The Japanese Table
The Japanese Kitchen: Eating Around the Iroriby Masatomo Yamaguchi
Our new feature series comprises four articles that will introduce topics related to the history of the Japanese kitchen and daily household life. We start with a look at the early days when the Japanese lifestyle revolved around the traditional irori hearth.
Once a standard feature in rural Japanese homes, the irori is essentially a fireplace. The customs of daily life in the countryside have passed down many important elements of traditional wisdom from which there is much to learn. The irori played an essential role in the daily rural lifestyle as the gathering place where meals were prepared and eaten; it still endures as a part of modern Japanese life, a reminder of how an earlier age flourished.
Pothooks East and West
Hanging over the irori hearth is the jizai-kagi, or pothook, which was used to adjust the height of the pot over the fire. The type of pothook used most widely in Japan was based on a free-adjusting lever device, a design also found throughout China and Southeast Asia. The free-adjusting lever pothook allowed for fine manual adjustments to be made in order to position the pot. Another type of pothook was the so-called sawtooth stock, which permitted height adjustments in specific units of only three or six centimeters at a time.
The decision whether to use the free-adjusting lever or the sawtooth stock to achieve the same purpose represented a disparity in ways of thought, as well as a manifestation of cultural and philosophical differences.
In Japan, the sawtooth was used by Japan’s aboriginal Ainu people in the northern island of Hokkaido, from whence its use spread into the northern Tohoku region; interestingly, this is also the style once used in parts of western Eurasia. As the ancient Ainu culture is distinct from both Japanese and other Asian cultures, this perhaps suggests a common, yet obscure, link between Ainu and western Eurasian cultures.
Even today, sawtooth stocks may still be found in old houses scattered among the mountains of Tohoku. This sawtooth design is a legacy from the ancient culture of the Ainu, which may explain why a sawtooth stock hangs above Japan’s oldest preserved example of an irori.
The Self-Sufficient Kitchen
In mountainous northeastern Japan, it was once common to find large baskets with carrying straps (yama kago) sitting near the irori hearth. Such baskets were carried on short hunts through nearby hills to gather edible wild vegetables and herbs (sansai ) in season, including butterbur buds (fukino-to) or warabi (bracken).
Fish caught in local streams such as iwana (Japanese char), yamame (a variety of trout) and ayu (sweetfish) would be eaten sprinkled with salt and then roasted (shio-yaki). Leftovers would be salted and dried, or perhaps smoked for future use, set on shelves above the fire amidst the thick smoke, while bottles of sake would be buried in the dense ashes of the irori for warming.
Food could be gathered or harvested only during the very brief time that it was in season. The self-sufficient lifestyle of the mountain people demanded that they preserve and store large quantities of food for the cold months through drying, salting and fermentation. Their methods increased the nutritional value of the food while enriching its flavor.
With its rich salt and protein content, miso was considered vital in preventing malnutrition – and even starvation. The liquid called tamari that was drained off in the process of fermenting the miso was the prototype for soy sauce. Every household was self-sustaining and possessed its own food preservation know-how; each family survived by relying on these essential homemade preserved foods concocted with ingredients at hand.
Gathering Around the Irori
Often enveloped in several meters of snow for months during the winter, most old farmhouses in northeastern Japan featured a spacious room with a wooden floor known as the ita-no-ma as well as earthen-floored areas called doma where work could be done indoors. Fifteen or sixteen people could easily gather near the irori hearth, while on the pothook would hang an iron pot kept simmering over the fire, filled with a delicious stew of ingredients boiled together in large quantity.
During the winter off-season, farmers had plenty of time to make the straw sandals, cords, ropes, bags and basketry items essential to their work in the fields when spring returned. When they were hungry, they would put their handiwork aside for bowls of hot soup, rice balls and pickled vegetables. While their hands were busily occupied, their mouths were at leisure. The elders retold stories and old folktales and the younger family members would sing songs around the glowing warmth of the irori.
The Irori Today
The irori hearth endures today. Many restaurants that feature traditional local cuisine have facilities for eating meals around an irori where fish are grilled and hotpot dishes can be prepared.
Typical examples of local country cooking include Akita Prefecture’s kiritanpo-nabe—a rich hotpot of soy sauce and dashi-based stew teeming with vegetables and lightly pounded rice that has been grilled on skewers. Another is Yamagata Prefecture’s anko-nabe, hotpot made with the deep sea fish anko, monkfish. Many traditional inns in the northeastern region of the country have cozy irori where guests eat their meals and gather together for relaxation.
Masatomo Yamaguchi was born in 1937 in Osaka Prefecture. A graduate of the architecture department of Waseda University, he specializes in the study of dwellings, lifestyles and dogu (tools and implements). He is secretary-general of the Dogu Gakkai (Forum for studying tools and implements), the editorial director for the Nihon Seikatsu Gakkai (Society for studying Japanese lifestyle), and serves as director of the Japan Society for the History of Industry and Technology. He is the author of many books, including Daidokoro Kukangaku [A study of kitchen space]; Daidokoro no Ichimannen [Ten thousand years of the kitchen]; and Mizu no Dogushi (History of water implements].