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Takeshi and Chieko Baba

Cedar Incense Artisan, Baba Watermill 

"I am happy when my customers are happy using my incense.  I have made peace with not having a successor, it is what it is, just wondering about my customers that someday they can no longer get my product when I cannot produce them anymore." 

 

- Takeshi Baba

This is one of the most powerful and respectable artisan's story I have encountered in my years of traveling.  Please spare some time to read Takeshi and Chieko Baba's story of resilience and dedication.

Please support Baba's product and spread the story. 

Century-old Watermill

In 1918, 21 advocates from the village gathered 2,360yen (US$24), equivalent to today's 60 million yen (US$560K), dug a canal and built a watermill as a co-op to service the community.  Watermills had been supporting a variety of industries from paper-making to rice milling. In 1964, the plant was taken over by Tsugio Baba, whom used the mill as a cedar powder manufacturing plant.  Takeshi Baba, son of Tsugio, was still in junior highschool then.  

At its peak, Yame region had 40 watermills producing fine cedar powder, a raw material for making incense.  However, in the 70s, incense makers switched to importing cheaper raw material from Indonesia, China and Vietnam. At the same time, electric-powered factories for mass production started replacing old water mills.  Many local old mills were forced out of business. Currently, Baba Water Mill is the only remaining watermill cedar powder manufacturer in the region.  

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True Artisanship

Beyond guarding a family business, Takeshi Baba is committed in producing quality raw material to incense makers. Incense is something close to the heart, the soul and the body; it is a tribute to gods and ancestors, and used for personal meditation or aromatic enjoyment. As incense is not regulated like food product, consumers would have no knowledge about artificial fragrance, coloring or chemical additives in the incense they purchased.  

"I supply cedar powder, my labor of love, to incense makers, but once out of my hands, my material is being mixed with other cheaper imported material or additives to become commercialized products.  The raw material is natural and product should come out natural.  But what they sell are in green or purple color.... I don't know what kind of products our cedar powder and tabu powder are being used to make."

 

For that reason, in 2000, Baba decided to make his own incense, using the best cedar powder he and his wife diligently produced.  Baba proudly lists the ingredients on the package that many products in the market would not.   

Guarding the Watermill with Heart and Soul

Watermills are very difficult to manage.  In the middle of the night, if Baba hears an unusual sound coming from the water wheel, he would jump out of bed and check on the water wheel.  The diameter of the wheel is 5.5 meters (18 ft), if the axis starts to deviate, overtime it will become a big distortion. It requires regular maintenance to prevent it from malfunctioning.  The man-made canal needs up-keeping and the wooden wheel needs regular maintenance to prevent the wood from decaying. "That's nature.  If we borrow the forces of nature, we should be responsible in up-keeping and protecting it"  said Baba.  Growing up with nature and calling himself "the wild child", Baba believes in sustainable practices, using natural renewable resource.  

The Decision

The life span of a watermill is about 20 years. Right before Baba's 60th birthday, he decided to rebuild it. He hoped to keep it going, even if only for 10 more years.  The waterwheel he took over from his father is a valuable asset and is symbolic to the village. The decision was a difficult one for the couple, as it costs a lot of money and there will be no one to succeed the business.  Nonetheless, he spent 3 years looking for the right cedar tree in the mountain for the new water wheel while collecting cedar leaves. 

 

Local watermill carpenters, the father and son dual, Shohei and Hidetaka Nose, were commissioned to rebuild the waterwheel. After 3 years of planning and building, in 2008, a new waterwheel was finally installed. 

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All-natural Cedar Leaf Incense

Hand-Made by Takeshi & Chieko Baba 

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"I couldn't do anything else, so I'm hanging on to this job." Baba laughed. As long as he is physically capable, he wants to continue running the watermill. "So grateful that we live here and are blessed with a little of nature's generosity.  I want to protect and sustain a local traditional craft industry."

Baba is now in his 70s.  The water mill just celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2018.  Baba and Chieko are still hands-on in every single step of the process, from gathering cedar leaves to packaging incense.  They are committed to keep operating the mill for as long as they can.  

​Photo ©Noriko Masuda

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Sign board

Commemorating the rebuilding of the waterwheel by Takeshi Baba in 2008.