Message hashioki

Sometimes hashioki literally send a message.

The Japanese inscription on these two hashioki reads irashaimase dōzo goyukkuri, which means “Please relax and enjoy your meal.” It is the perfect chopstick rest for a restaurant to set their table with.


The hiragana on this hashioki reads arigatō, which is one of the words used to express thanks in Japanese. The full phrase that means “thank you very much” is dōmo arigatō, or if you’re being even more polite, dōmo arigatō gozaimasu, but arigatō is a perfectly acceptable way to say thanks. This would also be a good hashioki for a restaurant, or perhaps a good one to set the table with at awards or appreciation dinner.Message2

This charming cat has the Japanese phrase itadakimasu inscribed across his tummy. It’s the traditional phrase the Japanese utter before beginning a meal. While it technically means “I humbly receive,” in practice it sounds more like “Let’s eat!”

Message3Apparently there’s a connection between cats and good food, for this cat has the phrase Gochiso across her tummy, which is said at the end of a meal to indicate that it was delicious. Yoga enthusiasts may also recognize this cat is ironically in a down dog position.


Sometimes all you need is one word — or in this case, one character — to send aMessage6 powerful message. This frog hashioki and white cat hashioki (in the middle) are inscribed with the single kanji fuku, meaning fortune or blessing. The maneki neko on the right stands on a base inscribed with the kanji for shuku, meaning celebrate or congratulate. These hashioki are therefore appropriate for almost any occasion or situation.

This final set of cat hashioki prove that there is often more than one way to send a message. Four of the five cats in this set have the words Shiawase, yoi koi, yatti koi — an idiomatic phrase which the vendor who sold them to me translated as “Happiness, come, come — please come.” The fifth member of the troupe, the cat in upper left hand corner,


has no writing on his stomach. I guess after you read the sentiment on his four siblings there’s no need to repeat it one more time. I can’t resist suggesting that “The power of five” (please refer to my November 2017 post) almost guarantees that happiness will indeed come if you set your table with this 5 piece set of hashioki.

December 11, 2017







Buddhist and Shinto symbols

There aren’t many Buddhist or Shinto hashioki, which is a little odd because it seems like there’s a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine on every other street corner in Japan. Maybe people think objects associated with religion or something sacred don’t belong at the dinner table, or maybe it’s just an untapped market.

IMG_3532The mokugyo is a kind of bell, carved from a single block of wood and struck with a wooden stick. They are traditionally made in the shape of a fish, although this example is in the shape of a dragon. This percussion instrument is used to set the rhythm during the chanting of sutras, particularly in Zen Buddhism.

These hashioki depict the base of a lotus plant, which is a water flower similar to a water Buddhist2lily. The lotus is a sacred flower in Buddhism; Buddha traditionally sits on a lotus mount. The lotus is associated with marital love and harmony, but is also associated with death — which perhaps dampens the appeal of hashioki shaped like them.



Perhaps the lotus has religious connotations because its’ roots thrive in the muddy muck of a marsh, and yet it produces handsome leaves and flower heads above water level.  The lotus flower is shown in the blue and white hashioki here on the top.  Portions of the large pond in Ueno Park in Tokyo are so filled with lotus plants by late summer that you cannot see the water, and it is an arresting sight, even when the blooms or pods are dried out.  The lotus root or renkon is also a staple of Japanese cuisine;  the two hashioki on the bottom here may remind you that you have seen this vegetable as a pickle or in stir fry’s.



IMG_3531If you’ve been to Japan you’ve undoubtedly seen rows of stone Jizo statues, many of them wearing red bibs around their necks, on the grounds of Buddhism temples. Rarely more than 18” high, the Jizo statues look like child monks, which is appropriate because they are associated with dead children, specifically children who were aborted. Jizo also protect pregnant women, and safeguard travelers, which explains why you also see them at crossroads, particularly in rural areas.

IMG_3535The phoenix (hōō) is often a symbol of Buddhism is Japan, although it is also one of the symbols for the imperial family, specifically the empress. The most famous phoenixes in Japan are the pair that preside over the roof of the Hōō-dō hall at the famous Byōdō-in Buddhist temple in Uji, outside of Kyoto. The wooden Hōō-dō is the only original building still standing in the temple complex, and it dates from 1053. It sits on the edge of a large pond, and the pond’s reflection of the building’s center hall with corridors on either side is said to resemble a phoenix with outstretched wings. Uji is also a center for tea production, and the setting for the last chapters of The Tale of Genji.

