Friday, January 20, 2012

Japanese kiseru

In our opinion, however distasteful might be lighting up tobacco in an all-metal pipe, the consummate art form in metal pipes is the kisuru, a very uniquely designed tobacco pipe from Japan, The most common style is a simple, three-part pipe consisting of a mouthpiece and bowl of metal, and in between, a connector of bamboo or other wood; the premier examples are those of all metal, known as nobe-kiseru. The metal-working techniques are many and varied, using copper, silver, gold, damascene, pewter and assorted alloys, dictated either by the artist or the prospective owner. Subject matter depicted on a large majority of these kiseru included divine beasts (real and imagined), mythical demons, monsters, and demigods, flora, particularly bamboo, pine and plum blossoms, entomological symbols, ichthyological symbols, and landscapes.

Today, finding a kiseru exhibiting the quality of the one depicted here is a rare feat; finding a skilled Japanese artisan to duplicate this finery is a yet more rare feat. On close inspection, the viewer should be able to appreciate the delicate, precision craftsmanship of chiseling, engraving, encrustation, surfacing, and applying accents and adornment to these utensils of smoke by skilled artisans long ago. One can read in various sources that the kiseru is an opium pipe; nothing could be further from the truth! It was always a pipe for tobacco.

Japanese kiseru, 11 5/8” l., 1 1/2” h., depicting a metal dragon, black and red, Signature on the mouthpiece, silver and coral and coral ball (the sign of a mandarin who would wear the same type of ball, as a button on his cap).

From the James Lee Dick collection. Kiseru pipes are an Asian variation on the smoking pipe that has been around since the sixteenth century. The small bowl size can be deceiving in that a small ball of fine-grained tobacco can last a long time in these small bowls. The substantial amount of decoration on this pipe indicates that it was originally owned by somebody within the social elite of Japanese society.

(Courtesy of the Colorado Springs, Colorado, Pioneers Museum)


  1. Stumbled upon this while researching Sakoku (isolationism) in the Tokugawa period. It's a hallmark of Japanese craft to imbue a simple object with such design and artistry. Lovely! Thank you :)