Kyoto is a beautiful city with many wooden structures nestled closely together. In 1976, it was imperative that I not start a fire. Which is why my homestay okāsan wouldn’t let me use hot water.
Let me explain that. See, it wasn’t a matter of turning a faucet. To get hot water, you had to turn on the gasu and light a pilot light. Or something like that. How would I know when I was never allowed to do it? All I could see were switches, dials, and blue tubing. Ditto for the gas renji. The only way I’d ever get to mess with gasu would be to dive for the turn-off valve should there be a jishin. (Nowadays there are cell phone alerts for earthquakes; I have no idea how that works.) Back then you’d start to feel the shaking and then immediately run to turn off any gasu valves, hesitate for a second to gauge intensity, and then depending on how it felt, you’d take cover in an oshiire or a doorway, or simply go on with life.
Luckily, Kyoto is not very earthquake prone.
But fires were still nothing anyone was taking lightly. In front of my homestay dwelling were big red buckets. And once a month the whole neighborhood got together for practice drills with these buckets which meant lining up and passing them down the line. Being a wimp for neighborhood stuff and still not knowing much nihongo at all, I’d try to be elsewhere when they were scheduled. Usually they were on Sundays.
On winter evenings in Kyoto you’d need even more of a reminder to be careful to not set a fire because most people were using heaters of some sort. They all got turned off when you went to bed under those layers of futon and blankets. The house would be ice cold, but leaving a gasu, kerosene or even an electric space heater running while sleeping would simply be too dangerous. So, one did not.
Back to the reminder, which was very quaint and charming… but also effective. Each night someone in the neighborhood would be in charge of walking the streets with two plain wooden blocks attached with a string. Every ten feet or so, they’d bang them together while intoning, “Hi no Yōjin” or “beware of fire”. The minute you heard the clacks, you’d do a mental check to be sure you’d turned everything off. I did the walk just once with my boyfriend of the time who managed a beat coffee house. And he took it very seriously.
In 2016 when my daughter and I traveled to Kyoto, on our very first night we heard the clacking and the Hi no Yōjin call. Yes, still. I couldn’t believe it and would have thought I was imagining it, but my daughter heard it as well and we were both thrilled. And that was the only night we heard it. Why, remains a mystery to us, but on that night it felt like a “Welcome home to Kyoto and while many things have changed, some things have not. Oyasumi nasai.”
- okāsan – お母さん mother
- gasu – ガス gas. Used primarily for the utility, not passing gas or gasoline
- renji – レンジ range. A shortened way to refer to a kitchen countertop gas range.
- jishin – 地震 earthquake. Though Kyoto is not as earthquake prone as other places in Japan this is one word you should learn no matter where you are in Japan. They happen.
- oshiire – 押入れ traditional style of double-decker closet found in older homes. It is big and deep enough to hold futon. It’s considered to be a safer place during an earthquake and mothers would often shove the children inside of it when an earthquake began.
- nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
- Hi no Yōjin – 火の用心 the chant that reminds people to turn off gas and electric heaters and appliances before going to bed so as to avoid starting a fire. Often translated as “beware of fire.” It’s more like “be careful not to start a fire”.
- Oyasumi nasai – おやすみなさい Good night