Hashi-oki chopstick pillows: Genji-mon crest


I bought this pair of pretty hashi-oki chopstick pillows at a temple market held at Gokokujinja in Rokko, Kobe city on the 4th Sunday of each month.  The temple grounds are a lovely setting for a market and the roving musicians add a delightful carnival atmosphere.

Musicians at Gokokujinja
Musicians at Gokokujinja

There are three key elements in the design of the hashi-oki : text in the form of kanji characters, a floral emblem and a recti-linear motif.  I was delighted to discover that the hashi-oki reference Genji monogatari  (The Tale of Genji), a novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century.

Murasaki Shikibu by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691) (Commons.wikimedia.org, 2015)

The purple hashi-oki reads ‘waka murasaki‘ (young murasaki or lavender), which is the title of chapter 5 in the novel.


The pink one reads ‘Suma‘ (the town in which I happen to live) and is chapter 12 in the novel.  But what is the meaning of the recti-linear motifs?


My research revealed that there are 54 different emblems or crests, each associated with one of the 54 chapters of Murasaki’s novel. Each crest is composed of five vertical stems with different arrangements of one or more horizontal cross bars. Apparently the original crests were stylized patterns derived from tally markers used in the ancient game of incense guessing, called awase-ko in which participants were challenged to identify burned combinations of five primary scents from twenty-five different packets. The scents were fragrant tree resins that were placed on pieces of mica and burned over charcoal in a koro incense burner. The player with the most correct guesses was the winner. The incense game was very popular during the Heian period (794-1185) and the crests were often used on ukiyo-e prints. Eventually, these twenty-five symbols were expanded to fifty-four, corresponding to the Genji chapters.

54 Genji-ko crests (Commons.wikimedia.org, 2010)


During the Edo period (1615–1868) “these incense patterns were not always strictly matched with the chapters of the Genji story; rather, they sometimes simply alluded to classical culture or origins as part of what was known in the popular arts as mitate (“view and compare”).”  (Shogungallery.com, 2015)

A form of Genji-ko ceremony, Kodo, (the way of incense) using the ancient symbols as a scoring system is still practiced today.  Liz Dalby (Lizadalby.com, 2015) wrote: “I was once invited to a Genji-kô party on a fall day in Kyoto. Twenty or so participants sat around the edges of an elegant tatami-matted room, while the host prepared five sets of aloeswood to be passed around in succession. In a tiny, ash-filled celadon censer, a fingernail-sized chip of rare wood perched atop the warm ash. This was passed from guest to guest, each one of us drinking in three whiffs before passing it on. This happened five times. Only the host knew, of the woods he prepared, which were different and which were the same. Our challenge was to try to discern the sameness or differentness of what we smelled, and write down our judgment using one of the Genji symbols.”

With this understanding of the recording system and assuming that we are reading from left to right,  the purple hashi-oki  ‘waka murasaki‘  indicates that three different incenses were passed around: – the first one was provided on round 1, a different incense was provided on rounds 2 and 3, and yet a third incense was provided on rounds 4 and 5.


The pink hashi-oki ‘Suma indicates that there were only two different incenses: one was provided on rounds 1, 3 and 4, while a different incense was provided on rounds 2 and 5.  (Thanks to my lovely Esty customer, Julia ‘Chamekke’ for her help in providing information and in deciphering them.)


It never ceases to amaze me how a small purchase at the market can open my eyes to a new and fascinating aspect of Japanese culture.

I am now keen to get started reading the very long novel Genji monogatari.  It’s available online as a free eBook through Adelaide University:



Anon, (2015). [online] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Genji_chapter_symbols_groupings_of_5_elements.sv [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Commons.wikimedia.org, (2010). File:Genji chapter symbols groupings of 5 elements.svg – Wikimedia Commons. [online] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGenji_chapter_symbols_groupings_of_5_elements.svg [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Commons.wikimedia.org, (2015). File:Tosa Mitsuoki—Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu.jpg – Wikimedia Commons. [online] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tosa_Mitsuoki%E2%80%94Portrait_of_Murasaki_Shikibu.jpg [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Google Books, (2015). Japan Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=p2QnPijAEmEC&pg=PA237&lpg=PA237&dq=Genji+k%C3%B4&source=bl&ots=gZKyrw5plT&sig=FyqINsFyBNqJyMe-PFy0HjwIsOw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=EFn2VJbPJoOC8gXZmoCgBg&ved=0CF4Q6AEwDg#v=onepage&q=Genji%20k%C3%B4&f=false [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Japanese-incense.com, (2015). Tale of the Genji. [online] Available at: http://www.japanese-incense.com/genji.htm [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Lizadalby.com, (2015). TofM Genjiko. [online] Available at: http://www.lizadalby.com/LD/TofM_Genjiko.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Shogungallery.com, (2015). Re: Genzi Crests. [online] Available at: http://www.shogungallery.com/wwwboard/archive/message3/80.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Viewingjapaneseprints.net, (2015). Viewing Japanese Prints: Genji Mon (Genji Crests). [online] Available at: http://viewingjapaneseprints.net/texts/topictexts/faq/faq_genjimon.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

Wikipedia, (2015). Kōdō. [online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dd%C5%8D [Accessed 6 Mar. 2015].

 Please visit my Etsy store to purchase vintage and antique Japanese treasures.

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'Styled in Japan': an online shop that specializes in fashionable anti-UV parasols; an Etsy shop that features a unique collection of retro, vintage and antique Japanese treasures sourced from temple and flea markets in the Kansai area.

3 thoughts on “Hashi-oki chopstick pillows: Genji-mon crest”

  1. Amazed that such small objects have such a complex story! And that those symbols also are so complicated. What a rich culture.

    1. You are a brave woman, Denise, to start the Tale of Gengi. I remember visiting the place where she wrote it. So beautiful! Thanks for the very interesting post.

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