Ume (Plum)


The flower of the plum tree, or ume, is perhaps the second most popular flower in Japan — after the cherry blossom, of course.

But the ume is my personal favorite.

IMG_1690Maybe it’s because the blossoming of the plum tree signals is the first sign of spring. I’ve seen plum trees budding in Tokyo’s Ueno Park during the month of February, weeks before the cherry trees blossom.

Or maybe it’s because they’re a hearty flower, opening when there’s still a hint of snow in the air. Ume are not as fragile as cherry blossoms, either; the blossoms last until the birds start chirping that it really is IMG_1691spring.

Or maybe plum blossoms are my favorite because they are yet another symbol of longevity — something I appreciate now that I’m in my seventh decade — or because they are the flower beloved by Japanese scholars and poets.


Lafcadio Hearn, one of the first Americans to reside in Japan during the 19th. century, wrote about an interesting distinction that he observed. He said that the Japanese compared a “woman’s beauty– physical beauty–to the cherry flower, never to the plum flower. But womanly virtue and sweetness, on the other hand, are compared to the ume-no-hana, never to the cherry blossom.”(1)

Guess I’m okay with that, too.

(1) Hearn, Lafcadio and Donald Richie (Editor). Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan: An Anthology of His Writings on the Country and Its People. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1997, p. 76.


Smart merchandising

Museum gift shops in Japan are usually small and uninspiring affairs. Other than the standard wall of postcards portraying items in the museum’s collection, in Japan these shops are generally stocked with high priced items that have no visual connection to the museum’s art holdings, like $30 pens or $50 coaster sets that simply bear the name or the logo of the museum.

So I was delighted to find that the gift shop of the MOA Museum in Atami was an exception to the rule during my September 2013 visit.

IMG_1641In a small bowl sitting among other more expensive items were a mound of two different chopstick rests. The first one repeated the decorative motif of one of the two prizes in the MOA Museum’s collection, the “Tea-Leaf Jar with a Design of Wisteria” created by Nonomura Ninsei in the 17th century. The other one featured a portion from the museum’s other prize, the “Red and White Plum Blossoms” byobu or folding screen created by Ogata Korin in the 18th century. The hashioki were priced at just 250 JPY, or roughly $2.50 each at the exchange rate then.

The inspiration for these hashioki, the tea jar and the screen, are among Japan’s National Treasures. This is a special designation awarded by a government committee to art, crafts items, buildings and structures that have been judged to “possess high historic, artistic, and academic value for Japan.” Inaugerated in the early twentieth century to preserve irreplaceable items and buildings in response to rapid Westernization and active acquisition of indigenous objects by foreigners, Japan’s National Treasures are covered by laws that guard their sale, preservation and protection, and public display.

While I have occasionally found hashioki in other museums in Japan, Atami’s MOA IMG_1640Museum is the first place I have seen chopstick rests that specifically replicate objects in a museum’s collection. I think it’s wonderful that this museum has made a small and inexpensive souvenir available to their visitors, allowing guests to go home and actually remember some of the artwork that they saw as they use their hashioki.
That’s what I call smart merchandising.

Just a few days before our visit to the MOA Museum my husband and I made our second visit to what I consider to be the world’s most magical sculpture museum, the Hakone Open Air Museum. And like the Atami museum, I was able to find a hashioki produced by the Hakone IMG_1687museum in their gift shop. But this chopstick rest is not as satisfying as the MOA products. It’s an oddly shaped rest; there’s a grove for one chopstick tip on one side, and a less pronounced groove on the other side, and an unexplained hole in the middle. Maybe the idea is to burn a stick of incense between the tips of your chopsticks.  In some ways this hashioki almost looks like a miniature sculpture, which is appropriate for a modern sculpture museum, but it doesn’t replicate any of the buildings or sculpture shown as the museum. Therefore, it does not seem as successful a souvenir as the MOA hashioki.

I wish that more museums in Japan, and elsewhere, would produce hashioki that help visitors to recall their artwork treasures. Hashioki make a wonderful mementos.

The Tale of Genji

I think of this pair as my Genji Monogatari hashioki, or as symbols of the famous Japanese novel The Tale of Genji.


I purchased them in the gift shop of Nagoya’s Tokugawa Museum, which is famous for owning three Genji monogatari emaki, or illustrated hand scrolls, which date from around 1130. They are three of the four survivors from of a set of 10 to 20 scrolls that once recounted stories from The Tale of Genji in painted pictures and calligraphy; the Gotoh Museum in Setagaya outside of Tokyo has a fourth scroll, while the others have been lost. These surviving scrolls are the oldest existent non-Buddhist scrolls in Japan, and are one of the National Treasures of Japan. The scrolls were not on display when we visited the museum, but we did see facsimilies of them.

