Treasure Ships (TAKARABUNE)
 

Treasure Ships (TAKARABUNE)


Takara (treasure) bune (ship) or treasure ships were uncolored woodblock prints sold on the streets of Edo (Tokyo) by roving vendors from the early 18c till the 1890s. They may have originated in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) [link] but were very popular during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) when it became a custom to place takarabune pictures under one's pillow on the second night of the New Year to induce auspicious dreams and resulting good fortune. In the event of a bad dream, one custom was to set the painting adrift in the river or sea to forestall bad luck.

The treasures on takarabune included bales of rice, which stood for material nourishment and prosperity, the combination of bamboo, plum and pine (shochikubai), known as the three friends of winter, which stood for vitality and resilience, deer antler which stood for regeneration, fish which stood for nature’s abundance and laughter, lobster, which stood for longevity, and the three jewels of Buddhism (triratna), which stood for the Buddha, the wisdom teaching of the Buddha (dharma) and the community of Buddhists (sangha). The prow of the ship was often the head of a dragon, standing for divine power and on its sail was the Chinese character for treasure (takara) or for a mythical anteater-like animal which consumed nightmares (baku). Also associated with the boat was the auspicious pair of crane and turtle (tsuru-kame), symbols of heavenly happiness, stability and longevity. Often, these boats are inscribed with a palindrome (a poem which reads the same forward or backward, symbolizing eternity): nagakiyo no/ tou no nemuri no/ mina mezame/ naminori fune no/ oto no yokikana (Awakening from a deep sleep after a long night, I seem to hear the sweet sound of a boat sailing through the waves).

At some stage, these boats became the vehicles for the seven gods of good fortune (shichifukujin). These gods, imported from China, are:

  • Hotei, the god of abundance and good health
  • Jurojin, the god of longevity
  • Fukurokuju, the god of happiness, wealth and longevity
  • Bishamonten,the god of warriors
  • Benzaiten (Benten-sama), the goddess of knowledge, art and beauty, especially music
  • Daikokuten (Daikoku), the god of wealth, commerce and trade. Ebisu and Daikoku are often paired and represented as carvings or masks on the walls of small retail shops
  • Ebisu, the god of fishers or merchants, often depicted carrying a sea bream