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Knocking on knickknacks

by Thomas Dillon

My grandma used to be the easiest of all my relatives to buy souvenirs for.

That’s because she was a collector and, like many a collector, what she collected most was . . .

. . . junk.

And Japan is full of junk. Which Grandma called “knickknacks.”

Her ancient house was jammed with enough bric-a-brac and thingamajigs to fill an auction hall. Not that anyone would ever buy the stuff.

That’s the thing about junk. You can’t very well sell it and you can’t give it away. And, as Grandma found out when she left us, neither can you take it with you.

So most of her treasures went off either to family members — praying they had hit upon some long lost pawn shop gem (they hadn’t) — or to that one uncomplaining home for all unwanted items: the garbage bin.

Grandma’s Japan goods were just an eye-drop in her total hoard. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — I was still fairly new in Japan back then and had yet to haul back those classic dust-catchers that grace all Japanese souvenir stands.

Items that no grandma should ever be without. Such as . . .

Japanese dolls: OK, this is the one traditional gift I did manage to carry back, both in glass-case and wooden kokeshi forms.

The kokeshi proved the better present and not just for their humble, stand-at-attention beauty. Rather they could slip into any open spot on the crowded shelf, would never break when tipped on side and, in a pinch, could even crack nuts.

Glass-case dolls had no such versatility. I would collect kokeshi myself except I prefer raisins.

A wooden bear with a fish in its mouth: Such bears can be found everywhere in Japan, although they traditionally hail from Hokkaido, which borrowed the concept from woodcarvers in Switzerland.

But Japan is quite skilled at making money off overseas ideas. In case you are lost, here’s a quick description:

A hand-carved bear bends over a stream while holding a flapping salmon in its jaws.

Now what grandma wouldn’t die for this? I just kick myself that I never lugged one back. Perhaps I should stick one on Grandma’s grave. Better late than never.

A porcelain raccoon dog: Such raccoon dogs — called tanuki in Japanese — typically stand on duty at the entrance of Japanese eateries, where they supposedly use their wily powers to entice customers.

Grandma could have used some visitors too, but I never brought her this because I could not imagine how I would explain away the tanuki’s most obvious physical adoration — testicles like apples.

Grandma was perhaps less bashful than I, but she still would have been left with the awkward task of explaining tanuki to each and every of her shoe-wearing American guests. To whom overripe testicles might have proved a target.

A welcoming cat: Alas, I never brought Grandma a maneki-neko. Too bad. She could stare at a lava lamp for hours, so just think of the potential joy to be had with a maneki-neko with a battery-operated arm.

To those who may not know, maneki-neko are like raccoon dogs, only cuter and without the added software. Like raccoon dogs, they adorn retail shops and restaurants. A raised right paw is supposed to invite financial success. A raised left invites health.

Or vice versa. Or neither. Who knows? The only people who really get rich on these are those who make and sell them.

Daruma dolls: Such dolls supposedly bring good luck. They have no arms or legs nor eyes. So I ask . . . just what is lucky?

But, yes, I know the custom. You make a wish, paint in one eyeball and then wait until the wish comes true. And then paint in the other eyeball. In the meantime, the daruma sits there and squints at you in all its hairy redness.

I am not sure Grandma would have embraced a daruma doll. While her shelves would often welcome the grotesque — like rubber snakes or ghostly figurines — even she had standards. And daruma are not so pretty. Not even a grandmother could love them.

Plastic food: This item had yet to blossom as a star souvenir, so I can perhaps be forgiven for not having brought back a bowl of plastic ramen with chopsticks raised.

Maybe a good thing too. For the relatives would have surely fought over this one. Oh the court case over who got Grandma’s noodles!

A samurai sword: Grandma would have loved this, I know. What grandma wouldn’t? Somewhere inside the hearts of most old ladies there lives a little samurai.

I can just see her now in her rocking chair, with a lit Lucky Strike in one hand and a razor-sharp sword in the other. American Gothic, Japanese-style.

But I mostly gave chopsticks, teapots, folding fans and so on.

I don’t know if Grandma even noticed. She usually enjoyed the gift-giver more than the gift.

Don’t all grandmas everywhere? Which is the reason they’ll always be missed.