By Keisuke Maeda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer NANAO, Ishikawa — There is a fire that is said to have been kept lit for 300 years. In a community in the Nakajimamachi-Kawachi area in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture, there has been a folk tradition that fires used for cooking and other household purposes must never be allowed to go out.
As times changed, most households in the community discontinued the custom of keeping the fires, but local residents there had called the fires at their homes “Hi-sama” (fire deity).
About 50 years ago, there was only one house left in the community that had kept the tradition of keeping its fire lit.
The keeper of the flame in the community at that time was a woman who passed away in 2017. Since then, her successor has been a Saitama Prefecture man whose wife hails from the community.
Community in mountainous area
The community is about a one-hour drive from Nanao Station. A 300-year-old folk house stands in a hilly place surrounded by mountains.
In a room of the house, mochi rice cakes and onigiri rice balls were grilled over an irori sunken fireplace, with their pleasant aromas filling the air.
Takao Morita, 69, dished out the foods to guests, telling them, “This seems to be cooked well.” His wife, Sumiko, 62, served bowls of soup from a pot hung over the fire.
Takao is from Saitama Prefecture. Sumiko had lived in the house until graduating from high school.
The fire burning in the irori fireplace is believed to have burned without interruption for 300 years, and has been kept lit in the community.
According to local residents, people long had the tradition of placing sticks of firewood over embers before they went to sleep. By making the embers burn slowly, people of years past prevented their fires from going out.
Sumiko said: “When I played by poking flames in a brazier, I was scolded. I was told that fires are important things that we have inherited from our ancestors.”
If a fire in her house did go out, she was not allowed to restart it using a match. Sumiko said it was because a fire started by such means is regarded as “a fire from the outside.” Thus she went mainly to neighbors’ houses to bring their fires to her house.
Last remaining one
However, with changing lifestyles, people in the community have shifted to using gas or electricity for cooking meals, instead of using irori fireplaces. About 50 years ago, only one house in the community kept the tradition of keeping fire at home.
Yoshiko Nakaya, the last person in the community who had preserved the fire-keeping tradition, could never leave her house for a full day at a time. Even when she went to Kyoto, she had to make it a day trip.
Nakaya passed away in 2017. Two years before her death, she suffered a head injury requiring 20 stitches. Despite the serious wound, Nakaya was reluctant to be hospitalized, lest the fire in her house should go out.
Takao, who was a surgeon at the time, could not ignore her situation. Being married to Sumiko, he knew that the Nakaya family, next to the couple’s house, had kept the fire alive for decades in line with the tradition. Therefore, Takao decided to maintain the fire on Nakaya’s behalf.
First, Takao prepared items for keeping the fire lit. He had four lamps specially order-made, each of which can hold one liter of oil, and placed the lamps inside a wood stove.
A flame always burns in two of the lamps, so there is no problem even if one of them goes out. Each lamp can keep the fire alive for two weeks.
Because Takao lives half of every month in Saitama Prefecture, he set up a webcam so that he can watch the fires 24 hours a day.
“I made the preparations thinking that I would do everything I could do,” Takao said.
‘Is Hi-sama all right?’
Initially, Takao more or less stumbled into the duty of keeping the fire lit. He said he had no intention of becoming a guardian of the fire-keeping tradition.
But, he became unable to forget a remark of Nakaya’s neighbor when she was hospitalized. After rushing to the hospital, the neighbor asked Nakaya, “Is Hi-sama all right?”
Takao gradually came to believe that he should preserve “the tradition of Hi-sama that is a local culture here.”
But for Takao, soon to turn 70, how to preserve the tradition in the future is a concern. He feels that one individual’s efforts have a limit.
Thus the Moritas began a minpaku private lodging business and opened a cafe. By increasing the number of people who will enjoy associating there, the couple aims to make a system in which the traditional fire can be kept with support from as many people as possible.