HOME > Columns > "Seikan Renrakusen" in the 21st century, -Natchan Rera-

"Seikan Renrakusen" in the 21st century, -Natchan Rera-

Tsuyoshi Ishiyama

1, The Incat's largest ferry

At 2:00p.m. on the 17th of August, 2007, the Natchan Rera arrived at Hokodate, her home port for the first time after a long voyage from Australia to Japan. She is the first Incat-built catamaran, and the largest wave piercer ever built in Australia.

On the 23th of August, a preview cruise for guests and members of the news media was held in Hakodate. And then, after several experience cruises for about 4,900 citizens of Hakodate and Aomori were held, the Natchan Rera formally entered service on the Hakodate-Aomori route on the first of September. Under a bright and clear sky, 463 passengers took the first sail that started out from Hakodate at 7:00 a.m. and they safely arrived at Aomori at 9:15 a.m.. The 10,841gt fast ferry was able to cross Tsugaru Strait in about 2 hours, compared to about 4 hours on the conventional ferry. Passengers were generally impressed with her.

While Incat's design can accommodate up to 1,500 passengers, the Natchan Rera's accommodations cater 774 passengers to high levels of comfort. Cabins are classified into 3 classes: the Executive Class (58 seats, 10,000 yen), the Business Class (112 seats, 6,000 yen), and the Economy Class (568 seats, 5,000 yen). She boasts that aisles are set between seats and windows for more passengers to look out of windows. Also, she is equipped with a cafe, a bar, a shop, a kids' room, shower rooms, and lavatories.

Vehicle Decks can carry up to 353 cars or 33 trucks and 193 cars. The 112 m ship is powered by four MAN 20V 28/33D diesel engines and can operate at speeds of approximately 40 knots across Tsugaru Strait between the northern island of Hokkaido and Japan's main island of Honshu.

The ferry got her name "Natchan" from the nickname of a schoolgirl, Natsumi Kawashima (7) in Kyoto City who won an illustration competition to choose a design for the ferry. And "Rera" means "wind" in Ainu. Ainu is a native people of Hokkaido.

2, Higashi Nihon Ferry

Her oprerator, Higashi Nihon Ferry was founded in Hakodate in March 1965 by the Hakodate-based Donan Kaiun and the Aomori-based Seido Ferry. The founding president was Mr. Yosokichi Tsutai. He was also the president of Wakkanai Rirei Unyu (later Higashi Nihonkai Ferry, now Heart Land Ferry), which operated ferry services between Hakkaido, Rishiri Island and Rebun Island. In June 1965, the Hakodate-Oma route was opened, and Higashi Nihon Ferry grew up at a satisfactory pace. In 1974, Mr. Masanobu Tsutai assumed the second-generation president. The following year, the head office was relocated to Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido.

In March 1988, "Seikan Tunnel," the longest undersea tunnel in the world was completed under Tsugaru Strait. And JR (Japan Railways, ex-JNR) made an end of "Seikan Renrakusen," train ferries between Hakodate and Aomori. Higashi Nihon Ferry focused on the "Seikan (=Aomori-Hakodate) Route", and expanded further. In their prime, Higashi Nihon Ferry operated 11 routes with 22 ships. The proceeds of 1997 were 39.2 billion yen. Higashi Nihon Ferry was one of the leading ferry companies in Japan.

But operating revenue of the hotel division ("Hotel East Japan" in Tomakomai) and leisure division ("Itaya Kanko Kaihatsu" in Yonezawa) saw sluggish growth. Additionally, Higashi Nihon Ferry was forced to face a decline of freight shipment because of economic slump in Japan. Above all, Kyuetsu Ferry, a subsidiary which was founded in Fukuoka City on Japan's southern island of Kyushu in 1991, placed a burden on Higashi Nihon Ferry. Kyuetsu Ferry operated the so-called? "Japan Sea Route," which linked Hakata (Fukuoka), Naoetsu in Honshu and Muroran in Hokkaido (901km + 678km) with two luxury 7.2 billion yen car ferries, Rainbow Love (now "New Golden Bridge V" of Weidong Ferry of South Korea) and Rainbow Bell (now "Ariadne" of Hellenic Seaways of Greece), but never generated profits. This "Japan Sea Route" claimed a life of Higashi Nihon Ferry.

