Tenma-Zukuri Chabune Display at the Nakagawa Bansho Museum (中川船番所博物館)

I ran across some images from a Japanese museum in Tokyo’s Koto ward in early May, and I feel like some of my work has been completely validated. This little museum is called the Nakagawa Funabansho Museum (中川船番所博物館), and I know absolutely nothing about this museum. I don’t even know if I’ve heard about it before, though I recognize the Nakagawa, or Naka river, or middle river in Japanese, which flows down from Saitama prefecture through Tōkyō.

A large display in the museum is a full-sized diorama of a small, fully loaded canal boat that looks like it’s pulling away from the dock. What surprised me was that I recognized this specific type of boat as one that I studied and created a set of drawings.

This is a tenma-zukuri chabune, a small general purpose boat from the canals of old Edo. I’ve seen very little about this boat, outside of a woodblock print in the Funakagami, an illustrated identification guide to river boats that was used to aid the government’s tax assessors.

Page from the Funakagami, with my annotations on the names of parts.

Using this illustration, plus some information provided in the book, I came up with a set of drawings that I created in Adobe Illustrator.

My own drawings based on the Funakagami illustration and provided dimensions.

There are some variations from the museum display, but all the details mostly seem to match. I will consider some modifications that I might make to the drawings, but I’m very confident with them, especially now that I’ve seen this museum display.

The drawings have been used to make at least two models: My 1/20-scale model and one by Japanese modeler Kouichi Ohata, who built a beautiful 1/10-scale model. Kouichi-san’s model actually came before mine, and he provided some great feedback that helped me improve the drawings from their original version.

My 1/20-scale tenma-zukuri chabune

1/10-scale tenma-zukuri chabune by Kouichi Ohata

This is the first time I’ve researched a particular boat type and created a set of drawings based mostly on the interpretation of a woodblock print. While I knew I had the basic dimensions right, I never really new for sure if my interpretation of all the details was correct.

Seeing this museum display is not proof that I got everyhing correct, but at least it shows me that whoever was involved with the creation of this museum display agrees with my interpretation of this boat. That means a lot to me, given how separated and independent my study of wasen has to be.

So, I look forward to visiting this display at some point after Covid concerns have lightened up. In the meantime, perhaps I should pick another subject to try to illustrate and model. Ω

The Making of a Man (in 1/20 Scale)

Time to start adding figures to my collection of wasen models…

Ship Modeler

Working with my Japanese boat models, after the tenth or twelfth model, I’ve felt that there’s now something missing. I enjoy modeling traditional Japanese boats, but up to now, there hasn’t been much context. So, I started experimenting with making cargo, which is a relatively easy, if not somewhat tedious, task. But, I’ve always felt that the cargo was just one step towards giving the models a better sense of what they were and how they were used. What the boats really needed were one or more figures, to give them a sense sense of scale, and a sense of the place and time when they were in their heyday.

Kawasaki: The Rokugō Ferry, from Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō

Mitsuke: The Tenryū River, from Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō

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Atakebune – Japanese Warship Kit in Development

At last, it’s happening. After some enthusiastic petitioning by Kazunori Morikawa, myself, and others to the Japanese wooden model kit maker Woody Joe, it appears the company is actively developing the prototype for an Atakebune.

Museum model of an atakebune

For those who don’t already know, the Atakebune is the largest class of warship used by the Japanese feudal armies of the warring states period. These lumbering ships were effectively floating fortresses. While they were equipped with one large mast and square sail, as well as a  single bank of oars, they were often towed by smaller warships.

Museum model of a large atakebune

I’ve had a number of people ask me about the availability of an Atakebune kit. Up to now, there hasn’t been much  available in the form of a well researched scale model kit. But, yesterday, Woody Joe posted a photo on their Facebook page, announcing that they’ve started working on a prototype model.

