the online database of Japanese folkore

Takarabune

宝船
たからぶね

Translation: treasure ship
Alternate names: hōsen

Appearance: Takarabune are splendid sailing ships laden with treasures such as gold and silver, gems, coral, and other precious cargo. The sails are often decorated with auspicious kanji or other symbols. Spirits of good luck like the Seven Lucky Gods and auspicious animals are often seen aboard and around takarabune.

Origin: Takarabune evolved from the concept of harai, or spiritual cleansing—an ancient Japanese belief that spiritually unclean things can be cleansed or disposed of by washing them away down a river. A person’s first dream of the new year was an auspicious one, and a bad dream foretold a bad year. During New Year’s or Setsubun, images of ships were placed under the pillow before sleeping in order to catch bad dreams and keep them from coming true. The following morning the images were gathered and ritually discarded in river, carrying the bad dreams away with them like cargo ships. Over time more imagery was added to the ships, such as treasures, gods, and other symbols of prosperity and longevity, and they evolved into the ships of good fortune known as takarabune.

Takarabune appear at the beginning and again at the end of Toriyama Sekien’s final yōkai book, Hyakki tsurezure bukuro. The yōkai in this book are all described as things he saw in dreams, so the takarabune serves as both a symbolic framework for his book—a vessel to carry the “treasure” contained within the book—and as a good luck charm to protect readers from the strange dreams it describes.

Legends: Long ago an old man named Kamijinjii lived on the island of Niijimamura. One day he was walking along Habushiura Beach when he came across the most beautiful sailboat that he had ever seen. There was no dock anywhere nearby, so he thought it strange that such a ship would be there. Even stranger, there was no crew. The ship was filled to the brim with gold and silver, precious art objects, and other treasures piled up on top of each other.

There was no way that Kamijinjii could carry everything off of the boat by himself, so he took a single gold and lacquer pot lid from the boat as evidence. Then he rushed back to the village to gather people to help him unload the rest of the treasure from the boat. However, by the time Kamijinjii and the other villagers arrived back at Habushiura beach the takarabune was gone, and there was no sign it had ever been there.

Alphabetical list of yōkai