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Sakai Incense

"Listen" to these fragrances and you'll come to appreciate the rigor with which their ingredients are selected and wonder at the mystery of their formulation.

Mixing carefully selected, natural spices


It is said that incense manufacturing in Japan began about 400 years ago in Sakai using techniques that originated in China before coming to Japan by way of the Korean peninsula. It is thought that it would have been easy to gather the aromatic woods that serve as the raw ingredients in the production of incense in Sakai, which was a free city at the time and one of Japan's few ports of trade. The art of incense became popular along with that of the tea ceremony during the Muromachi period, and it is at this time that the techniques for formulating original fragrances developed. It is also believed that the large number of temples in Sakai-the area is second only to Kyoto and Nara-also contributed to the development of incense production. The ingredients out of which incense is made include aromatic wood such as aloes wood and sandalwood as well as spices and Chinese herbal medicines. Sakai incense created using meticulous formulations of carefully chosen natural ingredients has long enjoyed a reputation as a prime luxury item. Some deluxe incense products continue to be formulated manually by skilled craftsmen, even in this time of process mechanization and computer-controlled formulation. The exact ratios of ingredients used to make incense have been closely guarded by manufacturers and passed down from generation to generation, with each generation making adjustments for the tastes of their own times. The art of incense, or kodo, describes the process of enjoying incense as "listening to the fragrance." Listen carefully to the fragrances of Sakai incense, perfected with a unique formulation process, and you're sure to hear the energy, history, and tradition of Sakai-not to mention the dedication of the craftsmen who created it.

Mixing the old and the new


Contemporary interest in emotional and spiritual relaxation has created a new role for fragrances, emphasizing the importance of incense created for its aroma alongside incense intended for use in Buddhist religious services. Research into the effects of aromatherapy has been accompanied by a divergence of the applications for incense, which now serves also as an aromatic with flower scents such as lavender. Proud of their history and traditions, Sakai's incense manufacturers work to create a new culture of fragrance that transcends the fashion of the moment. They carefully combine the weight and warmth of tradition with a more relaxed approach that gives birth to this new culture.

Example of the incense process

(1)Ingredients are gradually ground to create a powder. Several of these powders are then weighed and mixed according to a secret family recipe.

(2)Dyes and powdered camphor for increasing the viscosity of the mixture are added. Deep red dye is added to create a rich, crimson color.

(3)In a process called kneading, the mixture is mixed with hot water at about 80°C and kneaded with a mixer for about 30 minutes until it reaches a clay-like consistency. The amount of hot water varies slightly according to the ratio of the mixture's ingredients. The interior of the mixer is made of brass to prevent color changes due to the heat.

(4)The cylinder-shaped mixture produced in step (3), called a "ball," is placed in an extruder, which applies pressure to push the mixture out into thin, noodle-shaped strips. The clay-like strips are deposited on a tray and cut to a fixed length with a bamboo spatula, which individual craftsmen are said to carve into shapes of their own liking. The ability to cut the incense into thick, uniform pieces that appear to have been cut with a knife is a skill that takes time to develop.

(5)In the next step, called nama, the strips of incense are picked up from the tray between the bamboo spatula and the palm of the craftsman's hand and laid out on a dryer. The strips break if excessive force is used when picking them up.

(6)Once they have been laid out on the drier, the incense is partially covered with a sheet and cut with a roller-type cutter. The work up to this stage must be completed before the incense dries.

(7)In the drying room there is a two-layered window called a bekako with an adjustable-width slit through which air can pass. In recent times, air conditioning has also come into wide use.

(8)Sticks that curled during drying are removed, and the remaining incense is bundled together. The amount of time required for the fragrance of the mixed spices to be released varies, so the incense is allowed to sit in bundles before being wrapped and packaged.

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