The entrance to every Shinto shrine is marked by a torī gate which marks the boundaryIMG_3589 between the regular world and sacred space.. According to historian Basil Hall Chamberlain, the torī was originally a perch for sacred fowls which crowed to announce daybreak.(1)  While this hashioki is made from sterling silver,  and has the appropriate patina of a little tarnish, torī are usually painted bright red and often soar several stories high.


Shimenawa, or sacred rope of braided rice straw, also appear at the entrance to Shinto shrines, either wrapped around trees or large rocks, hanging over the entrance to a shrine building, or coiled around the base of a torī gate. Like those gates, shimenawa delineate the boundary of sacred space. Shimenawa are considered to have magical powers, although probably not in their hashioki form.

(1) Chamberlain, Basil Hall.  Things Japanese:  Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan.  Berkeley:  Stone Bridge Press, 2007 (reprint of 1905 edition), p. 514.


The power of 5

IMG_3582It turns out that a lot of Japanese tableware is packaged in sets of five: tea cups, plates, rice bowls, and so on. I have not been able to unearth a definitive reason for this, but I have collected quite a few contributing facts and practices.

H. Elliott McClure, an American collector hashioki collector who lived in Japan after the Occupation, had a charming explanation for sets of five. “Hashioki are usually sold in little boxes of five. Traditionally, five is the preferred number rather than six because it is an uneven number and uneven numbers have a future. One or more pieces can be added to make them even or perfect numbers; therefore the buyer and user is said to be blessed by the future.”(1)

However, people who prefer sets of five are probably thinking more about avoiding bad luck than they are about attracting good luck.

Sets of four, which are common in the West, are rarely seen in Japan because one pronunciation for four (shi) is also the pronunciation for the word for death. When I first went to Japan in the early 1990s multi-story buildings didn’t generally have a fourth floor; the floor count progressed directly three to five.

IMG_3566Five has particular significance in Japanese cuisine. Food is said to have five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. There are also five recognized ways to arrange food on a plate: yamamori, or mountainlike mounds; sugimori, standing or slanting; hiramori, flat arrangements; ayamori, woven arrangements, and yosemori, gathered arrangements.(2)


Five is a significant number in Buddhism, which of course permeates Japan. The famous IMG_3570swordsman and philosophy Miyamoto Musashi wrote about the five elements that make up the Buddhist cosmos — ground, water, fire, wind and void — in his classic The Book of Five Rings. He also identified the five key parts of the human body: head, left elbow, right elbow, left knee, and right knee.

I have to admit that before I started research, I thought sets of five hashioki existed because that seemed to match the composition of the families I saw in restaurants and on the streets in Japan: mother, father, child, and two grandparents.

IMG_3564There are of course other reasons why the number five resonates with human beings, whether they use chopsticks or not. We have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. Our faces have five openings (eyes, nostrils, and mouth), and we have five senses. So grouping items in sets of five is probably a universal predilection that packaging in Japan seems to amplify.

IMG_3599Some sets of five hashioki feature rests that are identical, like this lovely set of Arita porcelain that was apparently distributed as some sort of thank gift by Japan’s ANA Airlines. According to the paperwork in the box, the set reproduces a pattern created by Sakaida Kakiemon for a family kiln established in 1616. About a quarter of the sets of five that I own are identical sets which I have used in other parts of this book, including the black kaban kettles shown in “Cast iron teapot,” and the first tanuki shown in “Bad Boys.”

Slightly more common are sets of five where the shape and motif are the same, but the coloring or the decoration is different. Several examples of these kinds of sets are shown earlier in this chapter. Other examples are shown here.

This set of five ceramic violins (left) seems to bridge the gap between sets that are identical and sets that are slightly different; these violins are almost identical, but subtle variations in their hand painting makes each member of the set a bit unique.
Less common than identical sets where there is a unifying theme, but the pieces are physically different. Examples of this include this set of vegetables (right) carved from bamboo, including a carrot,an eggplant, a radish, a cucumber or bitter mellon, and a fiddlehead fern,

and these frolicking felines, which shows 5 cats in 3 different poses.




Hashioki that are packaged in a set of five have some unique advantages, even for Westerners who may persist in thinking in terms of four. With a set of five if lose one or break one — something that often happens with small and delicate items — you still have enough to set the table for two couples.

(1) McClure, H. Elliott.  “Hasioki:  Art of the Chopstick Rest.”  Orientations, June 1979, p. 46.

