22 June 2013

Shoyeido Incense Workshop Tour

Craftsman preparing jinkoh wood for incense.
Incense has a long history in Japan.  At the ancient court, men and women alike scented their kimono, their rooms, and even their writing paper with signature blends of incense that admirers were sure to mention later in their love poems.  - Kiyoko Morita, The Book of Incense.
(Click on any image to enlarge)
During a 2012 textile study tour one of our fellow participants named Francine, from Switzerland, arranged a special treat for us - a tour of the Kyoto headquarters of the venerable Shoyeido incense company, founded in 1705.

In the video above, the craftsman is chopping  and grading pieces of jinkoh wood. This rare and costly material can be burned separately or used in blends.

The Way of Incense, or Koh-Do, is the enjoyment of incense, and is somewhat analogous to the tea ceremony, and to other structured esthetic experiences, such as flower arranging or even wine tasting.
Incense in many shapes - sticks, cones, coils and fancies.
While Japanese courtiers once had to make their own incense, Shoyeido employs an ultra-modern production facility near Kyoto to produce all types of blended incense. The Kyoto corporate headquarters, with a shop on the ground floor, has enthusiastic English-speaking guides  explaining the ingredients and the process of making incense.

The uniform logo perfectly captures the drift of fragrant smoke.

Map with sources of raw materials for incense.
First, the ingredients, whose names conjure a travelogue of exotic locales - myrrh from Arabia, sandalwood from India, camphor from Sumatra. Almost none of the ingredients come from Japan, evidence of global trade well before the G8. 

From top left, clockwise: Sandalwood logs, ingredients, myrrh, benzoin.



Although some materials, such as costly jinkoh (aloeswood) might be burned singly, most incense is blended.  The materials to be mixed are crushed in a grinder;  the resulting paste is then pressed into a cake.

Press - incense is compacted in the metal cylinder.

Incense sticks extruded onto a wooden board.

The cake of incense is then put into the extruder, which pushes out spaghetti-like strands of moist incense. The craftsman catches the strands on a wooden board and trims the strands to size.

Trimming the incense.

Incense trimmings fall into the hopper under the extruder.

Trimmed sticks.
After leaving the extruding station the sticks  of incense are transferred from the wooden boards onto larger shelves and trimmed once more.  The shelves are stacked for drying.

Sticks given final trim.

Our guide explains the process.

Bundles of incense sticks.
Finally, once dry, the sticks are bundled for shipping. I assume the factory which handles the bulk of production is automated but it was nice to get a glimpse of an older tradition.

Many fragrances and shapes from which to choose.
When compared to Shoyeido's incense, American scented candles seem crude and blunt, so for home fragrance we now order incense, as Shoyeido offers mail-order (the company has a branch in Boulder, Colorado.) The assortment packs we like come with a small holder for the sticks.

Beautiful packaging.

Sticks and round holder.

To learn more, consider The Book of Incense, by Kiyoko Morita, ISBN 978-4-7700-3050-4. The Metropolitan Museum in New York also provides information on  Japanese incense, with a slide show of lovely incense burners.