From Douglas Brooks – The Cormorant Fishing Boat is Done

I got an email this morning from American boatbuilder Douglas Brooks, who has been in Japan, studying and constructing an Ukaibune, or a traditional river fishing boat used by the cormorant fishermen of Gifu prefecture.

Photo of completed Ukaibune courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

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What I Learned Today – Wasen Names

Last night, I finished writing a post about the set of books published in the late 19th century called Souvenirs de Marine, which contain drawings of ship from around the world, and specifically contain several examples of traditional Japanese wooden ships and boats.

Afterwards, I was inspired to do some hunting around for images on the Internet of a specific type of ship I was looking at called a gozabune (Goh-zah-boo-nay). This is a type of large river or coastal ship that was highly ornate and used as official yachts by daimyo and other aristocracy. Many are simply warships, sekibune, dressed up during peacetime.

 

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A Sekibune

In order to get the best hits on Internet search engines, I went to my Glossary of Terms page and copied the Japanese text for the gozabune to use for the search. This, by the way, is the reason I added the Japanese text to the page. If you’re looking for something specifically Japanese, the best way to find it is to do the search in Japanese. So, I searched for images using the text, 御座船, for gozabune. 

I found what I was looking for: lots of images of gozabune. But in my search, I stumbled across many things. One drawing, in particular, got my attention and it led me to a great article in the Nippon Foundation’s online library on the story of the Takasebune. To the best of my understanding, this was a book published by the Chiba Prefecture Tsukigaki Castle Museum in 2005.

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I don’t know if it’s still in print or available somewhere, but this appears to be the contents of that book: https://nippon.zaidan.info/seikabutsu/2005/00589/mokuji.htm

There was one image in particular in this article that showed various types of Takasebune and on what rivers they were used. Click on the image if you want to see the full-sized version on the Foundation site.

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Now, I recognize some of these boats and their names, and specific information is great. But, what I’ve come to realize, more than anything else, is that the specific names of these boats may be irrelevant unless you are looking at a specific river system. This article is about Takasebune, but all the boats shown here have different names and are still Takasebune, even though some are called Hiratabune.

I think the issue may be that academics, and in this case I think I have to put myself under this group, attempt to classify these boats by names, but the names were given to them by the local people. They didn’t plan out how they were going to name them, they just named them.

So, I learned that when you hear or read the name of a boat, don’t think you know anything about the boat or what kind of boat it is unless you know the location it was used and have actually seen one or a drawing of one. There is much to learn!

 

Paris’s Souvenirs de Marine

There are a several kits available to the wasen modeler, between Woody Joe and Thermal Studio, but if you want to scratch build something unique, you’re going to have an extremely difficult time. Japanese boat builders didn’t draw detailed plans the way western boat builders did, and pretty much all that is available are those created from a study of an existing boat type.

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However, there is one fairly accessible set of drawings of Japanese watercraft that was made in the 1880s and published in a set of books called La Souvenirs de Marine by French Vice-Admiral François-Edmond Paris. This set of large-format books has seen a number of re-prints, and I’m not sure what the date is on the most recent reprint. But, there should be copies accessible in most of the larger library collections, and used copies can be found on Amazon and other booksellers, with prices that vary greatly depending on edition and condition.

Drawings included are of ships from across the globe, and the text is in French, but this collection contains some of the few contemporary records of traditional Japanese watercraft available. Of the sections I’ve collected from the books, one illustration plate shows four different riverboats of various types. Other plates show two examples of bezaisen, or coastal transports. Other plates show a couple examples of highly ornate row galleys, one of which bears the crest of the Chiba clan on it’s large squaresail.

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I haven’t studied these drawings in too much detail except for the two sets of bezaisen drawings, which are specifically of what appear to be northern port coastal transports, or Kitamaebune. The text doesn’t mention any Japanese terms, and again, it’s all in French. But the drawings are fairly well detailed. And, I suspect the text doesn’t give a huge amount of detail about the watercraft as it’s mostly limited to labels and sidebars.

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Now, that I look at it more closely, I’m seeing how I might be able to model some of the other boats illustrated in the books, so I’m finding myself more interested in learning about them. If I find out more, I’ll post about them here.

