Omiyage and meibutsu

In Japan the walkways of major rail stations are lined with shops selling stacks of gift wrapped boxes of cookies or sweets. On some Shinkansen or bullet trains a woman in a uniform pushes a cart down the aisle selling the same kind of boxes. Outside temples and other sightseeing places there are always shop selling key chains and that kind of thing, but there are also shop selling gift wrapped boxes of food. And it’s all part of the Japanese cycle of omiyage and meibutsu.

Technically, omiyage means souvenir. In Japanese it is written with the kanji for “earth” and the kanji for “product,” meaning that it represents a product from a particular part of the earth, or region. But omiyage doesn’t refer to souvenirs that you buy for yourself. It specifically refers to gift items that you bring home from a trip for your family, your boss, your co-workers, or anyone else you can think of. Positive relationships in Japan revolve around the presentation of omiyage.

img_2594The most popular form of omiyage is food — cookies, sweets, tea, and so on. But sometimes omiyage are simply thoughtful gifts that reflect the fact that someone went on a trip and brought something back for you. For example, a Japanese friend brought me this gift of a pair of hyoten gourds with rabbits and gilt decoration from a high end department store in Hokkaido; they signifiy that when she was in Hokkaido she thought about me and my hashioki collection.

This set shows five famous places that a tourist would visit — or long to visit — in Kyoto. From left to right on the top row is Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji aka The Temple img_2616of the Golden Pavillion, and the rock garden at Ryooan-ji. On the bottom row the pagoda at Toji temple is on the left, and the Phoenix Hall at the Byodon-in in Uji is on the right. This set may be the next best thing to being there.



This uchiwa fan commemorates Daimonji, an annual festival in August in Kyoto where a giant kanji character meaning “large” or “great” is created with bonfires on a mountain overlooking the city. Most Japanese would look at this hashioki and immediately think of Kyoto.


img_2595This fan-shaped hashioki may be the ultimate omiyage because it shows a picture of Ginkakuji, Kyoto’s famous Silver Pavillion, where it was actually purchased. Unfortunately, it doesn’t convey any of the aesthetics that the Silver Pavillion is known for.


Not too much thinking is required to connect this hashioki with a fish with its source. While the design is neither unique or distinctive, the flip side of the piece identifies its place of origin.  I don’t remember seeing this fish on exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum, so it’s not as good as the souvenir hashioki from the Atami Museum, which feature motifs from National Treasures in their collection (please see my post “Smart Merchandising” from January 2016).

Some omiyage are meibutsu, meaning products that are famous for originating in a particular region. Meibutsu is written with two kanji characters meaning “famous” and “thing.”

For example, the Hakone-Odawara area near Mt. Fuji is famous for the yosegi-zaiku wood mosaic or marquetry done in that area. This rabbit with the perky ears demonstrates wood of different colors from different kinds of trees are glued together, while the block pieces with the indentations in the middle show how different woods are also glues into oblong rods, and then cut to make hashioki, boxes, coasters, and other products. Shops in the Hakone area are filled with examples of this famous local craft.

This ceramic bird is glazed in a style of ceramic decoration that is associated with the city of Kanazawa.



This set of four luminous glass hashioki are, or at one time were, the signature pieces of the Morimoto Restaurant in Philadelphia, which is named for its master chef/owner. Actually, I’m not sure if these are meibutsu, omiyage,  or a consolation prize; they were presented to us after a waiter spilled a glass a beer on my husband during dinner.

Hashioki are a great meibutsu or omiyage because they’re inexpensive, don’t spoil, and small enough to bring enough home for everyone. That’s especially true when they’re wrapped up like this hashioki.


Uchide no Kozuchi

img_2576The uchide no kozuchi, literally “small hammer for beating,” is an item with many positive associations in Japan. It is variously translated as “magic mallet,” “miracle mallet,” or “lucky hammer.” When it is wielded by Daikokuten, one of the shichifukujin seven lucky gods, it has the ability to grant wishes. When it was waved at folk legend of Issunboshi, the One Inch Boy of a Japanese folk legend, it made him grow into a normal sized human being.

Magic mallets have a long history in Japan; the eighth century Nihongi history tells how mallets made from camellia wood were used to battle savages. They were also used to dispel evil spirits during New Year ceremonies during the Heian (754-1185) period(1).

img_2577Given that uchide no kozuchi can fulfill wishes, battle bad guys and drive away evil spirits — not to mention make short people grow — it’s hardly surprising that they’re a popular decorative motif on kimono and other textiles, greeting cards, porcelain wares, and yes, hashioki.

Please refer to my post on Issunboshi from March 2016, and look for a future post on Shichifukujin.

(1) Baird, Merrily.  Symbols of Japan:  Thematic Motifs in Art and Design.  New York:  Rizzoli International, 2001, pp. 261-262.



Fukusuke is a “lucky man” figure with a short stature and oversized head. He always wears a kataginu, a kind of vest with exaggerated shoulders. While this kind of garment was img_2575historically worn by samurai or court officials, some say that Fukusuke was based on a wealthy Kyoto merchant (1). Fukusuke is often seen in business establishments, and is today is treated as a common good luck icon.

If you’re a fan of The Beatles, Fukusuke may look familiar; he, along with Marilyn Monroe and W.C. Fields and a host of others, is one of the celebrities featured on the cover of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967). Fukusuke appears in the lower left hand corner, just above the big red B, on the album cover.

(1) Frederic, Louis and Kathe Roth (translator).  Japan Encyclopedia.  Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 219.


Double duty

img_2624Sometimes hashioki do more than simply provide a place to rest the tips of your chopstick.

One common extra job they perform is to provide a toothpick for the diner, as this boatman on his raft demonstrates, along with this catfish, collapsed ceramic pot, and plastic imitation lacquer holder. A red version of the last hashioki is featured in the section “Ninja hashioki” in January 2016.
Containers of toothpicks are frequently provided on restaurant tables in Asia, presumably because fibers from the small pieces of meat and vegetables have a tendency to get caught between your teeth.


A hashioki like this bamboo one from Bento & Co. in Kyoto includes a cubbyhole to hold the tips of chopsticks when you set the table or want to signify that you’ve finished your meal in addition to providing a place on top to rest chopsticks while you’re eating.

Chopstick rests that also provide a place to rest your soup spoon are common in mainland Asia, as this silver dragon from China and ceramic flourish from Korea suggest.  In both hashioki the soup spoon rests on the indentation on the left, while the chopsticks rest on the right side.

Double dutyThis spoon and chopsticks hashioki is a recent acquisition.  It’s also the first chopstick rest I’ve seen that shows the four suits of playing cards (hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs).  There will probably be a lot more like it if Las Vegas-style gambling casinos come to Japan, as is being discussed in the Japanese press now.img_2625Finally, this example seems to offer not two, but three options:  a place to hold chopsticks upright before or after a meal, a place near the toe of the shoe to rest chopsticks during the meal, and a cavity large enough to hold soy sauce or another condiment for dipping.