Japanese Lacquer Incense Box

Antique Japanese Urushi Lacquered Incense Storage Box, (kōbako) with Cover | Japanese Kanshitsu Black kōbako

Unknown Artist



Descriptive qualities& condition:

Dimensions: 27-1/4”l x 4-1/4”w x 1-1/2”d

Being offered is an extremely RARE and scarce lacquer finish on a large, rectangular Temple incense storage box, (kōbako). It was specifically made for holding large fragile incense sticks used in an outdoor Jokoro to welcome visitors to Buddha’s sacred space. The piece embodies the ancient sense of Japanese beauty and minimalistic form and is made as a functional object void of elaborate decoration. 

The exterior is wrapped in coarse black hemp cloth then covered in black Urushi lacquer, (Kanshitsu) giving the piece a wonderful textured finish. The finish is referred to as “dry lacquer”, a technique used in Japanese Bako design, sculpture, and decorative arts, (see further explanation below). The box has radius corners with the center of both sides of the lid having a carved rectangular “ogee” motif, (as found in temple architecture) which provides a pleasing flow and rhythm for ease of removing the cover. The interior of the container is lined with decorative handmade washi paper and has a small section to hold wood matches and a larger section to contain tall incense and in this case “vervain” incense sticks, which we are unsure if they burn but are original and included. In Japan, this fragrance of incense is used to create a sense of well-being and is typically placed at the entrance of sacred spaces as well as in "Buddhist altars" (Butsudan).

The piece was purchased in 1998 in Kodo Village on Sado Island which is an island located in the eastern part of the Sea of Japan. We were told that the piece was acquired from a family whose son was a monk and passed away after having been the abbot of a small Worship Hall (Haiden) on the island during his spiritual life. 

Kodo Village was created by its founders with the dream of establishing a refuge for artisanal craftsmen in the wild forested surroundings. The island has historically been used as a place of exile for artistic refuge due to its remoteness and seclusion from the rest of Japan. The island’s past along with its own unique culture has developed over time, making it the perfect place to hone one’s skill as an artisan and a natural environment devoted to creativity and exchange, and referred to as a "floating treasure chest" of Japanese craft.

Antique Condition: Excellent, original, unaltered, and commensurate with age. No split corners, no scratches, no warping, cracks, or imperfections. Exceptional quality and maintained with respect. Retains the fragrance of incense.

NOTE: The Kanshisu finish incorporating Urushi lacquer used on this “kōbako” is made from the sap of a Japanese lacquer tree, a process of collecting the Urushi (sap), and applying many layers of lacquer to the wood/cloth surface. The craftsman distributes Urushi powder onto the body, which adds texture and causes the surface to be rough due to the density of the material. After it has dried, the body is varnished with lacquer several times to make the surface harden and buffed with charcoal to complete the finish.