The Old Hibachi

by Peter Mallett

In Kyoto at the end of September, the fierce intensity of the heat of summer passes, replaced by a gentle warmth and breezes that stroke the skin like a caress. The days still retain memories of those parched summer months and the streets wear a dry, tired look. But there’s a feeling of re-birth after the sterile white heat of August in which nothing can move. In contrast to the West, autumn here does not presage a barren winter with early intimations of decay.

On the twenty-fifth of each month, the streets in the Nishijin area in the North-west of Kyoto teem with visitors to the flea market at the shrine of Temmangu. From early morning, bargain hunters and collectors arrive to buy or browse – and rarely leave empty-handed. Among the throng, enjoying this fine September morning, is Keiko Matsumoto, widowed and recently orphaned – though she wouldn’t apply the latter term to herself and, indeed, would consider it rather ridiculous for someone of her advanced years. Making her way through the crowds, she passes the narrow fronted houses, from some of which resonates the rhythmic clackety-clack of hand-looms, still weaving silk as they have for hundreds of years.

Near the entrance of the shrine Keiko stops to look at the stalls selling plants and flowers, vegetables, nuts, herbs and traditional Japanese candies. Then she takes the long path to one side of the shrine, bordered on both sides by the most colourful stalls. Here all of Japan’s past is on display and up for sale: Japanese and Korean chests standing sentinel over smaller goods — pretty blue and white plates of varying sizes and value, gaudy cheap glass, wooden sweet moulds. Other stalls juxtapose hand-crafted objects with souvenirs of early technology — old gramophones, black Bakelite telephones, TV sets from the sixties and a variety of clocks of all shapes and styles. Keiko can remember a time when they were in everyday use. Objects of value and worthless junk, the beautiful and the ugly, the exotic and the bizarre, the flotsam and jetsam of previous generations all in incongruous proximity, but on this day having one thing in common: the expectation they excite of a sale to a buyer with a sense of nostalgia, or to a fool with no sense at all.

Amongst the junk, an old blue and white ceramic brazier suddenly catches Keiko’s eye. It’s a large, handsome specimen, and Keiko immediately recognizes its blue and white decoration of chrysanthemums and other flowers. She’s astonished to discover it here.
The hibachi has also attracted the notice of a blond Western man, one of the many foreigners who, as usual, are looking and buying here. “How much is that hibachi?” he asks.

“Twenty five thousand yen.”
“How old is it?”
“Very old — Meiji jidai.” The standard reply to all questions of age, just as “Kyushu — Imari” will surely be to questions of provenance. The antique sellers know that everyone’s heard of this era and that particular area of ceramic-making and that these answers will improve the chances of sale to the foreigners who always seem to want something old.

The hibachi isn’t new and obvious signs of use lend it additional appeal for it’s still filled with sand and ash and contains a rusty metal trivet that once supported a kettle. Standing nearby, Keiko Matsumoto watches with bemused interest as the western man examines the hibachi and discovers the little chip, hardly noticeable, breaking the circle of the rim she knew he would find. The man uses this flaw as a bargaining point; the stallholder quickly reduces the price, anxious to sell. The hibachi is cumbersome and heavy; he’s tired of lifting it on and off his truck to take to the various markets.

The foreigner hands over his money and the hibachi’s emptied of sand and ash; the trivet, which will have no further use, is left behind to reduce the weight a little.

Keiko wonders at the foreigners now buying up these outdated and discarded goods, and at their desire to own a little piece of a history of which they know nothing. She remembers the visit she made several weeks ago to her former home, the house from which the hibachi was rescued. Keiko’s father had been born, and his father before him, in the old wooden house in Osaka. Her parents lived there, refusing to move until illness forced them into the hospital where they died within a short time of each other.

With a notebook and pencil in hand to make an inventory of any items she might like to keep before the clearance agent came, Keiko had entered the house. It was stifling. She slid open the paper shoji screens and the windows which looked onto the wooden verandah, letting in a deafening chorus of cicadas. The trees still provided a welcome shade and the small pond lent an illusion of coolness, but there was no breeze as the garden was now surrounded by the stark concrete walls of office and apartment blocks that cruelly reflected the August sun.

It had been a summer day such as this, long, long ago when they had gathered round the radio in the very same room. Her mother tried to tune in the radio and, over the crackling waves, came a strange, squeaky voice.

“Who is it? What’s he saying?” asked Keiko.
“It’s his majesty, the Emperor,” her mother replied in awe.
“Nonsense,” contradicted her grandmother. “The Emperor is a god, he doesn’t talk on the radio.”

But the living god was saying the unsayable: that Japan had surrendered. The news was in itself unbelievable, the unreality heightened by hearing it from his mouth.

