Many thanks to Ross Urrere for sharing this excellent write up of last weekend’s incense demonstration at the Buddhist Churches of America.
This Saturday, the gentlemen from Japan Incense, Kotaro Sugimoto and Jay Cowan, gave an incense demonstration and talk at the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) Bookstore, located in Berkeley, California. A very appropriate venue as the Buddhist Church there uses quite a lot of incense in their daily devotions. It was a somewhat small crowd but a very enthusiastic one. For those who were there it was quite a treat. Japan Incense has some very deep connections with the Awaji Island Koh-shi (meaning Incense Master or Meister) group. Awaij Island is responsible for about 70% of the incense production in Japan. The group has about 14 or so companies within it. You could think of it as the Silicon Valley of the incense world.
Of course there was incense burning within the lecture area and many different styles and types were burned for the group to sample. A wonderful floral style based on the Osmanthus flower from China followed by Fu-in Kyara (a very rare and wonderful scent) and then on to a sampling of a piece of pure Sandalwood roasted over a burning bamboo coal were just some of scents on hand.
While all this was going on Jay and Kotaro gave a slide presentation of the actual process of incense making in Japan. These had been taken during their many visits to Japan. This was not your average sightseeing excursion or show and tell that tourists would see. This is where the deep connections became really apparent. We got to see three different eras of incense making techniques from how it was done about 60-80 years ago up to the latest computer controlled factories. It is incredibly rare to get to see this kind of thing, very few people outside the actual employees of the companies are ever allowed into the factories. There are people in these factories that have been in incense production for over 50 years. Jay mentioned that part of one plant had been set up so this one particular person (in his late 70s I believe) could continue to be a part of the process. He could actually outpace the 20 year old helper he had next to him. At the same time another factory is run by a man who is in his early 30s. Plus all the different companies tend to look out for and help each other. What a great attitude and set of ethics. Even better when you consider that they are making something that is very healing and centering by its nature.
Some of the images that stood out for me were of the bag of gold flecks used in a special incense to celebrate the New Year, the huge climate controlled garden where various plants could be grown as possible new scents for future incenses, and the huge list of ingredients that can go into an incense formula (not that we got to see the formulas, those are a closely guarded secret of each company). The cleanliness of the factories themselves, some of them were almost surgically clean. Having been a glassblower at one point and remembering just how messy the production floor could get, I was really blown away by this. One thing that really stood out was the attention to even the smallest details within the process, be it equipment, environmental control, raw materials and handling or honoring the employees and their contributions to the company.
One of the things about incense that was pointed out was that it is now used for more then just religious or spiritual practices. That burning incense just for the sheer enjoyment of the scent and the ambiance it creates has become a part of the culture both within Japan and the world. Kotaro, who is something of a gourmet, mentioned that sandalwoods go well with white wines, aloeswoods with reds and the floral scents go well with dessert. I personally find it is wonderful to come home after work and burn some favorite incenses to help unwind from the day. In other words, you can use incense to increase your enjoyment of many different areas of your life.
After seeing this presentation I went home and looked at a box of incense with a whole new level of awareness. The vast resources necessary in time, energy and knowledge to make just one stick of incense is quite large. Especially considering that the raw ingredients are constantly changing, necessitating changes in the formulas and even techniques of production as well as supply chains. As is the balancing act of bringing all of these companies into the US market.
I would like to thank Japan Incense as well as the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) Bookstore for making this presentation happen. The Bookstore has a large assortment of many different companies’ incenses in stock in a very beautiful setting.
If you should have the chance in the future to attend one of these lectures do not miss the opportunity. Rarely is this quality and indepth information presented outside of Japan. From the beginning incense user to the long term aficionado, there is quite a lot to see and take in and both Jay and Kotaro are excellent speakers who love the subject and have much to share.
Ross Urrere for Mike’s Prattle