The Japanese Table
The Japanese Kitchen: Machiya no Daidokoroby Masatomo Yamaguchi
Our feature series continues with topics related to the history of the Japanese kitchen and daily household life. From the rural farm kitchen we move on to visit the kitchens of machiya, the urban townhouses of Japan’s middle-class merchants.
Long before the introduction of electricity or gas, the kitchens found in the machiya merchant houses, structures which originated in Kyoto and spread throughout the country, were models of highly refined domestic wisdom, skill, management, equipment and utensils.
Cooking, Serving and Storage
Machiya are traditional wooden townhouses that comprised both workplace and dwelling, and housed many people—typically an extended family and apprentices.
In the busy machiya no daidokoro, or kitchen of the machiya, masses of rice were cooked daily in an immense pot; large and medium-sized pots were used for soups and simmered dishes, and steam rose constantly from a large kettle. Traditional Japanese cooking is keyed to dishes based on seasonal ingredients and involves the preparation of a wide variety of dishes; a spacious area was therefore required to set out the tray tables (ozen) upon which an assortment of dishes for individual meals were served.
The etymology of various European words for “kitchen” refers to a place where there was fire for cooking, but daidokoro, the Japanese word for kitchen, literally means “place of the tray tables”; that is, the place where tray tables were spread out and individual servings arranged (dai denotes the ozen).
In the Japanese kitchen, the cookstove (kamado) held an honored place, but the nagashi-dai—literally, “basin for running water” —was equally important. This was the place for washing and rinsing not only dishes and utensils, but also for cleaning the ingredients used in the process of cooking.
While the use of fresh seasonal ingredients is highly valued in Japanese cuisine, salt and fermentation are used to deepen flavor and heighten the nutrition of foods; fermented foods and condiments were developed to speed up the food preparation process. Separate sheds or rooms were set aside to store miso, soy sauce and preserved foods such as pickled plums and vegetables. Spaces under elevated floors were used for storage, an extension of kitchen space. Some foods were preserved by hanging them up to dry, thus even the area under the extended eaves of the house was an adjunct to the kitchen.
In the merchant houses of Kyoto, one of the words used to describe the talents (or lack thereof) of the woman of the house—usually the young wife in charge of care of family members and household accounts—was shimatsu, referring to her “skill at handling things,” or, we might say, domestic arts. A word composed of the characters for “beginning” (shi) and “ending” (matsu), it connoted proficiency at doing things “from beginning to end.” For example, upon obtaining a fresh sea bream from the fishmonger, a woman talented at shimatsu would serve the fresh, white flesh as sashimi; make ushiojiru, fine salt-seasoned soup from the head; and arani, the head and bony parts simmered in soy sauce, mirin and sake. Such ingenuity in making use of everything, without waste, was considered exemplary of good shimatsu: it was the epitome of good household management.
Women passed their skills on to their daughters not only in cooking, but in using kitchen utensils. The equipment and utensils of kitchens were handed down from one generation to the next, incorporating improvements as time went by, for over one thousand years. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the machiya no daidokoro had been perfected as the ultimate form of the Japanese kitchen.
Protectors of the Kitchen
In the traditional machiya kitchen there was often a miniature shrine, traditionally set on a lintel above the cookstove. Here were displayed images of deities, lanterns or a vase with a branch of the sakaki tree, believed to be a resting place of the divine. On a pillar there may have hung a talisman from a local shrine or temple to ward off evil.
Among the deities of the kitchen is Kojin, god of the hearth; and as the kamado is considered the very heart of the home, Kojin has long been honored as the god of the house. So as not to arouse the anger of Kojin, whose name means “fierce god,” those in the household took extra care to keep the area around the kamado clean and uncluttered. The effect of this custom has been to promote precaution against fire. Talismans are often inscribed with the characters for hi no yojin (“be careful with fire”) or mubyo sokusai (“safe and sound”), and Kojin’s name is often invoked in prayers for protection.
Other gods of the kitchen include Ebisu and Daikoku. Ebisu carries a sea bream on a hook and Daikoku sits on bales of rice, holding a lucky mallet in his hand. Both are honored in the kitchen as deities who will assure plentiful food in the home.
Vestiges of the Kamado
The wood-burning kamado cookstove, together with a large pot called the kama, were once a cohesive unit in the Japanese kitchen. Though the kamado is now a thing of the past, people are aware that there is something special about rice cooked using this method. Some exclusive restaurants continue to cook rice in a kama in order to provide this traditional taste. Light, steamy and glistening, it has a delicious flavor that cannot be achieved in a small electric rice-cooker.
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).