Kabuki actors

Kabuki is one of Japan’s three most famous indigenous drama forms; it’s more colorful and energetic than Noh, but shares many of the same stories and plays as the Bunraku puppet theatre.

In Japanese kabuki is written with three kanji that mean sing, dance and skill. But the word itself probably derives from the verb kabuku, which means unusual or surprising. Therefore, we might say that kabuki is a form of drama containing dance and music which has the power to surprise its audience.

Kabuki has its roots in erotic dances that were performed by traveling troupes of women in the early 1600s. When the shogunate government figured out that many of these dancers were also working as prostitutes they responded by banning all women from performing on the stage. But kabuki continued with male actors playing both the male and female roles. Kabuki eventually evolved into a dramatic form with plays based on historical events and heroes, with elaborate costumes and carefully choreographed dance-fights, and performances that featured very stylized gestures and movements. It’s still possible to see kabuki in Tokyo and Osaka, and it’s a wonderful spectacle.


I’m not sure whether the hashioki above is a tribute to kabuki or to the artist Tōshūsai Sharaku. It features a famous woodblock print by Sharaku showing a popular kabuki actor in one of his most renown roles. The print was featured on a postage stamp issued by Japan in the 1950s.

IMG_2307These tokkuri (sake flask) and sake cup sets also feature kabuki portraits by Sharaku. The one of the left appears to be the same actor or same portrait that is featured on the stamp hashioki, with somewhat different coloring. The one on the right shows a kabuki actor in an onnagata or woman’s role.


Attending a kabuki play is more than just attending a performance;  people purchase box lunches (bento) from stalls outside the theatre or in the lobby to eat during intermission, and I’m sure some of those bento are washed down with sake.  So it’s entirely appropriate to have tokkuri displaying the faces of famous kabuki actors.



News flash: hashioki exhibit

Until yesterday I thought the only museum-quality exhibit of hashioki in the world was the one in two glass-fronted cabinets in my dining room.

But a wonerful Etsy.com vendor (KismetKollective) named Brenda from Chigasaki, Japan sent me a link yesterday to an impressive exhibit which includes some fine art hashioki at the Ronin Gallery in New York. Here is the link: http://www.roningallery.com/exhibitions/contemporary-talents-of-japan.

The hashioki were created by a Japanese artist named Tomomi Kamoshita from pieces of pottery that washed up on the beaches of Tohoku after the 2011 Tsunami. Kamoshita Kamoshita_Pattern_7pieces these shards together with a technique know as kintsugi where gold is the mortar that holds the pieces together. I especially like this piece because it reminds me of the traditional omikuji, or paper fortune, shapes (please refer to my post A different kind of tie from January 2016).

Alas, this exhibit runs through July 30, and I don’t know how long the link will work. And alas, I will not be adding one of these lovely pieces to my collection because they retail for $225. each.

But I salute Tomomi Kamoshita and the Ronin Gallery for demonstrating once again that hashioki are more than simple decorative pieces, and that they in fact can have the power to evoke powerful emotions and connections.


Anyone who has seen the 1984 hit film The Karate Kid — or one of its’ sequels, or the 2010IMG_2310 remake — may recognize this hashioki as a hachimaki, or Japanese headband. Made from a thin cloth or tenugui hand towel, a hachimaki is commonly wrapped around the head just above the eyebrows by laborers or participants in a sport like judo. It helps keep sweat from trickling down the wearer’s face, but is also considered to be a talisman that repels evil spirits and strengthens the spirit.

Hachimaki are often adorned with a slogan or Japanese character, like the kotobuki (congratulations) character that decorates the hashioki in the middle above.

Of course you could also argue that these hashioki are not hachimaki, and that they instead represent the lasso that Buddhist deities use to keep people from straying from the righteous path. I might even suggest that hachimaki evolved from those lassos because I read that hachimaki were originally worn during religious observances. But I can’t substantiate the connection. And anyway, I think these are intended to be hachimaki.

But it’s only money

While I’m proud of the lovely hashioki I’ve collected that cost less than a dollar, people always ask me what is the most expensive piece in my collection.

