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.


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


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.



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.



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.

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.