Biwako no Marukobune (琵琶湖の丸子船)- Traditional Sail Boats of Lake Biwa

In early November, boatbuilder Douglas Brooks wrote a post on his blog about an unusual type of boat found in the area of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, which is located northeast of Kyōto. The boats feature a slightly rounded, sharply angled bow, built of narrow staves, called Heita.

Heita bow construction on Lake Biwa boats. Photos courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

Boats of Lake Biwa. Photos courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

The heita-built bow is a type of construction common to many boats of Lake Biwa, including fishing boats, cargo boats, and even rice field boats. Mr. Brooks specifically mentions Marukobune (Mah-roo-koh-boo-nay). Though the boats he shows on his blog are not Marukobune, they share the same style of bow construction, and his mention of Marukobune in particular intrigued me, as I’d seen something about this type before, but didn’t know anything about it.

I’ve since learned that these traditional sailing boats were the cargo transports of the lake throughout the Edo period and continued to operated into the middle of the 20th century. They numbered over 1300 on Lake Biwa during the early Tokugawa period. The last production boats were built in the 1930s.

The name, Marukobune, apparently relates to the rounded cross-section of the hull, which features upper planks made from the two halves of a split log. These heavy log-planks are said to give the boat greater stability in rough water.

The best images I’ve seen of an actual Marukobune are from the Lake Biwa Museum. In the early 1990’s, the museum commissioned the last remaining Marukobune boat builder to construct a replica of a 100-koku ship, which is currently on display in the museum.

Image of a Marukobune replica at the Lake Biwa Museum. Picture from Wikipedia.

There is a good Wikipedia entry on the type, which includes three high-resolution images of the museum’s replica ship. This also seems to be one of the better document ship types, probably since a few were still operating on the lake as late as the 1960’s.

Digging around the Internet, I discovered the existence of a book on the subject. What’s more, it turns out that this book has an english language version and Douglas Brooks was one of the editors. Unfortunately, the book appears to be sold only in Japan.

I asked Mr. Brooks about the book, which he had worked on many years ago. He didn’t think I’d find much construction information in it. But, I thought I’d go ahead and purchase it to learn what I could.

The book sells for ¥4,800 on Amazon Japan, which is about $45, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Amazon’s Global Priority Shipping service would average less than a week to ship and was only about $9.

I’ve since ordered and received the book, and I’m reading it now. While it’s true it doesn’t have much in the way of construction information, it is providing a lot of interesting historical and cultural context to these ships. So, I’m enjoying reading the book very much.

I’m now wondering if the Lake Biwa Museum might be able to provide drawings or construction details that might help with the building of a model. From what I can see of the museum, it looks like a place I need to try to get to on a future wasen research trip. Ω

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