On their decks were what appeared to be harpoon guns covered in tarpaulins.
The vessels come from whaling ports around Japan, including one from Taiji, the town made notorious for its dolphin drive-hunts featured in the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove”. Some vessels were decorated with good luck flags, flapping in a cold wind.
Some crew members carried groceries while others held towels and shampoo, apparently headed to a public bath. One wore brightly coloured shorts decorated with images of whales and other animals.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose district includes the old whaling centre of Shimonoseki, has long campaigned to restart commercial whaling, but the industry’s future is far from clear.
Only about 300 people around Japan are directly connected to whaling, and the annual supply of whale – about 5,000 tonnes – amounts to roughly 40-50 grams per Japanese person a year.
“To resume this so we can eat it – well, that’s good,” said Yuya Kusakari, 37, who was fishing for flounder with his 8-year-old son not far from where the whaling ships were docked. Mr Kusakari said he ate whale maybe once or twice a year.
“It’s really not all that available now, and it’s expensive,” he said.