Yakatabune: Dinner on the Traditional Japanese Boat


There are many ways to enjoy summer in Japan. Eating kakigori or shaved ice, going to the sea, and snorkeling experience are typical examples of activities that you can do in summer in Japan. But do you know yakatabune, the Japanese style boat where you can enjoy the beautiful scenery of Japan with some fancy food and drinks? It is a popular way to combine sightseeing, enjoying Japanese food and having a traditional experience all in one. Especially in the hot Japanese summer, this activity is great to take in some of the highlights of cities like Kyoto, Tokyo and Yokohama from a different vantage point. This time, let’s take a look at the charm of yakatabune cruise.

1. What is Yakatabune?

A yakatabune (屋形船)  is a Japanese-style pleasure boat with a roof and a tatami-matted floor. Historically these small boats were used by the upper-class to enjoy banquets and meals while sailing a river. Yakatabune boats are concentrated mainly in the bay areas of the cities like Tokyo Bay and Yokohama Bay, two famous locations, but also can be found in Kyoto’s Arashiyama. Passengers can enjoy the beautiful seaside and riverside scenery while enjoying some delicious meals and drinks. 

Yakatabune may sound like a cruise ship but compared to an actual cruise ship, the size and capacity of yakatabune boats are considerably smaller. The boats traditionally had place for 10 to 20 people maximum, but nowadays there are boats that can welcome up to 200 people. Usually, Japanese food like sushi, sashimi, and tempura are served as meals on the pleasure boats. In other words, the biggest attraction of Yakatabune is that you can enjoy delicious Japanese food & drinks and beautiful sights on a small Japanese style boat. In addition, some yakatabune offer additional services like inviting a geisha to your yakatabune or some companies provide a kimono rental dressing service. If you want to make your yakatabune experience even more wonderful, it is recommended to use such services.

2. The history of Yakatabune

The history of houseboats dates back to the Heian period (794-1185), when the aristocrats would sail a boat on the river or the sea and enjoyed the surrounding scenery, while reading waka poems and playing Japanese musical instruments. Spending time in such a way is known as funa asobi 舟遊び, funa means boat and asobi can be translated as to enjoy. Only the richer part of the society like the aristocrats could afford spending time this way, the general people couldn’t afford such a posh entertainment.

This funa asobi was most prosperous during the Edo period (1603-1868).  At that time, the influential daimyos competed for how wonderful their ship was, and went on to make the interior of their ship more luxurious. The was a strong competition about who had the best, nicest and most luxurious boat. As mentioned earlier, at first, funa asobi was something that only the richer people would do. However, due to the significant rise of water transportation in Japan during the Edo period, funa asobi became an important means of transportation for other social classes too. Eventually funa asobi became a part of the Japanese culture that was enjoyed by everyone. Incorporating elements of entertainment, tradition and culture, the basis for yakatabune was formed.

Ukiyo-e painting ‘Mt. Tenpo, Osaka, a famous place in the morning’ by Hiroshige Utagawa

Still today, Yakatabune is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and there are many companies that operate yakatabune boats all over Japan. Yakatabune is an important entertainment culture for Japanese people and has been passed down for many centuries.

3. Ways to enjoy a Yakatabune tour

Did you become more interested in yakatabune by acquiring some knowledge about it? It’s easy to enjoy your yakatabune experience by boarding only, but would you like to make your yakatabune experience even more wonderful?  Here is some advice, so please refer to these if you want to.

  1.  Timing
    Yakatabune boats usually operate from day to night. You can enjoy the wonderful scenery surrounded by warm sunlight in the daytime or the beautiful night view at night on the boat. The impression of the scenery you can see in the daytime and at night is very different, so you should select your favorite time.
  1. Select your season
    One of the attractions that yakatabune has is that the view changes depending on the season. The cherry blossom season and fireworks season are recommended and also very popular. Seeing the cherry trees lining the Sumida River in Tokyo in full blossom in springtime, is a wonderful sight. In this season yakatabune boats try to sail slowly along the river, so that you can enjoy watching the beautiful cherry blossoms on the boat.
    The summer is a great time to visit Japan, with events and festivals taking place every weekend. Enjoy the famous firework displays at night on the boat. While the fireworks are set off, yakatabune boats stay at a good viewing spot for a while so that you can watch the beautiful fireworks without worrying about the crowds. Both spring and summer are a great time and a reason to visit Japan.

4. Extra fun experiences

As written in the first section, depending on yakatabune companies, you can use some optional services to make your experience even better. As examples of these optional services, there are rental kimono and dressing service, a service to invite geisha or other forms of entertainment, and service that makes the contents of a regular Japanese food course more gorgeous. Optional services are different by each yakatabune company, so please contact them for details.

If you are with a group of people, you can also make a reservation to chart a yakatabune boat by prior consultation. With your group you can enjoy a private party or banquet on a yakatabune boat for any memorable situations, such as a birthday or company party, and etc. A lot of yakatabune boats can prepare a custom-ordered food and hors d’oeuvres as you request by paying an additional fee, so feel free to ask them!

5. Recommended yakatabune companies

Now that you know more about how to enjoy yakatabune, here are some recommended yakatabune boats. Hope you these website links help you select your yakatabune service. It is recommended to make a reservation to join in a yakatabune tour, so make sure to do that in advance on the internet reservation site or by phone. Especially during the cherry-blossom viewing season and the fireworks season, it’s quite difficult to get your seat, so you should make a reservation (very) early.  The following websites are recommended yakatabune reservation sites.

Why don’t you experience yakatabune where you can enjoy watching various beautiful scenery on the boat? It should bring you a special moment at any time you board. Hope you’ll have a wonderful time with your family and friends there!

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Happy travelling!

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Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture, and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education of Japan and got her Master’s degree in March, 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.

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