National TreasureWriting Box with Pontoon Bridge

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  • 舟橋蒔絵硯箱
  • By Honami Kouetsu
  • 1 set
  • lacquered wood
  • L24.2 W22.9 H11.8
  • Edo period/17th century
  • Tokyo National Museum
  • H-53

This writing box (J. suzuribako) is famous as a representative work of Hon'ami Kôetsu (1558-1637), an artist of the Momoyama (1573-1615) to early Edo (1615-1868) periods and a founder of the Rinpa School, who demonstrated his talents in a variety of arts including painting and crafts. One distinguishing feature of this case is its high, domed lid. Overall, the box is square with rounded corners, and the lid fits over the body. Inside, a copper water dropper and tile inkstone are inset at the left; in a shallow space at the right is a brush rest, and at the far right a space for a small knife.

The surface of the box is densely covered with gold powder. Small boats are lined up in a wave pattern, crossed by a bridge made of a thick strip of lead. The waves are made in the tsukegaki technique, in which lines drawn in lacquer are sprinkled with gold powder, and the boats are executed in usuniku takamakie, a lacquer design used to create a slightly raised form that is then sprinkled with gold powder.

What especially heightens the effect of this pioneering design, however, are the cursive characters created from cut-out strips of silver. The characters quote a poem by Minamoto Hitoshi from the tenth-century anthology, the Later Collection of Japanese Poetry (J. Gosen wakashû), which reads:

On Azuma Road
Crossing the boat-bridge of Sano,
Crossing my mind
Thoughts that no one knows.

In the design on Kôetsu's writing box, the characters for "boat" and "bridge" were eliminated because it was understood by the viewer that the boats and bridge pictured on the box represented the words themselves.

It is unclear to what extent Kôetsu actually participated in the production of this box. However, such features as the bold design, superior technical skill, and the use of a theme from classical literature make it, amongst all the lacquer objects attributed to Kôetsu, the one that best displays his signature style.