Kiseru, a word whose etymology has always been in question. It may have derived from the Cambodian word khsier, a tube or a pipe, or perhaps its origin is the Portuguese words "que surver", literally, a thing to suck.
From an early age, the Japanese are taught to hone all their skills to perfection in any endeavor undertaken. Although their art can be classified as minimalist, they have a remarkable ability to create exquisite objects with due diligence and an eye for beauty. Their national expression of a tobacco pipe, not much in use today, is just one example.
|Tokyo School Ivory. SEISO signature plaque on base. Height 7.75 inches. Meiji Period.|
Although many of the misguided believe that the kiseru is an opium pipe, it is unquestionably a tobacco pipe which the Dutch are believed to have introduced into Japan in the 16th century.
“Of late, a new herb from distant lands across the sea has come to our country … a medicine not listed in the herbals of ancient China, and one which remained untasted by the first father of herb-lore, old Entei. Although we hear the name of this singular plant, we know not how to transcribe it, but persons burn its leaves and consume the smoke thereof. It is said that if a sick man tastes this smoke he is restored to glowing health, and that those who consume it may hope to out live even that paragon of longevity, the sage Koso himself. Whether they know of these lofty matters or not, among the common folk, lewd and learned alike, there are none who do not favor this herb. As for the vogue with which the herb enjoys today, its like is not to be found in the annals of times past. In the proverbs of our land, it has been said that the hearts of people in this world are as quick to change as the colors of fading flowers. It is not so in this case, for whether gentle or simple, cleric or lay, man or woman, there is no one who does not enjoy the herb. In their lives it is like unto the candle, without the light of which we cannot see the banquet spread before us on a clear night of autumn. Compared to wine, it would excel the sweetest vintages of Amano in Nara. Compared with tea, it would put the most savory leaves of Toga-no-o or Uji to shame. Persons who know nothing of one another, who come from different worlds and walks of life, can nonetheless find mutual ground and links of friendship in their common liking for the herb, and those with a taste for poetry can find in it matter to inspire them. Wherever one may walk, there is no quarter of the city unscented by it fragrant smoke. It is not limited to the capital alone, but known even among rude, outlandish folk in distant parts. … In our world today, much is said, but little is known, of true virtue and learning. Alas, what can I do but gather my companions about me, to forget such a world in their lively company? Since I alone have yet to taste the herb, my comrades jest at my expense, and one day I may yet make bold to adopt a fashion which all enjoy …”
Reflections of Imperial Prince Toshihito, Kyoto 1609
|Young man and woman with pipe. Signed: Ichijusai Kunimasa ca. 1790s.|
It is a unique Oriental format employing novel materials and distinctive techniques of individual craftsmanship, and its decor exhibits matchless subject matter; it is a pipe style that has never been emulated or imitated. The construct of a typical kiseru is three components: a small metal bowl for the finely shredded tobacco, a metal mouthpiece, and stem of bamboo, metal,ivory, or any other material that interconnects the mouthpiece and the bowl; the more exact term for this three-piece kiseru is rao-kiseru.
|printed in 1916 (reproduction of a print from the Edo era by Shunsho)|
"Until about 1660, kiseru were mostly undecorated, but the general flowering of trade brought affluence to the merchant classes, and their demands exerted a great influence upon decoration," [Nadine and Phillipe Quinet, "Kiseru The Japanese Pipe", Netsuke Kenkukai Study Journal, VOl 15, No 2, Summer 1995, 25] not unlike what occurred in Europe between the 18th and 19th centuries with increasingly more ornate wood, porcelain, and meerschaum pipes as these three formats evolved.
|Shiki no aki zashiki no tsuki, Quatre saisons : autumn moon in the reception room, by Nishimura Shigenaga (1725–1730)|
At the peak of its popularity in both the Edo (1600-1867) and the Meiji (1868-1912) periods, the kiseru could be found in a wide range of styles, some more than a meter long, some with such exquisite engraving and adornment that they can rightfully be called works of art.
|A young Japanese woman lighting her kiseru, by Th. Stevens (1886)|
Understandably, as the cigarette became popular in Japan, the kiseru gradually fell into disuse.
