Back in October of 2016, when I was in Japan for the TV show, I had a few “free” days in Tokyo when they weren’t shooting video and I could go do whatever I wanted. One of these, I walked from my hotel near the Shiba Daimon Gate up to the Tokyo National Museum, a distance of some three or so miles. One of the displays in the museum that day was a collection of wood and lacquer items. Within that display was a small collection of masu measuring boxes from the 15th century. Ever since that day, I’ve been wanting to recreate at least one of these boxes.
Most people here in the West are familiar with masu as the wooden sake cups one sometimes receives with cold sake in sushi restaurants. That size, is a 1 gou masu. Five of the six masu in the TNM were 1 shou masu. They have ten times the capacity of a sake cup masu. A thousand gou is a year’s supply of rice for one person, called a koku. A shou of rice is about the amount a person might buy in the market for a family.
The way a rice merchant would use a masu is to dig into the rice bushel with the box, and lift out a mounded boxful of rice. Then, drag a rod across the top of the box to level off the measure, much in the same way a baker uses a metal spatula to level off a measure of flour. ! shou of rice is about 1.8 liters, usually described as “about a half gallon”.
Here’s a better picture of just one of the masu in the museum:
This image shows some vital details necessary for recreating this kind of 1 shou masu. The bottom is not captive within the walls, it is applied and extends to the full footprint of the box. This one shows significant wear, rounding off the bottom edges. The joinery at the corners is simple, more or less “box” joints, but with the huge half-height “fingers” I am used to seeing on boxes from this era. Interestingly, the joints “chase” around the box, and all sides are Z-shaped. The joinery is secured with two pegs per finger. The rim of the box is covered in copper strips. These strips keep the top edge of the box from being worn down by the rubbing of the leveling rod. the copper strips appear to be nailed on.
Anyway, it’s taken me some time to get around to completing my masu. First, I had to calculate the measurements needed to achieve the 1.8 liter volume. If I planed down some cedar boards to half-inch thickness, my walls needed to be (amusingly) seven inches long and three inches tall. I’m told that the actual volumes of the masu in this collection vary significantly, but whatever. I started working probably two years ago, ut the planed boards sat on my workbench until recently. I even got some sheet copper and cut it into strips, and that sat waiting too. My copper is about half as thick as the strips in the museum masu, and I think that the walls of the boxes may be thinner, but I do what I can. I was able to cut all the joinery by hand, and hand-drill the holes for the pegs using a yotsume kiri gimlet. I glued everything together with rice-paste glue, which may or may not be authentic, but is certainly closer than if I’d used wood glue.
Anyway, here’s my masu with its measuring rod:
I was even able to get copper-plated nails to attached the strips. It feels so good to finally complete this project after all this time. This kind of common object is the kind of thing my SCA persona would have been familiar with as a mundane object in the marketplace, so it helps me complete the mental picture of what his world was like. I can now hold in my hands something I’d previously only seen behind glass in a museum.