Over the weekend me and my sister, Sihaya, went down to Whitefield to visit our dad. It's an annual occasion to go over there sometime in January to celebrate a belated Christmas, but this year it was just Sihaya and myself as our other two sister's are currently living out of state. This time, along with our usual traditions of eating pot roast raised on dad's girlfriend's family farm, opening gifts, and sitting around the wood stove talking, our dad had an extra surprise. This was making a couple pairs of chopsticks by hand.
People often ask me how I got interested in Japan in the first place. It always seems like an odd question to me, because I don't see how you can not be interested in Japan, and I have been since before I could remember. I usually scratch my head looking for the source, then attribute it to my dad. "Was he stationed in Japan?" they often ask. "No," I say, "but he's a woodworker and he loves Japanese craft and architecture."
My whole life there have been books about traditional Japanese woodworking, house building, weaving, and artwork all over the house. Unlike many American children I never once mixed up Japan and China (though I did used to mix up Russia and Germany for some reason). It wasn't only my dad, my discovery at a young age of Hayao Miyazaki movies and manga (Japanese comic books) built a sturdy house on top of the foundation my father's interests had laid. But today I can always be sure to have an enthusiastic listener in my father when I find out something interesting about our shared interest. So I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that my dad has taken up the hobby of making chopsticks.
I learned how to use chopsticks when I was pretty little and have a giant collection of them. However, when I started this blog post I discovered that there is far more to these utensils than I realized. For instance, I knew that most Asian countries traditionally use them, but I did not know that their shape and size may vary region to region. China, the country that invented chopsticks over six thousand years ago, prefer a duller point on the end. Korea likes chopsticks made of metal that are flat, I can't even wrap my head around using flat chopsticks. In Japan they like a sharper point, often incorporate ridges on the ends to prevent slippage, and have different lengths for men, women, and children. I wasn't surprised to go through my chopstick drawer and find that almost all of mine are of the Japanese style. I even have a pair of children's chopsticks with little whales on them, given to me by my dear friend, Mariah.
From his workshop in the basement, my dad brought up a new tool kit he recently purchased. It was an all in one kit for making chopsticks, either in the Chinese or Japanese style (can you guess which one we did?). For the first pair (which I insisted on filming as I couldn't resist such a perfect opportunity for you, my dear readers) my dad used maple, which stood out perfectly for the camera. The tool first used elevation and a wood plain to taper the square piece of wood, then a different setting to plain the edges and make the end that goes in your mouth virtually rounded. Lastly, the tool was converted to give the end that doesn't go in your mouth a pyramid cut. The whole process, which was hypnotic to watch, took about ten minutes for each chopstick. Do make sure you watch the video below, as I cannot give it justice with my pros.
Once the maple pair was done, my dad had Sihaya and I choose what type of wood we wanted and started making us our very own custom chopsticks. I chose rosewood and Sihaya chose a type of blonde wood that even our expert father couldn't identify (though it smelled exactly like our mother's famous honey curry bread). They came out lovely and since I got home I've had the opportunity to use them several times. Needless to say, they work perfectly and remind me of my super talented dad.
If you'd like to see more of my dad's projects, like hand carved bowls, spoons, and boxes, check out his Instagram @sheepscot. Right now he's making a bunch of shrink boxes made from birch trees that he cuts down himself. While you're at it, find me @WashokuDay for more food pictures and short videos!
Until next time, make sure you practice eating with your chopsticks!