📷: fupunomori

My Wellness Journal – Japan’s forgotten distillers

Having lived outside my home country Japan for over 25 years, while studying and working in 5 different countries, it was the love for all things natural that has grounded me to my faraway home. My grandmother, who was a tea master and taught most of the traditional Japanese practices you could think of, from ikebana, calligraphy and dance, would bring me to pick wild herbs and plants grown nearby mountains where I grew up in southern part of Japan. There I encountered how the herbs and plants can be made into the concoction and their profound health benefits.

Japanese Wellness

When I started working in the fast-growing spa industry in Bali in the late 90s, I didn’t see the connection between what sparked me about the industry in the first place and the fond memories of my childhood. It was only during the process of writing my book, Beauty Confidential, I realised that the traditional way of well-being I experienced as a child spurred a desire to study, adopt and share the holistic approach to health and beauty.

Throughout my career working in some of the most prestige wellness destinations in Asia, I had always wondered why so little about Japanese wellness practices are known to the world. Nobody in the industry had heard about the herb commonly used to detoxify the toxins from the body, treat skin problems or ease the pain and aches, nor the remedies and self-care rituals many of us used at home.

Forgotten distillers

As I started researching about those ingredients, I came to know some small farms and distilleries and their stories. They are a small group of artisanal farms who produce the highest quality skincare ingredients, that are not only organically grown and food-grade but also produced in the most labour-intensive traditional methods.

At the same time, I became aware of how commercial skincare ingredients are mass-produced and laden with toxic pesticides and traded at a very low price because there are many companies in between before a skincare product is marketed.*

*illustration shows the process of making commercial skincare products.


Critically, many small farms are forced to turn to unsustainable mass-production methods to survive and leaving behind their century-old traditions, the wisdom of sustainable farming, the ecosystem within each community and their pure and highly vibrated produce that future generation may never know how to bring back to life again.

Shodoshima Japanese Olive Oil

Shodoshima, which means ‘island of small beans’ floats in the Seto Inland Sea in the southern part of Japan. The inland sea offers the unrivalled deep calmness to the surrounding islands and their Mediterranean-like warm temperature has enabled them to grow unusual products like olives. It was over 100 years ago that the island of Shodoshima became the first place in Japan to grow olives, but not until recently a small farm succeeded in cultivating organic olives for the first time.

I took a short boat ride from my hometown and visited the farm in the spring last year.

Driving through off-the-beaten-path-island full of olive trees, I spotted the farm with their olive trees looking relatively short and untidy as weeds grew peculiarly covering the entire land. The owner of the farm eagerly shared his journey to successful organic farming which took him 8 years of trials and errors. He was an insect lover before he was a farmer, he told me, and that gave him great curiosity and patience to observe those insects that are otherwise repelled by the heavy insecticides. He even brought some insects home and placed them by his beds to analyse their movement literally 24/7. Through the experience, came the realisation to live with nature, not to against it which eventually led him to unprecedentedly grow olives without any pesticides.

His olive oil speaks of itself; unlike European olive oils, Japanese olives are subtle and milder in the palate, but his olive oils have the depth that quietly strikes you. My husband who is a professional chef describes it to be best suited for clean Japanese cuisine or even other Asian cuisines.  I was simply taken by surprised when I applied his oil (processed differently from oils for consumption), by how effortlessly it absorbed into the skin leaving the skin soft and moistured for a very long time. After leaving the farm, I noticed my friend kept touching her hand where the oil was applied, to amuse herself over and over how smooth and soft it made.

Oshima Camellia Oil

Oshima island is a two-hour boat ride from Tokyo, 100km to the south. At the heart of the island is the active volcano, Mount Mihara which makes the soil extremely fertile as the villagers say ‘add enough water and any plant will grow greener in Oshima’.

The island is also known for its camellia (tusbaki) flowers which can be spotted almost everywhere from around January through March. You would not find anywhere else in Japan with so many different varieties of tsubaki found than on Oshima.

I had been introduced by a friend to the oldest tsubaki distilleries on the island who stringently practice the traditional distillation method to ensure the purest and highest quality. The founder’s grandson, now the head of this 100 years old oil factory explains how they maintained the close ties to the community in producing their oil. Oshima camellia grows wild everywhere in the island, and traditionally the villagers would collect those fallen seeds and sell them to the distilleries. Once sufficient seeds are collected, they are sun-dried, carefully sorted before been grounded. They are briefly steamed in the wooden barrel then gently and slowly pressed before been filtered – all manually operating machines have been used for as long as the factory existed.

Camellia oil had been used by Japanese women for centuries primarily as their haircare oil but it is also known to soften and moisturises the skin and works as a protective barrier. There have been many camellia oils been marketed in recent years, from airport gift shops and even grocery stores. They are also often marketed as a key cosmetic ingredient in shampoo, moisturisers and many other skincare products. But if you examine carefully, most of the commercially made camellia oils are produced in China with a different type of camellia from Oshima’s, heavily processed to remove the nutty beautiful natural scents and rich thickness the natural oil has.


📷 (cover picture): www.fupunomori.net

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