Fri, Nov 29, 2019

Kitamaebune Ship Museum and Zorokuen: Tales of seafaring glory in old Hashitate

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

By Bong Ee Min / CIR for Kaga, Ishikawa Pref.

The port town of Hashitate, located in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, is a historic area, and one of the known settlements of a group of seafaring merchants known as the Kitamaebune ship owners.

Aerial view of the Hashitate area

The Kitamaebune (‘north-bound ships’) refer to merchant ships that specialized in bringing in goods from Hokkaido to the big cities on mainland Japan in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. Unlike other trading vessels of their era, which usually ran short distances along the Pacific coast between Edo and nearby cities, the Kitamaebune made their name traveling long distances through the Seto Inland Sea and along the Sea of Japan.

Instead of transporting only selected commodities, the Kitamaebune also set themselves apart by trading in a wide variety of goods at every port they stopped, often buying goods cheaply at one, and selling them off at higher prices at another.

This business system, combined with their long trade routes, made for a very profitable seafaring career, with recorded earnings often running into the millions (in today’s currency) per journey on good years. So immense was the wealth of the Kitamaebune community, in fact, that the Hashitate area was once named the richest village in Japan.

Old photograph of a Kitamaebune vessel

As an area earmarked for preservation for its historical townscape, former homes of the Kitamaebune ship owners can still be seen standing in various parts of the Hashitate area. Of them, the most iconic estates are the Kitamaebune Ship Museum and Zorokuen, two properties formerly owned by the influential Sakaya family.      

Exterior of the Kitamaebune Ship Museum

Converted from a mansion built in 1876 by Sakaya Chobei, the 7th generation head of the family, the Kitamaebune Ship Museum is the embodiment of the glory and splendor of old Hashitate. Behind its subdued exterior, the Kitamaebune Ship Museum hides a world of opulence, with its grand, spacious halls and lavishly furnished interiors.

Audio and text explanations placed around the museum explain that its original owner had spared no expense and used only the finest materials –the likes of Japanese zelkova, red pine and doors wholly cut from single blocks of Akita cedar – in the construction of the residence.  

Main hall of the museum

Pictures and models of Kitamaebune vessels displayed throughout the museum, along with various personal artifacts preserved by Kitamaebune families that used to live in the area, paint a vivid picture of the lives of the Kitamaebune ship owners out at sea.

A particularly interesting display is a pair of mikuni butsudan altars, set at the end of a long corridor leading away from the main hall. It was said that keeping two altars in their homes was common practice among Kitamaebune families – the smaller one would be used by relatives in warmer months to pray for the safety of their loved ones out at sea, and the larger one would be used by the ship owners themselves to give thanks for another safe voyage when they return home in winter.  

Mikuni butsudan altars. Both have been designated by the city of Kaga as cultural assets.

A short walk away from the Kitamaebune Ship Museum is another relic of the Kitamaebune community – the Zorokuen. Similarly a former property of the Sakaya family built in the 1870’s, the Zorokuen can be seen as a companion piece to the Kitamaebune Ship Museum, as another classic example of the architectural style favored by the moneyed Kitamaebune folk.

The most iconic feature of the Zorokuen is its garden. Featuring seasonal flora and rare landscape rocks collected from various parts of Japan, the garden functions as both a landscape feature and a display area of some the Sakaya family’s treasures.

The 14th head of the local Daishoji clan, Maeda Toshika, was also said to have enjoyed the garden’s beautiful views during his visit to the Hashitate area. The Maeda lord was also said to have been the one who gave the garden – and, by extension, the estate – its name, drawing inspiration from a tortoise-shaped rock he saw in it.    

Iconic landscape garden of Zorokuen. Zoroku means ‘hidden six,’ in reference to a tortoise’s ability to retract its four legs, head and tail into its shell.

Officially designated as tangible cultural heritage of Japan under a multi-city joint project in 2017, the Kitamaebune Ship Museum and Zorokuen form a part of the larger, overarching narrative that is the history of the Kitamaebune. A trip to both, therefore, is sure to provide a fascinating look into one of the lesser known chapters of Japanese history.

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Bong Ee Min

Ee Min is a second-year Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) from Singapore attached to the Kaga city government in Ishikawa Prefecture. She is involved at work in the translating and disseminating of tourist information in English, liaising with partners from English-speaking countries, and interpreting for foreign visitors.



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