I know this hashioki is an example of fine art, because I purchased it in the gift shop of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which has one of the finest collections of Japanese art in the United States. And the Boston Museum of Fine Arts wouldn’t sell anything other than fine art, right?
It is a pudgy but cute example of a giant panda bear.
The giant panda, usually simply called panda, are native to south central China. They were once classified an endangered species in wild, but thanks to successful breeding and release programs into the wild in China they have now been upgraded to merely vulnerable. They look huggable, but since an adult panda can weigh up to 300 lbs. they are probably not good for cuddling.
Pandas are one of everyone’s favorite exhibits at zoos. In the United States you can see them at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and the San Diego Zoo, and occasionally other zoos. There are also pandas on display at 3 zoos in Japan, including the Ueno Park Zoo. The pair of pandas at the Ueno Zoo may have mated this spring. If they produce 1 or 2 offspring, there will undoubtedly be an explosion of panda hashioki in Japan next year.
I recently discovered that I am not who I thought I was. What I mean is, I am no longer a Sagittarius. I am now an Ophiuchus, which is the 13th. constellation which was left out of the original Babylonian zodiac because they wanted 12 signs to coordinate with 12 months. All my life I have read the horoscope for Sagittarius and wondered how it could have so little to do with my personality and my life, so I am not entirely disappointed to be something else now.
But I am still a Dragon in the shengxiao, or Chinese zodiac.
Maybe you’ve seen a Chinese zodiac calculator printed on a paper placemat at a Chinese restaurant. People are assigned an animal sign based on the year in which they were born. Dragons were born in 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, and so on. (I will let you guess which of those years I was born). Because I am a dragon I am intelligent, hard working, enthusiastic, and confident. Dragons have some negative characteristics, too, but I prefer to remain discreet about those.
Zodiac hashioki are made in sets of twelve. The examples shown here are from two different sets. One set — the modern looking flat pebble shapes – I purchased as a set. The other set I purchased in pieces over time from different vendors. Both sets were made in Japan; even though it’s the Chinese zodiac, it’s still popular in Japan.
I am married to a man who is a Rabbit. Honestly, this is not how I would describe him. My husband and I are alike in many ways, and undoubtedly more alike most dragons and rabbits. According to some sites I consulted on the Web, I should have married a man who was a Pig, meaning either 5 years older than me or 7 years younger. I think it’s interesting that Chinese zodiac wisdom believes there should be a considerable age difference between spouses. The truth of the matter is my family would never forgiven me if I had married a pig.
Our three children include a Tiger, a Monkey, and another Dragon. Is the child who is a Dragon more like her Dragon mother than the other two? Ehhhhh…. not really.
There are eight Chinese zodiac signs that are not represented in my immediate family. They are, along with a one outstanding quality associated with them, as follows:
Rat (wisdom), Ox or Cow (industrious), Horse (forging ahead),
Goat or Ram (unity), Rooster (being constant),
Dog (fidelity), and Pig or Boar (amiability). All of these pairings seem rather arbitrary, except for the last one: Snake (flexibility).
While I respect tradition, it seems to me that the zodiac is in dire need of an update. Part of the problem is that most people can no longer identify all these animals; the other fact is that modern, urban man simply doesn’t relate to animal characteristics. So I think we need a new zodiac based on another model. Suggestions?
While this adorable little guy looks like he or she should be singing a catchy tune in a cartoon movie, this hashioki actually represents the dreaded fugu, or Japanese pufferfish.
Fugu are famous for inflating their bodies with sea water to make themselves look bigger to a predator, and for producing a poison called tetrodotoxin, which can paralyze the muscles of anyone who consumes their flesh. Every year in Japan dozens of people are hospitalized with fugu poisoning, and a few even die from asphyxiation. Despite the risk, fugu is considered a great delicacy, and there are a number of fugu restaurants with specially licensed chefs that serve it in Japan. Needless to say, a meal of fugu sashimi or tempura is very expensive.
Fugu translates as “river pig,” and in real life fugu look exactly like that: ugly, with sagging bellies, and pinched faces.
In addition to wondering why anyone would want to risk eating fugu, you might also care to ponder why anyone (other than an obsessive collector) would purchase fugu hashioki.
I have to wonder why anyone would want to set your table with fugu hashioki. Could it be that you’re trying to warn your guests that the food you’re about to serve may be poisoned? Because you wish it was poisoned? Or because you secretly fantasize about your guests enduring a slow and horrible death at your dining room table where they are fully awake but can’t breathe?
In any case, it’s a good bet that anyone who sets their table with a fugu hashioki does not regularly entertain the Emperor of Japan. Fugu is the one food he is forbidden by law to eat.
Japan has a long tradition of scary tales, and many of them feature oni, which can be translated as devils, demons, or ogres.
Like demons in other cultures, Japanese oni have horns and prominent incisors. They also have wild curly hair and sharp claws, and often have red or blue skin.
