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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on December 25, 2018
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 97] December 25, 2018

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 97]
December 25, 2018
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal living
An heat source which also provides us with a joyful aroma: Charcoal

:: 1. Seasonal living

Here is a Tanka, Japanese traditional poem, written by AOKI Getto
Kiku sumi no Kawo tatsukashimi Fuyugomori
Interpretation: Though we stay in the house most days during the
winter, Kiku sumi gives us the joy of its smell.

It's already at the end of the year again and we feel that we are
already in the middle of the winter in Japan. Although we can choose
any heating equipment that suits us depending on our living styles or
purpose, charcoal is the one which has been used to warm up Japanese
people for a long time.

The oldest charcoal found in Japan was surprisingly 300,000 years old.
It was being used during the ice age and people lived in a cave at
that time. It is certain that they did not have a system to let the
smoke out from their cave so it was probably far from ideal place to
warm themselves. However, charcoal doesn't make smoke and also keeps
a fire for a long time. Inventing charcoal must have made a drastic
improvement to ancient people's lives during harsh winters.

The primitive charcoal was made from wood, piled up and covered under
dried grass and clay, then roasted for half a day to evaporate its
tar and moisture. Because it was too soft and not particularly good
quality, better manufacturing process were brought into Japan from
abroad, as well as Japanese people who tried to improve it themselves
to a harder and higher quality charcoal. Improved charcoal had a much
lighter weight as oil and water components were properly evaporated
and it also never got rotten. It became a very convenient item for
carrying and preserving for a long time. Since it was able to
provide stable firepower with its high temperature for many hours, it
started to be used to fire earthenware and cast metal as well as
heating and cooking.

The casting technique was brought into Japan in the early Yayoi
period (AD 200) by people who were from the Asia Continent. Bronze
artifacts were cast at first and then ironware rapidly prevailed in
the middle of the Yayoi period (around end of AD and beginning of
BC). Along side this, demand for charcoal got higher as it was
essential for making fire. As it is very popular for foreign
tourists, you may have seen the Colossal Buddha of Nara. It was
created in the 8th century and sits in Todai-ji temple in Nara
prefecture. This 15 metre high colossal Buddha needed 500 tons of
iron and also one million litres of charcoal for the casting
apparently. The oldest existing brazier is stored in a raised floor
treasure house belonging to Todai-ji temple called Shoso-in. We could
see that charcoal was gradually being used in a better way indoors.

Charcoal was imposed as a land tax due to a lot of charcoal being
needed as heaters in houses and also for cooking among the nobles in
the Heian period (8c). In chapter of winter in Makura no Soshi (The
Pillow Book written by Sei Shonagon in 11c), there are many scenes
mentioned about charcoal heating along side an irori, traditional
Japanese sunken hearths, or a brazier. Since walls were rarely
installed and windswept rooms were common in their houses at that
time, they must have felt freezing cold every winter. Charcoal
produces one of the electromagnetic waves, far infrared, which is not
affected by wind. Its heating mechanism is the same as a microwave
oven which shakes molecules on our skin, so that it seems like it
must have been a pretty good heating system if they went close to it.

From the Kamakura period (12c) to the Muromachi period (14c),
The Japanese tea ceremonies were often held among powerful Japanese
feudal lords, nobles, monks and samurai. Charcoal had been used to
make swords and armour, however it developed to boil water for tea in
the tea ceremonies. It helped manufacturing techniques to advance
massively. It is said that the famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu,
contributed to improvement for the charcoal to brew tea.

Chado zumi (charcoal for tea ceremony) which is said to be the best
quality black charcoal is made with the young tree of hard oak. As
once it is burnt, the cut slice of the charcoal shows a beautiful
pattern like the flower of chrysanthemum. It is called “Kikusumi
(chrysanthemum charcoal)”. As it is sung in the Tanka from the
opening paragraph, it has perfect properties as fuel due to its
strong heating power which keeps fire for a long time. It does not
only has a unique fragrance but also the way it lights is beautiful
and this charcoal is even regarded as an art piece. However, the
number of technicians to take over the traditional roasting
techniques have decreased and it is facing a crisis of inheritance.

The production techniques of white charcoal (after being burned at
high temperature it is taken out from kiln, then immediately cooled.
It's surface is white and it is as hard as metal. It can keep the
burning for a long time.) was brought from China in the Nara period
(8c). In the Genroku era (1700's), it was successfully developed as
“Binchotan”, the most known charcoal in Japan today. It is made
with wood called “Ubame oak”from the oak family which has a hard
character. The whole process even lasts for ten days. Charcoal
technicians apparently adjust burning by relying on the smell and
smoke and it is true craftsmanship. It is not only lit easily but
also is burned through out and emit a large quantity of extreme
infrared radiation. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, extreme
infrared radiation is an electromagnetic wave, it can reach to the
middle to worm up quickly. This is the reason why if we use charcoal
for cooking, food cook well with a soft inside and crispy outside. It
is no wonder charcoal is perfect for cooking due to its special
characters which can keep a stable fire for a long time.

Since most people have oil heaters, air conditioning and cookers,
charcoal is not the main tool for heating or cooking at home anymore.
However, Japanese still feel elegance when we see the burning red
charcoal in a brazier or a small charcoal grill. It used to be only a
fuel, however, ancient people upgraded it into a work of art. We have
nothing but respect for them.

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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