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Incense Container with Design of Plovers

Incense Container with design of plovers

Incense Container with design of plovers, 1500–1600. Japan. Muromachi period (1392–1573). Lacquered wood and sea shell. Gift by transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, B85M14.

What is this?
This container is used to hold small chips of incense used in tea gatherings. It is made out of an actual shell, which forms the lid. The base is lacquered wood. The lid is decorated with flying plovers (a small shore bird that runs in and out of the surf while feeding) painted in gold. The sides are decorated with a wave pattern and the inside of the container is also decorated with intricate plants and flowers.

How is it used in the tea gathering?
When the host builds the charcoal fire to heat the water for tea, a small piece of incense is placed near the coals so that the room is filled with a pleasing fragrance. The incense in this case is not burned, rather it releases its fragrance from being warmed by the fire. The decorative incense container is often placed on the floor of the alcove to display a sample of the incense used in the fire for the guests to examine if they wish.

The imagery on the incense container also adds to the atmosphere of the gathering and may support the host’s theme for the event. For example, at New Year, the zodiac animal of the year about to pass or the coming year are often used as incense containers. These animal-shaped containers often bring a playful atmosphere to the tearoom. What themes might this work convey?

Discussion/Activity: Make your own shell-lidded containers inspired by this work

  1. Gather beach shells for your lid (oyster, clam, scallop, or mussel shells can work).
  2. Clean out the shell and separate the two halves; picking the best half for your lid.
  3. Using fast-drying clay or papier-mâché, mold the base of your box using the shell as you guide for shape and size (you may build a base around the bottom half of the shell for an interesting effect).
  4. Once the base is complete, attach your lid with tape or a strip of paper glued to create a hinge (you may also drill small holes into your shell if you have a drill, and connect the top and bottom using fine wire or thread). Decorate all the surfaces of your box using paint, glitter, metal foil, etc.

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