Today, you can buy a ‘hibachi’ in most discount department stores or hardware stores. Most of use think of them as small Japanese grills. This is essentially what they are, a small charcoal brazier, but the traditional hibachi was more central and useful to the Japanese household.
The word hibachi comes from the Japanese work hi for ‘fire’ and hachi for ‘bowl or pot.’ The most likely English translation is fire bowl, and this is an apt description, as hibachis were originally small portable bowls and used to hold burning charcoal.
A grill placed on top of the bowl allowed for the heating or cooking of various foods, or just for warming tea, etc. However, they were most often used for warming small Japanese homes, or as simple hand warmers. Their small size meant they could be carried to any convenient location within the household.
These bowls, when round, would have typically been made with cast-iron or bronze, but sometimes were made of ceramic porcelain material. Other times, hibachis were simply formed from the bowl of a tree, the inside of which was fitted with a copper lining. Wooden hibachis could be square or oblong in shape. Sometimes ornate wooden boxes with visible wood-grain were used to hold round metal hibachis.
Cabinets were sometimes built with a lid and a receptacle for a hibachi, along with drawers for storing various smoking implements. Stands for placing and heating tea-kettles were part of the equipment.
These braziers were actually of Chinese origin but have been used in Japan for centuries. They often became the center of the household, where conversation and games would take place.
Hibachis were often family heirlooms, passed down from one generation to the next. There are stories told of the fires in hibachis being kept burning continually, for decades, if not centuries.
Such portable braziers were not unique to Asia, they were common to ancient civilizations such as Crete and were used by the Greeks. Portable braziers were extremely practical, and charcoal was a convenient fuel since it could burn for hours and produced little smoke or fumes.
Since smoking was such an important activity in ancient Japan, it was traditional, and considered polite, for a hibachi to be the first thing placed in front of a visiting guest, along, which would be used for lighting the pipe.
Hibachis are no longer used this way in Japan today, but they are still cherished as heirlooms or decorative items. The hibachi grills in America are really just small barbecue grills, having little to do with the historical hibachi. Sometimes, as well, Japanese teppanyaki or “Japanese steakhouse” cooking, is referred to as “hibachi-style.”