HAKODATE, HOKKAIDO – A woodwork artisan in the Hokkaido city of Hakodate has carved out a niche in the stove market, reviving interest in old-fashioned cast-iron potbelly heaters.
Ryuichi Uenoyama, 51, admits to being taken aback by the flurry of orders he has received for the stoves, which were first developed in the late 19th century, despite the high price tag.
“It was totally unexpected,” he said.
Hokkaido is believed to be where the first potbelly stove was commissioned by a local shogunate office and cast in 1856, according to a local document archive and museum.
Modeled after a stove on a British ship then anchored at Hakodate port, the stove was intended for shogunate officials dispatched to Japan’s northernmost region to weather the bitter winter cold.
The device, powered by coal or firewood, was used widely in Japan to heat public buildings and railway carriages but was replaced by oil and gas heaters in the second half of the last century.
Uenoyama, a woodwork craftsman making ship components, stumbled on a roughly 70-year-old wooden mock-up of a potbelly stove in the atelier of a colleague in 2013.
He took over and repaired the damaged model with the aim of “resurrecting stoves that started spreading from Hakodate,” he said.
Based on the mock-up, an iron cast worker produced stove components, to which Uenoyama gave the finishing touches before assembling them.
The ball-shaped combustion chamber with a diameter of around 30 cm stands on an ash deposit tray and sells for ¥135,000.
Despite its relatively high price, Uenoyama has sold around 60 stoves since getting coverage in a local newspaper, with enthusiasm spreading by word of mouth.
Some buyers have told Uenoyama that his work is too precious to actually fire up, but the artisan said, “I hope they’ll use them because you’ll never understand the charm of cast-iron stoves until you use one.”
Uenoyama said he hopes to keep the fire burning for the time-honored tradition of stove making in Hakodate.