It was the Portuguese who are reputed to have first introduced tobacco to Japan, sometime in the 16th century.
Within just a few decades it had been quickly adopted, even though government officials had passed edicts to restrict its use.
Despite this, tobacco popularity spread and with it, the creation of up-market and often, highly decorative accessories such as the Kiseru pipe and Tabako-Bon or tobacco tray/box which quickly became status symbols.
The Japanese Tabako-Bon smoking set originally evolved from the ancient traditional equipment used in the Japanese incense ceremony, the Kodo.
The ko-ban or incense tray became the tabako-bon or tobacco tray; the incense burner evolved into the brazier or charcoal fire pot for lighting the Kiseru pipe, and the incense pot became the jar to contain the ash.
During a smoking session, the smoker would place a ball of fine kizami tobacco into the Kiseru’s bowl, lighting it with the charcoal fire, then dump the ash into the ash container.
The last component was the Kiseru pipe which has a story all its own.
During the Edo period (1603 to 1867) weapons were frequently used as objects to flaunt one’s financial status. Since commoners were prohibited to carry sharper weapons, an elaborate kiseru, carried slung from the waist, often served the purpose. After the Meiji restoration (1868 – 1889) and the abolishment of the caste system, many craftsmen who had previously worked on decorating swords moved on to designing kiseru pipes and tobacco pouches.
Typically the mouth piece and bowl of the Kiseru are made from metal, with a tubular shaft of wood or bamboo stretching in between.
The bowl is much smaller than that of western-style pipes and because each kiseru is basically a rod with metal ends, extremely long kiseru could be carried as weapons, especially by the gangster-like kabukimono samurai of Edo period Japan. Many kiseru have been engraved with elaborate details by skilled artisans and were a status symbol for the owner.
It’s interesting to note that the word “Kiseru” is more commonly used today in Japan to describe the practice of defrauding the railway system by buying two cheap tickets to get past the entrance and exit gates whilst not paying for the distance travelled between them. The analogy to the Kiseru pipe is that there is only metal at the ends with nothing in the middle, a metaphor explaining that money (metal) only covers the beginning and the end.
This squarish, turn of the century Kiri Wood and Brass, Japanese Tabako-Bon comes complete with 3 brass knobbed sliding draws - one of which still contains an ancient paper pack of Japanese tobacco; a brass lidded, water pot/ash pot plus a two piece, solid brass brazier which was used to store hot coals for the lighting of the Kiseru pipes.
The brass brazier features a removable domed, open lid and can be swivelled to lock into the Kiri wooden box so the complete Tabako-bon can be carried by its hinged, brass handle.
With small brass corner fittings and a beautifully decorated lacquered bamboo and silver Kiseru pipe resting in its horizontal holder, this really is one beautiful piece of Japanese artistry and would be a proud centre piece of any home.
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