Tomobako - the all-important box for Japanese pottery


Discussion on virtually any teaware related item.

Tomobako - the all-important box for Japanese pottery

Postby chamekke » May 3rd, '08, 20:56

Tomobako is a Japanese box (usually made of kiri or paulownia) that is specially made for storing chawan or other teawares. Here's an example:

Image

Robert Yellin explains, in the e-yakimono.net article The Box - Don't Throw It Away, why the tomobako is so important - and what happens when you carelessly let a mother cat have her litter in one :wink:

If you're interested in learning how to tie the ribbon on a tomobako, there's a pretty good video on YouTube:

桐箱 Kiri box

Or if you prefer text and photos or diagrams, try these:

http://www.ceramicstoday.com/articles/boxes.htm
http://www.2000cranes.com/customer_service/ribbon_tying.htm
http://www.e-yakimono.net/html/tie-the-box.html

If you ever need to add a ribbon from scratch (e.g. the old one is missing or too tattered to use), the following link tells you how. The instructions also include an explanation of how to tie off the ends so that they don't ravel:

http://www.wabiarts.com/fittingribbon.htm

Wabi Arts, the company who provided the last set of instructions, actually sells both boxes and ribbons... worth knowing about if you ever need either!
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Postby joelbct » May 3rd, '08, 22:06

Thank you chamekke, for sharing with us your trove of knowledge!

I was in fact puzzling over one of those very ribbon-knots last week, and figured I would just put it in the box and cross that bridge when I came to it. I will bookmark the link! Useful...

In any case, I do love the boxes (Tomobako) and their calligraphy, an excellent touch.

BTW this story from Robert Yellin's article is priceless:


"An interesting anecdote concerning Japanese wooden boxes concerns the eccentric potter-gourmet Rosanjin. On a trip to Europe in 1954, he paid a visit to Picasso. This is how Sidney Cardozo writes about that encounter in his book The Art of Rosanjin.

"When Rosanjin did call on Picasso, he brought this most renowned Western artist an example of his potting. Naturally it was in the finest of paulownia wood boxes. Picasso was fascinated by the smoothness of the wood and glowed with pleasure as he stroked the surface. Impatiently, Rosanjin thundered "Not the box, not the box, you simple child! What I made is inside the box!"
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Postby Abracadaver! » Jul 11th, '08, 23:26

I have a few signed boxes and I'd like to display them along with my other tea-things. Should I be worried about sun-bleaching the ink or anything? They won't be in direct sun, but it is a fairly bright room.

Any thoughts?
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Postby chamekke » Jul 12th, '08, 11:10

I have no personal experience on these things, and thus my advice is dubious... but my own instinct would definitely be to avoid direct sunlight. I've seen tomobako with faded ink, and while I don't know what caused the fading, it seems to me that putting calligraphed boxes in the path of sunlight would be a chancy thing to do. Bright light, on the other hand, should be safer - I think.

If I remember to do so, I'll ask my sensei today when I go to tea class, and get a more professional opinion! (It will depend on whether there is someone there to translate.)
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Postby Thirsty Daruma » Jul 12th, '08, 11:20

Many thanks for the continued cultural wisdom, Chammeke. It's a shame I've never purchased anything worthy of a box like that. Best I can do is a cardboard box with the "utsuwa" character printed on it. :(
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Postby britt » Jul 13th, '08, 16:59

I find these wooden boxes to be somewhat of an annoyance. It seems that they need to be protected as much as the pottery inside. When I recieve them, I remove the item from the wood box, re-tie the ribbon (improperly, of course), re-wrap the wooden box in the bubble pac, throw it back in the shipping box and put that in the closet. I'm actually happy when I buy something that comes in cardboard. Some of the wood boxes are very nice, but they can take up a lot of space.

These boxes vary tremendously in quality. Some of them are near works of art in and of themselves, as Picasso noticed. Others are cheap junk that are supplied by the importer to boost the esteem, and the price, of normal objects that come from the kiln without a box. Many boxes aren't signed, as the items inside may come from a kiln such as Somayaki where individual artisans don't normally sign boxes and in many cases it would be meaningless if they did. These items are hand-made and of high quality, but many hands are involved in the manufacturing process.

Even legitimate, artist signed boxes don't always come with a ribbon. I've purchased five Aohagi items made by Noutomi Susumu. All came in signed wooden boxes, and none had ribbons (no complaints here!). There are actually paper bands that slide over the box-lid combination and hold the lid in place. This artists items are not cheap, and they may deserve a better box or at least one with a real ribbon, but I don't care because the items inside the boxes have been of extremely high quality.

I've heard that one very well known artisan never signs his boxes. I read a warning from a legitimate seller that many sellers on Ebay claim to be selling his works in an artist signed box, and that in these cases, at a minimum, the box is not legitimate even if the item inside is. Either that, or the seller can't read Japanese and assumes the signature is there.

I received a Bizen sake set yesterday and was quite surprised by the quality of the box. At first I thought a piece had separated during shipping, then I realized it had a slide-out lid that wasn't pushed in all the way. There are grooves near the top of the box and the wooden lid is placed in the grooves and slides out when you wish to remove the sake set. It is very well made so I'll need to find another space in the closet.