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There are a couple of paperback books of selected plates that were published by James E. Hitchcock, which you can find on Amazon.com for less than $10. While the images are scanned and reprinted from an original copy, and the French text is very difficult to read, the book provides a handy reference so you can determine which plates you may be interested in.

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I have found that the San Francisco Maritime Research Center has the set of books available, and will scan whatever figures you need and will email them to you at your request at no cost. You can contact them for details at 415-561-7030 or email them through the Park’s website.

Buying the Tosa Wasen Kit

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If you’re looking to buy the kit, there is good news! There is a faster, less expensive method than trying to get it through Amazon-Japan where I got mine. I found out that manufacturer will sell direct to the USA for a very good price. To buy from the manufacturer,  send an email to the company: info@thermal-kobo.jp. For buyers from other countries. I don’t know what his policy is, but you can always ask.

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Price for the kit is 13,000 Yen. Shipping is via EMS (A Chinese Express Mail Service that ends with a USPS delivery) for 2,400 Yen. Payment has to be via Paypal, sending to the email address above.

This is a really good price. Makes the whole thing with express shipping only about $150. I went ahead and ordered a second kit.

The only thing that I’m not so sure about is that the kit is shipped in its own box, but wrapped with a bubblewrap bag. It’s a long box, so it seems like it would be easy to bend in half. But, I received the first kit this way and it was delivered just fine. Then again, I generally have good experiences with the US Postal Service here.

It looks like I might have been their first international sale of this kit, as the owner posted a picture of the kit shipping out to the USA on their Facebook page.

When you order one, please feel free to mention where you heard about it. Ω

Speaking at the 2016 NRG Conference

Having been involved in Ship Modeling for more than 20 years, I’ve been a big admirer of the Nautical Research Guild and the work of its impressive membership. There have been so many great modelers involved in the Guild, I feel honored to be speaking together in a combined talk with boatbuilder Douglas Brooks at the opening talk of this year’s conference in San Diego. Douglas Brooks will be reprising his talk at last year’s conference on Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding, while I’ll be adding the element of modeling them.

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Douglas Brooks speaking at the 2015 NRG Conference in Mystic, CT.

Granted, my portion of the talk will the shorter segment. In the 15 minutes or so that I’ll have, I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of the subject, mostly talking about resources available to those who are interested in building a traditional Japanese boat. Pretty much, just enough to give folks a nudge toward attempting one.

The other part of my participation at the conference came as something of a surprise as I was told just last month that I was scheduled to do one of the round table sessions. These are 20-minute sessions that takes place simultaneously with 4 other sessions. People attend the session of their choice, and after 20 minutes, people then switch to another table. So, basically, I have a 20-minute demo, repeated a total of 4 times (with one 20-minute break).

Having no idea what I was expected to do, I’d considered a couple possibilities. The first thing that actually came to mind that I thought would work out, was to demo some of the details of paper modeling. Having completed only 1 paper model made it seem a bit odd, but I don’t think anyone else has done it, and I actually did have some interesting techniques to show.

But, talking with Kurt Van Dahm, the NRG Chairman, and others, it seemed that the idea was to give me more time to talk about modeling Japanese boats. So, I’ll be talking a mix of building Japanese kits and building from scratch. It seems a bit odd to me, as talking about kits seems a bit like a sales pitch. The only thing preventing it from being a complete conflict of interest, seeing as how I’ve done some work for Ages of Sail, is that Ages of Sail doesn’t currently carry any of the kits I’ll be talking about. And, my most highly recommended kit, the Tosa Wasen, will only be available direct from the manufacturer.

Bekabune model gifted to me from the Urayasu Museum.

Bekabune model given to me by the curator of the Urayasu Museum.

In any case, I’ll bring my in-progress Urayasu Bekabune models and a small supply of Japanese woods for people to sample themselves, giving them a chance to sand, cut and bend them. Show a couple in-progress kits, talk about how to read the Japanese language plans, etc. A 20-minute discussion should go by pretty quick, then repeat it three more times.

I really hope it won’t end up being the lamest NRG round table discussion in history, and people will find it interesting and useful. Wish me luck!

Visiting the Umi no Hakubutsukan

That’s what’s the Toba Seafolk Museum is called here in Japan. While there are some signs in english on occasion, if you ask anybody for directions or about the museum, it really helps to say it in Japanese: Umi no Hakubutsukan (oo-me-noh-ha-coo-boo-tsoo-kahn).