I often rely on Cope's Tobacco Plant for pithily phrased commentary about smoke, and it did not fail me on this occasion when I searched its index for discourse about Japanese pipes.
|"The Bragge Collection", Cope'sTobacco Plant, No 129, Vol II, December, 1880, 557|
Describing William Bragge's pipe museum, it reported:
Who can fail to gaze with respectful awe on the pipe which once belonged to the foster-brother of an emperor of Japan? Its bowl and tip is of silver, and its iron stem is inlaid in gold with the royal emblems... The peculiar characteristics of Japanese art are well illustrated in these specimens. Their love of the grotesque, their keen sense of humour, are no less evident than the untiring patience with which the artist covers some tiny object with the results of his loving skill. ["The Bragge Collection", Cope's Tobacco Plant, No. 129, Vol II, December, 1880, 557]
Not every pipe collector is interested in kiseru. Some may own one or two examples, but no one I know has amassed as many premier kiseru as one couple living in Virginia who have been unraptured with the diligent craftsmanship from this Far East country for their entire adult lives. They have an impressively rich and eclectic assortment of museum-quality things Japanese. Although they live with their many sub-collections, what stand out are their kushi (combs) and kôgai (hair pins); netsuke (miniature sculptures); tetsubin (iron teapots); fuchi and kashira (sword fittings) and menuki (those delightful metal ornaments on sword hilts); and every object associated with pipe smoking as it once was in Japan: kiseru, kiseru-zutsu (pipe cases), tabako-ire (brocade and leather tobacco pouches) tonkotsu (tobacco boxes made of various materials, such as abalone shell, bamboo, leather and wood), and anything else tobacco- or pipe related made of metal, such as omote kanagu (literally, outside attached metal fixtures or hardware), which are the clasps on tobako-ire.Having seen this collection, I felt compelled to write about those extraordinary kiseru. (interestingly this couple is convinced that antique meerschaum pipes exhibit the same degree of intricate and detailed carving as netsuke, so they also collect meerschaum pipes. But truth be told the husband's special devotion is to his kiseru. His pursuit is the pipe's art form, not its smokability).
Kiseru come in all sorts of shapes, styles and sizes: natamame (flat and short, often called a pea-pod pipe);
tazunagata ( a pipe exhibiting a twisted rope-like configuration);
kawarigata (collectively those pipes with shapes that defy classification);
|Exceptionally rare brass kawarigata-kiseru simulating a lotus stem. Side view of the above|
meoto (a pipe with one bowl and two stems); and the extremely rare giyaman (glass), just to mention a few.
The focus of this story, however, is not the simple three-piece kiseru, but this couple's exceptional collection of all-metal kiseru in two closely related subjects: those kiseru that have a metal rao; and nobe-kiseru, a solid metal pipe having no rao.
Three exceptions that I could not resist including:
|Heavy silver rao-kiseru, peony décor on bowl and mouthpiece, applied by chiseling and sculpting techniques, and partially gilded, five damascened butterflies on rao. Length: 8.5 inches.|
|Rao-kiseru, gold bowl and mouthpiece, shibuichi body, high-relief gold design of winter plants and two quails at pond's edge, lacquer rao, décor of Tokugawa coats of arms (mons), Signature on gold tablet. Length: 11.5 inches.|
According to kiseru nomenclature, the length of a nobe's body, the entire stem between the bowl and the mouthpiece is the dô, not rao. Nobe-kiseru are often found in variants of both inseparable and separable (two and three-piece) configurations, the latter two for obvious ease of travel and cleaning. Although the kiseru in both subgroups are aesthetically eye-appealing , the nobe-kiseru are exceptionally extravagant-perhaps the premier expression of kiseru- a variety that automatically and instantaneously excites the tactile and visual senses as might the flame grain of a handsome briar or the intricately detailed expression of a finely crafted antique European meerschaum.
Were solid metal pipes practical smoking instruments or ornamental articles? I don't think it matters one iota! What does matter is that the all-metal kiseru are superlative examples of what man has been able to manipulating metal. Who were those artisans? Identifying them is similar to the difficulty in associating most antique meerschaum, porcelain, and early wood pipes to their makers- it is said that only about one-tenth of the kiseru in circulation today are signed.
|Sword guard (tsuba), 19th century; Edo period (1615–1868)|
Inscribed by Ishiguro Masayoshi (Japanese, 1772–after 1851)
Shakudo, gold, shibuichi, copper; 2 7/8 x 2 5/8 in. (7.3 x 6.7 cm)
Metalworkers made tsubas (sword guards), fuchi and kashira, and menuki until 1871, when a decree was issued prohibiting the manufacture of swords (and later reinforced by the Haitôrei Decree in 1876 that banned carrying swords in public). Some metalworkers probably were the very same artisans who then turned to crafting pipes and kanagu working with a variety of materials: iron, brass, copper alloys, silver, gold-washed copper or silver, and combinations of iron and gold, iron and silver, shibuishi (copper and silver), shakudo (copper and gold), or pewter and gold.
