11,000 km since our last ferry trip (Dover-Calais), we boarded the Eastern Dream to sail from Vladivostok to Sakaiminato, Japan.
The boat goes once a week at 2pm, and stops in Donghae in Korea on the way. It’s overnight to Donghae, and another night to Sakaiminato. You can book a ticket all the way through to Japan, and you have the option to stay on the boat in Donghae, or get off for about 4 hours and explore the town. We booked the tickets about a week in advance by emailing the ferry company (DBS cruise) in English, and economy class was already booked up for the second leg of the journey, so it was even more expensive than we expected — nearly 300 USD each. This was one of the occasions where not flying makes travel a lot more expensive. But on the other hand, a lot more fun. (You haven’t lived until you’ve sat in a bar full of Koreans in late middle age politely clapping each other’s karaoke attempts, in the middle of the Sea of Japan.)
Vladivostok ferry terminal is somewhat confusing. It looks and feels like a small shopping mall, and it’s clear how to buy tickets, but not that clear how to actually board a boat. We stood for a while watching the door which we thought would eventually open to let us embark, but as the time ticked further and further past when we’d been told to board, we began to worry that it wasn’t the right door after all. The crowds of people waiting in the narrow corridor were mostly Korean, so we thought they must be going on our boat, but the door we were waiting by said nothing English but ‘Staff Only’ on it…
We spotted another backpacker, who was Dutch, and equally confused by the door situation. Comparing trip notes, the time passed much faster, and soon the unpromising door opened, and let us through.
We got through Russian immigration with barely a glare, which was a relief after weeks of panicking that we’d lose our all important entry and registration documents, and be stuck in Russia forever. Another backpacker on the boat wasn’t as lucky though, and was held with no explanation in a side room until seconds before departure, and then instructed to run for the boat as the gangplank was being detached.
Safely on board we felt a bit giddy — we’d officially left Russia, and nothing bad had happened! And we were going to Japan!!
We went to the bar to celebrate with Bob (the Dutch guy), and an Austrian who was having a Trans-Siberian holiday. After asking for Korean beer at the bar (the ship is Korean, so it seemed appropriate), we settled down at a table and were soon presented with a teapot, a bottle of cloudy liquid, and two bottles of clear stuff marked 20% ABV.
We’d ended up with a bottle of makoli, a milky looking fermented rice drink that’s traditionally served in a teapot, and two bottles of soju, which is basically just ethanol and water, and is Korea’s most popular drink. In fact it’s sort of the world’s most popular drink, since the most popular brand of soju is the biggest selling alcoholic drink in the world. The makoli was nice, but not exactly easy drinking — it’s flat and sour, and about 6%. Very similar to proper cider in a way, with comparable farmyard flavours. The soju was pretty nasty. Also, doing shots seemed a bit much for two in the afternoon, but when at sea…
The first night on the ship, very little seemed to be going on. The bar was pretty much deserted, the restaurant closed before we got there, and the Japanese style bath (or Sauna as the signs on board called it) was empty and dark. The Russia to Korea leg of the journey clearly isn’t that popular.
We stayed up for a while polishing off the vodka we hadn’t drunk on the train, with Bob, the Austrian, and a Russian from our cabin. Before bed we went out on deck for a bit to see if we could see North Korea. All we saw were some very distant lights, and a disconcerting number of nearby ships. By midnight we were tucked up in our bunks.
The economy class bunk room is in the middle of the boat, and has about 70 beds. It’s very comfortable, with a curtain and a little lamp for each bed, and a blanket and small pillow. There’s no luggage space though, so we had our bags wedged into the corner of our beds. Also, we were booked into beds in separate aisles, separated by a wall, for some reason.
There are also tatami mat rooms (Japanese style rooms with straw mat floors and roll out floor beds), but we didn’t specify and were put in the western style room.
Next morning we disembarked, last…
… and had a very brief look around Donghae. We spent most of the time in a very nice coffee shop, using the wifi to try and work out where the heck to go once we got to Japan.
Donghae was interesting, and about 15 degrees warmer again than Vladivostok. We were back to autumn, and the trees were back to oranges and yellows, rather than the uniform white and grey of Eastern Russia. Donghae is a fairly small town, and the first thing I noticed walking through was that, other than buildings, almost all the space was taken up by produce growing. Melons and squashes sat plumply dotted along roadside beds, and cabbages and chilli plants formed neat lines between houses.
We couldn’t find any fruit or veg to buy though. We considered nicking a persimmon, but decided against it. Instead we went to a convenience store and bought the realest food we could find: two boiled eggs, a pack of crackers, a sort of pizza bread thing, some ‘potato sticks’, a sausage, and two beers.
Or at least we thought it was a sausage.
On the boat that evening things were much busier. We’d also bought some instant ramen, expecting the restaurant to be closed again, but crowds of diners filed past us as we sat on a bench slurping our noodles. It still closed at 7.30 pm though. Asian cruise ferries seem to run on a very regimented schedule.
After dinner we took in the show, where the bar staff performed as a surprisingly convincing rock band, then danced energetically for 20 minutes to a mashup including Gangnam style (obviously). The other (Korean) passengers were clearly enjoying themselves. Two or three of them even got out of their chairs and stood neatly behind them doing a sort of shuffly dance, arms waving rhythmically in the air. After the show it was time for karaoke, and a full microphone set up was erected in the middle of the stage/dancefloor that took up half of the onboard ‘club’. We politely applauded with everyone else for the first couple of songs, and then escaped to the onsen (Japanese communal bath), which had now been filled up.
Safely on separate sides of the boat, we each enjoyed a rather wavey soak, looking out at the boats passing by (slightly too close for comfort while stark naked).
Bed that night was in swanky second class, which was exactly the same as economy class, but with a sink, and only 8 beds in each room. The rooms were gender segregated, so we were across the hall from each other this time. My room was nice and quiet, as there were only three of us in there.
And then, overnight, we were in Japan.
This time we were herded off the boat first, and a very nice lady helped us through immigration. Then a very polite man searched our bags, and those of the four other non-Asians on the boat. Finally, an even-politer lady took me into a side room and thoroughly felt me up. Then they let us in. Welcome to Japan!
In what soon became clear was typical Japanese style, there was a conveniently-timed-free-shuttle-bus from the port to the railway station, where the man behind the counter insisted he didn’t speak English, then was exceptionally helpful for the next 10 minutes, in English.
Rail passes in hand, we got ourselves a vending machine hot beverage, and boarded the train. We were on our way, and already in love with Japan.