The new model is 1/100 scale, and it’s only a prototype, so we won’t know if it’s going to go into production yet. I’m a bit disappointed that the model is not 1/72 scale, as that scale would then match Woody Joe’s Higaki Kaisen and Kitamaebune kits, plus it would then be compatible with 1/72 samurai figures that are currently available.

However, a 1/72 scale model would almost 40% larger than a 1/100 scale model. And, considering these were large ships, that would be a big kit that might be harder for company to manufacture. Also, such a large model may be less appealing in Japan, which is their primary market.

I don’t know any more details yet, but will post them as soon as I learn more. Ω

Modeling Japanese Boats – MESS Talk Follow-Up

My first webcast talk on the modeling of Japanese traditional boats is done. It was the first time I’d done anything like this. Though I’ve spoken on the subject before, this is the first time that I couldn’t see my audience, which was an interesting experience that more or less ended up going fine. Talking from the comfort of my own workshop garage also made it more relaxing.

The even was only an hour long, and my talk was about 50 minutes or so, which isn’t a long time for this subject, particularly with my penchant for digression. So, there wasn’t a lot of time to get into anything very deeply, and it was really more of just an overview. But, considering it was aimed at a general audience, that was probably about right.

For those of you who wanted to attend the talk, but couldn’t, it was recorded and is now posted on the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association’s Vimeo page, which you can view here:

At the end I mention that the talk had gotten me thinking about doing actual wasen modeling workshops via Zoom, and I’m actually pretty serious about that. But, of course, there would need to be enough interest to make it worthwhile. Not sure about costs, materials I’d provide, etc., but I’ll have to see if there is much interest first. So, if you’d be interested in a workshop or, more likely, a series of workshops on building a model of a smaller wasen from scratch, email me at info@wasenmodeler.com.


Modeling Japanese Boats – MESS Lecture Series – This Thursday, May 27, 11am PDT

Here it is at last, my first webcast talk on the modeling of Japanese traditional boats, from research to construction. This talk is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Park Associations monthly lunchtime talks called MESS, for Maritime Education for Students of the Sea. Earlier this year, I was asked if I could participate, and I agreed, as long as I could talk about modeling Japanese traditional boats.

The talk will take place this Thursday, May 27th, at 11am PDT. The talk itself should last about 40 minutes. You can watch the livestream here: https://givebutter.com/MESS. There is no cost to attend, and you can ignore the banners that suggest you need to register for tickets, as there aren’t any.

This talk is aimed at a general audience, so it’s not going to be very technical. I’ll talk about how I manage the research and get into some of the basics of traditional Japanese boats and their design, and the general process of building them from scratch.

If you’re interested, I hope you’ll attend. Afterwards, if there is enough interest, perhaps I’ll organize my own web-based workshop on building one particular boat. If you’re interested in that, be sure to let me know. In the meantime, I hope to see you at the talk this Thursday. Ω

The Tonegawa Takasebune (高瀬船) – a Model in 1/72 Scale, Part 3

The bow cabin, which was called the seiji (say-jee) actually turned out to be one of the easier features of this model to reconstruct. And, honestly, nothing about the Tonegawa Takasebune is difficult to construct, though I did have a little trouble getting the upper part of the bow so that it looked right. But, the cabin is essentially like a wooden tent. Triangular walls front and back, a center beam at the top, and sloping roofs divided into three parts by a pair of beams on either side.

You might notice that I put an interior wall in the bow of the ship, and I added strips to simulate the frame around a sliding door. It’s not a big cabin, maybe close to 9 feet square, so there’s not a lot of living space. Probably enough for a small family to sit or sleep together. But, bedding, utensils and dishes would certainly have to be put away when not in use. Most of it, probably in the storage in the bow.

The roof of these boats appears to be designed with large panels that can slide open. These panels, called netoba (neh-tow-bah), can make the cabin nice and airy or easily closed up in bad weather. Also, there appear to be no doors on a the cabin of a boat this size, so entrance and exit would be by climbing in or out of one of these openings, making them more like hatches.

