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.

Claustrophobia? It’s relative.

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An illustration from a late Heian picture-scroll, showing a “respectable” lady behind curtains of state. She is surrounded by her less-respectable gentlewomen.

“Respectable” ladies in Heian Japan lived their lives hidden away behind barricades of screen and curtain and bundled into layers upon layers of robes. Theirs was a sedentary life, spent away from the prying eyes of men. Indeed, the ladies of Heian Japan led confined existences that any modern observer (female or not) would no doubt find oppressively claustrophobic.

Heian ladies certainly were supposed to live sedentary lives indoors, safe from the unwanted gaze of men. That was the ideal, anyway. Unfortunately for the women of Classical Japan – and for men and women everywhere throughout time – ideals have a way of remaining little more than abstractions, their existence serving as a frustration to those who can’t make things quite measure up. So it shouldn’t really be too terribly shocking that the reality for women in Heian Japan didn’t quite meet the ideal.

For one thing, the openness of Heian architecture precluded the use of anything like a sturdy interior wall. The boundaries of interior space were sometimes marked off with flimsy partitions akin to the modern Japanese shōji. Blinds – an even less solid division between interior and exterior – might take the place of these. Indeed, the division between interior and exterior was quite vague. Beyond the definitely private, inner sections of the house marked off with proto-shōji and blinds, there was a sort of buffer zone delineated by latticed shutters. Beyond these shutters was an open veranda. Both shutters and blinds could be raised to leave the innermost sections of the house totally open to the outside.

Quite apart from the intentional openness of the architecture, the screens and curtains that supposedly protected the respectable lady’s privacy weren’t all that good at their job. Contemporary literature abounds with references to the attentions of unwanted and unwelcome voyeurs.

Murasaki Shikibu (c.973 – c.1020), the greatest author of Heian Japan (but, as a gentlewoman, not quite “respectable.”) was well aware of this. Her great novel The Tale of Genji is full of the troubles caused when men see things (invariably, this means respectable ladies) they aren’t really supposed to see – sometimes quite by accident, but more often entirely on purpose. The openness of houses, coupled with the flimsiness of a woman’s defenses, made things very easy for a Peeping Tom.

Perhaps not surprisingly, surviving accounts describe both respectable ladies and their less-respectable gentlewomen (who were expected to hide at least their faces from male view, but who lived with far fewer restrictions regarding their mobility and public behavior) never explicitly express feelings of claustrophobia or confinement. Instead, women such as Murasaki Shikibu and her near-contemporary fellow gentlewoman Sei Shōnagon (dates unknown, fl.1000) are more often willing to express complaints of feeling “exposed.”

It is the feeling of exposure, rather than any feelings of confinement, that characterize many complaints left by Heian women. Sei Shōnagon’s account of her early days serving as a gentlewoman in the Court of Empress Teishi brims with the memory of her initial timidity. Particularly striking is her story of an encounter with Teishi’s brother, Korechika. Though Sei was hidden behind a curtain, Korechika was determined to get a better look at her. He went so far as to grab the fan that shielded her face, much to her dismay. The entire episode is related in such vivid detail that it is hard to not sympathize with Sei’s embarrassment.

In fact, were a woman suddenly forced to live the life of a Heian lady, she may well find the lack of privacy just as onerous as the confinement – maybe more. Perhaps she too would complain first of feeling “exposed.”