The Fragrant Art of Japanese Incense

I love incense. I love the glowing tip at the end of a joss stick. I love the way fragrant smoke curls from the powder burning on a charcoal briquet. I love the way the scent itself is so warm. And the scents….I love the scents: cedar, sandalwood, frankincese, myrrh. All the resins and spices that grew hundreds of miles distant from one another, all of them coveted treasures, brought together and blended into something new and something greater than even those rare parts.

There are plenty of incenses to choose from these days, and incense itself is not hard to find. I’ve seen the famous Indian Satya Sai Baba Nag Champa blend in the blue box offered at Whole Foods. Nag Champa is a blend of sandalwood and frangipani; it is probably the most popular incense in the West. I have never felt a desire to try it, perhaps because my experience with other Indian incenses such as those by Maroma has led me to the conclusion that they are of limited use to due to their extremely heavy smoke and at-times cloying odors. (Though I personally recommend Maroma’s cedarwood joss sticks quite highly for cleansing.)

Most incenses on the Western market these days do seem to be Indian in origin or at least inspiration. However, a small number come from another country which has a glorious and often-overlooked history of blending scents: Japan. The Japanese obsession with fragrances dates back to the Heian period, when aristocrats (especially women) blended their own signature scents (incenses) to use as perfumes for their clothes.

Unlike in later centuries, when the appreciation of incense would become streamlined into discriminating between different specimens of aloeswood, the Heian elite preferred true blends. The ingredients for these were wide and exotic, but quite recognizable to incense aficionados today: animal musks, various spices, fragrant resins. These ingredients were pounded, mixed together, and bound into a hard ball with some sort of neutral or sweet-smelling binder (usually honey). They were then sealed in earthen jars and buried in the ground to cure for as long as three years.

Fragrance was an incredibly important part of a Heian man’s sexual appeal, if we are to believe female authors like Murasaki Shikibu. Her heroes – Niou, Kaoru, and of course Genji himself – are all described as smelling irresistible, and this is explicitly part of their charm. The power of fragrance can be better understood if we take into consideration the conditions in which such gallants would have courted their ladies: at night, under cover of darkness. Furthermore, the architecture of the Heian period made the interior of the house where the lady stayed quite dim even in daytime. Thus, it is quite likely that a suitor’s appealing scent would be the clearest physical impression she could have of him.

But what of today? As mentioned earlier, in later centuries, incense appreciation was simplified into the appreciation of fine specimens of the rare resinous aloeswood or lignaloes (now usually replaced in blends by sandalwood). But blends continued to be made, and still are. In Japan, incense is still a part of religious culture at least, as joss sticks are burned pretty much universally in Buddhist and Shinto practice, including in home worship.

I speak from personal experience that an average Tokyo citizen not only has a much wider array of incense available than a Westerner, but that it is of much higher quality. A simple religious supply store in a residential neighborhood like Kichijōji will have an entire tier of shelves devoted to joss sticks alone, with prices ranging from dirt cheap (500Y for a box of 500 sticks) to incredibly expensive (7500Y for a box of 500).

The biggest difference perhaps is in the type of scents offered. True to their Heian origins, most joss sticks are blends. In a very confused exchange with the salesman at said religious supply store in Kichijōji, I asked to see “the best incense.” He raised an eyebrow in a perfect Spock impression and pointed to the aforementioned 7500Y a box premium stuff. After I exclaimed “Takai!” and laughed, he handed me a box of what must have been their most popular blend. It smelled herbal and fresh – a bit like basil, but also with a hint of something sweetly cool, like melon. I asked what the scent was, and he gave me the name (I can’t remember what it was). I didn’t recognize the word, and asked for a definition. This confused him, and we went in circles for some time. I ended up purchasing a box of cherry-blossom incense instead. (It smells wonderful, oddly enough; Japanese cherry blossoms are actually scentless).

I highly recommend seeking out Japanese incense to anyone who uses it for spiritual or religious purposes, or to those who just like the smell. It’s hard to find in stores, but it can be purchased online from importers like Japan Incense. Some Japanese companies (notably Shoyeido Corporation) also sell incenses to the Western market, and thus have English language websites.

4 thoughts on “The Fragrant Art of Japanese Incense

  1. Incense has been on my mind lately, especially at tea ceremony practice. It didn’t occur to me how different the availability is until I was asked directly about the use of incense in the US, and it occured to me that I usually only noticed incense displays with an Indian flair! Japanese incense will probably be on my next list of omiyage.

    1. To follow that up, are you familiar with a fragrance game women would play? I read an essay once that mentioned it, and I wish I could find out more. I think it would have been four players or so, and the host would prepare three sticks of three blends, and one guest with bring one stick of a wild card blend, and who ever identified the most sticks correctly won. It seemed fun to recreate.

    2. Yeah…I’ve been burning my Japanese incenses for a while, and then I went back to the cheap Indian-type stuff so common here in America and almost choked. I have allergic rhinitis. It’s not the smoke that gets me, since I was exposed to a lot of wood smoke as an infant (wood burning stove). It’s the heavy fragrance. Amazingly, the only store that’s stocked Japanese incense is a reiki center in the town where I was raised. None of the suppliers in the big towns where I’ve gone to school had even a single bit of Japanese stuff! Even here in the Triangle, with such a large Japanese population…

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