OTSU, Japan >> The Michigan sightseeing ship, a paddle-wheeler resembling a classic U.S. steamboat, is celebrating 40 years of taking people out on Lake Biwa pleasure cruises.
The vessel with the fancy interior entered service on April 29, 1982, and has become a common sight on Japan’s largest lake. It was named the Michigan in honor of the 1968 Sister State Agreement between Shiga prefecture and the state of Michigan.
To date more than 8.9 million passengers have boarded the ship.
The Michigan tours the southern part of the lake, starting at Otsu Port. Passengers can enjoy scenic attractions including the Lake Biwa Flower Fountain, which sprays streams of water more than 1,400 feet long and 130 feet high.
“The Michigan has made me who I am. It changed my life a lot,” said Emily Hammond, an American living in Otsu.
Hammond spent three months aboard the Michigan as a crew member after arriving in Japan in 2011 through an international goodwill and business trainee program for Michigan students. Hammond served food on board the paddle-wheeler.
“My pronunciation of ‘irasshaimase’ (welcome) and ‘arigato gozaimashita’ (thank you very much) was quickly perfected,” she said.
Her place of work also became a place to meet people. She took photos with students on school trips, saw the smiles of children and made friends with the Michigan’s Japanese crew.
It didn’t take long for her to want to learn more Japanese so she could better know the people she met. Her frustration at not being able to communicate motivated her to study hard to learn Japanese.
Hammond returned to Japan in 2014 through another program and in 2015 became the Otsu city coordinator for international relations. She said it was a position she had longed for. After five years of service, Hammond now works for a program providing educational nature experiences in Otsu.
These days, Hammond, 31, still boards the Michigan when she has a lot on her mind. The beautiful views from the lake — Lake Biwa Flower Fountain, Mount Hiei and the Otsu skyline — help her relax.
“Through the Michigan, I learned about Japanese culture and the charms of Otsu,” said Hammond. “This city is my home.”
Otsu-based Mokube Shipyard Co. was involved in manufacturing the Michigan’s hull.
“I had never seen a boat this big before,” said President Kaoru Nakano, 69, who worked on the ship’s construction 40 years ago.
Lake Biwa saw large-scale development from 1972 to 1997 in a national program. People worried at the time that mass construction would cause the lake’s water levels to drop. Those concerns affected the design of the Michigan’s hull.
The Michigan’s operator, Biwako Kisen Co., opted for the flat-bottomed, paddle wheel design that would reduce the risk of the 193-foot, 1,000-ton boat running aground in shallow water.
But the structural choice reduced the interior’s size and complicated the manufacturing process, Nakano said. He recalls the pain he endured squeezing into small spaces and welding in extreme heat.
It took about a year to complete the ship, and Nakano said he was relieved when the vessel safely sailed away from the company’s dock.
Mokube Shipyard inspects the hull every year. Some parts are replaced: a corroded pipe, perhaps, or wooden decks. But the majority of the hull remains the same as when it was built. Since it operates in freshwater, Nakano said the Michigan can stay in service for 100 years, if it’s well-maintained.
After 40 years, the Michigan is “like a daughter coming home once a year,” Nakano said. “I see her off, wishing her a safe return in another year.”
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