Taisho chic

To me the figure captured in this hashioki personifies the style of Japan’s Taisho era DSC01144(1912 – 1926), when the Emperor Meiji’s son Yoshihito ruled before his son Hirohito took over.

Politically it was a time of growing strength for Japan.  They participated in WW1 on the side of the Allies,  and were recognized as one of the Big Five powers at the Versailles peace conference.  During this time Japan successfully exerted increasing power over China, Korea and Manchuria, and developed as an economic power by building their industrial base.

The Taisho period has also been described as the time “when modernity ruled Japan’s masses.”  It also a time when many Japanese associated “modernity” with Westernization.  Many women wore Western fashions instead of kimono, at least part of the time; some women bobbed their hair like Western flappers; and Western imports like jazz music and martini cocktails were all the rage.  There was a great outpouring of literature, specifically Western-style novels by authors including Soseki, Kawabata and Tanizaki – some of my favorites — and many of these novels described the clash between traditional culture and modern mores. It was an exciting time.

The facial features and hairstyle of this figure are too indistinct for me to confidently say whether this is a man or a woman.  What I do see is a person in some sort of flowing silk pajamas, stretched out in a languorous repose, with one ankle resting casually on their knee.  I think this person has already had a martini.  I think they are waiting for their second round while they listen to Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington in the background.

I’m not sure what a hashioki that Taisho style setter might use would look like, but I’m sure it would be elegant and stylish and – well, chic.

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Ishidatami

At first glance, the decoration on this hashioki looks like it was inspired by a Cubist artist.  Maybe Picasso or Braque?  Maybe Mondarin?  Or perhaps Rothko?

DSC01143But in fact this is a traditional Japanese pattern inspired by pavement.

Ishidatami is the Japanese word for “paving stones.”  Ishi means stone, and datami is probably a form of the word tatami, as in the tatami mats that are the traditional floor coverings in Japanese homes.  Paving stones provided travelers with a secure and solid walkway in parts of Japan where it rains or snows a lot, and where the pre-modern roads or trails often went up and down mountains.  Ishidatami were a fixture on the Tokaido Road and the Nakasendo, the two major historic highways that linked Tokyo and Kyoto.    Some of the original ishidatami, dating back to the early 17th. Century, still exist on the parts of these roads that still survive.  In some places – particularly places favored by tourists – the ishidatami have also been restored.

I’ve seen original or restored ishidatami on both these roadways.  It’s hard not to admire because the patterns made by the stones are beautiful, and because seeing them makes you appreciate how hard it must have been to transport these stones by hand up and down mountains, and then install them in such a way that they would last for decades or even centuries.

Maybe an ishidatami hashioki can last that long, too?

Japanese mountains

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When you think about a Japanese mountain, you probably picture Mt. Fuji , Japan’s iconic symmetrical volcanic cone with its saw-toothed crown.  In other words, you probably envision something that looks a lot like this hashioki which was included in my June 2017 “Fuji-san” post.

But when I think about Japanese mountains I see something that looks more like this identical pair of chopstick rests.

DSC01140My first trip to Japan was in the spring of 1991, when my husband had a 3-month visiting appointment to teach at the International University of Japan.  IUJ is located just outside a small town called Urasa, 125 miles northwest of Tokyo, in a valley surrounded by rolling waves of mountains that often fade into the hazy distance.   Seventy-three percent of Japan’s topography are mountains, and most of them are mountains like this:  relatively low, strung together in long low mountains that are relatively low, and covered with green trees and shrubs for half of the year.  During the colder months these mountains are often blanketed with 10 or 12 feet of snow, making the area a mecca for skiers.  I think the striations on this pair almost look like ski runs.

I purchased these hashioki from an eBay vendor in Thailand, but I like to think that they were made by someone who was also remembering the mountainous spine of central Tohoku.

This modern hashioki shows a mountain that is less melancholy than the pair above, butDSC01142 still very typical for Japan.  Even though it’s a-mass produced piece, I like how the glaze is foggy and indistinct, and how the edges fade to white.  It’s made by a company whose slogan is “pleasure of ordinary days,” and I certainly agree that one of those pleasures can be contemplating smoky mountains – even if you’re looking at them on the dining room table instead of seeing them in the distance.

When is a house more than a house?

DSC01080When is a house more than a house?  When it’s a hashioki, of course!  Or in this case, when it’s actually FOUR hashioki.

