Temperatures are dropping here in Japan and that means it’s prime time for one of my favorite Japanese foods. Sure, I love sushi and a nice hot bowl of udon sure doesn’t go amiss come December, but in winter nothing holds a candle to the old-fashioned Japanese communal cooking experience called irori. It’s like cooking ’round a campfire from the comfort of your home!

An irori is a kind of sunken hearth found in traditional Japanese houses, particularly in the countryside. They usually use charcoal as fuel and food can be cooked either by skewering and roasting it on a bit of bamboo or boiling it in a pot hung over the coals on an adjustable hook called a jizai-kagi. The jizai-kagi often has some kind of decorative element used for balance.

▼A little fish swimming through a bamboo shoot forms the basis of this jizai-kagi


▼ While this metal version goes all fish


Particularly in northern Japan, where farms might be covered with several feet of snow for months at a time, the large room that housed the irori provided a warm place for the household to gather, with adults working on their off-season projects, elders sharing old stories and folklore, and children playing games. And all the while, the day’s food would be cooking away.

Today, while most modern Japanese houses don’t have an irori, it still survives in restaurants and ryokan around the country.

▼This rustic Kyushu restaurant serves irori food in a converted farmhouse


▼While this minshuku in Nikko is more typical of a modern irori set-up


As for the food itself, skewered meat and fish are common dishes, as well as mochi, tofu and vegetables. Bamboo segments are used both to cook meatball-like dumplings and to keep your sake warm. Regional hot pots, like Yamagata’s monkfish anko nabe and Akita’s rice dumpling kiritanpo nabe, are also popular choices for tourism-focused restaurants.

If you are planning to be in Japan this winter, you should be able to find an irori pretty much anywhere with a little searching, and I can’t recommend them highly enough as a toasty place to fill your belly, bask in the warmth of the fire and get a taste of old Japan!

© RocketNews24
Photos © Scott Fukuyama, used with permission