Monkey business

IMG_2348If you are a fan of the Asian zodiac, you know that this year (2016) is the Year of the Monkey. The zodiac is a 12 year cycle, so that means if you were born in 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992 or 2004 you are a Monkey.  The two hashioki below represent the Monkey in different 12-piece Zodiac hashioki series.

Monkeys are said to be sharp and mischievous, and fond of practical jokes.   I’m not sure how they feel about hashioki.

This hashioki represents a special kind of monkey, a Japanese macaque. They are sometimes called snow monkeys, although they live in the wild throughout the entire chain of islands, including many areas where it never snows. But chances are you’ve seenIMG_1917 photographs of Japanese macaques sitting in the snow on the edge of a steaming outdoor onsen bath.   Snow monkeys were once considered rare, but apparently they now overrun many parks and forested tourist areas in Japan where they like to hop on car hoods and beg for food, or even break into cars to steal shiny objects.

The most famous Japanese monkeys are undoubtedly this trio, pantomiming the proverb “Hear no evil, Speak no evil, and See no evil”. The originals are carved in the wooden lintel above the doorway of a building at Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō, about 75 miles north of IMG_1920Tōkyō. Tōshō-gū Shrine was built in the early 17th. century as a mausoleum for Ieyasu Tokugawa, the shōgun who founded the Tokugawa regime. I don’t know if the proverb has any direct connection to Ieyasu, unless it was advice offered to his vassals who wanted to keep their jobs or even their heads. I’ve been to Nikkō, and shuffled with hoards of others past the monkey carving; if I hadn’t known a little bit about their history I would have assumed they were covering their ears and eyes to avoid contact with the tourists.

In any case, this monkey trio hashioki comes from Shoindo, a wonderful shop near Kiyomizu Temple in Kyōto that specializes in the kind of ceramics that were traditionally created in the kilns on the hills leading to the temple. Kilns are no longer allowed within Kyōto city limits, but Shoindo still markets these ceramics, many of which feature iconic or traditional motifs.

Happy Year of the Monkey!



These hashioki replicate the small Japanese wooden plaques known as ema.

The word ema is written with the Japanese characters for picture (e) followed by the kanji for horse (ma). The names relates back an ancient Japanese custom of donating a white horse to a Shinto shrine in anticipation or gratitude for a wish fulfillment. Over time theIMG_1675 donation of an actual horse was replaced with a donation of a wooden plaque with a picture of a horse, and eventually morphed into wooden plaques with various pictures that relate to the shrine where they are sold, or seasonal or holiday references. The  first hashioki happens to depict a horse, but  the designs on these ema actually represent signs of the zodiac cycle.

The ema of some shrines are associated with particular wishes. For example, students traditionally visit Tenjin Shinto shrines, which are associated with a ninth century scholar named Sugawara no Michizane, to post an ema before a big exam. The sales of ema are an important source of income for many shrines.

Ema are generally sold for the equivalent of US $5. They’re usually about 6” wide and 4” high, and a hole at the top with a cord strung through it. The thin wood ema has a painted IMG_1674picture on one side, usually with the name of the shrine or location, and the back side is blank. At some shrines a shrine employee will write your wish or prayer on the back of the ema in calligraphy, but most people simply write their own wish with a Sharpie marker. Then the ema is posted on one of the fence-like display boards at the entrance to the shrine beside ema posted by hundreds of others.One of the sensory delights of visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan is listening to the gentle clapping in the breeze of hundreds of wooden ema as you approach the Shrine.

After hashioki, ema are my favorite Japanese souvenir. I’m not the only one who feels this way; there are always lots of other people, both Westerners and Japanese, slipping ema into their handbag instead of mounting them at the shrine. We hang our ema on along the rafters of our wooden screened porch, and hearing them softly bang against the wooden supports on a windy day always transports me back to Japan.


The sakura, or cherry blossom, is the flower most associated with Japan.

If you happen to be in Japan in March or April you get a sense of how ingrained sakura are in Japanese culture when every television news broadcast begins with the solemn report of how the wave of cherry blossom blooms is progressing from southern Okinawa to northern Hokkaido.

Not surprisingly, cherry blossoms have been celebrated by Japanese poets throughout the ages. Whatever I might write here about their beauty or emotional impact or ephemerality has undoubtedly been expressed better by those poets, so I am yielding the blog to them.


