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Goin’ Japanesque!

Sho-chiku-bai (Japanese Words): Get to Know the Three Tiers of Japanese Cuisine

Today we’re going to explain a type of ranking system you’ll run into on a pretty regular basis at the long-established shops, restaurants, and inns of Japan. Once you know the system, you’ll be able to place your order or enjoy your stay with comfort and ease. Photo:


What is Shō-Chiku-Bai?


“Shō-Chiku-Bai” (松竹梅) is a three-part word that translates to mean “pine (松), bamboo (竹), plum (梅)”. Its origin is found in the Chinese phrase “saikansanyū,” which means “the three fellows of winter.” What this refers to is how all three of the shō-chiku-bai plants are strong enough to withstand the cold against cold, but in Japan the phrase developed in its own unique way and in time came to describe symbols of good fortune. Even now, the shō-chiku-bai are foremost when creating kadomatsu decorations for the New Year, and they are also regularly featured in hanging scrolls, kamon family crests, and Japanese flower arrangements.


Kadomatsu; Made Up of Shō-Chiku-Bai


1. Pine (Shō)

Because the pine is evergreen throughout year and does not wilt in winter, it has become a symbol of longevity. It was first used for New Year’s kadomatsu in the Heian period (794–1185).

2. Bamboo (Chiku)

Bamboo represents vitality and advancement because of its vigorous and straight growth pattern as well as its evergreen leaves, same as the pine. In the Muromachi period (1336–1573), it started to be included with the pine in kadomatsu.

3. Plum (Bai)

The plum is a symbol of raw life force, as it remains vital even in the face of bitter cold and also is the first tree to bear flowers when spring approaches. Kadomatsu achieved its modern form when the plum was added in with the pine and bamboo in the Edo period (1603–1868).


Shō-Chiku-Bai Encounters when Traveling Japan

Based on our discussion of their symbolism, you probably understand pretty well how the shō-chiku-bai represent good fortune. However, there is another role they play, one as a system of classification. You’re most likely to encounter the pine-bamboo-plum tiered ranks when you visit older establishments, including traditional Japanese inns as well as restaurants that specialize in sushi, buckwheat noodles, eel, and tempura.

Pine (shō) > bamboo (chiku) > plum (bai)

This three-tier ordering system is similar to gold/silver/bronze in sports or distinction/merit/pass in university. Generally speaking, shō is at the top. For example, if you order una-jū (grilled eel on rice in a lacquer box), “shō” will be “deluxe,” “chiku” will be “special,” and “bai” will be “standard.” Of course, from that the price, quality, and quantity of each serving is different, as well.

That being said, when shō-chiku-bai are used as auspicious symbols, there is no ranking. The system was simply created by shopkeepers of the Edo period who, out of concern for their customers, wanted to make it easier for someone to order a “standard” serving without hesitation. There isn’t any especially earth-shaking reason for pine being the highest and plum the lowest. The reasons provided are particularly Japanese: it might be because that was the order they were introduced into kadomatsu, or perhaps “shō-chiku-bai” just has a better ring to it in Japanese than “bai-chiku-shō.”

That being said, after the pine-bamboo-plum order permeated into everyday understand to the point that anyone and everyone understood that “bai” was the lowest rank, a rare few shops began putting “bai” as the top rank, perhaps in opposition to the arbitrariness of the order. Knowing that, make sure to check the price before you order, just in case.


At the end of it all, the thing that we wanted to impart to you the most was simply this: the ability to see this unique Japanese ranking system and, without hesitation or confusion, turn to your waiter and say, “Shō hitotsu kudasai!” (“One deluxe, please!”)

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