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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.