Senko Incense Produced Sustainably

Visit any Japanese Buddhist temple, or any Japanese home that maintains a Buddhist altar and you are bound to encounter Japanese senko, sticks of incense lit and stood in the ash accumulated in the bottom of an incense burner. Incense is thought to purify the air and sharpen or attune the mind. Some people even say it summons the gods.

Senko comes in many forms and in many scents. Perhaps its purest, and most Japanese, form is stick senko made from cedar.

Komamura Seimeido in Ishioka, Ibaraki has been manufacturing cedar senko sticks for over a century. Its process is a paragon of sustainability.

Fifth generation proprietor Komamura Michihiro is proud of his operation and happy to show it off.

Komamura Seimeido’s senko begins from the cedar. Local woodsmen know Komamura’s operation and when they go out to fell trees, they give him a call. Most of Japan’s forest are maintained with selective cutting, rather than clear cutting. So when a tree is felled, it helps the woodsmen if Komamura-san can come and remove the green sprays while they take away the logs. In this way, nothing from the tree is wasted.

Komamura-san and his crew bind the sprays into bundles to dry. In his yard he has stacks of bundles at various stages in the drying process.

Once the bundles are sufficiently dried, the leaves are separated from the branchlets and put through an initial crushing to begin to break them down.

While “recycling” sprays from felled cedar trees has already put this product on the sustainability charts, the crushing process takes that sustainability to a completely different level. It is all done through the power of water: an old fashioned water wheel.

The wheel doesn’t usually spin this fast. Komamura-san turned up the volume of water in the mill race to show off for his visitors.

Inside the watermill, the power generated by the water wheel turns the blades to perform the initial crushing function.

Komamura-san usually stores the initially crushed leaves in a bin until he needs powder to actually make incense.

Then the power of the water wheel is again put to work, further crushing the leaves.

Eventually the leaves are crushed into a fine powder.

To produce incense from this powder it is mixed with hot water and cooked into a thick “dough”. Often green coloring is added, although sometimes the dough is left in its natural color.

This dough is then fed through a press that spits it out as sticks. These are captured onto a board that is placed on a conveyor belt through a device that cuts the sticks in half and trims the ends producing a uniform product.

Each board of incense sticks is then placed into a rack for several days to dry before being packaged for shipment and sale. Simple and sustainable. I think I could happily watch that water wheel for hours, but Komamura Seimeido is only open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and is closed on Sundays.

©2022 and Vicki L. Beyer
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