Dear Alice,

What the heck are those little piles of salt that I sometimes see at the entrances of Japanese restaurants? I used to think it had something to do with food, until I noticed the occasional salt heap in front of other kinds of businesses, including, on one occasion, a love hotel! (I was just passing by, you understand.) My friend says the salt is there for purification. Is that true?

Tom N., Tokyo

Dear Tom,

That’s called morijio, a compound of the Japanese words for “pile” (mori) and “salt” (shio). The most common reason that people put salt outside their restaurants or shops is to attract customers, a practice that is generally linked to a legend about an emperor in China.

According to the story, there was once a Chinese emperor who had 3,000 concubines waiting in little houses outside the palace gates. Every night the emperor would set out in an ox cart to visit one or the other of them. One clever concubine, knowing that animals are fond of salt, decided to improve her odds of a royal rendezvous by putting salt outside her door. The imperial ox made a beeline for the salt and couldn’t be budged, so, while the emperor may have had a different destination in mind, he ended up spending the night with her.

Given the sexy overtones of this legend, it’s perhaps not so surprising that you spotted morijio at the entrance to a love hotel. While today you’re most likely to see it outside better Japanese restaurants, in the Edo Period morijio was reportedly a common sight outside brothels.

While I was researching your question, I came across many references that suggest other motivations for making salt piles, including purification of the premises, warding off evil spirits and making an offering to the gods. Hoping to sort things out, I paid a visit to Hiroki Takanashi, curator at the Tobacco and Salt Museum in Shibuya. The first thing he did was caution me to take the ox-cart legend with a grain of salt. Although scholars have located the story in an old Chinese text, Takanashi hasn’t seen any evidence that placing salt in entranceways was ever a widespread custom in China, nor is it known when or how this story may have come to Japan.

“It’s very difficult to identify a single source for folk customs like this because they often evolve from a mixture of different beliefs and customs,” he explained, pulling out references books to illustrate how this works. In one book, he showed me an entry about morizuna, a similar practice in which little piles of sand were left at entranceways so the shafts of guests’ carts could be set atop the sand rather than the dirty ground. He also pointed out references to seawater and salt being used, from ancient times, in religious rituals as an offering or a means of purification.

“It’s possible that these and perhaps other customs came together, and that the ox-cart legend was attached after the fact,” Takanashi said. And if we accept that the practice has complex origins, it’s certainly possible that a modern restaurateur (or love-hotel operator) may have both commercial and spiritual considerations in mind when setting salt outside the door.

What’s more, the practice of morijio is still evolving, as evidenced by the fact that it has morphed, in just the past few years, into a ritual for breaking losing streaks in pro baseball. On August 7, 1994, the Yomiuri Giants were up against the Chunichi Dragons at Nagoya Stadium, trying to recover from four consecutive losses. Then Giant’s manager Shigeo Nagashima was spotted fingering a pile of something white by the dugout, and the next day a sports newspaper credited the “morijio koka (salt-pile effect)” for the Giant’s 7-1 win. A year later, on July 16, 1995, Osamu Higashio, the Seibu Lions’ manager at the time, used morijio to help his team end a five-game losing streak, winning a much-needed victory over the Nippon Ham Fighters.

The Tobacco and Salt Museum is located at 1-16-8 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, a 10-minute walk from Shibuya Station, and is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last entry 5:30 p.m.). It is closed Mondays except on national holidays, in which case the museum is closed the next day instead. Admission is 100 yen for adults and 50 yen for elementary, middle and high school students.

Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Send a description, or better yet a photo, to whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or Alice Gordenker, A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 4-5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.

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