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 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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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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Starting a 1/20-scale Senzanmaru Model

A couple weeks ago, in a spurt of initiative, I finally began work on a 1/20-scale model fo the Edo period boat Senzanmaru.

Senzanmaru is a whaleboat-style craft that was used by the Hachisuka clan of the former Awa province, now called Tokushima province. The boat measured just under 34 feet long and was propelled by up to 5 sculling oars. In addition, the boat has a mast step, though many boats have such a feature that goes unused.

I don’t know all the details of the boat and how it was used, but it is highly ornamented with elaborate designs painted on her hull and a relieve carving of a dragon on either side of her stem. While boats similar in size and type were used in large numbers to tow large gozabune, highly ornamental military-style vessels that served as yachts and transports for high-ranking samurai, the highly ornamented design of Senzanmaru suggests that this boat was also used to carry high ranking members of the clan. Perhaps it was more for transferring these individuals between ships or from ship to shore, or for carrying important dispatches, etc.

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Wasen Projects for 2021

At the start of 2020, I wrote about an “Explosion of Wasen Model Projects” and I listed several projects, some have been long-time desired projects that were coming to life, and a few were new projects entirely. Here’s a rundown of those projects, followed be a look at what’s happening in 2021.


Himi Tenmasen – This was a project commissioned by boatbuilder Douglas Brooks. Though not a simple model, It was a quick project, as I had plenty of access to all the details of construction of the actual boat. This was something of a “full-time” build, which I started in mid-April of 2020 and finished by the end of the following month, about 5 weeks later.


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My Second Honryou (ホンリョウ) Model

Last year, I built a model of a simple Niigata riverboat based on the one built by Douglas Brooks and Nina Noah with Japanese boatbuilder Mr. Nakaichi Nakagawa in the Fall of 2019. That model was a 1/10-scale version of the 25-foot boat.

The actual Niigata Honryousen in the workshop. Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

That model was actually a commission, though I priced it really cheap to help support the project. At the same time, I figured I’d build a second one for myself. Both models were effectively at the same stage when I shipped the one off to its new owner. The other one I kept for my wasen model displays, and so that I’d have something to show at home.

The first Honryou-sen model.

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The Tonegawa Takasebune (高瀬船) – a Model in 1/72 Scale, Part 2

The 60-shaku Tonegawa Takasebune is a 1/72-scale scratch build, based on a drawing in the book of the same name. This, as I mentioned before, is the same scale as the Woody Joe Kitamaebune I’m building and my completed Woody Joe Higakikaisen kit. As mentioned last time, the model is based on a 2-view drawing of a 60-shaku (about 60 foot) I found in the book “利根川高瀬船” or Tonegawa Takasebune.

I began by scaling the actual drawing to 1/72-scale using cutting it up to create a pattern for an internal former. The use of a former is my standard method for building these essentially frameless wooden boats. The former is made from 1/4” MDF or Medium Density Fiberboard, which I buy by the 1/4-sheet at the hardware store. I start with the backbone, which is the easiest part to fashion, then add some cross section pieces, which will help me attach the hull planks at the proper angle.

Unfortunately, once I started the model, I didn’t really take a break to take photos or do any writing until I’d gotten the hull put together. But, below, you can see a template I made, which is essentially a tracing of the top view from the original drawing. This gives me the shape of the bottom of the boat. I’ve also gone back and re-created some steps so I could take a few photos to illustrate, at least. Continue reading

Building a Gozabune (Kobaya) from Paris Plans – Part 13

An update on this model is long overdue, and while I haven’t really been working much on the Kobaya model, it is a model that I’ve been very happy with. I’ve recently been researching old drawings, looking for atakebune information, but mostly finding sekibune and other small ships. As a result, I’ve found something of a renewed interest in finishing my kobaya model, and started working on it again.
The model keeps inching closer to completion, with the biggest hold-up being the making and mounting of the ship’s 28 sculling oars. Given the size of a person on the model, the deck would have been crowded with oarsmen. With such a sharp hull and relatively small size (17m) in comparison with the largest of ships at the time (30m, give or take), those 28 oars must have made her very fast.
However, Japanese sculling oars are more complicated in shape than western-style oars, so this project involves cutting and shaping 56 pieces of wood, plus the addition of bindings, handle, and mounting yoke onto each oar. So, I have my work cut-out for me.

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