The story of Kitamaebune and its boats 北前船

The Road to All Wealth - Osaka to Hokkaido

Japan of the Tokugawa era was a Japan almost closed to the outside world by the shogunal policy of Sakoku. But if communications with neighboring nations are prohibited, the country is experience at the same time an unprecedented intensification of trade between the different regions. It is in this context that the Kitamaebune trade route fits.

Departing from the major commercial ports of Sakai and Osaka, the boats crossed the Seto Inland Sea, and the Shimonoseki Strait and went to the coasts of Hokuriku and Hokkaido.

Thus at that time, the village of Esahi, located at the southwestern tip of the great northern island, was in May a commercial town crowded with merchants. In particular, they came there to look for cypress wood and herring, which they resold with large profits once they returned to the Kansai region.

Esashi attained such fame through the Kitamaebune that it hosted many visiting artists from the Edo period (1603 - 1868).

Navire Kaiyo-maru au port d'Esashi

Kaiyo-maru Ship at Esashi Port


The first wealth of Japan

The annual trip on the Kitamaebune route (then bi-annual from the end of the 18th century with the improvement of ships) could be dangerous, shipwrecks being frequent.

But the merchants who managed to integrate into the circuits of the Kitamaebune made great fortunes. At the end of the shogunate, they were, along with the great lords, the richest social class in the country.

Many of them were local notables. The merchants of Osaka, the commercial heart of the country, acquired through this route another means of increasing their capital, which would be used to finance the modernization of Meiji.

Port of Osaka

Port of Osaka


A factor of unification of the country

The Edo period is a return to peace after more than a century of civil war, but also the beginning of a true political unification, the daimyos having never been so controlled by the central power as in the time of the Tokugawa shoguns.

This unification is also that of society, with cultural movements affecting most regions and allowing the beginning of real common culture. The Kitamaebune participated in this movement.

Reproduction of a Kitamaebune at Hiyoriyama Park

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