IMG_2319This sterling silver boat represents the other end of the spectrum. In December 2000 it cost 200 Hong Kong dollars, or approximately $US 29. It is the signature piece of The Peninsula in Tsimshatsui in Hong Kong, a 5 star hotel located more or less across the street from the Hong Kong Museum of Art, where I purchased my first hashioki.

From time to time I see more expensive hashioki for sale on the Internet, usually with some designer’s name attached, and there are undoubtedly many fine craftsman-created hashioki from Japan with higher price tags.

But this is it for me…. at least, so far.

It’s not about the money

Some items that people collect are all about their value, which is usually measured in the price that they sold for. Jewelry, antiques, fine art, vintage automobiles — the prize in any one collection is usually the most expensive item.


This piece has the hallmarks to be a star in any collection.  It is functional:  its’ rectangular shape is gently curved in the middle to provide a good resting place for the tips of your chopsticks. It is iconic. Its’ background color is the pure celadon green so prized in Asian ceramics. It features two of Japan’s best known symbols, the cherry blossom and the scarlet maple leaf. Together they demonstrate the progression of spring through summer into fall, starting with the five-petaled sakura or cherry blossom on the left, moving to the cascading single petals in the center, and ending with the flaming maple leaf on the right. A few stray petals on the far right give the design an asymmetrical kind of edge. This piece even has a touch of the gold embellishment that often mark high-end hashioki.

And it cost 100 yen, or about one US dollar, in a Daiso store — a store where almost everything costs 100 yen — in Kyoto, Japan.


These hashioki depict an okina, the mask worn by the old man character a Kyōgen playIMG_2309 with the same name. Kyōgen, short plays that are performed before or during the intermission of solemn Noh dramas, are often humorous, but this particular play is more inspiring than humorous. The okina character, whose white hair and white beard signify wisdom, performs a dance while he prays for peace and prosperity during the play. He also makes references to the tortoise and the crane, which are popular longevity symbols (see June 2016 post “An auspicious pair” and July 2016 posts”Cranes” and “Turtles”). An Okina play is traditionally performed at New Year’s. In both these hashioki the okina mask rests on a folded sensu or ōgi fan, which is a common prop in Noh and Kyōgen plays.


I purchased this particular okina hashioki at the Oedo Antiques Fair in Tokyo in December 2010. The dealer who sold it insisted that it was “very old,” and a rough spot on his nose and some discoloring on the back at the base certainly suggest that it is an antique. Since it’s unusual to see anyone under 50 at a Noh performance today, only someone who was an antique themself — or a crazy Westerner who was a collector — would probably be interested in such an item.


IMG_2298I guess it’s appropriate that the slow moving kame or turtle, along with its land-dwelling cousin the tortoise, is a symbol of longevity in Japan. Turtles and tortoises often do have long life-spans, living 100 years or more. In Japan they may live even longer: “A crane lives a thousand and a turtle ten thousand years,” according to a Japanese proverb.


Another Japanese proverb compares the round shape of a full moon to the shape of a soft-shell turtle. The point of the proverb is that even though they have the same shape, they are very different, therefore warning us that objects or people that look like they should be similar are not always alike.

Turtles that live a long time in water sometimes get strings of seaweed or algae attached to the back of their shell, which produces a kind of fringe. The Japanese call this a minogame, or “straw raincoat turtle.” A minogame plays a role in the story of Urashima Tarō, one of IMG_2300Japan’s most famous legends. Tarō was a young fisherman who one day saw a group of children torturing a small turtle. He made them stop, and freed the turtle. The next day a minogame approached Tarō while he was fishing, and told him the the turtle he saved was the daughter of the King of Sea. The minogame transported Tarō to the bottom of the sea, where the fisherman met the King and his daughter, who now looked like a lovely princess. Tarō stayed with the daughter for three days, but found that he missed his elderly mother back in his village. The Turtle Princess said she understood, and she gave Tarō a special box, telling him it would protect him as long as he didn’t openIMG_2301 the box. When Tarō returned to his village he discovered that instead of being gone for three days he was in fact under the sea for 300 years. He is still youthful, but his mother and everyone he once knew are dead. Confused and grieving, Tarō opened the lid of his box, and a cloud of white smoke instantly transformed him into a very old man. From the sea, the voice of the turtle princess reminded him that she warned him not to open the box.  Another beautiful example of a minogame hashioki appears in very first post, “What are hashioki?” (December 2015).

