What is it about this woman?

IMG_2404There’s something about this woman – Okame, or Otafuku as she is known – that calls out to me every time I see her. I already had seven Okame hashioki in my collection, but as soon as I saw this one I knew I would shortly have eight.

I’ve already written about her (“Okame” posted in January 2016) and explained how is Japan she is a symbol of joy, and also a symbol for simple and possibly sensual pleasures.

I suppose I am attracted to Okame because she is a pudgy middle-aged housewife with the soul of a dancing girl inside. I know I have a check mark inside those first three boxes; I’d like to think I have a check mark in the last one, too.

Plus, look at this face: can’t you just tell she’s a hashioki collector?



Poetic inspiration

While we may associate short forms of poetry, specifically haiku, with Japanese literature, finding hashioki inscribed with a Japanese poem is actually rather rare. Iroha, described in my Poetic Cue post from January 2016, is an exception rather than a rule.

However, this coordinating pair of hashioki does feature a poem. The eBay vendor who IMG_2395sold me these hashioki translated the writing on the hashioki on the left as “Happiness is full in a calm mind,” and on the right as “A guide to a beautiful spiritual mind.” I don’t know if this a famous poem or saying in Japanese, or why it might be appropriate to inscribe it on a hashioki.


IMG_2397This hashioki reproduces a few lines from a poem by a poet named Mitsuo Aida. While he is not well known outside of Japan, he is famous in Japan for both his Zen-inspired poetry and his calligraphy. I was unable to match these lines to some of Aida’s translated poems, but it has something to do with grass and flowers. There is a small Mitsuo Aida museum in Tokyo, and this hashioki may have been originally sold there.

So even though I’m not sure why these hashioki with poems exist, I think it’s delightful — and very Japanese — to elevate a mundane object like a chopstick rest with something inspiring and beautiful.

Obligated to buy

I felt obligated to buy this trio of hashioki when I saw them listed on Crate and Barrel’s web site in April 2014.

They’re adorable, of course, but after collecting chopstick rests for more than 20 years I tryIMG_2394 to resist buying examples that are merely cute. They’re also interesting because they are part of a line of goods with a fish motif designed by interior designer and architect Paola Navone for the housewares retailer, but I already have a number of pieces in my collection created by other designers.

The truth is that I bought these because I felt it was my duty to support the sale of hashioki from a major United States retailer. I lobby for the proliferation of chopstick rests; how could I withhold my charge card from supporting the cause? I’m proud to say that I have a few other examples that came from Crate and Barrel and other US retailers.

Crate and Barrel’s website quotes Navone describing herself as “a little bit of an anthropologist.” That may explain why in a collection she says was inspired by the Mediterranean Sea that she chose to include a few pieces with an Asian provenance. Bravo, Paolo! Bravo, Crate and Barrel!

Damaged, but still treasured

This hashioki depicts a raised floor storehouse with a gabled roof that archeologist believe IMG_2393has been built in Japan since the first century CE. Believed to have been used to store grain or rice, this structure is also believed to inspired the architecture of many Shinto shrines. The mossy green and gold glaze on this piece is reminiscent of the natural cypress wood used to construct Japan’s most revered Shinto sanctuary, the Ise Grand Shrine.

I purchased this chopstick rest as part of a large group from a seller on eBay.  I was particularly attracted by this piece in the group because of its cultural significance. Unfortunately, this piece was damaged during shipping; one of the ends of the roof broke off into several tiny pieces. You can see the chip on the upper right.  This is one of the pitfalls of collecting fragile items. I’m disappointed that the hashioki is not pristine, but… it’s still a treasured part of my collection.

Daruma deconstructed: collecting hashioki

I thought it would be interesting to take a break from my usual posts to write an entry regarding my collection. So this post is about the acquisition of the daruma hashioki featured in the previous post.

IMG_2387As I mentioned elsewhere, I have been collecting hashioki since 1993. Since daruma are so iconic in Japanese culture, it’s a little surprising that I didn’t acquire my first daruma until June 1998 (maybe the frown on his face is communicating his disapproval). I purchased it in the Kappabashi or “kitchen town” neighborhood of Tokyo, which is a few blocks west of Asakusa and the famous Sensō-ji temple. Kappabashi has several blocks of stores selling restaurant and kitchen supplies. Most of the stores have open fronts, with no doors or windows, and the merchandise spills out onto the sidewalk on tables and shelves. The stores tend concentrate on one kind of item: there are knife stores, paper good stores, cooking pot and utensil stores, and of course stores that sell china items, meaning bowls, plates, cups, and hashioki.

