For your Dining Room: Tansu/Japanese Chests
Japan is still a very good country to prospect for antiques in spite of its devouring modernity.
When it comes to antique or even more homey tansu/箪笥, one should keep both eyes open as these Japanese-style chests can become extremely useful in any home because of their practical shapes and sturdy material, not to mention their aesthetic qualities.
Even if you are here for a short stay or plan to leave soon, they can easily be filled with your belongings actually helping with the ever tiring chore of removal.
Fine, Sir, but what is a tansu？Sorry, my good friend, I ought to have explained that a bit earlier!
Tansu is the word for chest, chest of drawers or cupboard, all in one word in Japanese. It is often used in the West, notably in the antique business, to refer to traditional Japanese chests, handcrafted and made of fine wood. The latter is important when it comes to pricing. Most popular woods are Hinoki/檜 or Japanese cypress, Keyaki/欅 or Japanese elm, Kuri/栗 or Chestnut,, Sugi/杉 and Kiri/桐 or Paulownia.
After all, it is a very vague term to describe a whole range of chests, but many collectors focus on finding antique Tansu. There are many workshops (especially in Shizuoka or other prefectures with a good supply of wood) in imitation of the classic antiques. Some are made of excellent reclaimed wood causing the new Tansu to retain a more aged look that some people seek. Make sure to ask first if the antique tansu is authentic or an imitation.
But my bet, that is if you have the time, is to look around in farms and in the country where there are not only authentic, but cheap and serviceable. Moreover, people tend to be happy to get rid of them!
Now, before you go prospecting, it always a good idea to acquire a little basic knowledge. One way to conduct a successful bargain!
Main types of Tansu:
-Choba-dansu/著場箪笥/Merchant Tansu. Used by merchants, they display elaborate metal hardware and were used in shops to impress customers. They come in many sizes depending on trade plied by their owners: sewing supplies chests, sea chests, merchant chests, futon chests or kitchen equipment chests. They could either open from a single side or be accessible from both sides.
-Kusuri-dansu/薬箪笥 were and still are apothecary/medicine chest. They were used to store herbs, especially at medicinal herbs/kanpoyaku/漢方薬 traditional pharmacists. They are often made of paulownia wood and have many small drawers. They make for the perfect chest for jewels, spectacles or other small collection object storage, or even display.
-Kaidan-dansu/階段箪笥, or step-chests are another very popular collection item, although their initial purpose was of a totally different nature. They were actually used to avoid taxation on other areas of a home when taxes were levied based on the size of one’s home! When the tax collectors appeared on the horizon, home-dwellers quickly moved those chests under the stairs away from their eyes! When small, they make for great display chests at homes and shops. When big, their aesthetical and practical qualities can be combined to save space.
-Katana-dansu/刀箪笥. These were used to store swords.They are long and low and often made of palownia to keep sword from rusting.
-Mizuya-dansu/水や箪笥 or Daidokoro-dana/台所棚 used in kitchens for the storage of plates, utensils and food items. They usually include many sliding doors and drawers of full plain wood, or adjourned wood, the latter coming with mesh or bars.
-Sendai-dansu/仙台箪笥. These are used to store kimomo and clothing. Originally made from the Sendai region, they are often made of zelkova wood with drawers lined in cedar. They usually come as one long top drawer with three slightly smaller drawers underneath. Some are true antiques as they were commissioned from former sword makers after the Samurai were disbanded in the Meiji era.
-Cha-dansu/茶箪笥. They were used to store tea ceremony implements. This is one type of antique chest that can still be found in homes or in the country!
-Funa-dansu/船箪笥. They were ship chests, used a scontainers from the Edo period to the Meiji Era. They came in three basic designs:
Kakesuzuri/かけすずり, a small chest with a single swinging door and multiple internal drawers inside.
Hangai/半外, a small chest for clothing storage.
Cho-Bako/庁箱, or account box.. This last comes in many more types, a pleasure for collectors!
Many regions of Japan made tansu. Check where the former castle towns on the posts roads stood and you will have a good chance to make a discovery. Look for the ironware and quizz their owners! Wood and lacqyuer types are also clue to the origin of some pieces.
The elements of antique tansu hardware were created from forged iron, and sometimes with copper. Search for design elements engraved or inlaid. Incidentally, black finish on the iron was created by applying rapeseed oil to the hot metal.