(2) Richie, Donald.  A Taste of Japan.  New York:  Kodansha International, 1985, p. 9.


Customer service

This isn’t just any hashioki. This is a symbol of Japanese customer service.

IMG_3536When I took our kids to Tokyo Disneyland in May 1998 I was really hoping that I would spot a Mickey Mouse hashioki in one of the shops inside the park. It certainly seemed like it was an item that should exist; I saw lots of Mickey Mouse chopsticks. But I couldn’t find a Mickey Mouse chopstick rests.

On our way out of the park we stopped in one last gift shop.

Mickey Mouse hashioki ga arimasu ka?” I asked one of the sales clerks in my halting Japanese.

The young woman looked confused, which is the usual reaction I get when I speak Japanese. So I repeated my question.

Mickey Mouse hashioki ga arimasu ka?” I said slowly.

She motioned for one of her co-workers to come over, and I repeated my question once again. That clerk led me to the counter where I had already browsed, and showed me the Mickey Mouse chopsticks.

Iie,” I told her, shaking my head. “Hashi jyaa nai. Hashioki ga iremasu.” I was pretty sure that meant, “Not chopsticks. I need a chopstick rest.”

Maybe it was because I used the verb for “need” instead of the verb for “want,” which I frankly couldn’t remember (it’s hoshigaru, by the way). In any case, the two clerks called over a third sales clerk, and they proceeded to have a rapid fire conversation in Japanese with her. At one point the first young woman picked up the phone and made several phone calls. Then she said, “Please wait,” to me, making me think I should made my request in English from the beginning, and the third young woman ran out of the shop.

She didn’t just walk quickly. She actually ran.

We waited a long time. It was maybe 20 minutes; I gave my kids money to buy a soda because it was such a long wait. But the first two clerks kept looking at me and smiling. Finally the third young woman ran breathlessly back into the shop, and opened the palm of her hand to produce this Mickey Mouse hashioki.

I thanked the three sales clerks. I opened my wallet and pulled out 300 yen — a little more than two US dollars — and paid, and they wrapped the hashioki in foam and in tissue paper and put it in a little Disney paper bag and sealed it with a sticker. The first clerk then presented it to me while she bowed from her waist, and the other clerks bowed in tandem, and then I bowed to them, and then one of my kids grabbed my arm and said, “Come on, Mom! Let’s go!” And so we did.

My point here is that when I as a customer asked for an insignificant item, the low level clerks working in the shop didn’t just shrug their shoulders or tell me they didn’t have it. They figured out that the item I wanted existed somewhere in Disneyland, and then one of them ran across the park to get it. It was the end of the day for them, too, but these three young clerks gladly went to all this trouble. In fact, they looked as happy as I did that I got my Mickey Mouse hashioki.

It may be that the Disney organization emphasizes customer satisfaction in their sales clerk training. But honestly, I’ve had similar shopping experiences across Japan: people in shops who are more than willingly to make a special effort to please a customer. And I think it’s because sales clerks in Japan are basically selfless. They’re not thinking about their aching feet or how long they have to wait until the end of this shift. They understand their job is not just about ringing sales on the cash register. They’re actually thinking about the customer.

I am purposely posting this anecdote a few days before the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year in the U.S. Wish that shopping in the United States was more like shopping in Japan.


Frolicking animals

The frog, monkey and rabbits shown here — including the rabbits originally posted in my September 2016 post “Rabbits” — are as familiar to most Japanese as Sonic the Hedgehog or Mickey Mouse.


These animals are featured players in the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga or Chōjū-giga, generally translated as the Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, which date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The four black ink on paper scrolls, composed entirely of illustrations with no text, are sometimes referred to as Japan’s earliest manga.

IMG_3592As these hashioki demonstrate, the Chōjū-giga drawings are often charming and humorous. They show animals doing human activities, like dancing or playing music or competing in an archery contest. Scholars have traditionally suggested that the scrolls were created to lampoon errant Buddhist priests and pampered aristocrats of their time.

It’s entirely possible that the Chōjū-giga scrolls exist today only because they are an official National Treasure of Japan. In the late 19th. century Japan enacted legislation which designated buildings and items with historic orIMG_3668 cultural significance as kokuhō, or National Treasures. This legislation prohibits the export of these treasures, regulates their transfer or alteration inside Japan, provides tax incentives for restoration and even offers professional help for preservation and display. There are currently over 200 buildings and structures classified as National Treasures, and approximately 870 fine arts and crafts, including the Chōjū-giga scrolls.

