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Across The Sea of Japan – On the ferry

Wed 10 Jul – day 60  Because of the notification during the early hours of this morning about the change of departure time, I had been unable to contact Yuriy to amend the Transfer pick up time and as he was seven time zones to the west, I would be on the ferry sailing for Japan before he got into work.

So as I had plenty of time and not a lot of roubles left I decided to walk rather than take a taxi.  It took just ten minutes to get to the Marine Terminal and as I was early I went out on to the veranda that overlooked the berth and took a photo of the ship.  It was then back inside as the terminal was air-conditioned and at 10:00hrs I checked in; I had to pay a 560 rouble departure tax in cash and that just about cleaned me out of roubles.

During the planning phase for this trip I had found out about the ferry from Vladivostok to Japan via South Korea from the Trans-Siberian page on Mark Smith’s wonderful website The Man in Seat 61.  The Far Eastern Shipping Company, a Russian enterprise, that operated the ferry to Japan fell victim to the recession in 2009 and for some time there was no surface transport option to get to Japan, then DBS, a South Korean firm, put the Eastern Dream on the route.  It would have been a shame if I had to fly, but then there were always other ferry options to get to Japan although these were from South Korea or China so I might have rearranged my schedule.

Having checked in it was then just a case of hurry up and wait until customs and immigration opened at 11:00hrs, so I occupied one of the few seats available and sat and read my guidebooks.  It got rather crowded as the passengers started to arrive and it was not helped by a number of large groups of tourists being taken into the shops that were adjacent to the DSB office.  I could have arrived just two hours before departure, but I would not have been able to get a seat.

The queue for the exit procedures commenced as soon as the company staff put out the bollards and people just stood there for ¾ hour before anything happened; I continued to read my guidebook.

When the door opened just a few people were allowed through at one time and so I just waited until the queue was down to the last few people before joining it.  Through the door and then downstairs to the security and customs check where everyone’s bags had to go through the x-ray scanner (a British machine made by Smiths Industries), no questions were asked; at the passport check no questions were asked again and then it was then through to immigration.  It took ages for the German gent before me to get cleared and when I handed over my passport with all the hotel registration forms in it, the lady just pushed the forms back to me as she seemed to be completely uninterested as to where I had been.  The forms eventually went into a bin of the ship.  Whatever she was trying to do did not seem to be working, so there were many gasps of what was probably exasperation while the keyboard was tapped (thumped), but finally my passport was stamped and handed back and so I am no longer officially in Russia.  The whole exit procedure took nearly one hour.

The signs to the ship led passed the duty free, but I gave it a miss as there was nothing there I wanted (or needed).  The route took me down some steps, along a passage, up some steps and then through a door out into the sunshine; cross over the railway tracks and through the gate to the quayside and I arrived at the foot of the gangway – old-fashioned steps.  My suitcase was carried up by one of the Filipino crew members, and when I reached the entrance area I handed over my boarding pass and was shown to my first class cabin.  There were already bags in the cabin and just as I was finishing changing a Russian lady came in and was not happy to see me.  She explained in faltering English that she was with her 2 young daughters and would I move.





No problem, so having finished getting changed I went up one deck to the reception desk where I tried to explain the problem to the lady on duty.  Although she spoke good English she didn’t understand in sufficient detail, but a gent in a white shirt who I discovered was the Purser was listening and took over; he rattled off a few commands in Korean while he checked the cabin list.  I said that I would pay for an upgrade, but all the top level cabins are full.  They found me a cabin with a single gent in so I transferred and the crew moved my bags.  Although this was an outside cabin it had no windows so it felt a bit like a tomb and I thought of the Costa Concordia.  It was a cabin with 4 berths (mats) and I think that it would have been quite ‘cosy’ if it had been full.

I was the only UK citizen onboard and one of only 4 Europeans.

Having stowed all my bags I went on deck to watch what was happening; it was baking hot as it has been for most of my journey and as the sun was out the mist of the last few days had lifted and there were good views all around the Golden Horn.  I took a photo of the Golden Horn Bridge and the ugly building that was the Hyatt hotel.

Most of the passengers were on deck to watch the departure, but as soon as the gangway was raised it went back down again, the policeman on duty on the quayside was perplexed but the Purser signalled one more passenger.  A lady from immigration emerged from the terminal and unlocked the gate to the berth, then an elderly lady appeared carrying her bags, she put them down and went back to get more luggage, ten pieces in all; the crew were given permission to go and collect the bags which were quickly taken onboard, this was a good job as the lady would have taken ages.