While oni are associated with evil, they are not always frightening. Sometimes they are treated quite humorously, as the red oni on the black pebble hashioki here illustrates. This fellow wears a tiger loincloth, and carries a kanabō, or spiked iron club, which are both standard issue for oni demons. The expression oni ni kanabō, written in hiragana and kanji in the gold box on the left side of the rest, means “oni with an iron club,” and suggests a power so strong that it is unbeatable.
Oni are especially associated with a holiday in early February called Setsubun, which is the traditional beginning of spring. Families celebrate Setsubun with a ritual known as mamemaki where soybeans — smaller versions of these hashioki beans — are used to dispel evil spirits. Somebody dons a oni mask, and then the other members of the family hurl soybeans at them while chanting Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi, or “Out with the demons! In with good luck!”(1)
(1) Kodansha, Ltd. “Setsubun” in Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Vol II. Tokyo: Kodansha, Ltd., 1993, p. 1351.
This hashioki could represent a carp or a koi, or possibly some other kind of fish, but I’ve decided that it’s a catfish () due to its’ pronounced barbels. Barbel is the technical term for the fleshy whisker-like protuberances at the corners of the fish’s mouth. The barbels contain the taste buds of the fish, and help the fish find food in murky water, which is undoubtedly particularly useful for bottom-dwelling fish like catfish.
But the question of what kind of fish this piece represents brings up salient point in collecting hashioki. It’s often difficult to precisely identify what fish or flower a chopstick rest is supposed to portray. Hashioki craftsmen are probably more interested in attractiveness than accuracy, and there’s no guarantee that they’re basing their creation on a live model or even a good photo. I’ve spent hours trying to correctly identify some of the pieces in my collection, using the Internet and other resources, and occasionally I have to conclude that a hashioki represents something because I say it does.
So I say this blue and white hashioki portrays a catfish.
I’ve never seen catfish on the menu in a sushi place or other Japanese restaurant, but that may be because they have special powers. Catfish are traditionally believed to have the ability to predict earthquakes, possibly because a Japanese myth sugests those dreaded disasters are caused by the gyrations of a giant mythic namazu or catfish below the surface of the earth.
Another catfish hashioki is featured in my entry on “Kappa” (January 2016).
If you have read my earlier post about tanuki “(Bad Boys,” January 2016), you already know I have a deep and inexplicable fondness for Japan’s indigenous raccoon dogs. Of course my attraction is limited to inanimate versions of tanuki; I suspect the real raccoon dogs in the wild are neither cute nor loveable.
I find it difficult to resist new tanuki hashioki. This pair, one dark brown and one rusty brown, are obviously resting after a long bout of drinking sake. We know they are tanuki because that’s what the kanji on the wooden ema boards standing beside them means. The kanji hachi (eight) that appears on their pillows is a reference to a folkloric belief that tanuki can shape-shift into eight different disguises to confuse humans who see them and make those humans feel stupid. I only learned the significance of the hachi reference recently, and I only know two of their alternate forms (tea kettle and monk) so I definitely feel like stupid human.
This tanuki is a bit deceptive. At first I didn’t think it was a tanuki at all; I thought it looked more like a teddy pair or maybe a pig. But all the clerks in the shop where I saw it insisted that it was a tanuki. In my inventory record I describe this as a tanuki monk, because it came from a gift shop inside the gates of Enryku-ji, the Buddhist monastery at the summit of Mt. Hiei, northeast of Kyoto. Enryaku-ji is famous for its’ fierce warrior monks who terrorized Kyoto and fire to competing temples during the 16th. century. This tanuki doesn’t look anything like a warrior or a monk, although maybe that’s the proof that it’s a good disguise.
In addition to collecting tanuki hashioki, I like to take photos of the tanuki I see posing outside doorways in Japan. Here are some examples from my most recent trip:
The inscription on this blue hashioki reads “neko ni koban,” which is a Japanese phrase that translates as “gold coins to a cat.” While a cat may may be attracted to a shiny gold coin, it really doesn’t understand what money is or how to use it. Therefore, the proverb is really a comment about someone coveting something they have no use for.
This hashioki is one of two purchased by my daughter Mollie in a store in Seattle in March 2008. The other one features a devil or demon, and will be featured in a future post on oni. Because both pieces featured a maxim I assume they were part of a larger set of other characters and proverbs. One of the frustrations of collecting hashioki is that because they are small, and because they are items that were actually used, pieces that were once part of a larger set sometimes appear to get separated.
More than six years after Mollie purchased this pair I had a minor victory; I found five matching pieces for sale by a vendor from Tokyo on eBay. One of the pieces in his set was in fact the Oni piece described above. The other pieces were (left to right) Urashima Tarō, Kintarō, Kaguyahime and Momotarō, all folk heroes that were described in previous posts.
The gold coin or koban that is featured in the cat hashioki above was a kind of currency that was circulated during the Edo or Tokugawa period. This hashioki reproduces a particular coin known as a Keichō koban, which was used between 1601 and 1695. I can’t resist including that fascinating tidbit here simply to demonstrate how the Internet has changed research; I was able to discover my koban hashioki was a reproduction of an actual coin less than minute after I typed “koban” into my search engine. I also learned that counterfeit koban were a problem during the Edo period, although probably no one would have been fooled by this ceramic version with a base and the inscription of the manufacturer on the bottom.
