Inkstone box (suzuribako)

Historical period(s)
Edo period, 17th century
Lacquer on wood with gold and silver
H x W x D (overall): 5.5 x 22.9 x 24.8 cm (2 3/16 x 9 x 9 3/4 in)
Credit Line
Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view
Container, Lacquer

Inkstone box

Buddhism, Edo period (1615 - 1868), Japan, landscape, maple tree, Tales of Ise, writing, WWII-era provenance

Unidentified Japanese collector [1]

To 2005
Koichi Yanagi Oriental Fine Arts, New York to 2005, acquired from an unidentified Japanese collector, to 2005 [2]

From 2005
Freer Gallery of Art, purchased from Koichi Yanagi Oriental Fine Arts in 2005


[1] According to Mr. Yanagi, the object came from a Japanese collection (see Curatorial Note 3, Ann Yonemura, January 2005, from Curatorial Justification for Acquisition).

[2] See note 1.

Previous Owner(s)

Koichi Yanagi Oriental Fine Arts


Inkstone boxes (suzuribako) decorated with gold and silver designs were highly valued possessions of Japanese aristocrats and other elite patrons. Designed to hold an inkstone, water dropper, brushes and solid ink for writing poems or personal correspondence, such boxes could be used indoors in private quarters, for social gatherings such as poetry competitions, or outdoors on a veranda overlooking garden. The designs of suzuribako closely reflect the refined aesthetic tastes and literary interests of their owners, who commissioned the designs from accomplished lacquer artists.

The design on the exterior of this box is executed in a variety of Japanese techniques known as maki-e, which gold and silver particles and leaf embedded in lacquer. In an autumnal mountain landscape with a windblown maple tree and ivy vines stands a Buddhist priest’s backpack (oi) formed of solid silver. Among the contours of the tree and rocks, three calligraphic characters in silver (yume=dream; ni=in; hito=person) represent three elements of a poem in the tenth-century classic of Japanese court literature, Tales of Ise. In the famous episode known as Tsuta no hosomichi (The narrow ivy path), the poet-hero is traveling in eastern Japan, and encounters and ascetic monk on a dark mountain path overgrown with ivy and maples. The remote and lonely imagery of this scene is reflected in the hero’s poem:

Beside Mount Utsu
In Suruga
I can see you 
Neither waking 
Nor alas, even in my dreams. 

Suruga naru
Utsu no yamabe no
Utsutsu ni mo
Yume ni mo hito ni
Awanu narikeri

Translation from: Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan, translated by Helen Craig McCullough

Published References
  • Nihon no shitsugei. 6 vols., Tokyo. vol. 4: p. 106.
  • Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari): Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan. Stanford. pp. 75-76.
Collection Area(s)
Japanese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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