Sailors risked lives on ‘Kitamae-bune’

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A residential area in Hashitate where many owners of Kitamae-bune ships lived. In the Taisho era (1912-1926), this was once called “the wealthiest village in Japan.”

By Kazuhiro Katayama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe Hokuriku Shinkansen line, which currently ends at Kanazawa Station, is scheduled to be extended to Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, by the end of fiscal 2022.

About a 15-minute drive from JR Kagaonsen Station, which is under construction to accomodate the new section of the line, lies the coastal area of Hashitate.

Hashitate is a small town in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, where wooden houses with reddish-brown tiled roofs are concentrated in a valley among hills facing the coastline.

The area was traditionally home to owners of ships called Kitamae-bune, and around 100 years ago, the area was referred to in a magazine as “the wealthiest village in Japan.”

What are these so-called Kitamae-bune, which brought about such wealth? I visited a local museum named Kitamae-bune no Sato Shiryokan (the museum of the hometown of Kitamae-bune ships).

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

The museum building was the former manor of shipowner Chobei Sakaya, and among the items on display are tools used on the ships and historic records about them.

Hiroshi Takada, a writer from Kaga, wrote in his book “Nihonkai Hanjoki” (history of prosperous times on the Sea of Japan) that a historian once described the facility as “a museum of rare authenticity where every item including the building itself is a genuine testament to history.”

Kitamae-bune refers to commercial ships that traveled between Osaka and Hokkaido on trade routes via the Seto Inland Sea, off Shimonoseki and along coasts facing the Sea of Japan. The ships were actively operated from the latter part of the Edo period (1603-1867) through to the Meiji era (1868-1912).

“Because the skippers themselves bought and sold goods, they needed to not only have navigation skills, but also business acumen,” explained curator Chie Kamio of the Kaga city culture promotion office.

Sake and textiles from Osaka or salt from areas facing the Seto Inland Sea were sold in Hokkaido, while herring, kelp and other sea products from Hokkaido were sold in western Japan markets.

It is said that huge profits could be earned on single round trips from early spring to autumn.

On the other hand, it was a highly risky business that put lives on the line, and owners and crew consequently were ardent devotees of Shinto deities and Buddhist saints.

The museum displays a large number of funa-ema, or wooden tablets, on which prayers for a safe voyage were written and submitted to shrines and temples.


Trading using Kitamae-bune began to wane from the middle of the Meiji era, when steam-powered ships and trains came into use.

Keiko Miyamoto, 69, a resident of Hashitate, shared his childhood memories of those last days.

“When I was a child, an auction was held in an opulent neighborhood house. I felt sad to see gorgeous ohinasama [traditional Japanese dolls to pray for healthy growth of girls] being sold off. When I asked why this was happening, my grandmother told me about the past prosperity of the Kitamae-bune and their skippers.”

Miyamoto became interested in the history of her hometown, and as an adult began to preserve the history of the ships together with her husband, Akio, 70.

Currently, Akio serves as chairman of an association, Kaga Hashitate Machinami Hozonkai, to preserve the town of Hashitate.

“The start of the museum was prompted by the enthusiasm of local residents, which spurred local authorities to take action,” he said.

In 2005, Hashitate was designated by the national government as a preservation area for groups of buildings with important traditional value.

In April this year, 11 municipalities facing the Sea of Japan, including Kaga, were designated by the Cultural Affairs Agency as a Japanese heritage site, where Kitamae-bune made port calls or where shipowners lived.

In this way, awareness of the ships and their role in connecting places along the Sea of Japan with the rest of the country has steadily risen.

As I walked around the town, stone walls in unique colors caught my eyes.

“These stones are called shakudani-ishi, and were mined in the city of Fukui,” Kamio said. “They were also referred to as ao-ishi [blue stones], and were used as ballast for ships.”

When the stone walls get wet in the rain, the blue-green become more vivid and contrast well with the reddish-brown tiled roofs.

This small coastal community enjoyed great prosperity over a short period of its long history. While the boom times have passed, subtle traces of this prosperity remain.

It is here we encounter scenes of what can be described as the traces of the dreams of those who braved the seas.

3 hot spring resorts

On the last stage of this trip, I paid hurried visits to three onsen hot spring resorts in the area.

They each have their own unique characteristics: Katayamazu, which faces onto a lake; Yamanaka, which is surrounded by rich nature, including beautiful valleys; and Yamashiro, where large ryokan inns are arrayed.

I heard how skippers of Kitamae-bune alleviated their fatigue in onsen resorts in the Yamanaka and Yamashiro areas during winter, when they would alight from their ships to spend time in their hometowns.

I thought about the brave men of the sea as I bathed in Kosoyu, a bathhouse in Yamashiro hot spring resort that reproduces a public bathhouse of the Meiji era.


It is a 2½-hour ride on the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Kanazawa. After changing to the Hokuriku Line, it is a 25-minute ride on the express train to Kagaonsen Station. From there to the Hashitate area, it is a 15-minute drive.

For more information, call the Culture Promotion Room, Sightseeing Interchange Section of the Kaga city government at (0761) 72-7988.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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