Sanbō Offering Stand

Sanbō Offering Stand

For the New Year’s Tea, often is display In the tokonoma Shintō bells, shin-en-rei, 神苑鈴, god-garden-bell, displayed on a lacquered san-bō, 三宝, three-treasures.

The sanbō is made of long thin sheets of wood, sugi, , cedar, or hinoki, also , cypress, that is scored and bent in a technique called mage-mono, 曲物, bent-thing. The ends of the sheets have a seam, to-jime, 綴じ目, bind-eye. The Kanji 檜 is composed of tree and meeting. It is believed that the etymology of the word hinoki is derived from the word for sun, 日の木, sun-’s-tree. This is substantiated by the fact this important tree was and is used in the construction of shrines, that ultimately are identified with the sun goddess, Amaterasu. This evergreen tree can grow to great size, and is used widely in construction, in making various objects, and has both male and female flowers, and may live for a thousand years.


San-bō, 三方, three-sides, octagonal o-shiki, 折敷, fold-spread, tray affixed to an octagonal base called dō-bu, 胴部, body-part, with shin-nuri, 真塗, true-lacquer, mirror-finish black-lacquered, the tray lined in red lacquer.

The sanbō pictured does not show the seams because it is lacquered, however, the tray/oshiki is regarded as square, and the base/dōbu is regarded as round, so that according to custom, the seam of the tray is the back, and the seam of the base is the front. The rule is ‘maru mae kaku muko,’ 丸前角向, round fore corner opposite. The reason for this is that the ‘front’ of the sanbō is facing away toward deity. The viewer is seeing the back of the sanbō.

The sanbō refers to the three openings in the base at the front and two sides: the back has no opening. There are two ways in which sanbō is written. San, , is three. The original word is , and when it follows a word is changed to read or , hence san-bō. Regarding the sanbō – the word, , has the meaning of direction or side, , alluding to the three openings, and , , meaning treasures.

There are three treasures in Shin-tō, 神道, God-way, perhaps the origin of the sanbō are foods from the yama, , mountain, umi, , sea, and hara, , plain. These three realms are manifest in Shintō offerings of rice from the plain, salt from the sea, and water from the mountain. In the meal served at a Chaji, 茶事, Tea gathering, one of the courses called ha-ssun, 八寸, eight-sun, in which there is the serving of foods from the mountain, and foods from the sea, along with sake which is from the plain’s product of rice. The foods are served on a plain cedar wood o-shiki, 折敷, fold-spread, tray taken from Shintō offering stands, the sanbō, but without the support. The measurements of the tray provide its name: ha-ssun bon, 八寸盆, eight-sun tray. The three treasures of Buddhism are the Bu-ppō-sō, 仏法僧, Buddha Law Community.

The measurements of the sanbō have hidden symbolism, and the following measurements are given in kanejaku, 曲尺, bend-span: approximately one linear foot.  The original sanbō was a part of Shintō, which favors plain wood utensils, furniture, and architecture, whereas, from appearances, Buddhism favors lacquered pieces. Wood workers traditionally use the kane-jaku for measurements, and lacquerers used the kujira-jaku, 鯨尺, whale-span. Therefore, the pictured sanbō gives the impression of a Buddhist lacquer influence over a Shintō wooden core.   

The thickness of the wood is one bu. The full height of the stand is 4.4 sun, the width of the tray is 5.5 sun kane-jaku, and the ratio between height and full width of the tray is 8:10. The number 8 is symbolic of Infinity in Space. The numbers 8 and 10 are identified with ya-ta, 八咫, eight-span, like the ya-ta-kagami, 八咫鏡, eight-span mirror, of Amaterasu.

The tray has eight sides: the long side is 4 sun, the short, chamfered corner side is one sun. The distance between the long sides is 5.4 sun, and the distance between the short sides is 6.7 sun: the ratio between the two widths is 8:10. The height of the sidewall of the tray is .8 sun. The width of the tray is 5.4 sun, the full width of the supporting base is 3.6 sun; the ratio between widths of the tray and the base is 10 to 6.666 to infinity. The number 6666 is symbolic of Infinity in Time.

The 4-sun length of the long side of the tray and the one sun chamfered corner, added together equals 5 sun. The total sum of all four of the long and short lengths is 20 sun

The height of the base is 3.5 sun. The base has eight sides; the long side width is 2.5 sun, the width of the short side is .8 sun. The width of one long side and one short side equals 3.3 sun. The number 33 is symbolic of a center with thirty-two parts radiating is all directions – the center of Infinity in Space. The supporting base has two widths, 3.6 sun and 4.3 sun, and the ratio between them is 8.372:10, which is very close to 8:10.

When added together, the measurements of the bottom of the tray and the height of the walls equal a total length of 9.5 sun. This number is close to the measurements of the placemat called a hattan used by Buddhists to place their bowls when eating. Ha-ttan, 鉢単, bowl-single, black-lacquered paper placemat for Buddhist food bowls: 8 x 10 sun kane-jaku. When compared to the 10 sun hattan measurement, the 9.5 measurement of sanbō is go-bu kane short.


Ha-ttan, 鉢単, bowl-single, black-lacquered paper placemat for Buddhist food bowls; 8 x 10 sun. Buddhist meals and the manner of eating is called ō-ryō-ki, 応量器, apply-quantity-utensil. The hattan is made of heavy paper that is lacquered black, and is folded twice in opposite directions.

The number 9.5 can be read in Japanese ku-go, kyū-go, with the possible evocation of kyū-go, 救護, salvation-protection, in Buddhism. The word gobu is also read go-bun, 五分律, five-divisions. In Buddhism, there is the Go-bun-ritsu, 五分律, Five-division-rules. Gobu could also refer to the standard group of five bowls that a Buddhist would have to place on the hattan.

Numbers are exceedingly important to Japanese people, especially in Buddhism and Taoism. The number four is an even number, and it is identified with the negative or receptive principle of In, , as it can be equally divided, and five is an odd number, and is identified with the positive or penetrative principle of , . The sanbō, with its numbers of four and five, are an amalgamation of In and , and the numbers themselves have a ratio of 4:5 or 8:10, which is symbolic of ya-ta, 八咫, eight-span, Infinite Vastness.


Fuchi-daka, 縁高, edge-high, black-lacquered, box for sweets placed atop a san-bō, 三方, three-directions. The width of the fuchi-daka, 5.4 sun kane-jaku, are the same as those of the tray of the sanbō. The fuchi-daka is borrowed from Buddhism, and is used to serve sweets to guests before they drink koi-cha, 濃茶, thick-tea. Each guest is presented with an individual box. Elevated containers are also the priority of the aristocracy.

For more on Setsubun and Otafuku, see also: Setsubun and Otafuku (article), Setsubun Extra (article), Setsubun and Risshun (article), Tea in February (article), Setsubun and Otafuku (picture gallery), Setsubun Lecture (video), Setsubun Tea Gathering (video).