Look at that! and that!
all I can say of the blossoms
At Yoshino Mountain.(1)



In fair YoshinoSakura
Blossoming in the mountains,
Were cherry flowers.
I thought they must be snow
But how mistaken I was.(2)

On the slope
Beneath the mountain peak
The cherries bloom—
Oh nearby mountain mist,
Do not suppress my view! (3)

Under a cherry tree,
Soup, salad, and all else
Are brought to us
Dressed in gay blossoms.(4)

Because I planted Sakura
A cherry tree at a house
That nobody visits,
I now use the cherry flowers
To beautify myself.(5)

Many things of the past
Are brought to my mind,
As I stand in the garden
Staring at a cherry tree.(6)

You cherry blossomsSakura
Who this year for the first time
Have learned what spring is,
Do not learn from the others
What makes blossoms scatter.(7)

It is precisely because
The cherry blossoms scatter
That we prize them so;
That’s true, I know, it’s true,
It’s true all right, but still… (8)

The way the Japanese traditionally celebrate sakura blossoms is to get a group of friends or family together, spread a blanket under a blooming tree in a park, and then drink a lot of sake or beer. There probably aren’t any hashioki. Maybe the sakura hashioki are for people who are too shy to get drunk in public. Or maybe they’re a consolation for outdoor celebrations that are rained out.

(1) Teihitsu (Yasuhara Masaakira) in World Within Walls:  Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era 1600-1867, A History of Japanese Literature Volume 2 by Donald Keene.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 42.

(2) Ko no Tomonori (Kokinshū).  In Seeds in the Heart:  Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, A History of Japanese Literature Volume 1 by Donald Keene.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1999 p. 258.

(3) Oe no Masafusa.  In One Hundred Leaves:  A New Annotated Translation of the Hyakinin Isshu by Blue Flute (Frank Watson).  New York:  Blue Flute, 2012, p. 147.

(4)Bashō.  In The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Stories by Nobuyuko Yuasa.  London:  Penguin Books, 1966, p. 41.

(5) Izumi Shikibu.  In Seeds in the Heart, p. 296.

(6)Bashō.  In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, p. 79.

(7) Ko No Tsurayuki (Kokinshū).  In Seeds in the Heart, p. 261.

(8) Nagata Teiryū. In World Within Walls, p. 516.


Sakura or ume?

I read in The Japan Times that the first cherry blossoms have bloomed today (March 21) in Tokyo.

Since the report came from the Japan Meteorological Agency,  I assume that the trees that are blossoming are in fact cherry trees.  But if the news story originated anywhere else I wouldn’t be so sure.  A surprising number of people outside of Japan seem to assume that every pretty Japanese flower is automatically a cherry blossom.

It’s not true.  Some of them are plum tree blossoms.

Sakura or ume?Cherry blossoms, or sakura, have five petals. Sakura petals are usually oval in shape, and they have a distinctive notch or indentation in their outside edge, which you can see in the example on the left. Cherry blossoms are usually pale pink or white.



Plum blossoms, or ume, also have five petals. But as you can see from the example on the right, their petal edges are rounded Sakura or ume?and don’t have a notch. The flowers of the apricot (apurikotto) tree have a similar shape. Plum blossoms are often dark pink, as shown here, but are sometimes white or light pink.



Even though they look very different, items decorated with plum blossoms are frequently described as having a cherry blossom motif. Maybe it’s because people automatically associate cherry blossoms with Japan. Even this hashioki, purchased by a friend at the Sakura or ume?official gift shop of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C., was labeled as a cherry blossom. Which I guess means that the people in the shop need to spend more time walking around the Potomac Tidal Basin when the cherry trees are in bloom. Because this isn’t a cherry blossom.


It’s a plum.


My last entry in this series on Japanese folk heroes is a post about Kintarō, a sort of Japanese Hercules, a legendary figure who could dislodge boulders and uproot trees even as a child. His name means “golden boy,” and as a folk hero he is usually portrayed as aIMG_1859 youngster wielding a hatchet and wearing a shirt decorated with the kanji for “gold,” as he is on the hashioki here.

Kintarō is closely associated with Boy’s Day, the national Japanese holiday on the fifth day of the fifth month, or May 5. That is why he is often seen wearing a samurai’s kabuto helmet, and riding a koi no bori, the traditional carp kite or windsock that is IMG_1858hung outside of houses with sons on that date. It is also customary to present Kintarō dolls to young boys on this holiday to inspire them to grow up to be as strong and brave as this folk hero.

Kintarō was actually the childhood name of a historical person, a famous Heian period warrior named Sakata no Kintoki. Despite this provenance, he is reputed to be the son of a mountain woman, who grew up with wild beasts and imaginary creatures as his only playmates. Maybe that legend explains why a red-skinned, bare-chested Kintarō was a popular subject for ukiyoe artists during the Edo period (1), and why he continues to be featured in anime and manga to this day. There is even a traditional Japanese hard candy that bears his name.

