A Kiln, a Branch and the Sea: The Making of Binchotan Charcoal

For all the attention given to the wonders of activated charcoal, you’d think the craze was a recent phenomenon. In fact, Binchotan charcoal is a product of one of the oldest civilizations in the world.  From its humble beginnings in the fire pits of Wakayama to its modern usages as water purifier and cleanser, it's a natural resource that continues to fascinate.  

Japanese charcoal-making goes back to the Jomon period, around 12,000 BC. During that prehistoric time, people mostly lived in simple huts and hunted and gathered for sustenance, and charcoal was used mostly for cooking and stoking fires. By the modern Edo period, high-quality charcoal made in Kishu (taken from Ubame oak and named Binchotan) was widely lauded for its natural purifying qualities.  It became so valuable that producers would exchange pieces of Binchotan charcoal as payment. To this day, Ubame oak is the official tree of Wakayama Prefecture.

Binchotan charcoal is made from carbonized Ubame oak, a prized Japanese lumber valued for its ability to hold heat and yield a long burn. It grows in the coastal region of Kishu, which has an ideal rainy and warm climate. Even the natural materials used in Binchotan charcoal firings -fire-resistant red clay and rocks- are local to this area and easy to harvest.

Binchotan charcoal is made using a specialty fig-shaped kiln known as a Bincho Kiln. Built with red clay cut from the mountains of Kishu, Bincho Kilns can reach temperatures of 1000C and conduct heat for weeks on end. Binchotan craftsmen vertically line up branches inside the Bincho Kiln and supervise the 1000C firing, which can take up to fourteen days. After the coals become red-hot, the charcoal is pulled out and quickly smothered with a mixture of ash, earth, and sand to cool and carbonize the wood. It’s a time-consuming process, and not everyone can do it: Binchotan craftsmen train for years to develop the skills necessary to make the best possible natural product. 

Vintage footage of a Japanese charcoal craftsman working, filmed for the BBC in 1933. 

Though Japan produces a total amount of 1,800 tons of charcoal per year, Binchotan charcoal is manufactured in extremely low qualities and only 3% of Japan’s charcoal production is made in Kishu. You can tell the difference between Binchotan charcoal and normal charcoal by simply knocking two branches together: while normal charcoal makes a dry,  sound, Binchotan charcoal makes a metallic clank not unlike porcelain.

WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN