FeauturingShimotsui

setonaikai
sea roji

The south end of Kurashiki City, the area protruding out into the Seto Inland Sea like a peninsula is called Kojima District. Located at the south edge of this district well known as the “city of textile” is Shimotsui. Not a large town. The population of Kojima is 75,000. Out of that number, only 6,000 people reside in Shimotsui. Despite its size, this area has exceptional character and a unique culture and history.

A small castle had always existed in Shimotsui. During the Edo era, Nagamasa Ikeda who arrived to become first lord of the castle ordered great repairs. He simultaneously started on organizing its vicinity as a castle town. This is how a small fishing village was transformed into a town. However, in 1639 under the Shogunate's “Ikkoku Ichijo Rei(order restricting one castle per one feudal lord),” Shimotsui Castle was shut down. Shimotsui which lost its castle, however, continued to prosper free from politics. What upheld its prosperity was the Shimotsui Port.
Shimotsui was originally a fine natural harbor. Land protruding out into the Seto Inland Sea and mild currents made it suitable to wait for winds and tides. What also cannot be left out is its water. Most coastal areas have salty water, but plenty water of good quality sprang out in Shimotsui. Vessels sailing the Seto Inland Sea east and west called for fresh water. Shimotsui’s economical and cultural expansion was brought in by these vessels. The greatest contributor among them was the Kitamae Ships.
Kitamae Ships were trading vessels sailing between Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Hokuriku area (northern parts of Japan) and Osaka. Seto Inland Sea was a sea route of Kitamae Ships headed to Osaka. Shimotsui was their important port of call with fifty to sixty vessels calling per year. A fleet of Kitamae Ships was composed of tens of ships with a total of over 400 crews on board. Shimotsui flourished every time a fleet arrived. To the Kitamae Ships, Shimotsui provided important business opportunities. Kurashiki, back then, had a vast area of reclaimed land and cotton was widely grown in Kojima. Herring scraps were used as fertilizers. Kitamae Ships carried great quantities of herring scraps. Wholesalers dealing in herring scraps gathered in Shimotsui, and the area became crowded with storages for the herrings. Business was pretty big. A single transaction could reach as much as 1,000 Ryo (30 million Yen in current currency). Ogino-ya, a wealthy Shimotsui family of the time, made their fortune by renting storage space and financing wholesalers.
Besides the Kitamae Ships, Goza Ships which carried feudal lords of western parts of the country, and Korean envoys that arrived whenever a new Shogun took his throne would call. Shimotsui had grown to be known widely as one of the prominent ports of Seto Inland Sea.
By the mid Edo era, a sea route between Shimotsui and Shikoku was put in place. About this time, pilgrimage to Konpira Shrine in Shikoku and Yuga Shrine in Kojima gained popularity, making Shimotsui the last stop on the Mainland of Japan. People continuing on to Shikoku would stop to dine and lodge in Shimotsui. They would also make a stop on their return trip home. Inns and restaurants lined the streets near the port and prospered with travelers and boatmen. It was quite natural for a red-light district to come into being in Shimotsui.

Shimotsui which reached its height between the Edo and Meiji Era quickly began its decline from the end of the Meiji era. The greatest cause was the development of alternative transportation systems. Kitamae Ships were taken over by the railroads in Meiji 30s (1897 to 1907) resulting in decrease of big vessels that called at port.As the number of calls declined, the appearance of the town also changed. The storehouses were renovated into residences, and numbers of inns and restaurants quickly decreased. In recent years, the sea route to Shikoku Island had been barely preserved by a ferry that sailed between Shimotsui and Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture, but even that is gone after the opening of the Seto Oohashi in the Heisei era (1988).

Shimotsui Port, today, operates as a fishing port. At ports Tanoura, Fukiage, Shimotsui, and Obatake, rows of fishing vessels are docked and the sight of octopus hung out to dry has become a common sight in Shimotsui. In the early hours, the streets are busy with trucks of brokers who come to purchase the catch of the day. Beside this time, you hardly see people walking the streets. The current Shimotsui Port has nothing to remind people of its past. However, one step into the alley, a sight reminding of the times when merchants and storehouses lined up the streets remain (Naka-machi’s scenery has been appointed by Okayama Prefecture as a preservation area). A style of speech called “Shimotsui-Ben” used only in this district also remains. “Shimotsui-Bushi,” sung by the boatmen of Kitamae Ships is handed down as a folk song representing Okayama Prefecture. A strong lingering scent of a town which underwent its height and decline exists in the air of Shimotsui today.