Crafting incense from discarded cedar needles
March 25, 2022
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”