The mild bouts of seasickness and the boredom that comes with hours on the open sea finally seem worth it. The deck of the ferry erupts with excited chatter and the clicks of camera shutters as two rocky edifices take shape in the haze of a summer evening.
These remote islets, now obscured by thousands of hungry black-tailed gulls, are at the heart of a dispute that has cast a shadow over relations between South Korea and Japan for more than six decades. The Liancourt Rocks (or, if you are Japanese, Takeshima, or, if you are Korean, Dokdo) is a group of volcanic islets roughly midway between the two countries in the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea, if you are Korean).
The politically charged nomenclature says everything about the schism these islands have inflicted on bilateral ties, 65 years after defeat in the second world war loosened Japan's colonial grip on the Korean peninsula.
The islands' symbolic importance, not to mention their rich fishing grounds and untapped gas deposits, still have the potential to drive a deep diplomatic wedge between Seoul and Tokyo.
With both united in condemnation of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and the March sinking of the Cheonan, the Takeshima question is at its most delicately balanced for years.
The competing claims are mired in historical ambiguity, and complicated by several name changes and cartographical evidence from myriad Korean, Japanese and western sources stretching back centuries. Only this month South Korea's media reported the discovery of a 1949 US military map that, according to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, "clearly states that Dokdo belongs to Korea".
South Korea insists the islands were among the territories Japan was forced to return at the end of the war. By the time the sixth and final draft of the treaty of San Francisco appeared, however, confusion reigned. Takeshima had been omitted, along with thousands of other tiny islands.
"Dokdo is a Korean territory, so there is no need for a dispute with Japan," said Shin Yeon-sung, the general secretary of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a Seoul-based body partly funded by the South Korean government. "As far as we are concerned, Dokdo's omission from the San Francisco treaty was purely for convenience's sake."
To prove his point, Shin produces a copy of an 1877 map belonging to Japan's department of the interior that appears to rule out Japanese ownership, then another Japanese map that makes no mention of the islands. The first Japan really knew of the Takeshima, he said, was when imperial forces landed there in 1905 on their way to colonising the Korean mainland five years later.
"We have written, historical proof that Dokdo is part of Korea. The islands are first mentioned in 512 in the diary of the king of the Silla dynasty."
At the highest level, the feud is being played down by Seoul and Tokyo. Japan recently postponed publication of its annual defence white paper – which promotes its claims to Takeshima – to avoid causing friction with South Korea ahead of the centenary of the start of Japanese colonial rule on 29 August.
In another move designed to quell anti-Japanese sentiment, Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, last week expressed "deep remorse" for his country's 35-year occupation of Korea, a gesture welcomed by his counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, as "a step forward".
But ordinary South Koreans attach huge symbolic importance to Dokdo. Schools are being encouraged to deepen pupils' emotional connection with the islands, while nationalists have toured the world to push Seoul's claims.
Any counterclaim from Japan is guaranteed to provoke an angry backlash. When, in 2005, the Japanese prefecture of Shimane proclaimed 22 February "Takeshima day", a South Korean mother and son sliced off their fingers in protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
Today the islets are administered by a South Korean coastguard garrison and government officials, who live alongside the only permanent residents, an elderly fisherman and his wife. Japan, meanwhile, describes this presence as "an illegal occupation". The Japanese foreign ministry notes that Seoul has consistently refused a 60-year-old offer to settle the dispute at the international court of justice in The Hague.
"There is no change in our position," said Takeshi Akamatsu, a ministry spokesman. "But we don't want the territorial issue to harm our relations with South Korea.
"This is very simple. In light of the historical facts and international law it is clear that Takeshima is an inherent part of Japan. The Koreans have yet to demonstrate that they exercised control over the islands before the Japanese occupation. And we have documentary evidence to prove that they didn't."
Shin, however, dismisses an international solution as a diplomatic red herring. "We won't go to The Hague because this is not a legal issue," he said. "But we also want to avoid this becoming a thorn in the side of bilateral ties. A hundred years after Japan's colonisation of Korea, it is time to look forward."
Kim Seong-do, who has lived on the islets with his wife for more than 30 years, denies he is part of Seoul's propaganda machine. "I went there voluntarily," he told the Guardian during a rare trip to the mainland for emergency dental treatment. "As a Korean citizen, I am free to come and go as I please."
The 70-year-old describes a life of comfortable detachment from mainstream society, but with long periods in which he and his 74-year-old wife, Shin-yeol, are at the mercy of the elements. "Sometimes the wind is so strong we can't open the door or windows for days," he said. "But we feel comfortable there. We don't like coming back to the mainland. Dokdo is such a beautiful place."
After the long sea crossing, with just one quick refuelling stop on Ulleungdo island, 54 miles (87km) away, there are groans when the ferry's skipper informs us that high waves have made it impossible to dock at Takeshima/Dokdo.
But a fleeting glimpse of the two rocks, now cast in silhouette as dusk descends, is enough for Lee Jae-eun. "Even the American occupation forces said the islands are ours," said Lee, an office worker from Seoul. "They are Korean. There's absolutely nothing to discuss with Japan."
Rich source of a feud
The Takeshima-Dokdo islets, located 134 miles from South Korea and 155 miles from Japan, are the peaks of a 2,300-metre-high undersea volcano. They are made up of two main islands and almost 90 rocks and reefs.
Known in the west as the Liancourt Rocks, after a French whaling ship that was almost wrecked there in 1849, the islets appeared above the water about 2.7m years ago.
A freshwater lagoon helps sustain about 80 species of plants, and dozens of birds and insects. The meeting of cold and warm water currents has led to a profusion of fish and other marine life.
South Korean researchers say they have discovered dozens of new plankton and other species on Takeshima, but the presence of about 50 coastguard personnel, lighthouse keepers and government officials has also brought pollution to the area's coastline.
The islands house people's accommodation, a dock, helicopter pad, and postbox as well as a solar power station that will provide 30%-40% of the energy needs. Tourists have been allowed to make short visits to Takeshima since 2004. Only a handful of Japanese take the trip each year.