cabinet of wonders: omedetai welcome soap


In Japan the tai (鯛) — often translated as ‘sea bream’ even though there’s no precise English equivalent — is a fish that’s associated with good luck because its name rhymes with the Japanese word medetai (目出度い), which means ‘auspicious’ or ‘lucky.’  Because of this, tai is often served during the new year period, or at other auspicious occasions, such as weddings.  Ebisu, one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods, is usually portrayed as a fisherman who has just landed an enormous red tai. has a fantastic article about common Japanese expressions involving fish, including the famous saying “kusatte mo tai” (腐っても鯛) — “rotten, but still a tai” — which basically means that a great person who has fallen still retains some of their greatness.

For my birthday this year, I was given a lovely bar of red Tamanohada “Welcome Soap” in the shape of a sea bream.  I’m a huge fan of Japanese graphic design, and the Tamanohada box is no exception; the drawing that adorns this box is one of the most pleasing representations of tai that I’ve come across yet.  Hopefully the lovely scent of the soap will help to disguise some of my rottenness and bring out the greatness instead.

In addition to the more commonly seen red tai, there is also the kurodai (黒鯛), or “black tai,” which is a fish that’s famously hard to catch.  I once spent an entire day out in Osaka Bay fishing for kurodai without netting a single fish.  (My companion, on the other hand, managed to net nine.)

Below is a gallery of tai-related photographs that I’ve taken around Japan, with accompanying explanations:

1) Sushi shop mascot in Umeda, Osaka.

2) New Year decoration at Senso-ji temple, Tokyo.

3) New Year display window of Magurobito (まぐろ人) sushi in Asakusa, Tokyo.

4) Kodai (子鯛) — young sea bream — at a ryokan in Obama.


9 Responses to “cabinet of wonders: omedetai welcome soap”

  1. 1 Sarah

    I was instantly drawn to the image, myself. It reminds me of a paper cutout. Now I need to go dig those out from the attic.

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      Now that you point it out, I can instantly see the resemblance to a paper cutout. Maybe for a future project I’ll make dozens of paper cutouts of this design and paste them all over a wall or two. Although an interior with that many tai swimming around might be a bit too fishy, even for a Pisces like me. Those paper cutouts you have in your attic sound cool! You should scan them and post them after you dig them out.

  2. Interesting that others see that too – the first thing I thought from looking at the image was of those paper cutout things.

    Loving the photos too, Trane. That black and white shot is fantastic. What was it taken with?

    • 4 Trane DeVore

      Hey George — Looks like everyone is thinking about paper cutouts these days. Glad you like the photos too. That black and white shot was taken using my Voigtlander Bessa R2A with a 35mm Ultron lens. The camera was loaded up with Kodak TMAX 100 film.

  3. The black and white photo, is that a real fish? Looks amazing! A bit scary, but still amazing!

    • 6 Trane DeVore

      The black and white photo is actually a real fish — it’s a Japanese tai (鯛), a fish that’s associated with luck and eaten during the New Year period. You won’t find freshly cut up fish like this often in the windows of sushi restaurants in Japan, but this was right around New Year, so a special time.

  4. 7 art

    I love these photos. My daughter-in-law (to be) is Japanese, and I would like to learn more about Japanese artwork, can you recommend some further reading on the subject

    • 8 Trane DeVore

      The world of Japanese art is as varied and complex as any, so it’s hard to give any recommendations about where to start. My advice would be to start with Wikipedia, and then follow up on those areas that seem interesting to you. Also, you could always ask your daughter-in-law (to be) what she finds interesting in the world of Japanese art.

  5. That illustration on the soap box is exquisite. The thing I admire about the Japanese is that they take great care and pride in all that they do, and this includes things like their packaging. I once received a gift from a Japanese friend and this rectangular mirror was wrapped up in a piece of beautiful kimono-patterned paper. The thing that struck me was that there was only one small piece of tape holding the wrapping in place. That was just amazing!

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