Joel of Far Outliers has interrupted his appalling series on the sufferings of Indians trying to escape Japanese-occupied Burma in 1941-42 to favor us with a delightful triptych of stories about obscure Japanese words, phrases, and customs. I’ll quote the first:
塩盛り shiomori ‘salt pile’ – The other night, as we were leaving our favorite local fish restaurant in Ashikaga, my recently arrived Minnesota in-laws noticed what looked like a small pile of snow beside the door as we left. It turned out to be salt, and there was a matching salt pile on the other side of the entranceway, so I went back in and asked the very friendly and talkative sushi chef (who trained 3 years in San Francisco and 1 on Maui) what the story was. There were no customers at the sushi bar at that moment, so he came outside in the chilly wind and told us the story. The salt has two functions. The most commonly recognized one is to purify the premises by keeping evil spirits out. But the more interesting one is to attract customers in. The latter function apparently goes back to the days when goods traveled by oxcart. The idea was to tempt the oxen to stop and lick the salt, whereupon the traveler might also decide to stop for food or rest. The salt piles were called 塩盛り shiomori ‘salt helpings’, a term which is otherwise chiefly found in restaurant menus for assorted salty dishes.
Isn’t that great?