Creative packaging

Many hashioki can be described as kawaii (cute or charming in Japanese), but only a few come in packages that are kawaii, too.

The body of this monkey is made up of four stacking chopstick rests in alternating colors of blue and orange. It was designed by children’s book illustrator Shinzi Katoh. And just in case a potential buyer isn’t sure what this monkey is when they spot it in a store, the words “CHOPSTICK REST” are printed on the base.
IMG_2022Katoh produces an extensive line of other exceedingly cute merchandise, but these edamame hashioki are among his best. Each of the four rests has unique eye decorations, and they nestle together in their own soy bean shell holder. There is also a two bean version of this design.
We can be certain that this five piece set is perfect for hot pot dinners because it comesIMG_2024 packaged inside its’ own ceramic hot pot. The hashioki represent five popular yosenabe or Japanese hot pot ingredients, including crab, mushroom, spring onions, kamaboko or fish sausage, and daikon radish half moons.
The only problem with these hashioki is that it’s hard not to be reluctant to remove them from their packaging, and a little embarrassing to be so anxious to return them to their reassembled state.


Lonely hearts

I once thought these ducks (ahiru or kamo) were wonderful additions to my collection, because they are colorful and attractive and unique. And who doesn’t love ducks?

But now I know they are in fact sad additions, because they are lonely. Ducks, particularly Mandarin ducks, reportedly mate for life, and will supposedly pine and eventually die from loneliness if separated from their mate. Gomen nasai, my ducks, I didn’t know; I’m sorry that I left your mates behind in the shops where I bought you.

There is a Japanese folktale that tells a story about a beautiful mandarin duck that was captured and separated from her mate by a feudal lord. Seeing that the duck is dying from sadness, a kitchen maid and her boyfriend release the bird so she can return to her mate. The feudal lord is incensed when he learns about this, and he sentences the maid and her boyfriend to death. But in the end the duck finds a way to save them, and thus returns the favor.

Ducks are not the only animals that mate for life. Other birds and animals that also subscribe include swans, turtle doves, bald eagles, gibbons, wolves, and termites.
IMG_2187In any case, , Mandarin ducks should always be in pairs, like this metal example where the smaller and presumably female bird nestles beneath the wing of the larger bird.  These ducks are physically attached, so they are unquestionably mated for life.

Mandarin ducks are sometimes sold together in Japan, like the china pair below. Sometimes they are identified not just as ducks, but as “lovebirds.” Note that the male duck is larger and has bright plumage, while the female is smaller and rendered in shades of brown, which mirrors the way the ducks actually appear in nature. Ducks like these are usually packaged in their own cardboard or wooden box, making them the perfect gift for a wedding or anniversary.

I of course love the symbolism of the duck pairs. I’m not so wild about the dull hues of theIMG_2188 female duck; in human pairs the female is usually the more brightly attired member of the pair. Maybe Japanese female ducks are simply into minimalist fashion.


The number of children born in Japan is shrinking every year.  But despite the declining birthrate, the availability of food related items with child appeal  in Japan indicates that entertaining young diners at meal time remains a high priority. Almost every Japanese restaurant serves children’s meals on special plates shaped like fire engines or race cars, and department stores offer a wide variety of child-sized chopsticks, forks and spoons decorated with cartoon characters.

So it’s hardly surprising that hashioki shaped like omocha or toys are popular, too.


These hashioki, one lacquer and one ceramic, are in the shape of spinning tops. They actually work, so they could conceivably keep a child entertained while he or she is waiting to put their chopsticks to use.



OmochaThis hashioki portrays a kendama, or wooden ball-and-stick toy. The object of the game is to throw the wooden ball, which  is attached to the stick with a string and has a hole drilled into it, in the air and then catch it on the pointy end of the handle. It may be a child’s toy, but I can report from experience that it’s a very challenging test of hand-eye coordination for adults, too.


OmochaThis taketombo or bamboo dragonfly is a simple shaft with a propeller attached to one end.  Traditionally it was carved from bamboo, although today they are also made from plastic. It is similar to the old-fashioned whirly gig in the United States. The idea is to rub the shaft between your hands and then release it, hoping that the rotating propeller will make it fly. Apparently there are or once were competitions in Japan where contestants carved a taketombo on site and then competed to see whose toy would fly highest or farthest.

The hashioki on the left below shows a deflated kamifusen, or paper balloon, which were reportedly created by the wives of fishermen as an off-season craft.

This hashioki on the right depicts an inu hariko, or paper mache dog, which appears to be a sort of companion piece to the maneki neko, or lucky cat. Hariko (paper mache) is a craft
that came to Japan from China somewhere between the 14th. and 16th. centuries. This dog symbolizes loyalty and protection, which real dogs often provide, and is also considered to be a charm for an easy childbirth.

This scowling hashioki portrays a yakko or samurai’s servant from Japan’s Tokugawa era (1603-1867), when the country was ruled by shoguns. The yakko acted like a kind of Omochaforward  bearer, clearing the way for a samurai, which sometimes included shoving lowly townspeople out of the way.  It is still a popular design for kites in Japan, and is also often featured on New Year’s cards.


Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 by an American who taught English at the school that eventually evolved into Tokyo University. It is called yakyuu in Japan, which is a pronunciation of the kanji 野 meaning “field” and the kanji 球 meaning “ball.” Baseball remains a popular sport in Japan today, at both the amateur and professional levels.

While omocha may be playthings for children, their popularity as hashioki also suggests that they are also evocative nostalgia items for those who are far removed from their childhood years.


The word otaku may look and even sound a little like the Japanese word for male (otoko), but it signifies something beyond that.

OtakuOtaku is an honorific form of a Japanese word meaning home (taku), and the term is actually a sarcastic reference to someone who spends hours in their home in order to obsessively focus on a hobby or interest. Often described as a geek or a nerd, the word usually suggests someone who is uncomfortable interacting with their peers or other humans, and who exhibits anti-social behavior. Otaku are almost always males.

Otaku first became a buzz word in the 1980s when anime and manga were becoming popular, and the term was used to describe young men who were obsessed with those Japanese creations. That makes this hashioki a perfect example of an otaku because it comes from the gift shop of the Kyoto International Manga Museum. It is probably meant to portray a young salaryman, or low level office worker, who are among the biggest manga fans. If you’re not sure what I meant by anti-social behavior, look carefully; I think this figure is picking his nose.

Otaku are not limited to those who obsess about comic books and cartoons. There are car Otakuotaku, camera otaku, railroad otuku, and many more varieties. The debonair bow tie on this hashioki looks like a fashion otaku, or young man who is obsessed with dressing like a dandy.

Of course I can’t help but wonder: what would a hashioki that portrays an otaku obsessed with hashioki look like?


MaikoTo the casual observer, these hashioki appear to depict geisha. But the women’s long sleeves and obi dangling down their back actually identify them as maiko.

Maiko are essentially apprentice geisha. When they begin their training during their teenage years their primary responsibility is to look beautiful when they accompany more experienced geisha to banquets and other events. Therefore, their kimono are usually more elaborate and more brightlyMaiko colored than those worn by geisha, and the okobo sandals they wear with their kimono were even higher and more precarious than the standard geta.

In addition to looking lovely, maiko were expected to perform traditional Japanese dances; their name literally means dance (mai) child (ko).

The number of geisha and maiko have declined significantly since the end of WW2. But one of the delights of visiting Japan, especially Kyoto’s Pontochō district, is the Maikoopportunity to glimpse a maiko or geisha as they travel to a teahouse or other assignation in the early evening hours. However, the maiko you see today may in fact be tourists who have paid to be dressed that way.

I especially like that these maiko hashioki portray the back, rather than the front, of the figure.  Of course that’s primarily to show the maiko’s long obi  hanging down in the back.  But I like to think that it’s also that it’s also a nod to a Japanese way of looking at things that suggests  the best way to view something isn’t always the most obvious.



Geisha are among the characters  most identified with Japan. That’s true both outside and inside Japan; as one anthropologist has noted, the Japanese people “regard them as ‘more Japanese’ than almost any other definable group.”(1)

As the six hashioki above attest, during their heyday — from roughly 1800 until World War 2 — geisha were the glamour girls of Japan. They were admired for their beauty, for their elaborate costumes, makeup and hairstyles, and for the aura of elegance they exuded. The two kanji characters for the word geisha can be translated as “art person.” While it’s sometimes suggested they were associated with brothels, geisha were in fact entertainers who were trained in classical dance and to play instruments like the three-stringed shamisen. They were also skilled in both conversation and listening, and masters of flattery and witty repartee; being a delightful companion was part of their performance.

Many of us associate geisha with their ukiyo-e, or pictures from a floating world, portraits. IMG_1981These tokkuri, or sake bottles with attached cups, show three geisha as they were captured by famous ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro. It seems entirely appropriate to decorate a sake bottle with a geisha picture, as keeping a client’s sake cup filled was usually part of a geisha’s service.

This hashioki actually reproduces a Japanese postage stamp that was issued in 1948 with featuring a famous painting created by Hishikawa Moronobu. While this appears to be the portrait of a woman, when  this IMG_1982“Turning Back Beauty” painting was created in the late 17th. century many of the geisha portrayed were actually men playing the roles of women in the kabuki theatre. Japanese authorities thought that prohibiting women from working as entertainers or actors would reduce the likelihood of prostitution… but like most easy fixes, it didn’t completely solve the problem.


This hashioki depicts a kanzashi hair pin worn as a decoration by geisha. The kanzashi’s long pin enabled the wearer to anchor it firmly in their hairstyle. It may have also served as a convenient weapon if client decided to test the theory that a geisha was strictly an entertainer.


(1) Dalby, Liza.  Geisha.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1983, p. xiii.


Hashioki are made in an endless variety of shapes, as should be readily apparent to anyone who has scrolled through the posts on this blog.

