Tabi - Trip, Voyage

6 March 2007
By Michelle Damian
An example of

An example of "wasen" from Scene at Takanawa by Keisai Eisen

I am in Japan as I type this, learning just how much it is I don't know about Japanese wooden boats. So far I have visited seven museums, two storage areas for cormorant boats, two shipwrights, one library, and (instead of the partridge in a pear tree) I've seen the cormorants keeping warm in their winter abode as well. I have learned boatloads (pun intended) about Japanese watercraft and am well aware of how far I have yet to go.

I thought writing this entry would be easy because I have seen so much already, but instead I’m faced with distilling all these experiences into a page or so and am not sure where to start. Certain things became clear almost immediately: the first boat I looked at revealed that the horizontal marks I questioned in the last entry are not lashings or fasteners themselves, but are actually fastener coverings made of copper, wood, or a putty substance.

Other areas revealed my misconceptions. In contacting all of these museums and organizations, I had been referring in emails to studying "wasen" or "wabune", where "wa" means Japan and "sen/fune" means boat. I had meant this in the wider sense of "I am studying Japanese watercraft." Most of the vessels I'd seen in the prints have been river craft, so in my mind that was where my main focus lay. Little did I realize that "wasen" can also be construed as a specific kind of Japanese ship; namely, the larger coastal cargo ships. These do also appear in the woodblock prints, but I have found fewer detailed versions of these and so was considering them a secondary focus for this study. The people at the Setonaikai Folk Museum kindly set me straight as they spent an afternoon telling me about not only wasen-as-coastal-craft but the other types of larger coastal vessels. It was a fascinating discussion, and they were extremely helpful, but I was quite embarrassed to realize that, although intending to include a wide range of watercraft in this study, my email phrasing had inadvertently narrowed it down to one specific type of ship!

Man using ro, detail from Yoroi-no-watashi Ferry to the Koamicho Quarter by Ando Hiroshige

Man using ro, detail from Yoroi-no-watashi Ferry to the Koamicho Quarter by Ando Hiroshige

There have also been a number of items that the woodblock artists did not depict, either due to unfamiliarity with the watercraft, artistic license, or simply not worrying about it. Many of the prints show a sailor working the ro, a steering oar, but there is no visible fixture or pivot point for this massive tool. Matsuda-san, an 84-year-old shipwright in Fukuoka prefecture, kindly showed me a number of models he had made and pointed out the rogui – a small spike on the end of a protruding deck beam to insert the ro’s iriko (a wooden block with a hole in it). In the prints, the rogui is hidden by the ro itself. This explanation also solved the mystery of why some of the deck beams stick out: to make a long story short, the ro is balanced on the rogui outside the hull.

I still have some time here to ask more questions and visit a few more museums and organizations. I have a feeling that the focus of the thesis will change somewhat as I collate all the information I’m gathering into something that will correspond with the woodblock prints, but that will be my job after returning to the States. Now I’m just trying to absorb as much information as I possibly can in an extremely short time. I’m already very much in debt to a long list of people who have taken the time to show me their collections, explain ship construction to me, provide me with a wide variety of publications, and generally been extremely helpful, and there’s still more than a week to go. Off I go to Tokyo and its environs next (and yes, I am happily eating my fill of sushi).

As always please feel free to contact me at with any comments, questions, or suggestions during the weeks to come. Yoroshiku onegai shimasu ("I look forward to your good favor").

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