Kitamaebune (north-bound ships) were trading vessel companies active largely along the coasts of western Japan during the Edo Period. The museum is hosted in this splendid mansion is dedicated to the legacy of this fleet of trading vessels, which brought in vast wealth and prosperity to the region, and was the economic force that enabled the small port town of Hashitate to be named as the wealthiest village in Japan during its heyday. The splendid mansion housing this museum was originally built in 1876, and was the residence of a highly esteemed and influential Kitamaebune shipowner named Sakaya Chobei.
In the typical architectural style favored by the wealthy Kitamaebune folk, the mansion was built in an understated, almost paradoxical style, with an austere exterior juxtaposed with an opulent interior.
On the surface, the mansion appears to adopt an understated aesthetic, with its external walls made up of old planks repurposed from retired ships, a practical solution to the perennial problem of erosion and damage from sea winds, and its red, tiled roof, a symbol of affluence in ancient Japan, being its only apparent accession to opulence.
Once inside, however, the vast wealth of the Kitamaebune shipowners immediately becomes apparent. In true Kitamaebune fashion, Sakaya Chobei spared no expense in furnishing his living quarters with top-quality materials brought in from diverse and far-flung regions of Japan. Rooms and activity spaces were also generously portioned, illustrating the immense material resources of the Sakaya family in real, spatial terms.
In honor of the Kitamaebune shipowners’ contributions to the area, as well as their role in Japanese history, this building, together with 30 other Kitamaebune residences in the area, have been registered for preservation and designated as a collective cultural asset by the Japanese Government. Visitors to this museum are invited to learn about the history and contributions of the Kitamaebune and their shipowners through the large collection of maps, pictures, handwritten documents, and navigation tools on display in the facility.