Friday, October 20, 2023

Ibaraki Suisha Senkou Incense

Ibaraki Suisha Senkou Incense 水車線香

Ibaraki Suisha Senkou Incense
Buy incense from Ibaraki Prefecture

Incense has a long history in Japan. Ritually smoldered for its fragrance in India and China since the most ancient of times, incense was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, along with Buddhism. Incense quickly caught on at the Japanese Imperial Court. By the time of the Heian Period (794 - 1185), incense had become a vital part of life at the court. People celebrated its fragrance, people wrote poems about the beauty of the aroma. Ancient woodprint images show people gathering in the gardens of the court, enjoying the pleasure of the smells while holding poetic parties.

Samurai culture adopted incense. Warriors purified their minds and bodies with incense before heading into battle.

Waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido.
Waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido

Kodo 香道

In the 16th century, a century of much turmoil and many wars, a ceremony known as kodo (the Way of Incense) developed, alongside other by now classical Japanese ceremonies like the Tea Ceremony and Ikebana (flower arrangement).

Kodo was (and is) as strictly regimented as the Tea Ceremony with its very own set of tools and rules.

However, Kodo never caught on with the public the way the Tea Ceremony and Ikebana did.

For a very simple reason: the incense used at the Imperial Court and by the upper samurai had always been made from agarwood and / or sandalwood. Those fragrant woods had to be imported from South-East Asia or even India via China and Korea. They were incredibly expensive and only the Imperial Court, the richest of the temples and the richest of the samurai could afford real kotoboku, the most precious high-grade incense.

Buddhism had however spread all over the country, Buddhist ceremonies had become a part of daily life. All those many temples needed incense for their regular ceremonies - and they were in no position to acquire the agarwood the Imperial Court used. Thus, they turned to local sources. Cedar, lavender and other home-grown fragrant leaves and plants became the base of their incense.

Mt Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.
Mt Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture

Incense Today

Today, incense is still an integral part of any Buddhist ceremony. But more and more frequently, people use incense without any religious connotation.

They use incense sticks to clean their homes from other smells, they use them to enjoy the fragrance, or perhaps to enhance the olfactory environs when being with a partner in a romantic night. The latter being quite in accordance with the use of the fragrance in Heian times.

Walking into any Japanese supermarket or drug store presents you with a variety of incense made by major manufacturers.

But as always, there are the mass-produced products and there are the ones that have their own distinct fragrance, that have their own history, their own story.

The traditional waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido.
The traditional waterwheel at Komamura Seimeido

Suisha Senkou 水車線香

Suisha Senkou is the brand name of the incense made at the small family-run Komamura Seimeido factory deep in the countryside outside of Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture. Cedar leaf incense is the main product of the facility though other types of incense are manufactured as well.

Suisha Senkou translates to "waterwheel incense" and indeed, an ancient watermill plays an important part in the production process.

Located at the foot of Mount Tsukuba, the Komamura Seimeido is surrounded by forests and rice paddies. A very quiet area in central Ibaraki. Not really that remote from Tokyo (you can easily go there on a day trip from the city), but far away enough to be able to stroll through the rice paddies and seeing nothing but an open sky above the landscape. No high-voltage powerlines in view at all.

Right behind the small Komamura Seimeido family farm house compound, a clear little mountain stream flows by. Coming down from Mount Tsukuba, the stream flows at a pretty good speed.

That mountain stream powers an ancient waterwheel which in turn powers the mill that slowly but steadily pounds the cedar leaves used as the base of the incense sticks. The slow, water-driven pounding process brings out the full aroma of the leaves.

The Komamura Seimeido uses the ancient watermill for exactly this reason. It has been doing so for more than 100 years by now.

All ingredients, most importantly the cedar leaves are local, no chemical agents, no glue is added at all.

One small building houses the processing factory. The machines there look pretty vintage as well but are clearly from the later part of the 20th century, running on electricity.

The water-powered mill.
The water-powered mill

There, the cedar powder is turned into a hot mash which then gets pressed into thin sheets. Those sheets are immediately mechanically cut the size of incense sticks.

