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The Japanese pipe (kiseru).
Copyright © 2001 & 2002 John C. Loring -- update 02/04/02
Contributed by Yang Forcióri

Tabako Kiseru Bon Ensem Tsutsu Ire Net Gloss Bib

The Japanese pipe, a kiseru, generally 4" - 12" long in the 19th century, is found in two basic styles: rao-kiseru and nobe-kiseru. The difference between the two being in the shank.

Most commonly found, the rao-kiseru consists of a hollow bamboo, or occasionally a hollow wood shank (rao) connected at one end to a metal mouth piece (suikuchi) and at the other end to a small metal bowl (hizara or gankubi - it is said that hizara refers specifically to the bowl and gankuki (which translates as ‘gooseneck’ ) to the curve just under the bowl but the terms seem to be more often used interchangeably to refer to the entire bowl structure). The metal shanks of the hizara and suikuchi into which the rao fits are called kata. The terms rao and kiseru are traditionally said to have been derived from Cambodian, but recent study has shown that if anything the reverse is true with the Japanese terms being in turn derived from 16th century Portuguese smoking terminology.

The very first Japanese pipes of the late 16th century are said to have been made completely of bamboo with one end widened and deepened to act as a bowl, but in short order the rao-kiseru was introduced. Most likely these initial rao-kiseru were derived from Dutch pipes, not the later early/mid 17th century mass produced clays but rather late 16th century Dutch sailor pipes with pewter bowls and mouthpieces and hollow wood shanks. These first rao-kiseru were undecorated, and compared to rao-kiseru of the 19th century, were significantly longer and had larger hizara. An older view based on some painted screen scenes was that these initial pipes had a distinctive and exaggerated ‘hook like’ kata (much like some more recent Korean or Chinese pipes) and referred to these pipes as namban giseru. A more recent and likely the better view however, suggests that the relied upon screen scenes represent an initial artist confusion between Portuguese artifacts and point out that there are no surviving archeological or stylistic examples even hinting at a namban giseru while there are examples of typical straight kata dating to the beginning of the 17th century. In any event during the 17th century the namban giseru, if it ever existed, completely disappeared, the hizara of the rao-kiseru grew smaller and overall the rao-kiseru grew shorter with occasional decoration These trends continued in the following two centuries, so that by the 19th century a rao-kiseru with a small hizara, well under 12” in overall length and often decorated was the norm.

It is only speculation, but I would speculate that this general development of the rao-kiseru evolved from five factors. First and second would be the change from home to professional tobacco preparation most likely leading to both a finer, consistent shredding conducive to a smaller hizara and a better quality ‘smoother’ kizami-tabako blend conducive to a shorter rao. The third was undoubtedly the increasing official acceptance of smoking, meaning that kiseru could be smoked outside the home, suggesting smaller pipes easier to carry and with that emergence, an increasingly important vehicle for the wealthy to use to publicly display status (in the late 18th century silver, gold and brass pipe decorations were expressly, but unsuccessfully, prohibited) and for all to use to express their individuality. The fourth and fifth factors go to the increased quality of decoration, wherein not only did the hizara and suikuchi kata sometimes become the subject of exquisite metal work but likewise the rao, although most such have been lost to wear and replacement, might be of rare material or the subject of wondrous lacquer work. Here, especially in the 19th century, the increasing wealth of Japan as a whole must have played a role, as did late in that century, the 1871 ban on sword making which meant that some of Japan’s finest artisans turned to the kiseru to display there incredible metal working skills.

To these five factors I would add a sixth, albeit perhaps only a product of western eyes, and that is what to my eyes at least, is a cultural preference for the more delicate, smaller as opposed to the bulkier and larger. One factor suggested by some others, I discount, that is that the cost of tobacco led to smaller hizara and consequently smaller kiseru. I discount this as a factor for even if I assume expensive tobacco, this would not have persuaded the wealthy smokers to change their pipe preferences, and we know that even limiting the sampling to the finest of rao-kiseru, obviously owned by wealthy smokers, that large hizara are the very rare exception.

