T.R. has a big carved wood fish that she bought when a Long John Silver’s Restaurant was closing about 25 years ago.
It has hung on her garden wall for many of those years. Now that she has only that wall to look at, outside of her “office” ( her dining room table), she has become curious. What the heck was it?
This is a Japanese saru.
Here’s how it worked, and it did do some work — in about 1910-1940 I would estimate.
In a traditional main room of a Japanese home, folk dwelling or tea house, there’s a big indenture in the floor — a square hearth lined with stone, called an irori.
Over that, attached by ropes to a beam in the ceiling is a jizaikagi, which is an iron rod within a bamboo tube. This raises and lowers a suspended kettle or cookpot over the irori.
But so that there is a counterweight to the pot that acts as a lever, that fish was used. You will note that it has three holes in the body: two at the bottom and one at the top.
The shape of the fish is uniquely perfect for the lever action, as the nose of the fish points toward the pot and the tail is the actual lever.
At the bottom (not the top as in the photo) is the iron hook which fixes upon the cookpot handle. Everything in the main room where this hung in the early 20th century was designed to be unobtrusive, harmonious and suited to its task.
This is an ancient form and is often considered part of the architecture introduced into Japanese tea house construction by Takeno Joujou (1502-1555).
What I love about the fish is that the form is perfect for the function, but also that it is, in fact, a carp or koi fish.
The carp is a symbol of hardiness and a symbol of love and beauty, three things that food and tea make us think of.
And I love that the use of it is subtle, out of the way, made of a simple thing like softwood, lightly carved and perfectly in proportion for what it is called to do.
That’s so different from my style of decorating in my house, which my partner feels is designed to trip, bump heads and just look pretty.
The saru that are valuable are the large ones, and the early ones even more so, because, of course, being held over an open fire, many have disappeared over the years.
The large ones speak of the size of the home and the kettle, meaning the inhabitants of that room could afford a bigger saru, needed also for the extra leverage of the pot it supported.
Searching for values for this wonderful piece, I couldn’t find any offerings that were located in the U.S. If T.R. wanted to replace this fish, which we now know is a thing of beauty — should it be lost in our next fire, for example — she would have to purchase one in Japan.
In this country, their function is virtually unknown, which speaks to the fact that T.R. bought it in a closing down sale of an American chain fish house, where there was nothing Japanese about the décor.
More than likely it hung on a wall as a fish ornament — and not as a piece of functioning architecture meant to be put to good and beautiful use.
The name jizaikagi means, literally, free hook, which means that the hook can be adjustable, raising and lowering, as well as moving the kettle to a hotter spot of fire in the irori.
Such saru were found in train stations through Japan, as an example of a public building where tea was served, as well as in the traditional home. You find these saru mainly in softwoods, lightly varnished, but the wealthy had such saru of bronze as well.
The value is $500-800, and would have been more had T.G. not exposed the saru to 25 years of Santa Barbara sun.
I find it interesting that many of my readers have sent me photos of objects that they have had in their living spaces for years and never really wondered about the history of the object or value of it either. The pandemic has brought us closer to the things that have been in our “architecture” for years — and taken for granted, perhaps, if my many emails from readers are any indication!
Keep ‘em coming!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.