One day in November, Kiku the little fox went out of the front of the bathhouse to go for a walk in the neighbourhood. Soon after stepping out, he began to feel very chilly from his feet upwards, and remembered that the seasonal almanac had a micro-climate title of ‘the earth begins to freeze’ for the middle of November.
When he returned, he began to run around on the spot in the kitchen to try and warm up, when Mama Kōjin came in and asked what he was doing. ‘My feet are freezing!’ complained Kiku, “the ground has become so cold!”
She smiled, and took a large wooden box of sachets out of a kitchen cupboard. ‘The Japanese have invented some clever ways to keep warm in colder months – and look forward to using them”.
She opened four of the sachets and asked Kiku to lift up his paws, and she pulled off a sticky backing and stuck one to each foot. He felt very funny with four large plasters stuck to his paws but quickly began to notice a warm sensation coming from them. “ooooohhhhhh, they are warming up my feet!”
Mama Kōjin explained that in the past the Japanese had often put hot rocks or salt in their pockets or used ash and charcoal inside metal containers to keep warm, but during the 20th century, an accidental chemical reaction with iron powder and water had produced heat (due to the rusting reaction), and this had been utilised to invent portable warmers – known as ‘kairo’ (カイロ/懐炉) which literally translates as something like ‘fire in the pocket’. Although these are available worldwide now, in different formats, they are probably most popular in Japan.
At that moment, Miko-chan stuck her head around the door and announced happily, “I think it might be time to get the kotatsu out too!” Boss Panda suddenly appeared too, adding “what a good idea!”
A kotatsu (炬燵) is a low square table with a futon/ duvet like covering that spreads out all around. Underneath the table is a built in heater, so people seated at it have lovely warm legs, and it helps to warm the rest of the body from the bottom up. It is the modern incarnation of the irori, or charcoal hearth once found in the centre of the main living room of a traditional Japanese house. Everyone at the Bamboo Bathhouse enjoyed spending an evening together with their feet tucked into the warmth of this device whilst looking out at the chilly winter garden…