Message hashioki

Sometimes hashioki literally send a message.

The Japanese inscription on these two hashioki reads irashaimase dōzo goyukkuri, which means “Please relax and enjoy your meal.” It is the perfect chopstick rest for a restaurant to set their table with.


The hiragana on this hashioki reads arigatō, which is one of the words used to express thanks in Japanese. The full phrase that means “thank you very much” is dōmo arigatō, or if you’re being even more polite, dōmo arigatō gozaimasu, but arigatō is a perfectly acceptable way to say thanks. This would also be a good hashioki for a restaurant, or perhaps a good one to set the table with at awards or appreciation dinner.Message2

This charming cat has the Japanese phrase itadakimasu inscribed across his tummy. It’s the traditional phrase the Japanese utter before beginning a meal. While it technically means “I humbly receive,” in practice it sounds more like “Let’s eat!”

Message3Apparently there’s a connection between cats and good food, for this cat has the phrase Gochiso across her tummy, which is said at the end of a meal to indicate that it was delicious. Yoga enthusiasts may also recognize this cat is ironically in a down dog position.


Sometimes all you need is one word — or in this case, one character — to send aMessage6 powerful message. This frog hashioki and white cat hashioki (in the middle) are inscribed with the single kanji fuku, meaning fortune or blessing. The maneki neko on the right stands on a base inscribed with the kanji for shuku, meaning celebrate or congratulate. These hashioki are therefore appropriate for almost any occasion or situation.

This final set of cat hashioki prove that there is often more than one way to send a message. Four of the five cats in this set have the words Shiawase, yoi koi, yatti koi — an idiomatic phrase which the vendor who sold them to me translated as “Happiness, come, come — please come.” The fifth member of the troupe, the cat in upper left hand corner,


has no writing on his stomach. I guess after you read the sentiment on his four siblings there’s no need to repeat it one more time. I can’t resist suggesting that “The power of five” (please refer to my November 2017 post) almost guarantees that happiness will indeed come if you set your table with this 5 piece set of hashioki.

December 11, 2017







Buddhist and Shinto symbols

There aren’t many Buddhist or Shinto hashioki, which is a little odd because it seems like there’s a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine on every other street corner in Japan. Maybe people think objects associated with religion or something sacred don’t belong at the dinner table, or maybe it’s just an untapped market.

IMG_3532The mokugyo is a kind of bell, carved from a single block of wood and struck with a wooden stick. They are traditionally made in the shape of a fish, although this example is in the shape of a dragon. This percussion instrument is used to set the rhythm during the chanting of sutras, particularly in Zen Buddhism.

These hashioki depict the base of a lotus plant, which is a water flower similar to a water Buddhist2lily. The lotus is a sacred flower in Buddhism; Buddha traditionally sits on a lotus mount. The lotus is associated with marital love and harmony, but is also associated with death — which perhaps dampens the appeal of hashioki shaped like them.



Perhaps the lotus has religious connotations because its’ roots thrive in the muddy muck of a marsh, and yet it produces handsome leaves and flower heads above water level.  The lotus flower is shown in the blue and white hashioki here on the top.  Portions of the large pond in Ueno Park in Tokyo are so filled with lotus plants by late summer that you cannot see the water, and it is an arresting sight, even when the blooms or pods are dried out.  The lotus root or renkon is also a staple of Japanese cuisine;  the two hashioki on the bottom here may remind you that you have seen this vegetable as a pickle or in stir fry’s.



IMG_3531If you’ve been to Japan you’ve undoubtedly seen rows of stone Jizo statues, many of them wearing red bibs around their necks, on the grounds of Buddhism temples. Rarely more than 18” high, the Jizo statues look like child monks, which is appropriate because they are associated with dead children, specifically children who were aborted. Jizo also protect pregnant women, and safeguard travelers, which explains why you also see them at crossroads, particularly in rural areas.

