The little stack of books above doesn’t look like much, but of all the Japanese things I’ve collected over the years they are the most precious of all. Each book contains stamps collected from train stations, attractions, and temples or shrines around Japan we visited during our two navy tours and other trips. Encouraged by my English students, I began collecting stamps during our first tour (1980-1983), and dutifully wrote the name and date of each station or place visited on the page to remember the visit, and one of my students wrote “memories of Japan” on the front of my first book (the green one). For the most part the books went everywhere with me because I never knew when I would be somewhere and able to collect a new stamp.
There are over 9,000 train stations (eki) throughout Japan. Most of these stations have a unique stamp (or even two) that highlights a particular attraction or novelty that the town or area is known for, from festivals to bridges to food. The stamp designs are detailed, and are a fun to way to collect memories of places visited. The stamp is usually located at the entrance to most train stations, but sometimes I had to do some searching to find it. One other issue that popped up now and again was the provided stamp pad was dry, and I could barely get a print in my book (some hard-core collectors supposedly carry their own stamp pad). Occasionally I would come across a stamp but I did not have my stamp book on me, but many places had a stack of paper that I could use and I would glued the stamp into my book later. Eki stamps are not limited to train stations though. Most tourist attractions, including castles, museums, amusement parks, hot springs and so forth, have stamps as well.
A special kind of stamp are goshuin, obtained at Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines. There is usually a special window at bigger temples or shrines where a small fee ($3 or so) is paid, and a monk or priest puts a stamp in the book and then writes the name, date, and maybe a blessing in beautiful calligraphy over the stamp. There are literally thousands of temples and shrines around Japan, and goshuin can technically be obtained at most of the bigger ones. Some people collect goshuin exclusively, but others, like me, mix them with their eki stamps.
Stamp collecting in Japan is very, very popular among all ages. There is often a “stamp rally” going on somewhere in Japan, where special books can be picked up and a prize earned for filling all the spots with stamps. Our grandson participated in one a couple of years ago, filled his book and earned two tickets to see Moana! I think I paid around $4 each for my books back in the day, but the traditional silk-covered accordion books are available for sale at most temples and shrines for around $10 now. Other stamp books, some of handmade paper, can be found in souvenir shops. It’s a small price to pay though to develop a wonderful collection of memories of places visited in Japan.
I began collecting hashioki (chopstick rests) on our first tour in Japan, in 1980. My friend Kris collected them, and got me started, and also gave me a very good piece of advice: Only collect ones that have blue in them. Otherwise, you will be overwhelmed.
I currently have well over 300 different hashioki in my collection. Most were purchased during our two tours in Japan, but some were gifts and others were found at stores here in the U.S. All of them have some blue in them somewhere. Back when I started collecting, hashioki were very affordable, usually less than a dollar, and rarely more than $2.50. These days one hashioki can be $5.00 or more, so I rarely buy them, even on visits to Japan.
There is no way to describe the variety that can be found in this one small piece of Japanese tableware. If you can think of an animal, real or imagined, there’s probably a hashioki of it. I have whales, octopi, fish, clams, and other sea creatures as well as cats, dogs, and other animals. I have all manner of vegetables, various types of transportation, dishes, books, musical instruments, people, toys . . . anything you can imagine can be found in hashioki. Most of mine are ceramic, but I also have some made from glass, wood and even from paper. My hashioki run the gamut from whimsical to elegant, with everything inbetween.
Currently my collection is in a box in the garage, with each hashioki individually wrapped in tissue paper. Other than putting some out in a basket or such, I have no way to display them, but they would quickly grow very dusty and they’re difficult to keep clean. I’ve seen them displayed in wooden printer’s type cases before, and heard of someone who had a something like a flat file cabinet where each drawer could be pulled out and the hashioki examined, but I currently don’t have the space for either.
In spite of having so many, I do have a favorite. I have all of the ones in the above picture, but the simple black pillow with the blue and white wave design in the middle makes me the happiest of all my hashioki. It’s so very Japanese, in design, color and execution.
And, although I’m not really adding to my collection any more, I would buy the set above in heartbeat. They all picture charming little chidori (plovers) in different designs. Chidori are one of my favorite Japanese motifs of all time, representing longevity and endurance.
