How is Japanese Incense Made?
Japanese incense is made traditionally with base materials of sandalwood, aloeswood (agarwood) and other aromatics such as resins and essential oils. Most Japanese incense is made with all-natural ingredients and although some manufacturers make use of synthetic fragrance oils and dyes, overall, Japan produce some of the highest quality, finest incenses in the world. Three of the most prominent makers of Japanese incense are Shoyeido, Nippon Kodo and Baieido.
The Production Process
Making Japanese incense involves meticulous attention to detail. The powdered forms of aromatic wood, spices and herbs are mixed together and measured carefully. The ratios between ingredients are extremely important to get right - even a slight change in blend can form an entirely different aroma when burned!
So many variables come into play when it comes to the making of Japanese incense, including the quality and origin of raw ingredients, temperature, air humidity, drying time and even the type of water used for the mixing process.
After the ingredients have been measured and mixed, the aromatic powder mixture is then sifted through to remove any dirt and impurities. This leaves behind a pure and even mix of raw materials.
The paste of aromatic materials is then pounded until it reaches the right consistency and subsequently hand rolled into long, thin noodle-like shapes.
Modern companies like Shoyeido use machines to make this process more efficient and less laborious. Instead of rolling by hand, the incense dough is compressed through a hydraulic extruding machine to produce long strands (much like a spaghetti noodle). These soft incense strands are caught by a wooden board known as a ‘Bon-ita’.
Before the drying process, the incense sticks are cut into equal lengths (short or long, depending on the desired burn time) and are then left to dry in a room where humidity and temperature must be monitored to ensure the sticks don’t dry too quickly or slowly. This is a key detail in how Japanese incense is made as slight changes in humidity and room temperature can dramatically effect the end result.
Some companies use stacks of drying boards to allow for the production of thousands of sticks in one go. Once dry, the sticks are weighed, collected into bundles appropriately and packaged for customers.
Modern vs Traditional Japanese Incense Making
Much has changed since the pre-industrial age when incense was made by hand. In our modern day, large manufacturers of incense such as Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo make Japanese incense in factories with a combination of machinery and human work. Traditionally, before the industrial revolution (and within much smaller family businesses), incense was made exclusively by human hand.
Sandalwood is one of the most popular incense ingredients used in the making of Japanese incense. The scent is often described as creamy, smooth, woody and slightly sweet. This aromatic wood has been prized for centuries particularly in India where it was used for religious purposes.
Agarwood (Kyara), Jin-koh
Also known as Aloeswood or Oud, Agarwood comes from the wood of the Aquilaria tree that has been infected by a fungus. The infected tree releases a fragrant resin that is then harvested to be used in incense. Agarwood has a distinctive woody, sweet, fruity, floral, musky scent with even hints of vanilla.
This is a sweet, warm scented resin from the tree of the family Styracaceae. Benzoin is most commonly found in tropical Sumatra and has been used in making Japanese incense for centuries. A very traditional ingredient.
Frankincense is found in the resin of trees of the Burseraceae genus. Most famous for it's appearance in the nativity as gifts from the three wise men. Historically, frankincense was one of the most valued incense materials in the world.
This crystalline material is found in the gaps of the camphor tree and has a balsamic scent. Borneol is used in the making of Japanese incense often in the form of essential oil.
A very traditional spice ingredient and one of the oldest spices known as it was traded between India, China and Egypt over 4,000 years ago! For many, the scent of cinnamon is reminiscent of autumn and winter months. Cinnamon is used in Japanese incense to offer a sweet-spicy element.