Japan. Imari-style Dish Decorated with a Meandering River and Falling Maple Leaves. Late 17th-early 18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Frederick Singley Koontz, Baltimore, in Memory of Laurance P. and Isabel S. Roberts, BMA 2006.54
Frances Klapthor, Associate Curator for Asian Art
Beginning in the Heian period (794-1195), Japanese aristocrats sought to heighten their sensory perceptions through encounters with the natural world. Such experiences led to a greater appreciation of the moment and recognition of the fleeting nature of time (both fundamental Buddhist beliefs).
Beginning in the 18th century, the middle classes of the Edo period (1615-1868) came to share many elite pastimes, including travel to pilgrimage sites, literary and historical locales, and scenic vistas. Travelers sought out the cherry blossom clouds of spring as well as momijigari (“autumn foliage hunting”) for fiery red maple trees. A long season, extending from Hokkaido in the north in mid-September to Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto in late November to Kyushu in the south in mid-December, made viewing the dramatic foliage possible for large numbers of Japanese, whether in remote mountain areas or urban gardens, at hot springs or along riverbanks.
The decoration on this dish evokes autumn’s bright light, the drift of falling leaves, and rush of a cold river. Executed with thin lines and washes of pigment, the motif would have been especially appropriate for a meal or snack served in autumn when the equinox and full moon of fall were celebrated with formal feasts, samurai banquets, or a special meal.
A typical fall meal consisted of one soup and five side dishes – usually a selection of fish, vegetables, pickles, and rice. One early 18th century author, Shosekiken Soken, described not just food (“soup of red miso, daikon, mushrooms, small clams; fish and vegetable salad – horse mackerel, gingered chestnuts; sea bream grilled over cedar with onion; simmered mushrooms and citron, grilled quail and sardines”), but also the ambience of dining:
Taste may be the most important thing in the laws of cuisine, but taste is not restricted to just eating with the mouth. Methods of cutting, of preparation, of serving, the interior of the bowls, the serving ware, all of these matters require attention…
During the mid-18th century, refined restaurants serving wealthy merchants began to appear in Japan’s major cities, accompanied by inexpensive eating-houses and taverns for shopkeepers and craftsmen. The 1804 census recorded 6,165 eating-houses in Edo – not surprisingly restaurant guidebooks and cookbooks enjoyed their own popularity.
With the advent of international travel in the late 20th century and advanced mass transit within Japan, momijigari drew a global community to experience this phenomenon. And today, as with momijigari, Japan’s cuisine and culinary aesthetics have an international presence. Thus, we can admire a simple early 19th century porcelain dish that might have held a few pieces of grilled mackerel with ginger and been placed on an Edo book seller’s table in the tenth or eleventh month – in anticipation of the annual explosion of red maple leaves.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.