Rabbits (usagi) seem to hold a special place in Japanese hearts. And why not? They are small and subdued and well-behaved, meaning that rabbits make perfect pets, and perfect hashioki.




RabbitsRabbits reportedly have a reputation for being devious and playing the role of a trickster in Japanese folk tales. Something about the way this blue and white example is holding his head makes me think he could be interested in a little mischief.



But rabbits’ reputation as bad boys probably comes from the fact that they were one of the animals portrayed in the Chōjū-giga, or Frolicking Animals scrolls, where rabbits and other animals swim, dance and generally have a good time.



In Japan rabbits are associated with a full moon; when you look at the moon in Japan you supposedly see the Moon Rabbit who lives on the moon pounding rice to make mochi rice cakes with a big mortar and pestle. Rabbits are a symbol of autumn because that’s when the moon appears biggest and brightest. Although this legend is the foundation for the connection between rabbits and the moon, most of the hashioki I’ve found on this theme show rabbits on earth looking at the moon.

Rabbits are considered a good luck symbol in Japan, partly because they’re fertile, andRabbits partly because they have the innate ability to jump away from bad luck or jump over it. I don’t know if this last rabbit is jumping away from bad luck or not, but he does appear to be jumping over the moon.



While these hashioki may seem to suggest that sumo is a sport where pudgy guys wearing aprons or diapers stomp around, this indigenous Japanese sport is actually a sophisticated test of technique and concentration in addition to being a contest of strength.


The Japanese word sumo comes from the pronunciation of the kanji meaning “get together” and the kanji meaning “strike.” It is often translated as “to mutually rush at.” According to the Kojiki, an early 8th. century Japanese collection of myths, the first sumo match was between two Shinto gods to determine which of them would rule Japan. Sumo continues to have many ties to Shinto today.

SumoThe garment that a sumo wrestler wears is known as a mawashi. It’s about 30 feet long and two feet wide.  The mawashi worn during tournaments are made of silk. Sumo wrestlers usually wear their hair in a oichomage or ceremonial topknot.


SumoThe other garment unique to sumo is the kesho-mawashi, or ceremonial apron. Higher ranked sumo wrestlers wear these aprons during the dohyo-ri or ring entering ceremony at the beginning of each match. Many rikishi receive their first ceremonial apron from their home town fan club when they graduate from apprentice to professional wrestler.

I purchased the following four vintage hashioki on eBay. Given the traditional Japanese prejudice against four, and the illustrations on these pieces, I have to believe that this set once had five, or maybe many more pieces.

SumoThe first hashioki depicts a particularly hefty sumo wrestler. His white belt or tsuna identifies that he has attained the lifetime rank of yokozuna, meaning Grand Champion, or the highest rank a wrestler can attain. The zig zag paper strips hanging from his belt signify lightening. Yokozuna are only promoted after winning two or more consecutive sumo tournaments, and they have rock-star celebrity status in Japan.
SumoThis hashioki shows a sumo match in progress. It gives a good view of a sumo dohyo, or clay and sand wrestling ring, and the tawara or rice straw bales that mark the edges of the 15-foot-diameter ring. Surprisingly, sumo depends more on strategy than bulk. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving, but a wrestler wins his match by forcing his opponent to lose his balance and step outside the ring, or to fall so that some body part touches the ground outside the tawara.


The inscription on this chopstick rest tells us that it depicts a dohyo-iri, or ring-entering ceremony, where all the wrestlers parade before a match begins. The wrestlers parade in rank order, and the leader in this illustration is a yokozuna.


SumoThis last hashioki depicts a particular sumo move, which supports the suggestion that this set originally had more pieces. The move is known as utchari, and it’s a dangerous move that can produce spectacular results. When a wrestler is pushed up against the edge of the ring he leans back, tempting his opponent to try to bump him out of the ring with his stomach. However, a skillful sumo wrestler sometimes manages to move to one side before this can happen, meaning that his opponent ends up falling flat on his face outside the ring.

While sumo tournaments are still televised on Japan’s leading television station, the sport has become less popular in recent years. This may be because some of the most successful or popular wrestlers are not Japanese, but come from places like Mongolia and Hawaii. Sumo has also been troubled by a series of scandals. Other sports, including soccer and mixed martial arts, seem to be wooing fans away from sumo, too. But sumo continues to be an iconic Japanese symbol, and to be a popular motif for hashioki.




IMG_2398The vendor who sold me this hashioki said that the bird was a seagull.

But it didn’t look like a seagull to me; the bird was too small and too plump. So I started looking for a different explanation.

This hashioki looked a lot like a Mt. Fuji chopstick rest that I had previously purchased online from Bento & Co., a wonderful store in Kyoto. When I checked their site I found that the hashioki were indeed related, and that they were made by a company called Kihara. When I visited the Kihara site I discovered the name of this pattern is nami (wave) chidori (plover).

