Izumisano city is one of 40 port towns for Kitamae-bune. It is designated as Japan Heritage.
The coastline along the Japan Sea is dotted with many port towns framed by beautiful mountains These seaside towns developed as ports of call along the Western Sea Circuit, a major shipping route connecting Osaka and Hokkaido via the Seto Inland Sea and Sea of Japan coast during the late Edo to Meiji periods.
Braving the rough seas, merchant Kitamae-bune shipowners amassed great wealth and prosperity, eventually building magnificent residences. In many towns, large merchant houses and ship-owner mansions stand along the main streets, while a maze of backstreets connect the rest of the town to the sea. Ema, (wooden votive tablets), painted with ship designs and ship models, have been dedicated at the shrines and temples along the route.
Many festivals as well celebrate distant ports and towns with melodic folk songs that connect the entire region.
The development of these unique ports of the Kitamae-bune shipping routes brought prosperity to many areas of the coast and continue to attract popular interest to this day.
What kinds of port of call for Kitamae-bune were there? There were two types of port from the view point of location.
One is the port looked up at mountains in the mouth of a big river. Famous mountains looked up from the Japan-Sea were a sign of navigation and the port was built near the mountain. These ports became the port from which rice was exported to Osaka in the Edo era. Store houses of rice and Government houses were built at the mouth of big river in granary. The port looking up at mountains and embraced by big river became the base of ship route from North side of Japan to Osaka. It was called West-Round Route.
We can meet picturesque scenery in which the port and great nature tinged with the evening glow become as one, or beautiful panoramic view of the port looked down from the mountain.
Another one is the port embraced by mountains which locates on the narrow plane between mountains and sea. When Kitamae-bune which can amass vast wealth goes frequently, many ports including one waiting for a favorable wind have developed. On the coast of the Japan Sea with many deserts compact ports and residences were built using narrow ground plane. We can now walk around a townscape in which cultural heritages are integrated with old buildings, landing places, stake to fix ships.
Why Kitamae-bune can make huge profit? It is because the price gap between local towns. For example, a large catch of herring in Hokkaido can be sold high as fertilizer for cotton planting in west side of Japan. On the other hand, old clothes made in west side of Japan became expensive product in north side of Japan. After selling herrings in Osaka and take on a cargo of old clothes, then sell them in the north side of Japan, Kitamae-bune was called “saw business” which means doing business to go back and forth.
The profit produced by Kitamae-bune was called “One thousand Ryo on one voyage”. It was huge enough to bring economic prosperity to large ports which ship land tax with feudal domain, and to compact ports with small population.
In the port developed by Kitamae-bune, large scale buildings remain as shipping agents, store houses, etc. In this town houses stand in a row along the street, most roads are facing sea. There are gay quarters which gives sailors peace of mind and openhearted, a hill at which people wait and see how the wind blows, shrines and temples where people pray for the safe voyage. There are towns build by merchants who acquired a sea transportation which cannot be seen in villages or castle towns. We can meet surprise or discovery seeing unimaginably high wall, an extravagantly constructed residences, saying “why big houses in this area?”.
It was a dangerous voyage for sailors who had an expert skill of sailing when a ship meets a storm. After carrying goods safely to the destination, a sailor gets a large amount of profit. But if it fails, he lost all fortune including a ship. A dangerous voyage makes sailors to pray for gods or Buddhas in shrines and t or temples. A votive wooden tablet was dedicated to gods praying for safety. Model ships or topknot were also dedicated to shrines. In the precincts of a shrine, there are an offered sacred branch of a sacred tree, stone lantern, stone bowl in which the name of a country or merchant was carved. Many shrines and temples built in the port town of Kitamae-bune were supported by shipowners and sailors with their strong faith.
Kitamae-bune carried not only essential goods for daily living, but also exclusive goods like “Hina-dolls”, or many kinds of culture. A culture called “Kaze-machi” which means waiting for good wind brought folk songs and entertainment by sailors. “Okesa” or “Aiya-bushi” are the typical one which has plaintive tones. This folk song “Haiya-bushi” was borne in Kumamoto, and transported to port towns in the coast of Japan Sea by Kitamae-bune.
“Konbu-dashi” or stock made of tangle, a food culture typical for Japanese meals was developed. Tangle was transported from Hokkaido to Osaka. It was used to make “Konbu-dashi”, and became the basics for current Japanese meals. Transport of freeze-resistant red bricks brought northern countries the prevention of cold disaster. Come and go of Herrings which become fertilizer for cotton cultivation and old clothes the quality of clothing had improved remarkably. Kitamae-bune had an important role for housing, food and clothing of Japanese.
A port of call of Kitamae-bune and a town of shipowners is a different living space where we can meet historical atmosphere.
And it is span by sailors who transported people, goods, culture coping with turbulent of Japan Sea.
By Masa Tamura