On the 29th of June, 2003, Higashi Nihon Ferry and 3 related companies including Kyuestu Ferry filed for financial reconstruction under court supervision to the Tokyo District Court. The debts amounted to about 90.7 billion yen. At first, Tsuneishi Group's Kambara Kisen Company offered the support for Higashi Nihon Ferry & Kyuestu Ferry, but eventually withdrew in July, 2004. Instead, the Kure-based shipping company, Libera Corporation Co., Ltd expressed the support for Higashi Nihon Ferry and other related companies, and bought out them on the first of August, 2005. In addition, Libera established a new ferry company, "Higashi Nihon Ferry" in Hakodate in the first of October, 2006. It follows that the present "Higashi Nihon Ferry" is legally different from the previous "Higashi Nihon Ferry." Now, Higashi Nihon Ferry operates 3 routes: Hakodate-Oma route (40km); Hakodate-Aomori route (113km); and Aomori-Muroran route (204km) in the throes of corporate rehabilitation.

3, Natchan Rera

Higashi Nihon Ferry Chief Executive Shinji Koga described ferry business as "twilight industry," and told to a Japanese ferry magazine as follows:

"For this reason, we must to generate fresh passenger demand by speeding up, as an added value for ferries. This is the only key to reconstruct Higashi Nihon Ferry, I believe."

Higashi Nihon Ferry, however, has operated fast ferries on the Seikan route twice before: a jetfoil named "Unicorn" (163gt, from November 1990 to November 1996); and a fast ro-pax ferry named the same "Unicorn" (1498gt, from June 1997 to September 2000). Both had weakness for rough waters in winter, and did not generate profits. Since these failures, the commonly accepted view was that fast ferries were not adequate to Tsugaru Strait.

Higashi Nihon Ferry consulted Prof. Yoshiho Ikeda of Osaka Prefecture University, and went on a tour of inspection to Europe. Mr. Koga told to an American online news, Marine Log as follows:

"We gained confidece in high speed ferries after a research visit to Europe in the autumn of 2005. As a reult of our visit, during which we were impressed by the Incat 91 m ferry sailing with Mols-Linien in Denmark and the 98 m ferry sailing on the English Channel with Brittany Ferries, we were convinced to introduce a high speed ferry on the route between Hakodate and Aomori."

"Several shipyards contacted us intensively but we nominated Incat without any hesitation."

On the 29th of May, 2006, Higashi Nihon Ferry announced an order for two fast ferries. The total cost was reportedly about 16 billion yen. And then, in Hakodate, the construction work of the new terminal building began at a cost of 3 billion yen in the end of 2006. The modern Hakodate Ferry Terminal was opened on the first of August, 2007. At the same time, in Aomori, linkspans were also upgraded, and a construction of new terminal building for the new Cats is considering. It seems that the present management of Higashi Nihon Ferry wants to change Tsugaru Strait into a kind of Straits of Dover.

On the first of September, 2007, the first ship, Natchan Rera (Incat Hull 064) went into service. During September, the Natchan Rera carried 40,640 passengers, 7,559 cars, 1,874 trucks, 95 buses and 585 motorcycles. This result was a bit fewer than expected. But ridership has increased to twice its size, in particular, a growth of tourists is remarkable. In June 2008, the sister ship, which is being built in Tasmania, will be expected to enter service on the route.

Higashi Nihon Ferry says they will decide whether order for the third ship or not in February 2008 after a study of service conditions this winter. The third ship may ply between Aomori and Muroran.

Meanwhile, JR (Japan Railways) plans to inaugurate new bullet train service (Hokkaido Shinkansen) by use of the Seikan Tunnel in 2015. This means a war will break out between Higashi Nihon Ferry, JR and low cost airlines in the future.

In this way, the future of "Natchan Rera" is far from rosy. I, however, as one of ship lovers, believe the victory of Higashi Nihon Ferry!


This is the original manuscript of my "NATCHAN RERA "Seikan Renrakusen" des 21. Jahrhunderts" (FERRIES, December 2007, Duetscher Fahrschiffahrtsverein e. V., 2007).

However, Higashi Nihon Ferry failed the fast ferry business, and the Natchan Rera and her sister Natchan World were laid up in November 2008. And the Natchan Rera was sold to Uni-Marine Wagon/CSF, a Taiwanese shipping company in October 2012.

In May 2014, she began to ply between Taipei and Pingtan in Fujian, mainland China.