There is a shop in Ryogoku in Tokyo that sells a rock and a piece of metal as a souvenir set. I am wondering if this has something to do with an old Japanese custom I’ve heard about in which iron is struck against a rock, possibly flint or quartz. This, of course, produces sparks, which could lead one to think the aim is to start a fire without matches or a lighter. However, I am told that the purpose is to bring good luck or ward off evil for someone departing from the home. Can you find out what the heck this is?
John B., Tokyo
Your question really sparked my curiosity. I had never heard of any such custom, and neither had the Japanese friends I asked. But I did get a lucky lead from my friend Akira, who told me that spark-producing stones for fire building are called hiuchi ishi.
That terminology was enough to help me track down the set you saw, which is sold not only in Ryogoku, but in certain shops all over Japan. It’s even sold online at Amazon Japan. The rock is what English speakers would call a flint or firestone, but it’s not actually flint. It turns out there is very little flint in Japan and it’s not suitable for fire making. So, the rock in these souvenir sets is usually meno (agate) or sekiei (quartz), two of the hard rocks that were once commonly used as firestones in Japan.
The steel striker in the set is called a hiuchigane, unless you happen to be from the Kanto area, including Tokyo, where people are more likely to call it a hiuchigama.
If you had these two pieces, and a little hokuchi (tinder), you’d have pretty much everything you’d need to start a fire without matches. But as you guessed, buyers for this particular product are after fortune, not flames.
It took me awhile, but I did find the link to luck. While reading up on firestones in an encyclopedia of folk practices, I found an interesting cross reference. It said there was a custom called kiribi, in which you send someone off by striking a stone with steel so that sparks fall on their back! The person could be departing on a long journey or just leaving for a day of work, but the sparks are supposed to keep the person safe from harm or injury.
To find out more, I sought an appointment with Hideki Sekine, the author of several books on the history of fire and a lecturer at Wako University in Tokyo. We met in the faculty lounge on a sunny weekday morning for a pleasantly pyrotechnic interview in which we quite literally played with fire.
Sekine brought all kinds of nifty things to show me, including a primitive fire drill called a momikiri, of the same design as those used in Japan thousands of years ago. It’s a stick that you roll rapidly between your palms so its point, set in a grove on a board on the ground, creates friction and heat and sets a bit of tinder smoldering. He also showed me an old hiuchibako (tinder box), of the type that would have been in homes, as well as a hiuchibukuro, a portable arrangement of a small firestone and striker carried in a little leather or cloth pouch.
Sekine, who is 50 years old, said he can remember seeing men lighting pipes with a hiuchibukuro when he was a teenager growing up in Fukushima Prefecture. “That must have been in the 1970s,” he recalled. “When you consider that domestic production of matches started in Japan around 1875, it’s pretty amazing that the old methods were still in at least limited use a century later. But frankly, the matches we got in those days, in that part of the country, weren’t of very good quality. They broke easily, or didn’t light.”
I asked Sekine about the custom of kiribi, and how firestones and sparks came to be associated with good luck. One reason, he said, is a story in the Nihon Shoki, an early chronicle of Japanese history and mythology that was completed in 720. According to the story, a noble named Prince Yamatotakeru was leaving on a perilous mission when his aunt presented him with a pouch containing a striker and stone. It saved him in a dangerous spot.
Another reason is that fire is associated with purity, a belief that originated in Zoroastrianism and was assimilated into Buddhism, which spread to Japan in the 8th century. There are quite a number of temples and shrines that use ancient fire-making techniques as part of religious ceremonies, including Izumo Taisha in Shimane Prefecture.
“The idea of purifying something with sparks probably spread from the yamabushi (mountain ascetic hermits) to the common people, and mixed with other beliefs,” said Sekine. “Over time, people came to believe that sparks could also drive away evil and bad luck.”
During the Edo period, kiribi became popular among entertainers and courtesans, and those in dangerous professions, including carpenters and firemen.
“There are still places where kiribi is practiced regularly, particularly in the older neighborhoods of Tokyo,” Sekine told me. “In some traditional homes, a firestone and striker are kept on the kamidana (Shinto altar) or butsudan (Buddhist shrine cabinet.) Someone will strike a few sparks as part of prayers for a safe day of work.”
If you’re interested in kiribi, you might pay a visit to the Shibamata neighborhood of Tokyo. The merchants in the shops that line the street up to the temple there, Shibamata Taishakuten, still do kiribi every morning to ensure prosperity in business. And Sekine tells me the religious-supply shops there sell all sorts of souvenir kiribi sets.
There is wonderful old television footage on YouTube that shows rakugo comic storyteller master Kokontei Shinsho leaving his house as his wife does kiribi behind him. Check it out at www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1FFHEMmBQQ. The kiribi scene comes about 40 seconds into the video, after a brief stage scene. The narration says this footage was taken a few months after Shinsho suffered a stroke, which was in 1961. To see pictures of flint-and-steel souvenir sets, take a peek at ise-miyachu.net/SHOP/266664/list.html. Or search the home and kitchen section of www.amazon.co.jp., using the kanji for “hiuchi” (Romaji doesn’t work). Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Ask away to firstname.lastname@example.org or A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.