My all-time favorite color is blue, especially deep cobalt blue. Put it together with white and I’m a happy girl. Put them together on porcelain or ceramic and I’m an even happier girl. Whenever I’m in Japan I’m like a kid in a candy store as blue & white remains a popular color motif for everything from dishes to clothes to household items.
Japan began producing its own blue and white porcelain (somestsuke) in the 17th century, using techniques that were developed in China in centuries before. Some of the oldest Japanese kilns producing blue & white, based in Arita on the southern island of Kyushu, are still operating today. Blue and white though can be found everywhere in Japan, from old to new, from the humblest chopstick rest to museum-quality pieces of Arita and Imari porcelain.
I collected our pieces of blue & white during our two navy tours in Japan. Some I found in antique stores, some at area shrine sales, and others at the monthly bazaar held at the Camp Zama army base. I’ve blogged about my collection of blue & white porcelainjubako (stacking food boxes), but below are some other pieces from around our house and outside. Although we sold or gave away a few pieces before we moved, most of our collection made the move over to Hawai’i with us.
Three of our four remaining blue Arita hibachis sit out on our lanai and hold plants. With no central heating, and no fireplaces, porcelain hibachis were used inside Japanese homes to warm hands and sometimes heat teakettles. Hibachis came in various sizes, and besides porcelain were also made of wood (lined with metal). Hibachis would be filled with sand with a few hot coals set on the sand. A grate could be set over the coals to warm a teakettle, if desired. I found all of our hibachis at Tokyo shrine sales, large antique bazaars held once a month at various Shinto shrines around the city. The designs on each of our outdoor hibachi were stenciled, and then finished by hand with indented designs, stamps and colors.
The large (and heavy) Arita hibachi pictured above was purchased at a small neighborhood antique sale held during our first Japan tour, in 1981, back when the dollar to yen exchange rate was amazing and pieces like this were affordable. We don’t know exactly how old it is, but it’s more than 100 years. It has both stenciled and hand-painted designs. We’ve moved this hibachi all over the place with us ever since, often in a specially built crate to keep it safe. I found the hand-painted plate several months after I bought the hibachi, and discovered it fit perfectly in the hibachi’s opening. We had a large custom glass top and flat wooden stand made, and for many years the glass-topped hibachi served as our coffee table. Before our move though we had legs added to the stand, and the glass recut, to use the hibachi as a side table. It doesn’t fit in our current living room though so it’s now Brett’s bedside table.
Although it looks like a tall vase, this hand-painted container is actually another type of hibachi, used as a portable, “personal” hand warmer. Sand would be poured into it and then topped with one or two pieces of burning charcoal so that one person warm their hands where ever they were. I love its bamboo shape and the tiger – Brett was born in a tiger year.
Our two hand-painted ceramic sake kegs were designed to look like large traditional wooden sake kegs – can you see the rope detail? I found one in an antique store, the other at the Zama bazaar. Before the advent of cars, trucks or trains, rural sake brewers needed a way to transport their product to the city, and they found the porcelain sake kegs could be safely carried on pack horses or sent on cask ships. Up until the 1940s the kegs were also used to dispense draft sake in shops. Customers would bring their own small ceramic bottles to the shop and have them refilled. Ceramic kegs are somewhat rare, so both were exciting finds.
The small plate above is hand-painted Imari, probably over 100 years old. It’s nothing very special but I love its simple design (and it was very affordable). I discovered the large teapot in a dusty corner of an antique shop for a ridiculously low price, probably because it was not very old or valuable. It’s a copy of a Chinese design, probably from the 1930s. I love the unique shape though. The little square cups in front are a drinking game. Participants throw the little cube in the center cup and then follow the instructions printed on each side. One side might tell them which size cup they have to drink (sake) from, another side might tell them to sing a song, or do a dance, or maybe drink twice! You can imagine the end result. The set is a reproduction – I bought it on a shopping trip to the pottery town of Seto around 25 years ago.
A couple of our pieces are valuable, but most are not – they just make me very, very happy. The colors not only feel peaceful, but the blue & white fits with everything, and always reminds me of Japan, and the when and where of finding each piece. I’m not actively collecting blue & white any more, but my heart still beats a little faster whenever I see it.
Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. – William Morris
Tenugui (pronounced ten-oo-goo-ee), Japanese hand towels, are both useful and beautiful! They can be found in every Japanese home, and available for purchase in just about every store or shop. They come in an unlimited selection of motifs and colors to fit any decor, or match any interest or hobby. From Star Wars to Santa Claus, Hello Kitty to Halloween black cats, Mt. Fuji to geisha, there’s a design to suit everyone’s taste. While more traditional Japanese motifs appeal to me, two years ago I found one for Meiling of geisha wearing traditional wigs and kimono, playing traditional Japanese musical instruments in the garden – all the geisha are skeletons! If you can imagine it, it’s probably appeared on a tenugui!
Made from 100% cotton, the creative and beautiful tenugui designs are silkscreened on to long bolts of 13″ wide fabric, then cut into lengths approximately 35″ long. A wide variety of designs are available all year, including seasonal or holiday designs (Christmas and Halloween tenugui are very popular). Well-know artists sometime design for tenugui, and many of these are worthy of being framed.
Tenugui are these days are mainly purchased and given these days as gifts and souvenirs but they still can be found in the kitchen in Japanese homes and are also used in the bathroom and for other tasks around the house. Tenugui are also used as headbands to keep sweat from running down the face, and the knots used to tie them on are often particular to the job being done. If you’ve ever watched The Karate Kid, the headband Ralph Macchio wears as he learns karate is made from a tenugui. The towels can also be used as gift wrap, especially for bottles of wine or sake. The more tenugui are used though, the softer and more absorbent they become, which after the design is their main appeal.
These handy towels have become my favorite souvenir to bring home from Japan, and I always pick up a couple when I visit. They’re affordable (about $7 each), pack easily, and most of all, are both useful and beautiful! My oldest ones are more than two years old, and show little to no signs of wear even though they’re in constant use.
If you’d like to see the amazing and beautiful variety that can be found with these towels, check out my Tenugui board on Pinterest!
I blame this collection on a photo I saw in the book Japanese Accents in Western Interiors. The popular book was the ‘manual’ for navy wives during our second tour in Japan showing not only what to buy, but how to collect and display Japan items in our homes. In one photo someone had attractively arranged a small collection of Japanese clay bells in an antique sewing box, and I decided to shamelessly copy the idea, especially since it involved hunting for and collecting more than one of a particular thing. I’d often seen the bells at places I’d visited, they weren’t too expensive, and looking for a comparable sewing box would give me a goal.
I never found the sewing box, but I did end up with my treasured collection of bells, called dorei in Japanese. Clay bells have been a part of Japanese culture for a long, long time – bells have been found that date back to the prehistoric Jomon period in Japan (10,000 B.C. – 3,000 B.C.). They were thought to be effective against evil spirits and may have also been used to call slaves and servants. In modern times, the small bells have become popular souvenir items and can be found for sale at temples, shrines and gift and souvenir shops. They are often given or purchased at New Years, especially bells depicting the current year’s zodiac animal.
Most of my bells recall a particular time and place of our times in Japan, and four of them were gifts from my son at New Years. The fugu (pufferfish) was purchased at a seaside resort on a trip with my students, the persimmon at Arashiyama outside of Kyoto on another to trip with the students, the clay head on one of my many trips to Mashiko, and the koinobori (carp banner) on a visit to Kamakura when my mom visited Japan. Two of the bells are actually made of iron – one was a gift from a friend when she traveled to the north of Japan, and I found the iron dragon at a Kyoto shrine.
I have to admit that I have a favorite: my Inu Hariko bell purchased on Nakamise-Dori (‘Central Town’), a street of shops that runs up to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Inu Hariko looks like a cat, but is actually a plucky little dog that symbolizes many things in Japanese folk tales (protection and loyalty, ease in childbirth, ability to recognize demons among others). Inu Hariko is a popular motif in Japan and can be found on many items, with clay bells one of the most popular.
I haven’t added to my collection on more recent travels to Japan, but I’m open to adding to it if a bell calls to me again.
We have an awful lot of coffee mugs for a family with just two coffee drinkers. One way or another though they all get used.
