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.

1 thought on “Building the Kamakura Period Umi-Bune, Part 1

  1. Reblogged this on The Ship Modeler and commented:

    This is a new holiday distraction. It’s actually going a lot faster than I’m able to write. The model is very far along, even though I’ve only been working on it for less than 3 weeks. Here’s the background on it…


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