I didn’t have any specific information on the construction of the cabin roofs, except that the sliding panels seem to slide under the fixed roof panels. I did my best to replicate what I thought the construction must have been like. But, these boats only exist now in art and in photos. And the photos that I’ve seen are all taken from a distance.

Large takasebune model from the Museum of Maritime Science in Tokyo. I couldn’t find a higher resolution photo.

In the black and white photo above, which I found on the Internet long ago, you can see the cabin roof detail about as well as anything. In these photos, the takasebune in the background appears to have a cover erected over the open hull, which would make for a very sizable enclosed space.

Takasebune were effectively house boats, with the boatmen living aboard. I don’t know if they permanently resided aboard, but many are seen with families aboard, so I presume they were permanent housing.

I managed to find a couple nice sources for information on the interior of the cabin. One of the most detailed pieces of information on the seiji of a takasebune comes from a Hokusai woodblock print. Here, you can see inside the boat, and note that the back wall appears to be made up of open panels. Presumably, these can be closed up with some kind of shutters.

This appears to represent the largest size of takasebune, which was maybe 50% larger than the one represented by my model. It seems to be large enough to have quite a bit of storage organized inside the cabin. I can’t tell from this picture if the person emptying out the pot over the side of the boat is standing in the opening of a sliding panel, or if it is some kind of fixed opening that probably has some other way to close it up. I see no evidence here of any sliding roof panel.

The other source of information is this funky little sketch inside the Tonegawa Takase book. It illustrates the interior of the cabin, and you can see the sliding doors that lead into the bow storage area (left), and a little storage space on the sides of the cabin, which must not be very large, and probably server more like cabinets or cupboards.

In this drawing, there appear to be two tatami mats on the floor, each about 6 feet long. The whole forward end of the cabin is a bit sliding door into the bow storage area. There appears to be a the small shrine hanging up at the top of the forward wall of the cabin.

Initially, I thought that was a pot of tea sitting on a tray, but I think this is some kind of portable fire pit, filled with sand that the pot is sitting in. What I originally thought was a pipe for smoking tobacco, or maybe a pair of chopsticks, seems like it could be some kind of fireplace utensils for handling hot cookware, etc.

In the future, it may be interesting to build a large scale takasebune model, complete with cabin interior. Though I really only have this one sketch to base anything on. But, there appears to be a very large scale model of a takasebune at the Chiba Prefectural Museum in Japan. So, I hope to make it back there some day to see its details.

I decided to leave one of the sliding panel open on the right side and two on the left (saying starboard and port just doesn’t seem quite right on a Japanese boat model). I then turned my attention to making the rudder and the mast.

The rudder was actually fairly straight forward. The rudder is not shown in the drawings I used for this model, but there are plenty of other examples of the rudders of river boats. They are basically tall and long. The large size helped to mitigate the lack of a keel when sailing. They also helped to keep the boat tracking straight when using poles or sculling oar. I based my models rudder on various examples I’d found on models on the Internet.

If anything, my rudder is a bit rectangular, and could stand to be a little more triangular, with the less area near the top of the blade. But, it can’t be said to be wrong, so I’ll just leave it for now. Maybe on a future model, I’ll change the shape a bit.

So, the next step will be to finish the mast details and the structure used for raising it and holding it in place.

May 2021 Wasenmodeler Update

After some time off to finish a medieval European cog model and to gain some ground on a couple other ship modeling projects, I started working on wasen models again. It is interesting, though, to have the cog model and a sengokubune model (the Kitamaebune is a class of sengokubune, a common term for this type of coastal transport), sitting close together, as they are both in 1/72 scale.

My models of a medieval european cog (foreground, left) and kitamaebune (background, right), both in 1/72 scale. Different eras and regions, but still interesting to see them side-by-side.

