Poetry for the Eyes and the Palate

Yesterday we finished an installation in the Japanese galleries of 123 netsuke, all newly on view. Netsuke are miniature sculptural toggles (usually around two inches or less across), which were threaded onto the silk cords of small inro (seal or medicine cases), pouches, or pipes/tobacco accessories. These toggles allowed wearers to keep their accessories fastened safely to their person as they went about their business. (Something like clipping your keys or your badge to your belt loop, but a bit more fashionable.) Wearers would run the cords under their obi sashes so that the netsuke hung out above the obi and the accessory hung below it.

One of the netsuke on view in the new installation is a tiny figure shown with a tobacco pouch and pipe case hung from its obi by a dark colored, round netsuke—perhaps one similar to the kagamibuta (“mirror lid”) netsuke also on view . . .

okame, kagamibuta


LEFT: Netsuke of Okame lifting her kimono hem, approx. 1800–1900. Signed “Mitsu” (or “Ko”). Wood; inlaid ivory, coral, metal, and horn. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y1233.

RIGHT: Kagamibuta-type netsuke of Hachisuka Koroku and Hiyoshimaru (youthful Toyotomi Hideyoshi) meeting on the Yahagi Bridge, approx. 1800–1900. Signed “Soyo.” Mixed metals; buffalo horn. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y285.


One of the featured “themes” within the display is octopuses—we have some charming examples among the museum’s 1500-some netsuke.

netsuke installation and octopus pot


LEFT: Netsuke installation, almost completed! The white gloves on the ledge are what the installation staff used to handle the tiny sculptures. Our mountmaker, Vincent, spent the day making individual mounts for those that needed to stand upright.

RIGHT: Netsuke of octopus in octopus pot. Signed “Masayuki” (Kato Masayuki, born 1831). Edo (Tokyo). Ivory with light staining. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y841. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.


By coincidence, in our museum’s Cafe Asia today, I found something that looked, in size and shape, to have escaped from the netsuke rotation.

octopus delicacy and octopus netsuke


LEFT: A miniature delicacy from Cafe Asia.

RIGHT: Netsuke of boiled octopus, approx. 1800–1900. Wood. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y1333. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.


In the refrigerated case, between the usual fruit salads and kelp salads, were containers of miniature marinated octopus salad—not to be passed up! The tiny octopuses tasted as if they had been simmered in soy with mirin (sweet rice wine) or sake and sugar, and they were sprinkled with sesame seeds. A bargain at $4.25, and truly delectable!

fine dining: octopus, yum!


LEFT: Marinated Octopus Salad, at Café Asia.

RIGHT: I partake. Yum! Photo by Susie Kantor.


One of my favorite netsuke in the new installation also has an octopus theme. Less than two inches (five centimeters) across, it is formed in the shape of an octopus pot—a clay jar used to trap octopuses that are looking for a hiding place.

Mitsuhiro netsuke


Netsuke of octopus in octopus pot inscribed with haiku. Signed “Mitsuhiro” (Ohara Mitsuhiro, 1810–1875). Stained wood with inlaid natural barnacles and glass. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y870. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.


The netsuke is carved of wood to look exactly like unglazed, sea-worn ceramic, and its walls are encrusted with natural barnacles and sand-like materials. Inside hides an ill-fated octopod, barely visible to the naked eye.

On the outer walls of the jar is inscribed a haiku by Matsuo Basho:

“Oh octopus pot/a fleeting dream/the summer moon”

(Takotsubo ya/ hakanaki yume wo/ natsu no tsuki).

8 Responses to “Poetry for the Eyes and the Palate”

  1. nico  on November 17th, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Everyone’s two favorite things: art & food. That photo Susie caught of you is adorable!

  2. cristina  on November 17th, 2011 at 11:22 am

    What a wonderful post! Although I am compelled to add that I had a graduate student instructor in college who was an Octopus researcher, and she freaked out every time she heard someone say “Octopi.” “No,” she would insist, “it’s Octopuses, from the Greek, not Latin!” Has stuck with me ever since.

    But personally I think “Octopi” sounds much cooler and far more edible. Hope you finally got to eat that last little guy.

  3. Dany  on November 17th, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Ooo, this reminds me of the octopus-on-a-stick that I came across in the Nishiki Market in Kyoto! http://a5.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/196438_669419500801_1007827_36598225_996331_n.jpg

  4. marisa  on November 17th, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I remember being taught “octopi” in school but am glad to learn that “octopuses” is the most acceptable English plural form–sounds more natural–and have edited post accordingly. (Though it turns out that the more technically correct, if obscure, plural is the Greek “octopodes”–who knew?)

    Dany, I cannot believe you have such a perfect photo of mini octopuses on a stick–love the quail egg heads! I will seek them out on next visit to Nishiki Koji!

  5. Sharon  on November 18th, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I love hearing about dining delicacies! I loved the photo of the two octopii!

  6. bittermelon  on November 18th, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Words cannot convey how much I love this post and those darling netsuke. SO GREAT

  7. rvognar01  on November 23rd, 2011 at 11:02 am

    I especially like the tiny octopus in the worn pot. Of course they remind me of all people of Hokusai’s octopus shunga.

  8. rvognar01  on November 23rd, 2011 at 11:30 am

    I especially love the octopus-in-a-pot one. Reminds me of an old friend./


Leave a Reply