IMG_3535The phoenix (hōō) is often a symbol of Buddhism is Japan, although it is also one of the symbols for the imperial family, specifically the empress. The most famous phoenixes in Japan are the pair that preside over the roof of the Hōō-dō hall at the famous Byōdō-in Buddhist temple in Uji, outside of Kyoto. The wooden Hōō-dō is the only original building still standing in the temple complex, and it dates from 1053. It sits on the edge of a large pond, and the pond’s reflection of the building’s center hall with corridors on either side is said to resemble a phoenix with outstretched wings. Uji is also a center for tea production, and the setting for the last chapters of The Tale of Genji.

The entrance to every Shinto shrine is marked by a torī gate which marks the boundaryIMG_3589 between the regular world and sacred space.. According to historian Basil Hall Chamberlain, the torī was originally a perch for sacred fowls which crowed to announce daybreak.(1)  While this hashioki is made from sterling silver,  and has the appropriate patina of a little tarnish, torī are usually painted bright red and often soar several stories high.


Shimenawa, or sacred rope of braided rice straw, also appear at the entrance to Shinto shrines, either wrapped around trees or large rocks, hanging over the entrance to a shrine building, or coiled around the base of a torī gate. Like those gates, shimenawa delineate the boundary of sacred space. Shimenawa are considered to have magical powers, although probably not in their hashioki form.

(1) Chamberlain, Basil Hall.  Things Japanese:  Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan.  Berkeley:  Stone Bridge Press, 2007 (reprint of 1905 edition), p. 514.


Frolicking animals

The frog, monkey and rabbits shown here — including the rabbits originally posted in my September 2016 post “Rabbits” — are as familiar to most Japanese as Sonic the Hedgehog or Mickey Mouse.


These animals are featured players in the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga or Chōjū-giga, generally translated as the Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, which date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The four black ink on paper scrolls, composed entirely of illustrations with no text, are sometimes referred to as Japan’s earliest manga.

IMG_3592As these hashioki demonstrate, the Chōjū-giga drawings are often charming and humorous. They show animals doing human activities, like dancing or playing music or competing in an archery contest. Scholars have traditionally suggested that the scrolls were created to lampoon errant Buddhist priests and pampered aristocrats of their time.

It’s entirely possible that the Chōjū-giga scrolls exist today only because they are an official National Treasure of Japan. In the late 19th. century Japan enacted legislation which designated buildings and items with historic orIMG_3668 cultural significance as kokuhō, or National Treasures. This legislation prohibits the export of these treasures, regulates their transfer or alteration inside Japan, provides tax incentives for restoration and even offers professional help for preservation and display. There are currently over 200 buildings and structures classified as National Treasures, and approximately 870 fine arts and crafts, including the Chōjū-giga scrolls.

IMG_3666I was fortunate enough to see the Chōjū-giga scrolls when they were on display at a museum in Kyushu in November 2016. Even before the museum opened there was along line of people waiting patiently in line to see the scrolls, and the line was even longer when I left. One of the gratifying (if slightly annoying) things about visiting museums in Japan is the large numbers of Japanese people who are interested in viewing their nation’s treasures and artwork.

No hashioki have been designated as National Treasures…. yet. But at least hashioki like these examples help familiarize users with Japan’s cultural heritage.

Susuki Moon

The Japanese have a special relationship with the moon, especially with the moon in autumn.

Susuki moonThe Susuki Moon is specifically an autumn moon. “Susuki” is kind of Japanese pampas grass that is recognized as a symbol of autumn in Japan. You can see the stems are that inscribed on the surface of this piece to simulate looking through tall grass. This hashioki shows a waning Susuki Moon, meaning that the amount of the moon’s surface that is illuminated is decreasing as the moon pass from half moon to a gibbous moon, and then on to a full new moon.

Many thanks to Murata, a wonderful Japanese lifestyle store in Vancouver that made this piece available on their website, and to Kazue at Murata, who explained its’ significance to me.



Little acorns

Atlhough maples are the trees most associated with autumn in Japan, the acorn (donburi) is a fall symbol, too.

I always thought that acorns belonged strictly to oak trees. But it turns out that in Japan many kinds of trees produce acorns, although most of them are members of the oak family.

