October 25, 2020

Japanese Incense 101: Rikkoku-Gomi 六国五味

Aloeswood is at the heart of the culture of fragrance Japanese incense embodies. Despite its importance however, Aloeswood is not native to Japan but instead an imported commodity. It is this importation combined with the rare and variable fragrance of Aloeswood that led to the 500-year old traditional Aloeswood classification system of the Rikkoku-Gomi.


During the Sengoku period (1467 - 1573), Japan was ravaged by widespread civil warfare between competing Daimyo - feudal lords fighting for control of Japan. At the time, due to Japan's isolation and tightly restricted borders, Aloeswood was imported to Japan from just a handful of select countries. By the start of 15th Century, the collection of these rare incense woods was a common practice among many ruling warlords, as Daimyo often inherited or confiscated collections of the prized fragrant wood in a show of power, wealth, and sophistication.

In 1449 Ashikaga Yoshimasa was named Shogun at the ripe old age of 13. It was a difficult time when starvation and strife was rampant in Japan, and the centralized control of the countryside by the capitol was in rapid decline. The inability to improve conditions lead to his decision to retire as Shogun at age 29. Disputes over who should succeed him combined with multiple years of severe famine led to the Onin War that nearly destroyed the capitol of Kyoto.

Although Yoshimasa was ineffectual as Shogun, after his retirement he is famed for his patronage of the arts. His contributions to the cultural arts of Japan, now know as the Higashiyama Period, is considered one of the most important in Japan's cultural history. Named for the Higashiyama area east of Kyoto, it was here Yoshimasa constructed Ginkaku-ji, the famed Silver Pavilion. From his estate in Higashiyama he elevated the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, and Noh drama to high art forms. By this time it is said that Yoshimasa had amassed a collection of over 120 fragrant woods that he had collected or inherited, of which he spent his retirement enjoying.

Seeing the need to bring order to his collection, Yoshimasa assembled experts of the time to develop an Aloeswood classification system. Key among these was Shino Soshin and Sanjonishi Sanetaka.

Shino Soushin was a trusted vassal and Yoshimasa's chief military strategist. As a samurai warlord, Shino's military organizational skills would be brought to bear to bring order to Yoshimasa's collection. It is believed that Yoshimasa was initiated into the appreciation and comparison of incense by Sanjonishi Sanetaka. A court noble, Sonjonishi was a distinguished scholar, poet, and calligrapher, as well as in charge of all incense related matters of Yoshimasa's court.

Each would go on to form the two main schools of incense appreciation still in existence today: Sanjonishi founding the Oie-Ryu School popular with court nobles, and Shino founding the Shino-Ryu School popular with the samurai and merchant class.

Together with others, Shino and Sanjonishi would create the Rikkoku-gomi - the Six Nations and Five Tastes, used to classify Aloeswood for over 500 years.

Gomi - Five Tastes:

To begin understanding Rikkoku-Gomi, it is beneficial to approach Aloeswood in terms of taste. Expressing the character of fragrance as a taste was used as a method to provide clues to help tell various fragrant woods apart. As smell and taste are linked in the brain, with signals from one commingling with the other, this approach seemed an intuitive expansion of the senses used to appreciate incense. In this way, the appreciation of Aloeswood was broadened beyond just a single sense, opening the door to the use of all the senses to listen to incense. The classic tastes of the Gomi are:

Amai 甘い - Sweet, often likened to honey or sugar.

Nigai 苦い - Bitter, often likened to a medicinal or sharp herbal fragrance.

Suppai 酸っぱい - Sour, often likened to acidic fruits like plums or nectarines. Coolness with tartness.

Karai 辛い - Spicy, often likened to as the warmth of clove or cinnamon or the heat of curry or pepper.

Shio-karai 塩辛い - Salty, often likened to the briny fragrance of the ocean or dried perspiration.

Rikkoku - Six Countries:

During Ashikaga Yoshimasa's time, Aloeswood was imported to Japan from only a select few countries. Just as where grapes grown for fine wines affect their taste and character, where Aloeswood originates from has a similar affect upon its fragrance. Just as wines are classified as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne stemming from the region of France they were originally produced, the Rikkoku - the Six Countries - where Aloeswood was believed to be imported from became Aloeswood classifications as a way to bring order to fragrant wood of diverse character.

Although no longer strictly limited to country of origin but more so the character of the wood, Aloeswood has been classified into the following six "countries" for more than 500 years:

Kyara 伽羅 -The most highly sought after grade of Aloeswood, "Kyara" comes from the Sanskrit word for black, even though it can range from dark brown to a lighter golden brown in color. Kyara in nature is found only in a very small geographic area in present day central/southern Vietnam, and is exceptionally rare today. The taste most often associated with Kyara today is bitter.

Rakoku 羅国 -Rakoku is originally believed to come from Siam - the ancient name for the country of Thailand. Soft pale yellow to warm tan, the consensus today is that Rakoku continues to be Aloeswood from Thailand. The taste most often attributed to Rakoku today is usually sweet.

