In 1879 the Finland-Swedish explorer Nordenskiöld made the first successful attempt to completely navigate the Northeast Passage from Sweden to Japan during the Vega expedition. The ship's captain was lieutenant Louis Palander of the Swedish Royal Navy. Vega was a steam ship, and the eventful journey was delayed when they got stuck for almost a full year, before the Bering Strait ice melted in July 1879. They reached Yokohama in September and got to meet the Emperor.
The Bremen-based Beluga Group has announced that it would start to use the Northern Sea Route for shipping from early 2009, cutting 4000 nautical miles off the journey between Germany and Japan.
The Independent: For the first time in human history, the North Pole can be circumnavigated
Many scientists now predict that the Arctic ocean will be ice-free in summer by 2030 – and a landmark study this year by Professor Wieslaw Maslowski at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, concluded that there will be no ice between mid-July and mid-September as early as 2013.
Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld was born in 1832 and his remarkable journey was supported by Swedish King Oscar II. They stayed for two months in Japan, also visiting Hiroshima, Kobe and Nagasaki, and being treated like royalties. The links between Scandinavia and Japan were getting stronger, with the first treaty between Japan and Sweden signed in 1868 in Yokohama. In Kobe, incidentally, Nordenskiöld met another adventurous Swedish traveller, Herman Trotzig (also born in 1832!), who had saved the life of a Japanese high-ranking official and went on to become chief of Kobe's police force.
Other early sailors were less fortunate: just today there is news about the Turkish ship Ertugrul Firkateyni, that sank in a storm off the coast of Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, in 1890. It was on its way home after delivering a letter from the sultan and a medal to Emperor Meiji. Of the crew, 69 were saved by local people. The incident became a symbol of friendship between Japan and Turkey, according to Kyodo.
The Japan Times: Team dives on 1890 shipwreck
Since the early 1980´s Swedish ice-breakers have been roaming the Arctic seaways on expeditions run by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, with joint projects with Japanese scientific stations in Antarctica belonging to NIPR: Syowa Station, the mother station of JARE, was established in January 1957.
The Nordenskiöld tradition is strong, notes Knut Ekström, social anthropologist & documentary filmmaker, who has collected data and photos on his website, The travel with Vega.
If the northern sea route is indeed opened due to climate change, it will also radically change the way Northern Europe and East Asia can engage in trade. Another possibility is to upgrade the Trans-Siberian Railroad, completed in 1916. For all means of transport combined Japan sends 360,000 containers to Europe per year... 6.14 million foreign tourists visits Japan each year, most of them by jet planes...