Some of them are approaching 25 years old (my blue mug with the leaf pattern); others were purchased just last year when we were in Japan (the Starbucks Yokohama and Kyoto mugs). The Tokyo mugs are from Brett and my trip to Japan to meet our new grandson in 2011, and the Hawai’i mugs are from Christmas 2012, when we first came to Kaua’i and committed ourselves to moving here. The girls’ little mugs were stocking stuffers one year when they were small.
None of the mugs was particularly expensive; I think the most we’ve ever spent on one is $11.95 for one of the blue & white Starbucks architecture mugs, which celebrate our favorite west coast cities. We had collected five when Starbucks stopped making them, and had to bid for the last one on eBay. The other mugs were gifts, or picked up at a market or craft exhibit, or as an inexpensive souvenir on one of our or the girls’ travels. Each one holds much more than coffee though, and there isn’t a day that I don’t reflect on the time and place we purchased or received the mug I am drinking from that day.
Brett has a system for setting the mugs out every morning, so that every day of the week he and I each get a different one, with a different memory. Will we addd another one someday? I’ll never say never, although we’re getting very picky these days, needs versus wants and all that, and we really don’t have room for more. We’re very satisfied and happy with all we have now, but who knows?
Do some things just look better if there are more than one of them?
With some items, I seem unable to be satisfied with just one. Like with my jubako (ceramic stacking boxes), or pottery, once I owned one tetsubin (iron teapot) I wanted more. They were addictive.
One of the highlights of living in the Atsugi area during our second tour in Japan (1989 – 1992) was our proximity to the monthly bazaar held at Camp Zama. It was both a shopping extravaganza and a primo social event. The first Saturday of every month, all sorts of local vendors – antique dealers, art galleries, paper sellers, dish stores, toy merchants, picture framers, nurseries, etc. – would bring their wares to the Camp Zama gymnasium. Savvy shoppers learned to be there before the doors opened at 9:00 am, especially to peruse what the antique dealers had brought along because they were set up out front. It was at one of these bazaars that I discovered my first affordable tetsubin, i.e. less than $10. I had seen the teapots in various antique stores out on the economy, but they were always too high-priced for my budget so I avoided them even though I admired their shapes and the craftsmanship. But once I bought my first one at the bazaar I began to keep my eyes peeled for the $10-or-less little black teapots.
It’s not known when tetsubin started showing up in Japan, but it’s guessed somewhere around the 18th century. The teapots began as objects of status versus functional kitchen items, and initially they were made of plain cast iron. In the 19th century they segued into more elaborately designed masterpieces, and many are signed by the artist that created them (none of mine are). One of the most interesting I’ve seen has a handprint imbedded in the side – it was probably carved by the artist, but it still looks very real. Because of all the variety of size and design, tetsubin became very popular with collectors, and prices have risen accordingly. Some these days are made with a color applied, but I prefer the flat, unglazed black iron.
None of the ones I bought is particularly fancy, or signed, but I love their humbleness and sometimes wonder about the people who owned them. One has a mismatched lid – apparently you were given a teapot if you participated in the 1950 census, and some household eventually combined the census lid with their old teapot. Designs on my other teapots include a classic hobnail, cherry blossoms, pine trees, and a persimmon. I splurged one month at the bazaar and bought the larger teapot in the classic “Mt. Fuji” shape – it was a lucky and affordable find.
New tetsubin are easy to come by these days, and can be found in both traditional and modern design. Many of the old ones have become quite expensive though and most are well out of my price range. In our Portland house the teapots were lined up on the mantle; here they sit in a woven basket in my bedroom. Hawaii’s humid air is getting to them, and I am beginning to find a few rust spots here and there. But, the natural aging process is one of the tetsubin’s charms, so I’m letting it go, and will continue to enjoy them as they transform.
I became smitten with hand-thrown pottery at an early age. One of my aunts was a potter, and as a young girl I marveled at her creations, at the individuality of each piece and her craftsmanship. No two pieces she made were alike, even if they were part of a set. Each spoke to me in a different way.
I took pottery and ceramic classes when I got older, but found I had no talent for it, nor did I enjoy having my hands messed up by the rough clay. Still, I sought it out and went through a long phase where if I had to choose between a piece of pottery or eating, there was always a good chance the pottery might win.
