March 25, 2022

Crafting incense from discarded cedar needles



In the Fukuoka Prefecture city of Yame, a thriving forestry industry produces sugi cedar lumber for construction, and for over a century, local workshops have been turning the discarded cedar needles into a kind of incense called senko. Used widely in Buddhist countries, senko is made by kneading wood powder with water, molding it into sticks, and drying them. In Japan, where Buddhism has long been practiced, smoke rising from senko lit as an offering at graves and family altars is a familiar sight.

Although most waterwheels are located outside, the Baba Mills wheel is inside to extend its life.
The incense is made from natural Japanese cedar needles and the leaves of tabunoki (bay) trees, with no artificial scents or colors added. It is popular both for religious use and as a relaxing aromatherapy product.

Takeru Baba runs his family business, Baba Mill, which has been making incense since 1918. Since 2008, he has been using natural energy from a waterwheel he built himself to pound ingredients the traditional way. | PHOTOS: KOICHIRO FUJIMOTO

Senko production in Yame peaked between 1900 and 1970, when over 40 incense workshops operated in the city. Water wheels powered the pulverization of wood in that era, and many mills remain in the districts where workshops were clustered. However, with the influx of cheap imported wood powder in the late 1970s, the local senko industry steadily declined, and today only four workshops remain. Of those, only Baba Mill, run by Takeru Baba, still produces traditional senko using natural energy.

Ever since Baba Mill was founded in 1918, wooden water wheels have provided energy, but the huge wheels, measuring 5½ meters across, have a life span of only around 25 years. Many waterwheels were lost with the rise of electric-powered workshops and the general decline of the industry, but Baba resisted the trend. In 2008, after three years of work, he finished building a new waterwheel. “The remote mountain districts of Yame have no tourism resources,” he said. “By showing people how we’ve been making senko all these years using only the natural energy from water wheels, I wanted to teach the younger generation about Yame’s tradition of craftsmanship.”

Forest covers 60% of Yame, once home to a thriving industry that made incense from branches discarded by the lumber industry.

Baba makes his incense exclusively from the needles of cedars grown in Yame and the leaves of a type of bay tree called tabunoki. To collect the cedar needles, he bundles branches left in the mountains after lumber companies fell trees, transports them back to his warehouse and lets them dry there for two to three months. He then pounds the needles into a powder using energy from the water wheel.

Because the water wheel must be adjusted according to the level of the river, its use requires a constant engagement with the natural world. But while senko production is extremely labor-intensive, Baba says more and more tourists are taking an interest in the traditional mill, and tour groups have even begun stopping by the workshop. In recent years, he says, his incense has also become popular among foreign customers as a completely natural aromatherapy product.

Incense made from 100% natural ingredients produced in Yame.

“These days, most senko on the market is made with artificial fragrance, so people don’t have a chance to experience natural scents,” he reflected. “As I walk through the mountains each day, I encounter many aromas. Eventually, I’d like to try making senko that brings people seasonal smells like loquat in spring and fragrant olive in fall.”




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