While boat cruises are generally a great thing as there’s hardly a more relaxing way to get to know the waterfront of a city, the thought of riding this historic, beautiful boat really was an exciting one. I treaded almost solemnly along the pier with equally impressed Japanese guests; there was hardly a person who didn’t comment on Atakemaru’s magnificent and detailed look or its large size. “It can fit 500 people”, I was told by Murakami-san, who works for the cruise company that owns the gozabune, as he looked at the ship with a spark of pride in his eyes.
He didn’t exaggerate. As I finally entered the Atakemaru after being greeted by the crew in traditional garb, I immediately paused again as I stepped into what can only be called a noble foyer. Elegant stairs led up to the second floor, a big, traditional wall painting of Mount Fuji in the background. It seemed like a smaller, older Japanese version of the famous staircase of the Titanic! My initial amazement with the authenticity and beauty of this ship just seemed to grow the more I got to see of it.
I promised myself that this wouldn’t be the last time I had seen this stage and that the next time I come here, it would be as an excited guest on an evening cruise but for now, it was time to head up to the deck. While the Japanese passengers had already found seats on the many benches on deck to enjoy the warm rays of sun – despite it being rainy season, the weather was amazing – I immediately headed to the very front to look out over Tokyo Bay.
I could see them all: Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, the Rainbow Bridge spanning the Bay right in front of me, even a plane landing at Haneda Airport in the distance! It felt pleasantly odd to stand on a ship right out of the Edo period, the time of swords and samurai, while looking over the modern cityscape of the metropolis. People like to bring up the wonderful contrast of traditions and modernity when talking about Japan and I felt like the Atakemaru was its very manifestation.
With a gentle rumbling, the motors of the ship came to life and we started to head out into the bay. My hands resting on the railing, I gazed upon the waters and couldn’t help but to imagine what the Shogun himself must have felt – and seen – when standing at the very spot that I stood right now. Had the wind ruffled his hair just like it ruffled mine now? Probably not.
There was no Skytree and no Rainbow Bridge during the times of Tokugawa Iemitsu, who ordered the Atakemaru to be made, as Murakami-san had told me earlier, and if me and the Shogun were to swap places, he would most likely be just as shocked seeing these massive structures with planes landing in the background as I would be, suddenly gazing upon old Edo sprawling in front of me.
While the beautiful, modern Odaiba was to my left, the many cranes and industrial ships of the harbor caught my eye on the right. Murakami-san joined me at the railing and told me what an amazing sight the harbor is at night. Not many people seem to be aware of how beautiful these sort of industrial sceneries can be but as Murakami-san described the soft orange lights that illuminated the cranes and ships after dark and their reflection on the waves, I nodded quietly and, once again, promised myself to board the Atakemaru at night the next time.
During the Edo period, there were no foreign ships allowed to land on Japan’s shores, except for one harbor called Dejima in Nagasaki. Now, Tokyo Bay is brimming with business and I wondered how the rulers of old would feel knowing that the country they tried so hard to keep secluded having become such an important global player. The slow pace with which the Atakemaru glides over the waves, from Hamamatsucho to Odaiba, takes away all the bustling and haste that one might usually feel in Tokyo.
The quiet cruise invites to really not only take in the scenery of Tokyo Bay but to genuinely pause and appreciate the many sights. Whether you think about the jellyfish that you’ve just spotted in the water below or the rulers of old Japan, the ride on this magnificent ship will make for an unforgettable experience.
*This information is from the time of this article's publication.