The chidori, or plover, is a sparrow-sized bird that likes to wade in the surf or shallow river waters. They are migratory birds which spend the summer in Siberia, and the winter in Japan. They travel in flocks, which probably explains their Japanese name; the kanji for chi means one thousand, and the kanji pronounced dori means birds. Because chidori migrate great distances, flying over rough seas in heavy winds while they travel, they are considered a symbol of perseverance. For Japanese warriors they were an emblem of someone who would fight to overcome obstacles (1).

I think nami chidori would be a good emblem for hashioki collectors, too; identifying and researching require a fair amount of perseverance, too.

Nami chidori, the combination of plovers flying over waves, is a popular design motif in Japan. It is especially favored in summer because the image of a winter bird is thought to bring the suggestion of coolness to a hot day.

(1) Baird, Merrily.  Symbols of Japan:  Thematic Motifs in Art and Design.  New York:  Rizzoli International Publications, 2001, p. 103.



The inspiration for this set of six hashioki is more high brow than most. They depict the “six poetry immortals” who were named as being notable in the mid-9th. century in Japan.

Ono no Komachi (top row, left) is probably the most famous of the group. She is almost as famous for her legendary beauty as she is for her melancholy poems. Komachi apparently had a string of lovers during her lifetime, and many of her poems are about being separated or enduring the pain after an affair has ended. One of Komachi’s lovers was reportedly the poet Ariwara no Narihira (top row, right). The other poets in the group include Fun’ya no Yasuhide (top row, middle),

Sōjō Henjō (bottom row, left), Ōtomo Kuronushi (bottom row, middle), and Kisen Hōshi (bottom row, right).

This set seems very unusual to me; in fact, it’s hard to hypothesize why this set was Rokkasencreated and marketed. While these poets may be immortal, with the possible exceptions of Komachi and Narihira they’re not famous among the general Japanese population. People would be more likely to recognize them from a poem than from a portrait; the vendor in Japan who sold me this set had to contact the manufacturer to match each figure with the right name. It seems to me that this set would only be valued by someone who was an academic or extremely knowledgeable about Heian period poetry, or by a fanatical hashioki collector.

Which obviously explains why I bought it.



Ori (fold) gami (paper) reportedly dates back to the fourteenth century in Japan, when it was supposedly developed as an activity which would help girls prepare their fingers for sewing (1).


Many people think automatically of cranes when they think of origami. Cranes are a symbol of longevity in Japan, and there is folkloric belief that folding 1000 origami cranes will help a sick person get better. This is known as senbazuru, which comes from sen (1000)Origami ba (a counter for birds) and zuru (crane). After World War 2 schoolchildren from all over Japan brought senbazuru strings to the atomic bomb site in Hiroshima. This practice continues today, and provides a hopeful spot of color at the otherwise grey and sombre site.



Almost any animal or object you can imagine can apparently be made from origami, as this beautiful swan suggests. Some people specialize in folding dollar bills or 1000 yen notes into origami creations, or fashion temporary hashioki from the wrappers for disposable chopsticks.


(1) Dalby, Liza, et al.  All Japan:  The Catalogue of Everything Japanese.  New York:  Quatro Marketing Ltd., 1984, p. 184.


Another kind of chopstick rest

Another kind of chopstick rest

This small metal cucumber, along with its ceramic cousin below, is a hashioki, or object “to place chopsticks on”. But because it depicts a cucumber, something that is often served pickled during a Japanese meal, it can be considered to be a hashi yasume, which is also translated as “chopsticks rest.”

In Japanese hashi yasume is written as


The first kanji or character above is the symbol for chopsticks (hashi), and is the same kanji that is used in the compound word hashioki (see “What’s in a name” post from January 2016). The remaining characters, read as yasume are a conjugation of the Japanese verb yasumu meaning “to rest or sleep.”

Hashi yasume are tsukemono, or “pickled things” which are served as palate cleansers Another kind of chopstick restduring a Japanese meal. Technically a person probably uses their chopsticks to move the pickled cucumber or vegetable from a dish to their mouth, but I suppose we could assume that their chopsticks are resting while they chew and digest the hashi yasume. Maybe some people even place their chopstick tips on a hashioki while they enjoy their hashi yasume!

I learned about this different kind of chopstick rest in a post on one of my favorite blogs, Just One Cookbook: Easy Japanese Recipes. Namiko Chen, the creator of Just One Cookbook, is both a talented cook and a talented writer – her posts will make you want to cook her recipes! She also occasionally writes about her travels in Japan. Please follow this link http://www.justonecookbook.com/pickled-cucumber to discover her recipe for hashi yasune tsukemono and more.


Leo the lion

I have resisted acquiring a chopstick rest shaped like a lion (raion in Japanese) for many years. Lions are not indigenous to Japan, after all. There is a creature known as a shishi, which is a guardian statue that sometimes appears outside Buddhist temples, but this is a mythological creature imported from China, and not really a lion. (I intend to write more about shishi in a future post about Okinawa.) We may eat buffalo and even elk at our house occasionally, but we never eat lion – so why would I want to own a hashioki that depicts a lion?