Manaka 真那伽 -"Manaka" is thought to be an lingual adaptation of "Malacca," the former capitol and port city in present day Malaysia near the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. Most likely the name owes it origin to a lallation, as the Japanese language does not have an "L" sound. Warm tan with dark resinous streaks, the taste most often associated with Manaka today is actually a lack of taste or a softer more subtle character expression of the Gomi.

Manaban 真南蛮 -Often very dark in color, and derived from the word "nanban" meaning "southern barbarian," Manaban is Aloeswood of unknown origin originally believed to have been brought to Japan from the Malabar coast of India by the Portuguese. Today Manaban is generally considered to be Aloeswood imported from Cambodia. The taste most often associated with Manaban today is salty.

Sasora 佐曽羅 -The origin of Sasora is unknown. There are several theories regarding the nation this Aloeswood classification represents. Some believe it might have been thought to be of Indian origin. The Oie-Ryu school will sometimes substitute Sandalwood in place of Aloeswood as Sasora. Pale yellow with brown resinous streaks, the tastes more often associated with Sasora today are spicy or sour.

Sumatora 寸門多羅 -Sumatora is an alliteration of "Sumatra," the island just south of the Malay Peninsula in the present day island nation of Indonesia. Ranging from chocolate brown to warm brown, Sumatora today is generally considered Aloeswood of Indonesian origin. The taste most often associated with Sumatora today is sour.

Not so simple:

So according to the Rikkoku-Gomi, Kyara is bitter and Sumatora is sour. It's just that simple, right? Not quite.

Being able to distinguish fragrance at the level of the masters of the Rikkoku-Gomi takes years of experience and training. There are a myriad of factors that make classification of Aloeswood quite difficult, and that require considerable olfactory training.

First among these is that the countries named in the Rikkoku are artificial - lines on a map that change through time and don't reflect nature. Many of the countries that existed when the Rikkoku was established now have different borders or no longer exist. For example, Kyara comes from central/southern Vietnam. Does that mean that a few miles to the west across an invisible line on a map in Cambodia there is no Kyara? Nature doesn't work like that.

Secondly, our sense of smell is not precise. The nose of no two people is alike, nor is our perception of fragrance. Often one person will notice certain notes more prominently than another, leading to completely different experiences even with the same Aloeswood.

Finally, Aloeswood itself adds to this difficulty. One of the most magical characteristics of Aloeswood is the complexity of its fragrance. High quality Aloeswood will rarely have a single note that can describe it. When heated, it is not unusual for Kyara, for example, to start off bitter, warm to add a soft sweetness, and continue to grow into a spicy warm tones. The three notes together form a chord that creates an indescribably complex new character for the wood that far exceeds the simple "bitter" attribution.

Character Beyond Fragrance

Instead of creating a simple chart of region and taste, Soushin Syouinken Shino and Sanjonishi Sanetaka and the other experts Ashikaga Yoshimasa appointed sought to express an innate character of the Aloeswood they classified. As any given piece of Aloeswood can offer a mixture of fragrances when heated, attempts were made to to express the essence of the wood itself through ascribing archetypal characteristics of social class to six country groupings of wood.

Archetypes such as "samurai," "monk," "peasant," and "aristocrat" were invoked to address the qualities of Aloeswood that exceeded their fragrance. In this approach, both the origin, taste, mental imagery, and disposition the wood evoked would be captured in a manner as nuanced and complex as the Aloeswood itself.

Detailed in "The Book of Incense" by Kiyoko Morita, these 500-year old descriptions may seem quaint and even off-putting by today's social norms. But the goal was to transcend fragrance and arrive at an approximation of Aloeswood's essence:

Kyara: "A gentle and dignified smell with a touch of bitterness. The fragrance is like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness."

Rakoku: "A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood. Its smell is generally bitter, and reminds one of a warrior."

Manaka: "Smells light an enticing, changing like the mood of a woman with bitter feelings. The fragrance is of good quality if it disappears quickly. None of the five qualities are easily detectable."

Manaban: "The smell is coarse and unrefined, just like that of a peasant."

Sasora: "Good-quality Sasora may be mistaken for Kyara, especially at the beginning. It reminds one of a monk. Sometimes very light and disappearing.

Sumatora: "Sour at the beginning and end. Sometimes mistaken for Kyara, but with something distasteful and ill bred about it, like a peasant disguised as a noble."

Aloeswood's Essence

Once Aloeswood was classified based upon the source nation it was believed to be imported from. Today descendants of Soushin Syouinken Shino and Sanjonishi Sanetaka in the Shino-ryu and Oie-ryu schools use the classic Rikkaku-Gomi as a traditional framework, allowing the character of the individual Aloeswood to seek its own classification.

To do so, the iemoto listens to the fragrance of the Aloeswood. He will do this repeatedly for nearly a full year before classifying Rikkoku and Gomi. The wood is then named by allowing the perfect essence of its character to shine forth. Such a name might come from the mental imagery the wood's fragrance brings to mind such as a landscape, a season, or a classic Waka poem. The end goal of this difficult task is to express the wood's essence in terms reflecting the spirit of the wood in larger human spiritual characteristics beyond the simple sense of smell.