Each technique for chiseling, engraving, encrustation, surfacing, and applying accents and adornment has a discreet and exacting name.
The classic Japanese decorative elements often applied in combination to these exceptionally exquisite and ornate pipes, made them an instrument of stature and wealth, and were most often associated with nobility and the influential.
The favorite, but certainly not the only subject matter depicted on a great majority of kiseru, include:
- divine beasts, real and imagined, particularly the three-toed dragon (a zodiac symbol), and the phoenix (representing peace and prosperity)
|Cast and chased silver nobe-kiseru with gilt accents depicting heavenly dragon among clouds that encircle dô. Signed. Length: 8.625 inches.|
- mythological demons, monsters, and demigods, especially Daruma, founder of the Zen Buddhism (who represents discipline , determination, sacrifice and forbearance)
|Silver and mixed metal nobe-kiseru, an example of many varied metalworking techniques, depicting the holy man (Tekkai) standing on a rock and blowing his soul- the tiny figure near the bowl- out of his body. Length; 8.75 inches.|
- flora, particularly bamboo, pine and plum blossoms (the three friends of winter that, when combined into one symbol, represent propitiousness); the peony (a symbol of royal power, the plant of healing, happy life, prosperity, virility, and the flower of June in Japan); and the chrysanthemum is the Emperor's symbol, and if engraved or etched on a kiseru, means that the pipe was made for the Emperor's own use or as his personal gift to someone).
|Rao kiseru: dark patinated silver, chased design of multiple peonies and rocks, brass rao incised with matching design. Length: 9.5 inches.|
|Silver rao-kiseru, chased and engraved chrysanthemum design; sculpted fan lies among blossoms, and rao bears engraved hollyhock. Fan and hollyhock are family crests that, when combined, represent a two-family relationship. Length: 8.75 inches.|
|Nobe-kiseru, silver bowl and mouthpiece, dô finely decorated with thousands of gilt punched dots (nanako), high-relief silver leaves, intricate millet stems in gold encircle the body, and three silver plovers circle near the bowl. Length: 9.5 inches.|
- entomological symbols, notably the dragonfly, butterfly and beetle
- ichthyological symbols, such as the crab and carp- vigor and endurance); amphibians, such as frogs, turtle, and reptilians, particularly snakes; and the crane(representing longevity)
- landscapes, and tranquil and bucolic scenes, such as waterfalls.
|Nobe-kiseru, almost identical décor to the one above, but shakudo technique executed by another artist. Silver tablet bears signature. Length: 9 inches.|
In the illustrations of the kiseru in this article, it is not essential to know the names of the artisans on those bearing a signature, or to understand the particular iconography depicted, because such details are not needed to appreciate the art. The reader should focus on the intricate workmanship, the decorative elements, and the classic engraving, incising, and inlay techniques. View the kiseru in this article as an impartial aficionado with a new eye and a critical lens, and I believe that you'll be viscerally captivated by their beauty, elegance, sophistication and finesse.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and were it not for these illustrations, I would need several thousand appropriately elegant and complimentary words to describe the exquisite character of what I believe to be some of the finest museum-quality metal kiseru on the planet today. It's almost a crime to consider lighting up one of these dazzling specimens for fear of despoiling it. Collectively, these are on par and in some instances far superior to the kiseru one might encounter at either of the two most renowned collections in Japan, the Tobacco and Salt Museum in Tokyo and the Tsubame Sangyo Shiryo-kan (the Industrial Museum) in Tsubame.
Finding kiseru of this caliber nowadays is quite the quest.They customarily command princely prices when they infrequently appear at auction; strangely enough, the very highest quality kiseru appear at auction more often in Europe and in the United States than in their country of origin.
photos of kiseru by Jean-Robert Guenard; additional illustration by Daniel Beck