Poetic inspiration

While we may associate short forms of poetry, specifically haiku, with Japanese literature, finding hashioki inscribed with a Japanese poem is actually rather rare. Iroha, described in my Poetic Cue post from January 2016, is an exception rather than a rule.

However, this coordinating pair of hashioki does feature a poem. The eBay vendor who IMG_2395sold me these hashioki translated the writing on the hashioki on the left as “Happiness is full in a calm mind,” and on the right as “A guide to a beautiful spiritual mind.” I don’t know if this a famous poem or saying in Japanese, or why it might be appropriate to inscribe it on a hashioki.


IMG_2397This hashioki reproduces a few lines from a poem by a poet named Mitsuo Aida. While he is not well known outside of Japan, he is famous in Japan for both his Zen-inspired poetry and his calligraphy. I was unable to match these lines to some of Aida’s translated poems, but it has something to do with grass and flowers. There is a small Mitsuo Aida museum in Tokyo, and this hashioki may have been originally sold there.

So even though I’m not sure why these hashioki with poems exist, I think it’s delightful — and very Japanese — to elevate a mundane object like a chopstick rest with something inspiring and beautiful.


More Genji passion

Among the most beautiful hashioki in my collection are a set of hand-painted fan-shaped rests which portray five scenes from the The Tale of Genji.

As explained in my first post about The Tale of Genji (January 2016),  this eleventh century novel could be described as a soap opera about promiscuity and adultery. So you might think that subject matter would disqualify it from being Japan’s most treasured work of literature. But what I think fans of the novel value are not the affairs recounted in the novel, but the level of passion and depth of feeling that characterize these relationships. So it’s not a book about casual affairs, but a novel about how a single glimpse or even a poem can cause a person to fall head over heels in love, even if it’s only for a brief time. The characters in Genji are enlivened by their passions, and I think Genji’s readers long to do the same.

More Genji passionThe first hashioki illustrates chapter five, which is titled Wakamurasaki. Waka means “young” in Japanese, while murasaki is the name of a plant whose roots are brewed to produce a purple dye. Murasaki also connotates a close relationship and lasting passion. In this scene we see the heroine of the novel, who is named Murasaki, age 10, standing on the engawa or porch of her grandmother’s house. She is unhappy because her pet baby sparrows have escaped into the woods. While she is standing there she is secretly seen for the first time by the 19-year-old Prince Genji. He is captivated by her beauty, and when her grandmother dies shortly thereafter, he kidnaps Murasaki and brings her to his home, planning to eventually make her his wife.

We don’t know the real name of the author of The Tale of Genji, but tradition has assigned her the name of her heroine, paired with the title that indicates her status at the emperor’s court:  Lady Murasaki.

The next hashioki refers to chapter nine, or Aoi. This is name of a plant that was traditionally used for decoration during the Kamo Festival at Kyoto’s Kamo Shrine in May. The word Aoi also suggests “day of (lovers’) meeting”, and happens to be the name of More Genji passionPrince Genji’s first wife. The hashioki shows Genji trimming the hair of his ward Murasaki, now in her early teens, before taking her to the festival. After the festival Genji’s wife Aoi gives birth to his son Yūgiri, but then dies. Her death may have been caused by an evil spirit created by one of Genji’s lovers, who became jealous when she saw Murasaki in his carriage at the festival. In the wake of Aoi’s death Genji decides to curtail his extramarital relationships, and to make Murasaki his consort.

IMG_2271The third hashioki depicts chapter 12, entitled Suma. This is the name of a coastal area south of Kyoto where Genji is exiled after the relatives of Oborozukiyo, his most recent inamorata, falsely accuse him of plotting against the Emperor. Genji is very lonely in Suma, and misses Murasaki very much. In the hashioki we see him gazing mournfully out at the sea.

The fourth chopstick rest in this set alludes to chapter 25, Hotaru, which means “fireflies.” In this chapter Genji has adopted Tamakazura, the daughter of one of his former flames, as his ward. Although Genji isn’t sure whether he wants to be her father or her lover, he IMG_2272invites his brother — also named Hotaru — to consider marrying her. During the Heian period aristocratic women hid in dark rooms behind curtained screens when men who were not family members came to call them, but when his brother visits Tamakazura Genji releases fireflies from a bag, which enables his brother to see the young woman’s beauty. The two yellow spots on the hashioki represent the fireflies that illuminated her face.

