The Sakaya family: Kitamaebune shipowners who amassed a huge fortune
The Kitamaebune Ship Museum is housed in a big mansion built in 1876 by Chobei from the seventh generation of the Sakaya family who owned the Kitamaebune ships in Kaga Hashitate. The mansion is open to the public as a museum and exhibits various materials related to the Kitamaebune.
Although not as glitzy as the samurai residences where samurai used to live, the shipowners’ mansions are nevertheless filled with the aesthetic sense of a muscular sailor, offering glimpses of the wealth and sense of beauty they acquired through their voyages.
It was said that in the Edo period, a ship making a round trip between Osaka and Hokkaido would earn 1,000 ryo, equivalent to 60 to 100 million yen in today’s money. Chobei, who owned four ships, made enormous profits in the Kitamaebune business and built a magnificent mansion over the course of around four years.
A year in the life of a sailor
Before you visit the museum and satisfy your intellectual curiosity, it’s a good idea to learn about a typical year for the sailors. In early March of every year, sailors based in Kaga Hashitate would depart their hometown and walk to Osaka, from where their ships departed. They would then repair the ships that had been tended by someone else, buy up various goods to load, such as sake, cotton, and second-hand clothes, and set sail between mid-March and early April. En route to Hokkaido, they would call at different ports to purchase and sell salt, paper, tobacco, sugar, and other goods. On the return voyage, they would load large amounts of seafood from Hokkaido and again sell them at each port before returning to Osaka in the late fall or early winter. They would then walk back to Kaga Hashitate at the end of the year.
The buildings as historical assets
Occupying a site of around 1,000 tsubo (approx. 3,306 m²), the facility is surrounded by high fences and contains a mansion and a number of storehouses. The finest quality construction materials were used for the interior of the buildings. The owner took advantage of his financial power to have the materials sent directly from the production areas. Inside the museum, you can see some of the luxurious items. These include tableware, jewelry, and women’s hair accessories. The buildings themselves can be said to be valuable historical assets that communicate the history of the Kitamaebune and the lavish lifestyle of the shipowners.
【Highlights of the buildings】
Great hall (Oe)
Guests were welcomed to the great hall, known from that time as the Oe, which features an open hearth. The finest building materials were used, such as zelkova pillars of around 24 cm square, giant pine beams, and a large door made from a single cedar board. This lumber was finished with seven to eight applications of lacquer, and it still retains its beautiful shine.
Sitting room (Nakando)
The sitting room, known from that time as Nakanando, was the place where the family members led their lives. You can see the essence of traditional Japanese homes, such as the “tokonoma” (alcove in the wall) and “staggered shelves” (decorative shelves).
In the mansions of the Kitamaebune shipowners based in Kaga Hashitate, it is customary to place one large and one small splendidBuddhist altar. The small “summer Buddhist altar” is used while the master is away, while the large “winter Buddhist altar” is used in the winter, when he returns. The wall behind the altar is thinner than the other walls to ensure it can be smashed in the event of a fire or other emergency to allow the important Buddhist altars to be retrieved.
The premises still contain a number of storehouses. Each one houses a different material and serves as a mini themed museum.
Surrounded by high fences, the site retains its big garden. It features 2,000 hydrangeas in full bloom from mid-June to early July.