The Tale of Genji is undoubtedly Japan’s most famous novel. It has also been described as the world’s oldest novel, and as the world’s first “modern novel” and first psychological novel. It centers on the story of Prince Genji, an uncommonly attractive and cultured “shining prince” whose grace, poetry skills and aesthetic sensibilities impressed all the aristocrats around him in the Heian period (794-1185) imperial court. Much of the novel centers on Genji’s affairs with a wide range of women; even though Genji was a serial romancer, most of his liasons treasured the time they spent with him as an exceptional experience. Later chapters of the novel recount tales of Genji’s descendants and others who wished to emulate him.

If we accept that these are indeed Genji Monogatari hashioki, then they depict Prince Genji and Murasaki, his greatest love, dressed in their finest court regalia. Some might say that this pair replicates the empress and emperor dolls that rule over the traditional display of  dolls in some Japanese homes near Japan’s Girl’s Day national holiday on March 3 (please look for a future post on Hina matsuri). However, I think provenance is everything; this pair are my Tale of Genji hashioki. I’m sure the millions of readers who have been mesmerized by the novel during the past 1,000 years would agree.

To me the most amazing thing about The Tale of Genji is that it’s a very long novel, stretching over 1100 pages in a recent English translation by Royall Tyler. It was written by hand during stolen moments on odd lots of paper by a woman who worked as a lady in waiting to an empress in the early years of the 11th. century. The author didn’t have a typewriter or a computer or a dependable light source; she probably didn’t even have a copy of what she had already written as she wrote the middle or last chapters. Yet it is a coherent novel, with an orderly timeline, compelling stories, and developed characters.
There is no mention of hashioki in The Tale of Genji; hashioki made their appearance in Japan much later. There’s actually very little reference to food or the act of eating in the novel. In The World of the Shining Prince scholar Ivan Morris suggests that a Heian aristocrat’s diet consisted mainly of rice, rice cakes, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seaweed. Even the elegant and fastidious Prince Genji probably ate with his hands.

While it may seem strange to include hashioki depicting garuma, or ox carts, in a discussion about a romantic novel, these carts play a significant role in the book. Aristocratic women in Heian Japan were not meant to be seen by men outside their immediate family. So when they traveled to a temple or festival women rode in these ox-drawn vehicles, and were shielded from view by blinds or shutters. However, many assignations in the novel begin when a man catches an inadvertent glimpse of a woman in a cart, or after a man merely imagines how beautiful a woman riding in such a cart might be.

Lovers in The Tale of Genji wooed and responded through poetry; there are almost 800 five-line tanka poems interspersed throughout the story. They also exchanged flowers and blossoming branches, jars of incense, clothing and lengths of cloth. If only they had possessed hashioki! A stylish chopstick rest would have been the perfect thing to slip inside to a love letter or secretly pass to a paramour.

My Tale of Genji hashioki pair would never have made an appearance inside the novel. They are, alas, machine made and mass produced; they were purchased in a shop and not commissioned from an exclusive artisan. Prince Genji would have disdained them.

IMG_1638Instead Genji might have conspired to have a hashioki like this lacquered bow, fashioned from handmade washi paper that perhaps recreates the colors of the cape he wore to a tryst the night before, and then magically appearing on the breakfast tray of his new love.

The object of his affections might have responded with an elegant hand-painted chopstick rest like this fan tied to poem proclaiming that even a fan couldn’t hide the IMG_1639longing on her face that the shining prince will visit her once again tonight. At least, that’s the way it might have been, to paraphrase the last line of Royall Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji.


Movies featuring Godzilla — or Gojira as he is known in Japan — were the introduction to Japanese cinema for many people of my generation.


Godzilla was a slow-moving but terrifying dinosaur-like monster whose name was an amalgamation of “god” and “gorilla.” Created in 1954, he went on to star in 28 Toho Co., Ltd. films, in addition to playing a leading role in comic books, video games, and so on. Depending on who you ask, Godzilla was metaphor for either nuclear power or the United States; his body had keloid scars and he had “atomic breath.” Godzilla was awkward and violent, but some people found they could sympathize. Like many monsters Godzilla had the power to destroy, but also the power to protect.

According to the vendor who listed these hashioki on eBay, this pair was unearthed in the warehouse inventory of a closed factory in 2015. They are stamped “Toho Eiga,” which means Toho Pictures, on the bottom, so they are a genuine piece of Godzilla memorabilia. But while Godzilla towered over Tokyo skyscrapers in his movies, these monsters only measure one and half inches tall.

