Zeshin Lacquerware at the Nezu Museum

A new exhibit of lacquerware and paintings by the very talented artist Shibata Zeshin 柴田 是真(1807-1891) just opened at the Nezu Museum, nicely timed so you can also take in the fall colors in the museum’s famous garden.

My attention tends to go to relatively minor items for off-beat reasons, and this time was no exception: I zoomed in on some tiny but stunning containers that were labeled in English as “leftover food boxes.” Say, what? 19th century luxury Tupperware?

Covered Leftover Food Box with Wood Grain Pattern, Shibata Zeshin,
maki-e lacquer, 1863
Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, Kyoto

I went closer to read the Japanese, which was zansaiiri 残菜入り and, in one case (exhibit 31) tonkotsu 頓骨, which the museum’s translator rendered as “food scraps container.” Here are some rough scans from the exhibition catalog:

I cornered a curator, who explained that in the elaborate manners of the time it was considered bad manners to leave food uneaten at a banquet, so people would carry tiny containers into which they could slip fish bones or anything they couldn’t finish, to be polished off or disposed of after they got home. One of the examples on display (exhibit 34) had a string so it could be fastened to the obi of the owner’s kimono, like the more common inrō cases for medicine and other small objects.

When I got home I searched on the internet, and learned that this custom lives on in tea-ceremony circles, where you’re advised to bring something for handling any leftovers at cha-kaiseki 茶懐石 meals. Tea-ceremony supply shops sell fancy papers and silk pockets and boxes for this purpose, like the little charmers in the photos below:

Lighting at the Nezu is quite low to protect the exhibits, which makes it difficult to see (particularly if you’ve got old eyes). If you want a good look at the detail on the works, see the exhibition catalog which is for sale in the gift shop. Fall colors will probably be at their peak at the end of November. The show runs through December 16, with some exhibits changed on Nov. 26. Details on opening dates and times here.

To close, here’s a photo, courtesy of the Nezu Museum, of a two-panel sliding door.

Sliding doors with moonflower design, Shibata Zeshin with inlay by Miura Kenya, late Edo-early Meiji, Nezu Museum collection

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