Cruising Tokyo Bay: The Pleasures of Yakatabune

By Staff Writer
January 26, 2024
While the bridges and polders give Tokyo Bay its characteristic ultra-modern appearance, every now and then you can still catch a glimpse of a spectacle from another era. Every week, dozens of old Japanese wooden boats ply the bay at nightfall for the traditional December fireworks display on Odaiba. These "Yakatabune", or "houseboats" in Japanese, are not new,  and offer passengers a different way of visiting the city and experiencing life in a bygone Japan, when the Yakatabune  ferried the rich and powerful along the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay.
Fireworks on the Sumida river
But their golden age lay in the Edo period (1603-1868). With the waterways substantially improved, the Yakatabune became a popular pastime for the city's feudal lords and wealthy merchants, who would use them for various activities like cherry blossom viewing, moon gazing, fireworks displays, and other forms of entertainment. Their interiors feature a spacious living room with tatami flooring and low dining tables, in the style of medieval aristocratic Japanese houses.

A Yakatabune on the Sumida River
Used for recreation and leisure, they were a symbol of ostentatious luxury and opulence. The most lavish of Yakatabune, mostly seen along the Sumida River, were adorned with sumptuous gold, silver, and lacquer ornaments. They lived up to their apogee around the time of the Enpo era (around 1680), after which their use gradually declined due to the ban on the construction of large boats in 1682.

Its use was revived and democratised just as the Showa era was coming to an end and the bubble economy was in full swing. Nowadays, the Yakatabune can be seen along the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay, transporting Japanese and foreign visitors alike in search of an experience that would take them back in time. They are a popular choice for touristic or company dinner cruises in Tokyo, offering a rather unique dining experience on the water.
Tokay Bay and its famous rainbow bridge
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