Living in Japan was like being a kid in a candy shop when it came to pottery. Ceramics in Japan is a tradition and medium that is used and enjoyed everywhere, every day. Affordable handmade pieces can be found in any dish shop, no matter how humble. I visited Mashiko, the pottery village made famous by artist Shoji Hamada, more times than I can count, and also made many visits to Seto, one of Six Old Kilns of Japan. I dream of visiting Bizen and Shigaraki some day; their distinct styles are my favorite.
These days, additions to my collection typically come from thrift shops and yard sales. Pieces found at art shows or shops, while beautiful to look at, are priced too high for our budget these days. My two big display plates (15″ and 17″ diameter) were both found at Goodwill for just $7.99 each. At a show or in a shop they would retail for $175 and up.
My pottery is more than a collection though. All of it gets used regularly. Pieces come and go, lost through daily use and breakage, or for other reasons. One bowl that my aunt gave me slipped away when my tea ceremony instructor in Japan remarked that it would make a beautiful tea bowl. I gave it to her. Brett dropped the stack of Seto scarecrow plates one evening when he was putting them away; only the two in the picture remain. Other pieces were not used for a variety of reasons, so were eventually given away or sent to Goodwill for someone else to (hopefully) enjoy.
I think I’d rather eat these days than acquire another piece for my collection, but pottery still grabs me in the same intense way.
There was never any question about whether my collection of jubako would be making the journey with us to Kaua’i or not. In fact, they were among the first things that were packed for the move, with each piece lovingly swaddled in bubble wrap and put away before we started showing our Portland house to prospective buyers.
Jubako are stacking boxes that were/are used to hold food. They are traditionally either ceramic/porcelain or lacquered wood, and are either square- or cylindrical-shaped. The square ceramic ones are the least common jubako but are perceived to have a more “Japanese” aesthetic while the round ones are more “Chinese.” The ceramic or porcelain ones are most often blue and white (sometsuke), but multi-colored ones are seen as well, including vividly colored Imari porcelain. Jubako were/are used to hold the traditional New Year’s meal, osechi-ryori, with each layer holding a different course. Besides holding osechi, lacquered jubako were also used for picnics, and sometimes were part of elaborate picnic sets that included not only jubako but sake containers and other accoutrement. These days porcelain jubako can pretty much be found only in antique stores, but lacquered jubako are still used for New Year’s osechi.
I found my first jubako in 1981, hidden back in the corner of a dusty little antique shop located next to the commissary on the Yokosuka navy base. It didn’t cost much, and I thought it was pretty. As another collector once said though, once you get bit by the jubako bug, one is never enough. Not only are they beautiful to look at, they are also handy for holding things like keys or other trinkets (ours used to hold matchbooks). I bought an old lacquered jubako from a friend that was departing Japan and trying to downsize, and discovered another blue and white cylindrical one in a shop right before we transferred back to the States.
When we returned to Japan for another tour in 1989, I began searching out jubako in earnest and decided to narrow my collecting focus to blue and white square-shaped jubako.I traded my round jubako for a square one and I was off! Setting parameters for collecting made them more difficult to find, but kept my hunt and purchases more focused. During the three and half years we were in Japan for our second tour, I showed up early at antique bazaars, shrine sales, and other sites, always with my eyes peeled for one of the blue and white stacking boxes. The jubako with the straw house was a serendipitous find though. Brett and I had purchased a large kitchen tansu (chest) from an antique dealer we knew in the town where we lived, and when we started breaking it down for transport to our house, we found the jubako hidden inside. We told the dealer, but he said since he had had no idea it was there, it was ours (mine!).
My favorite, if I have to pick one, is the one of cranes flying over the waves, and with Mt. Fuji pictured on the lid. The design is just so very Japanese. The two incomplete boxes in front are what’s left of two small-sized jubako. I spotted them at an antiques bazaar, they were inexpensive, so I added them to the collection. Their small size makes a nice contrast to the rest, and I like to imagine what they would have looked like with all their layers intact.
None of my jubako are Antiques Roadshow worthy, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t enjoy looking at them and their beautiful blue designs. I’ve seen other jubako on recent trips to Japan, but they’re ridiculously expensive these days so I haven’t been tempted to buy any more. But who knows? I don’t think I would ever say “no” to another.