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[personal profile] imomus
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.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 01:46 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
"sekiyu" means "petroleum fuel" so if you want to make "sekiyu stove" into something shorter, it makes better sense to call it a "stove" rather than a "sekiyu"

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 05:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
hell, one of those things saved my life in tokyo the winter 2 years ago. That was by far the harshest winter i ever lived, and thats after 4 years in berlin!
I probably spent 65% of my half year in tokyo right next to that thing, constantly changing the pot of water on top (it also works as an air humidifier!) and being chased around to pay the joint fuel bill

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 05:33 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Did you tell her that you have somone in your mind, who lives in Tokyo?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 05:34 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)

koreans do it HOTTER

Date: 2010-01-13 06:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Korean's often use electric heated blankets for their beds... which is amazing for cold weather (or sore tired body)....
they also have a few variations on it.... also common is a bed pad made of small jade stones... which also heats up (but remains cool in the summer), and my favorite....

the stone bed!


"In 2006, Furniture Today reports that JangSoo Industry Co., a Korean bed manufacturer, is entering the market to sell stone beds to US consumers.

While it looks rock-hard, the stone bed is actually one sophisticated furniture with tons of benefits. The mattress is made of quartz, topaz and jade and may be easily heated via the coils under the stone mattress. A heated mattress, as you should be aware, provides therapeutic benefits.

The stone bed is particularly appealing to those who like their mattress firm."


Date: 2010-01-13 06:07 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hello Momus, inspiring and uplifting. I was wondering, do you or have you ever felt less-than-inspired in Japan? Have you had moments where you're not sure what to do or how to take things? Maybe, having travelled a lot, you have unconciously molded yourself and your actions into the best version of a traveler, and are able to take things lightly. Sometimes I don't know what to do with all the beauty here.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 07:22 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I don't get the comment in Japanese about a wedding in Hawaii. Why do the Japanese-language comments lately seemingly have no connection to the Momus posts?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 03:20 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 07:45 am (UTC)

"these and other quaint manners and customs..."

Date: 2010-01-13 11:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"The time-honored device used in a Japanese house in winter to warm one's hands and feet is either a hibachi, fire brazier, or a kotatsu, foot-warmer. Needless to say, people who can afford the more costly facilities of modern times use such things as gas heaters, electric heaters and oil heaters in their matted rooms, and coal stoves or central heating in Western-style rooms.
If the caller is an intimate friend, he is very often invited to enjoy the kotatsu with the host."

from bun nakaima's japanese etiquette 1955

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 03:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What a great idea--practical, cost-effective, relatively green (compared with heating an entire house or business), and it brews tea as well! The Snuggie, so popular in the U.S. this year, reflects the same "post-materialist values." Living smaller presents an opportunity for intimacy and innovation that hyper-materialism can't match.


Date: 2010-01-13 05:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Using food as fuel is not "clean", it's a dirty trick.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 07:33 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
these are great, thanks for the tip

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-13 08:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I love the first photo so much.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-14 11:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] (from
me too!


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