Hashitate: A Streetscape of Residences Built by Wealthy Shipowners

Guide to Japan Travel History

Hashitate, now part of the city of Kaga in Ishikawa Prefecture, formerly thrived as a community of shipowners. Their ships, called kitamaebune carried cargoes from the Sea of Japan to Osaka and back during the Edo period (through 1868) and the early part of the subsequent Meiji era. These sailing vessels were unrivaled for their cargo capacity at the time. Owners and captains of the kitamaebune used the wealth they gained from this trade to vie with each other in building splendid residences in Hashitate. These continue to line the streets of the area, which has been designated an “important preservation district for groups of traditional buildings.” The residence built by Sakaya Chūbei, a prominent nineteenth-century shipowner, is now open to the public as “Kitamaebune no Sato Shiryōkan,” a period museum. Details like the pine beams spanning the grand hall and the wooden doors made from single panels of Akita cedar bespeak the prosperity of the original owner.

Note: The kitamaebune were wooden sailing ships used for the trade between ports on the Sea of Japan and the central entrepôt of Osaka via the Seto Inland Sea. The kitamaebune trade thrived during the Edo period and the early part of the Meiji era (1868–1912). Shipowners did not merely offer marine transportation but also conducted trading business, using their own funds to buy rice and other goods, shipping them to Osaka, and selling them there. For the return trip the ships would be loaded with sake, salt, and other goods for sale at ports of call on the Sea of Japan. This trade generated tremendous profits for shipowners, some of whom became able to exert influence on the local feudal rulers. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, as Japan introduced steamships and built railroads, the kitamaebune trade declined and eventually disappeared.

(Originally published in Japanese. Created in cooperation with Kanazawa Cable Television.)

Ishikawa tourism Hokuriku kitamaebune