Two timing

I have two reasons for writing about this new and very elegant hashioki.


First, it features a pair of Mandarin ducks. As I have already written this blog before  (“Lonely hearts,” May 2016), Mandarin ducks are a common Asian symbol for fidelity and marital love. A. little informal Internet research suggests that they an especially popular symbol in Korea, where they are thought to represent peace, fidelity and lots of children, making items with a Mandarin duck motif a popular Korean wedding gift.

So, in addition to featuring an item with a connection to love and marriage during the month that includes Valentine’s Day, it also seems appropriate to feature an item that represents a customary gift in Korea, given that the Winter Olympics are currently being held in South Korea.

Unfortunately, my research also indicates that Mandarin ducks are not quite as they seem. First, they don’t always mate for life; some pairs only mate for a season. Second, the colorful male ducks may be avid suitors, but they don’t make good fathers. Third, Mandarin duck females like to lay their eggs in the hole of a tree trunk, which seems like a very strange place for a water fowl to place her nest. And finally, female Mandarin ducks don’t quack. Instead they make a chicken-like clucking noise when they sense danger… or possibly when their spouse returns to the next after a night out with the boys.

Despite these discoveries, I am a little disappointed that this beautiful chopstick rest was sold on its own, and didn’t come with a mate. How can I use it when I set the table for dinner with my own mate?




OwlsThese adorable owl (fukuro) hashioki belie their folkloric heritage. According to scholar Merrily Baird, in Japan the owl is a symbol of evil and considered to be a omen of death. Baird reports that in China this nocturnal bird was once considered a kind of guardian of darkness, but that its’ image somehow changed, and it was viewed with dislike. She also writes that there was a belief in China that young owls ate their mothers, which was naturally viewed as the ultimate act of filial betrayal. Like many other beliefs, this owl folklore was eventually passed from China to Japan (1).


But it looks like the makers of hashioki somehow missed these transmissions.

(1) Baird, Merrily. Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2001, pp. 113-114.

Fine Art and Pandas

Fine Art PandaI 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.

tatsu dragon

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?






Deceiving appearances

Deceiving appearancesWhile 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, withDeceiving appearances 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?Deceiving appearances

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.


OniJapan 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.

OniWhile 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 Onihiragana 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 OniSetsubun 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.

February 6, 2017


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 (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).

More tanuki

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 img_2759brown, 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,img_2748 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:



Now you love tanuki, too — right?


Cats and coins, and proverbs

img_2586The 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 img_2591particular 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.


CatsCats (neko) are everywhere in Japan.

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.

img_2780Cats 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.