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Versatile cups: Soba-choko aren’t just for dipping sauce

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Soba-choko can be used for serving small dishes.

By Michiyo Horike / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterARITA, Saga — Soba-choko ceramic cups usually hold sauce to dip soba noodles in, but they’re actually much more versatile thanks to their simple shape and various motifs.

People who have rediscovered these qualities are using them in a variety of ways, including serving ice cream and coffee, and decorating their homes.

Items with various designs are displayed at a shop in Arita, Saga Prefecture, run by Maruhiro Inc., a ceramic ware company headquartered in Hasami, Nagasaki Prefecture.

Hasami and its surrounding area are home to Hasami porcelain, and Maruhiro works with local makers in designing and selling a wide variety of ceramic ware pieces with traditional and modern motifs.

“Soba-choko were originally used as a small bowl to serve sashimi or pickles in a meal set for celebratory occasions and dinner parties,” said Kyohei Baba, 32, president-designate of the company, which was founded by his grandfather.

Soba-choko are round when viewed from above and an upside-down trapezoid when seen from the side, with the mouth a little wider than the bottom. According to Baba, trapezoid containers were called choku after their resemblance to the mouth of a wild boar during the early years of the Edo period (1603-1867). When soba became popular in the middle of the period, trapezoid-shaped containers were often used for the dipping sauce for the noodles. These pieces were later called soba-choko to distinguish them from ceramic sake cups, which were just called choko.

Hasami ware dates back more than 400 years. Before its advent, porcelain had been produced for people of high social status, but Hasami pieces were mass-produced and sold nationwide at prices affordable enough for everyday people.

These Hasami pieces included many easy-to-use soba-choko cups, with their shapes and sizes slightly changing depending on the artisan and era. Motifs used for the items reflected the fashion and cultural aspects of each period.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Kyohei Baba holds soba-choko cups with different designs.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Left: Items with fancy motifs for serving drinks can be a good conversation starter with guests. One item features a traditional pattern combined with an image of a pug.
    Right: Soba-choko are a great size for serving ice cream or fruit, as shown by this light blue one, and can create a cool atmosphere.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Some cups that have motifs on the inside are suitable for drinking transparent beverages, which can enhance the look of the motifs.

Soba-choko cups sold by Maruhiro are about 8 centimeters wide and 6 centimeters high, just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand.

“Because of its very simple shape, soba-choko can be used in various ways,” Baba said.

His company discusses new design ideas with makers: Some products are unevenly colored, while others have a rough surface from a glaze being sprayed on them. Others have trendy illustrations printed on them. Since three years ago, the company has been making various products under a lineup called Soba-choko Daijiten (encyclopedia).

You don’t have to think too hard about how to use these items. You can serve desserts or soup in them, and some cafes turn them into coffee cups. Soba-choko can also be used as ornaments.

Soba-choko have come under the spotlight, particularly among young people, as users have posted images on social media showing how they use the cup in unique ways.

“I hope you find your favorite item and have fun with it,” Baba said.

Maruhiro will open a pop-up store with an exhibition in Jingumae, Tokyo, on Sept. 7-10 and in Kyoto on Nov. 23-26. Visit www.hasamiyaki.jp for details. Speech

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