A revolutionary bird

When I purchased this hashioki in the gift shop of the Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art I didn’t understand that it was a significant item. All I knew came from a small sign posted beside it: that the hashioki was designed by someone named Masahiro Mori for a company called Hakusan Porcelain.

IMG_1630Over the years I’ve encountered this bird a number of times.  It’s famous in the tiny (no pun intended) world of hashioki. So I was inspired to find out why this hashioki is so venerated.

Hakusan Porcelain is located in Hasami, a town in Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture with a 400 year history of producing ceramics. In the early 1950s a young Japanese man married into the Hakusan family and assumed a leadership role in the company, a common Japanese business practice in families where there are no male heirs. Hakusan’s new leader then happened to attend a lecture by the founder of Panasonic electronics where he announced that the world was at the beginning of the“Design Era,” and he recognized that modern design was a distinguishing factor that could make his company’s products competitive. He discovered there was a person called a “ceramics designer” working in a local government office, and he hired this Masahiro Mori to revamp the Hakusan Porcelain product line .(1)

Mori’s designs revolutionized ceramics in Japan, and helped establish Japan’s international reputation for modern, minimalist design. He worked for Hakusan for 22 years, and helped make that company a leader in ceramics production. Before his death in 2005 Mori also received many international design commendations, including 110 Good Design awards.

This delicately tinted bird hashioki is not as innovative as some of Mori’s other designs, like the sake decanter in the shape of a penquin or the flower vase that looks like a recently hatched egg. But it’s far different from the ornate and gilded ceramics that were prized in Japan before that time, and certainly examplifies Mori’s design philosophy to “… conceive of forms for daily use… [produced] in the factory, so that many people can appreciate and enjoy using them .”(2)

(1) Suzuki, Takafumi.  “Minimalist Ceramics from Traditional Hasami.”  Pingmag.  Downloaded September 8, 2014.

(2) Masahiro Mori (ceramic designer).  Wikipedia.  Downloaded September 8, 2014. Mori (ceramic designer).


A different kind of tie

IMG_1592Both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan raise a little extra income by selling omikuji, or “sacred lot” paper fortunes. The omikuji are usually white paper strips that are rolled or folded. They are randomly dispensed to a fortune seeker after he or she drops 100 yen coin in a wooden box at a booth or into a vending machine.

Omikuji fortunes have two parts. The first part is a kind of blessing; the options range from great blessing to half blessing to future blessing, but also from small curse to great curse.

The second part of the fortune concerns some aspect of life; it could be business success orIMG_1593 travel or childbirth, or something like that. Suggesting that the individual will find new and unusual hashioki doesn’t seem to be one of the standard fortune options, but there’s always hope. In any case, the fortune is derived by combining the two parts. So you could have a great blessing in business, or a small curse in travel, and so on.


If you visit a shrine or temple in Japan you may see a lot of these paper strips tied to branches of a nearby tree or to wall strung with metal wires. There are two schools of thought regarding these tied omikuji. Some claim this is how you dispose of a bad fortune you do not want, while others insist that tying a good fortune on a branch or wire will increase its chance of coming true. Lots of people believe that buying one of these fortunes, reading it, and then tying it to something is part of the fun of visiting a shrine or temple.

I’d like to suggest that using an omikuji hashioki might guarantee the fulfillment of the good fortune you may have received at a shrine or temple earlier that day.


People also believe that omikuji were the inspiration for fortune cookies, especially those people who insist that fortune cookies were in invented in Kyoto (where there are many shrines and temples) in the eighteenth century.  I’ll write more about this in a future post about fortune cookies.

Tai-ing one on

Japanese sea bream, known as tai or IMG_1590madai in Japanese, is one of Japan’s most popular fish. Like many other species of sea bream around the world, it is prized for its taste, whether it is sliced raw for sashimi, grilled over a charcoal fire, or poached and served whole. In Japan tai is considered a lucky fish because its name rhymes with medetai, meaning “auspicious.” It is often featured at the New Year, at weddings, and at other celebrations, and is considered to especially bestow good fortune when it brought to the table whole because of its appealing shape.

Thanks to this provenance, tai has become an auspicious symbol in itself. Ebisu, one of Japan’s Shichifukujin or Seven Gods of Good Fortune, and the god of fishermen, luck, and working people, is often depicted holding a tai.

IMG_1591Tai swim in the waters around all the Japanese islands. During the months of March and April tai move into coastal waters to spawn. At that time the skin of the fish turns red, and they are considered to have an especially good taste. During these months, which is also when cherry trees bloom in Japan, the fish are sometimes referred to as “cherry blossom tai.”