The other principal style of kiseru is the nobe-kiseru. While a fourteen inch long nobe-kiseru has been found dating back to the late 17th century generally speaking they are significantly less common and shorter then the rao-kiseru, were more much more expensive, and said for a time at least to have been reserved for the nobility. The nobe-kiseru typically is an all metal pipe but occasionally all glass or all ceramic. In any event the defining distinction between a rao-kiseru and a nobe-kiseru is that the latter lacks a bamboo or wood shank. The 'shank' of a nobe-kiseru, the equivalent of the rao in a rao-kiseru, is called the 'do'. Nobe-kiseru in the 19th century were often popular with the date, dandies, and consequently sometimes referred to as date-kiseru (it is also suggested that the term date-kiseru refers specifically to long kiseru carried by a ‘dandy’ on their shoulder, probably both uses at one time or another were correct). While today the collector will find far more rao-kiseru then nobe-kiseru, I suspect that the but for the 1870’s bans on making and wearing swords the nobe-kiseru would be far rarer still and that many of the nobe-kiseru we see today are the product of sword makers finding a new area for their skills. While completely subjective, supporting this view is a personal observation that looking at all the various collections of kiseru as a composite, the rao-kiseru give me a feeling of centuries of conservative development while the nobe-kiseru suggest a burst of innovative styling. Somewhat like leaving a museum’s gallery of ‘Old Masters’ and entering that of the ‘Impressionists’.

Both the rao-kiseru and nobe-kiseru come in a variety of sub-styles.

Rao-kiseru are generally classified by the shape of the kata of the hizara and suikuchi, both kata always being of the same style. The typical rao-kiseru kata is in the sekishu (gently rounded) style, less common are the tamagawa (tubular), goten or kodai-ji (bulbous), or joshin (paneled) styles. It is said that goten styled kiseru were favored by nobility and tamagawa by samurai of lesser rank but I suspect if true, it was only momentarily. Since the rao-kiseru was refitted from time to time with rao (bamboo shanks) of different lengths, the shaft length is less of a style determinant although it is clear from prints that at different times different lengths were popular and certain lengths were considered appropriate for different occasions. For instance an extremely long pipe occasionally came into style carried by resting the pipe on one's shoulder. It is said that such pipes were the choice of the early 17th century smoking clubs referred to earlier and who are said to have sometimes worn their pipes like swords. In the 18th century these pipes, then called hana-mi-kiseru, might be displayed on the shoulders of women traveling to an hanami, a picnic outing during cherry blossom season. Other prints dating both earlier and later show such pipes carried by retainers following their master to or from the bath. Collectively prints from the 19th century tend to show women with somewhat longer pipes then the men but no where near as long as the aforementioned affectations. Likewise tobacco equipment intended for the home generally suggest that the kiseru smoked in the 18th or 19th century home was at least an inch or two longer then pipes carried outside the home.

Nobe-kiseru styles are more eclectic and generally are classified by the shape of the do. Nobe-kiseru styles include: 'goten' - even flowing, thinnish linear pipes; 'joshin' - with rectangular 'do'; 'tazunagate' - with twisted, rope like 'do'; 'natamame' - with flat 'do'; and 'giyamono' - made of glass rather then metal and associated with tea houses. Most all nobe-kiseru are shorter then the typical rao-kiseru, rarely longer and I suspect that most often the nobe-kiseru was intended as a pipe to be carried when one went out rather then one smoked at home. Indeed one form of the rare longer nobe-kiseru pulls or screws apart into two or more parts for travel. And even nobe-kiseru of average length can be found to screw apart into two or more pieces to be conveniently carried. Similarly it is said that the natamame style was favored by soldiers in the 19th century, I assume because with the flat do they are easy to carry.

A kiseru (be it a nobe-kiseru or rao-kiseru) of unusual form is referred to as a 'kawarigata' (literally, ‘fancy model’). Two particular kawarigata, are one having a single bowl and two rao meeting to form a /\ at the bowl, termed a meotokiseru. and another with an “S” shape rao joined by metal fittings at the curves. Although usually not termed as such, another kawarigata form, are unusually large, in the sense of bulky or heavy, kiseru of both the rao (most often) and nobe variety. Three explanations are given for these large pipes most probably all collectively correct. Typically overly large rao-kiseru are termed 'prize' pipes ‘traditionally’ awarded to victors of sumo wrestling matches but on other occasions as well. Others attribute overly large kiseru of both varieties to sumo wrestlers who preferred large pipes or to actors, artists and ‘dandies’ who liked to show off. Still other’s refer to these pipes as 'kenka-kiseru,' large to massive pipes that could be used as defensive weapons (somewhat similar in purpose perhaps, to bokuto – wooden ‘doctors’swords carried for defensive purposes - a related but rarely found pipe, usually a nobe-kiseru, is one that pulls apart to reveal a dagger).

