Kita-mae-bune (Northern-bound Ships) Trading Route
Oki flourished as a port of call of the illustrious Kita-mae-bune from the mid Edo Period (1608 – 1868) to around 1897. Kita-mae-bune were advanced merchant ships that travelled from Osaka all the way up to Hokkaido along the Seto Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan. They conducted commercial activity at ports they docked at along the way.
During the mid-18th century, ships from all over Japan begun to stop at the ports of the Oki Islands much more frequently. This was enabled by the development of boats with sturdy sails in 1785, and the advancement of the textiles industry. The advanced ships meant that merchants could travel longer distances along the Sea of Japan. Until this time, the sails of ships were weak and could not withstand strong winds.They were consequently only able to cover the distance from Osaka to Hokkaido and back again once a year.
With the Kita-mae-bune, a return journey could be made twice a year from Shimonoseki by stopping along the way in the Oki Islands and Sado Island. Each of the ports of the Oki Islands were utilized to replenish supplies and wait for the right winds. In busy years as many as 4,500 boats anchored in the Oki Islands
The Kita-mae-bune period was characterized by a flurry of cultural exchange between regions from all over Japan. Visitors brought folk songs from many different places around Japan to the Oki Islands. The islands were said to be a ‘treasure-box’ of folk songs, many of which are still sung today. Among them are ‘Oki Shigesa-bushi’ which originated from a Bon Festival song from Kashiwazaki in Niigata Prefecture, and ‘Dossari-bushi’ which is said to have been sung by sailors loading and unloading vessels.
As a port of call amidst the thriving trade of the Kita-mae-bune, the Oki Islands were at the forefront of the exchange of information and goods in Japan. As a result, they became surprisingly modern for remote islands. This modernity was noted by Lafcadio Hearn, an international writer who relocated to Japan. He wrote about his visit to the Oki Islands in 1892, and expressed his surprise at finding western fare at a restaurant in Saigō Port in Dōgo Island.