April 16, 2020

Japanese Incense 101: Traditional Spices

Japanese incense is famous for the rare and fragrant woods featured in its often centuries old recipes. But discussion of Japanese incense would not be complete without highlighting the most often used aromatic spices found in traditional Japanese incense.

Keihi 桂皮 - Cassia/Cinnamon

Cinnamon is one of the oldest spices known to man. Traded on the spice road of antiquity from Egypt to China, it was written about by the ancient Greeks, mentioned in the Christian Bible, and long used in Chinese medicine. In the modern era, wars were fought for control over its source countries and thereby the cinnamon trade itself. But what most of us commonly refer to as "cinnamon" today is actually in fact not "true cinnamon".

Created from the bark of the Cinnamomum tree, there are two types of cinnamon in use today. Ceylon cinnamon, often called "true cinnamon" is native to Sri Lanka and comes from the Cinnamomum verum tree. Cassia cinnamon, sometimes called "Chinese cinnamon," comes from the bark of the Cinnamomum aromaticum tree native to Southern China. An evergreen tree that can achieve mature heights of 50-70 feet, Cinnamomum aromaticum is widely cultivated for its bark throughout Southeast Asia, and is the most common form of "cinnamon" in use today.

Ceylon cinnamon saw a significant decline in use among the allied countries during World War II. The military occupation of the Dutch East Indies by Japan led to a severe disruption to production. A decline in post-war colonialism further led to a shift away from import of increasingly costly Ceylon cinnamon in favor of its less costly cousin Cassia cinnamon from China. Today what most in West call "cinnamon" is actually Cassia.

Cassia cinnamon is generally darker and possess a stronger fragrance than the less common Ceylon cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon in turn is generally milder and sweeter than its more common cousin. Used for its warm, woody, sweet fragrance, Cassia is said to have similar properties to Clove, including anti-depressant qualities and enhancement of brain function. It's earthy, woody, sweet fragrance is a staple in many traditional Japanese incense recipes paired with Sandalwood or Aloeswood.

Choji 丁子 - Clove

One of the seven primary ingredients in Buddhist incense, clove has been traded for more than two millennia along spice routes from China to India to Europe. One of the earliest references from the third-century BC notes that Chinese Han Dynasty couriers were required to place cloves in their mouths to sweeten their breath in order speak with the emperor. The spice was highly valued in Roman society, possession of which was a mark of social standing. In Japan, Samurai would traditionally mix clove oil with lubricating oil applied to the blade of the Shinken 真剣 (live-edge swords) to not only prevent corrosion, but also for its sweet fragrance.

Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum, a small evergreen tree native to the Molucca Islands of Indonesia, referred to in colonial times as the "spice islands." Widely cultivated today, the majority of the world's cloves are produced in the country of Tanzania on Africa's east coast. Harvested while unopened, the flower buds are collected and dried, where they turn from pink to the familiar deep earthy brown color. The name "clove" comes from the French word "clou" which means "nail," as the shape of the dried bud resembles cut iron nails.

As with cinnamon, wars were fought between European nations for control of the clove trade, especially between the Dutch and the British. In 1816, clove trees in the spice islands of Molucca were set ablaze by the Dutch as a ploy to raise clove prices by increasing their monopoly on the trade. The natives, who planted a clove tree at the birth of each child and linked the fate of the tree to the fate of the child, rose up in revolt.

Clove has many properties that make it one of the most renown spices in the world, and a staple of Japanese incense. Prized for its deep, rich, earthy, warm, spicy, semi-sweet fragrance, clove is also known to be stimulating to the mind, creating a refreshing feeling and greater focus. Clove also has a burning agent quality, aiding in smooth and complete burning of incense ingredients. Clove is also known to be a natural antiseptic and anti-bacterial.

Ryu-no 竜脳 - Borneol

Translated as "dragon brain," because it was a rare spice that came from over the distant seas - the home of mystical dragons - Ryu-no was though auspicious for its cool and unique fragrance by the Chinese. T'ang dynasty officials revered Ryu-no so much they used it to flavor food, as an incense ingredient, and shaped it into elaborate amulets to be worn for its cooling fragrance.

