If you are going to really explore Japan by motorcycle then you will need to use the ferry network.
*This page is very much a work in progress being updated gradually*
Here is the beginning of a list of ferries I have used. The sites are all in Japanese so you need to use Google Chrome and have it set to auto translate Japanese to English (or your language). It will not be perfect but enough to figure out the times and price.
Sometimes there will be a link to English site – be aware this will always be a limited version lacking all the info and booking abilities of the main site.
Some of the prices I have paid on ferries I have listed on my best Japan motorcycle roads map and I may expand this to here later but prices will always go up and vary with peak seasons so best look on the operator sites direct.
A few tips when reading the sites. Motorcycles are different to cars and will often be listed with bicycles or as special baggage. Some ferries will have a scale of pricing for motorcycles based on engine capacity. Antiquated thinking now days when a large capacity sports bike will weigh less then a old smaller machine but don’t concern yourself. The pricing for two wheelers on most ferries is not expensive.
Be aware also that different timetables may operate in holiday season or low season so look carefully at the info and see if there is a 2nd timetable listed as well. Look at the menu titled Access to see where the ticket office is or confirm you have right dock in your GPS. With a couple of exceptions you cannot make any reservation for motorcycles. (but need to for cars) however going to or from Hokkaido always needs a reservation.
If making a reservation online you may encounter a few issues. 1. the calendar is screwed up using google translate (turn off) 2. May require your name in Japanese text. 3. May require motorcycle number plate. I think if you are not yet in Japan it will be difficult to make a booking on the long distance ferries as no vehicle details yet. For Hokkaido once here you should be able to use the site ok with just English and Google translate.
To use a other short distance car ferries in Japan follow theses steps. Always have enough cash, some will take credit cards but many won’t. Arrive well in advance, motorcycles board first and boarding will commence at 30-45 minutes before departure on big ships. First look for the ticket office and have your motorcycle paperwork with you.
Some operators require you to fill out a form for a ticket, this will be all in Japanese. Make sure you have Google translate on your phone and use the camera photo translate function to try work it out. From, To, Name, Bike engine size, number plate is usually all that is needed. If really confused try some then go to counter. Always have MapsMe or other offline map program on your phone with destination port pinned so you can point to where you want to go. A motorcycle in Japanese is Otobai pronounced like this ‘Oh-Toe-Bye’. It can help to show your bike paperwork and have a photo of it that shows the model number Z1000, FJR1300 etc.
At the ticket office there is usually a photo diagram or map of where the loading point is, take a moment to study that. If you are given a luggage label this needs to be tied to your mirror as this tells the staff which port you will depart on a multi stop sailing and they will place you at right spot in the boat, facing right way for that stop. You can leave everything on the bike, Japan is super safe honest place nothing will be touched. Make your way upstairs to the passenger area which is likely to be carpeted floor with pillows where people will be lying down taking a rest. Remove your boots before going on that area. There will be vending machines for cup noodles and hot or cold drinks on larger ships, clean toilets and possibly some pachinko/slot machines.
Just one route I know of has a kiosk and that is from Wakayama where you can get a breakfast obento. Take a nap then when close to the port announcements will be made and music played and everyone goes down into the hold. Motorcycles have to wait as they are parked in by cars so take your time putting gear on then when signaled start up and depart. On one sailing I was asked for ticket stub when exiting (Tsushima from memory) otherwise you will just ride straight out of the port.
Here is some of the long distance ferry routes a rider might use touring Japan from the Japan Long Course Ferry Service Association (image JLCFSA)
Their site has links to all these ferries however above is just the long distance ferries. There are dozens of smaller ferries linking all the islands of Japan. If you look at my best roads map that will give some idea but there are 100’s of islands that are inhabitated and serviced by a ferry.
Hokkaido ferries (Aomori or Oma)
Mutsu bay ferry (Imabetsu)
Tokyo bay ferry (Kurihama)
Suruga bay ferry I used this last tour. It is fast modern boat with cafe and bbq but bit expensive at over 4000Y.
Ise Bay ferry (Toba)
Wakayama to Shikoku ferry (ticket office located back at turn off to port) has a kiosk usually selling obentos.
These run very frequently and are not expensive. It is short sailing.
Shikoku to Kyushu Ferries
From Yawatahama This is best service of the three different lines.
From Sukumo This ferry service seems to be shutdown at moment.
Nejime – Yamagawa ferry (very small arrive early)
Amakusa Ferries These are terrific smaller boats but not busy.
Kumamoto – Shimbara ferry This is a excellent ferry service also not too busy.
Ariake ferry (Nagusu)
Goto islands ferry This is impressive large ship yet the cost is reasonable for such a long sail.
Tsushima ferry (and Iki island) Large ship with onboard facilities.
Tarumi – Kagoshima
There are dozens of small island hopping ferries that operate in the Japan inland sea. I will expand on that more when time permits.
Here is a fantastic site for the many ferries that operate in the Seto inland sea (and for many other parts of Japan) Japan Total Transport
Rebun island ferry – this seems to be too expensive but I might yet sail it in future.
Long distance ferries
Tokyo – Hokkaido ferry – seems expensive compared to the boats from west coast where you can get small room for same price.
Kobe/Osaka to Kyushu The Sunflower over night service between Osaka and Shibushi is fantastic.
Fukui to Tomakomai (Hokkaido) ferry (this is a fantastic service) with eateries and every conceivable item you could need.