When visiting a Japanese restaurant or other Japanese establishment, you may have noticed a dish or pile of salt outside of the entrance. (If you didn’t, it’s not necessarily a reflection on your powers of observation—not all places have them.) If you did, you may have wondered about its significance. We have, too, and because we’re pretty interested in all things salt, we decided to do some research. As with many questions about the origins of customs, there’s more than one answer.
Some sources tie the presence of salt piles outside of businesses to the Japanese ritual of misogi, which involves cleansing and purification with seawater and sprinkling salt. This cleansing is believed to have both spiritual and physical effects. Meanwhile, in the Shinto belief, salt is used to purify land, protect a home from impurities, and as an offering to the spirits. A pile of salt outside the door, according to some, may then signify that a place has been purified. The display is meant to both inform and attract customers. A mound refreshed daily communicates to guests that the owner meticulously attends to matters of cleanliness.
Depending on the proprietor, the presence of salt could be related to one of these possibilities, but there are two prevalent bits of lore that provide other theories.
The first centers on the idea that long ago, a pile of salt outside of a business could be used to attract the business of the rich by first attracting their horses. As any equestrian will tell you, horses love salt. A pile of salt, then, would be as attractive to them as a pile of candy would be to a child, and they would approach it with the same enthusiasm—and incidentally bring their owners to the business.
The second bit of lore dates back to ancient China, when a famed emperor had a mind-boggling number of concubines (3,000, give or take) and would visit them in turn. The story goes that one wife was extra eager to be visited, so she laid salt outside of her home to entice the oxen (or perhaps cow) pulling the emperor’s cart to stop for a while instead of heading on toward the intended wife’s quarters. Her plan worked, and the emperor was forced to stay with her. As a result of this tale, it became customary for salt to be placed outside of certain businesses to both attract customers and signify the patronage of someone important. Sometimes it is scattered, other times it is placed in small piles, and yet other times it is carefully arranged into large cones, the tops of which are smudged once customers arrive.
With so many potential explanations for it, the only way to really know why a particular proprietor places salt outside of their establishment is to ask. Perhaps the reason will sound familiar, or maybe you’ll discover something new.