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After a really long first day in Japan, which included visiting Woody Joe in Shizuoka and then getting a good look at the Hacchoro in the port of Yaizu, I was a bit burned out and decided to just relax in my room in the morning. The museum opens at 9:00am, but I didn’t get there until a little before noon.

First, a note about using Google Maps, which I used heavily during trip planning. If you look on the web about the museum, it would appear that the museum is open daily except for a small handful of holidays. Well, Google Maps, has a neat feature where you click on a public place like the museum, and it will tell you how popular the place is over the hours of the day. This would help you figure out when to avoid crowds. Well, I had a last minute freak-out before I left home when Google indicated that the museum was closed on Tuesdays, the main day I was to be in Toba.

So, I made contingency plans, and when I arrived at Toba, I asked about the issue at the hotel, but they said it was open. Could the hotel owner not know the museum is closed on Tuesdays? Seems unlikely. And, in fact, the museum is open on Tuesdays. Google lied, so just beware of that online feature.

Getting to the museum from town is very easy. There is a great local bus system here that you want to use called the Kamome Bus (kah-mow-may). The bus center is attached to the Toba JR station. Just be aware it’s on the ocean side of the tracks. The bus to Umi no Hakubutsukan is the No. 4 bus and it picks up at station number 2. The person at the ticket window can indicate which door the bus arrives at.

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The round-trip is 500¥, but you don’t have to pay until you arrive at the museum. As you enter the bus, grab the little return ticket that’s sticking out of the machine just inside the bus door. You’ll give this to the driver when you exit the bus on your return to the bus center.

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At the Museum

I read something that indicated it was a 10 minute walk from the museum bus stop to the museum itself. Another lie. The bus stops directly in front of the museum entrance. Just be sure to push one of the stop request buttons when you get close so the bus driver knows to stop there. Maybe he’d stop anyway, but why chance it?

Admission to the museum is 800¥ for adults and 400¥ for children under 17. If you want a refreshment, there is a little café right across from the museum entrance. It appears to be staffed by the museum people, so you may have to let them know at the front desk that you want to sit in the café. If it’s a hot day, you might take a respite from the heat as the café is air conditioned. Note that the rest of the museum is not, with the exception of movie viewing theater, where you can watch some film about Ama, the female divers of Japan.

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Museum entrance and main building.

If I had more time, I would have take more time to learn about the Ama, as there is a great deal of information about them at the museum. There is also “Pearl Island” in Toba, where I believe you can learn more about the Ama.

As it was, I spent about 3 hours looking at boats, fishing history, models of boats, the history of Toba, boats, and more boats. I did my best to learn and collect as much information as I could. I ended up burning up one camera battery, filling up my iPhone (doesn’t take much), and collecting more than 500 photos throughout the day. Of course, some were just countryside photos, a few selfies, and views of the bus, etc. But, for the most part, they were boat pictures.

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Inside the boat repository building.

I will have to admit that the value of most of the photos may be somewhat less than might be expected. There are so many boats in the repository that you can’t even get close to most of them. Also, the lighting is so bad that it’s hard to get good shots. Some are blurry and when I used the flash, it over exposed some of the pics.

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Not a lot of room to get close to the boats.

One subject that was really hard to shoot because it was in a dark corner, in the shadow of a bigger boat, was a small score for me. The boat is a nori gathering boat called a Bekabune, and I happen to be currently modeling one of these. So, this was a particularly nice find.

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Bekabune, once used on Tokyo Bay for harvesting seaweed.

Besides the full-sized boats, there’s a nice assortment of models in the main building. Again, there was a problem with lighting. But some in a glass case were well lit. Others that were not well lit suffered further by being in a glass case, where glare was a bigger issue.

 

Amazingly, some models were not in a case, and one European style galleon model made me nervous because I was carrying a backpack, and if I was careless, I could have easily stepped back or turned around and broken some of the rigging. The Japanese visitors must be amazingly careful around this stuff!

One of the things I found the most interesting were the dioramas showing how fishing was carried out. One was a full-sized boat suspended above the floor, with fishermen wearing what is most easily described as grass skirts, pole fishing over the side. It looked very dynamic, and I think it must have been a very accurate image, as there was a video playing in one part of the museum below the boat where a the bow of a modern day fishing boat was lined with fishermen with long poles just hauling up fish after fish. One fisherman pulls up a big fish and flings the line overhead and behind him with a big catch. He then throws the line back in and it looks like within seconds he’s caught another. So, the boat display seems authentic.