Little acorns4

And of course wherever there are acorns, there are squirrels.

Acorns must be beloved in Japan, because there’s a well-known children’s song titled “Donburi Korokoro” about an acorn that rolls into a pond to play with the fish there. But I’ve never seen a hashioki that pairs an acorn with a fish.


Maple leaves

Maple leaves5I have been waiting all summer to post about my autumn-themed hashioki. Now I’m going to start with a salute to autumn by writing about maple leaves.

Maple leaves – momiji – are the ultimate symbol of autumn, not just in Japan but everywhere.


Why does everyone love momiji? Maybe it’s because they often turn an irresistibly brilliant shade of red. Maybe it’s because they’re almost (almost) like a star. The Japanese have a special affection for things in sets of 5, and many momiji have five main or larger points that number five.

This hashioki didn’t grow on a maple tree; its’ inspiration was created inside a JapaneseMaple leaves6 wagashi or sweet shop. One of the ways the Japanese express their heightened awareness of the changing seasons is to celebrate that change with foods shaped like the emblems of that season: maple leaves and plum blossoms and cherry blossoms. A real wagashi like this is probably filled with bean paste, and is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

Maple leaves

Many of Japan’s most famous tourist destinations – Nikko, Hakone, Kamakura, Kyoto, Arashiyama, and Koyasan, to name just a few, are celebrated for their wonderful displays of momiji. Maybe that’s another reason why people love maple leaves in Japan; they provide a good excuse to hop on the train or hop in the car and for road trip during the month of October.

Cast iron teapot

This hashioki depicts a traditional Japanese cast iron tea kettle known as a tetsubin.

If you’ve dined in a Japanese restaurant, or shopped in a tea store or shop that carries Asian tableware, you’ve probably encounter tetsubin before. Although they are much heavier than their ceramic cousins, some people prefer cast iron teapots for a number of reasons. They heat faster becauseCast iron teapot entire metal body absorbs the heat Because their entire metal body absorbs the heat from a flame, these teapots heat faster and stay warm longer. When you steep tea leaves in a tetsubin the tea leaves floating in the water are surrounded by heat, which some feel helps to extract the maximum flavor of the tea. It may also help the tea leaves release their nutrients, meaning that the health benefits of the tea leaves is enhanced. Finally, you might dent a cast iron teapot, but you probably can’t break it.

Ironically this hashioki isn’t made of cast iron itself; it’s ceramic. I have a cast iron hashioki in the shape of Mt. Fuji, so it would have been possible. I guess it just wasn’t convenient.



It surprises me that I haven’t seen more fune or boat hashioki in Japan, an island country surrounded by water. Maybe it’s because Japan was never very interested in being a naval power, or in sailing beyond the relatively short distances to Korea, Taiwan, and China.

In any case, the most common boat hashioki is this yakatabune, or roofed boat. This kind of “pleasure boat” is still used today for evening parties on rivers in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka where food and alcohol are served, and karaoke or other musical entertainment is provided.

This bamboo hashioki is from Arashiyama, just outside Kyoto, where there is a beautiful bamboo forest. It is similar to the boats used in commorant fishing. This is done at night, and the cross boards which extend over theBoats2 sides of the boat are used to support lanterns to attract the fish, and also to give large cormorant birds a place to perch while they’re waiting for the fish to appear. The cormorants dive into the water and capture the fish in their beaks, but don’t swallow because they wear a collar which constricts their throat. The fisherman pulls the bird and its catch back to the boat with the help of a leash attached to its collar. While this may be a traditional fishing technique, today the real catch are the tourists who pay to ride on the cormorant boats.

Boats3The boat on the left is probably the most famous boat in Japan. The kanji on the sail means takara, or treasure, identifying this boat as a takarabune, or treasure ship, which is said to carry the shichi fukujin, or seven gods of good fortune, every year at the New Year celebration. Takarabune are almost always shown with the seven gods spilling over their decks, but I suppose that was too much detail for this hashioki artist to capture. (For other examples of takarabune please see the” Seven Lucky Gods” post in August 2017).