Then another wait before a lady and her son appeared at the run and it was obvious that none of these last passengers had been aware of the early departure.  Even before the gangway was properly stowed, the mooring lines had been cast off and we were moving away from the berth; the ship departed just one minute before the port was closed!!

As the ship sailed we could see all the naval vessels preparing to do the same and I was to find out later that this was for a very large joint exercise between the Russian and Chinese fleets; GEO politics in the South China Sea.

As we made our way out to sea a car carrying ship was entering port with second hand Japanese cars.  Ivan, the gent from the ground handlers in Irkutsk, had two RH drive vehicles, a small minibus plus a 4×4 and had explained that the cars from Japan were much cheaper than the Russian equivalent, but more importantly almost never broke down.

The ship sailed out of the harbour, turned to port and then sailed under the bridge to Russky Island, which at 3,887ft is the longest cable-stayed suspension bridge in the world; we were now in the open sea.  The Pilot disembarked into a tug rather than a purpose built pilot boat, a sight I had never seen before.

The ship is 3/4 full and it was difficul to find a quiet spot away from the hordes of noisy children and out of the breeze, unlike the child-free P&O cruise ships on which I spent Christmas & New Year, so I went and explored.  The staircase leading from the entrance deck up to the deck where the reception desk is situated had a rather grand mural on the landing.  Up another deck and there was a sitting area and aft from this was the upper deck.  There was an open area beneath the helicopter pad which was mainly used by the smokers (and the engine noise made it an uncomfortable place to spend much time) and at the aft end was the disco which I didn’t visit.




Having updated the blog I decided to have a snooze and so went down to the cabin; the gent with whom I was sharing was there stretched out and fast asleep.  Having put out the mattress and sheet, I laid down and pulled the quilt over me.  It was difficult to sleep with the light on and the engines making the floor vibrate, but having turned to face the wall I managed to have about an hour’s sleep.

When I got up I went in search of a place to sit, but it was either too breezy or too noisy, however I eventually found a spare seat inside on A deck so sat down and did some more work on the blog.

When dinner was announced crowds of people rushed off but I waited then went to reception, paid my $10 and got a chit and the receipt.  You could spend Yen, Won or US dollars on-board, but definitely not roubles

To get to the dining hall you exited the entrance hall, but on the port side and here you handed over your chit, turn right along the outside deck, headed forward and then up a steep companion way.  This was all open to the elements so it would be an interesting walk in rough weather; a sign on the outside deck was probably a literal translation.

Dinner was an all-you-can-eat buffet and I got a plateful even if I was not sure what some of the food was; the eating utensils were either metal chopsticks or a spoon and fork, I opted for the later.  The food was not bad and I paid $5 for a beer.

After dinner I retired to the bar and had a few beers while reading a book; you could also get freshly cooked snack meals here if you didn’t want dinner.  One of the TV’s was tuned to a Korean news channel and the pictures were of the 777 crash in San Francisco, while the other TV was showing baseball, but I was not sure if it was from Japan or Korea; where ever it was from the Giants won 6 – 2.

The ship worked on Vladivostok time until 22:00hrs and then the clocks went back 2 hours to Korean and Japanese time.

I was beginning to feel sleepy but had a walk around the ship before heading back to my cabin.  As the door was locked I had to get the receptionist to come and open it with the master key.  The other occupant was not here, so after having been to the toilet it was shirt off, down on to the mat and I pulled the quilt over myself.  I actually felt quite comfortable despite the engine vibration and because I had left the entrance light on, I turned to face the wall and dropped off to sleep only to be awoken ½ hour later when the gent arrived.  There was much twisting of the key until he realised that the door was unlocked; he switched the entrance light off, but left the toilet light on so it was not totally dark and I was soon back to sleep.


Thu 11 Jul – day 61  I woke a few times during the night, mainly when the Korean gent snorted or coughed loudly; he never even stirred and I was soon dropped off again.

Then it was 06:30hrs and I have had a fairly decent night’s sleep, probably the best since I was in Beijing.  I just laid there dozing while the gent got up and did his ablutions; he had not changed any of his clothes since yesterday.  Eventually he left, locking the door behind him and it was a good job that the door had an internal latch to open the lock.