“It’s over,” said her mother, weeping quietly.
“Nonsense!” shouted her grandmother angrily. “Japan will never surrender. This is not the Emperor – the Emperor would never say such things.” Then she too began to cry.

For Keiko the news didn’t have much meaning: she was tired of the war, worn out with the shortages and the endless air raids disrupting her life. After the previous winter, none of them cared much what happened any longer.

The winter had been long and hard and they felt it the more for the lack of food. It seemed to Keiko that in her growing years of adolescence she had always been hungry. Early one cold, grey day, an ominously urgent knocking disturbed the morning routine of the household. The knocking was quickly followed by the grating sound of the front door sliding open and, then, a piercing scream of pain. Startled, Keiko dropped the heavy iron teapot she was lifting off the trivet in the hibachi to prepare green tea for her grandmother. The teapot hit the rim of the hibachi, breaking off a little chip, and emptied its boiling contents in a hissing, spitting flood that extinguished the fire. Though usually quick to scold the girl for the smallest trifle, Keiko’s grandmother, whose sharp, cold eyes had captured everything, said not a word.

“What is it, Mother?” shouted Keiko, running to the entrance hall where she found her mother collapsed on the floor, clutching a piece of paper.

“Shinsuke,” sobbed her mother, able only to articulate the name of her first-born.

The piece of paper contained the news they were all dreading but had come to believe was inevitable as they shared in the grief of neighbours who’d received similar messages from the war fronts. Keiko’s elder brother had been killed in battle.

Keiko sighed. She hadn’t thought of these events in a long time. She looked around the musty living room with its worn and browned tatami mats on which the hibachi had stood, old even back then during the War. Her grandfather had bought it at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Taisho, long before she was born. It had always been there when she was a child, as far back as she could remember, providing in winter a focal point of warmth in the large, cold reception room.

There wasn’t really anything left in this room that she wanted to keep, or thought that her daughter-in-law would allow in the new home in the suburbs that would be built with the proceeds of the sale of this land. Everything here was old-fashioned and most of the furniture scratched or shabby.

In the storeroom adjacent to the house she discovered the objects that even her parents had rejected as antiquated and useless, together with piles of boxes of plates or cups, gifts from various weddings they had attended. In one corner, half-hidden under a heap of books and old magazines and covered with dust, she could discern a pattern of blue and white. Keiko ran her finger around the rim of the hibachi to feel the missing part of an incomplete circle.

She was surprised to find the hibachi still there: her father had removed it from the living room which was to be heated with a new electric fire back in the fifties. Once the hibachi was gone, they bought an electric kettle to boil water, enjoying, along with their neighbours, the beginnings of a recovery from the disastrous war and the start of a new age of prosperity. They made up for the hardships they had suffered with new material possessions and no longer talked of their loss, though they all carried it within their hearts.
Keiko took a final look at the objects that all bore the family history, then shut the door of the store room decisively. She would not dwell on these sad memories: everything would be cleared out, and their history with them. When she moved from the cramped apartment she shared with her son and daughter-in-law in Kyoto to their new house in the suburbs, a new life would begin.

The new house might not have quite the character of this one with its gracefully weathered tiles and wooden verandahs overlooking a garden planted with immaculately pruned pines. But who wanted to live in an old, uncomfortable house like that these days, cold and draughty in winter, hot and full of insects in summer? Keiko imagined how clean and comfortable everything would be in the new house with the features the salesmen had enticed them with: air-conditioning units that doubled as heaters in winter, a bath that filled automatically and kept the water at a constant temperature. Even the toilet would be a wonder of modern technology with built-in bidet and heated seat. It would be the perfect place in which to bring up a new child.

She anticipated with pleasure the birth of her first grandchild and the continuity of the family, promise of immortality, that it would bring. She closed up the house and walked away.

The market seller stuffs the hibachi, wrapped in the remains of a dirty Japanese flag, into a cardboard box and ties an old purple and white furoshiki around the box to make it — just — portable. Counting his money and his good fortune, he smiles to himself as the foreigner struggles off with his weighty purchase.

Keiko smiles too. Only a foreigner would be seen trying to carry such an ungainly and ill-wrapped parcel. She has no idea where he will take it, or what he will do with the hibachi. She can’t imagine it in his modern apartment as a planter, or, with a glass top on it, a coffee table.

Even less, can she suspect that it will soon be packed again and shipped overseas to a country she herself has never visited as an attractive and exotic memento of the East. The hibachi will no longer have the symbolic power it held years before when it provided heat for a family but it will once again be cherished, the centre of attention. Discarded for decades, the hibachi will be reborn but those who admire it will never know its history — a story of another place, another age that will remain untold.

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