Wednesday, December 31st, 2008


Here it is New Year’s Eve and I’m excited by toothpicks.

 The supermarkets are jammed with folks buying osechi, traditional New Year’s delicacies, but a toothpick display at Isetan, my favorite department store in Shinjuku, stole my attention.

 Set out next to a gleaming array of sleek Alessi accessories was a modest collection of products from Saruya, one of Tokyo’s oldest shops.

 Since Edo times, Saruya has been a purveyor of handcrafted toothpicks. How could I pass up a pack of 500 shirakaba, white birch, picks priced at only ¥105? The smiling sales woman recommended the more expensive utsugi wood picks, cut from stems of the deutzia crenata bush, as being stronger, thinner, and more flexible, so I bought 250 of those. And I had to have a cordwood-like bundle of the larger, thicker spicewood kashi-yoji, cut with a thin strip of bark still attached. A kashi-yoji is used as a fork when eating Japanese sweets.

 Neanderthals used toothpicks. One of my favorite writers, Henry Petroski, has written a fascinating 464-page book on toothpick technology and culture. Who knew there was so much to say about toothpicks?

 Using a toothpick means I’ve sunk my teeth into something. Not such as easy thing during these lean times.

 Using a toothpick also means I’ve got time to poke around in corners—that I don’t need to rush off to some other task.

 And now that I’ve stocked up, I can look forward to tonight’s soba, and tomorrow’s ozoni soup, and osechi food knowing that I can spend a few quiet moments, like my Neanderthal cousins did, intently probing the gaps, digging out bits, pondering what’s been left behind.