Visiting INCENSE MAKERS Kuumba International
Hundreds of varieties of incense sit neatly arranged on the store’s main display. Apart from incense, Kuumba sells a huge array of candles and other home fragrance products and accessories.
Yoyogi Park sits in West Tokyo, a surprising and serene respite from the bustle of the city. To the park’s south sit Shibuya and Shinjuku, the vibrant, stylish districts that are home to some of Japan’s best-known streetwear brands. On the southwest corner of Yoyogi Park lies the quiet neighbourhood of Tomigaya. Nestled on a backstreet that leads off from the neighbourhood’s main intersection is the Kuumba Book Shop, home of renowned Japanese lifestyle brand Kuumba International. Finding the store wasn’t easy; like many of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets they remain elusive and extremely well hidden but, luckily, all we had to do was follow our noses.
For over two decades Kuumba have been producing traditionally made, premium quality incense using a meticulous process of naturally and artificially scenting various raw materials, such as agarwood, sandalwood, and even bamboo. They’ve put out collaborations with the likes of Neighborhood, Supreme and, of course, us, producing the exclusive scent, ‘Nirvana’, available at the Goodhood store. On an unusually warm September afternoon, we visited Eiji Koyama, founder of Kuumba International, to talk falafel, mixing high-end with street, and why his incense is much more than just a scent.
Left to right: Kuumba’s incense burning outside meant it wasn’t hard to find the store, despite how hidden down a small back street it appeared. | Eiji had in his store over 3000 different jars of scented oils from all over the world, from which Kuumba incense is made
It’s Swahili for ‘creation’. Creation International. Kuumba is not for money; it’s a lifestyle. Enjoy.
...So how do you make Kuumba incense?
We do it all here, we basically mix wood powder and bamboo sticks with oil. We have so many different types of oil, 3000 kinds from everywhere; Japan, Egypt, Tunisia… everywhere, man. China, everywhere, everything, man. Everything I like, I get it, and I mix it.
But how did you get into creating incense?
So many people ask me that… it’s stupid man! I’ve been in this business twenty-four, five, six years now, I don’t know. But one thing I do know about, I can read the mind. I read minds every day. One each day, and each time a different mind. If people want a particular kind of smell I can divide it up, you know. It makes sense to know each individual component of the item you’re creating. It’s just like cooking, that’s why I opened up the falafel café [in Shinsen], you know. Have you been there? You should go, man.
Eiji peeks out from behind his desk in the cluttered office upstairs from the shop. His office had all manner of books, collectables, and artwork surrounding him as he worked.
Every time I’ve been to New York or Paris I’d eat falafel and, in Japan, there’s no good falafel, so I opened a falafel café. My falafel is dangerous, a different kind of falafel. You check it, you eat it, and you talk to me...
You travelled a lot when you were younger, right?
I graduated from high school in Arizona. There were just cacti though! There was literally nothing else there! But, say, in Tokyo and New York, maybe London, there’s fucking too much shit! Too much hype! I’ve travelled around a lot.
...And you've been to Jamaica a lot too?
Yes, when I was 20.
Did you practice Rastafarianism there?
I didn’t practice; it was just a natural thing for me. I met Augustus Pablo and his doctor, Dr Bagga, from Rockers, there. I had a good relationship with them but sadly they’re both dead now, which is why I don’t go to Jamaica anymore.
Clockwise from top left: Eiji’s personal incense burning tray. He told us he had a particular fondness for Louis Vuitton. | Slick, minimal Japanese design is a huge part of Kuumba’s brand, right down to the cards displayed in their Kuumba Du Falafel restaurant. | A few select pieces from Eiji's vast, eclectic incense holder collection.
When I was young, when I was a dread, I always cared about Haile Selassie. Green, gold, and red. Rastafari. Now I’ve cut my dreadlocks, but if you cut me in half you’d see I’m red, gold, and green inside. I don’t need big dreadlocks. I need to be I; I need to be by myself. That’s real Rasta… You can’t just say ‘this is Rasta, this isn’t Rasta’, you can’t judge that. It’s a natural thing. It’s not a religion. That’s how I feel.
Kuumba started life as a Barber Shop, is that true?
Yeah, it was called Kuumba’s Barber Shop. I put in some 50s/60s style barber chairs and a 50” TV. Kids would come and play some PlayStation, Winning Eleven, bet some money, and grab some incense. That’s what I put on, in Harajuku, my hood. That was the first shop. I grew up in Harajuku with Sk8thing and Hiroshi [Fujiwara], I knew them from elementary school, skating every day. I’ve known them a long time.
So you’ve seen the scene grow, it’s world famous now, Hiroshi and all those names you’ve mentioned…
Oh yeah, but not me! [laughs] Incense is something you don’t see. They’re not things, scents… If you buy them, you can smell them. It’s a moment… Your brain smells scents? I don’t believe that. Too much ‘brain business’, my pet hate. It’s much deeper. It’s much more natural than that.
Packs of incense stacked tidily according to fragrance in Kuumba’s stock room. Every aspect of the Kuumba Book Shop had an innate air of Japanese neatness to it.
Yeah. Well, when people ask me ‘what’s your favourite smell?’, I never answer. It’s zero, nothing. It’s white. It’s zero. I like what I like; I don’t stick with one thing. That’s how I approach music too. I listen to everything. I don’t give a fuck. People are people, male or female, black or white, straight or gay, it doesn’t matter to me.
So, working together excites me. Many people come to me, bringing ideas to collaborate on. I ask people if we can collaborate too, and if we can, we work together. Let’s collaborate on shit! But some people only bring business. ‘How much?’ ‘How many?’ ‘Waa waa waa’… I don’t have time for that bullshit, pardon my language.
You’ve got lots of Louis Vuitton things here… What’s your perception of luxury branding, and how does that influence Kuumba?
Like I said, I don’t stick with any one thing. I like what I like. I buy it, and I gain experience from it. Fashion, music, clothing, you name it…
Left to right: Leather-bound folders for customers to flick through containing sample packs of all the varieties of incense Kuumba have made, all meticulously ordered. | A variety of Kuumba fragrance diffusers on display, with corresponding pots of oil for customers to smell.
Is it a question of balance? Kuumba is quite an earthy product, but it has a very high-end approach…
Sometimes I do high-end, sometimes I do ghetto shit. If the spirit is right, I do it. If the concept is good, I do it. Falafel… Incense… Some people are like “What? That’s shit, that’s street!” But I like street, when it’s done high-end. That’s what we do. We make sticks, oils, everything. We can even do matches too. It’s important that the scents smell good, but it’s more important to think about how you’re going to tell the story. That’s why we’ve done the shop like this.
Any last thoughts?
Enjoy your life... I don’t come from the countryside; I come from Tokyo, right in the middle of all of this. Harajuku is where I was born, so I don’t need the hassle. I don’t need hype.