“Wintry wind — passing a man with a swollen face.”— Matsuo Basho
If you haven’t already had a chance to experience them first hand, know that Japanese winters can be pretty harsh. While temperatures never reach exactly what I would call frigid over here (at least in Tokyo), there’s something about the endless dampness that just gets into your bones. Sure, there are days that are rather mild but then again there are also days where no matter what you do, it’s almost impossible to get warm. Moreover, the problem is even further exacerbated by the fact that most Japanese homes are neither insulated nor centrally heated. Outside of the coldest and snowiest of prefectures in northern Japan, modern day Japanese simply invoke a puzzling philosophy towards keeping warm, at least from a western perspective. Do they sit in the lotus position and meditate to free themselves from earthly suffering? No! You see, rather than futilely trying to keep their living spaces at a constant and cozy temperature, many locals instead opt to heat the people themselves.
Now, at least in the modern age, a central feature to keeping the Japanese warm throughout the winter is a device called the kotatsu. Pictured below, this low table is covered in a thick blanket-like skirt and is electronically heated underneath. Often times, you’ll find the kotatsu smack dab in the middle of the living room, right in front of the television. Families will gather around the kotatsu and bury their lower halves beneath its warmth as a means of staving off the harsh temperatures. In fact, this practice is such a universal feature of daily ritual that countless tidbits of Japanese culture can be understood simply by observing how a family uses their kotatsu. The device is also a common trope in fiction that is evoked to bring two shivering characters closer together.
As convenient as the kotatsu is though, it is a luxury of the modern world. Before its invention, the Japanese survived the winter by huddling around the irori. Historically, these traditional hearths could be found sunken into the floors of Japanese farmhouses and other domiciles. Now contrary to what one might expect from modern safety codes, irori were always sculpted from the wood of hearty trees. As if this weren’t enough of a fire hazard already, recall that typically old Japanese homes were constructed entirely from timber too. What’s more, many homes also featured some form of sliding paper doors and let’s not forget the woven straw tatami mats. Honestly, it’s a marvel of ancient engineering that the Japanese were able to invent a method for keeping an open fire in such a tinderbox!
How did the Japanese avoid incinerating themselves over the years? Well, here you’ll need to understand a bit of physics. Basically, when combined with the sand and ash that filled its central pit, an irori was all but impervious to succumbing to the flames that it contained. Given these essentials, all of the action remains contained within the middle of the irori. Chances of a fire spreading remained small as long as the burning wood did not come in contact with the outer edge thereby creating a means for the flames to escape. Additionally, to stop sparks from randomly flying off and setting belongings ablaze, many irori had woven mats that hung over them. What’s more, over the years, the ingenious Japanese peasants and farmers discovered that these mats could serve the double purpose of drying fish and preserving fruit.
Speaking of irori use, let’s talk about what the Japanese historically would do with their hearths. Outside of the obvious function of keeping the inhabitants of a home warm and providing a source of light pre-electricity, irori also performed many other critical tasks. Resourcefully, the hearths were used for boiling water and cooking food as well as other household chores such as drying clothes. Furthermore, the irori also served as a place for families to gather and facilitated communication in a similar way as its modern descendant the kotatsu. From a structural perspective, the smoke from the irori also dried the beams of a house thereby preventing fungus and other rot from taking hold. Undoubtedly, many of the remaining farmhouses in existence today owe their survival in a large part to their irori.
Perhaps the most defining features of a classic irori is the jizaikagi. This hollow piece of bamboo is suspended from the ceiling’s timbers and contains a long metal rod or chain. From this post hangs a hook which is used to regulate the proximity of whatever is attached to the flames below. By raising and lowering this hook, the Japanese could easily control the temperature of whatever dishes they were preparing. Now jizaikagi are typically operated by a lever which almost always took the form of a fish. Why a fish you ask? Well in addition to being aquatic creatures, fish also don’t close their eyes. Because of this feature, Japanese long-held the notion that fish don’t sleep and therefore they made ideal guardians. After all, the last thing you want is someone slumbering on the job when they are suppose to be watching over an open indoor flame!
Sitting By the Irori’s Flames
One of my all-time favorite things to do in the colder months of winter is sit by the side of an irori and gaze lazily into the dancing flames. These days though, you’ll be hard pressed to find a traditional hearth unless you know where to look. Outside of the tea ceremony, many of the hearths have been simply phased out of existence. Still, if you do a bit of digging, you can find the occasional ryokan or traditional farm house that still maintains an irori. Unfortunately though, many of these sites are well off the beaten path and will also only turn up in Japanese search queries. Luckily for you, I’ve done a lot of the leg work and have some recommendations that are both foreigner friendly and conveniently located in Tokyo.
For starters, I’d like to introduce the wonderful Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. While a mouthful to say, this facility in western Tokyo has a sizable collection of extremely well-preserved traditional farmhouses. Should you venture inside, you’ll almost always be greeted by the sight of an irori all fired up and ready to go. Often, the sunken hearths will have a staff member attending the fire (as can be seen above) who is always down to chat. While English language skills will likely be limited, even sharing a silent moment around the open flames can be enough to foster a connection. Every time I go here, I end up spending a good 2–3 hours just listening to the caretaker’s tales. Note that if western Tokyo is out of the way, there’s also another similar facility in Kawasaki that’s worth seeing too.
Now as great as the aforementioned two spots are, they have one thing going against them; sadly, you can’t spend the night there! In order to capture the true irori experience, you’ll definitely want to seek out a location that offers accommodations too. After all, irori are about bringing people together and part of the charm is snuggling up by the fire with friends, family, or loved ones. As mentioned, there are many lodgings that still sport an irori yet these are often scattered about the country. For most overseas tourists, these accommodations will be too far off the main roads and thus challenging to locate.
One easy-to-find location is Kamakura Guesthouse (also known as “Kama-Guesu”). The building was originally used as a traditional Japanese restaurant before taking on its current form. Of course, the main charm is that it has an irori in its shared common room. While a bit removed from some of the attractions in Kamakura, this guesthouse is sure to provide a true sense of rural life in Japan. Note that the hostel has a small bar downstairs that is great for connecting with the locals over a drink.
All things considered, Kamakura Guesthouse is a bit more on the budget end of things. With that said, I’d recommend those with financial means to simply outsource the problem of booking a proper ryokan with an irori to a service like this. Sure you’ll need to pay a bit of a markup but it saves a lot of the hassle of trying to navigate the language barrier yourself. Alternatively, these days, there are plenty of online concierge services who can help you make a booking. Try Googling for one.
Until next time travelers…