Although many high quality items come in boxes, so do many items of lesser quality. I wouldn't make a purchase decision based on whether or not the item comes in a wooden box. I have seen some very high quality items that come in cardboard. Sometimes this is due to the items shape or size, which may not fit in anything but a custom made box. The boxes, of course, boost the price of the item, sometimes significantly.
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Postby britt » Jul 13th, '08, 16:59

I find these wooden boxes to be somewhat of an annoyance. It seems that they need to be protected as much as the pottery inside. When I recieve them, I remove the item from the wood box, re-tie the ribbon (improperly, of course), re-wrap the wooden box in the bubble pac, throw it back in the shipping box and put that in the closet. I'm actually happy when I buy something that comes in cardboard. Some of the wood boxes are very nice, but they can take up a lot of space.

These boxes vary tremendously in quality. Some of them are near works of art in and of themselves, as Picasso noticed. Others are cheap junk that are supplied by the importer to boost the esteem, and the price, of normal objects that come from the kiln without a box. Many boxes aren't signed, as the items inside may come from a kiln such as Somayaki where individual artisans don't normally sign boxes and in many cases it would be meaningless if they did. These items are hand-made and of high quality, but many hands are involved in the manufacturing process.

Even legitimate, artist signed boxes don't always come with a ribbon. I've purchased five Aohagi items made by Noutomi Susumu. All came in signed wooden boxes, and none had ribbons (no complaints here!). There are actually paper bands that slide over the box-lid combination and hold the lid in place. This artists items are not cheap, and they may deserve a better box or at least one with a real ribbon, but I don't care because the items inside the boxes have been of extremely high quality.

I've heard that one very well known artisan never signs his boxes. I read a warning from a legitimate seller that many sellers on Ebay claim to be selling his works in an artist signed box, and that in these cases, at a minimum, the box is not legitimate even if the item inside is. Either that, or the seller can't read Japanese and assumes the signature is there.

I received a Bizen sake set yesterday and was quite surprised by the quality of the box. At first I thought a piece had separated during shipping, then I realized it had a slide-out lid that wasn't pushed in all the way. There are grooves near the top of the box and the wooden lid is placed in the grooves and slides out when you wish to remove the sake set. It is very well made so I'll need to find another space in the closet.

Although many high quality items come in boxes, so do many items of lesser quality. I wouldn't make a purchase decision based on whether or not the item comes in a wooden box. I have seen some very high quality items that come in cardboard. Sometimes this is due to the items shape or size, which may not fit in anything but a custom made box. The boxes, of course, boost the price of the item, sometimes significantly.
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Postby britt » Jul 13th, '08, 17:01

I find these wooden boxes to be somewhat of an annoyance. It seems that they need to be protected as much as the pottery inside. When I recieve them, I remove the item from the wood box, re-tie the ribbon (improperly, of course), re-wrap the wooden box in the bubble pac, throw it back in the shipping box and put that in the closet. I'm actually happy when I buy something that comes in cardboard. Some of the wood boxes are very nice, but they can take up a lot of space.

These boxes vary tremendously in quality. Some of them are near works of art in and of themselves, as Picasso noticed. Others are cheap junk that are supplied by the importer to boost the esteem, and the price, of normal objects that come from the kiln without a box. Many boxes aren't signed, as the items inside may come from a kiln such as Somayaki where individual artisans don't normally sign boxes and in many cases it would be meaningless if they did. These items are hand-made and of high quality, but many hands are involved in the manufacturing process.

Even legitimate, artist signed boxes don't always come with a ribbon. I've purchased five Aohagi items made by Noutomi Susumu. All came in signed wooden boxes, and none had ribbons (no complaints here!). There are actually paper bands that slide over the box-lid combination and hold the lid in place. This artists items are not cheap, and they may deserve a better box or at least one with a real ribbon, but I don't care because the items inside the boxes have been of extremely high quality.

I've heard that one very well known artisan never signs his boxes. I read a warning from a legitimate seller that many sellers on Ebay claim to be selling his works in an artist signed box, and that in these cases, at a minimum, the box is not legitimate even if the item inside is. Either that, or the seller can't read Japanese and assumes the signature is there.

I received a Bizen sake set yesterday and was quite surprised by the quality of the box. At first I thought a piece had separated during shipping, then I realized it had a slide-out lid that wasn't pushed in all the way. There are grooves near the top of the box and the wooden lid is placed in the grooves and slides out when you wish to remove the sake set. It is very well made so I'll need to find another space in the closet.

Although many high quality items come in boxes, so do many items of lesser quality. I wouldn't make a purchase decision based on whether or not the item comes in a wooden box. I have seen some very high quality items that come in cardboard. Sometimes this is due to the items shape or size, which may not fit in anything but a custom made box. The boxes, of course, boost the price of the item, sometimes significantly.
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Postby MarshalN » Jul 13th, '08, 22:15

There are definitely lots of sellers out there who will fudge and tell you something is in its original box, when it isn't. I recently helped a friend buy a silver kettle, and the box that it came in is for a tetsubin, not a silver kettle. Mind you, it's a good box, and certainly an antique in its own right, but nevertheless -- it's not the right box for the item.

