Emirati artisans learn the Japanese way to make incense

The Life: A 300-year-old Japanese incense company teaches innovation to Emirati women.

 5 - Februry - 2013, Sougha office, Khalifa Fund, Al Wahda Mall, Abu Dhabi  Rafeea Mohammed, 60 Years Old right   Teiji Fujimoto, the trainer from Shoyeido Incense Company training Emirati women making incense. Fatima AL Marzooqi/The National.
Powered by automated translation

In a fragrant room filled with cookie cutters, pipettes and scales, the precision of Shoyeido Incense Company from Japan taught Emirati women how to drive innovation into their homemade bukhour or incense.

For the women, a workshop on the craft passed down by their grandmothers did not make much sense at the beginning. After all, they are experienced in the way bukhour is made, and they have their customers.

Seven giggling women were incredulous about having to use pipettes and scales - "we have this room converted to a laboratory", remarked one - to enthusiastic thumping of a paste of fragrance powders and perfume oils in mortar and pestle and then by red-stained hands.

Ranging in age from 36 to 60, the Abu Dhabi women also showed off Arabic perfume oils as part of a three-day workshop last week at the offices of Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development in Abu Dhabi.

In between instructions, they dabbed thick musk or saffron oils on their trainer's wrist.

Because of language issues, they could not communicate directly to each other, except by showing their appreciation of an age-old craft.

"In the UAE there is already a great fragrance culture, so I can't teach them anything," says Teiji Fujimoto, the trainer from Shoyeido Incense. "I want to learn from them."

Mr Fujimoto's family founded the company in 1705, and his uncle is its 14th president.

He did bring something new to the table - joss powder, colours and shapes - that the women can add to the black balls of bukhour they now make in their kitchens.

With the help of a translator, Mr Fujimoto went about describing how the women can use red, pink, green and yellow food colouring.

He also showed how cookie cutters sourced from the local supermarkets can make star and heart-shaped bukhour. From Japan, he flew in wood stamps and 30 kilograms of joss powder, which acts as a cementing agent for sandalwood, agarwood and camphor powders.

"I knew Arabic people use rose and jasmine oils and agarwood," he says. "In Japan we use the same materials, but the fragrance is very different as the recipes are very different."

Japanese incense often includes such ingredients as cinnamon, sandalwood, patchouli, frankincense, root of a Chinese grass, cloves, and seashell from Africa.

Mr Fujimoto asked the Emirati women to carefully measure agarwood, frankincense and musk powder along with 10 drops of their preference of perfume oil and rose water along with joss powder. In the first trial the smell was too strong for his nose. "We need to reduce frankincense and add more oil," Mr Fujimoto said.

So what did the women feel about the experiment?

Rafeea Mohammed, 60, has been making bukhour for 15 years. She uses a perfume oil, oudh powder and musk powder, far fewer ingredients than the Japanese incense. Ms Mohammed was intrigued by the use of joss powder. She thinks the new colour and shapes might make the bukhour popular among the young people.

"It does not burn quickly," she says of the incense she made during the workshop. "I will test it at home, how soft is it, whether it burns quickly or not, and then sell."

A 20-piece box of her bukhour can sell for Dh250 (US$68).

The training was the first project for Japan's Organisation for Small & Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation in the UAE.

"The scale and volume of the [local incense] industry is small but it is very meaningful because Khalifa Fund executives told us that women in Abu Dhabi wanted to earn money from their micro businesses," says Takeshi Mizuno, the manager of the Tokyo-based organisation.

In Japan, known for the likes of Mitsubishi and Toyota, small to medium-sized businesses comprise 99 per cent of all businesses, according to a 2010 Economist Intelligence Unit report. And the sector employs 69 per cent of the population.

The local bukhour market is dominated by homemade products, and a handful of companies.

"I was surprised how people here love fragrance," Mr Fujimoto, 33, says. "In Japan these are for old people. He everyone likes it, and that was very attractive for me."