Damascene Compact Mirrors And Vanity Sets And Shinto Symbolism

Damascene Compact Mirrors And Vanity Sets And Shinto Symbolism

This is post is dedicated to wonderful vintage Japanese vanities which are ornamented with deeply symbolic Shinto imagery. 

The super 1950s Japanese vanity set shown above is presented in the original case with the original luxurious silk pouch, puff and sifter. Both exteriors are adorned with a damascene landscape inlaid with 24 karat gold and sterling silver.

Damascene is considered a symbol of good fortune. The decorations are finely crafted oriental scenes which depict the Ichinomiya, or supreme Shinto shrine of Suruga Province, Mount Fuji can be seen in the background.

Although this set may have been crafted as a souvenir or for export, the symbolism may have a greater resonance for Japanese ladies or those familiar with Shintoism. However, once we delve into the meanings behind the beautiful scene, the set becomes even more fascinating.

Ichinomiya is a Japanese historical term referring to the Shinto shrines with the highest rank in a province. Usually shrines designated Ichinomiya are of ancient origin and are listed in the Engishiki records completed in 927AD.  The entire top of Mount Fuji is also considered to be part of the shrine grounds and it is Mount Fuji to which this shrine is dedicated. 

The shrine was first built in its current location during the reign of Emperor Keikō. His reign began in 71 AD but the length of it is disputed because this emperor is traditionally believed to have lived until he was 143! During this time the volcanic activity on Mount Fuji posed a great danger to the populace.  The shrine was built in order to appease the kami of the mountain. Kami translates to spirit, although this word can have different meanings. Much of Japanese society is deeply spiritual and their daily routines involve activities which show grateful thanks. Many Japanese people say itadakimasu before each meal. To followers of Shintoism this word translates to I humbly and gratefully receive.


This stunning picture The Great Wave (Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura) is one of  the best-known works by Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849). Katsushika is one of the most esteemed Japanese artists. Mount Fuji seems small in comparison to the Great Wave but its central location in the composition shows its importance and power. 

It is easy to understand how such a spiritual society with a history of devastating volcanic eruptions would include tributes to Mount Fuji, whether they are in art form or rituals. 

Mount Fuji is the tallest volcano in Japan and although there have been no eruptions since the Hoei eruption in 1707–1708 many people pay their respects to the kami, hoping that this will prevent further eruptions. The scientific community monitors this volcano 24 hours a day.

Around 400,000 pilgrims, many of whom are Japanese, climb Mount Fuji each year. Most of these climbers stop at the shrine to ask for a safe journey. 

Shintoism is a complex way of life. We are attempting to describe the scene depicted on these vanity items and we would like to say that this article is not intended to give a full description of Shintoism. 

We have a deep respect for all cultures and customs. 

We will use the set below to describe Shinto symbolism and ceremony.


The Symbolism Of The Scene:

The traditional Japanese gate (left) is known as a torii. The torii is the entrance to the jinja. The jinja are the sacred places and the seats of kami. It is polite to bow just before walking through the torii. Anyone can visit a Japanese shrine. No appointment is necessary. You do not have to follow any religion. 

If one wishes to pay their respects to the kami they follow the sacred path, also known as sando, up to the sanctuaries. The journey usually involves climbing steps.

The next step is the purification, which is called oharai or misogi. Purification is an important part of Shintoism prior to paying respects to the kami. The priests do not want people to pay tribute to the kami without taking part in the purification ritual. 


Suzuki Harunobu c.1725-1770

Suzuki Harunobu is said to have been the first person to produce full-colour prints in 1765. His wonderful print shown above depicts a traditional Shinto purification ritual. The water tank is called the temizuya. Temizuya are filled with clear, running water. 

The purification ritual involves taking the ladle in the right hand. This is then filled with water from the temizuya and poured some into the left hand then tipped away into the drain on the floor in front of the temizuya. Then the ladle is transferred to the left hand and more water is taken and poured into the right hand and then tipped away. Then more water from the ladle is poured into the left hand and put into the mouth to rinse the mouth. Then the left hand is purified again and then the ladle is held aloft so that the water runs down the handle to purify the handle. The description detailed in this paragraph is a simplified version of misogi, the full body purification.

On the right side of the compact we can see the prayer hall, which appears to be on stilts. Usually prayers are said outside the hall, where there will be a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. After ringing the bell a small amount, for example 5 yen, is placed in a collection box. 

The ringing of the bell and paying a small token are also seen as purification rituals. Then the devotee completes the paying of respects to the kami by bowing twice, clapping twice and bowing once again. Then they walk away without turning their backs on the kami. 



Both the lipstick case and compact depict golden pagodas. These were originally used as reliquaries which makes sense, as the relics would have been kept in a sacred place, which was being visited by pilgrims who wished to pay their respects. The remains of esteemed individuals would naturally receive many pilgrims.

The single sail Japanese ship (wasen) reminds us that the Fuji Five Lake (Fujigoko) region lies at the northern base of Mount Fuji. The lakes are known as Kawaguchio, Saiko, Yamanakako, Shojiko and Motosuko. These lakes were formed by eruptions from Mount Fuji.

Once we researched the history of this lovely set we found it to be even more enchanting. The gilded brass was coated at the point of manufacture with a layer of transparent enamel and so these items will retain their beauty and never require cleaning, as long as the lacquer is not damaged.

This compact is suitable for use with loose face powder, as a display collectible or as a handbag mirror.



The original presentation case is decorated with an elegant gilt border on material which has been rendered to have the appearance of shagreen.  The interior lid is also clad with garnet red faux shagreen and a pristine white sash. The compact and lipstick holder sit in custom made recesses which are covered in white silk.

This Japanese maker knew that the set would be so appealing that the owner would like to have it on display and so the case is hinged in such a way that the base can be raised to form a display stand. The numbers 7122 are stamped on the side of the base of the presentation case. This could be an item code.



This unused Japanese mid-century musical powder box is identical to a Clover brand example. This high quality musical compact mirror is presented with the original box, puff and sifter. The tune (Fur Elise) plays very well. The exterior is adorned with a 24 karat gold and sterling silver Damascene landscape.


More beautiful vintage compact mirrors.