Traditional Japanese Furniture by Kazuko Koizumi
Japanese Cabinetry/The Art & Craft Of Tansu by David Jackson & Dane Owen
Jtansu at: http://www.jtansu.com/Japanese-Tansu-s/1.htm
David Jackson: Tansu Restoration & Conservation at: http://www.tansuconservation.com/
Walking to the Izakaya the Shizuoka Way: Geta/Japanese Clogs
Not so long ago, the sound of wooden clogs (geta/下駄 in Japanese) could still be heard at any time of the day and night in any season in cities as well as in the countryside.
This is still mentioned as one of the sounds that older Japanese miss most in modern life. A traditional saying in Japanese says that “You do not know until you have worn geta.” meaning that you cannot tell the results until the game is over.
Chefs were wearing them at work inside izakayas and sushi restaurants. Now they wear graceless white vinyl boots.
Interestingly enough, by ignoring geta in favor of Western footwear, the Japanese are not doing a favour to their own health. Instead of being constricted inside shoes with the consequent skin problems during the rainy season and sweaty socks to wear with them, geta allow free movement of the feet in the most natural environment. Contrary to belief, walking with the skin in direct contact with a wooden or lacquered surface does keep the feet at a comfortable temperature, even in the snow.
Moreover, good Japanese-made geta cost an average of 5~6,000 yen (50~60 US dollars), which make them cheaper and far more durable than Western shoes! They can be easily worn day in day out for up to 10 years according to traditional makers in Shizuoka Prefecture!
The great majority of modern geta are made abroad, especially in China these days but traditional manufacture still survives in Japan.
The City of Fukuyama in Hiroshima Prefecture produces 60% of the national output. Hida City in Oita Prefecture is also a major producer.
Traditional and high quality geta are especially made in Fukushima, Nagano, Niigata, Akita and Shizuoka Prefectures.
Geta are sometimes called wooden clogs in English because of their resemblance wit clogs and flip-flops. One could describe them as a kind of elevated wooden base held onto the foot with a fabric thong to keep well above the ground. They are worn with traditional Japanese clothing such as kimono or yukata but (in Japan) also with Western clothing during the summer months. One can still see people wearing them in rain or snow to keep the feet dry, dur to their extra height and impermeability compared to other shoes such as zori.
There are several styles of geta. The most familiar style in the West consists of unfinished wooden board called a dai (台, stand) that the the foot is set upon, with a cloth thong (鼻緒, hanao) that passes between the big toe and second toe. Although there is no need to wear socks, apprentice geisha (also called “maiko”) wear their special geta with tabi (Japanese socks) to accommodate the hanao.
Ladies will often add a protective cap called tsumakawa (爪掛) to protect their toes from the rain or mud in inclement weather.
The supporting pieces below the base board, called teeth (歯, ha), are also made of wood. Cheap clogs are made with cedar wood (杉, sugi), whereas high-quality geta are made of very light-weight paulownia (桐, kiri) imported from Northern Japan.
The teeth are usually made separately and fixed to the base board later (Funageta/船下駄), whereas more valuable geta will be carved out of a single block called (Okaku/大角).
Although great craftsmen are becoming scarce (there are only five recognized in Shizuoka Prefecture in spite of their fame), geta can and usually are suggested to be made on order, so as to perfectly “fit the feet” of its wearer.
Such footwear is becoming increasingly popular abroad where more and more people have recognized not only their practical, health and ecological values, but also for their decorative and fashion merits.
The dai may vary in shape: oval and narow for ladies to rectangular and wide for men as well as in color: natural (harigeta/張下駄), lacquered (nurigeta/塗り下駄) or stained.
The teeth of any geta may have harder wood drilled into the bottom to avoid splitting, and the soles of modern clogs of the teeth may have rubber soles glued to them.
The hanao can be wide and padded, or narrow and hard, and it can be made with many fabrics Printed cotton with traditional Japanese motifs is popular. Inside the hanao is a cord (recently synthetic, but traditionally hemp) which is knotted in a special way to the three holes of the dai. The hanao are replaceable, although breaking the thong of one’s geta is considered very unlucky!
