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.


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 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.


The first hashioki I ever saw in the shape of a clock was outside a shop along the Sannenzaka (meaning “slope of three years”) below Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. It was IMG_3183embedded in concrete outside a shop that sold ceramics — bowls, plates, and of course chopstick rests. I scoured the inventory of the shop to find another clock hashioki, because it seemed very unique to me, but I had no luck. I did, however, find some other wonderful hashioki there to buy…..

Since that time, roughly ten years ago, I’ve become I loyal customer of Shoindo, the shop described above, both in person and on line thru Rakuten. It has been the source of many lovely pieces. Shoindo has been in business since 1855, and was once a purveyor to the Imperial Household. They specialize in kiyomizu ware, meaning ceramics that were once produced in eastern Kyoto near Kiyomizu Temple. This style of ceramics have a sophisticated style, are handpainted and often embellished with gold, and are made in shapes that are both traditional and yet unique in the marketplace.

If you look at this hashioki you can see that the time is a little bit past 5 o’clock — meaning that it’s time to set the table for dinner. Don’t forget the chopstick rests!

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.


MaterialsThe vast majority of hashioki are made from some sort of ceramic material, like these examples of fine china or porcelain, or this striated clay handmade example by a contemporary artisan.

Many scholars believe that Japan has the world’s oldest ceramic tradition; carbon dating of archeological Materialsdiscoveries suggest that the production of ceramics in Japan may have began as early as 10,000 BCE (1). So it seems appropriate that most hashioki are made from ceramics.

But hashioki have been fashioned from many other materials, including materials that are traditional and materials that are more modern.


The examples above on the left are fashioned from a wood core which is thin covered with repeated coats of a film-thin lacquer made from the sap of the urushi tree. The one on the right is a plastic imitation of this technique.

Trees are traditionally objects of reverence in Japan, so various kinds of wood, including (left to right, top to bottom) maple, rosewood, cherry tree wood and bark, teak, coconut tree wood, and bamboo are popular materials for hashioki.


Sometimes hashioki made from washi, the Japanese paper made from the bark of aMaterials variety of trees and shrubs. The resulting product is stronger than paper made from wood pulp, and often more textured than standard paper. Despite its strength, paper hashioki like these made from patterned chiyogami (“1000 generation paper”) is usually coated with a clear protective coating.


Hashioki are sometimes made from machine-printed paper, like this example of pre-printed origami hashioki that look like animals. In fact, the most common hashioki are made from printed paper — specifically, from the printer wrappers that protect disposable chopsticks.

Some of the other materials represented in my collection include: (first row) silver and gold metal, hammered tin, stainless steel, (second row) glass, nephrite or jade, granite, (third row) marble, polished quartz, slate, (fourth row) animal horn, bone, mother of pearl, (fifth row) hard plastic, soft silicone plastic, and concrete.




The last examples prove that hashioki continue to evolve, incorporating modern materials while still making a nod to tradition.

Finally, these natural stone pebbles demonstrate that nature can be a skilled hashiokiMaterials creator. The one on the right comes from from Nobu, the restaurant of master chef Nobu Matsuhisa in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In addition to using these pebbles at their place settings, Nobu features them in a beautiful rock wall on one side of the restaurant. The pebble hashioki with the interesting color variations on the right is from MaterialsIppudo, a famous Japanese ramen restaurant which happens to have a branch in midtown Manhattan.




Of course this catalog of materials is far from exhaustive; imagination and creativity are the only limits to the kinds of materials that can be used to create hashioki.
Dalby, Liza, et al. All-Japan: The Catalogue of Everything Japanese. New York: Quill, 1984, p, 20.




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.