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8 Places to try out Traditional Boat Rides in Japan
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8 Places to try out Traditional Boat Rides in Japan

May 22, 2024

When it comes to exploring Japan, most travellers flock to iconic landmarks and bustling cities. For those seeking a deeper connection with the country's rich culture and serene landscapes, venturing off the beaten track offers an unforgettable experience. One way to discover hidden Japan is to take a ride on a traditional Japanese boat and experience how people got from place to place back in the olden days.

Here are 8 places you can try a traditional boat ride in Japan and transport yourself the heart of Japan's cultural heritage.

4853634_m.jpgHachiman-bori Canal Tour in Shiga

Omihachiman is a still-preserved old merchant town near Lake Biwa, which was once a bustling trading post along the Nakasendo route from Tokyo to Kyoto.

The Hachiman-bori canal was built to transport goods around the town, making Omihachiman a major trading hub. These days visitors can ride these small, quaint roof-covered boats down the quiet canals, taking in preserved old-style buildings. The surrounding scenery is very pleasant, with much greenery and seasonal flowers decorating the old-fashioned buildings, so it makes for a peaceful and relaxing boat ride.

You can also learn about the town's history and folklore at the Omihachiman City Museum, and stroll along the streets and enjoy the preserved townscape. If you are interested in a guided tour of the area, we offer a 6-hour day tour that can be adjusted to fit in your boat ride.

Buy tickets:

Ask at the Tourist Information Centre at Omi Hachiman Station.

How to get there:

Take the JR Biwako train from Osaka or Kyoto to Omihachiman Station. From Omihachiman Station, it's a 30-minute walk to the canal, or a 10-minute taxi.

4849151_s.jpgCanal Boat Tour in Yanagawa

Yanagawa is an old castle town in Fukuoka that was built with about 470km of waterways, which boatmen in the Edo Period would use to navigate the town and to transport goods and people.

Much of the old town has been preserved, and visitors can explore the ancient canals on a traditional donko boat.

If you visit between December to February, you can ride on the kotatsu sightseeing boat, where you will be snug and warm relaxing under a heated kotatsu.

Beyond the canals, explore traditional Japanese gardens, visit the birthplace of renowned poet Hakushu Kitahara, and savour the local delicacy, unagi (eel).

How to get there:

From central Fukuoka, take the train from Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station to Yanagawa Station (46 minutes)

6940-7138mix.jpgTokyo Yakatabune

Back in the Heian Period (794-1185), Japanese aristocrats used to cruise the waterways and lakes while enjoying seasonal food and drink. One popular place to try this ancient tradition is by boarding a yakatabune boat in Tokyo. These barges are decorated with lanterns and usually travel from Tokyo Skytree to Odaiba in Tokyo Bay. You can buy individual tickets or rent out an entire boat, and the cruise includes a course meal and all-you-can-drink alcohol.

Buy tickets:


How to get there:

It varies, if you book the tour above you will be informed of the meeting point prior to the tour.

Roadside Station Okutoro - Log Rafting on the Kitayama River in Wakayama

You can experience traditional Japanese log rafting on the Kitayama River's Dorokyo Gorge in Wakayama Prefecture.

Unlike some of the other boat rides listed here, this one is not for the faint hearted, as you will travel down the river gorge through rapids, getting drenched from head to toe. Adventure seekers stand on the platform of logs to float down the river while the ikadashi (boatman) steer the raft with their oars.

Logging used to be a vital part of the livelihood of the area, and these rafts were once used to transport goods up and down the river, although these days they are purely for tourists.

This activity only operates in May and June on weekends/public holidays and from July to September except on Thursdays.

Buy tickets:

Purchase tickets at the Michi-no-Eki Okutoro Kitayamamura Kanko Center

How to get there:

Take the 9:10am bus from Kumanoshi to the Michi-no-Eki Okutoro Tourist Center, Kitayama Village.

1136292_s.jpgKumano River Boat Ride in Wakayama

This 90-minute boat ride takes visitors down the Kumano River, through the sacred Kumano shrines and along the route once traversed by ancient court nobles. The boats pass waterfalls, forest greenery and awe-inspiring cliffs and gorges.

Riders travel in traditional flat-bottomed boats which used to be used to transport Japan's imperial family and aristocracy between the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine and the Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine.

After the boat tour, you can hike along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, a World Heritage site that has been walked by pilgrims for centuries.

*the boats do not run from December to February*

Buy tickets:


How to get there:

29 minutes from JR Shingu Station by Kumano Kotsu Bus towards Hongu, get off at Michinoeki Kumanogawa Bus stop, 1 minute on foot.

3506103_m.jpgTraditional Boat Tour of Kurashiki Canal

Kurashiki boasts a rich history as a bustling merchant town along the Seto Inland Sea. Steeped in tradition, this charming city is renowned for its well-preserved Edo-period architecture and scenic waterways.

One of its standout features are the waterways that run through the town, which once served as the primary artery for goods flowing in and out of the area. Today, visitors can experience the city's storied past firsthand with leisurely boat tours along the Kurashiki River. Unlike exploring on land, the slow-moving boat offers a fresh perspective, allowing passengers to admire the picturesque townscape adorned with iconic white-walled houses from a unique vantage point.

Buy tickets:

Tickets can only be purchased on the day at the Kurashikikan Tourist Information Center.

How to get there:

15 minutes by foot from Kurashiki Station on the JR Sanyo Main Line.

25018995_s.jpgTarai-Bune Boat Rides on Sado Island

Sado Island is a hidden gem nestled in the Sea of Japan, where rugged coastlines, lush forests, and rich cultural heritage abound. As one of Japan's largest islands, Sado offers a diverse array of experiences, from exploring historic gold mines and traditional villages to soaking in natural hot springs and enjoying breathtaking coastal views. With a history dating back thousands of years, Sado Island has been shaped by its unique blend of influences, including its status as a former place of exile for political prisoners. Today, it's a haven for travellers seeking adventure, tranquillity, and a deeper connection to Japan's past.

One of the activities on Sado Island that is popular with visitors is the Tarai Bune boat experience. While the experience is only about 10 minutes long, we included it on our list for pure uniqueness. That is because these boats are shaped like an old-fashioned bathtub - indeed the name tarai bune means "traditional washtub boat" in Japanese.

The tubs are used to catching abalone and molluscs, introduced in the 1800s due to a need to fish in narrow, hard to reach places, the design of the tubs makes them easier to steer into narrow coves and inlets for fishing.

How to get there:

Take a one-hour jetfoil or two-hour ferry from Niigata City and walk from Ogi Port.

4434605_m.jpgHozu River Boat Ride in Kyoto

This traditional flat-bottomed boat ride takes you down the scenic Hozu River towards Arashiyama, meandering through lush forests and dramatic gorges. As you float along the river, expert boatmen use oars and bamboo poles to navigate the gentle rapids while sharing fascinating stories about the region's heritage. Once upon a time, these boats were used to transport timber up and down the river, but modern transport rendered them obsolete.

Ideal for nature lovers, the Hozugawa River Cruise offers a serene and picturesque escape from the bustle of city life and allows you a glimpse into life in old Kyoto.

How to get there:

We recommend taking the Sagano Scenic Railway from Arashiyama to Kameoka, a nostalgic open-air railway that takes you on a 25-minute journey through the forest to the Hozu River boat ride starting point (a bus connects the end of the train ride with the start of the river boat ride). Riding this railway requires advance reservation, and book early in autumn when the fall colors are in full splendour and seats book out fast.

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