Maiko in Kyoto wear distinctive tall geta called okobo. Also very young girls wear “okobo”, also called “pokkuri” and “koppori”, that have a small bell inside a cavity in the thick “sole”/dai. These geta have no teeth but are formed of one piece of wood. They are carved in such a way as to accommodate for walking.
Japanese professional sumo wrestlers in the lowest wo divisions of Jonokuchi and Jonidan must wear geat with their yukata at all times!
Various types of geta for the true collectors! (this list is far from exhaustive!):
-Sokugeta/足駄: real antiques as these were worn between the Heian Era and Edo Era! They became the symbolic footwear of students in meiji Era
-Yama Geta/山下駄: Square mountain Clogs made of paulownia wood and worn at the beginning of Edo Era. When made with cedar pine wood, they are called Yoshiwara geta/吉原下駄 as revellers in the Yaoshiwara Distritc used them on rainy days.
-Pokkuri Geta/ぽっくり下駄 worn by maiko, geisha and young girls, generally higher and decorated with golden motifs.
-Robou/露卯, Yanagi Geta柳下駄 worn in the early Edo Era.
-Uma Geta/馬下駄, square and made of cedar pine wood. “Horse Clogs”, called so because they sound like horse’s hooves on paved streets.
-Koma Geta/駒下駄, most common all-weather clogs until before the Meiji Era.
-Kiri Geta/桐下駄, high-quality expensive clogs made of paulownia wood. Originally finished with black lacquer.
-Odawara Geta/小田原下駄, very popular among harbor workers and fishermen in the 18th Century in spite of their high price.
-Ippon Geta/一本下駄 or Tengu Geta/天狗下駄, a clog with only one ha/歯/”tooth”. Both worn by kids and adults.
-Taka Geta/高下駄, very high clogs
-Bankara/バンカラ/Narrow clogs with high teeth, popular with older time students.
Recommended manufacture/display center:
Suruga Nuri Geta (駿河塗下駄) (designated by the Shizuoka Prefecture Government)
420-0047, Shizuoka City, Aoi Ku, Seikancho, 9-22
Tel. & fax: 054-253-4917
Homepage: http://www.shizuoka-kougei.jp/009.html (Japanese)
Noren/暖簾/Shop Curtains in Shizuoka Prefecture: A Japanese Tradition
A beautiful turnip noren at Tomii, Shizuoka City!
When visiting Japan, have you ever noticed those unusual “curtains” hanging outside the main entrance of traditional shops, izakayas and sometimes of private homes?
They are called “noren”.
Noren (暖簾) are traditional Japanese fabric dividers, hung between rooms, on walls, in doorways, or in windows. They usually have one or more vertical slits cut from the bottom to nearly the top of the fabric, allowing for easier passage or viewing. Noren are rectangular (but not always a rule) and come in many different materials, sizes, colors, and patterns.
Noren are traditionally used by shops and restaurants as a means of protection from sun, wind, and dust, and for advertising space. Sentō (commercial bathhouses) also place noren across their entrances, typically blue in color for men and red for women with the kanji 湯 (yu, litterally hot water) or the corresponding hiragana ゆ. They are also hung in the front entrance to a shop to signify that the establishment is open for business, and they are always taken down at the end of the business day.
There are still many left in Shizuoka City and Prefecture in spite of all that modernizing and I do meet a lot of them along my bicycle wanderings. It would be a pity not to share their sight, as it would make for beautiful souvenires to take back home next time you visit Japan!
Accordingly here is the first of hopefully many postings on those little beauties!
A long, sober and narrow one. Pristine white!
For the night owls!
Chibariyo, an Okinawa restaurant.
Izakaya noren: Kurumaya.
Another izakaya nore, very feminine?
Simple design and pretty complicated characters!
Mishimaya, a Soba Restaurant. Very basic and simple.
Masa Sushi Restaurant. Another basic and simple Noren.
A very traditional style for a oden-ya!
A large noren for a large izakaya, Taihei!
A double entrance for that izakaya with the noren inside a torii gate!
Very modern approach by this cheaper kind of izakaya!
A traditional matsuri/festival “flag”!
A very large noren in front of a Japanese restaurant!
You probably guessed this is a Chinese restaurant!
Actually “Chinese restaurants” in Japan are of two kind: Japanese-style serving ramen, gyza and stir-fried food as above and rea Chinese restaurants!
