Jan. 13th, 2010

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Four years ago, sitting in the same Osaka room I'm in now, I wrote a lament entitled Why are Japanese houses so cold? Then, as now, it was January and I was avoiding a freezing Berlin winter in which temperatures were plunging to minus 15 centigrade or so. Today, as it happens, Osaka may see sub-zero temperatures (well, minus one) and some snow, according to forecasts. That's exceptional, but nothing compared to the chilly grip the rest of the northern hemisphere has been clasped in recently.



This is a good time, then, to talk about a set of particularly cheerful heating devices I've been "collecting" on my travels. The sekiyu sutobu is a kerosene stove-heater with a kettle sitting atop it. It warms the room, and keeps the water for your tea constantly hot.



While Japan, with its warm Pacific winters, may never have needed to deploy Germany's air-tight double-glazing and efficient radiator combo, or Korea's amazing underfloor heating, it's developed a series of stop-gap pinpoint heating solutions, hot patches for the problem posed by its flimsy wood-framed houses. Some are literally hot patches (hokkairo) you stick on your body containing chemicals which, when triggered, glow slowly. Others are weird amalgams of furniture and heating, like the kotatsu table, a combination low table, heater and blanket which keeps your legs warm while a chanchanko, or padded tartan waistcoat, takes care of your upper half.



My favourite Japanese heating solution, though, is the sekiyu stove. With its glowing fire-window, the kerosene heater becomes a portable hearth, a warm focal point for a room. That must be why these heaters are so often deployed (along with folded blankets) in fashionable Japanese cafes, the kind where you leaf through old magazines sitting in comfortable chairs and listening to tasteful jazz or bossa nova music, and surrounded by demure girls in their twenties.



The kerosene heater is one I remember from my youth -- in our cottage in Perthshire we had a blue one, but never balanced hot water on top (I'd imagine toddlers would topple it easily, scalding themselves and setting the house on fire into the bargain). We have both "kerosene culture" and "tea culture" in Scotland, but have never thought to put them together. That part took Japanese genius, or rather some creative borrowing from Chinese culture.



The sekiyu sutobu is basically a development of the older hibachi, a charcoal tray used to heat things. Above you see a couple of hibachi braziers. Like the hibachi, the sekiyu sutobu can be used to heat food as well as just water; sometimes people use them for nabe.



As the photos show, I delight in all the different forms the heaters can take, and how they fit into various Japanese rooms, from the humblest police koban to the trendiest art gallery or cafe. The sekiyu sutobu may seem like a 19th century technology in a 21st century environment, but stealth innovation is hidden within the quaint form of the device; companies like Showa Shell have developed new bio-fuels ("clean kerosene") for them to run on, and electronic ignition systems have made them even cheaper relative to electric heaters (they cost about half as much to run).

The ubiquitous, fashionable sekiyu sutobu heater, old but trendy, cheap but also a "thing of the heart", might just be one of the best symbols of a Japan which feels, well, rather warm about some of the post-materialist values its long, slow recession is bringing.

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