Collections: Jubako

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There was never any question about whether my collection of jubako would be making the journey with us to Kaua’i or not. In fact, they were among the first things that were packed for the move, with each piece lovingly swaddled in bubble wrap and put away before we started showing our Portland house to prospective buyers.

My lacquered jubako

My 100+ years-old lacquered jubako

Jubako are stacking boxes that were/are used to hold food. They are traditionally either ceramic/porcelain or lacquered wood, and are either square- or cylindrical-shaped. The square ceramic ones are the least common jubako but are perceived to have a more “Japanese” aesthetic while the round ones are more “Chinese.” The ceramic or porcelain ones are most often blue and white (sometsuke), but multi-colored ones are seen as well, including vividly colored Imari porcelain. Jubako were/are used to hold the traditional New Year’s meal, osechi-ryori, with each layer holding a different course. Besides holding osechi, lacquered jubako were also used for picnics, and sometimes were part of elaborate picnic sets that included not only jubako but sake containers and other accoutrement. These days porcelain jubako can pretty much be found only in antique stores, but lacquered jubako are still used for New Year’s osechi.

My first jubako

My first jubako

I found my first jubako in 1981, hidden back in the corner of a dusty little antique shop located next to the commissary on the Yokosuka navy base. It didn’t cost much, and I thought it was pretty. As another collector once said though, once you get bit by the jubako bug, one is never enough. Not only are they beautiful to look at, they are also handy for holding things like keys or other trinkets (ours used to hold matchbooks). I bought an old lacquered jubako from a friend that was departing Japan and trying to downsize, and discovered another blue and white cylindrical one in a shop right before we transferred back to the States.

The straw house jubako

The straw house jubako

When we returned to Japan for another tour in 1989, I began searching out jubako in earnest and decided to narrow my collecting focus to blue and white square-shaped jubako. I traded my round jubako for a square one and I was off! Setting parameters for collecting made them more difficult to find, but kept my hunt and purchases more focused. During the three and half years we were in Japan for our second tour, I showed up early at antique bazaars, shrine sales, and other sites, always with my eyes peeled for one of the blue and white stacking boxes. The jubako with the straw house was a serendipitous find though. Brett and I had purchased a large kitchen tansu (chest) from an antique dealer we knew in the town where we lived, and when we started breaking it down for transport to our house, we found the jubako hidden inside. We told the dealer, but he said since he had had no idea it was there, it was ours (mine!).

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Can you see that I don’t have the design aligned between the bottom two sections? Stacking the pieces of a jubako is like putting together a puzzle.

My favorite, if I have to pick one, is the one of cranes flying over the waves, and with Mt. Fuji pictured on the lid. The design is just so very Japanese. The two incomplete boxes in front are what’s left of two small-sized jubako. I spotted them at an antiques bazaar, they were inexpensive, so I added them to the collection. Their small size makes a nice contrast to the rest, and I like to imagine what they would have looked like with all their layers intact.

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None of my jubako are Antiques Roadshow worthy, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t enjoy looking at them and their beautiful blue designs. I’ve seen other jubako on recent trips to Japan, but they’re ridiculously expensive these days so I haven’t been tempted to buy any more. But who knows? I don’t think I would ever say “no” to another.

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10 thoughts on “Collections: Jubako

    • Laura says:

      Blue and white from anywhere has always appealed to me. I especially love Delft Blue, and if we had been stationed there would have probably brought home a boatload of it.

      But, Japanese blue & white has always made my pulse run a little quicker, and I had to restrain myself from buying more of it than I did when we lived there. I got rid of very little of it before we moved. My son and daughter-in-law always gift me with beautiful blue & white when they come to visit, so I’m still able to get a fix now and again.

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    • Laura says:

      They really are – that’s what caught my attention the first time. Most, but not all, are hand-painted, and I am awed by how the designs line up on each side (I really need to fix that one with the waves – I didn’t see that I hadn’t set it up right until I took the picture!).

      Some of the lacquered ones are nothing short of amazing, and bring a whole new dimension to the word ‘gorgeous.’ If I had unlimited funds (and space) I think that’s what I’d collect next.

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  1. Vivian Gibson says:

    Beautiful. Speaking of Japan, did you ever finish your Rosetta Japanese course and has Brett worked with it. How do you both rate the material? Is it good for the beginner?

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    • Laura says:

      I got about 2/3 of the way through the Rosetta Stone program, but then other things got in the way and I let it drop. I am planning to start back in once we’re back from our vacation this month, especially since we plan on heading back to Japan next year. I think it is good for a beginner, especially if you just want to use it for travel. For me, it’s almost all review, but a good one.

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    • Laura says:

      The blue and white ones aren’t very common, and are even hard to find these days in antique shops (and cost a fortune compared to when I bought mine back in the early 90s). Lacquer ones are easier to find, but are expensive too (actually, almost everything in Japan is expensive it seems).

      I have actually found collecting to be more fun when I do set some sort of limit for myself. Otherwise it seems to turn into a mad grab for EVERYTHING. Lots of my collecting bug is taken care of these days through Pinterest.

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