Douglas Brook at the Sabani Races in Okinawa

If you haven’t been following his blog, now is a good time to check in on to get an update on his efforts to study the construction of an Ukaibune, or Cormorant fishing boat.

The ukaibune with the last of the hull planks going on. Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

But for the moment, at least as far as his blog updates are concerned, Mr. Brooks is taking a break from work and visiting Okinawa to see the sabani races.

Sabani are semi-dugout boats with thick cedar hull planking. While traditional Japanese boats have been disappearing, the sabani made a resurgence due to the interest of wooden boat sailing enthusiasts.

Okinawan sabani. Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

Mr. Brooks studied the construction of this traditional Okinawan boat through an apprenticeship back in 2009/2010. You can read about the boat and the apprenticeship in detail in his book on Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding. There is also a nice write up on the sabani on his website.

Sabani racing in the beautiful waters of Okinawa. Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

Mr. Brooks is only taking a 1-week break, so I imagine we’ll see an update on his blog soon about the ukaibune project. I don’t imagine it will be long before we see the completed boat engaged in cormorant fishing on the Nagara-gawa.

Douglas Brooks in Gifu Prefecture to Build Ukaibune

I got an email from Douglas Brooks while on his flight to Japan last week to build an Ukaibune, a boat used by cormorant fishermen in Gifu prefecture. I also saw that he recently  posted his first blog entries from Japan, as he begins work on the new project.

Douglas Brooks’s recently completed Ayubune

I saw from Internet posts elsewhere that he is going to be working with someone from Tri-Coastal Marine to take measurements for CAD work. I don’t know any details beyond that, though I’ve been trying to look into this further as the company is local to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The cormorant fishing boats are big, and they are someone complex in shape and structure compared to other Japanese river boats. But the would certainly be interesting models.

An Ukaibune, a boat used in Gifu prefecture for cormorant fishing.

Here’s a link to Douglas Brooks’s first post from Japan this trip:

Check out the great photos of the 15-shaku (15 foot) Hozu river Ayubune that he built for a client just before he left for Japan. This particular boat has some extra “bling” in the form of small copper plates that were never used on the real riverboats.

The Nippon Foundation Library

One of the handiest sources of online information for the wasen modeler is the online library of the Nippon Foundation, or the Nippon Zaidan Toshokan – 日本財団図書館. I’ve made great  use of this resource, but of course, it requires sufficient knowledge of the Japanese language. With my limited knowledge, it’s a bit like walking through a maze with no map and wandering through long dark corridors. But, when I do stumble across something, it can be a great find.


I don’t know the full extent of the library, but I have found some interesting information, photos, diagrams, and such. It is helpful that the site is easy to navigate using Google Translate, in which you can translate entire web pages in real time. But, you do have to start somewhere.

If you don’t know any Japanese, just open up Google Translate in a web browser page and copy the text from the Japanese site and paste into the translator. Here are some articles you can do this with. Note that some of these articles include some english text at the bottom, but the text I have read clearly is just a basic summary of some of the information on the page. The following articles came up when doing a search on wasen, or tradition Japanese boats, using the Japanese text, 和船.

Overview of Japanese Sailing Ships – This is from the Osaka Port Promotion Association. It appears to be a good primer on Japanese sailing vessels and their development. There is some great info here about coastal transports, how they were built, how and where they operated, etc. Great information about bezaisen or sengokubune: kitamaebune and higakikaisen.

A Japanese Boat from Start to Finish – This looks to be a log of the construction of a Japanese boat put together by the University of Tokyo (at least the log is). I haven’t read it all, but it begins with the gathering of lumber and follows construction through launch. I don’t know what type of boat it is yet, but it reminds me of the bekabune because of the flush seam between the upper and lower planks.

Maritime Science Museum – I’m not sure, but this appears to be a book, or maybe just a big article, on maritime science from the Maritime Science Museum, which is essentially closed for now (though there is a small annex that is open to the public with some limited displays). This is a GREAT resource that seems to cover the gamut of Japanese boats. With 36 web pages, it’s enough material to write dozens of posts.

Boat Building Handbook – Wow. I just saw this for the first time while writing this post. This is a major find. It’s like a boat building handbook. It covers later period boats, but primarily goes into a tremendous amount of fine detail on wasen construction of all types. This is a real find, again worthy of multiple posts. If you put your browser into a “reader” mode, you can export this as a 140-page pdf, making it a lot easier to search through. Lots of great diagrams.

Well, that should be enough material to keep you going for a while. While writing this, I’ve discovered so much that I never knew existed. This is pretty amazing. I’ll post a follow-up soon as I’ve just made a discovery that I need to look into before I say anything more.

Remember, if you don’t read Japanese, just copy the text and paste it into Google Translate. It’s not a perfect translation, but you can figure out the important stuff when combining with the illustrations.

Good luck!

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