IMG_3666I was fortunate enough to see the Chōjū-giga scrolls when they were on display at a museum in Kyushu in November 2016. Even before the museum opened there was along line of people waiting patiently in line to see the scrolls, and the line was even longer when I left. One of the gratifying (if slightly annoying) things about visiting museums in Japan is the large numbers of Japanese people who are interested in viewing their nation’s treasures and artwork.

No hashioki have been designated as National Treasures…. yet. But at least hashioki like these examples help familiarize users with Japan’s cultural heritage.

Hoosier hashioki

I think of this hashioki as my “Hoosier hashioki” because it depicts a red cardinal bird sitting on a log.

IMG_3537Cardinals are the state bird for the state of Indiana, along with 6 other states in the United States. They are my neighbors in the woods behind my house. So even though I spotted this metal hashioki in a department store on the Ginza in Tokyo, I knew it was a Hoosier hashioki right away.

In the Japanese language cardinal is shoujoukoukanchou. But they don’t seem to have red cardinals in Japan. There is a red-crested cardinal in Japan, but it’s a white and grey bird with a red head, and it’s apparently an import from South America.

So I guess my Hoosier hashioki is officially an invasive species in Japan.



Disney Daruma

I don’t have any Halloween hashioki. I’m sure they exist, but I prefer to concentrate on pieces that symbolize Japanese tradition, not Westernization.

Disney DarumaSo this is as close as I get to costume hashioki: Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse masquerading as Daruma.

Daruma of course is the nickname for the founder of Zen Buddhism, the monk Bodhidharma. He cut off his eyelids to keep himself from dozing while he meditated, and then meditated so long that his arms and legs fell off. These pieces suggest that he also grew oversized ears, but I’m pretty sure that is not part of the original story. And of course one of these Daruma is female. For more discussion on “Daruma” please see my post from August 2016.

I don’t know if anyone could achieve enlightenment at a Disney theme park. But if you were at the Tokyo Disney Resort in 2011 you could have added these hashioki to your collection.


Happy Halloween.


Susuki Moon

The Japanese have a special relationship with the moon, especially with the moon in autumn.

Susuki moonThe Susuki Moon is specifically an autumn moon. “Susuki” is kind of Japanese pampas grass that is recognized as a symbol of autumn in Japan. You can see the stems are that inscribed on the surface of this piece to simulate looking through tall grass. This hashioki shows a waning Susuki Moon, meaning that the amount of the moon’s surface that is illuminated is decreasing as the moon pass from half moon to a gibbous moon, and then on to a full new moon.

Many thanks to Murata, a wonderful Japanese lifestyle store in Vancouver that made this piece available on their website, and to Kazue at Murata, who explained its’ significance to me.



Little acorns

Atlhough maples are the trees most associated with autumn in Japan, the acorn (donburi) is a fall symbol, too.

I always thought that acorns belonged strictly to oak trees. But it turns out that in Japan many kinds of trees produce acorns, although most of them are members of the oak family.

Little acorns4

And of course wherever there are acorns, there are squirrels.

Acorns must be beloved in Japan, because there’s a well-known children’s song titled “Donburi Korokoro” about an acorn that rolls into a pond to play with the fish there. But I’ve never seen a hashioki that pairs an acorn with a fish.


Maple leaves

Maple leaves5I have been waiting all summer to post about my autumn-themed hashioki. Now I’m going to start with a salute to autumn by writing about maple leaves.

Maple leaves – momiji – are the ultimate symbol of autumn, not just in Japan but everywhere.


Why does everyone love momiji? Maybe it’s because they often turn an irresistibly brilliant shade of red. Maybe it’s because they’re almost (almost) like a star. The Japanese have a special affection for things in sets of 5, and many momiji have five main or larger points that number five.

This hashioki didn’t grow on a maple tree; its’ inspiration was created inside a JapaneseMaple leaves6 wagashi or sweet shop. One of the ways the Japanese express their heightened awareness of the changing seasons is to celebrate that change with foods shaped like the emblems of that season: maple leaves and plum blossoms and cherry blossoms. A real wagashi like this is probably filled with bean paste, and is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

Maple leaves

Many of Japan’s most famous tourist destinations – Nikko, Hakone, Kamakura, Kyoto, Arashiyama, and Koyasan, to name just a few, are celebrated for their wonderful displays of momiji. Maybe that’s another reason why people love maple leaves in Japan; they provide a good excuse to hop on the train or hop in the car and for road trip during the month of October.