You might have been wondering where incense came from, how it was made, by what kind of magic a sublime scent could emanate from such a tiny burnt stick?
The Parisian maison Astier de Villatte, handmade ceramic makers, in collaboration with the creative agency NØRTH SEA AIR, has gone on a trip to discover Awaji, a Japanese island that offers everything you could dream of : hot springs, spectacular landscapes, temples and sanctuaries, white sand beaches, culinary delights, and all the rest. But for now we’ll be talking about their incense, that’s made according to the traditions and ancestral techniques of this island, wisely nicknamed “the island of incense”. Because in addition to making the fanciest ceramics of Paris, Astier de Villatte also makes the world’s best incense, and it comes to life here, on Awaji island.
The legend of Awaji
There’s an old legend, over five thousand years old, that says fishermen from the island found and burned a branch of wood that was washed-up off the Osaka bay. From this branch came a magnificent scent, so nice that the fishermen made it an offering to the Imperial house. That wood was none other than Jinkoh, which became essential to the production of traditional Japanese incense. From then onwards, the path of Awaji was traced and the island was fully devoted to incense manufacture.
“Jinkoh wood”, “Agar wood” or even “Oud wood“
This wood is called many different things depending on the culture and country, and in Japan it’s Jinkoh wood, the “drowned perfume“. That wood comes from Aquilaria, a tree that has been renowned for milleniums for its black, resinous wood, with medicinal and of course fragrant properties. The part used for the production of incense is the richest in sap, that is to say the reaction from the tree to a wound or a parasite.
It’s in 1850 that the manufacture of incense is developed and its reputation spreads through Japan. The climate of the island makes it very favorable, its westerly wind they call Nishi-kare is ideal for drying incense. The incense is handmade by the Koh-shis, “aroma masters”, according to a tradition that is over one thousand years old, and that has been passed from father to son.
Only them have mastered perfectly the four steps of the production, including the dosage of exclusively natural substances (precious wood, herbs and plants, vegetable resins, perfumes) that, once they’re mixed with water, form a paste, that is worked with millstones. Then comes the cutting of this paste, that has been rolled into long thin ribbons, or in the shape of spaghetti, to be more eloquent. The sticks are then dried in the west wind for three days, then assembled in bundles and tied up.
Photo credits : NØRTH SEA AIR
It’s hard to imagine that such a savoir-faire could still be used nowadays and that’s what makes this history so rich. A mastery that has been taught and shared over several generations, people working with passion, patience and love, traditional work tools, and so many other things that Ivan Pericoli and Benoît Astier de Villatte, founders of the maison Astier de Villatte, learned while playing the game of incense making on the island of incense.
We’re now realizing the beautiful and grand history that’s hidden behind the small incense stick we like to burn, when we think about it, after a long day, in hopes of relaxing and taking a trip through its fragrance…
Discover the beautiful images shot by the NØRTH SEA AIR team during Astier de Villatte’s trip on Awaji island :
Photo credits : NØRTH SEA AIR
Now it’s your turn to be a part of that trip, and discover our selection of incense by Astier de Villatte :