I went back to sleep for a little while and then rose only to find an unflushed loo, thank heavens that the forced draft ventilation had removed the smell.  There was plenty of hot water so it was a very pleasant shower to start the day.  Having dressed I went for breakfast; same procedure as for dinner, so paid my $7 but was not impressed with what was on offer.  Fish, soup or noodles were not my idea of starting the day, so I settled for toast and jam with water as there is no coffee on offer.

Up on deck and mist has reduced visibility to about 100m, but the sun was trying to break through.  There was a Korean Coast Guard cutter on patrol and then a ferry powered its way passed on its journey to the outer islands.  Two warships were heading out to sea at great speed, then land became visible and we arrived on schedule in Donghae after a 704km trip.  This was a major naval port and there were many navy vessels moored up; looking at the ships I wondered how many different shades of gray the various navies around the world paint their warships.

Although we had arrived on time a large bulk carrier was being moved by tugs and so we had to wait until it had cleared our berth and was safely moored up.

When one of the lines was thrown ashore it got snagged under a fender and this took some time to release, but we were eventually safely alongside and tied up in the commercial dock.

Having read the Lonely Planet guidebook which said that there was very little to see here, I decided to stay onboard and went to tell the Purser so that he could advise the authorities.  At reception one of the ladies asked whether I am going to Japan, “Yes”, she asked my name but it is easier to point to it on her list and she told me that I would be moving cabins and would I come back once disembarkation has been completed; no problem and I was interested to see what I had been allocated.

Everyone tried to leave the ship at the same time, just like disembarkation in Southampton at the end of a cruise and there was no orderly queue, just a lot of pushing and shoving.

Once everyone had left I returned to reception and asked for assistance to move my luggage; a man arrived at the run (quite literally).  We went up one deck and then forward; the door was locked and the man rushed off to get the key and when he had unlocked the door I was shown into a twin berth cabin, no en-suite, but anything was better than sleeping on the floor and the beds were soft.

There were a couple of better cabins than this and at the other end of the scale were dormitories that could sleep 20 people.

Having sorted out my luggage I took my computer then went and sat by the door next to the gangway entrance as that was the only location where I had found a table, soft chairs and an electrical plug.  It took a few minutes to rearrange the adaptor as it had been a very long time since I have had to use the flat pins and one had got stuck, but in the end a sharp tap worked it loose.

I spent the day getting my diary up to date and doing general admin while a cooling breeze blew through the entrance door.  Everyone who passed said good morning / afternoon and gave a short bow.  The hierarchy on the ship was easy to work out with the Captain at the top and then the ships officers with bars on their shoulders.  The front of house team headed by the Purser in his pristine white shirt comprised of men in light blue shirts and black trousers with the ladies wearing a pink shiny blouse and a cream skirt; their chain of command could be seen by the colour of their neck scarf and on what side they wore it.  At the bottom of the pile were the Filipino crew who wear dark blue T shirts and trousers, even the females, and company baseball caps.  The ladies were the cleaners doing all the cabins and toilets etc as well as clearing tables in the dining hall, while the men were the deck hands and do all the humping and dumping.  I had a chat with them and was told that they were on a 12 month contract and for all of that time they remain on the ship with just escorted trips in town when they are docked in Donghae.

Like all the Filipinos that I have met they spoke good (American) English and were interested in why I was travelling, where I had been so and where I was going.

At 15:00hrs I packed up as boarding would start in an hour and as I wanted to get out of the crew’s way, I went and sat in the bar.  The Purser came in and asked me to leave as the ship’s owner was coming onboard and would be holding a meeting in the bar; happy to oblige.  When he arrived all of the crew were lined up by reception to meet him; they were in work area group with the leader at the front and the others behind him in order of seniority.

Having found a spot from where I could watch unobtrusively I saw the owner being introduced by the Captain to each of the team leaders in turn and he shook hands with each one; he then returned to the first group and the team leader introduced all of their team in turn and the owner shook the hand of each and everyone and so on.  The Filipinos were at the end of the line as they were the only non-Koreans employed onboard.  This was very interesting to watch as it gave an insight into the Asian mindset and I had even seen a female engineer and that was really breaking the boundaries in such a male dominated society.

