Hibachi (火鉢)

Hibachi are a kind of charcoal burning brazier used in Japan as a heating appliance.

Summary

Most hibachi are ceramic or metal, but some are made of wood or stone. Sizes range from 50cm or larger to the 30cm or smaller teaburi. Formerly, large mansions had a room containing 25 pairs (50 in total) hibachi. All of them were lit for gatherings such as village meetings, where people could warm themselves as they arrived.

The Kanto hibachi, or Edo naga hibachi, is a large hibachi combined with drawers. The overall shape is that of a rectangular box and it includes a board called a 'neko-ita' to the right of the square hibachi. Generally, there are two to three drawers below the neko-ita and two drawers side by side below the hibachi. The Kansai naga hibachi is characterized by a table-like overhang. Because the drawers are dry, they are often used to store articles that hate humidity such as tobacco and dried seaweed.

The most common material used was Japanese zelkova for its hardness, and hibachi with a rim of kuro gaki (striped ebony from one of the hundreds of varieties of persimmon trees) were especially preferred.
The price of the Japanese zelkova was determined by the number of circular burls, known in Japanese as 'tamamoku.'
Since guests are seated at the side opposite to the drawers, this side is known as the front of Kanto hibachi. It was the style of Edo Sashimonoshi (carpenters) to use wood with the best grain for the front.

Terminology and classification

Synonyms for hibachi
Teaburi', also referred to as 'shuro,' were relatively small hibachi used to warm the hands. Teaburi were generally made in pairs. Nowadays, it is usually referred to as a teaburi hibachi.

In ancient times, a 'hoya' meant a hibachi, 'teaburi' or koro (incense burner) with square legs like a subitsu.
These days, while it still can mean 'hibachi,' it usually refers to 'koro.'
It is also used for the glass casing (cover) of fuel lamps, and the stokehole cover of tabako-bon (tobacco trays) or koro.

Subitsu' were square hibachi, particularly ones with legs or that were large and fixed in place. Some people also take it to mean hearth or fireplace.

Hioke' are wooden hibachi. As the term 'oke' (pail) implies, they used to be round, but there are examples from the Heian period of square ones being called hioke as long as they were made of wood. They are lacquered on the outside, sometimes decorated with makie (Japanese lacquer sprinkled with gold or silver powder), and coated with a metal plate on the inside.

Hibitsu' are square wooden hibachi. It can also refer to both subitsu and hioke.

Classification by shape
Square
Naga (oblong) hibachi
Kaku (square) hibachi
Rokkaku (hexagonal) hibachi
Round
Maru (round) hibachi
Marudo (cylindrical) hibachi

Classification by history and social status

Most of the following are still produced today, as opposed to antiques, and are sold as pieces of pottery or furniture.

Heian period and later
Hibachi for court nobles
Subitsu
Teaburi
Hibachi for samurai
Hioke
Subitsu

Edo period and later
Hibachi for samurai
Daimyo hibachi (hibachi made for feudal lords)
Goten-hibachi (palace hibachi)
Commoners
Daiwa hibachi (rectangular wooden hibachi produced in the Kyoto area)
Edo hibachi (hibachi used in Edo)
Naga hibachi

History

Although it is not clear when hibachi were first used, the oldest existing hibachi is believed to be one known as 'Dairiseki sei Sankyaku tsuki Hoya' (three-legged marble hoya) stored in the Shoso-in Treasure Repository, although some people claim it is a combined hibachi and koro. Sei Shonagon's Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book) contains descriptions of round hioke and square subitsu, predecessors of the hibachi that were introduced as heating appliances for samurai families and then taken up by court nobles, although they used only large subitsu. As can be seen from the above, it is believed that hibachi were already in use in the Heian period.

Since charcoal produces less smoke a fireplace that uses wood, use spread from the samurai and court nobles to townspeople and commoners in the Edo and Meiji periods. Some were developed as interior accessories, with engraved metal hibachi and colorful ceramic hibachi being produced.

They were commonly seen in places such as the waiting rooms of train stations before the war, but they disappeared as stoves became popular.

Luxurious hibachi developed since the Edo period are now in demand as decorated flower pots or planter covers, and simple hibachi are often recycled for use as goldfish bowls in gardens.

Since the 1990s, demand rapidly increased due to the influence of an antiques appraisal show on TV, although most people bought them in the hope their value would increase or as interior accessories rather than as heating appliances. However, as interest in the the heating effect of far-infrared rays has grown, hibachi have become popular with those who do not like heating by air conditioners.

Usage

Place pebbles or the like in the bottom of an empty hibachi. Fill the hibachi half to two-thirds full with ash (straw ash is preferable). The hearth, or "otoshi," where the ash is placed is often made of copper plate. In that case, only ash should be used because wet pebbles may cause the copper to rust. Because the ash serves as a heat insulator, there is no need to worry about the heat of charcoal as long as the ash is about 10 cm deep. When using a gotoku (three or four-legged kettle stand), bury it in 2-3 cm of ash so that it does not tilt even when an iron kettle is placed on it. Gotoku may be used with the legs facing upward or downward. Place a few pieces of charcoal in a fire pan, put them over a flame, and heat them for about 20 minutes until the charcoal turns red all over. When the charcoal is hot, carry it in a juno (fire pan) and place the pieces evenly spaced in the center of the hibachi. It is also possible to light the charcoal directly on the ash using briquettes. If the charcoal fails to light, it is easier to use mametan (oval charcoal briquettes). Charcoal lasts longer when it is red hot than when it is ablaze. The heat can be controlled by adjusting the amount or the positioning of charcoal. To extinguish fire, either bury the charcoal in the ash or put it in a hikeshi-tsubo (fire extinguishing pot).

To handle the charcoal, use hibashi chopsticks. These are long metal chopsticks, and are thrust into the ash at a corner of the hibachi when they are not in use. Hibashi of various sizes are enshrined at Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji Temple to pray for the prevention of fires.

An iron kettle with water in it placed on a gotoku can serve as a humidifier. Rice cake and mushrooms can be toasted on a grill placed on the gotoku. Hibachi are not used to grill strong-smelling food such as fish because the smell would be transferred to the ash.

They are sometimes used to boil water using doko (copper containers). They are also used to warm sake.

Attention must be paid to ventilation because carbon monoxide is generated when charcoal burns.

Hibachi' in North America

Teppanyaki restaurants in North America are known for the chef's fire show. In such restaurants, the chef sets fire to metallic spatulas or utensils used to grease the iron griddle and performs a juggling act. The restaurant chain 'Benihana' was the first to put on these shows, known as "hibachi-play" or "hibachi-style."
The term 'hibachi' may originally have been confused with 'shichirin' (a small, portable cooking stove), and now many Americans, believing such shows are performed in steakhouses in Japan, misuse the term 'hibachi.'