At Home in Rural Japan Part 1: The Heart of the Rural Japanese Home

Before the sun rises over towns and hamlets that slumber between forested mountains, lights begin to flicker in kitchen windows across the valley. In cold weather kerosene or wood stoves are lit, they bring warmth and light as the heart of the Japanese home is awakened by the woman of the house. In summer, windows are opened allowing the cool morning breezes to refresh while releasing smoke from the gas grill as she grills the morning fish.

Welcome to the rural Japanese kitchen.

The Japanese kitchen is the essence and heart of the home in rural Japan. It is far more than just a place to prepare the family meals. The ancient rural home kitchen was the “well” that everything else flowed from. It has not changed much over the centuries. Here is where each new season’s produce is crafted carefully into meals that celebrate the season with its holidays and festivals that are unique to it. Even everyday meals are garnished with a leaf or flower that draws one into the season.

maple leaf dish

It is the center to all other activity. It is where the ceremonial foods are born. The ceremonial dishes with their auspicious foods are really the “main ingredient” to the seasonal matsuri and other special or important days-even the daily morning gohan for the butsudan.

The lives of rural Japanese are intimately entwined with the flow of the seasons, which is woven into their everyday lives. Most meals are prepared from scratch using seasonal vegetables and herbs gathered from the fields, the house cottage garden or the farmer’s market.

a typical Japanese dining table

Baskets of seasonal greens and root vegetables harvested from the garden are stacked on the kitchen floor waiting to be cooked or pickled. Huge ceramic pots hold pickled plums or fermenting vegetables. The onion harvest hangs from the beams.

In the jar is umeboshi or pickled apricots.

The aroma of a Japanese kitchen is a mix of miso, pickled and fermenting fruit and vegetables, earth and steamed rice.

Here is where the housewife spends much of her time preparing meals, washing, chopping and preparing various herbs and vegetables gathered, harvested or purchased from the local farmer’s market. It is where she creates dishes precisely arranged for guests or an average family meal. It is the activity center of the home that is never really tidy or closed for the night.

The rural Japanese kitchen is always cluttered. There are utensils hanging from hooks, large bottles of soy sauce, mirin and sake standing in the corner, bamboo baskets stacked haphazardly and all manner of kitchen clap-trap. It is always a cozy, welcoming clutter of a hard-working kitchen.

Over the sink is a sort of long ledge with a window running the length of it. Most of the windows are made of frosted glass because curtains get in the way of the pots, wire screen baskets, cutting boards, and other daily utensils.

When one walks around the neighborhood and looks at the various kitchen windows, the same sort of clutter can be seen stacked upon the ledge. Baskets, pots and pans, colanders, chopping boards and tea pots are all recognizable silhouettes.

The rural Japanese kitchen is a curious mix of modern and traditional appliances. Most sport a state of the art refrigerator with deep drawers and built in ice-maker. Western-style stoves are not the norm in the average rural kitchen — unless imported. Standard are two burner gas table-top stoves with a built-in pull-out center grill used mainly for grilling fish or vegetables.

pull-out center grill for fish

Rice, usually from the family rice farm, is eaten with every meal and the kitchen is equipped with a special rice storage bin that helps to keep the rice fresh and free from moisture.

rice bin

Baking is not part of everyday Japanese cooking and most homes do not have an oven. Those that do have an oven have a microwave-oven type appliance however in general, most rural wives do not bake.

a Japanese microwave oven

Most rural kitchens are heated by quaint kerosene stoves that double as a sort of hot-plate where one can place a metal tea kettle to keep water hot.

The rural Japanese kitchen is where the seasons are transformed into edible delicacies for every season has its very own matsuri or festivals and special days and they each have unique foods that hold cultural significance.

In the old days homes had a kamado which was a wood or charcoal fueled stove made of stones, clay and tiles. Before the use of kamado, cooking was done over a fire pit. There are several Japanese sayings using the word kamado that refer to the kamado as the “symbol” or heart of the home. This saying rings as true today as it did during times of old.

a kamado
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

It is said that “simmering miso soup” conjures up images and memories of “mother”, home and family.

The kitchen truly is the heart of the rural Japanese home and family evoking memories of being at home in rural Japan.

For more great information about life in rural Japan, check out Part 2 & Part 3

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