Decent week-end, slow news evening.

I’m sure nobody’s eager to hear the fascinating tales of my uneventful yet appropriately social week-end: birthdays were celebrated, morning were slept in, lazy afternoons sitting in the sun, sipping on drinks and writing physics were spent, ice-cream while people-watching on the steps of Shibuya’s Oy’ Oy’ department store(*) were had… Nothing quite blog-worthy, as you’ll realize: no waking up in puddles of bodily fluids in some unknown street/train station/love hotel, no unexplained whip marks in the lower back, no kidney unaccounted for in the morning. Only routine Summer week-end stuff, minus the drink-till-you-puke and hangover stories.

Luckily, I have just what we need for such an occasion!

And thus, let me introduce our generic cultural blog-filler of the day:

The Tsukubai Mystery

The sharpest minds among you may have noticed I used many highly unoriginal cutesy japan-themed baubles in my latest redesign. Perhaps the least obvious of these, being the small icon I use for comments and trackbacks numbering (e.g. here). This graphic is a slightly stylized version of the actual thing, such as you can see it here or here. It is located in Ryoan-ji temple, in Kyoto.

This type of wash-basin is called a tsukubai, from the verb tsukubau: “to crouch, sit, bow”, as it is in such a humble position that visitors are expected to use the water and purify themselves. Common around zen temples, tsukubais tend to come in all forms and shapes, but the stone basin, bamboo pipe and wooden scoop are fairly standard.

Cue Indiana Jones soundtrack

What makes this particular tsukubai stand out, beside its location in one of the popular Kyoto temples, are the inscriptions on its top. For, you see, these seemingly undecipherable characters have a meaning!

In a very suspicious attempt at giving this site an ounce of cultural legitimacy, I went to the length of providing a nice little figure to which I will be referring henceforth:

When I say “undecipherable”, I do realize that to most of my non-japanese-reading readers, the “please stop” japanese road sign would offer about as much of a challenge, if not more… But in fact, even to the average Japanese eye, the inscriptions above are pretty arcane stuff. There is a riddle. An easy one, but kinda cool nonetheless.

You with me? Ok, let’s start:

The characters around the center (where the water rests) nearly all have some sort of meaning, although you would be hard pressed to combine them into something sensible:

  • The top one, , is the kanji for “five”.
  • The one on the right , I am assured, is an old radical for “bird” (written in modern japanese). Which is to say, it doesn’t mean much as it is.
  • At the bottom, is a fragment that has absolutely no meaning by itself, but appears in the kanji for leg:
  • On the left: is the kanji for arrow. Funnily enough, while you probably don’t have many occasions to place that one in daily conversations, it has also become a radical for many medecine-related kanjis (the kanji for “medecine” is made of an arrow being “contained”, presumably removed from a body: . “Doctor” is: 医師).

In the end, we get something like: “five birds [leg] arrow”, assuming we read them in this order (frankly no idea if kanji should logically be read clockwise or counter-clockwise). And I can assure you this doesn’t mean anything more to your Japanese neighbour than it does to you. Quite possibly even less if he isn’t on drugs like you and me.

The Solution

Confronted to the difficult task of solving this enigmatic inscription, the average zen student will usually sweat it a few months, before eventually going for the axe (in zen koans, picking up an axe and decapitating the zen master very often turns out to be the answer. And if it wasn’t the answer, at least it can become the solution). That is, until he suddenly realizes that the water basin itself is a kanji!

The square, in this pathetic excuse for a noble language, is a very common kanji for : “mouth”. Which doesn’t really help us much, until further realization that, combined with each of the four other kanji, it forms new kanjis!

五 becomes , 隹 becomes , appears full as it should, and 矢 becomes :


With a bit of [optional] grammar prettifying, we obtain:


Which reads something like “I learn only to be contented“, otherwise put:

“He who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor even if materially wealthy”…

And aren’t these words of truth indeed, dear brethren.

Please don’t thank me for this small bit of spiritual guidance: it was a pleasure, really.
But feel free to send your bottles of Bombay Sapphire Gin to my PO box.

(*): Yea: I know. But it sounds so much cooler like that.


  1. Fascinating! And it’s odd, but when I got to the line about the bottom symbol* being part of the kanji for ‘leg’, my immediate thought was ‘oh, so the water-square makes up the top part!’ I didn’t make any other intuitive leaps from there, though.

    Thanks for sharing. Now I have another bit of arcane trivia with which to stump my family. *Grin*

    * I can never remember if kanji are ideograms or ideographs.

  2. Thanks a lot, Maussie… Glad it could provide a few minutes of distraction…
    Regarding ideogram/ideograph: I believe they are the same. But most people nowadays object to the use of either word to refer indistinctively to Japanese or Chinese characters, since a lot of kanji are only used as phonemes, without any link to their pictural meaning.
    As usual, Wikipedia offers an extensive coverage of the question: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideogram

  3. Once again, your amazing brain powers come almost to my rescue… a new travelling friend has a necklace which resembled this one and I told her I knew a website that had a translation of it…. Turns out it is a different message, but now im off to wikipedia to check if it is listed there. Her necklace was given to her in Cambodia, and the top character is the symbol for 1.

    You are so handy!!!

  4. Giovanni… I didn’t find the translation you are referring to in Wikipedia… It sounds slightly far-fetched to me and, incidentally, my own very approximative translation above doesn’t sound so great any more either. My dictionary gives the very exact translation for this idiom: “I am content with what I am”, with implied, the idea that having/knowing yourself is the greatest riches of them all.

  5. There are many translations for this text, all of them fitting perfectly with zen philosophy:
    “I learn only to be contented”
    “I just know satisfaction”
    “The knowledge that is given is sufficient”
    “To discover oneself is already enough”

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