Katsura

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.

Katsura2

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Hanabi

FireworksHanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks. In Japanese it is written with the kanji character for flower, and the kanji for fire, which seems like a pretty good way to describe them.

Firework displays are popular all over Japan throughout the summer months, and almost every summer festival features fireworks. This hashioki comes from Kyoto, home to some of the most spectacular firework displays. Summers are hot and muggy in Japan, so it’s always a good idea to bring a fan to a fireworks display, making this fan-shaped hashioki even more appropriate.

Happi coat

Summer is happi coat time in Japan.

A happi coat is a short and loose cotton jacket with wide sleeves that usually has a mon or crest on the back. Happi coats were originally worn by servants, and carried the crest of the family they worked for. Firefighters also wore a kind of padded happy coat for protection. Today happi coats are often worn to summer festivals, and identify the wearers as members of a club or neighborhood association. Sometimes you see waiters wearing them, too.

Happi coatThis happi coat hashioki is decorated with a tomoe, a traditional Japanese abstract swirl that appear to incorporte magatama, comma-shaped beads that date to the prehistoric era in Japan.

Unfortunately a happi coat is not guaranteed to make you happy. “Happi” is actually the pronunciation for the two kanji used to write the name of the garment. There are two ways to write the word, both using two kanji characters. In one the first kanji signifies “half,” while in the other the kanji signifies “method or system.” In both versions the second kanji is the same, and means “shelter or wear.”

Of course wearing a happi coat might make you happy…..

 

 

Janken

Everybody in the US knows rock, paper, scissors right? Turns out it’s even bigger in Japan.

JankenKnown as janken in Japanese, rock, paper, scissors was reportedly imported to Japan from China in the 18th. century. According to “Hashi,” someone who posts on the web site Tofugu, janken continues to be popular among Japanese of all ages. In case you think it’s a way of determining disputes by luck or happenstance, you can visit the web site to see a video of a Japanese robot that has a 100% success rate of winning janken versus human opponents: https://www.tofugu.com/janan/janken/.

While I admit I was delighted to see this set for sale, I do have to wonder a bit about using it on a table setting. Are you limited to using it when there are only three diners? What is the host saying when she or he assigns guu (rock), paa (paper) or choki (scissors) to individual guests, or what are those guests saying about themselves if they select these hashioki? If the table is set with these chopstick rests do the diners have to play janken to determine who will serve themselves first, or who has to clean and wash the dishes? Just wondering.

Fuji-san

I have been to Japan about a dozen times, and I have seen Japan’s iconic symbol, Mt. Fuji, only twice.

The first time was when I was riding the shinkansen or bullet train from Kyoto to TokyoScan on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. After the train left Mishima station I was thinking that if it was sunny I might be able to see Mt. Fuji from the train, and then suddenly — wow! there it was. I took a photo. If you look very closely you can just barely make out Mt. Fuji’s cone in the center of the photo.

The second time I saw Mt. Fuji was from the balcony of a Tokyo hotel. I was looking at the sky, and wondering why the sky looked so strange near the horizon. Then I realized I wasn’t looking at sky, I was looking at mountain. By the time I stepped into the hotel room to grab my camera Mt. Fuji had disappeared behind the clouds or the pollution.

Fuji sanIt’s not that I haven’t tried hard enough. I’ve been to Hakone, the area that Mt. Fuji presides over twice, and never seen the mountain. I’ve ridden the cable car which promises “dramatic Mt. Fuji views” and ridden on the ersatz pirate ship that suggests you will see both the mountain and its reflection in Lake Ashi, and still no luck. I have a handful of photos where you can see me standing in front of a sign reading “Mt. Fuji Overlook” and a wall of clouds.

Even though I haven’t had a lot of visual observation, I’ve had a lot of emotional Fuji sanobservation of Mt. Fuji. In Hakone you can sense its’ presence, and the few glimpses I’ve had made me feel its’ power. I can’t help but think that when Steven Speilberg wrote the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and he had his characters create duplicates of the mountain where the encounters would take place out of mashed potatoes and other substances even though they hadn’t seen the mountain yet, that he was really thinking about Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji, popularly know as Fuji-san (using an honorific form of address) in Japan, is at 12,389 feet the highest mountain in Japan. It is the 35th. highest mountain in the world. Fuji-san is a dormant volcano, and last erupted at the beginning of the 18th. century. In 2012 UNESCO add Mt. Fuji to its list of World Heritage Cultural Sites, noting that it has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries.”

As you can see from the photos here, Mt. Fuji has also inspired hashioki makers — especially since 2013. And while my viewings of the real Mt. Fuji have been limited, I have obviously compensated by making my Fuji-sama hashioki collection exhaustive.

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.

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.

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.

Brush rest

Brush restThis hashioki is in the shape of a Chinese accessory used to rest the tips of the soft-haired brushes that are used for writing calligraphy of creating ink wash sumi-e paintings. Brush rests allow the user to use and safely rest multiple brushes while creating a work of art.

While I occasionally see brush rests being sold as chopstick rests, I think this hashioki is truly a hashioki because it is smaller than most brush rests, and it only has two grooves while real brush rests often have three or four.

I like that this hashioki and most brush rests are in the shape of mountain peaks, because mountains are such an important element in Japan’s geography, and often are featured in ink wash paintings.