Last weekend I had the chance to visit the NYK Maritime Museum in Yokohama, and also the Hikawa Maru – a cruise liner from the Golden Age of Trans-Pacific travel.
NYK (Nippon Yusen Kaisha was formed by the merging of two shipping companies, Mitsubishi Kaisha and Kyodo Unyu Kaisha, in 1885, just after Japan ended its period of self-enforced political isolation. The company rose to maritime prominence after the Sino-Japanese War of 1984, when Japan became a major world power. After World War I six NYK ships began a system of regular passages between Yokohama, Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver.
The engines are double-acting diesels built by B & W of Denmark. One each of the eight-cylinder engines is installed on the right and left. The vertical reciprocating movement of pistons in the cylinders turns a crankshaft, and through it a propeller, to drive the ship. These diesel engines were the newest of their kind when the ship was completed in 1930.
This was the heady age of luxury travel; the passenger liners were known as ‘roving civilizations’ and the route was called the ‘dream passage’. Celebrity passengers included Douglas Fairbanks, Johnny Weismuller, Charles Chaplin, and even Albert Einstein himself. The cuisine was of the highest standard, and to some passengers, it was the most important memory of the journey (Chaplin had a particular fondness for seafood tempura!)
After the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 and Japan entering WWII in 1941, the situation changed. During and immediately after World War II, the vessel served as a hospital ship and returned some 30,000 wounded soldiers to the Japanese homeland.
In the 1950s, NYK returned to some of its former prominence by going into the oil tanker business, but air travel was taking over from sea travel – and in in 1960, the Hikawa Maru was permanently retired.
The Hikawa Maru saw thirty years of service and crossed the Pacific, between Yokohama and Seattle, 254 times, carrying around 25,000 passengers in its lifetime. It remains now, in Yokohama harbor not far from the modern shopping malls, as an impressive reminder of a bygone age.