There’s actually a whole subgenre of chopstick rests that fit together in some way, or which appear to be something other than hashioki.  I’ve written about a set that looks like a hot pot meal, and another set where four donut shaped rests stack on a post to form the body of a monkey.  I love it!  This porcelain set was made in Japan,  but sold by an eBay vendor from Singapore.

The style of this house is reminiscent of the shimei-zukuri style of architecture that is used at Shinto shrines like Ise.  The buildings there are constructed from Japanese cypress without using nails,  and are ritually rebuilt every 20 years.

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But I am embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t figure out where the skinny rectangular piece  on the far right fit into this house when I got it;  I had to go back to the original eBay listing to see that it formed the chimney.

Four seasons

As I write this post the temperature in South Central Indiana is 31 degrees Fahrenheit, DSC01082and my least favorite four-letter word (s-n-o-w) may be in the forecast.  So, it’s reassuring to focus on this lovely set of Japanese hashioki which show the four seasons, and to remind myself that spring is coming.

I like this set because it exemplifies attention to detail.  The tops are slightly curved to keep the tips of the chopsticks from sliding off, and the surfaces are glazed so they are easy to clean.

The designs are combine beauty and whimsy, and each one features a nature element (flowers, flowing water or leaves) and an iconic symbol from the reason (a bunny, a butterfly, fans, and a dragonfly).  Maybe these symbols aren’t iconic in the West, but in Japan they are well-recognized symbols for Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.

I also like this set because it reminds me of one of my favorite Japanese novels, Sasameyuki (translated into English as The Makioka Sisters) by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki.

The Makioka Sisters follows the lives of four upper-middle-class sisters in Osaka from the mid 1930’s until the early 1940’s.  The specter of war haunts the book as these four adult women dress in elaborate kimonos, go to dance recitals and dine in Western restaurants, make their annual pilgrimage to view cherry blossoms at a famous site, and so on.  The family fortune has declined, which changes the social and economic position of the family, and the reader comes to realize that the decline of this family echoes the downward spiral of Japanese society.

DSC01083When I look at these four hashioki I see the four Makioka sisters.  The winter piece evokes Tsuruko, the oldest sister, the rather stern and uptight head of the family, who also has a house full of young children.  The spring hashioki suggests Sachiko, the second sister, theDSC01084 stylish but somewhat superficial matron who focuses on pleasant pastimes while the world around her crumbles.

 

 

DSC01085The summer piece personifies Yukiko, the third sister, who is the most traditional and most reserved member of the family.  The family’s attempts to arrange a marriage for Yukiko, and the progression of unsuccessful miai where she is introduced to prospective husbands forms the backbone of the novel.  The autumn hashioki represents Taeko, the youngest and
DSC01086wildest sister, who during the novel changes almost as completely as leaves turn in autumn.  Taeko starts her own business, attempts to elope, becomes pregnant out of wedlock by another man, and ultimately starts living with a man who is far different from the kind of man her family wished she would marry.

In other words, The Makioka Sisters is a Japanese soap opera.

The Makioka Sisters fascinates me because it chronicles such a dynamic period in modern Japanese history, a period when modernization and Westernization really clashed with traditional mores, including nationalistic militarism.  Tanizaki essentially went into seclusion during WW2;  to occupy himself he worked on a project that the Japanese military machine would not have considered politically correct, a modern Japanese language version of The Tale of Genji.  When it was published after the war this publication enabled many Japanese to read a previously-inaccessible classic of Japanese literature, which probably helped to preserve some more peaceful Japanese traditions.

Sachiko may not be my favorite Makioka sister, but as I sit here shivering the spring hashioki is my favorite from this set.

Two timing

I have two reasons for writing about this new and very elegant hashioki.

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First, it features a pair of Mandarin ducks. As I have already written this blog before  (“Lonely hearts,” May 2016), Mandarin ducks are a common Asian symbol for fidelity and marital love. A. little informal Internet research suggests that they an especially popular symbol in Korea, where they are thought to represent peace, fidelity and lots of children, making items with a Mandarin duck motif a popular Korean wedding gift.

So, in addition to featuring an item with a connection to love and marriage during the month that includes Valentine’s Day, it also seems appropriate to feature an item that represents a customary gift in Korea, given that the Winter Olympics are currently being held in South Korea.

