From the Edo period (1603-1867) to the Meiji period (1868-1912), ships called "kitamae-bune" carried various goods between Osaka and Hokkaido. At that time, there were two routes: the eastbound route from Edo to the Tohoku region via the Tsugaru Strait, and the westbound route from the Tohoku region to Edo via Shimonoseki and Osaka.
The major characteristic of the kitamae-bune was that it did not simply take custody of goods and transport them, but the shipowners themselves bought and sold goods at ports of call, making a profit by selling the goods they bought at low prices at high prices. It is said that a successful round trip between Osaka and Hokkaido took about a year, and that the owner could earn a profit of 60 to 100 million yen, or as much as 1,000 ryo, per ship. It was a dream come true for the common people in the Edo period, when the status system was in place, to be successful in this business.
The goods transported were diverse, but the downbound cargo to Hokkaido included rice, sake, sugar, salt, straw, and cotton, while the upbound cargo to Osaka consisted mostly of marine products such as herring and kelp. The kelp delivered to Osaka gave birth to the dashi (soup stock) culture, and kelp dashi became a popular taste in western Japan.
The business reached its peak in the Meiji period (1868-1912), but began to decline around the 20th century due to the spread of steamships and the development of the telegraph, which eliminated differences in commodity prices in various regions. Kitamae shipowners shifted their business to specialize in Hokkaido commerce, banking, and capitalism, thus ending their history. Many of Otaru's representative warehouses were owned by the Kitamae shipowners, and one can still feel the vestiges of those days.
*The Ukon family, based in the former Kono Village in Fukui Prefecture, shifted its focus from shipping to insurance and established Nippon Marine Insurance (now Sompo Japan Insurance Inc.) in 1896. The fourth photo shows the former Ukon warehouse.
Former Ukon Warehouse