Red Lacquer Sake Bottle

  • Muromachi period
  • 14c
  • Black and red lacquered wood (Negoro ware)
  • H-31.8 D-24
Catalogue Entry

Muromachi period, 14th century
Height, 31.8cm; torso diameter, 23.5cm;
base diameter, 14.7cm

Keyaki (zelkova) wood was lathe-turned to form the exterior shape of this sake bottle, and then a separate circular, cylindrical spout surrounded by beading was attached to the body. The interior hollowing extends from the point where the spout is attached to about halfway into the torso area, and the remaining lower half of the body was left solid. This results in an extremely heavy sensibility and actual form.

The entire bottle was coated in black lacquer and, with the exception of the bottom of the base, was finished with red lacquer. Over long years of use, this upper layer of red lacquer has begun to chip off, exposing the black lacquer underneath and forming the distinctive lacquer appearance of the worn red lacquer wares which have been dubbed "Negoro" wares.

This form of bottle was mentioned in the sake brewery section of volume 40 of the Engishiki completed in 927 (Encho 5), and thus we can see that it was clearly used at that time as a sake vessel. Of course, the majority of bottles of this type from this period were made of either metal or ceramics, and their shape was undoubtedly influenced by Chinese utensils.

Lacquered wood bottles of this shape cannot be confirmed in Heian texts, and existing examples only date as far back as the Kamakura period. The 13th century illustrated handscroll The Battle of Gosannen (Important Cultural Property, Tokyo National Museum) depicts a sake bottle of this shape which resembles the celadons of China's Song dynasty. This bottle shows the special characteristics of this bottle type, namely its small cylindrical spout, swelling at the shoulders into a generous curve that fans outward before returning to a narrow hip and flaring out again to a broad foot, thus exhibiting an S-shaped form overall. This type of vessel, which is also called a mei ping jar in Chinese, was also produced at the Ko-Seto kilns, and it is likely that lacquered wood versions of this vessel shape would have developed around this time as a result of the popularity of the ceramic versions. Early examples of this form of red lacquer sake bottle can be found at the Hakusan Nagataki Shrine, Gifu prefecture. All of the examples from Japan's medieval period exhibit an S-shaped outline base, and those which have a thin rise from the foot are the older form of the vessel type. This sake bottle is also of this earlier form. It seems that all of these red lacquer sake bottles were used as shrine furnishings, and originally a pair of these would have been placed as offerings on the altar before the central shrine. SK