Taiyaki

This little fish is a taiyaki, or “sea bream cake”, a street food that is popular with hungry people of all ages in Japan.

IMG_3168Taiyaki are usually filled with a sweet, smooth bean paste made from dark red azuki beans. If you closely at the photo of this hashioki you may see a bit of bean paste escaping from the fish’s body beneath its’ jaw. I like azuki bean filling, but my favorite taiyaki filling is yellow sweet potato — not quite as sweet as azuki beans, but still delicious.

Taiyaki are made by pouring a pancake-like batter into heated metal molds. It’s fun to stand outside a taiyaki shop in a shopping arcade or at a festival and see dozens of taiyaki, baking in their molds, and swimming like a school of fish towards all the hungry customers.

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Hyotan

Hyotan or hisago (gourds), sometimes known as bottle gourds, are a popular motif in Japan.

In Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design Merrily Baird writes that the Chinese believed that the double shape of a gourd symbolized heaven and earth, and IMG_3173that the hyotan’s numerous seeds suggested a connection with rebirth and immortality. Those beliefs were undoubtedly exported to Japan. A famous Japanese proverb — hyotan de namazu o IMG_3171osaeru — also compares a difficult task to be like “trying to catch a catfish with a gourd.”

in the pre-modern period Japanese men often carried a small gourd on a toggles at their waist, while during the same period women had them engraved on their footwear as a talisman to prevent tripping.

Hollow hyotan are sometimes used as canteens or flower holders, and historically were used to serve sake. I have a hyotan that I bought in Indiana that was made into a small bird house. I think they’re the perfect shape for hashioki because the area between the two bulges is just right for the tips of two chopsticks.

Hyotan have a military connection, too, through Shogun Totomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Some stories say that Hideyoshi adopted the hyotan as his battle emblem as a nod to his peasant origins, while others claim that he won a significant military victory when a gold hyotan was hoisted on top of a pole as his ensign. Both stories, of course, may be true.

Clock

The first hashioki I ever saw in the shape of a clock was outside a shop along the Sannenzaka (meaning “slope of three years”) below Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. It was IMG_3183embedded in concrete outside a shop that sold ceramics — bowls, plates, and of course chopstick rests. I scoured the inventory of the shop to find another clock hashioki, because it seemed very unique to me, but I had no luck. I did, however, find some other wonderful hashioki there to buy…..

Since that time, roughly ten years ago, I’ve become I loyal customer of Shoindo, the shop described above, both in person and on line thru Rakuten. It has been the source of many lovely pieces. Shoindo has been in business since 1855, and was once a purveyor to the Imperial Household. They specialize in kiyomizu ware, meaning ceramics that were once produced in eastern Kyoto near Kiyomizu Temple. This style of ceramics have a sophisticated style, are handpainted and often embellished with gold, and are made in shapes that are both traditional and yet unique in the marketplace.

If you look at this hashioki you can see that the time is a little bit past 5 o’clock — meaning that it’s time to set the table for dinner. Don’t forget the chopstick rests!

A traditional flower

If it weren’t for its’ saw-toothed edges, this pale pink blossom could be mistaken for the blossom of the plum (ume) tree.

IMG_3166But this flower is a nadeshiko, or wild carnation. In Japan the nadeshiko is often interpreted to be a reference to yamato nadeshiko, a term used to describe a shy young woman who eptomizes the pure and reserved character of a traditional Japanese woman. In my favorite Japanese novel, Sasameyuki (translated into English as The Makioka Sisters) by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, one of the four adult sisters is such a yamato nadeshiko that she is unable to bring herself to speak on the telephone when a suitor calls.

I don’t think there are many yamato nadeshiko’s left in Japan — although I’m sure there are plenty of wild carnations in May.

May flower: Iris

I have decided to allow my commentary about a collection of Japanese objects be influenced by a very American homily; now that the April showers have passed, my first post for the month of May will be about a flower.

IMG_3185The iris, known in Japanese as the ayame, kakitsubata or honashōbu, is a popular flower in Japan. It favors a wet or marshy environment, so it appears in many ponds and watery gardens.

I associate the iris with Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, the Shinto temple that is dedicated to Japan’s Emperor Meiji (1852-1912). Meiji Shrine has a spectacular iris garden that blooms in early May. Visitors can walk through the garden on a zigzag path made from pairs of narrow wooden planks just a few inches above the flooded marsh where the irises bloom. This zigzag-planks-through-irises is in fact a familiar motif in Japanese art, and is featured on a famousIMG_3184 folding screen (byōbu) by Ogata Kōrin.

Some Japanese believe that nature, including flowers, provides lessons for mankind. The lesson of the iris must be that unexpected beauty can bloom out of murky depths. Perhaps that is the reason why many Shinto shrines in Japan feature iris gardens.