Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Yawaraka: Essential oils from Yakushima

Along the trail I often stop by an old log, probably from a Yakusugi cut down in Edo times and now covered in moss and draped with the roots of other plants. From appearances, it looks like any old, rotten log, except that a section of moss has been scraped off to reveal the fresh wood underneath. Fresh. . . even after hundreds of years in the forest. I brush my fingernail across the small spot rubbed clean by other guides over the years, and lower my nose to take a whiff of the pine-like scent of cryptomeria. Most of my Japanese clients appreciate this scent as the soothing, familiar smell of wooden architecture, and everyone agrees that after walking for a couple hours along the railroad tracks, it offers a refreshing sensation.
Yawaraka: Essential oils
from the forests of Yakushima

The aromas of the forest are believed to relieve stress, heighten alertness, perhaps even ward off senility, and in this country of mountains and forests, it's no wonder that one of the latest trends in Japan's aroma industry is a shift from foreign florals to comfortingly familiar forest scents. In Yakushima, the small company leading trend is Yawaraka.

Founded in 2012, Yawaraka is an enterprise born of the incessant rains and powerful sunshine that nurture the ancient forests of Yakushima. The headquarters is built along an open stretch of the main road, but the bustle of traffic disappears as I step inside the foyer and close the door behind me.

Instantly, I am transported to a world of moss and mist as I am enveloped in soft forest scents -- so different from the haute pretences of floral perfumes.  Warm lighting, the tingle of music, and soft chatter spilling out from the private aroma therapy room add to the sensual experience.  Yuka, the manager, and the staff greet me and ask after my boyfriend, who has worked with them in the past.

Tasteful display of
essential oils
I run my eyes and nose over bottles of essential oils labeled cryptomeria leaves (the scent of walking through a Japanese sugi forest), cryptomeria trunk (the scent of fresh architecture, or a wood factory), ginger, tankan orange, and Japanese cinnamon. This last one intrigues me. It is the minty, vaguely medicinal smell of a wild laurel that grows rampant in the woods outside of town. However, I am told, it is not yet cultivated, so workers must toil to retrieve enough material from the woods to make the oil. Furthermore, the scent of the pure oil is so overwhelming that it must be mixed with other scents, such as mint. Nevertheless, it is a scent that many of my clients love so much that I often stop the car to pick a leaf or two for them to carry in their pocket.

Yuica: Essential oils from
the forests of Japan
On one end of the display, I am surprised to spot bottles labeled yuica. This is a nationally recognized brand renowned for harvesting familiar forest scents from throughout Japan and mixing them with rice oil as a carrier. By coincidence I used to work in a lab engaged in preliminary research on the stress-reducing effects of their products.

On the right side of the room is a low table, where patrons can browse and select scents to create personalized concoctions, sort of like selecting trees to grow in a mixed forest and recreate the island atmosphere.

On the left side of the room is a display tastefully depicting the process through which the essential oils are distilled, but today, the staff asks if I would like to see the factory in the room next door. Outside, several racks of ginger are drying in the sunshine. Inside, several crates of tankan oranges are waiting to be peeled. The back of the room is dominate by the distillation machinery.

Distilling the magic.
The distiller itself looks a lot simpler than I had imagined. It is easy to see how
plant material is steamed in the right side and the resulting vapors are collected on the left side in a jug. After the jug fills up with clear floral water, the essential oils sold in the main room are syphoned from the top. It takes a lot of raw material to produce a few ounces of essential oil.

Yuka opens a large refrigerator to show me smaller jugs of dark, murky water. This is the water that boils up through the raw material but simply condenses and falls back down without making it to the jug of floral water on the right of the distiller. It is called "thick water" or "deep water," and although it is essentially a waste product, it contains many molecules released from the raw plant matter, and the company is exploring its potential uses. I like it. As I visit different companies around the island, I continue to encounter the theme of minimal waste and intuitive use of byproducts.

In addition to selling aroma goods and treatments, Yawaraka also offers workshops, helping visitors and residents and visitors alike to experience harmony with nature as they create hand-made products or learn therapeutic care.

Yawaraka is located about halfway between the port of Miyanoura and the airport near the Shimo-Makino bus stop. Prices start around 1200 yen to blend your original aroma spray. Essential oils are more expensive and vary with tree species. Please check business hours because the scent lab is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and "s.p.a." treatments are also not available on Thursdays.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, and Yuka does amazing massages in a little villa uphill from the fragrance lab, complete with the sounds of a neighboring stream and, of course, your personalized mix of oils.


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