Japanese hardware stores known as “home centers”, or “homu sentah”, can be found dotting the suburban landscape. They are usually, but not always, warehouse-style outlets surrounded by a parking lot in the outskirts of town. Home centers generally stock merchandise centered around home improvement, but also sell gardening supplies, furniture, camping equipment, clothing, hobby supplies, kitchen appliances, and stationary.
You will find power tools, gas torches, multi-purpose folding knives, and all the usual goodies found in hardware stores anywhere in the world. But as always there are subtle cultural differences. Sharing the shelves with the usual suspects are some items you are unlikely to find in other countries. Here are 10 items that foreign visitors might find interesting.
A shichirin is a bucket-like barbecue grill made of clay. In the old days when Japanese homes were not well ventilated, fish were grilled outdoors under the eaves with these portable grills to avoid smoking up the house. These charcoal powered grills can be used in camping and other outdoor activities and are quite versatile. Besides grilling foods, they can be covered with a bowl or a flower pot to make an impromptu smoker. Some people have used these grills to fire pieces of clay art. When Grant Thompson of the King of Random Youtube channel posted its mini metal foundry video, I modified my shichirin into a similar metal foundry and made aluminum ingots out of empty aluminum beer cans. You can usually also find tiny tabletop shichirin for some dinner time fun. Be sure to have good ventilation when using these indoors. There have been incidences of carbon monoxide poisoning.
A donabe is a ceramic cooking pot. It is generally used in nabe ryori, a Japanese style pot au feu. A gyu nabe is a pot of beef with vegetables and tofu in a dark soy sauce broth, while a tokachi nabe is a pot of salmon with vegetables and tofu in a creamy miso and sake-kasu soup. The main ingredient of tori nabe is chicken, while motsu nabe is based on pork guts. The variety of nabe ryori is wide ranging enough to fill a book, but some unconventional nabe cooking has become popular lately. Since these heavy earthen pots act like miniature ovens, they can be applied to such uses as making roast beef. Some of the best donabe is made in the Iga township of the Iga ninja fame. Nagatanien, an Iga donabe maker nearly two centuries old, has lately been promoting the use of donabe for everything from cooking rice to Italian cuisine. These pots are distinctly Japanese and are very useful.
3. Tsukemono Oke
These are pickling vats for making tsukemono. They say old fashioned wooden vats are still being made, but most vats today are made of plastic. You stuff them with vegetables, pour salt over it, then drop in a circular board whose diameter is slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the vat. The circular board is then weighed down with a stone. Back in the day, my grandmother would pick up an appropriate stone from a riverbed. But riverbeds are now mostly paved over and those that are not are environmentally protected. So the hardware stores now sell specialized weights along with the vats. The weights range from 1 to 20 kilograms depending on the amount of your vegetables and the size of your vat. The largest pickling vats are often the largest containers of any kind in the hardware store. If you are not into making tons of salty pickles at a time, they usually also sell table top pickling pots with a screw mechanism on the lid for compressing the vegetables without the help of hefty stones.
4. Shoji Paper
In the home improvement section you will find shoji paper. Shoji is the paper screens that separate rooms in traditional Japanese homes. The paper may become torn or mucked with dust after a while. So once every few years the paper is torn off and replaced. To make the process easier, some shoji paper today are pre-coated with glue. Others are formulated to peel off easier at replacement time. But some people still opt for the traditional kind, not always to replace the paper on their sliding doors, but to use the large format paper as canvases for hand painted posters and illustrations. The paper can also be used to make Chinese lanterns and light diffusers for photographic lighting. They are interesting materials to work with if you are the creative kind.
5. Cashew Urushi
Japanese lacquer is famous for its beauty and craftsmanship. But traditional urushi lacquer is very difficult to work with. Not only does it require specialized brushes and a skilled hand to apply, it needs to be cured in a special chamber with controlled humidity for a very long time ranging from months to years. Also the substance is somewhat toxic and may cause severe rashes if handled carelessly before it is completely cured. And the gooey fluid actually stinks and is hard to wash off. Fortunately, there is a very good substitute. The urushi plant is a close relative of the cashew plant, which provides us with cashew nuts, and a substance very similar to traditional urushi lacquer can be extracted from the cashew plant. Some paint makers, most notably the Ohashi Paint Co., have concocted some user friendly cashew-based lacquer known as “cashew urushi”. These are compatible with organic paint thinners, easy to use, far less toxic, and smell better. They are very nearly as easy to use as regular paint. With a little practice and patience you can make small items look almost as good as those finished with genuine urushi lacquer. They are usually used in small quantities, for such applications as jewelry making, and come in very small cans, but you can also buy them in large cans directly from the factory.