During the stay in Korea groups of workmen had been busy going around the ship fixing all the defects that the engineers and deck officers had reported.  This meant that the ship was kept in pretty good shape.

It was raining quite heavily when boarding started at 16:00hrs and the Purser had told me that the ship would only be a third full.  The company sold tour packages in Korea for trips to both Japan and Russia and there were two different groups onboard as we sailed for Sakaiminato, they also advertised widely in eastern Russia and had package tours on offer.  The Russian lady had told me that she and her two daughters were on one these.  Hopefully this will give the company a wider market to tap into and along with the cargo shipped between the 3 countries, give a steady income flow which will allow the ferry to continue sailing.

I sat in the bar having a beer while the new passengers came onboard and was hoping that I would not have to share my cabin.  Back to the cabin and I was glad to see that I would be in solitary splendour tonight.

There was a Russian couple sailing on to Japan as well as a Danish naval marine engineering officer who was on leave after a 6 month tour of duty on anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.  Lars told me that it had taken nearly 2 hours to get through Korean customs and immigration and that there was very little to see in Donghae.  He had to change dollars into Won before he could buy anything and had not been allowed to rejoin the ship until general boarding commenced, so I think that my decision to stay onboard was justified.

The heavy rain had failed to clear the mist that had hung over the harbour all day and we set sail ten minutes early, so I was now heading for the last country on this trip.

The two different tour groups had each been allocated a half hour slot for dinner, all meals were included as part of their tour, and I was asked to wait when I presented my chit as the first group were a bit slow.  At dinner a Japanese gent returning home after doing business in Korean asked if he can join me, no problem and he then asked if I am Russian, that was a new one on this trip, no English, then the usual conversation starts: how long, where, why etc but it made for an interesting 3/4 of an hour.

The sea was flat calm, but it was still raining and after another beer I went to bed.


Fri 12 Jul – day 62  I awoke early, but as it was till dark I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Up at 07:00hrs and having put on my shorts and polo shirt headed off to the loo; the one on this deck was just a squat, so I went down a deck and found the western toilet.  Plenty of hot water in the shower again and having returned to my cabin and put clean clothes on I felt refreshed.

I did not bother to have breakfast.

Up on the open decks the first thing I saw was the Coast Guard cutter and as we approached Sakaiminato my first sight of Japan was a pleasant one.  On the starboard side was a long tree covered promontory, with a high ridge of hills running back towards the city.  A road had been cut along the base of the hills and at the two small inlets were small fishing villages.

There was a high steel bridge in the distance which looked like a smaller version of the Bridge of the Americas in Panama and under which I had passed on a cruise from Barbados to Acapulco in 2006.

The first smell was not so good as there was sewage farm just behind the lighthouse, but thankfully the pong didn’t last long.  The ship was turned as we approach the berth so that we would be starboard side to the shore.

The International Terminal was a grand name for a small building and the Eastern Dream was probably the only vessel that docked here.

It had been an interesting journey and having collected my luggage I thanked the staff as I left, much bowing from the Koreans and “Goodbye Sir” from the Filipinos.  One of the lads carried my suitcase down the gangway and I arrived in the tenth and final country on this trip.  It was very hot but the terminal was air conditioned and that was going full blast.  I joined the queue but after a few minutes a lady in the company’s uniform came up and asked whether I was part of a tour party, when I said no she lifted the barrier and took me to the head of the queue.  The immigration officer (stern face) did a double take when I handed over my passport and paperwork, but I doubt that many Britons enter the country here.

While he was scanning the passport you placed both your index fingers on a device that took their prints while also taking your picture.  The passport was handed back with a curt nod and a gesture to move on; the lady from the company then took me to the next available customs official and I was met by a young lady and a much older gent, both very smartly dressed in uniform.  It is soon apparent that the young lady was under training and when I handed over my passport there was another double take as this strange document was presented; the instructor took it, looked at the front and exclaimed “Aaagh Britain”, then said something to the lass who continued to smile.  I was asked whether I have any cigarettes, no I don’t smoke, then whether I am staying in the same hotel all the time that I am in Japan; when I explained my plans they seem impressed that I intended to see so much of the country, but also that I have arrived after a rail journey across Russia.  They wanted to look at what I had in my rucksack (dirty clothes), but it was more of a form search as the lady was under training.  I was welcomed into the country with a bow and it was through sliding doors into the entrance hall.

I was now in Japan.