They patrol the grounds of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They stretch across signs and t-shirts, and curl up into tableware. They pose with geisha in pretty woodblock prints, or substitute for humans in more satirical ones. They star in anime and manga, either as too-cute kitties or as scary monsters, and serve as the narrator of popular novels, like Natsume Sōseki’s I am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru). There are even cat cafes in Japan where people can order a very expensive cup of coffee in order to have the privilege of petting the felines who live there.
So I was surprised to recently read that only one-quarter of pet-owning families in Japan own cats. I’m sure that cat hashioki were not included in that household survey.
Cats were reportedly introduced to the Japanese imperial court from Korea and China during the tenth century. They were an immediate hit; they were known as O-koma-san (honorable person from Korea) and given a noble rank(1). Perhaps this is the origin of the not-necessarily-Japanese adage that dogs have owners, while cats have staff.
Cats are of course known for being athletic, but this cat hashioki is particularly agile — he can even hang from the side of a glass.
Cats are very popular with Japanese artists. This hashioki depicts cats in the style of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a 19th. century ukiyo-e print master. Kuniyoshi was famous for his bold and colorful samurai, beautiful women, mythical beasts, and cats, especially cats like this who are dressed and acting in human roles. Notice that Kuniyoshi’s cats are as fierce as samurai warriors.
The most popular breed of cat in Japan is known as a nihon neko (Japanese cat) or mi- ke, meaning three hairs. These are short-haired cats with white coats and black and rust colored spots.
I have a particularly fondness for these cats, and the hashioki that portray them, because my pet cat Munakata is a mi-ke, too. However, Munakata — unlike these mi-ke cats, is not allowed to sit on the table.
(Please also see my post on “Maneki neko” from January 2016).
(1) Frédéric, Louis. Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 103.
I was surprised to find a hashioki shaped like the ghost that I associate with the Western holiday Halloween.
It turns out this isn’t a ghost at all, which may be why it’s smiling and looking so unintimidating. This is a teru teru bozu, or “shine shine monk.” It’s a kind of charm that is supposed to bring good weather and prevent rain. They were traditionally made from white cloth and hung on a string by farmers hoping for good weather; today they are more likely to be made from paper or tissues by children hoping that tomorrow’s weather will be good for an outing or ball game.
Teru teru bozu are a little like daruma (see my Daruma post from August 2016), in that the maker is supposed to make and hang them without facial features, and then draw the eyes in if their wish for good weather is granted. Bozu is an informal word used to refer to Buddhist monks, and is also reportedly a nickname for little boys with close cropped hair.
Maybe a teru teru bozu made by a bozu has more power?
Some of the most charming hashioki in my collection are the ones that are pairs.
Hashioki sold as pairs are often intended as presents for couples, either as a wedding or shower gift, or perhaps in celebration of an anniversary or new home.
This lovely vintage pair of ginkgo leaves with gilt trim were undoubtedly created for that sort of occasion. Maybe they are intended to symbolize autumn because ginkgo leaves turn yellow in the fall, or to suggest longevity because the ginkgo tree is renown as a living fossil. Or maybe they are intended to represent tradition, because ginko trees line the moat around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, and are also planted at shrines and temples throughout Japan. In any case, the wooden box they are packaged in adds to the impact value of the gift, and also protects the fragile rests during storage.
This romantic pair of white doves that complement each other, but are not identical, were were originally sold at the US retailer Pottery Barn.
Japan is a gift-giving society, and hashioki are undoubtedly presented in pairs to individuals regardless of marital status. Sometimes two gifts are simply better, meaning more impressive or more substantial, than one. This practice is such a recognized tradition that the Malaysian company Royal Selangor, makers of fine pewter giftware that is very popular in Asia, sell their hashioki strictly in pairs. In addition to these finely articulated pair of pea pods, my collection includes pairs of Royal Selangor dragons and koi goldfish.
My favorite pair of paired hashioki is this back and front brace of rabbits purchased in the gift shop of the Westin Miyako Hotel in Kyoto. Even though this is an unsigned mass market product, I appreciate that the designer conceptualized the pair in a fresh way, and made the effort to style the ears so they harmonize but are not identical
Some hashioki twosomes may be unintentional pairs, like this matching set of polka dot dachshunds that are identical in every way except color,
or this pair of baskets that feature the same colors but have slightly different decoration detail.
Hashioki pairs can correlate but have different subject matters, like these two adorable pairs of cats and dogs.
Some “pairs” of hashioki are joined into a single piece, like this parent and child rabbit duo,or these siamese twin pair of rabbits.Of course two-in-one hashioki like these allow a
person to use a “pairs” theme when setting a table, even if you have an odd number of guests.
In that case, two-in-one is significantly better than one.