After a period of drying, they are wrapped up into packages ready for sale.

If you make an appointment, the master of the house will show you all the details of production himself, he will answer all your questions, and you will be able to burn a few incense sticks of various kinds to make an educated choice of what to purchase.

Cedar leaves ready for processing.
Cedar leaves ready for processing

Incense Variety

While cedar leaf incense is the main product, locally grown Tsukuba lavender, mikan (mandarin orange) peel and chrysanthemum incense are also manufactured and ready for purchase.

While a trip to the Ibaraki countryside and a visit to the Komamura Seimeido is certainly a pleasure, you can also purchase Komamura Seimeido Suisha Senkou also conveniently from Goods from Japan.

Ishioka incense.
Ishioka incense

Buy Incense From Japan

Goods from Japan offers a variety of Japanese incense.

Purchase a range of Japanese incense from GoodsFromJapan.

A worker at the press and cutting machine.
A worker at the press and cutting machine


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Vintage Komamura Seimedo Sign.
Vintage Komamura Seimedo Sign


Monday, October 16, 2023

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko: Pioneer of Women's Education in Japan

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko

by Oba Minako

Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (2021)

ISBN: 978-1-60598-071-3
263pp; hardback

Reflections on Tsuda Umeko.

On December 23, 1871, six-year-old Umeko Tsuda was put on a boat along with four other young Japanese girls and sent from Tokyo to America, tasked with the responsibility of learning the English language and American customs. She was part of the famed Iwakura Mission, assembled to renegotiate unequal treaties that Japan had signed, garner recognition for Emperor Meiji's newly reinstated imperial dynasty, and study America and its structures and systems.

By the time Tsuda returned 11 years later as an American high school graduate, Japan had lost much of its fire to learn about America and its ways, and Tsuda was met with neither excitement nor contempt, but mostly indifference. Instead of just melting back into Japan's everyday life, she took it upon herself to try to bring Japan, at least in terms of educating its girls, into modern times.     

Starting as a lowly teacher, Tsuda soon decided that she needed more education if she was to help Japanese women become full participants of society. She returned to America, graduated from Bryn Mawr College and came back to Japan where she started Joshi Eigaku Juku (Women's Institute for English Studies) to provide opportunity for a liberal arts education for all women. The school eventually became Tsuda University, and it is still one of Japan's top private universities.

Although Tsuda's accomplishments have long been well known in Japan (enough to be honored by her likeness being printed on the redesigned ¥5,000 note to be released in July, 2024), knowledge of her thinking, emotions and motivations were not. That changed in 1984 when a box of more than 400 of Tsuda's letters to her American host mother, Adeline Lanman, were discovered stuffed in an attic trunk at Tsuda University.

This discovery was partially what prompted the writing of this book by Akutagawa Prize-winning author Minako Oba, herself a Tsuda College graduate. Oba sprinkles her insights/opinions into the passages she took from Tsuda's letters to add context.

Tsuda led arguably the most interesting life of any Japanese woman born during the 19th century. During her 64 years preceding her 1929 death, she met luminaries such as U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller and many or even most of Japan's political elite of her times, including her time living with the family of Ito Hirobume when he became Japan's first prime minister in 1885.

Ito went on to be prime minister of Japan four times, and is a historical figure known to all Japanese. He was on the original Iwakura Mission, which is where he met Tsuda.

Even those not interested in Tsuda specifically will learn much from this book about Japan's 19th century thinking, culture and living conditions from Tsuda's keen observations and insights.

The book has something for pretty much everybody, and there are abundant historical tidbits which Japanophiles will surely find interesting.

As an example, Tsuda said in one of her letters that Ito was interested in Christianity and “was very angry when the newspapers wrote that he had advised the emperor to accept Christianity and all the ministers were in favor of the idea." I doubt you will find that in any textbook.

Tsuda herself had become a Christian in America.

Note: Those wanting more on Tsuda and the Iwakura Mission should check out the book Daughters of the Samurai, written by Janice P. Nimura.

Review by Marshall Hughes.

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