The most basic hashioki shape is a simple rectangle or ingot with a flat bottom.


Many rectangular hashioki have curved tops to keep chopsticks from sliding off, and some have ends with a pronounced curl.


As previously noted, some hashioki are reminiscent of bridges, reflecting the fact that hashi is a homonym for both chopsticks and bridge in Japanese, and stand on little feet like pilings. (See “A hashi for your hashi” post from January 2016.)


Apparently hashioki shaped like makura, or Japanese pillow, where once popular. Makura are hard and rigid, usually made from ceramics or wood, and support the neck instead of IMG_1397the head of the user. “For years, the most commonly used form [for hashioki] was that of the pillow,” writes H. Elliott McClure. “Gradually it came in different colors and patterns, but still retaining the pillow form.”(1)  Some ceramic pillows had holes in the sides which could be filled with hot water in winter, as the painted dots on either side of this example suggest.

Some hashioki indicate the place where the tips of the chopsticks should rest,


while some, like this tiny ceramic plate with an attached rabbit, provide a large target area.



Other hashioki envelope chopsticks to keep them from rolling around the table.


Some hashioki do double duty by functioning as a toothpick holder as well as a place for the tips of your chopsticks, like this plastic shamisen, while others provide a place to rest a soup spoons.
But this is just a brief overview. The shape of a hashioki is limited only by the creative mind of its maker and the preference of its user. That is what this blog is all about.

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


In fiction

I consider myself fairly widely read in Asian literature, and I’m sorry to report there seem to be very few allusions to hashioki in published fiction.

In fact, I have only seen hashioki mentioned in three novels times. In The Salaryman’s Wife, the first book of a suspense novel series by Japanese-American author Sujata Massey, aspiring antiques dealer Rei Shimura purchases a wooden letter box with a small item rattling around inside. “I lifted the lid and found an inch-long polished piece of blue-and-white porcelain,” IMG_2057
Shimura relates. “I passed it around and everyone agreed it had to be a hashi-oki, a small ornamental piece used to place chopsticks on while dining.”(1) Shimura determines that the hashioki is not valuable, although she later sells the letterbox it came in for more than 50 times its purchase price.

In Hidden Buddhas, Liza Dalby’s novel about Shingon Buddhism, two of the main characters at one point spend the night at a ryokan in Kyoto. When the ryokan maid delivers dinner to their room “she set out two pairs of chopsticks IMG_1977with tiny ceramic pillows to rest the tips on…”(2) Having observed Dalby’s careful eye for detail in her non-fiction books, I assume the American anthropologist purposely used the word pillows to allude to the hashioki used in a place where people sleep.

More rewarding is the reference made to chopstick rests in Chinese-American author Amy Tan’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife. In the novel character reminisces about shipping for her wedding trousseau in China before World War II by recalling, “And just when I thought I was done with my shopping, the salesman showed me a small silver piece, shaped like a fish leaping up. And I knew IMG_2019right away I needed to have that too, because this little ornament was a place for resting your chopsticks, a way to stop eating for a few moments, to admire your table, to look at your guests, to congratulate yourself and say, How lucky am I.”(3)

It’s a shame that hashioki haven’t played a supporting, if not starring, role in more fiction. Maybe someday….

(1) Massey, Sujata.  The Salaryman’s Wife.  New York:  Harper Paperbacks, 1997, p. 67.

(2) Dalby, Liza.  Hidden Buddhas.  Berkeley:  Stone Bridge Press, 2009, p. 106.

(3) Tan, Amy.  The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: First Vintage Contemporaries, 1993, pp. 149-150.


Tough guys

The two muscle-bound figures with crazy hair on these fan-shaped hashioki are well-known Japanese deities.

IMG_1984Raijin, the first deity, is the Japanese god of thunder, storms and lightening. He is often depicted carrying dumbbell-shaped hammers, as he is here, and you can just make out the canopy of drums that he uses to make thunder floating above his head. Japanese parents tell their children to hide their belly buttons during thunderstorms because rumor has it that Raijin likes to eat the navels of little children.

Fujin, the companion deity, is the Japanese god of wind. He usually carries of big bag ofIMG_1985 wind above his shoulders, as he does here, and is often shown wearing a leopard skin.

In Japan you often see Raijin and Fujin in cages at the entrance to Buddhist temples; the cages are probably meant to protect the statues from birds, and not to restrain the gods from attacking mortals. Despite their presence at Buddhist temples, these deities are actually part of Japan’s Shinto creation myth. According to the Kojiki, the “Record of Ancient Things” compiled in 712 CE, Raijin and Fujin were created by the twin gods Izanagi and Izanami after they founded Japan. Fujin blew away the fog between heaven and earth, which allowed the sun to shine on the newly-created land of Japan, and then Raijin created thunder with his drums, creating rain to water the barren soil.

Raijin and Fujin, or beings who are very much like them, also appear in many modern Japanese manga and video games.