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.

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