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But, the big score for me, turned out to be the museum store. I found a whole section on Japanese boats, most of which were from the currently closed Maritime Science Museum in Tokyo. It took me a while to decide what to get, but I ended up buying about 6000¥ on books. Sadly, there were many others I wanted to get too, as they are really hard to order and have shipped to the U.S. But, I figure I’ll have an opportunity to find the same books when I’m Tokyo or in the Ogi Folk Museum on Sado Island in a few days.

Well, after about 3 hours, I was pretty well spent given the 80 degree weather and 87% humidity. I cooled off in the café while waiting for the bus. I almost decided to just hang out there around the museum and in the café until closing time, 5:00pm. But, at the last minute, I figured I’d better head back and get to work writing.

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Hot, tired, wet, stuffed brain, but satisfied.

Tomorrow, I could go back to the museum in the morning for a bit, but I don’t think I’d get that much more out of it if I did. At least not so soon after, and without specific goals in mind. So, I’ll be leaving for Ise-shi station tomorrow. Not sure if I will stop at Ise now or not. It’s a beautiful place, but, I have been there before, and there’s so much to see everywhere that it might be better to get settled in Tokyo, where I’ll be staying the next two nights.

Sometime in the future, when I have more time to sort through things I’ll start posting more of the photos from the Toba Seafolk Museum. Ω

The Wasen Modeler Launch

I’ve finally decided to bite the bullet and launch my wasenmodeler site. I’ve been posting my work on my shipmodeler blog for a while now, but there have been stretches when I’ve been working a lot on Japanese traditional boats, or Wasen. So, I started a page on my site, Japanese Watercraft.

Since I began my first Japanese wooden boat, my work has matured a lot, and I’m giving a talk together with boatbuilder Douglas Brooks at the 2016 Nautical Research Guild conference in San Diego in October (my segment is on modeling Japanese boats, and it will be very short). In addition, I’ve been scheduled to do one of the roundtable discussions there on modeling Japanese boats. And, now that I’m finally heading to Japan for a week of research and networking, it seems that the time has come to spin off wasenmodeler as a stand-alone blog site.

Woody Joe’s Yakatabune kit

Of course, this is just getting off the ground, so I’m just beginning to build content and create new site pages. Now, visitors who are interested in Japanese boats and their models no longer have to wade through my ship modeler posts about building english sailing ship models in paper, etc.

I do want to point out that this is actually a massive topic. Even though I’ve been building Japanese boat models for a couple years now, I’m only just now scratching the surface. The more I learn, the more I discover how limited my knowledge is. The amount of available information in English is minimal, and it really helps not only to be able to read Japanese, but to actually be in Japan to access information first-hand. I neither read much Japanese (just a few words and can read the phonetic alphabets), or speak much Japanese (better than I read). Nor do I live in Japan.

Cover of the Funakagami

Cover of the Funakagami

But, heavy use of scanning and OCR, the trackpad handwriting recognition technology and Japanese language input system on my Mac, and a good network of helpful friends and associates (ship modelers, maritime experts, Japanese boat builders, and native Japanese speakers) helps to overcome some of these obstacles.

So, please bear with me while I work my way through the subject and building up the content here. In the meantime, make sure to check out these links:

English sites

Japanese sites/links

Funakagami – A PDF Book on Japanese Boat Types

As I’m preparing for my study trip to Japan in, I’ve been checking on museum websites and such. The Maritime Science Museum is closed, except for a small museum annex, their website still lists the museum publications.

I don’t see any place to actually purchase these, but there are a couple books that you can download as a pdf. The one that immediately caught my interest had a number of Edo period boats on the cover. So, I immediately downloaded it and started looking through it.

Funakagami cover

Funakagami cover

I’m still working to understand the text, but the first part of the book is mostly old illustrations. Apparently, this is taken from a book called a Funekan, which was used by the Bakufu, or Shogunate government, to aid in identifying the many types of small boats on the rivers of the Kanto district, which is the region of old Edo (Tokyo) and its surroundings. The identification was necessary for taxation purposes.