Kiseru of both varieties, but especially rao-kiseru were in occasional need of a through cleaning or minor repair or in the case of a rao-kiseru replacement of a broken or ‘soured from smoking’ rao and a common street scene in a 19th century Japan was a raoya with one or two hand carts and a boiler to generate pressurized steam. A raoya cleaned and repaired kiseru, replaced rao, and sold common place, undecorated kiseru.

Because of the small bowl the kiseru is often mistaken for an opium pipe but in fact opium never took hold in Japan and the kiseru was exclusively used to smoke kizami-tabako. The tabako was rolled into a small ball and pressed into the hizara of the kiseru. A 'bowl' of tobacco provided three or so 'puffs'. Traditionally, it said a kiseru was filled, lit, and puffed about three times, then perhaps, twice more in succession it might be emptied, refilled, relit from the embers of the prior bowl, and puffed thrice more, for a total of nine or so puffs. A suigaraake or kurawa, a small metal or wood ash receiver, was sometimes carried (most often as a netsuke, see below) to hold the embers for relighting the pipe but it is recounted that, while not considered good manners, many of the lower classes just held the embers in the palm of the hand while refilling the kiseru with the other. Prints of working or traveling scenes also sometimes show one person's pipe being lit, bowl mouth against bowl mouth, from the embers in another's. Or in print scenes of workers, from smoldering, slow burning cord, apparently left burning during the day to light kiseru during work breaks. Then again if you were fortunate enough to be entertained by a geisha she would fill, pack and light the kiseru and after taking the first puff, hand the pipe to you.

A kiseru shank can quickly heat up, especially those of all metal nobe-kiseru, and prints show kiseru rao and do with a scarf tied around, seemingly for a finger hold either to protect the fingers from heat or perhaps the converse, to protect a delicately decorated rao from oily fingers. On the other hand one also find kata of the hizara of rather ordinary ‘working class’ pipes with a finger hold beaten in, apparently for the hardy souls that did without. I have seen no paintings or prints showing a kiseru smoked holding kata of the hizara rather they uniformly show a kiseru smoked by holding it either by the finger tips at mid point on the rao or do in an under handed or over handed (occasionally with a completely twisted wrist) fashion or alternatively, closer to the suikuchi (the mouth piece) by one or two fingers against the thumb. Since the paintings and prints tend to focus on the ‘better’ classes I conclude that holding a kiseru by the kata of the hizara was definitely for ‘lower’ class calloused fingers that could stand the heat.

Prints and paintings from prior to the 19th century sometimes show kiseru with an apparently movable thin, flat round or square of stiff paper, leather or metal fitted at the pipe's rau or do mid-point. If round in overall shape, the bottom appears to have been cut flat. Referred to as a tsuba (a word more commonly understood to refer to a sword guard) it appears that these were not part of the pipe as originally crafted and that at least one purpose was to act as a pipe rest (it is reported that occasionally these rests were in fact a fixed metal part of the kiseru). A late 17th/early 18th century code of manners has this interesting passage: “the host should pick up a kiseru and remove the guard … [and give it to the guest to smoke, who after smoking it, should] replace the guard on the kiseru and put it in front of him.” When I first read this elusive passage I concluded that the reference was to a mouthpiece ‘guard’ intended to prevent moisture in a recently smoked pipe (a natural by product of smoking) from dripping out. However, in light of the evidence of the prints (which also do not show any ‘mouthpiece guards’) I must conclude that the reference in the text is to that which is portrayed in the prints. On the other hand it may be that the purpose of these tsuba rests/guards was to tilt both the mouthpiece and bowl opening of the pipe upwards so that any moisture flowed to the bottom of the bowl rather then dripping out. More modern textual references speak of cleaning the kiseru with a twist of paper after smoking or of tapping the bowl of the pipe against the edge of an ash receiver both of which would have the effect of eliminating residual moisture.

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Yang (talk) 08:35, 20 August 2019 (CDT)