Our kids love sticks. Every time we go to a park they bring home a stick or two. It seems wrong to throw out such carefully chosen objects, so their collection continues to grow. Another unpredictably fun object is the bucket. To a child, a bucket is not simply a means to carry water. It does that, but it can also be a sand-castle maker or a clunky shoe replacement; turned upside down a bucket is a good step stool, helmet, or drum. Simple objects offer countless uses to the playful mind.
While browsing a hardware shop in Tokyo I came across the hishaku—a peculiar object that was both a stick and a bucket. I brought it home and immediately the stick-bucket (hishaku) became a favorite toy. Not only could it be used to water hard-to-reach plants, but also it successfully helped one brother blast water all over the other. The hishaku was then quickly converted into a drum and drumstick in one by banging it on the ground to create a loud cowbell-type sound, loud enough to get the attention of anyone on our street; it was also used as a berry holder, a bath toy, a sword, and a shovel.
Considering the popularity of the hishaku with my own children, I began to wonder why I don't see them in more Japanese homes. Surely, it is not the most essential tool in the house and I never hear anyone say, “My hishaku is broken! I have to go out and get a new one.” (They are actually quite robust.) I guess what keeps most people from rushing out to buy a hishaku is that it seems redundant—there are plenty of buckets and cups that could do the same job.
There are animals that, like the hishaku, have an unexpected combination of parts. The platypus has the surprising combination of fur and beak in addition to being a mammal that lays eggs. I heard that the platypus, while on land, bends its toes and walks on its knuckles to protect its webbing. Even with these incongruous elements, the platypus exists and this is evidence of its success. Similarly a hishaku, lying in the shadows, has a quiet persistence, but its existence is also proof of its success. Both the hishaku and the platypus are best adapted to use with water, but they also work well in so many other ways.
I was excited to see a man in Asakusa—the riverside neighborhood where traditional Japanese culture has been preserved—hurriedly scooping boiling-hot water with two hishakus, one in each hand. At this moment, it was clear to me that a hishaku, or two, could come in handy. It is hard to explain what it is that makes a hishaku so satisfying to use. Perhaps it is easier to hold a stick than a cup and being able to reach farther just feels good.
Children are not restrained by names or the intended purpose of things; they are quick to invent new uses for everyday objects. We usually call this “playing” but for children this is a serious endeavor undertaken with complete focus. I’ve noticed many expensive children’s toys that seem to do all the playing while the child passively watches. It is to the credit of children that they tire of these pricey limited toys and move on to much more fascinating objects like cardboard boxes and hishakus.
Mike Abelson is a designer and proprietor of Postalco, based in Tokyo.