Large Tray

  • Kamakura period
  • 13c
  • Red lacquered wood (Negoro ware, Japanese zelkova)
  • H-1.8 D-44
    Handed down in Nigatsudo, Todaiji temple Important Art Object
Catalogue Entry

Kamakura period, 13th century (dated 1298)
Red lacquered wood
Height, 1.8cm; diameter, 42.2-43.2cm

Every March, the second month in the lunar calendar, the Shunie rituals (commonly known as Omizutori) are held at the Nigatsudo, or literally 2nd month hall, of Todaiji. During these rituals, the rengyosyu (secluded monks) use a set of utensils in their refectory--rice and soup bowls, and dishes--which would have been placed on this type of tray.

Carved from a fully dried piece of high quality keyaki (zelkova) wood, the round form of this tray was shaped on a lathe, and then it was coated overall with a ground coat of black lacquer. With the exception of standing edges, the rest of the top surface of the tray was then coated with a top layer of red lacquer.

It goes without saying that it would have been extremely difficult to create a refined sense of beauty in such a simple circular form, but in any event, the sheer functional utility of this tray, its very form, in itself became a refined form of beauty. The carver was sure-handed as he planed the heavy sheet of keyaki wood, and the appearance of the wood grain on the back and the thinning of the edges contribute to its beauty, as the shallow, circular carving of the flat inner surface of the tray retains a sense of some weight, as it also effectively prevented warping.

These elements and others all give a sense of a carver creating a tray with a subtle understanding of its use.

The placement of eating utensils on the tray over the centuries has scratched and marred its surface, and these natural markings have created a particularly fascinating pattern of black undercoat revealed amidst the traces of the top coat of red. This effect that could only emerge after centuries of use was prized by tea masters and keenly sought after by collectors.

Circling the plain black lacquered back of this tray, an inscription in red lacquer clearly states the year of its production: "Nigatsudo Rengyoshu ban nijurokumai uchi Ei'nin rokunen ju gappi shikko ren? butsu?," or literally "one of 26 Nigatsudo ritual trays, 10th month 1298 (Ei'nin 6), lacquerer Ren butsu." The Ei'nin era date has led to the "Ei'nin tray" nickname for these trays, and its simple, red circular form has also led to another nickname, "Hinomaru," or red sun, trays. Originally, 26 of these trays were produced to correspond to the number of Rengyoshu priests, and at present 11 of these trays remain at Todaiji and have been designated Important Cultural Properties. In addition, several trays are no longer in the temple collection and have been scattered among a number of other collections. There are some traces of repair discernible on the present tray, but it would appear that this tray is one of the 26 trays, and the number "11" can be deciphered on its center. SK