Revel in an experience that, centuries ago, was restricted to the wealthy as you feast on traditional Japanese cuisine over free-flow drinks on board a yakatabune pleasure boat. Mostly an evening affair, feel the river breeze as you see the bright city lights and riverside views from a different vantage point.
The yakatabune—historically referred to as Japanese pleasure boats— are small ships adorned with lanterns that have over the centuries hosted dinner parties where guests can mingle and socialise over food and drinks. Each boat is furnished with tatami mats and low tables, and historically featured entertainment such as music performances and poetry recitals as the boat cruises down the river. It first started during the Heian Era (794-1185) and had been a hallmark of ostentatious luxury for feudal lords, samurai warriors and later, wealthy merchants. It opened up to the masses only in the late 19th century.
As your yakatabune sets sail, it is time to eat, drink and be merry. Feast on traditional Japanese cuisine such as sushi and tempura, while quenching your thirst at the all-you-can-drink bar of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. As you revel in the jolly mood on board—karaoke is also typically available—take in the stunning riverside views and city lights. Each vessel can either be booked for a private party, or shared among a number of small groups. With the smoking area generally confined to the top deck, children can also join in the experience.
Spice up your ride by going dressed in Japanese traditional wear such as the yukata—a casual summertime garment—or the jinbei—a loose clothing historically worn as nightwear but now also commonly seen at summer festivals. This will make for some great photographs, while children will also find the experience fun. You can buy these outfits for cheap, especially in summer when many stores sell them, or they are also available for rent. Do some research online to find the best places.
Be sure to secure your seat in advance with an online reservation, especially during the peak periods of the cherry blossoms season in spring and the fireworks festival in summer. Many cruise operators offer bilingual websites, and so making a booking is a fuss-free experience. The boarding points differ by service and operator, though common locations include piers along the Sumida River in Asakusa, or in the Odaiba area. Outside of the peak season, scheduled cruises tend to run only in the evenings, and last about two and a half hours.
If you prefer to go in the day, hustle up a party of 10 passengers as this is the minimum number required to charter a private service. Otherwise, go during the peak cherry blossom season when scheduled services also run in the day. Complete your cultural experience by opting in, usually for an extra charge, for a performance by traditional Japanese geishas who are skilled at art forms like classical music, dancing and poetry. There are also themed boats such as ninja cruises, and fishing tours around the bay.