I used this photo in my Dec. 16 column in The Japan Times but didn’t have the space to explain it. The box is a late Edo-era tinder box, of the kind that was kept in many Japanese homes to start fires until matches became available and affordable. The piece with the writing is a hiuchigama (fire steel) made by the Yoshii company. If you squint, you can see the kanji for the company name –吉井 –but written from right to left in the pre-war fashion like this –井吉. The compartment with the lid contains tinder to catch the spark. Sometimes cattail fluff was used, but the tinder here is a special preparation of rotten wood that has been steamed and roasted — think of the effort! The rock is agate, and the sticks are kindling to feed the flame once you get it going. You hit the steel and rock together to makes sparks, letting them drop into the tinder section. The ones we made caught right away. The little bag is a portable set called a hiuchibukuro .
Fascinating. I wonder how people with allergies managed the cat fluff.
I believe that the author is referring to the “fluff,” of cattails (a type of marsh/swamp plant) which are sometimes referred to as “bullrushes” in British/Canadian English. Most plant matter could be used in tinderboxes once properly dried or “roasted,” to form char. Unless you already knew that and I just misread your post…