Kitchen and Domestic Utensils

Objects like these fascinate me. Many of them were in daily use until not so many years ago. Some might still be being used by older people in old-fashioned country areas, or by people like us, who are known as "retoro" (the Japanese for "retro" or backward-facing). It is beginning to be fashionable in some circles to be "retoro", but it is often a return to a past that never was (cast-iron Swedish woodstoves, for example), rather than a return to the bare simplicity of bygone Japan.


The "hibachi" charcoal burner is a good example of a once-common object which has all but disappeared from most people's lives. We are among the few families in the neighbourhood who use a hibachi or its near cousin the "irori" (basically a hole in the floor in the middle of a room which serves as a fireplace), but the further one gets into the countryside the more widely they are used. Neither the danro nor the hibachi has a chimney, so the fire has to be made outside, and the heat is provided by glowing charcoal embers. In some of the large old country houses, wood fires are lit indoors, and the smoke is simply allowed to rise up and lose itself among the rafters.  Such heating does raise the room temperature a bit, but in really cold weather it is only effective if one huddles round it with a blanket to keep the cold off one's back. The idea of heating a whole room didn't really come in until air conditioning took off. Now, for most Japanese people, it is indispensable.

This assemblage is just a bit too old to be serviceable. It would have been common to see this kind of arrangement up until about the 1930s or 40s. We use a more modern design of hibachi, made of metal, with a grate and an air vent that can be opened or closed, clearly infuenced by western fireplaces. We back that up with a second charcoal burner which is basically just a kind of earthenware pot, a paraffin burner (I never knew how efficient paraffin burners can be until I came to Japan! In our neighbourhood they are a major form of winter heating) and, upstairs, a storage heater. It is typical to place a kettle or pan on top of the charcoal, to keep the air humid (Japan tends to be too humid in the summer and too dry in the winter) and provide hot water for tea, etc.


This is a pair of tongs, used during the tea ceremony. They date from the Edo period. Basically, they are metal chopsticks for hot things! They measure 22 cm. (8.8 inches) and have an inscription (left). The left-hand tong gives the place of manufacture (Himeji, in what is now Hyogo prefecture) and the name of the company (Myochin). The right-hand tong gives the name of the maker (Hyakuo Muneyuki). The Muneyuki family have been blacksmiths for 51 generations, and the name Myochin has been their trade mark for centuries. Their tongs are famous, since they were first requested to make them by Sen-no-Rikyu, the famous master of the tea ceremony, in the sixteenth century. The Muneyuki family are still in Himeji, still trading under the name Myochin, and still making tongs to this day, though the tongs are now produced as wind-chimes, not - as these - for stoking fires.


I'd be surprised if any of these are still in use. It is an old Japanese iron. The pot-shaped part is heavy, with a smooth bottom. Charcoal was placed in it and it was used in just the same way as an electric iron is now.



Just as in Britain, the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society can be marked in Japan by the demise of the spinning wheel. Whereas many western spinning wheels had a treadle, the Japanese spinning wheel was hand-operated. The central piece at the top (above) is the equivalent of the bobbin, onto which the spun yarn is wound. Underneath it is a stick connected to a crank and pivoted on a horizontal beam. The other end of the stick should stick up several inches above the beam, but in this case it has broken off. The stick serves to distribute the yarn evenly. Apart from the metal crank all the parts are wooden, including wooden pegs, rather than nails or screws, to hold the parts together. The manufacturer's name is carved on the handle side (left), and appears to say "Betsujou" (?). By the beginning of the Showa period (1927) nails and/or screws would normally have been used, and the name would have been printed onto paper and stuck on or stamped onto a piece of tin plate and tacked on, so this spinning wheel is probably from a slightly earlier period.


Food and drink are covered separately (see HERE), but the storage and cooking of foodstuffs are on this page. This is a metal container for keeping green tea. The lid has a circular design hole in it to keep the tea from getting damp and mouldy. These days tea is generally kept in tins with a tight-fitting lid or a plastic container.



This is a wooden mould for wagashi (Japanese sweets). Stalls selling "taiyaki", which is a kind of dough filled with "anko" (a sweet paste made from azuki beans) and moulded into the shape of a fish, are  a vestige of what was once a common feature of domestic cookery. However, they usually use a metal sheet with lots of mould shapes punched into it.


Equally unusual in the modern Japanese kitchen is a device for home-made fresh noodles. These days, most people buy dried noodles or, sometimes, commercially-made fresh noodles. Up until the 1930s or 40s, though, it was quite common for people to make their own noodle dough, and pump it through a wire grid (see left) to make fresh noodles.


Whereas the other items on this page have largely fallen into disuse, the "soroban", or Japanese abacus, is still used, and not just by a few older people. Children are still quite often taught the basics of numeracy using the abacus. This has wooden beads (modern ones are generally plastic), but the frame is held together with tacks, so it isn't that old. The soroban was introduced to Japan from China, and many older sorobans have five beads together and one bead separated, like this one, which is an intermediate stage between the traditional Chinese abacus, which has five beads together and two separated, and the modern Japanese abacus, which has four beads together and one separated.


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