Tai became particularly popular in Japan during the Tokugawa period when salt water fish was first served raw instead of being salted and dried. This coincided with the introduction of commercial prepared soy sauce. That was when Japanese diners discovered that soy sauce enhanced the flavor of raw tai, at least according to the Kikkoman Corporation, one of Japan’s leading brewers of soy sauce.(1)  So it may be that tai was one of the first varieties of sashimi. Unfortunately tai is only readily available in Japan; red snapper is its’ closest equivalent in other parts of the globe.

(1), downloaded January 11, 2014.

Maneki neko


The most famous cats in Japan, and perhaps in all of Asia, are the maneki neko, which can be translated as the “calling or beckoning cat.”



Maneki neko are fixtures beside the cash register in stores and restaurants throughout Japan. They are well known symbols of welcome.

One legend surrounding maneki neko suggests that they commemorate a cat who came home one night carrying a gold coin in his mouth, thus saving his owner from bankruptcy.

IMG_1596 That is why maneki neko are often pictured holding a large oval gold piece, like the cats here.  The characters on the gold piece  signify an archaic monetary measure equal to 18 grams of gold.  Some maneki neko wear a bib with the character for takara, or treasure, like the blue and white stoneware example on the left below.  The white hashioki on the right displays the kanji fuku, or good luck, which is a kind of fortune on its own.

Another story claims that maneko neko have a magical ability to charm or bewitch anyone passing by. According to legend, just such a cat lured a wealthy lord into a temple that had IMG_1598fallen into disrepair.   Once he passed through the gate the lord was suddenly inspired to repair and restore the temple. Temple administrators must put stock in this tale, because maneki neko charms are often sold at Japanese shrines and temple today. This smiling example, which has ball bearings inside that rattle when you shake it, seems like it might just be such a charm.

In any case, maneki neko are associated with good luck, and specifically with good financial fortune.

IMG_2088Some maneki neko beckon with their right paw, and some beckon with their left paw. There is some debate about the significance of which paw is raised. Some say that a raised right paw indicates general good luck, while a raised left paw specifically asks for customers or financial luck. But it probably boils down to the whimsy of the artist who made the pieces.



Maneko neko may be one of Japan’s most successful exports, because you see them not only in Japanese restaurants and stores, but also in Chinese, Korean, Thai, and other Asian places of business.  Maybe that’s because everyone longs for a little more luck.

More hashioki humor



I thought this shark hashioki was just a run-of-the-mill piece…




until I turned it over.  The underside shows not only the shark’s skeleton, but also its’ jaw full of pointy teeth, ready to chomp on some unsuspecting prey.



I purchased this hashioki at the museum store of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in May 2014.  The museum was one of my favorite haunts during my teenage years;  it was the place that convinced me art museums could be awe-inspiring cathedrals of beauty.  Growing up I was particularly entranced by the Japanese tea house inside the museum, and the tea house is still there.  But on my last visit the museum looked like a worn and tired version of its former vibrant self, and the tiny collection of Japanese art on display had not been rotated since my previous visit a few years earlier.

But obviously one of the buyers for the museum store is a kindred spirit;  I purchased two hashioki there in 2014, and have purchased others on previous visits.



IMG_1610Like the tanuki, the kappa is one of Japan’s bad boys. However this mischievous water imp is entirely imaginary. The kappa is reportedly the size of a child, a body covered with scales, webbed hands and feet, and shaggy bobbed hair. They live in rivers, which explains their piscine characteristics and reportedly fishy smell. Kappa supposedly have double-jointed arms and legs, which undoubtedly helps them perform their most heinous crime: dragging innocent humans, especially children, into the water and drowning them. But we could argue that kappa are not entirely bad, because they are a convenient scapegoat for parents to use to warn their children about playing too close to the water.
Kappa have a shallow bowl-shaped indentation on the top of their head IMG_1613which holds a liquid which is the source of their powers. Somewhere in their mythic history a folktale story teller decided to have some fun with the kappa, claiming that kappa are obsessively polite, and that when they bow the liquid spills out and they become powerless.


In this hashioki a kappa rides on the back of his fellow river dweller, the catfish.  Catfish are sometimes viewed as either the predictor or the cause of earthquakes in Japan, so in this example the kappa may be playing the role of a seismologist.


Kappa are sometimes spotted in sushi restaurants, undoubtedly drawn there by kappamaki cucumber rolls, named for them because cucumbers are reportedly their favorite food.