In northern countries, the most indispensable kitchen item is the cooking stove, as it doubles as a heat source for the entire home.

In southern nations, on the other hand, that item is the kitchen sink because the warmer climate causes food spoilage and requires frequent cleaning and washing.

I learned the above at the Lixil Gallery in Tokyo's Kyobashi district, where a special exhibition titled "Kitchen Chronicles--A Kaleidoscopic Overview of Home Living" is being held until Aug. 24.

Before I saw the exhibition, I simply assumed all kitchens were similar everywhere throughout history.

How wrong I was.

"The kitchen mirrors the culture and climate of the land," said Teru Kakehi, 54, the gallery's director. "If you carefully observe kitchens on your travels, for instance, a diverse world will start unfolding before your eyes."

From the Edo Period (1603-1867) to the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), the prevalent kitchen style in Japan was "tsukubai-shiki," (squatting type), so-called because the chopping board was placed on the floor and the cook had to squat by it.

But after the mid-Meiji Era, the "ritsudo-shiki" (standing type) became popular, enabling the cook to work standing up.

The kitchen underwent a further evolution during the Showa Era (1926-1989). The ideal kitchen in people's minds was bright, well-ventilated and easy to clean--a far cry from the traditional kitchen that was dark, filled with smoke from the stove and located on the north side of the home.

The change resulted in the kitchen becoming a sunny place where the entire family could hang out.

Looking at the Lixil exhibition, I recalled the kitchen of my childhood home, where I lived with my parents and grandparents.

I would wander in, hoping to be pampered by my grandmother while she cooked. When my mother was really busy working in the kitchen, she would scold me for getting in her way. And there were times when the kitchen became the site of sibling squabbles.

"The kitchen is where we are taught that none of us is meant to travel solo through life," noted novelist Michiko Yoshinaga in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

The Japanese for "kitchen" has changed through the years--from "okatte" to "daidokoro" and "kicchin"--but it has always remained the center of family life for every generation.

The kitchen mirrors each era and is the foundation upon which family relations are built.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 20

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.