OKUDO-San or the joy of heating with timber and coal

This morning I was watching a program on NHK Japan. ‘Kyoto Core’ and it was all about the OKUDO-San, the wood fire stove.

This reminded me, about the time when I grew up in Germany. It was the post war period.
The country was being re-build. In fact I do not remember much about the bombed-out ruins, more about the wide open spaces amongst apartment blocks, where rubble had already been cleared away.

In these 1950’s coal and wood heating was very common.

My grandmothers house has had a ‘Kachelofen’, a tile covered oven in the living room and a coal fired stove in the kitchen.

These stoves were often of white coated metal constructions with slightly curved legs and a very heavy metal plate on top. Each cooking place was a serious of concentring rings, which could be removed, revealing an opening to the fire below.
In the front of the stove were separate little doors, which would allow to stoke the fire when the pot was on top. Otherwise you would feed the beast from the top with timber, coal or briquette.

During cooking, when more heat was needed, one of these concentric rings would be removed and stored on the side. Of course they were hot, sometimes glowing and frequent burns on arms and hands were common. It was always a juggling to ensure that a constant cooking temperature could be retained.
Cooking was a sweat driving exercise, since the whole stove radiated heat. Really tough in hot summers. Of course in the cold winters, and I remember the nights with minus 15 to 20 degree C, in which water pipes would freeze and the water pump in the backyard, yes, there was no flowing water in the house, has to be thawed by pouring hot water over it, to get water for cooking and washing.

You can see the intricate interaction. The fire on the stove had to be retained throughout the night. Usually at a low glowing level. In the morning, getting up at 5am, in the dark of the night, grandma would stoke the fire, so that warm water could be heated. This warm water was used to thaw the water pump. Getting to the well in the backyard, meant going out into the cold, in winter often through ankle deep snow, grabing the handle, discovering it was frozen solid. Pour the hot water over it. Wait until the metal was sufficient warm, so it could be moved. In the meantime, hammer the frozen water from the nozzel. Than pump water into the several 10 litre buckets, carry them inside and start heating them for washing and making breakfast. Even grabbing the iron pump handle had its dangers. First it would be so cold, that, if you forgot your gloves, your fingers would freeze on it in an instant. Meaning you would loose some skin trying to free your hand. After the water treatment, it would be to hot to handle.

Yes, you assumed right, there were no hot morning showers. Just a basin, a ‘waschlappen’, a cloth to wash with. All in a bathroom without heating and at best at zero degree C. In fact you had to be careful that your bum would not stick to…., but lets leave that aside.

In the mean time the fire in the stove would be coaxed to high, so that the water could boil.

Since it was another major undertaking to heat the oven in the living room, life took mainly place in the kitchen. Once the stove was in full action it was ‘mollig’ cuddling warm, while slowly the ice on the windows would melt and the morning light would creep in at around 8am.

After a few years we moved to an apartment block on the other side of Hamburg. Here the kitchen had already an electric stove. But the rest of the apartment was heated from a tile oven in the living room.

At that stage I was already at age 10 and able to carry heavier buckets. So my task was, before going to school, to go down into the cellar, two stories down, and bring up one bucket of briquet, compressed coal dust bricks, which are used to get the fire going on a base of paper and timber, and a bucket of Steinkohle, a harder coal, which would burn slowly and last for many hours.

Being suitably warmed up from this exercise it was then off to school, not by bus, but walking 30 to 45 minutes, depending which school one would go to.

The reward, once coming back at 1 pm, the livingroom and the apartment were warm and homework could be made in comfort.

All this changed in the 60’s, with electric heating and later ‘Fernwaerme’, heating from a central location in Hamburg.

But apart from all the inconvenience and hardship these heating methods brought with them, I still have fond memories about them. After all there is nothing more comforting on a snowy winter afternoon, with the light slowly fading to blue and dark, to sit next to the Kachelofen with a cup of hot chocolate and a book. Comfy and warm and being transported through the pages into another world. It beats airconditioned heating any time.

Note: All images are from the Internet and not copyright cleared.

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