11503 A RARE JAPANESE RED AND BLACK LACQUER AND CRUSHED ABALONE SHELL INLAID HOKAI (CONFECTIONARY BOX) BEARING THE KAMON OF THE MORI CLAN Maizuru, Kyoto. Circa 1742. Measurements: Height: 22 1/2″ (57 cm) Width: 16 3/4″ (42.5 cm) Depth: 14 1/8″ (35.8 cm).
Of lacquered wood, abalone shell and metal mounts. The rectangular box with removable body resting on a shallow tray; inner serving trays not present. the whole applied with a mosaic of crushed abalone shell with red lacquer reserves to the top and four sides. One side bearing a black circular crane motif crest, another side and the bottom bearing painted inscriptions in Japanese.
Inscribed in Japanese, partially translated:
Made in Maizuru, Japan
Kanpo II (for the year 1782)
This unusual box was created for the express purpose of carrying and displaying sweet delicacies, and represents the height of confectionery presentation in Imperial Japan. The painted inscriptions on the side and bottom indicate that it was made in the town of Maizuru, in the north of the Kyoto prefecture, in the second year of Kanpo (which equates to 1742) during the Edo period in Japan.
Traditional Japanese confectionery, or wagashi, was considered an art of the five senses: visual in its beautiful designs; olfactory in the delightful aromas; delicious in its flavors; pleasant textures experienced when handling, cutting, or placing them in the mouth; and the sound and nuance of the distinct and poetic names of each sweet.
The flavors and designs of wagashi are expressive of the seasons and holidays, and are dependent on climate and availability of ingredients. Winter wagashi are often made to resemble ice or snow; in the spring floral hues and motifs provide inspiration; clear gelées are used in the summer in imitation of water features; and autumn wagashi may incorporate chestnuts or persimmons and motifs like the harvest moon. The desserts are also determined by annual events, for example, a sweet called Chimaki is made in celebration of the Boy’s Festival in May, while Ankoro mochi is prepared only for the hottest days of the summer.
Wagashi are not necessarily particularly sweet, and are even sometimes savory, originally comprising nuts, dried fruits and bean pastes. However, a small group of confectioners used high-quality ingredients, including refined sugar imported from the Dutch and Chinese. These superior sweet makers formed a trade association to gain control of all the imported sugar being brought into the country; by 1777 there were 284 Kyoto confectioners in this exclusive association.1 The technical skills, recipes, and food presentation drawings were recorded in Edo-period books and scrolls. Five varieties of sweets served to the emperor in 1626 are illustrated in a Scroll of Seven Trays and Nineteen Rounds of Drinks2 (figure 1), while a wagashi pattern book for sweet making provides instruction on form and decoration (figure 2).
Many of Japan’s oldest confectioners were established in Kyoto, which served as the Imperial capital from 794-1868 (before relocating to Tokyo). Only around two dozen confectioners were permitted to make sweets for the royal family. “Being so exclusive, these desserts were the height of luxury, becoming pieces of art called Kyo-gashi, that were unique to Kyoto.”3 A special wooden box called a hokai was used to transport the kyo-gashi to the palace for court ceremonies or banquets.
One of the oldest confectioneries in Japan, Toraya, is over 480 years old and served as purveyors to the Imperial household. They were notable for their Hyakumi-bako, ‘Box of 100 Tastes’ and figure 3 depicts an example of a Toraya tiered confectionary box made in 1776. Another maker, Sasayaiori, was founded in 1716 and it is the fourth oldest surviving royally-appointed confectioner. In addition to the Imperial Palace, they catered to Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and Grand Tea Masters. Sasayaiori’s historic collections include a similar hokai used for carrying wagashi to the Gosho (Imperial Palace of Kyoto) (figure 4).
The present box is decorated with crushed inlaid abalone shell, with red lacquer reserves. A black circular crane motif dominates the front side. This symbol is the kamon, or crest, of the Mori clan, an influential family of samurai and feudal lords (daiymo) “who ruled the Akō and Mikazuki domains in Harima Province (modern day Hyōgo prefecture)”4 (adjacent to the Kyoto prefecture). An impressive suit of samurai armor belonging to a member of the Mori clan is conserved in the British Museum; the crest is applied several times throughout the ensemble and its carrying case (figure 5.)
- Goldstein, Darra. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015. 388.
- Rath, Eric C. Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Plate 7.
- Lam, Bonson. “Sasaya Iori Kyogashi Store – Kyoto – Japan Travel.” JapanTravel, 23 July 2013, en.japantravel.com/kyoto/sasa-yaiori-kyogashi-store/5052
- “Conserving a Suit of Samurai Armour.” The British Museum Blog, 4 Oct. 2018, blog.britishmuseum.org/conserving-a-suit-of-samurai-armour/.