Sake cup

Signed on the base
Japanese, 19th century

Ready to welcome in the New Year, our Object of the Month for January is this sake (rice wine) cup with a design that symbolises good fortune, prosperity, and longevity. A crane and a turtle can be seen next to the treasure ship, takarabune, of the seven lucky gods, as it comes into dock.

The seven lucky gods are a group originating from China, Japan, and Buddhist traditions. On New Years Eve, it is believed that they arrive into ports on their treasure ship, bringing treasures and good fortune for all. It is traditional to place an image of the lucky gods and their treasure ship under your pillow on New Year’s night. If you have a good dream, you will have luck for the year ahead.

The row of buildings depicted on this sake cup are waterside storehouses, similar to the ones seen in the woodblock print by Hokusai of the Nihonbashi bridge (c. 1830 – 1834).

The Nihonbashi in Edo, woodblock print, Katsushika Hokusai, 1830 – 1834,


The seven lucky gods are Ebisu, the god of the ocean, commerce, and fortune; Daikokuten, the god of the earth, agriculture, and wealth; Benzaiten, the goddess of music, beauty, and art; Hotei, the god of happiness; Fukurokuju, the god of longevity; Jurojin, the god of wisdom; Bishamonten, the god of treasure and protection.

One of our previous Object of the Months was a vase in the Castle’s collection depicting some of the lucky gods (Fukurokuju, Bishamonten, Hotei) drinking sake. Sake was drunk for celebrations such as New Year and birthdays. A red lacquer sake cup can be seen on this vase next to a sake pourer.

Vase with cockerel-shaped handles, depicting a scene with three lucky gods, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.1112

Our Object of the Month is a shallow wooden sake cup covered in red lacquer with a gold rim. The high relief designs of treasure ship, crane, and turtle would have been built up by mixing charcoal or clay dust with the lacquer to produce a thickened, raised effect. On the sail of the ship, the character ju, or ‘longevity’ can be seen, with the gold leaf partially rubbed away from use.

The turtle and crane are traditional symbols of longevity in Japan as it was believed they could live for hundreds or thousands of years. Onboard the ship various treasures and lucky items associated with the seven gods can be seen. These include Daikokuten’s magic mallet, which brings forth money when shaken or used to strike something. Also on the ship are the key to the divine treasure house, Hotei’s ‘wish-giving’ fan, and Fukurokuju’s staff. The treasures include precious coral and rolls of silk.

The seven lucky gods on the treasure ship, woodblock print, Hiroshige, ca. 1840, V&A Museum, accession number E.3461-1886
The seven lucky gods on their treasure ship, with Hotei feeding sake to a turtle, woodblock print, Isoda Koryusai, 1780 – 1790, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, accession number 54755.148


Red lacquer sake cups with designs of the treasure ship, cranes, or turtles were popular during the Edo period for use in celebrations. Drinking from sake cups decorated in lucky symbols, wealthy townspeople or members of the upper classes could wish for longevity, fortune, and wealth in the year to come. 

Today in Japan a special type of sake, known as o-toso, is drunk from three red sake cups on New Year’s day. It has been specially prepared with herbs believed to promote health for the year. This tradition has continued from the Edo period (1603 – 1868), when pharmacies would give out o-toso to their patients.

Sake cup with treasure ship and turtle design, 18th century, Miho Museum
A concubine serving sake for Prince Genji, woodblock print, Utagawa Kunisada,

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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