Such a book is a boon to anyone who is trying to learn about different types of Japanese boats. There is little information about the boats themselves, but there is a nice large illustration of each boat type, and an index which classifies the boat. In the back of the book is a section which identifies the names of the parts of each boat. In the end, the text gets very meaty with, as far as I can tell, discussion about taxes, etc.

The book can not be printed as it is a password protected pdf. But, I discovered I can still copy text and take screen shots of the images to compile into my own notes. The copied text can be pasted into Google Translate or similar service. I’ve found that the translation is sometimes not as useful as the pronunciation/romaji spelling that is shown – For those who are familiar with Google Translator, just look under the box on the left, which is where you paste in the original text.

Click here to download the pdf

(Note: As of Sept 30, 2017 – the website seems to be unavailable – I don’t know if this is temporary or permanent – will keep an eye on it and update this article as necessary)

For me, the book has confirmed things I’ve already learned, taught me a number of new things, allowed me to see things I’d only read about, and raised a number of questions that I will be researching answers to.

Hope you find this helpful or at least entertaining. Ω

Douglas Brooks’ Japanese Boatbuilding Class Project

American boatbuilder Douglas brooks recently finished teaching a one-month class on building a traditional Japanese wooden boat at Middlebury College, in Vermont. The subject was a boat that was once used on the Agano River in Niigata Prefecture.

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What an awesome class to be part of! The students did an amazing job. I can only wonder if they realize how fortunate they are to have been part of this experience.

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You can see more photos and description on Douglas Brooks’ blog here. Ω

Building the Tosa Wasen – Part 6

The next step in construction of the Tosa Wasen kit is the addition of the deck boards.

This part of the build turned out to be a lot tricker than I’d expected. This is an area where you really want to take your time, and it’s easy to want to rush through it. The deck boards serve as a deck to walk (or sit) on and work on, but they are also designed to be removable, allowing the fisherman access to storage space under the deck. This allows the deck to be kept clear and free of clutter, making for a tidy looking boat.

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Beam supports glued into place. The beams are sanded to fit, but I left them unglued, so they’ll remain removable. Ledges are then cut to length and glued to the beams for the deck boards to rest upon.

The deck boards themselves are rather interesting in that they are made so that almost no two are alike. Each one can only fit in one location, with the possible exception of the boards that cover the live wells in the center of the boat. But, given that there are many boards, it would seem to be something of a puzzle trying to figure out which one fits where. To make the positioning more obvious, there are two lines scribed into the top of the boards.

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The lines form a sort of an arrowhead with the point at the front of the forward most board, and each compartment has a 3 or more deck boards covering it, with its own arrowhead pattern scribed on it. This makes for a quick recognition of the order of the deck boards and also makes it easier to keep from mixing them up, kind of the way a picture is printed on jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Note that one deck board of each set has a square notch cut into one edge that serves as a finger hole to make it easier to pull up the boards. This also makes it easier to pull up the boards on the model using a paperclip or other small tool.

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Live wells with holes in the bottom of the boat, open to the sea. The large one is for the catch, the small one is for bait.

The kit supplies the deck boards as laser-cut pieces, which look they’d make it easy to put them into place. However, in order to allow some variation between models, these parts are cut over-sized, so they have to be sanded to fit. This turned out to be a far trickier than I’d expected, as the Japanese cedar is pretty soft, and really wanted to avoid small gaps between boards. In fact, I used every scrap piece of cedar that I could find in the kit in order to finish the deck boards.

If you’re building this kit, Proceed Very Carefully here.

The next step was to scribe the patterns into the deck boards. I found it easiest to take each group of deck boards which are part of the same pattern set and marking the endpoints on the first and last board, then scribing them all together as a group. I lined them up against a straight edge to keep them in alignment (each set of boards has at least one straight side).

This was pretty much the last of the difficult work. There is one more step that was a little tricky, but in a completely different way, and that was the next step. For those following along with the kit instructions, this is step 33. This involves the construction of the covers for the cargo compartments in the bow and the stern of the boat. If you haven’t built the model kit yet, I would consider doing this work in steps 17 and 18 before the compartments are decked over. It seems it would just be a lot easier.

