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.



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.







All in the details

I appreciate these four hashioki because I had to be a bit of a sleuth to assemble them.

All in the detailsI purchased the first one, a hashioki showing two garden lanterns, in July 2015 from an eBay vendor in Thailand. More than a year later I purchased the other three from a different vendor in Thailand, or the same vendor with a new screen name.


While the hashioki with the garden lanterns and the one with the bridge railing could be anywhere in Japan, the other two specifically evoke Kyoto to me. The hashioki with the pagoda undoubtedly represents Toji Temple, one of the symbols of Kyoto, while the one with the red porch on stilts is positively Kiyomizu Temple.

The pieces are hand painted, and do not appear to be mass-produced. My guess is that they date from the 1940s or 1950s. They appear to be, in other words, the mid-20th. Century pieces that I prize as a collector.

I’m sure that these four pieces are only part of a set or series; I’m still on the lookout for their mates.


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…..



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.

Opener of Japan

Opener of JapanI labeled this hashioki with the title above the moment I saw it on a shelf in a small shop on a back street in Tokyo.

It appears to depict a Western man dressed in nineteenth century clothing. It may represent Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the American admiral whose ships sailed to Japan in 1853 and 1854, and who signed the treaty that opened Japan’s ports and borders to foreigners following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. The man is dressed in the colors of the American flag, making it an appropriate post for the week before the Fourth of July. And on July 8, 1853, when Perry entered Edo Bay near present-day Tokyo, he commanded his ships to fire blanks from their cannons, obstensively to celebrate United States’ Independence Day, but more likely as a show of force for the Japanese. So Perry has a definite connection to the Fourth of July.

But I prefer to think that this figure represents someone more like Ernest Fenollosa or William Sturgis Bigelow, Americans who traveled to Japan after Perry and brought Japanese art back to the States to display in American museums. (Curiously enough, both Fenollosa and Bigelow had beards, like this hashioki, but Perry did not.) Many Americans first experienced Japan by looking at a woodblock print or a statue of a buddha in museum. My mind was certainly opened to Japan by the Japanese art I saw as a teenager at the great museums of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

In either case, the piece is a bit unusual. It represents either an American who dictated policy to the Japanese government, or an American who removed art treasures from the country to display in a foreign museum. It may be an attractive and unique piece, but I’m not sure that it’s really politically correct.


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?







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.

A real Fuji fan

This 5-piece hashioki set in the shape of uchiwa Japanese fans celebrates Mt. Fuji, and also commemorates the work of one of Fuji-san’s greatest admirers, the artist Katsushika Hokusai.

This set is an example of Kiyomizu pottery, meaning ceramics created in an ornate style — notice the touches of golden gilt — first developed on the slopes beneath Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. I’m classifying this post under Collecting, rather than Cultural Expressions (like my other Fuji-san post) because the craftsmanship, the subject matter, and the Hokusai connection made this set a “must have” for my collection.

Fuji fanHokusai was a woodblock print artist during the early 19th. century. His 36-print set entitled Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji are among his most famous prints. During Hokusai’s lifetime travel in Japan was restricted by the government, so “arm chair travel” via woodblock prints was a popular substitute. While Hokusai’s work is fresh and original thanks to his creative framing and emphasis on geometric forms, many of his customers could look at his prints and immediately identify the location because the distribution of similar prints had made them so familiar.

These hashioki are all based on prints from the Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. The first one (above) represents the most famous print in the series, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Fuji fanThe color of the mountain and the stack of thin horizontal clouds indicate that the second hashioki represents the print South Wind, Clear Sky, also known as Red Fuji.

Fuji fan


The third hashioki shows the other red Fuji in the series. It pays homage to the print that happens to be my favorite, which is entitled Rainstorm Beneath the Summit.



Fuji fanThe fourth hashioki shows a man constructing the largest wooden tub I can even imagine. It is drawn from the print Fuji View Field in Owari Province. Hokusai actually took a bit of artistic license here, as Owari is 150 miles from Mt. Fuji, and it is not actually possible to see the mountain from there. But as I pointed out in the beginning, his customers didn’t know that.

Fuji fanThe fifth hashioki is based on the print titled Shore of Tago Bay, Eijiri at Tōkaidō. As the name suggests, this location also happens to be a station along the Tōkaidō Road, the highway that ran between Tokyo and Kyoto. One of Hokusai’s contemporaries, Andō Hiroshige, was most famous for his set of 55 prints depicting the Tōkaidō Road. Hiroshige also produced his own series of Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji.

I intend to write more about 5-piece hashioki sets in the future, but for now I’ll just say that being featured in a 5-piece hashioki set essentially certifies what is depicted in a Japanese cultural icon…. not that there’s any doubt that either Fuji san or Hokusai are genuine Japanese cultural icons.


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.