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Washington Post photos
Toshiki Sato manages a chopstick specialty store in Tokyo that offers more than 2,600 styles. “Try holding five or 10 pairs and you’ll definitely find one you love,” he says.

The art of picking your sticks

Japanese eating utensils must fit, be proper length

Chopstick tips often differ depending on the type of food that is served.

– As the saying goes, you are what you eat – and by that measure, the chopsticks you eat with can also say a lot about your personality.

At Ginza Natsuno Honten in Tokyo’s Ginza district, Toshiki Sato manages a chopstick specialty store that sells a dizzying array of more than 2,600 types of chopsticks of all lengths, colors and designs.

After graduating from college, Sato first worked as a cram school teacher before joining BioNet Co., the company that manages Ginza Natsu no. He was put in charge of the main store in 2011 and now develops new products by visiting chopstick manufacturers nationwide. At the shop, he also sharpens chopsticks that have been broken or rounded off.

The most important criteria when choosing a pair of chopsticks, Sato says, is whether it fits the size of your hand and accentuates your dishes and plates.

An appropriate length for chopsticks is 1.5 times longer than the line connecting the tip of your thumb to your index finger when held at a right angle.

As for thickness, it depends on how comfortable they are to hold. Women are recommended to choose slightly thinner chopsticks to make their hands look beautiful.

“Try holding five to 10 pairs, and you’ll definitely find one you love,” Sato said.

In addition to length, texture and how the chopsticks feel in your hand or when you eat is also important. Sato recommends finding pairs made of natural materials, such as wood and lacquer.

Many chopsticks are made from hardwood trees, such as ebony and rosewood.

“You can easily see curving techniques in wooden chopsticks,” Sato said.

The shape of a chopstick can vary from triangular to 10-sided, and each feels different to the person holding them.

Octagonal chopsticks are almost round and fit snugly in the hand, making them popular among women, Sato said.

Meanwhile, triangular chopsticks are easy to hold, even for men with big fingers.

Bamboo chopsticks are light and flexible, and due to an abundance of bamboo, relatively cheap. They are also handy when eating food that doesn’t need to be cut, like noodles.

Wooden chopsticks are often decorated with colorful lacquer or other kinds of coating. Varnished chopsticks can also prevent food from staining the wood. Those with more elegant shells and lacquer can also be great wedding gifts.

Sato also recommends switching up your chopsticks to match your food. Called “yoto bashi,” there is a variety of chopsticks that have been made with a special purpose in mind. When eating ochazuke (tea poured over rice) or from a bowl, use flat chopsticks as they can pick up food more easily. Those with round tips are good for stirring natto and won’t leave scratches on your bowl.

A lover of ramen, Sato said he uses special chopsticks with a built-in “noodle stopper” when eating the dish.

“It’s amazingly easy to eat. By changing your chopsticks to fit your food, they can be considered as a tool,” he said.

According to Sato, these days people aren’t aware of proper chopstick etiquette. Some spear their food (sashi bashi) or hover them above plates when deciding what to eat (mayoi bashi). Others also use their chopsticks to pull over dishes (yose bashi).

“Japanese people have a keen appreciation for chopsticks. Find your favorite pair and use them with care, and your manners will naturally improve,” Sato said.

Once a pair has been chosen, find hashioki, or chopstick rests, to bring a touch of sophistication to your dinner table.

Ceramic hashioki also come in a variety of shapes and designs, and it can be fun to change motifs according to the season – for example, cherry blossoms for spring, hydrangea for summer, maple leaf for autumn and camellia for winter. Hashioki shaped like soccer balls or planes can also be a good gift for men, Sato said.

Hashioki can also be made from sea shells, glass or metal.

“Hashioki can be a small, easy way to accentuate your dinner table,” Sato said.

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