Incense maker going strong 12 generations into business

by David Waddell

Staff writer

KYOTO — It was originally used to keep time. Later its use spread to Buddhist ceremonies. In ancient Japan, only the nobility enjoyed it.

Nowadays, however, incense is enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Family-run incense maker Shoyeido of Kyoto has been producing it for 12 generations.

Shoyeido dates to 1705, when Rokubei Moritsune Hata set up shop not far from the site of his former employer — the Imperial royal court.

Using skills he learned while employed there, he set up his own shop and began making incense. The business he founded is still run by the Hata family at its original location at the corner of Nijo and Karasuma streets.

Modern technology is now used, but the ancient recipes kept secret by the Hata family remain, and incense meant for religious use is still made using the methods employed almost 300 years ago.

Shoyeido makes most of its incense at a modern plant in nearby Nagaokakyo; the remainder is made mainly by hand at the Karasuma facility to ensure the art of making incense is not lost and to fill special orders that cannot be made using modern methods.

Shoyeido employs 140 people at its manufacturing facilities in Kyoto and Nagaokakyo and its shops in Tokyo, Sapporo, and Boulder, Colo. Last year, the firm generated about $30 million in sales.

o the layperson, the manufacture of incense might appear rather simple, but Hirozo Kitagawa, manger of the Nagaokakyo factory, cautions that there’s more to making incense than meets the eye.

“Making incense is not difficult, but the art of blending the different raw materials to create different aromas is. I think our firm excels at this particular aspect of incense manufacturing,” he says.

The raw materials used consist mainly of sandalwood and aloewood, but also include spices like cinnamon, star anise, turmeric and cloves, and assorted tree roots, bark, leaves, seeds and resins. Even whale amber and seashells are used to add exotic scents. These ingredients are imported from Southeast Asia, India and China.

Once the ingredients are ground into a fine powder, they are carefully measured and blended to create the desired fragrance.

Next, water is added to the concoction and it is churned in a huge vat equipped with two large rotating drums. When the mixture achieves the right viscosity, it is run through a press and comes out the other end in spaghetti-like strands, which are placed in a room with fans and left to dry for three days. The incense is then cut and packaged by hand to ensure the fragile product is not broken.

According to Kitagawa, Shoyeido’s products are consumed by a broad spectrum of people, and only a fraction of the output is for religious use. The company now makes 450 different products of both traditional and modern designs that come in a wide array of shapes and sizes. The firm also sells incense accessories like burners, holders and decorative sachets.

Although the majority of Shoyeido’s incense is sold domestically, the company has been exporting its wares to the West since 1894. To establish a foothold in North America, Shoyeido set up the Boulder office in 1990. It recently started selling its products through a health-food chain in Boston.

Shoyeido President Masataka Hata is confident overseas sales will increase. However, one obstacle he faces is the impression that many Westerners have about incense.

“I’ve met some Westerners who only associate incense with hippies and religion,” he said with a laugh. “But I think the concept of what incense is used for is starting to change. With the popularity of natural products and alternative therapies, people in the West are beginning to recognize the benefits of incense.”

For information, contact www.shoyeido.com