NATSUME (棗) and Early Containers

Natsume are lacquered thin tea containers, so called because of their resemblance to the fruit of the Chinese date or jujube, known by the same name (棗). It is commonly held that lacquer thin-tea containers evolved from hikiya, the turned wooden container which held and protected ceramic thick-tea containers or from medicine containers (yakki) but these explanations first appear in Edo period books of initiation into the “secrets” of Chanoyu. Research into the historical records of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, especially by Mr. Tokugawa Yoshinobu reveal new data about the appearance and use of lacquered tea utensils.

From the beginning of the Kamakura period, the Song Chinese practice of making and drinking matcha gained great popularity in Japanese society, so that by the end of the period it had spread widely through the culture. From the second half of the 14th century, we find reference to lacquered wood tea containers, known very directly as tea cylinders, tea gourds, and tea “buckets,” of which the latter “sa-tsu,” were the most popular and valuable. There is some idea that these may even have been of Chinese origin (Karamono)..

In recent years there has been a rethinking of the origins of “wabi cha” as having evolved as the informal counterpart of the formal, karamono-zuki, Shoin style of tea that took place in the kaisho of the nobles and warriors. With Shuko’s injunction to blur the differences between the use of Chinese and Japanese objects, we have the development of the grass hut style of tea. Within the grass hut style, lacquered wooden tea utensils seem to be perfectly suited.

A tea utensil of great popularity in the formative 15th century, although exact details as to its shape and size are unclear, was known as the yakki, 薬器 ”medicine vessel.” Also possibly of Chinese origin, the Yakki, often decorated with Maki-e, had been used as a tea utensil at the highest levels, both by the Emperor and the Ashikaga Shoguns.

Directly derived from the Yakki seems to be what is now called the Nakatsugi 中次. Further developments in lacquered wood tea utensils led to shapes called Zungiri which were often identified with the famous Kinrin-ji 金輪寺 shape, which was also a type of Yakki.


Finally, the “natsume” appears in the tea records of Imai Sokyu, specifically in 1562 and in 1564 in the records of Tsuda Sotatsu, as having been used by him, the pre-emanent Chajin of the day. From this time on, especially among the followers of Rikyu’s style of Tea which developed in the TenSho Era, the natsume replaced all the other lacquered wood utensils, be they yakki, satsu, or kinrin-ji, in importance and popularity.

In the Edo Period, many sources explained the evolution of the natsume as having originated in the Hikiya, or protective containers for Chaire. The Hikiya for the round jar Chaire, such as nasu and bunrin shapes, allegedly became used as natsume and that the square-shouldered katatsuki chaire’s hikiya became used as nakatsugi or fubuki 吹雪.

A look through the historical materials reveals instead, the startling fact that in the 15th century, chaire were being put into lacquered tea containers like the first mentioned tea cylendars, tea gourds, and tea buckets, causing a great sensation! Also, the existing Hikiya of what became Chaire of great fame to later years, all have hikiya which date from no earlier than the Edo Period. The explanation that natsume evolved from the “yaro” medicine basket style of yakki is also invalidated by reference to the Japanese-Portuguese dictionary of the Muromachi-Momoyama period where the yaro is identified as a “nacatugui,” nakatsugi. So we are still left with the question of just where the natsume came from.

A review of the use of medicine containers used in both room decoration and in the tearooms of the 15th century, reveal that there were a number of different shapes, all refered to as “yakki,” which only latter were divided into seperate catagories by shape and usage. There is an example of a lacquered, natsume-shaped medicine container which was once owned and used by Tokogawa Ieyasu ( – ). In the records of the Ashikaga Shoguns, we find reference also to a “natsume” but as the name of a ceramic tea container.

In the utensils for Kodo, incense appreciation there is another natsume-shaped container, so we can conclude that the natsume shape was not only extant but very popular throughout the Middles Ages. Just exactly how and when the natsume took its position as most popular thin tea container remains unsolved.


hira (flat) natsume 平棗
Oh (large) natsume 大棗
ko (small) natsume 小棗
ippuku (one person’s koicha) natsume 一服棗
kawataro (Senso-konomi) natsume (note not everything called a natsume is handled like one)
usu(cha)ki – always nibiki, lid goes in front of knees; anything not a natsume used for thin tea
boshi, kinrinji, nakatsugi, mentori, fubuki
koaka natsume (not), oimatsu (hinged lid),
shiteki- usually ceramic- Karamono first
yu-teki- oil dropper for lamp- spout only
suiteki- spout and handle for water on suzuri
te-game- handle only- for suzuri; used with spoon
tsurutsuki- handle overarching; used with spoon
ceramic usuki, some konomi, most often “found” or appropriated
Ai-Kuchi is the line where the lid meets the body of the natsume on the outside.