Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), which may be literally translated as Japan Mail Steamship Company, was first created in 1885, the result of a merger between two Japanese shipping companies, Yubin Kisen Mitsubishi Kaisha (The Mitsubishi Mail Steamship Company) and Kyodo Unyu Kaisha (The Union Transport Company). Two red stripes were adopted for the new company’s house flag, symbolizing the mutual goodwill of both companies and the hope that their combined fleets would one day serve the entire world.
The NYK Line opened the first regular service from Japan to the United States in 1896 (the first arrival was met at Seattle with a 21-gun salute). The company experienced rapid growth: in 1901, just sixteen years after its formation, it already ranked as the seventh-largest shipping company in the world. A decade later, in 1911, an NYK freighter delivered the first cargo of trans-Pacific cherry tree saplings, a gift from the City of Tokyo to Washington, D.C. These same cherry trees line the banks of the Potomac to this day.
In 1930, NYK launched three new cargo-passenger ships—Hikawa Maru, Hiye Maru, and Heian Maru—on the Yokohama-Seattle route. Hikawa Maru was the first of these ships, completed at the Mitsubishi Yokohama Dockyard on April 25, 1930, and departing on her maiden voyage from Kobe to Seattle via Yokohama, Hawaii, and Vancouver on May 13, 1930.
Hikawa Maru was built at a cost of ¥6.55 million (equivalent to over ¥12 billion today). She could accommodate 331 passengers (76 in First Class and 186 in Third Class and presumably 69 in some other class) and had a crew of 126. Service combined with superb food and her beautiful art deco interiors saw her become a much sought-after ship, and passengers gave her the nickname “Queen of the Pacific.”
In 1941, she was requisitioned by the Imperial Japanese Navy and converted to serve during the war as a hospital ship. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally, and amazingly Hikawa Maru was the only mainstream Japanese passenger liner to survive the Second World War. However, she was immediately seized by the U.S. government. From 1945 to 1947 she was used to transport U.S. personnel between the United States and Japan. In 1947 Hikawa Maru operated as a simple freighter from Japan to the U.S. East Coast. This service ended in 1954.
In 1954 she was refitted into a fine passenger liner once more and recommenced her original trans-Pacific service for NYK Line. As passenger numbers dwindled, it was decided to end her service in 1960.
During her long period of service before and after the war, Hikawa Maru made 238 crossings through the rough waters of the North Pacific and carried 25,000 passengers. A complete sailing record, including her time as a hospital ship, can be found at the Japanese Hospital Ships Web site.
In 1961, the year that Yokohama celebrated the 100th anniversary of the opening of its port, Hikawa Maru was permanently berthed there, fitted out to become a floating youth hostel and museum. Sadly some of her engine spaces and lower accommodation decks were gutted to create dormitories. As the years passed, visitors to the hostel declined, and it closed in 1973.
Hikawa Maru remained at her berth, continuing to serve as a museum and restaurant. On board visitors could view her magnificent art deco interiors and the room once used by Charlie Chaplin. During the summer a beer garden was operated out on her open decks. Then, in late 2002, the restaurant closed. With only a museum and the summer beer garden, the numbers of visitors to the ship dramatically declined, and on September 1, 2004, both the Hikawa Maru and the neighboring Marine Tower were put up for sale by their operator due to heavy losses. Since then the future of the historic liner has remained uncertain although there is a possibility that NYK Line may purchase the ship and keep her going as a museum to their illustrious history.
The museum as we experienced it was a hodge-podge of original engines and equipment, restored staterooms, and collections of exhibits that were not part of the original ship. These included the World Passenger Ship Museum, which featured scale models of world-famous oceangoing luxury lines, a “cruising theater” mixing 3-D sound and vibrating floor (if I recall correctly, this wasn’t working properly), and an exhibit of tin toys of ships. The Hayao Nogami Gallery exhibits a collection of 30 paintings of passenger ships depicted in realistic detail by Hayao Nogami. In the Captain’s Room, a robotic captain told us about the ship (in Japanese, of course). Another area had a wind-and-wave simulator (this definitely wasn’t working properly), and a series of dioramas in which 3-D images of “humans appear to perform for you.” Since the “humans” were all speaking Japanese, we didn’t linger long in this gallery.
Although it doesn’t appear that photography was prohibited aboard the ship, for whatever reason, we did not take any photos. There are, however, numerous excellent photos to be found elsewhere online. Australian maritime historian Reuben Goossens has a Web site devoted to Hikawa Maru, which has both current and historical photos. The Ocean Liner Museum site has a fine photo gallery of professional photos. And another gallery offers what are obviously just tourist snapshots, but numerous and attractively presented.
Those interested in statistics about the ship can find them
photo was taken from the official Web site
for Hikawa Maru and Marine Tower. The site was entirely in Japanese but
did offer historic photos of the ship and photos of the construction of the
Marine Tower (tallest lighthouse in the world), as well as a map
(now also unavailable)
showing the location of the ship in relation to Yamashita Park. One of the pages
seemed to offer a restaurant menu, and there was no indication that the attraction
has closed. As it turns out, however, the Hikawa Maru and Marine Tower were both
closed in late 2006. Both are expected to be renovated and reopened by around
2009, the 150th anniversary of the opening of the port of Yokohama, but no
specific plans have been decided yet, according to
Since its opening in 1961, some 2.2 million people had visited the liner.
When we toured Hikawa Maru, we were given, in addition to a monochrome English brochure and a four-color Japanese brochure, a sheet of paper with numbered circles where we could use the rubber stamps we would find at intervals, each with a different color stamp pad. This method of charting our progress was no doubt intended primarily for visiting school groups, but we eagerly embraced the activity (which we had encountered at other museums as well) as adding to the fun and providing one more colorful souvenir of our visit. The stamp for station 3 was a representation of the balcony rail shown in this picture, taken from a page at the NYK Line Web site. The article on this page explains that the crest seen here, and used in the decor throughout the ship, is the deity crest of Hikawa Jinja, a Shinto shrine. The shrine in located in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, and is said to have been built some 2,500 years ago. When the Hikawa Maru was active at sea, the shipmaster, together with the crew, would travel to Hikawa Jinja to pray for their safety and that of the vessel during voyages. An altar was set up inside the ship where the crew could also pray to the Hikawa Jinja deity when at sea.