I have seen many shops do that, some are not Ebay shops either. I have also seen little pieces of paper that come in the box -- usually a sort of name card or advertising for the shop -- being called a "certificate" as if it means anything, when all it really says is "we make nice stuff -- buy from us!" basically.

That said... I have some fairly weathered boxes that go really well with a few items I have. Some are obviously custom made -- the fit cannot be better. Basically, if you don't read Japanese (and thus can't tell if its the original box), buyer beware.
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Postby chamekke » Jul 14th, '08, 00:57

In a couple of instances I was able to successfully confirm the identity of a potter's work by (a) the mark on the base of the pot in combination with (b) the signature on the tomobako itself. When the two are in accord, you can be reasonably sure you've got the real thing. So sometimes, an accompanying tomobako really is the accompanying tomobako.

But as britt says, unless you can read Japanese (or have some decent references as backup), you can't infer too much about the piece from the box itself. Some fantastic pieces are sold in cardboard boxes; other pieces, of comparatively mediocre workmanship, are dressed up in superbly crafted kiri wood.

In general, I'm just happy to have a box that fits the item and which will protect the precious piece of pottery within. As I too live in an earthquake zone, I rather appreciate the extra protection of the box. And since part of learning Japanese tea ceremony is to know how to tie endless types of knot :? (including tomobako knots), I suppose there's even the additional benefit of pleasing my tea sensei!
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Postby olivierco » Jul 14th, '08, 05:52

chamekke wrote:
In general, I'm just happy to have a box that fits the item and which will protect the precious piece of pottery within.


Same for me.

If someone has boxes he/she wants to get rid of, I would be happy to help him.
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Postby britt » Jul 14th, '08, 08:21

chamekke wrote:In general, I'm just happy to have a box that fits the item and which will protect the precious piece of pottery within. As I too live in an earthquake zone, I rather appreciate the extra protection of the box.


I agree these wooden boxes serve as great protection, I just never thought of using them for items that see daily service. If I stored something long-term or packed it for moving, I would definitely use them.

I have all my teaware out and in the cupboards as I try to use all of the items on a regular basis. That's why I store the wooden boxes in a closet.

Maybe I'm missing something here. Do most people keep items that are used frequently or even daily in the wooden box and then remove them each time they use them?

Note: Sorry for the triple post. I was having connection problems and thought it didn't post at all. For some reason, I can't delete the two extra ones.
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Re:

Postby JBaymore » Sep 15th, '09, 22:04

britt wrote:Do most people keep items that are used frequently or even daily in the wooden box and then remove them each time they use them?


britt,

I have a lot of Japanese pottery (and other stuff) in my collection. A lot of them have signed wooden boxes, and since almost all have been purchased from the artists, or are gifts from the artists, the boxes document the provenence of the pieces and are therefore important. But I agree that when they are not in use, they do take up a lot of room. That is why the affluent Japanese used to have those fire-proof stone "warehouses" next to the "living" house :lol: .

For us, pieces that are not on active display or in use are kept in the boxes for storage and protection. Pieces that we use frequently are on a shelf and the box is in storage.

The main exception to this is laquerware. I have a close ceramist friend that also teaches the history of laquerware at a university in Japan. I happen to have a set of very nice laquerware soup bowls by a very famous artist.... that we frequently use. My friend instructed me to keep the bowls in the box when not being used to help preserve the laquer (along with a bunch of other care instructions).

best,

................john
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Re: Tomobako - the all-important box for Japanese pottery

Postby MarshalN » Sep 17th, '09, 10:38

Unfortunately, even if you keep the lacquer really well, at least in the US chances are the lacquer will crack eventually. It's too dry here, especially in the winter. Ditto the boxes -- I find some lids for the wooden boxes warp over time.
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Re: Tomobako - the all-important box for Japanese pottery

Postby JBaymore » Sep 17th, '09, 12:01

Yeah, I know about the humidity problem outside Japan for laquer.

There is a reason that urushi developed so successfully in Japan...... as anyone who spends much time there in the summer knows all too well :wink: . I was there all this past summer and in general it was a bit better than usual. Which isn't saying much. But the rainy season did not seem to ever end.

My friend suggested that the laquer pieces are best kept in regular use here in the US because of that fact. That way they periodically get washed in warm (not hot) water, then carefully dried.

And yes, I've also found that the wooden boxes can sometimes be a problem too. If you don't keep the paper on top and the ribbon tied they can get pretty funky. Usually it varies with the time of year and the humidity. Often they go back to shape as that changes. Obviously the cheaper, less well made boxes are more of an issue.

I am a professional potter and have boxes made for some of my work (deliberately using American native woods), and one "trick" that the woodworker and I have discovered is using hardwood (oak) for the rails inside the box lid to help prevent this problem with the softwood box. Adds a bit to the cost of the boxes though :lol: .

best,

....................john
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