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Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

“About yamakunibū…

“What is that?”

“You know, the thing hung in a room or wardrobe as an insect repellent and dehumidifier. Haven’t you seen it? That bunch of dried leaves. Sometimes with white nuts.”

“Oh I see, that smelly thing…”

Over the past month, I have been asking people about yamakunibū. I was hoping to hear some interesting anecdotes, but it was just wishful thinking. Almost all of the people I asked reacted as above. They know the smell, but they don’t know the name. However, I cannot blame them. I came to know about yamakunibū just eight years ago (I am from mainland Japan.) I began hoping to get one four years ago; I learnt its name two years ago; then I finally got one in June this year.

Yamakunibū is a perennial belonging to the primrose family, which is known as morokoshi-sou in mainland Japan. They grow in the mountains near the coast and on the riverside in limestone soil. Most of them are picked and shipped from the Izumi region of Motobu village. For its insect-repelling effects, found in plant tissue, it has been used since the Ryukyu Kingdom era. What surprised me is that by boiling it with alcohol, vinegar and water, it can also be used as a compress when bitten by a habu, the poisonous snake found in Okinawa. It can also ease the itch caused by a mosquito bite. The medical herb has been traditionally used for its therapeutic scent. The scent becomes stronger when the small yellow blossoms are open and turn into seeds. Yet when the plant is fresh, the scent is still rather subtle and so they are steamed in a large pot and then dried. They are then bunched together and sold at markets in Okinawa for just three weeks from mid-June, between the rainy season and the peak of summer. 

For the past three years, every time I visited the public market in Makishi I would try to get them. Last year, in late June, I saw it being sold near the bonito flake shop and sanshin (Okinawan music instrument) shop. I was excited and returned there the next week, but it was gone, which disappointed me greatly. It’s that time of the year again, I thought, and frequented the market. One day, I saw them on sale! But both of my arms were full and I was with my child.

I must get them this year, I thought with determination. “Will they be gone soon?” I asked the lady at the shop. “They are here until they get sold.” “Will they still be available next week?” “They are gone when they are gone, they are here if not.” I decided to purchase three bunches on site. The price was 500 yen for a bunch and 1,000 yen for a set of three.1

When it comes to yamakunibū’s scent, it is quite difficult to describe. Most Okinawans would say it is the scent of their grandmas, who always smell of incense sticks. It’s neither a good nor bad smell for most people. Yet, it’s the kind of smell that makes them remember their childhood. The incense sticks used in Okinawa (called hiraukō) are different to the ones used in mainland Japan. I feel the smokiness before the scent. I would say the smell of yamakunibū is like the one I feel when my grandma, wearing clothes with the smell of incense clinging to them, sipping jasmine tea in front of me. I got addicted to it every time I smelled it. And I can now say that I do like it.

Editor’s Note:

  1. The price as of 2023 will be updated after market research in June.