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.

You keep using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.

I would like to talk to you for a minute about sōhei. Specifically, I wish to impress upon you the very simple fact that they never existed. Do not believe what you read in Stephen Turnbull’s books, or anything else put out by Osprey Press. The sōhei is not and never has been anything more than a creative anachronism. It was a false construct, pasted onto the corpse of the dead feudal polity by an Edo-era scholar. The word sōhei does not predate the eighteenth century.

The full panoply of the “warrior monk” – the cowl, naginata, high wooden clogs, and corselet worn with monastic robes is illustrated by Stephen Turnbull in books like Warriors of Medieval Japan. Turnbull confidently asserts that the sōhei fought in this cumbersome garb with ease, despite the fact that there is no evidence that the image was anything other than a fabrication derived from later literary sources biased against traditional monastic sources. (See Mikael Adolphson, Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History)

Indeed, the image of the sōhei is largely a literary rather than a historic construct. It relies on tales of heroic men like Benkei, and epics like the Heike Monogatari for its heft. Behind these legends, the image of the warrior monk is easily picked apart until nothing is left but shreds of truth: that Buddhism was a powerful political force in Classical and Medieval Japan, and that Buddhist temples would often demonstrate forcefully against the secular government to gain their way.

In the early days, these demonstrations were just that: demonstrations. They amounted to little more than low-level monks and shrine servants marching into the Capital to make demands, Oftentimes, these marches would become disorderly and devolve into riots, Invariably, historian Adolphson notes, the casualties that occur when the Court sends in warriors to restore order are among the monks, not innocent bystanders or even government officials. (See The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers, and Warriors in Premodern Japan).

As Japan’s medieval age unfolded, society became increasingly militarized, and warriors rose to become an elite class. It is not surprising then, that we should find high-powered warriors retreating to monasteries where once gentle aristocrats had held sway. It is also not surprising that in an age of incredible political upheaval and violence, many monasteries should acquire soldiers of their own – for “warrior monks” of the medieval age were often not actually monks, but warriors in the employ of monks. It was necessary for Buddhist Temples to have their own armies – it was a matter of self-preservation.

The construction of the sōhei image has far more to do with Edo-era historiographical bias than actual fact. By the eighteenth century, the narrative of the institutional corruption and decadence of the established sects like Tendai and Shingon was already centuries old. It was this narrative that gave birth to the sōhei, who were seen as a symptom of the decay and sinfulness of the “old order.” One cannot engage the image of the sōhei without acknowledging these biases, born from the Kamakura era reform movements that spawned the Pure Land faiths and Zen. For sōhei are always from the established sects of Nara or Hiei.

And it is here that the real problem with the image of the sōhei emerges: at its core, it comes down to a concern with politics. The new Pure Land sects especially were driven to establish themselves as legitimate, and used the narrative of the sōhei and the corruption of the old schools to further their aims. And while Pure Land sects did indeed face persecution, in traditional accounts, the Nara and Hiei schools often become scapegoats for the actions of the shogunate and other civil authorities.

It is with this knowledge that we must approach the idea of the sōhei – the knowledge that it is not only an anachronistic fabrication, but also one that ultimately has a great deal of very ugly baggage.

Not So Free Love: Hidden Stigma in Heian Japan

Many societies all across the globe have held women to difficult moral and sexual standards. Even though Heian Japan was, by all accounts, not a bad place for a woman historically speaking, it was still not easy. Even though adultery was not a crime for women (unlike in Christian and Muslim countries, or in China), and women in the lower echelons of aristocratic society were remarkably unrestricted in their choice of sexual partners (take as many as you want!), “respectability” still meant a monogamous attachment to a husband. Yet unlike in Christian Europe, the husband was not supposed to be monogamous in return. “Respectability” usually also meant a very confined life, away from the heart of society. It’s perhaps no wonder that the women who seem to have been having all the fun were the gentlewomen, who were seen as a sort of necessary evil by the aristocrats. Yet even the gentlewomen were held to standards, and they faced consequences for violating them.

Heian Japan has been characterized as a sort of free-love paradise, often based solely on Ivan Morris’s work The World of The Shining Prince, which relied solely on romantic literature to paint its picture of sexual mores.(1) Try to construct a similar picture of American sexual norms from romance novels, and you will understand just how misleading Professor Morris’s picture was.

Yet even reading some of the sources that Morris himself used, one can clearly see that there were consequences for improper sexual behavior. Morris heavily relied on The Tale of Genji, which chronicles the rampant couplings of its eponymous hero, and later his (supposed) son and grandson. Yet even in this work, women face deep shame and social stigma for their perceived transgressions, and most of all, they are consumed by guilt at having given into what they perceive as inappropriate desires. Poor Ukifune tries to commit suicide after being seduced by her lover’s best friend. Fujitsubo is so ridden by gossip and rumor regarding her relationship with Genji that she becomes a nun. Both these women transgressed. Both faced consequences.(2)

Some might still point to the gentlewomen, those free spirits, as being totally liberated and independent. Yet this is not really true. Sei Shōnagon certainly wasn’t free to hook up with just anyone, as a famous episode from Makura no Sōshi demonstrates:

I heard people saying there’d been a man in the Long Room who had no business being there.  He’d been seen emerging at first light and going off with his umbrella up. As I listened, it dawned on me that the rumours were actually about me. Well, he may not be a senior courtier, I thought to myself, but he’s not someone who should be so simply dismissed after all. (3)

When it is said that Sei’s lover “had no business” in the Long Room, there are deeper implications than simply “what is he doing here at this hour?” Only certain, privileged individuals were allowed to enter the Emperor’s residence hall (the Seiryōden). This man clearly was not one of those individuals. No one would have questioned the presence of a senior courtier, at any time of the day or night, as aristocrats were often made to live in the palace, and certainly many would be called at odd hours.

This man, however, was not a senior aristocrat. He was not one of the “in-group.” No one had a problem with Sei’s other lovers, who were very important men. Who was going to tell Fujiwara no Tadanobu, the head of the Empress’s household, that he couldn’t sleep with a gentlewoman? Who was going to tell Fujiwara no Yukinari, another important man, that he couldn’t have a lover? Senior courtiers were allowed to sleep with the gentlewomen, and it didn’t matter how many of them were sleeping with any one lady. Should a gentlewoman decide to pick someone closer to her own socioeconomic status however…that was a problem. Can’t have the servants sleeping with just anyone.

  1. Ivan Morris, The World of The Shining Prince, New York: Kodansha International, 1994 (reprint)
  2. Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, translated by Royall Tyler. New York: Penguin Press, 2001
  3. Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book, translated by Meredith McKinney, New York: Penguin Press, 2006. 195.