Shiba-Ura


The Shores of Edo Bay



We have arrived at a small boat landing on the shore of one of the canals in the Shiba district. A friend of mine, Gyotaro, works in this area as a ferry boat pilot. His boat is tied up to the side of the canal, and a group of people are just disembarking from the vessel. He isn't very busy today, and he says he doesn't mind taking us for a ride.

Gyotaro pushes off from the shore, and steers us out into the middle of the canal. There are hundreds of boats passing up and down the canal, carrying every sort of cargo imaginable. The ferries rush by one another just like traffic on a busy city street. However, the ferry boat pilots are very good at steering, and they hardly ever bump into other boats. It takes years of practice to develop the skill, but most of the ferry boat pilots in Edo were practically born on the water, and the steady traffic of boats gliding to and fro on the canals is almost like a ballet.

As we move down the canal towards Edo bay, the channel slowly grows broader, and the tight cluster of row houses gives way to patches of marshland dotted with fishermen's shacks. Along the shore, several small boats drift aimlessly in the shallows, while a group of people nearby wade through the shallows, carrying large wicker baskets. They appear to be collecting shellfish from the mud. This is the fishing village of Shiba-Ura, which is famous for its delicious seafood. Shiba-Ura is one of the "Eight Fishing Villages (Ura) of Edo".

When Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo, one of his first tasks was to ensure that the city had a stable food supply. Of course, one solution was to build lots of new rice fields and irrigation channels. But man can not live on rice alone. So Ieyasu took steps to encourage the fishermen in this area to work harder and catch more fish. At the time, there were only eight fishing villages in the area. Ieyasu gave these eight villages the exclusive right to sell seafood to the Bakufu (government). This was a great incentive, because the Shogun's officials pay higher prices for the best fish. In addition, once the common people find out what the Shogun is going to have for dinner, they often pay higher prices to buy the same type of seafood themselves. The fishermen of these eight villages started to make much better profits selling fish, so they worked twice as hard to increase their catch.

Fishing in Edo Bay increased dramatically over the next few years. The Bay is a rich source of all kinds of fish and other seafood, and the products sold by the "Eight Fishing Villages of Edo" gained a reputation for top quality. Several of the villages, including Shiba-Ura, are located along the shore of the bay, just in front of Edo. Since "mae" is the Japanese word for "in front of", the seafood caught in this area got the name "Edo-mae". Edo-mae seafood is the freshest in the city, because it is caught and sold on the same day. As a result, the word "Edo-mae" is a word that now symbolizes the best quality seafood in all of Japan.

The city of Edo grew rapidly, and it soon became impossible for the eight fishing villages to catch enough fish to satisfy everyone who lived in the city. The Shogun knew he had to increase the supply of seafood, so he asked fishermen from western Japan to move to Edo and build new fishing villages in the "Edo-mae" area. In order to convince people to leave their homes and travel to Edo, the Shogun gave them the right to fish anywhere they wanted to in Edo Bay (in the past, it was customary for people to fish only near their own villages, or out on the open sea). To keep the fishermen in the original eight villages happy, however, he continued the rule that only the original eight ura could sell seafood to the Bakufu .

Gyotaro is from one of the newer villages, located on Tsukuda Island, which is not far away from here. If you want to learn more about fishing, the best place to go is Tsukuda Island. To get there, though, we have to cross the open waters of the bay. Even as we move out into the bay itself, the sea is almost completely calm. Edo bay is an ideal body of water for fishermen. Although it is a vast expanse of water, filled with many types of seafood, the bay is sheltered from the open sea by two long peninsulas, enclosing it on three sides. Therefore, the waters never get too rough, or the waves too high, except during the fiercest of storms.

Just off shore, there are hundreds of large cargo ships anchored in the bay. These ships carry goods to Edo from all over the country, and even from distant countries like China, Korea and the Ryukyu islands. Demand for products in Edo helps to support the economy of nearly every major town in Japan. Each region is famous for particular products. For example, the western provinces of Nagato and Aki produce some of the finest pottery in the country, while weavers in the Kyoto area are famous for their intricate needlework. Shinano, Hida, and Kai, in central Japan are sources of wood and carved furniture, high-quality stone for building walls and gates, which are transported from the Izu peninsula, while people living in the islands and coastal areas around Shikoku raise tea and fruits such as mikan (tangerines). Ships are costantly entering Edo port from all these regions, carrying a wide variety of goods.

The entire country benefits from trade with Edo, but the ship owners and captains who carry products to the city can make a huge profit if they can bring products that are in high demand. However, the sea voyage to Edo is very risky. Except in the spring and late fall, storms are common, and typhoons can strike without warning in the autumn, sending ships to the bottom of the ocean before they can find a place to land.

There are many stories of traders who have earned their fortune by braving storms and seas to transport valuable cargoes to Edo. One of the most famous of these traders was Kinokuniya Bunzaemon. He got his start as a small trader in Kii province, and he earned a modest profit transporting the mikan produced in his home region to nearby ports like Ise and Sakai. However, mikan usually get ripe in the late fall or early winter, and that is the time when storms can be most dangerous for ship captains. Even if a ship is not damaged in a storm, high winds can delay it, and by the time it gets to Edo all the tangerines will be rotten.

However, Kinokuniya decided to take his chances, becaus he knew he could make a good profit from selling the tangerines in Edo. One year, he purchased several large shiploads of mikan and managed to ship them to Edo just at the start of the New Year's festival (o-shogatsu). Kinokuniya was extremely lucky. For several years in a row his ship managed to make the trip to Edo quickly and safely. Since there was almost nobody else selling mikan in the city, he was able to charge high prices and earn a great profit. Eventually, he saved enough money that he was able to stop taking such a big risk every year. Instead, he switched to transporting less perishable products, such as cotton fabrics and porcelain. Kinokuniya's family now operates one of the biggest merchant groups in Edo.


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