami (rush covered straw mat) seating area are known as "Yakatabune." "Yakata" means the residence of a person of high rank, such as the noble men and samurai of years gone by. The original Yakatabune were made in the 8th and 9th centuries. According to records of the time, powerful people of the era would gracefully enjoy themselves floating on the water aboard boats whose bows were decorated with the head of a dragon, a water fowl, or similar, while they viewed the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves; created and recited poems; and played musical instruments.
    There was strong growth in boat trips on Yakatabune as the river-ways improved in the 17th - 19th centuries; this was primarily focused on Edo (now Tokyo) which was the center of Japan's politics and its economy at the time. It became popular for wealthy merchants and the Daimyo who ruled over individual regions of Japan to take sightseeing trips on their own boats to view the cherry blossoms, fireworks and the moon, etc.  The boats became larger, more gorgeous and more luxurious as they were built to compete with each other. Extravagant vessels appeared, decorated with gold, silver and lacquer, among other things.
    Originally, Yakatabune could only be used by powerful Daimyo or rich merchants; ordinary people not being allowed on board the boats. However, the common people of Edo started to enjoy sightseeing using small boats called "Yanebune" which had a small room mounted on top of the boats. Eventually, the Yakatabune changed shape from the luxurious boats of the Daimyo to those used today, as the government enacted laws prohibiting large boats and the common people started to build simple Yakatabune.

From Kyoka (comical Japanese verse) picture book – Volume 2 "A picture of the River Sumida, scene of both sides" by Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (Sumida Hokusai Museum of Art). The bridge is crowded with people and there are a lot of boats floating on the river. This illustrates how the boats would have looked at the time, with people on the roofs operating the Yakatabune and others

    Even after the modernization of Japan 150 years ago, Yakatabune continued to enjoy popularity as a refined form of entertainment. However, they largely disappeared for a time due to the Second World War, and the water pollution and river embankment works that took place during the period of high economic growth in Japan (around 1955-1972.)
    It was in the late 1970s that Yakatabune saw a revival. In the 1980s Japan once again enjoyed a booming economy - the so-called "bubble economy" - and as the river-way environment improved, there was also a renewed interest in renting Yakatabune as a traditional form of "luxury entertainment." One after the other, the modern-day equivalent of Yakatabune, called "mobile water restaurants," appeared, allowing people to enjoy a meal and the scenery of the season. The appearance of "shared" style Yakatabune, that allowed even small groups to come on board, also encouraged the boats’ popularity.

Today’s Yakatabune

    Let's look at some of the ways to have fun on Yakatabune today.
    Typically, there are a lot of these boats that offer sightseeing trips around a set route while enjoying a meal. You can enjoy freshly fried tempura and sashimi prepared on board.

Many of the meals are from the Japanese menu and focus on freshly fried tempura cooked on board (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)

Many of the meals are from the Japanese menu and focus on freshly fried tempura cooked on board (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)

    Every year there are extremely popular Yakatabune routes that allow you to view the cherry blossoms in spring and enjoy the Japanese summer tradition of watching fireworks; as powerful Daimyo and rich merchants are said to have done in the past.

“Sightseeing route around the banks of the River Sumida” to view the cherry blossoms. The tower in the background is a modern landmark, the “Tokyo Sky Tree.” (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)

"Sightseeing route around the banks of the River Sumida" to view the cherry blossoms. The tower in the background is a modern landmark, the “Tokyo Sky Tree.” (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)

“Fireworks boats” to watch the fireworks  (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)

“Fireworks boats” to watch the fireworks (Tokyo Yakatabune Association)


    There is a route where you can experience a rare "water elevator." This route goes through the "Ogibashi Lock Gates" - the so-called Panama Canal of Japan - where water levels are adjusted using two lock gates that were dug out 300-400 years ago.

Ogibashi Lock Gates (courtesy of the Tokyo Bureau of Construction - Rivers Department)

Ogibashi Lock Gates (courtesy of the Tokyo Bureau of Construction - Rivers Department)

Ogibashi Lock Gate mechanism

Ogibashi Lock Gate mechanism


Luxury boats that can let you feel like a Daimyo

    In recent times there has also been a resurgence of luxury boats that can let you feel like a Daimyo.
    In the 17th-19th Century there was a system whereby the government of the day would periodically order Daimyo to reside in the capital of Edo. There is a sightseeing boat that operates in Tokyo Bay called the "Gozabune Atake-Maru" which is a modern reproduction of the boats used by the Daimyo to travel back and forth along the sea routes between their home territories and Edo. It is a big boat with a total length of around 50 meters that is used for round-trip cruises that pass through one of Tokyo's famous sites - the "Rainbow Bridge.” "Gozabune" is the name of boats used by the Daimyo; and the name "Atake-Maru" is taken from the name of a luxury boat that Iemitsu Tokugawa (3rd Shogun of the Tokugawa Dynasty and the person with authority at the time) had built.
    The interior is finished using a lot of wood to provide a warm space. The wooden floor area provides chairs and tables for 120 people and on night cruises there are singing and dancing performances and shows that involve audience participation.

The construction of the “Gozabune Atake-Maru” was supervised by Eiji Mitooka, the industrial designer who worked on projects such as the popular "Nanatsu-boshi in Kyushu (Seven Stars in Kyushu)" luxury sleeper train

One of Tokyo’s famous sites - “Rainbow Bridge”

One of Tokyo’s famous sites - “Rainbow Bridge”

The inside of the boat

The inside of the boat


On board a play called the “Great Edo Feast Dance Show” is performed in the style of the Edo period (courtesy of Ryobi Holdings)

On board a play called the "Great Edo Feast Dance Show" is performed in the style of the Edo period (courtesy of Ryobi Holdings)

    There are also large boats that let you enjoy the cool of a summer evening on a trip around Tokyo Bay in the hot season. There are also discounted services where you wear “Yukata” which are a simple form of Kimono (traditional Japanese dress); with parties that must be really exciting, as you watch the night view of the city-scape from the boat.

A group of women in Yukata enjoying the cool of a summer evening on a boat (courtesy of Tokaikisen)

A group of women in Yukata enjoying the cool of a summer evening on a boat (courtesy of Tokaikisen)

Some young people enjoying a party on a boat in Tokyo Bay (courtesy of Tokaikisen)

Some young people enjoying a party on a boat in Tokyo Bay (courtesy of Tokaikisen)


    Tokyo has been trying to revive the hustle and bustle of what was once called the "city of waterways", carrying out one community trial on top of another for "water transport" that will take you around famous sites by boat. There is also an idea to put new routes in service for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, as a means of transport for the increasing number of tourists from outside Japan. No doubt in future there will also be an increase in the entertainment that can be enjoyed on boats.

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