My Tokyo Guide
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Updated: September 26, 2022
Revel in a waterside entertainment experience that, centuries ago, was restricted only to the wealthy. Feast on traditional Japanese cuisine accompanied by free-flowing drinks on board a yakatabune pleasure boat. Though usually an evening affair, boating companies also offer yakatabune lunch cruises. Whether day or night, relish the feel of the river breeze and admire riverside views from a different vantage point while cruising Tokyo by pleasure boat. After dark, take in the spectacular sight of bright city lights from the deck of your gently cruising yakatabune.
The yakatabune—historically referred to as Japanese pleasure boats— are small ships adorned with lanterns that were used to host dinner parties where guests could mingle and socialize over food and drinks. Each boat was furnished with tatami mats and low tables, and featured entertainment such as music performances and poetry recitals as the boat cruised down the river. The pastime of yakatabune first started during the Heian Era (794-1185) and was a hallmark of ostentatious luxury for feudal lords, samurai warriors, and, later, wealthy merchants. Yakatabune boat cruises opened to the masses only in the late 19th century.
Historic Waterfront Areas of Tokyo
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 onboard—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 yakatabune experience (please check as this varies from ship to ship).
Spice up your pleasure boat ride by going dressed in traditional Japanese clothing such as a yukata—a casual summertime garment—or a jinbei—an article of loose clothing historically worn as nightwear but now also commonly seen at summer festivals. This will make for some great photographs, and children will also find the experience fun. You can either buy these outfits, especially in summer when many stores sell them at reasonable prices, or they are also available for rent. Do some research online to find the best option.
Be sure to secure your yakatabune seat in advance with an online reservation, especially during the peak periods: cherry blossoms season in spring and the fireworks festival in summer. Many cruise operators offer bilingual websites, 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 yakatabune boat cruises tend to run only in the evenings, and last about two and a half hours.
If you prefer a yakatabune lunch cruise, you'll probably need to gather up a party of 10 passengers as this is generally the minimum number required to charter a private service (that number does vary with the boat operator, so please inquire for details). Otherwise, go during the peak cherry blossom season when scheduled services also run all day long. Complete your cultural experience by opting, usually for an extra charge, for a performance by traditional Japanese geisha who are skilled in art forms like classical music, dancing, and poetry. Alternatively, take waterside entertainment up a notch by choosing a cruise with a theme, such as a ninja cruise or a fishing tour around the bay.