(1) Baird, Merrily.  Symbols of Japan:  Thematic Motifs in Art and Design.  New York:   Rizzoli Publications, 2001, pp. 304-305.


Probably not as familiar as Kaguyahime or Momotarō is the story of Issunbōshi,  yet another  child with miraculous powers who appeared as a reward for a worthy childless couple.

IssunboshiIn this tale a poor couple had prayed faithfully that the wife would give birth to a baby, and finally their prayers were answered. Their son, however, was very small, just a little more than one inch tall. The child grew older, but never grew any bigger. They named him Issunbōshi because issun is a traditional Japanese measure equal to 1.39 inches, and bōshi is a term for son.

When Issunbōshi became an adult he longed to travel. His father gave him his lacquer rice bowl to use as a boat, and a pair of chopsticks to use as oars. His mother gave him a sewing needle to use as his sword. Issunbōshi set off in his makeshift boat and made his way down the river to Kyoto. In the city Issunbōshi was welcomed into the household of a local lord, but later he and the lord’s beautiful daughter were forced to leave after a misunderstanding. They found a fisherman’s boat and tried to return to Issunbōshi’s home, but a storm blew them off course and they were beached on a mysterious island. On the island an ogre confrontedIssunboshi them, and when he saw how small Issunbōshi really was, he swallowed him. Issunbōshi used his needle to prick the inside of the ogre’s stomach until the ogre spat him out, and then he used the needle to stab the ogre’s nose and eyes. Screaming in pain, the ogre ran away, but left behind his magic mallet. Issunbōshi and the lord’s daughter used the mallet to make a wish that the tiny hero would grow to a normal size, which he promptly did, and then they used the mallet to wish for some food, riches, and a strong boat to return to Kyoto. When they arrived they are welcomed by the Emperor, and the couple invited Issunbōshi’s parents to come live with them in their new home (1).

It’s interesting that Japan, where many people are short, has a number of folktale heroes who are also quite diminutive. I think Issunbōshi is my favorite because he is so resourceful; he starts his journey in a rice bowl, and wields his needle to escape the ogre. Apparently in Japan not only is the pen mightier than the sword, but so is the needle.


(1) Yasuda, Yuri.  A Treasury of Japanese Folktales.  Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2010, pp. 81-93.



Like Kaguyahime, Momotarō is also a story about a child with special powers who miraculously becomes the son of an elderly deserving couple.

One day an old woman was washing her laundry in a stream when she saw a giant peachMomotaro floating in front of her. She took the peach home, thinking it will be a tasty snack for her husband. But when the couple cut the peach open a tiny baby boy popped out. They named the child Peach Boy, or Momotarō.

Momotarō was a happy boy who filled the old couple’s house with laughter. He was very strong, and also very good-hearted, always willing to help not just his parents, but everyone. When Momotarō grew up, he announced that he was going to Onigashima, an island where terrible ogres tormented and killed the human inhabitants. On his way to the island he recruited a dog, a monkey and a pheasant, aided by the millet kibi dumplings his mother had packed in his bento lunch box. When they got to the island Momotarō and his companions fought hundreds of demons, culminating in a ferocious battle between Momotarō and the chief of the demons. Momotarō of course won, and the remaining demons surrendered and promised to end their evil ways. The demons then rewarded Momotarō with a cart loaded with treasure, which he took home to his parents (1)

This fairy tale is obviously a blue print for what a good son should do: treat your parents well, make them proud, and shower them with riches. That makes this an inspirational hashioki to place on the table in front of a little boy. Or maybe it would be a good piece to use at a meal where dumplings are served; obviously Momotarō owed his success to those kibi dumplings his mother packed in his lunchbox.

(1) Yasuda, Yuri.  A Treasury of Japanese Folk Tales.  Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2010, pp. 42-51.


Some of Japan’s most beloved fairy tales are about childless couples who pray for a baby, and who are eventually rewarded with a child with supernatural powers.