The vendor who sold me this set said the final chopstick rest depicts chapter 48, or Sawarabi. That title means “bracken shoots,” and the traditional illustration for this chapter is two baskets of mountain ferns that were sent to a woman named Naka no Kimi, IMG_2273who is mourning the death of her sister. But I think this hashioki actually alludes to chapter 52, Kagerō, meaning “mayfly.” It seems to portray Kaoru, a man who was raised as Prince Genji’s son but who is actually the illegitimate son of his best friend. Kaoru was in love with Ukifune, a young woman who has apparently drowned herself in a river. Kaoru is quite distraught, we see him sitting on an engawa near the river she disappeared into. His right hand is raised as if he was reaching out to capture a small insect. The chapter ends with his poem:

“There it is, just there, yet ever beyond my reach, till I look once more,
and it is gone, the mayfly, never to be seen again.”(1)

I’ve now read The Tale of Genji a total of four times, in three different translations. I’m sure that I will read it again, like the many Japanese who have read it multiple times. I’m looking forward to capturing that mayfly vicariously again.  Meanwhile, I have these hashioki to help me remember the power of romance.

(1)  Murasaki, Shikibu and Tyler, Royall (translator).  The Tale of Genji.  New York:  Viking Penguin, 2001, p, 1073.

In fiction

I consider myself fairly widely read in Asian literature, and I’m sorry to report there seem to be very few allusions to hashioki in published fiction.

In fact, I have only seen hashioki mentioned in three novels times. In The Salaryman’s Wife, the first book of a suspense novel series by Japanese-American author Sujata Massey, aspiring antiques dealer Rei Shimura purchases a wooden letter box with a small item rattling around inside. “I lifted the lid and found an inch-long polished piece of blue-and-white porcelain,” IMG_2057
Shimura relates. “I passed it around and everyone agreed it had to be a hashi-oki, a small ornamental piece used to place chopsticks on while dining.”(1) Shimura determines that the hashioki is not valuable, although she later sells the letterbox it came in for more than 50 times its purchase price.

In Hidden Buddhas, Liza Dalby’s novel about Shingon Buddhism, two of the main characters at one point spend the night at a ryokan in Kyoto. When the ryokan maid delivers dinner to their room “she set out two pairs of chopsticks IMG_1977with tiny ceramic pillows to rest the tips on…”(2) Having observed Dalby’s careful eye for detail in her non-fiction books, I assume the American anthropologist purposely used the word pillows to allude to the hashioki used in a place where people sleep.

More rewarding is the reference made to chopstick rests in Chinese-American author Amy Tan’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife. In the novel character reminisces about shipping for her wedding trousseau in China before World War II by recalling, “And just when I thought I was done with my shopping, the salesman showed me a small silver piece, shaped like a fish leaping up. And I knew IMG_2019right away I needed to have that too, because this little ornament was a place for resting your chopsticks, a way to stop eating for a few moments, to admire your table, to look at your guests, to congratulate yourself and say, How lucky am I.”(3)

It’s a shame that hashioki haven’t played a supporting, if not starring, role in more fiction. Maybe someday….

(1) Massey, Sujata.  The Salaryman’s Wife.  New York:  Harper Paperbacks, 1997, p. 67.

(2) Dalby, Liza.  Hidden Buddhas.  Berkeley:  Stone Bridge Press, 2009, p. 106.

(3) Tan, Amy.  The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: First Vintage Contemporaries, 1993, pp. 149-150.


The Tale of Genji

I think of this pair as my Genji Monogatari hashioki, or as symbols of the famous Japanese novel The Tale of Genji.


I purchased them in the gift shop of Nagoya’s Tokugawa Museum, which is famous for owning three Genji monogatari emaki, or illustrated hand scrolls, which date from around 1130. They are three of the four survivors from of a set of 10 to 20 scrolls that once recounted stories from The Tale of Genji in painted pictures and calligraphy; the Gotoh Museum in Setagaya outside of Tokyo has a fourth scroll, while the others have been lost. These surviving scrolls are the oldest existent non-Buddhist scrolls in Japan, and are one of the National Treasures of Japan. The scrolls were not on display when we visited the museum, but we did see facsimilies of them.

The Tale of Genji is undoubtedly Japan’s most famous novel. It has also been described as the world’s oldest novel, and as the world’s first “modern novel” and first psychological novel. It centers on the story of Prince Genji, an uncommonly attractive and cultured “shining prince” whose grace, poetry skills and aesthetic sensibilities impressed all the aristocrats around him in the Heian period (794-1185) imperial court. Much of the novel centers on Genji’s affairs with a wide range of women; even though Genji was a serial romancer, most of his liasons treasured the time they spent with him as an exceptional experience. Later chapters of the novel recount tales of Genji’s descendants and others who wished to emulate him.