Borneol camphor is an aromatic crystalline resin that accumulates in clefts in the trunk of  Dryobalanops aromatica,commonly known as the Camphor tree. Native to Borneo, Sumatra and Malaysia, Dryobalanops aromatica is a giant tropical evergreen that reaches mature heights of over 130 feet, preferring hillsides in primarily coastal lowlands. Prized for its production of Borneol resin, the Camphor tree is also sought after for its hardwood, known as Kapur, regarded on par with Teak. Records of trade in Camphor trees exist for more than a thousand years. Marco Polo wrote of the export of Camphor trees from Indonesia to the Middle East in the sixth-century. For at least the last 1,000 years, Borneol has been sustainably cultivated for its auspicious fragrance.

Borneol has a sharp, cool, medicinal, cleansing, and uplifting fragrance. When included as an ingredient, there is no doubt of its presence when a box of incense is opened. Often used in Japanese incense, Borneol helps to circulate the notes of other fragrant ingredients, carrying them upon its uplifting camphor coolness. It is prized for promoting alertness, heightening awareness, and improving concentration, making it an common ingredient in incense created for mediation.

Ansoku-Koh 安息香- Benzoin

Known thousands of years ago in Arabic as "luban jawi", or Frankincense of Java, Benzoin has a long history of use as both an incense ingredient and as incense itself. Called "Smirna" - literally incense - by Greek Orthodox traditions, it was used in ceremonial rituals of the church. The Romans prized Benzoin as incense, and traded for it along the spice routes of antiquity.

Native to the tropical island of Sumatra, Indonesia, and Malasia, Benzoin is a balsamic resin produced by several trees of the Styrax genus in the Styracaceae family. To harvest the resin, the trunk is cut and the white sap that flows from the wound is left to harden for a period of up to six months. It is then harvested and further dried and cleaned to remove impurities prior to export.

Known originally as "Gum Benjamin" and now commonly as "Benzoin," the resin today has two primary source species: Styrax benzoin and Styrax tonkinensis. S. Benzoin, often referred to as Sumatra Benzoin, is similar to a rubber tree, and at maturity can reach heights of up to ninety-feet. S. Tonkinensis , also called Siam Benzoin, is a semi-deciduous tree that at maturity also reaches heights of up to ninety-feet, and is cultivated extensively for both its aromatic resin and for its pulp wood.

Benzoin has two primary uses in Japanese incense - as a fixative and for its fragrance. As a fixative it slows the release of other fragrant materials into the air, extending the life of other aromatic ingredients, creating incense of long lasting and far reaching fragrance. As a fragrance, Benzoin has a warm, sweet, creamy, vanilla-like bouquet. Sumatran Benzoin adds to this a cinnamon-like quality akin to a warm, sweet caramel, with a slightly floral background note.

Benzoin is thought to be relaxing, calming, and grounding, making it a perfect ingredient for evening mediation incenses. It is said to have sedative and anti-anxiety properties, helping to relieve stress, tension, and depression.

As Benzoin easily blends with other ingredients, it is commonly combined with both Sandalwood and Aloeswood incense recipes.

Kansho 匙葉甘鬆 - Spikenard

Used as a fragrant spice for centuries, Spikenard is the spice sung of in the Christian Old Testament's Song of Solomon. Prized for its sweet fragrant oil, Kansho has been a fixture in religious rituals, for example at the last supper in the Christian New Testament: "Then Mary took a litra of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus." In fact, Spikenard is so entwined with Catholic history that it is used to represent St. Joseph and is included in Pope Francis' coat of arms. Kansho's use is not unique to Christianity however, as it finds a home in many cultures and religions, including Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicines.

Called by many names including nard, nardin, and muskroot, Spikenard comes from the rhizomes of only one species -  Nardostachys jatamansi of the Valerian family. Native to the Himalayan regions of Nepal, China, and India, Nardostachys jatamansi is a small flowering plant that grows at high altitudes of at least 9,800 feet, reaching a height of up to three feet and producing pink bell-shaped flowers. Cultivated for the fragrant amber-colored oil derived from it's rhizomes, it's botanical name, jatamansi, translates from the Hindi language as "lock of hair" - due to the resemblance of which to the harvested rhizomes.

Cultivated commercially today, its production is heavily regulated as it is the only species to produce such intensely fragrant oil, and as such has seen over-harvesting and its natural environment depleted.

Spikenard has a sweet, musk-like animalic fragrance that is spicy, earthy, and herbal. It is said to be both calming and able to enhance mental awareness and focus. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, Spikenard is valued for its calming properties. Additionally, Spikenard is known to contain several chemicals compounds similar to those found in Borneol and Patchouli, making it one of the most highly sought incense ingredients.


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