It is summer now and hot so, perversely, I thought I’d mention a few ways of keeping warm.

Traditional Japanese heating methods have always sought to heat the person, a small group of people, or an immediate area while in the West it is more characteristic to heat an entire room, house or building.

In old Japanese homes, except for the central source of heat, the Irori (a pit fireplace), heating equipment was usually portable and carried from place to place as needed.

The irori or open pit hearth can still be found today in the central rooms of many old farm houses. Many restaurants set up in a rustic style or that have endured the passings of years still serve traditional Japanese dishes to guests who cook the food themselves at the irori. Seated on indigo-dyed zabuton (flat cotton cushions) around the old open pit, they cook their food in large, hanging iron pots and on sticks thrust directly into a thick bed of ashes surrounding the sizzling (and smoking) charcoal fire. In centuries past the smoke still choked you but it also served a purpose. It chased the insects from the thickly thatched grass roofs. However, modern fire prevention rules prohibit this type of roofing in heavily populated areas today. Not a bad thing because the soot gets on eyeglasses as well as in lungs.

The Hibachi, a portable charcoal brazier that has become a favorite of antique collectors in recent years, has come to replace the older irori in urban dwellings. The large box-type hibachi with a metal liner, often of copper, provided a place for the family to gather. Tea and meals were served there, mending was done, converation savoured and accounts totted up. Hibachi of various shapes and sizes were carried from room to room and used principally as hand-warmers. There were called Te-Aburi hibachi.

The hibachi sometimes makes rooms stifling during the winter, but the insufficient fastening of the sliding shoji doors and sliding windows, which always caused drafts, allowed much fresh air to enter, and this is the reason why one never (or seldom, anyway) hears of suffocation in Japan in spite of the general use of charcoal fires.

Another of the heating arrangements is the Kotatsu, another city substitute for the old irori. This is a shallow, smaller square pit, either portable or set into the floor, in which charcoal is burned. It is covered by a latticed, wooden framework the size of a small table. Over this a quilt is placed, large enough to accommodate the legs of those seated around it. On chilly nights bedding is often warmed over the kotatsu to ensure a comfotable sleep. Kotatsu are still used widely in some modern Japanese homes but electricity has replaced the charcoal fire so they are filled with electrical elements and wires instead of charcoal and ash.

For cold feet, there were two types of portable foot-warmers. The earliest was the Anka, a square wooden box with openings at the top and sides and one sliding door. Through this, an earthen pan containing live balls of charcoal dust could be placed. The box would be then covered with a quilt as is done with a kotatsu.

The second kind of foot-warmer, the Yutampo, was much safer although there are the inevitable tales of a few scorched feet. These can be found in many antique shops and in older people’s homes. The yutampo was either a metal container or a cylindrical earthenware vessel flattened on the bottom. It was filled with hot water, corked and wrapped in a towel. Buried in the depths of quilts, it was indeed a great friend to frigid feet.

Another portable fireplace is the smaller Kairo, a metal container in which powdered charcoal is placed. It was used as a bosom, pocket, or belly warmer and is still widely used in Japan today. The modern Kairo, usually carried in coat pockets to keep one's hands warm, is still a metal container (with a thick clothj carrying case) but it is fueled by butane rather than charcoal. Kaori can be purchased anywhere. To activate a hand-warmer just fill the cotton wadding with fluid, light it with a match until it catches and flames, and when the flame dies out replace the lid, put it into its cloth case and pop it into your pocket or a haramaki (belly-wrap or cummerbund).

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