Building the Kamakura Period Umi-Bune, Part 1


I’m no expert on Japanese history. In fact, my interest in traditional Japanese boats is a way for me to learn more about it. Up to this point, I’ve primarily been interested in watercraft from the Edo period, which was from 1603 to 1868. This era began with the rise of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who established the capital of Japan at Edo (now called Tokyo). But, there are some interesting, large watercraft that I’ve been intrigued by as well, and many of these date back to earlier times.

Some of the ships I’ve been looking at were fairly complicated, and my information on them is clearly incomplete. But, there was one that stood as a simple design, with enough information available for me to feel that I could scratch build a model. This ship, referred to only as a large umi-bune or sea ship, dated back to the Kamakura period, which lasted from 1185 to 1333, and saw the rise of feudalism, the establishment of the Shogunate government, called the bakufu, two invasion attempts by the Mongols, and the spread of Buddhism.

The Model

My model is based on reconstructed drawings and models, themselves based on a painting of a large seagoing ship that appeared on a 13th century scroll. I don’t know enough about it to say for sure, but I believe it on a scroll that was originally kept in the Kitano Tenman-gu shrine (北野天満宮) in Kyoto, Japan. It may be from one of the scrolls that records the history of the shrine. I’m looking into this now and hope to understand this better soon.

In any case, this ship represents probably the largest of its type, with a capacity of about 200 koku, or 30 tons. The ship was of a type referred to as a junko zosen, or a ship with a semi-structured hull. This type of construction began with a dugout log style hull (kuribune), to which planks were fastened at the sides, making for a deeper hull and increasing the ship’s cargo capacity. The large size of the ship required more than one log to make up the length, which was roughly 100 shaku (100 尺), about 100 feet.

Image from the Nippon Zaidan website.

Image from the Nippon Zaidan website.

The large umi-bune had two strakes of planks on either side of the hull which were edge-fastened to each other and to the log hull. The planks at the bow and stern would have been end-fastened together. I don’t know specifically how this was done, but I assume it was with the use of wooden dovetail keys, which I know were used extensively on various boat types in later periods across Japan.

At this time, cloth sails were not yet in use, so the sails were made from straw mat. When no wind is available, the ship was rowed by sailors sitting on wooden platforms over the sides of the ship. The models I’ve seen in photos don’t make it very clear how the sculling oars were operated, but the action is shown in many paintings.

However, I recently discovered an excellent illustration of this kind of rowing arrangement in the Japanese ghost story anthology, Kwaidan, which is based on stories collected by the writer Lafcadio Hearn in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The third story in the film is that of Hoichi the Earless, which contains a nice long sequence, though stylized, of the Battle of Dan no Ura. In the sequence, there is one ship lined with oarsmen that rowed the ship in the same way as the large umi-bune. It was a great opportunity to see how they operated.

An Aside

By the way, Kwaidan is a great 3-hour movie in Japanese with subtitles. It doesn’t move quickly, so you might want to watch it in parts, but I highly recommend it. It’s a bit stylized, but I love how that added to the mystique of the stories.


I don’t appreciate pirated videos on the Internet, but I found a nice fan-made trailer that gives you a good sense of the film, and the story of Hoichi in particular, without giving away too much.

Plans for the Model

There are no plans for the ship per se. But, there is a good side and top view illustration with a couple cross-section views in one of the Japanese books I managed to obtain prior to my trip to Japan. I’ll post more about this and about the model construction later.



My First Wasen Scratch Builds

I’ve just about come to the end of the available wasen model kits, having built the higaki kaisen, hacchoro, yakatabune, mini-yakatabune, and mini-hobikisen kits from Woody Joe, plus the Tosa wasen kit from Thermal Studio. There are still a couple kits I haven’t gotten to yet, but now that I’ve had a chance to see a number of models, replicas, and actual examples in Japan, it seemed like it was time to take what I’ve learned and chart a new direction.

I decided to begin with the Urayasu bekabune, which was the subject of one of Douglas Brooks’s apprenticeships. I’ll post the details about this shortly. But, I want to mention that it has been a bit of a struggle for me at times because I’ve never scratch built any of this type or scale before. Also, I’m trying to build this model as close as I can to the way the actual boatbuilders built the full-sized boats. This has led to some issues that I’ve had a difficult time resolving.


Click image to order your copy

Certainly, I’m not going to be using tiny flat nails to fasten the planks together, but I do want to simulate the mortises. Also, with no internal framing, I’ve had to work out methods for getting the angles of the hull correct, as well as shaping the planks and getting a decent fit between them.


bekabune and itasebune models at the Urayasu Museum

So, in the meantime, I’ve been interested in larger ships, but detailed information there is tough with anything except 19th century bezaisen. I’ve been curious about the smaller godairikisen, which carried goods along shorter, nearer to shore routes. Also, there are the warships of the Sengoku or Warring States, period. But, these are complicated designs, and decent drawings are few.

But, there is one vessel design that I’ve found interesting, and I’ve seen models of it in museum photos. There is also a decent drawing in the books of Professor Kenji Ishii. The boat is a Kamakura period umi-bune, or sea boat.


Kamakura period umi-bune model. Photo by Douglas Brooks.

This was a trade boat used in the late 12th and 13th centuries on large rivers and inland seas. The ship’s hull is a semi-structured type, which is based around a dugout log to which hull planks are added, allowing the ship to sit deeper in the water and to carry a larger cargo.

I’ve decided to experiment with scratch building the Kamakura period ship, as I think I can tackle the subject. So, I’ll be posting updates on this model as well. Stay tuned.