If we accept that these are indeed Genji Monogatari hashioki, then they depict Prince Genji and Murasaki, his greatest love, dressed in their finest court regalia. Some might say that this pair replicates the empress and emperor dolls that rule over the traditional display of  dolls in some Japanese homes near Japan’s Girl’s Day national holiday on March 3 (please look for a future post on Hina matsuri). However, I think provenance is everything; this pair are my Tale of Genji hashioki. I’m sure the millions of readers who have been mesmerized by the novel during the past 1,000 years would agree.

To me the most amazing thing about The Tale of Genji is that it’s a very long novel, stretching over 1100 pages in a recent English translation by Royall Tyler. It was written by hand during stolen moments on odd lots of paper by a woman who worked as a lady in waiting to an empress in the early years of the 11th. century. The author didn’t have a typewriter or a computer or a dependable light source; she probably didn’t even have a copy of what she had already written as she wrote the middle or last chapters. Yet it is a coherent novel, with an orderly timeline, compelling stories, and developed characters.
There is no mention of hashioki in The Tale of Genji; hashioki made their appearance in Japan much later. There’s actually very little reference to food or the act of eating in the novel. In The World of the Shining Prince scholar Ivan Morris suggests that a Heian aristocrat’s diet consisted mainly of rice, rice cakes, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seaweed. Even the elegant and fastidious Prince Genji probably ate with his hands.

While it may seem strange to include hashioki depicting garuma, or ox carts, in a discussion about a romantic novel, these carts play a significant role in the book. Aristocratic women in Heian Japan were not meant to be seen by men outside their immediate family. So when they traveled to a temple or festival women rode in these ox-drawn vehicles, and were shielded from view by blinds or shutters. However, many assignations in the novel begin when a man catches an inadvertent glimpse of a woman in a cart, or after a man merely imagines how beautiful a woman riding in such a cart might be.

Lovers in The Tale of Genji wooed and responded through poetry; there are almost 800 five-line tanka poems interspersed throughout the story. They also exchanged flowers and blossoming branches, jars of incense, clothing and lengths of cloth. If only they had possessed hashioki! A stylish chopstick rest would have been the perfect thing to slip inside to a love letter or secretly pass to a paramour.

My Tale of Genji hashioki pair would never have made an appearance inside the novel. They are, alas, machine made and mass produced; they were purchased in a shop and not commissioned from an exclusive artisan. Prince Genji would have disdained them.

IMG_1638Instead Genji might have conspired to have a hashioki like this lacquered bow, fashioned from handmade washi paper that perhaps recreates the colors of the cape he wore to a tryst the night before, and then magically appearing on the breakfast tray of his new love.

The object of his affections might have responded with an elegant hand-painted chopstick rest like this fan tied to poem proclaiming that even a fan couldn’t hide the IMG_1639longing on her face that the shining prince will visit her once again tonight. At least, that’s the way it might have been, to paraphrase the last line of Royall Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji.

Poetic cue

To the uninformed, this might look like a chopstick rest with a random design of lines and scribbles.




But this hashioki is actually inscribed with the first line of a poem.


The line, written in the Japanese native syllabary hiragana, starts on the upper right hand side of the chopstick rest, and can be read in three more or less vertical lines:


The entire poem, known as the Iroha, is famous because it uses 47 hiragana symbols exactly once, including two archaic symbols that are no longer in use. The iroha also omits one symbol, the final n.

The Iroha dates from the Heian period (794-1185). It was once known by every literate Japanese person, and functioned much like the ABCs do in the English language. The order of the hiragana symbols in the poem outlined the way words were listed in a Japanese dictionary, and were used for things like seat numbering in theaters.IMG_1580

However, a translation of the Iroha poem reveals that the subject matter has nothing to do with dictionaries or seat numbering:

The colors blossom, scatter, and fall.
In this world of ours, who lasts forever?
Today let us cross over the remote mountains of life’s illusions,
And dream no more shallow dreams nor succumb to drunkenness. (1)

Alas, even the Iroha didn’t last forever; today a system known as Gojuuon, or Fifty Sounds, which is based on hiragana in an a-e-i-o-u progression, is used for dictionaries, and the ABCs are generally used for seat numbering.

While these Iroha chopstick rests are an interesting cultural key to Japan, especially to an obsessive hashioki collector, I have to wonder when a Japanese person would actually use this item a table setting. Would you put it out if you invited a literature teacher to dinner? Or place it in front of your child the night before school began? Does placing it before a guest constitute a challenge for them to recite the entire poem from memory? Or does it challenge them not to get drunk?

(1) Kodansha, Ltd.  “Iroha poem” in Japan:  An Illustrated Encyclopedia.  Tokyo: Kodansha, Ltd., 1993, pp. 624-625.