I can’t help but think that some inventive hashioki maker is missing a big opportunity here: wouldn’t a turtle hashioki that was actually a small box be great? Especially if the turtle box hashioki was sold sealed? Especially if it was a turtle box with a baby turtle riding on top, like this hashioki above on the right?




Cranes (tsuru), especially white cranes, are the preeminent symbols of long life and good fortune in Japan. Because they are such auspicious symbols, they are a popular motif for hashioki.



IMG_2295They are popular symbols at both the New Year and at weddings. When they appear in this spread-wing configuration it is easy to see that they how crane hashioki would make an impressive presentation at either celebration.




Cranes  are also said to be the animal that is most frequently depicted in Japanese fine and applied arts.




In Japan the phrase tsuru no hito koe, which can be translated as “ one word from the crane,” is used to describe the final word in an argument or something that is spoken with authority.


Cranes are cool weather birds; many species spend the summer months in Siberia and then return to Japan for the winter. This migration pattern may have inspired the belief that cranes commute between earth and heaven.

IMG_2297While there are lots of crane hashioki, I have not yet been able to find a chopstick rest that depicts geese, which are a popular Japanese symbol for autumn and for marital fidelity. When I first spotted black bar with gold decoration,  and this white hagoita paddle with it’s pair of silver and gold flying birds, I hoped that they depicted geese. But a little Internet research told me that cranes have long necks, lean Cranesbodies, and long legs that are visible in flight, while geese have short necks, thicker bodies, and legs that are not usually visible when they fly. So these hashioki are lovely examples of cranes — perhaps suitable for a wedding gift — and my quest for a geese hashioki continues.


Please see my October 2016 post “Two are sometimes better than one” for two more examples of crane hashioki.

The mighty grain

This small — and inexpensive — hashioki represents one of the most powerful objects in Japan: rice. The delicate painting of a rice stalk in flower belies the essential role that rice has played not only in Japanese cuisine, but in Japan’s culture and economy.
Gohan, the Japanese word for cooked rice, is also the word for meal, reinforcing the factIMG_2317 that the short-grain white rice grain is the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine. The word for breakfast is asagohan (morning rice); lunch is hirugohan (noon rice); and dinner is bangohan (evening rice). Rice is not only served as a grain, but is also used to make sake wine, mirin cooking wine, rice vinegar, mochi or rice cake sweets, and as a fermentation base for some Japanese pickles.

Farmers used to pay their taxes with sacks of rice, and in feudal times land was valued not by area, but according to the amount it produced. Rice farming is an intensive activity, and some sociologists have suggested that harmony in Japanese society stems from a tradition of having to work together to farm rice.

Some of Japan’s liveliest festivals revolve around transplanting or harvesting of rice — fueled, of course, by the appropriate rice byproduct, sake.  That may be when this humble grain shows just how mighty it can be.


This hashioki doesn’t depict a famous character from literature, or the heroine from a Japanese folk tale, or anybody famous or noteworthy at all.

But then again, maybe it depicts a character who is all those things, because I think this IMG_2304hashioki is a tribute to an okasan, or mother in Japanese.

This okasan is sitting patiently on the floor in the traditional seiza style, with her thighs resting on her folded legs, and her derriere resting on her feet. Maybe she is welcoming guests in the doorway to her home, or waiting for her family to eat the meal she just cooked. She is smiling, perhaps because this hashioki demonstrates that for once she has been given a well-deserved place of honor not only at the table, but also on the table.

While we may think of Japan as a traditionally patriarchal society, it is actually the okasan who has held the family together in recent times. The okasan runs the household, manages the finances, and generally rules over both children and spouse. She is the first one up in the morning, and the last to go to bed at night. Today many okasan also work outside the home.

Okasan isn’t the only word for mother. It’s the polite term you use to refer to someone else’s mother, or to demonstrate your respect for your own mother in formal or polite situations. Inside the family most sons and daughters use the shorter and more amusing word haha to address their mothers.

I like to think that this hashioki was fashioned so that a husband or child could buy it and bring it home to show their okasan– not haha,  but okasan — how much she is appreciated.