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I’m not positive why the kit has you build the compartment covers at this stage instead of earlier in the build. Possibly, it’s because the real boat might be built in the order shown in the kit. That would be okay, except that trying to reach in with your finger and thumb to get the covers into place without knocking parts into the compartments is pretty difficult.

The kit includes a small pair of wooden tweezers that you’re instructed to build for handling those compartment doors. In the long run, these will be necessary in order to be able to remove or replace these doors without damaging the soft wood.

Completing the Rail

I jumped ahead just a little bit with the compartment covers since I was kind of on a roll with the trickier stuff. So, afterwards, I went back to deal with the rail supports. These are tapered blocks that are added to the rail after it has been constructed. By constructing the rails first, the nice fair curve has already been established and doesn’t need to be engineered into the design. Afterward, the support blocks were added to give the structure more rigidity.

You can see the support blocks of the rail in the photo below, and also in the second photo shown above.

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Finishing Details

The last steps of the Tosa Wasen kit involve adding the finishing details. These included the rail supports, oar, ringbolts, anchor, oar and some fisherman’s accessories.

Dealing with the details on the boat first required drilling some 2mm holes to accommodate the ringbolts, etc.

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Ringbolt and the pin for the sculling oar added to the stern beam.

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Ringbolt and, for lack of better term, “belaying pins”, which are mounted on the bow beam.

The kit includes some accessories that I jumped ahead and worked on because they looked fun and interesting. Specifically, there are two wooden seats, a small hand-paddle, and a bailer for scooping water out of the boat.

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The laser-cut pieces are designed to create nice box joints between all the parts, and as with everything else, the parts go together in a perfect fit. This is true of the bailer as well as the seats. The hand-paddle, called a Tekaki, was the only item here that required any shaping. Everthing else just went together and took a little sanding to soften the edges just a bit.

Afterwards, if you don’t want to display them on deck, they fit quite neatly in the storage spaces below the deck.

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The Sculling Oar

The boat, like most traditional Japanese boats, is propelled by a long, rearward facing sculling oar called a “Ro”. The sculling oar in this kit makes an accurate representation of a Japanese sculling oar. The plans show the cross-section of the oar at different points along its length, and the scale is large enough for people to see the shape detail.

The oar comes in two main pieces where were milled, not laser-cut, from Japanese magnolia, or “Ho”. This is kind of a grayish colored wood with a fairly fine grain that is harder than the cedar or cypress in the kit.

I varied a bit from the kit design here in that the kit included a tiny screw and nut to fasten the parts together. This is how the real Ro are made today and for the last 100 years or so. But, going for the Edo period look, I decided to wrap them together with rope instead.

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The anchor is the last item of this build. Not sure how they form this, but it seems like a piece of cast acrylic. It’s just a ted flexy, but has a good shape to it. It comes a little too thick, so it required some sanding to get it to look a bit more like the photos in the instructions. I ended up speeding up the process by using my belt sander. The part held up well and didn’t melt, so this worked out pretty well.

The anchor’s shape has a bit of taper, so it’s thinner at the top than at the bottom. At the base, there is a hole from a cross piece, making it look something like a grappling hook.

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The hardest part was tying the knots. I tried translating the text with Bing Translate, but all I got was a Japanese name for the knot. However, Google Translate came up with “Bowline”, which made life much easier. Basically, there’s a bowline at the base, a pair of half hitches, and the a separate rope ties the anchor cable to the eye of the anchor. The cable is then fastened to the ringbolt on the stem using a bowline.

A short piece of the supplied rope for the anchor cable was needed for the loop that secures the sculling oar. When not in use, that loop of rope stores away nicely under the deck.

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The finished project turned out beautifully. I used a coat of natural stain to finish it off and seal the wood. According to the label on the Minwax can, it seals, so that should help the longevity of the model as well as bring out some of the color of the wood.

I’ll eventually build a case for the model. With not masts, a cased Tosa Wasen model will fit easily in the bookcase. My Wasen Display is still running at the bank in San Francisco’s Japantown, but I have plenty to do with other projects, so I won’t worry about adding this model until Wasen Model Display 4.0 maybe in the Summer.

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Again, this is a great model kit for those interested in traditional Japanese boats. Email info@thermal-kobo.jp for ordering information. For now, the kit has a very low price – about $130 shipped by express service, payable using Paypal. If you would, tell them I sent you. Ω