Sail through time with hobikisen on Lake Kasumigaura

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

It’s difficult to imagine what Lake Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Prefecture would have looked like a century ago. Most of its surrounding areas have now become dormitory towns for Tokyo, just 50 km to the southwest. These days, too, where the traditional old lotus paddies do remain, they tend to be covered with unsightly nylon nets to keep out birds.

But once you get out on the lake’s broad waters, time seems to slip backward and it feels as if the past comes to life — especially if your trip coincides with a demonstration of a particularly dramatic, old-style fishing vessel known as a hobikisen (literally, “sail-pulled boat”) at work.

On a recent trip to Kasumigaura, a Joban Line train conveyed me from Tokyo’s Ueno Station to Tsuchiura Station in about an hour. From there, it was just a 20-minute walk to the shores of the northwestern arm of V-shaped Lake Kasumigaura, which, with an area of 220 sq. km, is Japan’s second largest lake, behind Lake Biwa, near Kyoto.

By the lake’s shore I found Lacus Marina, a sparse facility offering little more by way of shelter than a single-story prefabricated hut. Far greater resources appear to have been invested in the many powerboats on trailers around the hut. They provide a stark reminder that placid trips back in time are not always possible on the lake.

On the day of my voyage, though, the only boat leaving the marina was a slow-moving twin-hulled ferry, one of three that also operate special tours to view hobikisen demonstrations such as those presently being held on weekends through Oct. 21.

About half of the 40 or so passengers on my boat were young children, who ran back and forth over the twin decks scouring the horizon for the first sign of one of the old boats’ characteristic white sails.

Hobikisen were invented in 1880 by a local named Ryohei Orimoto, and they quickly revolutionized the lake’s fishery. Orimoto wasn’t a fisherman himself, but he apparently had a knack for lateral thinking, which he applied to a variety of inventions, both agricultural and marine.

Back then — according to a website covering the history of hobikisen that’s operated by Tsuchiura’s eastern neighbor, Kasumigaura City — the primary method of fishing at Lake Kasumigaura involved the use of large nets up to about 30 meters in length that would be towed by two or three rowboats. The fishermen would use oars to maneuver their boats in a circle, thus entrapping a haul of shirauo (salangidae) or wakasagi (lake smelt).

Importantly, this effort required the mobilization of about 20 men, which is to say that fishing was then done communally. Orimoto’s invention made it individual.

The Kasumigaura City website describes a hobikisen as being similar in structure to a giant kite, with the role of the person holding the string being played by a large fishing net dragging in the water, and that of the kite itself being played by a giant sailboat.

Perhaps it would be more intuitive to describe each element separately.

First, there is the boat: Made of wood, it is about 10 meters in length and 2 meters across. It has a shallow hull with no keel and in the center of the boat is a single mast, about 10 meters in height. The sail is about 10 meters square and is attached to two horizontal poles, one at the top and one at the bottom. Once raised, the sail remains in line with the bow and stern of the boat. It cannot be trimmed.

What’s to stop the boat sliding sideways through the water, you ask? Well, nothing. And that is just the point.

Before they raise their sail, the boat’s crew use oars to turn its bow at a right angle to the wind. Then, on their windward side they release a large net, about 20 meters wide and 2 meters deep. The net is attached at one end to the boat’s stern and at the other to its bow. As they release the net, the fishermen also raise their sail. Guy ropes from each end of the net also attach it to each end of the horizontal pole at the top of the sail. As the wind picks up, it catches the sail and pushes the boat sideways. The net, which is thus attached to the sail, acts as a counterbalance, keeping the boat upright.

With Orimoto’s invention, which was particularly suited to the calm but extensive waters of Lake Kasumigaura, the job of 20 men could suddenly be done by three. And thus there ensued a revolution in this Japanese freshwater fishing industry that saw it eventually shift from being a communal enterprise to a predominantly individual one.

From the water, the sight of the giant square sail ballooning out with the force of the wind is spectacular. And it is visible from quite a distance.

“There they are,” shouted one young girl, who was on “watch” on the second-story deck. Soon her fellow deckhands were screeching in delighted concurrence.

And, yes, there they were: White splotches were suddenly popping up in the distance as the fishermen raised their sails. One, two, three — and then more. Eight in total set sail that day, some from Tsuchiura and others from Kasumigaura City and Namegata City, which also share Lake Kasumigaura’s sprawling shoreline.

The splotches gradually grew larger and larger until it was possible to make out the taut ropes that trailed from the sails back to the invisible nets beneath the water.

The ferry captain deftly positioned our craft between them, and then they slowly glided past. With the ferry’s engines cut, it was easy to imagine we were back in the 1880s, when local fishermen would ply these waters whenever conditions were suitable.

Perched in the middle of one hobikisen was Noboru Sekozawa, the 81-year-old chief of the Tsuchiura Division of the Kasumigaura Fishing Association. Though he looked like he had little to do there but enjoy the view, he later explained that it actually requires a fair degree of skill to operate them.

“With this, the wind is your partner, so you need to be constantly interacting with it through the sail,” he said.

It turned out that the optimum wind speed for operating hobikisen is 2 to 3 meters per second. At that speed, the sail can be raised to the top of the mast and used at its full size.

“If the wind is stronger, then you can only put the sail up about halfway, or three-quarters of the way,” Sekozawa continued.

Other sailors chimed in that the objective is to keep the mast of the boat perpendicular, and that you could achieve this even in a strong wind if the sail is only raised a portion of its full height.

Hobikisen were used in commercial fishing until the late 1960s, when, Sekozawa remembered, it was possible to haul in about 200 kg of fish from a single run in a single boat. Then motorboats arrived, with their ability to “trawl” nets through the water, and the hobikisen were gradually demoted to a form of tourist entertainment.

One of Sekozawa’s greatest concerns now is that there are only a few young locals who are willing to sign up to learn how to operate the boats. None of them are fishermen by trade.

“There are about 30 people who are learning to operate the boats so we can continue the tourist demonstrations, but only about five of those people have really mastered it,” he said.

Once the old boats had glided past our ferry they continued on for about a kilometer. Of course, they are unable to turn under sail power and so they eventually run out of lake. Sails are then lowered and the nets are pulled in. The fish are generally allowed to escape.

Of course, if this was the late 1880s, the fishermen would have pulled out their oars and made the arduous journey upwind back to port. But it isn’t, so they fired up their inboards and puttered back instead.

Ferry-boat tours offering closeup views of hobikisen operate out of Lackus Marina, Tsuchiura City, at 1:30 p.m. each Sat, Sun and public holiday through Oct. 21. Tours are ¥1,500 for adults; ¥750 for elementary school children. Younger children are free. For details, call the Tsuchiura City Tourist Association on (029) 824-2810. Similar boat tours depart Shitosaki Port in Kasumigaura City through Nov. 25 ([029] 897-1111), and Tamatsukuri Michi no Eki and Shirahonoyu in Namegata City through Dec. 9 ([0299] 55-1221).