Unfortunately, my research also indicates that Mandarin ducks are not quite as they seem. First, they don’t always mate for life; some pairs only mate for a season. Second, the colorful male ducks may be avid suitors, but they don’t make good fathers. Third, Mandarin duck females like to lay their eggs in the hole of a tree trunk, which seems like a very strange place for a water fowl to place her nest. And finally, female Mandarin ducks don’t quack. Instead they make a chicken-like clucking noise when they sense danger… or possibly when their spouse returns to the next after a night out with the boys.

Despite these discoveries, I am a little disappointed that this beautiful chopstick rest was sold on its own, and didn’t come with a mate. How can I use it when I set the table for dinner with my own mate?

 

Blue & white ceramics

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White porcelain which has been decorated with indigo blue designs, then glazed with a shiny transparent finish, have long been associated with Asian ceramics.

 

In Japan this kind of ceramics is known as sometsuke, which is written with the kanji character meaning “to dye.”  Pottery featuring blue on white designs was once imported to Japan from China, but in the early 1600s sometsuke began to be produced in the pottery town of Arita on the island of Kyushu by the Korean potters who immigrated there.  In Japan the blue decorations were reportedly made from mixing cobalt with green tea. (1)

Blue and white pottery often features intricate symmetrical or repeated designs, patterns (like the ones on the left above) that suggest that this ceramic style actually originated in Iraq as some scholars believe.  Many sometsuke pieces also suggest indigo dyed textiles.  Blue and white designs sometimes enliven pieces in IMG_3660traditional shapes, like the jar, rice scoop, scroll and rolled document shown here on the upper right, or adorn familiar pieces like musical instruments.  Many also depict landscapes.

 

In Japan blue and white ceramics often have an asymmetrical design, or have aIMG_3663 humorous slant.  included here are two of my blue and white favorites:  a folded shape that features a simple hut like the one that once housed the haiku poet Basho (shown at the beginning of this post), and this small cylinder where long blue dashes suggest rain.

(1) Frederic, Louis. Japan Encyclopedia.  Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 901.

Yasumi

In Japanese the word yasumi (休み) means vacation, or recess, or taking a break.

YasumiThat’s exactly what this Daruma hashioki is doing. He’s relaxing; in fact, he’s so relaxed that his stomach is hanging out of his kimono. This hashioki has appeared on my blog before, and it is featured on my blog business cards, because it is one of my favorite pieces. I can almost hear Daruma sigh as he collapses into his yasumi pose.

You can see my other Daruma hashioki in my “Daruma” and “Daruma deconstructed” posts from August 2016, and my “January Daruma” post from January 2017.

I’m going to be following this Daruma’s example, and taking a yasumi of my own from this blog. I’ve been posting for two years, and I enjoy sharing my love for hashioki very much. And I still have many more chopstick rests to share, and things I want to say about them. But I need a yasumi of my own; I’m going to be doing a bit of traveling, and want to make some time available for a different project.

So beginning in January 2018 I will be posting just once a month, at least for a while.

Namban

Among the most treasured pieces in my hashioki collection are a set of five chopstick rests that depict namban, the so-called Southern barbarians, meaning Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish traders and missionaries, that visited the Japanese island of Kyushu in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

For most Japanese these nambam were the their first encounter with Westerners, and they were understandably mesmerized by their clothing, including poufy pantaloons, brocade jackets, wide-brimmed hats and pointy boots; by their guns and swords and pipes; and of course by their big ships with tall masts and broad sails.

These namban images are taken from a byōbu, or folding screen, that is believed to have been created by a famous artist named Kanō Sanraku in the early 17th. century. The screen, which has been designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government, is in the collection of the Suntory Museum of Art. I purchased the hashioki set at the museum during an exhibit showing some of their best items in May 1996.

In addition to their vivid and interesting decoration, the rests in this namban set are a delight because they curl slightly, encouraging chopstick tips to stay on them, and because they each rest on three tiny ceramic feet. But what struck me when I bought them was that this set was my third set with five pieces, and that had to be more than coincidence (please refer to my post The power of five” from November 2017).
Namban4This blue and white example is an official namban hashioki because it comes from the gift shop of Dejima, the island fort in Nagasaki in Kyushu where the Dutch namban traders lived from 1641 to 1853. I traveled to Nagasaki to visit the Dejima restoration in 2016, inspired largely by David Mitchell’s wonderful 2010 historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. In addition to showing a Dutch trader wearing his pantaloons the hashioki features one of the ornate lanterns that still light the streets of Nagasaki today.

Message hashioki

Sometimes hashioki literally send a message.

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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.

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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,

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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