TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

MORIJIO Salt Piles (盛塩)- A Deeper Look

Morijio in Saiki, Tsukuba
Morijio in Saiki, Tsukuba

 

By Avi Landau

 

Recently, a little pottery workshop has opened up along a street which I frequently pass, in Tsukuba’s Saiki neighborhood. In the early mornings I have sometimes seen the proprietress solemnly sweeping out front, getting ready to start the day.  I have not yet been INSIDE to find out what kind of classes they have to offer, but what I HAVE noticed on the establishment’s OUTSIDE, more specifically, at its front entrance-way, sticks in my mind. Tiny white piles of salt, in little earthen-ware dishes (because it’s a pottery workshop) placed on the ground on both sides of the front door: Morijio, or mori-shio (盛塩).

Morijio in Saiki Tsukuba
Morijio in Saiki Tsukuba

 

In Tsukuba, Morishio salt piles can be seen at the entranceways to certain Japanese-style restaurants, pachinko parlors, hostess clubs and other night-time entertainment spots — even love hotels. The fact is, however, that as in the case of the pottery workshop, you never really know where you might find them, and their being quite uncommon around here makes them all the more striking when you DO come across them. Morishio can also be found in the gardens of private homes (usually in the unlucky North-East corner), and even in the houses themselves, especially as offerings to the family’s Shinto altar or in the WC! I have even seen them in the dugout of a professional baseball team which was mired in a slump while watching the game on TV!

Morijio in the toilet helps adjust the home's feng shui
Morijio in the toilet helps adjust the home’s feng shui

 

As I have told you many times before, no aspect of traditional Japanese culture is simple if you take a close look at it, and this is again the case with morishio. The custom has both Chinese and Japanese roots and has evolved to have special significance, even today, for those who prepare them as well as those who merely see them.

Many Japanese associate piles of salt with entertainment establishments, especially restaurant and hostess clubs. The reason for this is complex. First, there is the belief that the morishio helps attract customers. This is because of a story, which came to the Japan from China during the Heian Period (794-1192) when just about anything Chinese was admired, sought after and emulated, by the aristocrats and courtiers of the Japanese capital. It was said that an Emperor of China had 3000 concubines living on the palace grounds, and would night by night (and probably day by day as well!) slowly make his rounds by ox-cart (though some versions say the cart was drawn by sheep!), trying to get to KNOW as many of his ladies as time and vigor would allow. As you can imagine, many of the concubines waited in vain for a chance to get close to the emperor (while I’m sure there were many who prayed that he never got around to them).

One particularly clever woman, it is said, laid out some salt, which is irresistible to most beasts of burden, by her entranceway. And though the emperor had intended to head to another woman’s dwelling, his ox led him to the door with the salt placed in front of it.

Due to the impact of this impressive story, it became customary, especially for those who operated establishments for the entertainment of gentlemen, to place salt under the eaves by the entranceways. No doubt it actually did attract the horses and oxen of the rich to their doors. Later the custom was adopted by other types of establishments.Today, there are some traditional, high-end restaurants which put out tall, beautiful cones of salt out when they open for business, and then smudge the pile after a customer enters, to show that there are already guests inside.

Packet of salt for use after funerals
Packet of salt for use after funerals

 

There is, however, another reason, with roots in native Japanese religious beliefs for putting salt at entranceways — ritual purification. Salt is one of the traditional PURIFIERS in Japan, along with fire, smoke, sake, sand, and water. Salt is thrown by sumo wrestlers before they enter the ring, those who have just been to a funeral or wake sprinkle salt on themselves just before they enter their front doors, and families often place salt in the North-East corners of their houses or gardens to protect them from the bad luck which emanates from that unlucky direction. The Japanese might even throw salt if someone distasteful to them has spent time in their home.

The use of salt for ritual purification has its roots in traditional MISOGI or the spiritual and physical cleansing which was originally carried out with sea water. Techniques for producing salt from sea-water (not an easy task in humid Japan) later made it possible to perform this task of cleansing away from the sea — with the use of salt alone.

Thus, the piles of salt are also put in place at entranceways in order to ward off bad luck and impurities.

Having fresh clean piles of salt in front of your establishment is today a reassuring SIGN to the public that you have been taking care to keep your place clean and purified. It also shows that you have salt AVAILABLE, in case some defilement occurs and purification becomes necessary.

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There is no doubt that beautifully stacked, white cones of salt make a strong impression on a prospective customer. The fact that the staff probably changes the salt everyday suggests that great care is put into keeping the place clean and well maintained.

Eroded Salt Pile In Tsukuba
Eroded Salt Pile In Tsukuba

 

This is made clear when you sometimes come upon a restaurant, or other business which has fallen on hard times and fails to keep their salt piles properly maintained. NOT VERY INVITING!

Morishio is also believed to play an important role in adjusting a home’s fu sui (feng shui). There are numerous morishio related products available online. Check some of these out:

http://ise-miyachu.net/SHOP/266665/list.html

http://www.morijio.com/

http://morishio.ise-miyachu.co.jp/

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4 Comments

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Your mountain-like Morishio photo is so beautiful that I felt something of the Kami-Sama of Shinto in it, even though I am a devout Buddhist, I obviously got my DNA from the ancient Japanese. Avi-san’s article about the role of salt in Japanese culture is splendid, covering all aspects of the subject.