Traditional Japanese “tabi” socks are socks with a mitten-like divide between the big toe and the other four toes. They are made this way to make them easier to wear with sandals. Around the turn of the 20th century, when rubber soled shoes were introduced to Japan, an inventor named Tokujiro Ishibashi had the idea of attaching rubber soles directly onto the tabi socks turning them into durable cloth boots that will allow the wearer to omit the sandals. It was a big hit, and made the inventor a rich man. Ishibashi (whose name is the combination of idiograms “stone” and “bridge”) went on to apply his experience with rubber soles in the production of car tires, eventually building the foundation for the Bridgestone Tire Co. Jikatabi, the rubber soled socks, are no longer produced by Bridgestone, but are still available and popular among carpenters and gardeners. They are also worn during festival time by the parade participants. You will find them among safety shoes, work gloves, and helmets in the clothing and safety section. They are generally inexpensive and you can pick up a pair for less than 2000 yen. Try them on. You will feel closer to the ground. Recently, some companies have produced vividly colored boutique jikatabi as fashion accessories that sell for 10 times the normal price, but you cannot find those in hardware stores.
7. Saws and Planes
If you are into woodworking, you might have heard that Japanese hand saws and block planes cut on the pull stroke, whereas Western ones cut on the push stroke. Handmade Japanese block planes are the stuff of legend among woodworking aficionados, but you will not find hand forged items in a typical home center. You are more likely to find a large selection of factory made saws and planes. Traditional saws were re-sharpened and had their teeth realigned by specialized craftsmen after long use, but such craftsmen are rare these days. Most people today use factory made saws and throw them away when they are worn out. But they are still pretty good saws and nice to use. You cannot say the same about the cheap block planes available at the home centers. Good block planes are available only at specialized shops. In rare instances, in particularly large and well stocked home centers, you might find an expensive hand forged plane on display, locked up in a glass case with no real expectation that anyone will buy it. If you must buy a factory made block plane at a home center, buy one labeled “haisu”. That is the Japanese abbreviation for “high speed steel”. They do not compare with hand forged planes of samurai sword quality, but they are reasonably good for everyday use.
8. Saigai Bukuro
Roughly translated, these are “catastrophe go-bags”. These are basically duffel bags filled with bottled water, canned foods, a first aid kit, flashlight, radio receiver, ladies’ hygiene products and whatever else you might need in case your area is hit by an earthquake or a tsunami and you need to leave in a hurry. Of course you can buy any random bag and stuff them with necessities yourself, but there is an extra sense of security in knowing that some professional had given some thought into deciding on the things you might need. For extra recognition, some of these bags are marked in bold letters “saigaiji mochidashi yo”, meaning roughly “grab in case of emergency”.
9. Shugi Bukuro
In the stationary section, among a selection of office supplies, you will probably find a shelf full of elaborate envelopes specialized for the purpose of gifting money. The etiquette of choosing and using the correct shugi bukuro is a complicated one and worthy of its own article. For the sake of brevity, just remember that the ones with black and white ribbons are for funerals and other occasions of mourning, the ones with red and white ribbons are for celebrations, and the most elaborate ones with gold and white ribbons, sometimes with ribbons sculptured into the shape of storks, turtles, or flowers, are for weddings. But there are a lot more to them including rules on how to fold them, what ink to use in signing them, how the ribbons should be tied, and what the title on the envelope should be. There are some sixty possible titles you might write on a celebratory gift envelope depending on the occasion.
Finally from the furniture section there is the kotatsu. You might argue that you also find them in furniture stores or electric appliance outlets, but you can also find them in hardware stores. For the uninitiated, a kotatsu is a sort of low table with a heavy blanket covering the sides and an electric heater inside. You sit on the floor with your legs hidden in the warmth under the table. You can eat your meals, read books, watch television, or sleep all in the same comfortable position. It is sometimes described as the perfect all-in-one furniture. Surprising to think that it has never found its way abroad. If you do an image search for “kotatsu” you will find some very comfortable looking options. The heavy blanket and heating device are taken off during the summertime when the appliance is used as an ordinary table.
When you drive by a warehouse style hardware outlet with stacks of lumber and PVC plumbing pipes outside, you may dismiss it as something utterly devoid of interest. But if you go inside and take the time to search among the aisles, you might bump into something unique and interesting. Depending on the season, you might find a bamboo sprout shovel, a chestnut peeler, or a creatively shaped mosquito coil container. Or you might find something that only your own cultural sensitivities can single out. I’ve gone shopping in Japan with Americans, Australians, Koreans, Russians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Chinese, and they all found something different from a stack of sundry everyday merchandise.