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更新日:2019年4月11日

The Kitamae-bune:Sea Routes, Ports, and Residences Built on the Dreams of Brave Seafarers

Story 1: The Kitamae-bune was a trade route and the ships that sailed it on the raging sea

Large wooden cargo ships with huge sails row far out into the stormy Sea of Japan.

The Kitamae-bune were well-known merchant ships that sailed the Sea of Japan from the Edo period to the Meiji period (mid-18th century to late 19th century).

They sailed between Osaka and Hokkaido, buying and selling in every port along the route. As it was difficult to transport large quantities of goods over the land route at that time, marine transportation played an important economic role.

The Kitamae-bune were the star ships, especially because they were able to carry 150 tons of goods. They traveled round trips connecting Osaka, the country’s largest rice distribution center, and Hokkaido, which had precious seafood. Initially, there had been a different route between Osaka and Edo (Tokyo) along the Pacific Ocean, and these ships were specialized in carrying a large quantity of goods. Yet because there were so few ports of call, the ships only profited from the one-way trip to Edo. The Kitamae-bune, on the other hand, made stops and conducted business in each port, buying anything considered cheap and selling anything from the ship’s cargo that could be sold at a profit.

Kitamae-bune owners in Fushiki town in Takaoka city carried rice to Osaka from February to March in the old calendar (late February to April in the present calendar). The ships were then loaded full of goods in each port on their way back to Fushiki. They sailed again with straw goods and rice for Tohoku and Hokkaido from September to October (in the old calendar) and brought kelp (kombu) and fertilizer made from fish or wood back to Fushiki.

The Kitamae-bune were able to earn profits equivalent to 60 to 100 million yen, and shipowners could be millionaires. The Kitamae-bune were actual treasure ships.

Seafarers brought not only goods but also news from other regions and cultures. Because they traveled long distances over dangerous raging waves, generated business, and sometimes brought information, the Kitamae-bune and their seafarers were just like traveling general trading companies.

Story 2: The attractive port of call for seafarers: Fushiki port in Takaoka city was the trade center of the Kaga Domain.

The Kitamae-bune sea route was established in the middle of the 18th century. In fact, there had been a different sea route connecting Osaka and Hokkaido before the Kitamae-bune route was in operation. Merchants living around Lake Biwa in the Kansai area owned ships communally and conducted business by sailing between Hokkaido and the Tsuruga port, the port on the Sea of Japan closest to Lake Biwa. They carried goods by ship between Hokkaido and Tsuruga, then used a land route between Tsuruga and Lake Biwa. They boarded the ship again at Lake Biwa and headed to Osaka to sell the products from Hokkaido and make a profit.

A new sea route was ordered to be established along the western sea circuit, avoiding the land route. Once the Kitamae-bune route between Hokkaido and Osaka was fully operational, businesses flourished. Fushiki port, however, was already one of the largest distribution centers in Japan.

Fushiki is located between the Oyabe river and the Senbo river basin and products were, therefore, collected using river routes. Nengumai, rice collected as tax in old Japan, was a significant source of revenue. Nengumai was first collected in Yoshihisa town and carried to Fushiki port. It was then exported to Osaka and Edo. Yoshihisa has retained the atmosphere and buildings from those years.

Fushiki attracted the interest of Kitamae-bune owners and seafarers because of the many people and products gathered there.

The town established not only wholesalers in port but also ship lodgings, stores, and storehouses. As a result, the town thrived.

With this increased wealth, merchants were able to earn enough to buy their own ships to start careers as wholesalers. There were about 30 wholesalers in town during the most prosperous period.

Story 3: What the Kitamae-bune carried: a route for kombu and rice

The Kitamae-bune carried a variety of goods. Nengumai was one of the main products and was collected by domains on the Sea of Japan side. Because Osaka had the country’s largest rice distribution center, the lords of these domains then carried Nengumai to Osaka and used it to earn a profit.

Cast products were also shipped from Takaoka. Old lists of goods show that pots, agricultural equipment, salt and herring pans made with iron sand – hot-selling products – as well as cultural copperware like Buddhist implements, incense burners, and vases were shipped along with rice.

When they arrived in Osaka, they bought cotton and textiles. On their return, they stopped at various ports and bought salt, iron, dolls, sweets, and granite stone used as ballast to stabilize the ship. They bought living necessities and luxury goods, whatever sold at a low price, and made a profit by selling them in the next ports.

The Kitamae-bune also carried rice straw to Hokkaido. During the Edo period, it was too cold to grow rice in Hokkaido using the traditional agricultural method. Therefore, rice straw was more highly valued in Hokkaido than they were in Fushiki.

On their way back to Fushiki from Hokkaido, they bought herring and kelp (kombu). Herring brought in particularly large profits. They bought it in great amounts and used it and its oil as fuel and fertilizer for growing rice in Toyama.

Kombu from Hokkaido gave birth to a unique culinary culture in Toyama. Kombu-rolled kamaboko, kombu-jime (raw fish sandwiched between sheets of kombu), and rice balls covered with tororo-kombu (shredded kombu) are original kombu recipes from Toyama. Although kombu is not a product of the area, it was consumed most in Toyama because of the Kitamae-bune and has become a prominent part of the region’s food culture. To this day, new local kombu menus like Takaoka kombu rice and kombu sweets are still being created and served in restaurants in Takaoka.

Story 4: The entrepreneurial spirit lives on: Kitamae-bune seafarers devoted themselves to the local economy

The Kitamae-bune brought significant wealth to each region. However, their businesses rapidly came to an end in the late 19th century as modern transportation methods like trains and steamships were developed. Improved means of communication such as the telegram also emerged and information about prices – previously shared only between the owners and seafarers – became common knowledge, ending the monopoly that seafarers had on price variations and causing them to lose profit.

The herring catch also declined in Hokkaido and demand for herring decreased rapidly as chemical fertilizers were developed.

As the societal structure began to change during the last Meiji period (late 19th century to early 20th century), many shipowners and seafarers had to adapt to these changes. In Fushiki, they began to establish new endeavors such as fertilizer distribution, spinning industries, electric power companies, and banks. They then donated their wealth to develop local economies. New companies were financed by their Kitamae-bune properties.

Nozo Fujii, the first son of wholesaler Notoya, committed his life to developing the Fushiki port. Nozo Fujii successfully negotiated with Mitsubishi in 1875 to establish regular lines of steamships in Fushiki. He also built the first western-style lighthouse on the Sea of Japan side, the first private weather measurement station (today the Fushiki Weather Station Museum), renovated Fushiki Port, built roads, and performed many other public utility works.

Unfortunately, his marine company went bankrupt due to the worldwide financial crisis, yet he continued to devote his private property to renovate Fushiki Port.

Through his efforts, Fushiki Port successfully became a treaty port able to trade with the world at large in 1899, becoming the most developed port in Toyama.

Though the Kitamae-bune is no longer in operation, the spirit of the ambitious seafarers who bravely rode the stormy waves on the Sea of Japan has been passed on to the entrepreneurs in Takaoka today.

 

 

 

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