Along with the development of Japan’s economy during the Edo period (1603-1868), wealthy companies of trading vessels carrying huge amounts of various supplies appeared. Attracting vast quantities of miscellaneous goods, the port of Osaka had quickly grown as the economic center of a country that finally found its way out of internecine and everlasting feudal wars. The ships connecting the Osaka area with Edo, the shoguns’ new seat of power and already one of the world’s most populous cities at the time, were generally called “Higakikaisen” or “Tarukaisen”. The term “Hokkokukaisen” was commonly referring to ships cruising in the Sea of Japan all the way to the northern parts of the country. But the people from Osaka and Setouchi would rather simply call them “Kitamaebune”; “the northern-bound ships”.
At the beginning of the Edo period, merchants from Omi were notorious for having been the first traders from inland areas to enter the then largely unexplored land of Ezo (the former name of Hokkaido), carrying back trade goods to Kyoto and Osaka. Initially, people from the western coast were hired as boatmen and sailors for such expeditions. But as their navigation skills developed, they gradually began to show a certain talent in the trade field. Starting to buy and sell goods for their own accounts both ways between Ezo and Osaka, they would eventually make considerable profits and establish themselves as prominent merchants over the generations.
Over the centuries and according to the calling regions own economic evolutions, both the Kitamaebune routes and shipments slightly changed from the 17th century to the dawn of Japan’s modernity. At the end of the Edo period, well–established company owners from Kaga Hashitate would still go on shipping a great variety of goods gathered in the vicinities of Osaka, Kyoto and Setouchi, selling them at numerous ports of call on the Sea of Japan shores, all the way from Osaka to Hakodate in Ezo. There, they would have their ships fully-loaded with herring and pilchard lees, which made up an efficient fertilizer, before sailing back to Osaka. After disembarking, the ship owners would take the inland routes to walk back home. By carrying and disseminating not only essential everyday life goods, but also refined products and cultural items, it is a well-known fact that the Kitamaebune ships played a crucial role in the changing and evolving of Japanese habits, culture and life-style.
At the end of the Edo period, Kitamaebune ship owners were said to earn from each journey a profit of around 1,000 tael, the common unity of weight and currency at the time. To help realize how considerable such an amount was, opening the 1898 Ishikawa Prefecture Annual Income Register proves to be useful. On that year, according to this official document, the prefecture’s wealthiest ryokan owner declared 326 yen, a well-established doctor 800 and a famous dry-goods dealer 400. On the other end, Ooie Shichibei, a Kitamaebune ship owner established in Segoe, declared 26,500 yen while Nishide Magozaemon, Kubo Hikobei and Sakaya Chobei, all three from Hashitate, respectively declared 3,239 yen, 2,240 yen and 2,230 yen “only”. Back in the days, Kitamaebune ship owners had made tremendous fortunes far beyond compare with any other business.
“Kitamaebune tells the story of courageous sailors and skillful navigators who braved the Sea of Japan’s stormy waves to make tremendous fortunes.”
The six months cruise between Osaka and Hakodate required a sharp knowledge of the often changing weather conditions over the Sea of Japan. During the Kitamaebune heyday, even the most skillful and experienced navigators could reach the end of the line or, to say the least, have to face great dangers in case of a storm. Very often, the ships would carry aboard portable shrines, wood board ex-voto pictures depicting maritime scenes as well as boat scale-models as so many signs of prayers for the journey’s safety. At a time when sinking remained a dramatically common outturn, sailors always had to remind their family that, “this time, they might not be coming back”. Also before the departure, they would always pay a visit to their local shrines and get mentally prepared to the possibility of a journey ending dramatically.
Grasping the mountains in splendid sceneries, several scenic port towns still remain here and there along the Sea of Japan’s coastal shores. All over these towns, small lanes leading to the harbor are still adorned with magnificent ship owners and merchant houses. The temples and shrines around preserve ex-voto pictures and consecrated model-ships. Religious festivals that once originated in Kyoto or likewise distant places are still performed as folk songs from an old distant past have kept being hummed around up to the present time. Those towns were known as port of calls and settlement areas for the merchants and ship owners of the then thriving northern-bound maritime trade companies. Braving the stormy waves, those men accumulated tremendous fortunes over the centuries, meanwhile bringing prosperity to the areas around the ports they would call in. All those recalled glorious stories create a distinctive atmosphere which ever since has not ceased to mesmerize the Kitamaebune towns’ visitors.
The “story of Kitamaebune” was certified as a joint project between the cities of Hakodate, Matsumaechō, Ajigasawachō, Fukaurachō, Akita, Sakata, Nīgata, Nagaoka, Tsuruga, Minamiechizenchō and Kaga.