IMG_2388My second daruma acquisition was this unglazed example. It was also purchased from a little shop in Kappabashi, but in December 2010. Unglazed hashoki are a little unusual. I remember retrieving it from a dark shelf close to the ground and studying it in my hand to confirm that it was indeed a daruma. Alas, what I also remember from this trip is that the number of Kappabashi stores selling hashioki had significantly decreased.

Daruma deconstructedI purchased this reclining daruma from one of my favorite vendors on eBay, Steve Kotake, dba ssc4tansu, in September 2014. Some of the most unusual and unique items in my collection have come from this California-based seller; he must have a special pipeline to vintage sources. I have already promised to devote a future post to this one piece. In the meantime, I’ll just say that “it makes my heart beat faster.”

IMG_2385My next daruma were purchased from the Japanese website Rakutan, which is actually a conglomeration of shops. Rakutan’s internet presence has transformed the way I collect hashioki during the past few years, making it almost unnecessary for me to travel from the US to Japan to find great pieces.  Please note that I did say almost. This piece featuring a daruma pair was purchased from Rakutan vendor from Kyoto in October 2014.


These two daruma hashioki were purchased from vendors on eBay, which continues to be an important source for my collection. The daruma on the left came from an expat family living in Nagoya in February 2015, and the smiling daruma came from a different vendor in Japan in April 2015.


Daruma6This daruma is a recent acquisition, purchased from a shop in Magome on the Nakasendo Road, north of Nagoya.  He has a rustic-style body, but I think his face looks like a modern cartoon.



And this daruma comes from a famous place:  a town of Arita, on the island of Kyushu,Daruma deconstructed which is filled with pottery kilns, painting workshops, and of course shops.  Porcelain has been produced in Arita since the early 17th. century, and the town remains a center for porcelain production today.  While this daruma looks somewhat fierce, the character written beneath his face is actually the kanji for happiness.

Who knows where my next daruma will come from? Could be one of these sources, or could be another: a shop in Kyoto on the Sannen-zaka slopes below Kiyomizu Temple, a hotel gift shop somewhere else in Japan, an artisan or flea market shopper posting on Etsy.com, or a US big box retailer like Target or Crate & Barrel. I am on the lookout!



This roly-poly character, usually painted red, is symbol of good luck and wish fulfillmentIMG_2384 in Japan. His name, Daruma, is a nickname for the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who founded what is known as Zen Buddhism in China during the fifth or sixth century. Bodhidharma achieved enlightenment after spending nine years in a cave practicing zazen or seated meditation. He cut off his eye lids to keep himself from dozing, and his arms and legs withered away from lack of use. No wonder he looks like he is suffering.

IMG_2385Two interesting stories are associated with daruma. One is that his cut-off eye lids produced the first tea plants, which explains why Zen practitioners sip tea to stay awake during meditation. Second, in China Bodhidharma was sometimes referred to as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian,” which reinforces the Japanese belief that he came to China from Persia.


At the beginning of the year daruma dolls with blank eye balls are often sold at Zen IMG_2386temples; you see them lined up on shelves, looking a lot like this unusual joined pair, in stalls as you approach the temple. The purchaser of a daruma is supposed to set a personal goal for the coming year, and then paint in one of the eyeballs. When that goal is achieved the owner paints in the other eyeball. At the end of the year the owner is supposed to return the daruma to the temple where they bought to be burned in a bonfire.

IMG_2387I can’t help but think that hashioki manufacturers are missing a marketing opportunity here. Wouldn’t daruma chopstick rests with blank eyeballs be great? Then the purchaser would be reminded of their goal for the year every time they used their daruma hashioki with its one painted eyeball, and they could celebrateIMG_2388 with a special meal when the time came to paint in the other eyeball. Then they could purchase a new daruma hashioki for next year’s goal.  This is definitely a missed opportunity for hashioki manufacturers.



I personally find the daruma figure to be very appealing.  In fact, a photo of a daruma hashioki with lots of soul  appears on my business card.  But more about that daruma hashioki in the future.


The Blue Koi

If I ever open a restaurant — or better yet, a small intimate bar — I think I’ll name it The Blue Koi.