Kaguyahime, or the Shining Princess, is one such star of a venerated Japanese story, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. One day an elderly bamboo cutter goes into the forest to harvest bamboo. He discovers a large bamboo stalk with a mysterious glow, and when he cuts it open he finds a beautiful baby girl who is just one inch high. To put that in perspective, Kaguyahimeshe was the same exact size as this hashioki. The old man carries the child back to his hut and presents her to his wife, who is delighted. The couple take very good care of the little girl, aided by the gold coins the old man now finds in the bamboo forest every day after he brings her home. The girl grows up into a young woman with exceptional beauty, but she shies away from all the suitors that ask to marry her. Even the Emperor of Japan proposes, and when he does, the young woman mysteriously fades into a transparent apparition, and he withdraws. Finally Kaguyahime explains to her adoptive parents that she is actually a resident of the moon, and on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, when the moon is full, she returns there (1). Her adoptive parents were devastated.

In some versions of this tale Princess Kaguyahime sends a box containing an elixir for immortal life to the Emperor before she returns to the moon. Saddened by her departure, he is unable to open the box, and he instructs his soldiers to take it to the top of Japan’s highest mountain and burn it. It is said that the Japanese word for immortality, fushi, was then adapted to name that place Mount Fuji.

Readers of The Tale of Genji may remember that The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is referred to as “the ancestor of all tales” in Chapter 17 (or The Picture Contest) of the novel. The Court ladies involved in a debate about the tale argue that “Princess Kaguya remains forever unsullied by this world, and she aspires to such noble heights that her story belongs to the age of the gods” (2). Fans of the more plebian video Big Bird in Japan may remember that Big Bird’s tour guide reveals herself to be Kaguyahime in the end.

While I appreciate that this is a well loved fairy tale in Japan, I’m not sure what the moral is. Be careful what you wish for? The parents in this story receive their child, but their hearts are broken when she returns to the moon. Maybe the real audience for this tale are all the little girls who dream about leaving home and flying to some place as far away as the moon

(1) Yasuda, Yuri.  A Treasury of Japanese Folktales.  Rutland, VT:  Tuttle Publishing, 2010, pp. 32-41.

(2) Tyler, Royall (trans.)  The Tale of Genji.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2003, p. 325.

Making more out of less

Even the diminutive size of hashioki seem to link them to Japan.

For example, this hashioki is nothing more than a small lump of clay that has been shapedIMG_1486  by hand, had some features carved with a simple pointed tool, and then splashed with two colors of glaze before being fired. Yet it is instantly recognizable as a tanuki, or native Japanese raccoon dog, and appreciated as a delightful folk art rendering of a tanuki at that. Donald Richie, who wrote extensively about Japanese culture and film, once suggested that Japan’s historical historical experience of having to make more out of less space and fewer natural resources has made it the master of tiny items. “Traditionally, Japan learned to transform its poverty…. The art of the small, the minimal, the enormous economy of the spatial assumptions, this was due to not having much,”(1)  Richie noted.

Hashioki makers know how to get a lot of bang out of their buck.

During the pre-modern Tokugawa period the Japanese government also levied consumption taxes as a means to restrict displays of wealth among the then newly-IMG_1372emerging middle class. These measures “forced craftsmen to lavish their skills on small private objects, like tiny ivory clasps or exquisite lacquer boxes… [thereby producing a Japanese] tradition of great craftsmanship in detail and miniature.”(2)  This tradition, and the Japanese population’s appreciation for detailed small objects like this lovely hand painted fan with gold embellishment, undoubtedly apaved the way for the promulgation of hashioki in the twentieth century, and for their endurance today.

(1) Richie, Donald.  “Patterns of Japanese Leisure,” October 1994 address at Harvard University.  Partial Views:  Essays on Contemporary Japan.  Tokyo: The Japan Times, Ltd., 1995, p.30.

(2) Darmon, Reed.  Made in Japan.  San Francisco:  Chronicle Books, 2006, p. 7.

For more information on tanuki see my January 2016 post “Bad boys.”


Another hina matsuri pair


Ironically, the same day I published my post about hina matsuri, another dairibina pair showed up in my mailbox.

For some reason hina matsuri emperor and empress pairs sometimes appear to depict children, and are then referred to as “young birds” or specifically “chicks.” I don’t why this is. Perhaps the creators of the dairibina think they will be more appealing to children if the emperor and empress are portrayed as children themselves, or perhaps they are referencing the historic tradition where Japanese emperors ascended the throne at a very young age, essentially ruling as figureheads with a powerful adult regent making the real decisions.

These hina matsuri chicks come from a shop called Wakeiseijyaku in Saitama City, just north of Tokyo.   I think they are a particularly charming pair, thanks to their tiny smiles and milky crackle glaze. Their body shape may be intended to represent kimono, but to me it suggests the way an infant is swaddled. However, it does appear that the emperor’s kimono or cloth is wrapped left over right, which is the proper way.