“This is hard work, but we need to keep it alive,” charcoal maker Kotani Yasuyoshi often said to his son about their profession. Sumiyaki, or charcoal-making, is a regional tradition in the town of Nosé where they lived.
The charcoal from Nosé (pronounced “no say”) and the surrounding area, located at the northern tip of Osaka prefecture, is known as “Ikeda charcoal.” This charcoal is renowned for its exceptional quality, especially among practitioners of the Japanese Way of Tea who use the charcoal to boil water in an iron kettle on a brazier. With the oldest written record of this charcoal going back to the 15th century, the Ikeda brand has been around for more than half a millennium.
But when demand for charcoal in Japan plummeted after the Second World War, the number of people making it also declined rapidly. The older Kotani-san feared that this local knowledge would soon disappear, so he took up the profession after retiring from a 40 year career as a civil servant in Osaka prefecture. He continued this work until he passed away in 2008.
This winter, I visited his son, Kotani Yoshitaka, who is following in the footsteps of his father to continue this tradition. I was accompanied by Fukuhata Shingo, a local green woodworker and owner of a popular log-cabin café called Soto. Fukuhata-san is a passionate advocate for local wood culture and he first introduced me to the unique charcoal-making tradition of Nosé back in 2020.
“A good piece of charcoal creates a lot of heat,” Kotani-san says as he points to the pieces of charcoal burning in a small grill in his office. They resemble elegant black flowers, and as they softly crackled, the sweet smell of wood wafted in the air. “They smell good, don’t they?” he remarked and gave a satisfactory grin.
The charcoal, rather poetically, is called “chrysanthemum charcoal” or kikusumi because the end grain pattern resembles the flower’s blossom. The best quality charcoal is almost perfectly round, tightly wrapped in a thin bark, with lines radiating from the center. It holds its shape as it burns, and eventually turns into ash that looks like a white flower.
It was February and peak charcoal-making season, which is from October until April when the trees go into dormancy. We first walk down to the kiln at the bottom of the hill. “The quality of the wood, the structure of the kiln, and how they are loaded inside is key to achieving high quality,” Kotani-san explains. We then walk up the hill where his apprentice is tending to a kiln billowing smoke. “We fire the kiln non-stop for a few months,” Kotani-san says. “This is because it’s more efficient to empty and fill the kiln while it’s still hot, usually around 90 °C (194 ºF).”
Cutting, transferring, and putting wood in the hot kiln is grueling work and several helping hands are needed. Kotani-san said that he once emptied the kiln while it was 100°C (212 ºF) inside. “At the time I was fine, so I thought, hey, 100°C is not a problem. A little later my eyes started hurting so I went to the eye-doctor, and he asked if I had been on an Arctic expedition. I had something similar to snow blindness in my eyes, so I stopped going into the kiln when it’s too hot.” He chuckled.
The wood used for kikusumi is kunugi, a type of oak that is harvested locally. To efficiently harvest wood for energy, the Japanese have devised a forestry method called “daiba” meaning tree platform. In this method, only the top part of the tree is cut and harvested, leaving around 6 feet of the base and roots intact. New shoots (which are straight and easy to cut and handle) sprout from the base, which can be harvested every 7-8 years. This forestry method is said to have been in use since the 15th century.
“People often think charcoal making is destructive to the environment because a lot of trees are cut down, but it is not,” Kotani-san explains.
In areas where human settlement and activity has been present for centuries in rural Japan, a unique eco-system has developed where nature and people support each other. In these areas, called satoyama, human intervention is vital to the health of the natural environment. Daiba kunugi is one such example because it requires regular rotational harvesting of the shoots to keep them healthy.
In recent years, the Nosé community have come together to preserve the daiba kunugi forest by helping to plant new trees and tend to existing ones. I’m starting to see a pattern in places where local culture is being reinvigorated. In these communities, ordinary people who understand the stories behind the old traditions join up and commit to providing the necessary support to preserve the culture and the environment.
In Japan, kikusumi is mostly unknown to people other than the practitioners of the Way of Tea. But Kotani-san and the Nosé community want to change that. “Charcoal is a great deodorizer and humidity remover, and they have so many other uses,” he says. “I want everyone to know its beauty and propose new ways of bringing charcoal into peoples’ lives.”
Until recently, the Japanese postal service did not allow charcoal to be shipped abroad, but Kotani-san worked out an agreement with Japan Post so he can legally ship charcoal to the U.S. with a special label. He dreams that people all over the world will learn to enjoy his beautiful charcoal. “Maybe it is a uniquely Japanese sensibility to find elegance in charcoal,” he says, “but I feel that I’m playing a part in spreading and passing on that special sensibility to the next generations.”