    Selling salt on the whole-sale market in Japan had been Government monopoly until 1985, with the Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corporation. This is origin of JT (Japan Tobacco Company). This means that selling salt was a very profitable business. Before Independence, selling salt was a monopoly of the British Colonial Government of India. So Mahatma Gandhi intended for Indians to make and sell salt by themselves as a sign of non-violent resistance.

    There is very famous Samurai-revenge story in Japan, The Chushingura (忠臣蔵:loyal Samurais). In 1701(around hundred years passed into the Edo-Era, a very peaceful time, Edo culture was prosperous then).
    A Lord Named Asano-Takuminokami(浅野内匠頭)attacked Kira-kouzunosuke(吉良上野介)in the official corridor passageway inside Edo-castle, and was ordered to committ Seppuku (ritual suicide) at once. His Han(藩:feudal domain)was also abolished. 47 of his vassals took revenge three years later, by attacking the House of Kira-kouzunosuke and beheading him. Later they too, were all were ordered to commit Seppuku. There are many novels, movies, and tv shows about this incident.The Kabuki’s version was immensly popular.

    What is connection between The Chushingura and salt?
    There have been many debates about the reason why Asano attacked Kira. Madness?
    Bribes recieved too small and thus insulting? Did Kira want favors from Asano’s wife- or some beautiful attendant boy?
    Asano’s grandfather came from Kasama (笠間:Ibaraki-prefecture now) to Ako(赤穂: a seaside city along the Setonaikai (Inland Sea)in the south west of present day Hyogo Prefecture). He made the salt producing industry there very profitable, and the salt of Ako became very famous and made that Domain very wealthy.
    Kira had a very primitive salt-industry in his domain, so he asked Asano to teach the Ako-techniques to his own domain. Asano rejected this proposal. Kira then he ill treated Asano when they were attending a joint ceremonial work concerning Emperor. Asano was a short tempered man and momenteraly forgot his responsibility to his domain and tried to cut Kira with his short sword. He failed, however, to kill.

    A Very famous War Lord of the Civil War Period, Takeda-Shinngen(武田信玄), was said to have been presented salt from his arch-rival Uesugi-Kennshin(上杉謙信) during the period during the period in which they were fighting each other.This was thought be a good example of the Samurai Way- Bushido(武士道)and might be just a legend.
    These stories, however, illustrate the importance of Salt before we started to import salt from abroad.

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Hi Avi-san Back to JOBITAKI!
    I have been searching JOBITAKI since reading your late article about them,it is my great regret that until now I could not find them. When I heard some strange twitter I tried to get outside with my binocular. When I found little bird with white cheek, for me it looked like special breed and I took off my glasses and changed to binocular (it took 5 second), I always found a familiar sparrows! They look fatter and lovelier in this season. May be the area near my house is territory for sparrows, JOBITAKI could not come around even there are plenty of red fruits of NANTEN or fruits of MOCHINOKI.Other birds are more than 20 craws near Garbage-place, a few gray starlings, few HIYODORIs and SEKIREIs. I would like to clean my ear-holes to distinguish twitters better and have training changing glasses to binocular much faster to become better bird-watcher, also I should leave my territory.

    By the way thanks for lending your book “Memories Of Silk And Straw” by Dr. Junichi Saga, I had been thinking that I could guess those life of ordinal people in Tsuchiura before WWⅡfrom reading some novels, but Dr Saga’s document, interviews of peasants, day-paid laborers, Geishas etc were amazing, I am feeling of realism, those stories telling me many new aspects I haven’t imagined, it’s plain English translated by G.O.Evans is easy for me to understand. I have finished just few chapters yet, because I am reading a novel about US Marine in Pacific Front of WWⅡ ”Battle Cry” by Leon Uris, so much using slang that I could not understand,also seeing Chinese traslated KAWABATA YASUNARI’s”YUKIGUNI:Snow Country” also difficult for me. Anyway my brain is confusing for this book to other books alternatively like a Toy searching boy, I hope you would kindly-patiently be tolerant for a while for my derailment. Even severe coldness of this morning can not make me to settle real-cool.

  • Avi Landau says:

    Mamoru-San, thank you for writing about the possible connection between SALT and the CHUSHINGURA STORY. I did not know that the Ako-Clan had been running a thriving salt production industry in their domain.

    Im glad you are enjoying the book. You are right in that Mr Evans` translation is excellent- so readable, and with sentences full of life.
    With its short chapters, each a world in its own, it is perfect for someone like you who is busy reading several books at the same time.

    About the Jobitaki, dont give up. Always be on the alert by keeping your eyes and ears open.
    They are very common in Tsukuba and you are bound to spot one soon. One thing that makes it hard is that so many other homes also have plentiful berries in their gardens so the jobitaki have probably taken up residence in someone elses yard.

    Remember, these birds are territorial, so they have apparently not set up house near your house.
    For now you will have to look or listen for them in other parts of Tsukuba ( besides your own garden). As spring approaches and the birds start to migrate there is achance once again that they will come to your house for the berries.

    Have a great weekend

  • Tomoko Seto says:

    Hello Avi sensei.
    This report is historically interesting.
    I didn`t know till now the fact that Morisio has two completely different meanings.
    Japanese culture is a complex of Chinese customs and those proper to Japan.
    Morisio is one example.
    I getting more interested in the Japanese culture.
    Waiting for more good stories.
    Thank you.