In the process of making binchotan charcoal at Mr. Kotani’s kiln.
I visited the Kishu binchotan charcoal kilns in Wakayama pref. last month. Binchotan is very good fuel. Many Japanese chefs prefer it for grilled foods such as yakitori (grilled chicken on bamboo skewers), unagi (eel) and robatayaki (traditional Japanese indoor grill). Chefs appreciate that binchotan hold heat and last longer, giving dished savory smell. However it’s so much more than just that.
Kishu binchotan can be used to purify tap water, capture moisture and odors from the air and fertilize soil in the garden. They say the process of making charcoal leaves countless microscopic holes, which trap unwanted chemicals.
Kishu binchotan is made with ubamegashi, or oak trees. The trees grow slowly and it takes about 30 years to become solid enough for charcoal making. Binchotan is produced primarily in Wakayama Prefecture (Kishu). It’s reputation for being the highest quality charcoal combined with its long history has put binchotan in the spotlight not only in Japan but on an international scale.
I visited Mr.Hara’s and Mr.Kotani’s kilns with a friend of mine along with Ms.Kakimoto, who is a staff member of Kishu Binchotan Shinkoukan (The Association for Promotion of Kishu Binchotan) in Minabe-cho, Wakayama pref. On our way to the kilns, Ms.Kakimoto explained that the binchotan business was facing serious difficulties. They have plenty of new orders, but they can’t fill them on account of a shortage of raw materials.
Mr.Hara is putting ubamegashi branches into the kiln with the traditional way.
Even though he has to work very hard, Mr. Hara himself, and other passionate artisans as well, is considering about the shortage of ubamegashi trees. The shortage was caused by excessive cutting without planning. Inexperienced charcoal artisans who have just come into the industry only for money are likely to cut as much as they want. So, the forest of ubamegashi trees is diminishing year by year. Mr. Hara said that the same things happened in Edo period. He knows how people in Edo period coped with the problem and he has started taking an action on the issue, that is, “takubatsu,” or selective logging. Generally, ubamegashi trees have many branches. What Mr. Hara is doing is taking some of them for this year and leave rest of them for next year and after the following years. Moreover, he has started planting baby trees in mountains and educating children on how we preserve the forest for the future.
What a fool we are. Once we get to know that it’s a very effective way to earn much money, we crowd around it and take it out until it would dry up. We have repeated this kind of things over and over again.
Tsukubai stone at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. Photo: wikipedia
I’ve learned a lot from this trip thanks to them.
Detail information about Kishu binchotan charcoal (Japanese)
Minabegawa forest association
Mr. Hara’s interview
Mr. Kotani’s website
Mr.Matsumoto’s interview, the representative of Minabegawa forest assosiation
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