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.

Morning glories

Morning glories (asagao) were originally imported from China for their medicinal purposes. In Japan the blossoms open before dawn, and fade by mid morning. This Morning gloriesflower was immortalized by Lady Murasaki in The Tale of Genji when her dashing hero courts Princess Asagao. The lady rejects Geni’s advances, inspiring him to write a poem suggesting she, too, was past her bloom. Later in the novel Genji approaches Princess Asagao again, wondering if she had perhaps bloomed again.

In Elizabeth Kiritani’s wonderful 1995 book, Vanishing Japan: Traditions Crafts and Cultures, which is unfortunately now out of print, she writes about the Iriya Market, a three-day market held in early July near Ueno Park that officially marked the beginningMorning glories of summer for Tokyo residents during the Meiji (1868-1912) era. The market featured morning glories in every possible color, including colors such as “shrimp-tea” (ebi cha) that I have never seen in morning glories. According to the Internet, the market is still held, and in fact is referred to as Iriya Asagao Matsuri, or Morning Glory Festival. Last year the market featured 100 stalls and 120 flower producers.

Umbrella

In the United States April is known as the month of showers, at least anecdotally, so it seems appropriate to start the month off with a post about umbrellas.

In Japan, a country which receives 60 or more inches of rainfall a year, a kasa orUmbrella umbrella is of course a very familiar item. These hashioki appears to be a kind of traditional Japanese umbrella, known as a wagasa, which are made from lacquered bamboo ribs which do not bend or curve, and then covered with paper which has been oiled on the bottom side to make it waterproof.

Wagasa are frequently used as props in kabuki plays. They are also a popular design motif in Japanese textiles, ceramics and lacquerware. Wagasa also sometimes play a supporting role in ukiyo-e; artists such as Hiroshige depicted twisted or flattened umbrellas to convey the power of a strong rain storm in woodblock prints.

IEnryakuji Mt Koya – Version 2n Buddhism umbrellas are sometimes used in a procession, as this photo taken in October 2016 at Enryku-ji on Mt. Hiei shows. In this case the red umbrella symbolizes spiritual power, and is held over the head of the person regarded as the wisest man in the procession.

 

Last but not least, umbrellas make a pretty good hashioki, too.

Kachoufugetsu

Kachoufugetsu is a yoji-jukugo, meaning four Japanese kanji or characters grouped together to make an idiom, well-known phrase, or poem. They were originally created for practicing calligraphy. There are thousands of yoji-jukugo in the Japanese language, and they are often used as a kind of short cut to describe a particular kind of item or subject matter. Examples include nichibeikankei (nichi Japan + bei United States + kankei relations) and reikishishōsetsu (rekishi history + shōsetsu novel).

Kachoufugetu is one of the most famous yoji-jukugo. The characters used in its composition are the kanji for flower, bird, wind, and moon. These four hashioki are their representatives, and would probably be recognized as such by many Japanese. It can be translated as “Experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself.”

For me Kachoufugetsu will always have a meaning beyond that poem. In November 2016, when I was in Japan, I visited the famous pottery village of Arita in Kyushu. I was there on a Sunday afternoon, which was unfortunate because almost everything was closed. One of the few shops that was open had a large tray of assorted hashioki priced at 200 JPY each, or less than  2.00 USD.  I spent a long time sifting through the mound of cheap hashioki, but frankly none of them really appealed to me. However I did feel some sort of attraction to pieces in the pile in the shape of a flower, a bird head, a quarter moon, and a cloud or gust of wind. I couldn’t figure out why I felt drawn to these hashioki, and I was reluctant to buy them because they didn’t seem very unusual. But in the end I did buy the one (above) that I now know is a symbol for wind.

I figured it out when I got home; before I left on my trip I had seen a kachoufugetsu set for sale on the Internet at a price 5 or 6 times what I would have paid for the same set in Arita. I didn’t know what ‘kachoufugetsu” meant at that point, so I didn’t buy it. But thanks to finding the $2.00 wind piece in Arita I was able to assemble an almost identical kachoufugetsu set from my inventory.

If there is a yoji-jukugo which describes that collecting experience, it’s four characters that somehow convey “Follow your instincts.”