Rafts don’t seem to have much of a history in Japan, maybe because the Boats4rivers are generally so swift. However, we can definitely see a man poling his raft across a river or stream in the celadon example on the right. But the blue raft with the floral decorations may or may not not be a floating vessel at all; perhaps it is meant to suggest the bamboo mat that the flower container in ikebana arrangements sometimes “floats” on.

Roof demon

Roof demonsThis onigawara, or demon roof tile, is a specialized example of a Japanese ceramic roof tile. Onigawara were placed at the ends of a tiled roof ridge as a kind of charm to scare away bad luck or evil spirits.

The Japanese have used ceramic roof tiles since the late 6th. century; they are said to have been imported from Korea and China with Buddhism.

Roof demons2In addition to being both waterproof and wind resistant, clay roof tiles are durable. They can last for hundreds of years. Tiles manufactured today often help conserve energy because they are reflective, and some are designed to resist earthquake damage. As much as fifty percent of Japanese houses still have ceramic tiles.

The tile above depicts some sort of a gable ornament used at the top of a Roof demons3roof, and the hashioki to the right portrays the end or bottom tilesof a roof hip, which are the diagonal ridges that gently slope from the top ridge to the bottom.

I live in a house with flat fiberglass roof tiles, which seems pretty boring when I compare it with Japanese tile roofs. I especially like the idea of imbedding a good luck charm on our roof, maybe one that could protect us from tornadoes in Indiana.


During the late 16th century the sixth son of a minor Japanese prince was adopted as an heir by that country’s ruling warlord. When the warlord’s wife gave birth to a natural son the warlord reversed the adoption, but he also presented his ousted adoptee with a generous cash settlement.

This young man had grown up reading The Tale of Genji, and he was enchanted by the world of the so-called Shining Prince. So it’s hardly surprising he decided to use his windfall to purchase property in Katsura, a neighborhood in Kyoto where many scenes from The Tale of Genji take place, to build a home like the ones described in the novel. The house and garden complex he and his heirs created is known as Katsura Rikyu, or the Katsura Detached Palace.

Katsura is a masterpiece of traditional Japanese design. The three main buildings and four surrounding tea houses are rustic and yet austerely elegant, featuring clean lines and stark rectangular spaces enlivened by natural wood surfaces and tatami mats. Even more renown than the buildings are the Katsura gardens, which feature a large man-made pond and many uneven stone stepping paths, including one where visitors must step from stone to stone to cross a section of the pond.

KatsuraDecoration at Katsura is minimal, and the decoration that is there often has an irregular or natural shape to play against the rectangular lines of the buildings. This hashioki is in the shape of a hikite, or hand pull for a fusuma or sliding door. It is probably the most famous decorative shape associated with Katsura. It is meant to suggest the shape of a rising moon (tsuki) or the kanji character that represents a moon. When The Tale of Genji was written many aristocrats owned villa’s in the area where the palace was built so they could view the reflection of the moon in the Katsura River that borders the neighborhood.

At some point a special set of five hashioki was created as homage to Katsura Rikyu. I happened to see one of these sets for sale on eBay several years ago, but someone else snapped it up while I was hesitating over the price. When I saw another set for sale on Etsy last year I didn’t hesitate to buy it.



The shapes in this Katsura set are (left to right): moon, matsuba pine needles, marsh grass, and an oar (used for boats in Katsura’s pond). The fifth piece on the bottom is an ichimegasa, or traditional hat with a wide brim and high crown that Japanese women have worn to market since Heian times


All six of these hashioki are glazed ceramics. The original hikite were enameled metal. During my last visit to Katsura in October 2016 I spotted on the original oar-shaped hikite in a fusama in one of the buildings.


Visiting Katsura isn’t easy. You have to apply to Japan’s Imperial Household Agency far in advance in order to secure one of the very limited visitor slots. I’ve been twice, and I can’t wait to have another opportunity to visit again. It’s well worth it.