And then our grandson was born:  our grandson whose name is Leo.

IMG_2360So I recently acquired this hashioki shaped like the face of an adorable lion. I am saving it for times when our grandson comes to visit. I thought about buying two so he could have one at his house, too, but his mother told me that when 2 ½-year-old Leo insisted on eating lunch with chopsticks recently it took him 90 minutes to finish the meal. If he had a chopstick rest, and decided to rest the tips of his chopsticks on the hashioki between bites, eating could easily take twice as long. Your welcome, Leo’s parents.

There is something a bit sad about this lion hashioki. I purchased it at Soko Hardware, a family owned hardware store in the Japantown neighborhood in San Francisco. I’ve been making treks to Japantown for over 15 years. But on this visit I could see that the number of stores, the inventory levels in those stores, and the number of shoppers in this neighborhood were much diminished. I am sorry to see this resource, and this little slice of Japanese culture, fading away.


Like many tourists in Japan, I first encountered deer (shika) at Nara, the town outside of Kyoto that was the capital of Japan in ancient times. Herds of deer roam freely in the park around Todai-ji Temple, where the world’s largest wooden building houses an immense statue of Buddha, and Kasuga Shrine. Actually, the deer roam anywhere they want in Nara; sometimes they stage impromptu sit-ins at the train station, which is blocks away from the park where they’re supposed to pose for photos with tourists.

The deer at Nara are not as cute as this hashioki. They’re not potty trained, of course, andDeer their poop makes walking on the stone paths challenging, especially in the rain. The deer are also quite aggressive about butting their heads into unsuspecting tourists to convince them to buy and offer them the rice crackers that appear to be their primary source of food. But while it may not be entirely pleasant, communing with the deer is definitely part of the Nara experience.

DeerSmaller herds of deer also populate other Shinto shrines, including Miyajima, where a huge red Tori gate appears to float in Hiroshima Bay. According to an ancient Shinto belief, deer are considered to be the sacred messengers of the gods, and are therefore entitled to free room and board.


Deer are not native to Japan, and are believed to have walked to Japan from the Asia continent at a time when the sea level was low. This suggests that deer are courageous in Deeraddition to being assertive, which may explain why Japan’s naval forces work deerskin uniforms and mounted antlers on their helmets during the eighth century (1). During the fifteenth century and later Japanese samurai sometimes decorated their helmets with deer antlers, too. This Kutani hashioki showing a galloping stag looks like the kind of deer that could have inspired warriors.

(1)Baird, Merrily.  Symbols of Japan:  Thematic Motifs in Art and Design.  New Yorkk:  Rizzoli International Publications, 2001, pp. 129-131.


There are two styles of Japanese fans:

the uchiwa, which is flat and rigid  and usually round (above left), and the sensu, which has ribs and folded pleats that extend into a triangular shape (above right).

The uchiwa fan was originally developed in China. In Japan its often rounded body was decorated with attractive patterns, and sometimes used for woodblock prints, paintings, or poetry. Hokusai, among others, produced a series of woodblock prints for uchiwa, although relatively few examples survive. Today uchiwa are sometimes used for advertising or other messages. Our daughter Marisa printed the program for her summer wedding on an uchiwa.


A specialized version of the uchiwa was used as a military tool by samurai commanders during Japan’s feudal era. Known as a gumbai, this fan was made of

Fan-tastictwo pieces of leather or metal lashed to either side of center stick. It was was used for signaling troops, but was also handy for deflecting arrows. Today gumbai are wielded by referees in sumo tournaments to signify that they are in charge.


The sensu folding fan is reportedly a Japanese invention. One story claims it was invented by a craftsman in the seventh century after he saw how the wings of a bat folded.  If you associate this folding fan with flamenco dancers from Spain, that is because the Portuguese traders who established trading posts in Japan exported these fans to Europe, where they were subsequently adopted. Folding fans are also called iōgi in Japanese, and can also be canvases for artwork, although the folding of the fan takes a toll on these designs.

While in the West we think of fans as a feminine accessory, in Japan both men and women appreciated the relief they provided from the hot and humid summers. So both sexes often tucked a fan in the sash of their kimono. Warriors sometimes carried a folding fan known as a tessen. Made of iron, they were decorated to look like an everyday fan so they could taken into places where weapons were not allowed. These fans could be used to protect their owner as well as being deployed for attack.



Folding fans are also a dramatic accessory in Japanese Noh, Rakugo and Kabuki performances. In Kabuki, tough guys use fans to express their aggressiveness, while the men who play onnagata or female characters use them to demonstrate their grace and femininity. Geisha and maiko apprentices also use fans in their dramatic dance performances, or to coquettishly cover their faces when they’re entertaining customers.

A half open fan, like these two hashioki examples, are known as suehiro meaning “tips spread” in Japanese. They symbolize good luck, or specifically suggest growing prosperous in the same way that a fan itself expands when it opens from a closed to fully extended position.