Posted on 6th Jan 2020 by Bob Heffill

Fire has a highly significant place in Japanese culture. The heart of the home was traditionally the irori, an open fireplace. Thatched farmhouses in the Hida Mountains and elsewhere in rural Japan, popular as lodgings for travellers, nearly all have irori in the center of the larger, communal tatami mat rooms where charcoal is burned under a charred kettle and local river fish are often grilled on skewers.  Staying at these farmhouses is one of the highlights of some of our mountain hiking tour itineraries.

The character for fire, with strokes representing flickering flames, is (read ‘ka’ or ‘hi’). Tuesday in Japanese is kayobi (literally ‘fire day’). The character is used in many compounds with meanings associated with fire, such as kazan, literally ‘fire mountain’ or volcano. Japan sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a tectonically active zone where massive subterranean forces result in earthquakes and volcanic activity which affect the lives of everyone.

One of the hazards of using wood as a primary building material is, of course, fire. Japanese culture can be regarded as one of wood and paper, and Western civilization one which developed using stone as a building material. Compare the Todaiji Temple in Nara with the Parthenon in Athens. Skilled craftsmen have used skills and techniques refined over centuries to create some of the most complex wooden building architecture to be found anywhere. Buddhist temple and Shinto shrines, palaces, old farmhouses, old machiya townhouses – all use unique building techniques using wood. Shoji – sliding wooden doors with a light wood framework covered with Japanese paper – are just one feature of interior design where wood and paper are combined.

In the days before electricity, fires were used to cook and heat the home, and for light. It’s not surprising that many temples and other treasured properties have been destroyed by fire on several occasions, but have risen from the ashes to be rebuilt. A fire destroyed seven of the most important buildings in Shurijo Castle in Okinawa on 17 October 2019. The castle, a 500-year old World Heritage site, and an important symbol of Ryukyu culture in the Southwestern Islands, had undergone extensive renovations and reopened as recently as 1992. Whilst the castle had been burned down or destroyed several times in the past, this dreadful fire will have come as a big blow to the local community.

Fire plays a very important part in many festivals and religious events. Shunie, commonly known as the Omizutori festival, is a sacred water-drawing ritual which takes place annually at the Todaiji Temple’s Nigatsudo Hall in Nara every year in early spring. The Omizutori this year will be held from 1 – 14 March. Essentially a purification ritual, monks carry huge, flaming cedar torches up the steep steps to the temple, then along the gallery surrounding the hall. Not only is it a breath-taking spectacle, one wonders how on earth the monks can carry such heavy torches, and why the hall, made of wood, doesn’t catch light and end up razed to the ground! A group of photographers on one tailor-made tour itinerary visited Nara for the Omizutori in 2018.

The thermal waters for natural hot spring onsen baths are heated deep underground. In the old days, when homes didn’t have hot running water, heavy cast iron baths called Goemonburo could have been heated by a fire set directly below them. I stayed in a farmhouse once where, shortly after I got into the bath, a tiny window next to me shot open and a kindly face asked if I’d like more wood put on the fire under me to heat the tub. ‘Yes, please, but just a little!’ was the cautious reply!

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