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Japanese Boats in Wooden Boat Magazine

I just found out from Douglas Brooks that he wrote an article that was published in the current May/June issue of Wooden Boat magazine. In addition, there’s an accompanying article about Douglas Brooks and his apprenticeships with traditional Japanese boatbuilders in Japan.

If you’re not familiar with Douglas Brooks’ work and the status of Japanese traditional boatbuilding, you really need to read the WoodenBoat articles. It’s a good reminder of all the generations of knowledge that are about to be lost.

It reminded me that I want to do more to make people aware of the situation. During the Covid crisis, it’s been hard to do much. However, things are starting to open up, so maybe I can plan out a display or two for later in the year.

One thing I can do is mention the issue in a Zoom based talk I’ll be giving next month on modeling traditional Japanese boats, through the San Francsico Martime Research Center.   I’ll be posting more information shortly about this talk, part of the Center’s lunchtime MESS lecture series (Marine Education for Students of the Sea). More on that here: https://maritime.org/mess/

To purchase a copy of this month’s Wooden Boat magazine, you can get a single issue here for $7.95 plus S&H: https://www.woodenboatstore.com/collections/woodenboat-magazine/products/issue-280-may-june-2021?variant=39616365625512. Ω


Wasen Projects Status – March 25, 2021

After taking a five-week break from wasen modeling, I’m back at it now, getting close to finishing up some more details on the Tonegawa takasebune, and soon the Kitamaebune, which still needs sails.

The break came about after I was asked to do a Zoom presentation as part of a series of lunchtime talks called the MESS lectures, for Maritime Education for Students of the Sea, a series organized by the San Francsico Maritime Research Center. The talk is not until the end of May – Thursday, May 27th, at 11am, to be precise. But, more on that later.

So, I kind of needed a break from my Japanese projects. Plus, for the talk, I think I need to keep some of the these models in various stages of completion, to serve as illustrations of the wasen model building process. So, I’ll probably leave the Senzanmaru and Nitaribune models where they are until after the talk.

Since it would be good to show the earliest stages of construction too, I’ll probably just get started on a couple other projects. Just not sure what the subjects will be yet. It’s all about what I think will be most interesting to illustrate or demonstrate. Again, more on that later.

For now, I ‘m going to try to focus on the takasebune. I started adding cargo into its hold, so I really need to continue with it until it seems reasonably loaded down. I had made a couple different kinds of cargo and am now finishing up the third type, which are covered buckets, or oke (oh-kay). Each one is simply a short piece of dowel, with a lid constructed of 5 small pieces, then the body of the bucket is wrapped with two threads to represent hoops of bamboo.

Aside from the cargo, I still have some “copper” trim to finish up, as well as the addition of parrals and brace lines to the yard. I don’t know the Japanese terms for these off-hand. My only regret is making the sale so square to the hull. I’ll probably brace the yard at a slight angle, so it’s not so straight. Thinking about it now, I would like to make a model that shows the yard holding the sail in a position that makes it act like a lug sail, a fore-and-aft sail for sailing closer to the wind.

In the near future, I’ll post more details about the steps in the construction of the Tonegawa takasebune model.

1/20-scale Senzanmaru Model – A First Update

Work is coming along on this model of the Edo period whaleboat-style craft Senzanmaru. Unfortunately, at this stage, a lot of work can be done with little apparent change in the model.

In the photos below, you can see how I taped a string at the bow and stern to service as a center reference line, so I can check to make sure everything is straight and even. I don’t know why I picked a tan line instead of a black one. I think the spool of tan line just happened to be handier.

As I mentioned, progress is being made, but it’s basically all in the details now. You may have already noticed the ōtoko, the heavy beam at the stern. This serves as the rudder mount and hinge, and has a rogui (hinge pin and resting pad) on the left or port side for mounting a sculling oar. This boat was set up for up to five sculling oars, with the rogui mounted on the ends of two beam that I have yet to add.

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