Unusual noren in front of a shop selling all kinds of artifacts from cloth to pottery.
A small Japanese traditional cloth store!
A typical small Izakaya!
An inviting “Tanuki”/racoon at an Izakaya!
Traditional Yakitori Izakaya!
Found this beautiful calligraphy at the end of a small alley!
“Hashi/Bridge”, an izakaya specializing in local Japanese sake I haven’t visited yet!
Bamboo Handcraft in Shizuoka Prefecture!
Bamboo has been used from times immemorial. It is very sturdy and does not spoil easily, even in the most severe conditions or environments.
People tend to forget it is not a tree, but a grass. It can grow in inclement climates and withstand frost and snow, although severe droughts will kill it.
It flowers only once in its long (60 to 120 years) life before suddenly dying away.
Bamboos (there are many varieties) are also the fastest growing woody plants in the world. They are capable of growing up to 60 cm (24 in.) or more a day due to a unique rhyzome-dependent system. However, this astounding growth rate is highly dependent on local soil and climatic conditions. But the same growth rate can make it an environmental hazard in some regions where it supplants real trees.
Bamboos are of notable economic and cultural significance in Japan (and Asia) where the stems and even the leaves are extensively used in everyday life as building materials and as a highly versatile raw product, and the shoots as a food source.
Bamboo, when used for construction or utensil-making purpose must be harvested when the culms reach their greatest strength and when sugar levels in the sap are at heir lowest, as high sugar content increases the ease and rate of pest infestation.
Bamboo is extensively used as a food, medicine and construction material.
It also contributes to the manufacture of everyday utensils from chopsticks to baskets, from textiles to musical instruments, and even in water processing and transportation (bamboo bicycles!).
Now, because of its comparatively mild and wet climate, Shizuoka Prefecture has been the home of bamboo handcraft for a long time.
Its major guild, called Suruga Takesen Sujizaiku/駿河竹千筋細工 (literally, Suruga Bay Bamboo Thousand Lines Thin Works) or “Suruga Zaiku” for short, has been in existence since 1620 and quickly achieved fame thanks to the Shogunate and the Old Tokaido Route.
At first craftsmen concentrated on the manufacture of utilitarian objects from baskets to small boxes and trays actively sought by the travelers for their own use or as valuable souvenirs and tradable artifacts.
Their products achieved international first in Austria in 1873 where they were exhibited at the Wien International Exposition. Since then the craft has witnessed lows and highs, but in this present world of cheap plastic and metal utilities, bamboo has increasingly achieved a deserved status of artistic value and even that of a politically correct environment-friendly material.
At present the Guild accounts for 14 craftsmen and craftswomen of all ages specializing in some form of the handicraft. The next generation is well provided for and collectors and buyers can be assured of a continuous, if limited because of the sheer hard work and artistry, supply.
There is an almost unending line of products available depending on your needs:
Vase baskets to hold or carry pottery or glass vases, protecting and adding to the aesthetic value of their contents. There are some 80 models of them that can be laid on tables or tokonomas or hung on walls and pillars.
Many exquisite “kaze suzu/風鈴”, or “wind bells” resonating inside very fine bamboo lined balls.
More than 20 cake boxes and trays to serve or preserve Japanese cakes/wagashi.
Beautiful “handbags” lined with hand-dyed cloth.
Insect collectors, especially “suzu mushi/鈴虫/ring-bell cricket” beloved by the Japanese during the hot season, can choose among more than 20 delicately built cages where they can keep and feed their little pets.
Lamp shades (more than 25 of them) can not only make for very utilitarian devices, but also for lovable souvenirs to bring back home as the oriental note in your western abodes.
But my favorite, if I may be allowed a personal comment, are the trays, either made of bent bamboo lines or interwoven bamboo fibers!
Consult their homepage (Japanese) for the entire array and direct purchase at:
Visit their guild in Shizuoka City if you wish to be directly introduced to the artists at work:
Shizuoka Takesen Kougei Kyodokumiai, 420-0078, Shizuoka Shi, Aoi Ku, Hachi Bancho, 7-1
Or if you happen to stop at Shizuoka Station, spare a minute to admire all the art works at Sumpu Raku Ichi Shop!