Kai-Awase: Elegant Shell Matching Pastime Of The Nobility During Heian Japan

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Noble ladies enjoying Kai-awase. Print of Metropolitan Museum of Art (Kitagawa Utamaro / CC0)

Kai-Awase: Elegant Shell Matching Pastime Of The Nobility During Heian Japan

Coming in an infinite number of shapes and colors, seashells have been used as a medium of exchange for centuries in a variety of locations, such as many Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean islands, as well as North America, Africa and the Caribbean. Seashells have also played a role in religion and spirituality, as they served as ritual objects at times. The ancient Peruvian Moche culture worshipped animals and the sea, and shells were frequently depicted in their artwork. Long been associated with female fertility, shells were also frequently used as actual fertility charms.  Given the almost universal fascination with seashells, it comes as no surprise that seashells became a subject in the visual arts.

Illustrated page from Gifts from the Ebb Tide by Kitagawa Utamaro. Metropolitan Museum of Art (CC0)

Illustrated page from Gifts from the Ebb Tide by Kitagawa Utamaro. Metropolitan Museum of Art (CC0)

Japanese author Kitagawa Utamaro’s 1789- book, Shiohi no tsuto (潮干のつと) Gifts from the Ebb Tide depicts 36 different types of seashells lying on the beach over six double-page spreads, with one double page depicting the collecting of these shells and an image depicting women playing a game of matching the separated halves of the shells. The name of this game is called kai-awase (貝合わせ) which means shell-matching or more literally; shell-joining.


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