IMG_2383Part of my inspiration is this spirited hashioki, purchased from a talented ceramic artist named Sumiko Braithwaite on the Internet site Etsy.com. I can picture a larger version hanging outside entrance to my izakaya, or Japanese style pub, where I’ll serve drinks and snacks. I won’t post the name above the door, just hang an oversized version of this blue koi from a pair of chains.

I’m also inspired by the fusion of East and West that this blue koi represents. As described in the entry “Gotta love this fish,” koi are the ornamental carp that populate ponds and pools in gardens all over Japan. They are usually colored white, black, red, or gold, although some varieties have a light gray or natural blue tone on their scales.

A blue shade as vivid as the hashioki above wasn’t introduced in Japan until the early 19th century. Prior to that time blue pigments in Japan were made from indigo or dayflower flower, and they were quick to fade. But when Dutch traders were permitted to establish a colony at Nagasaki one of the things they introduced was a synthetic pigment known as “Prussian Blue” that resisted fading. In her carefully researched novel The Printmaker’s Daughter author Katherine Govier imagines a meeting between Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German physician attached to the Dutch colony, and the daughter of Japan’s famous woodblock Katsushika Hokusai. In Govier’s book von Siebold presents the daughter with supplies of Prussian Blue after ordering a series of paintings featuring Tokyo scenes. Hokusai’s daughter is overwhelmed by the gift, and anxious to experiment with “a blue that would make sea and sky resplendent.” in her artwork (1). Some scholars believe some of the daughter’s art has been erroneously attributed to Hokusai. In any case, Prussian Blue began to appeal in the prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other woodblock artists after this time.

Now that I have the name for my pub I’ll have to give some thought to the snacks I will serve. How about smoked bluefish? Or grilled fish skewers with a blueberry sauce? Or edamame humus served with blue corn chips? It all sounds good.

(1) Grovier, Katherine.  The Printmaker’s Daughter.  New York:  Harper Perennial, 2011, pp. 247-269.

Gotta love this fish

Imagine the surprising symbolic opportunities that would appear if the English language had more homophones.

What if the word “pig” was an animal, and also the word for beauty? What if “violet” was a flower, and also the word for devotion? What if “carp” was a fish, and also the word for love?

As it happens, koi, the Japanese word for ornamental carp, actually is also the word for love and affection.  The kanji or Chinese characters are different, but the pronunciation is the same. That means that everyone’s favorite garden pond fish is even more beloved in Japan because it is also a symbol for love.

IMG_2376Koi are distant relatives to fishbowl goldfish, but are distinguished by their larger size, metallic scales, and long and often flowing tails. Carp that are marked with splotches of orange, black, white, and other colors are known as nishikigoi, or brocade carp.


IMG_2377Koi’s large and often protruding eyes make them appear more intelligent than other fish. And maybe they are; they always seem to swim over when a human approaches the edge of a pond, probably because they’re looking for food. Koi breeders report that their fish often learn to recognize them.

Like many auspicious symbols in Japan, koi are also prized for their longevity; they routinely live 40 years or more, and one koi reportedly lived to the age of 228 years (1).

I don’t think the image of a koi could ever replace a heart as the symbol of love in the West. But I do know that the languorous

movement of the plump but beautiful koi have the power to instantly transform a pond or garden pool anywhere in the world into a Japanese landscape. Koi hashioki have the power to transform a dining table into a Japanese table, too.

(1) Carwardine, Mark.  Animal Records.  New York: Sterling, 2008, p. 201.

For other examples of koi, please see the posts for Kintarō (March 2016) and Koi no bori (April 2016).

A skulk of foxes

IMG_2365If you’ve read by previous post on Foxes (April, 2016) you already know that I am always on the lookout for fox hashioki, and surprised that more of them don’t exist.

So when I happened to spot this charming carved example on eBay of a fox and her baby I was thrilled.


This find was especially good because the listing was not for one example, but for an identical set of five.  In fact, the listing was for a skulk of foxes.  I knew that a young fox was called a kit or a cub or a pup, but was surprised to learn that a group of foxes are known as a skulk.  Who knew?  But of course it makes sense.


We sometimes spot a fox in the woods behind our house, especially around dusk, and that animal is definitely slinking along, moving from bush to bush to a stealthy manner…. skulking, and looking much more sinister than these adorable hashioki.

Normally I shy away from identical sets of five, but this fox set — excuse me, skulk — was too good to pass up.