The art of enjoying Japanese incense goes beyond just the burning of the incense stick, but also extends to the entire experience - including what holds the incense. The beauty of a simple holder or the elegance of the incense koro 香炉 (burner or censer) that holds the incense can often provide as much allure as the fragrance radiating from it, complementing and enhancing the experience of listening to incense both during and afterward.
One of the more common questions asked by those experiencing Japanese incense for the first time is if a special holder is necessary. Japanese incense sticks are typically between 2-3mm in diameter, and as such considerably smaller than the bamboo cored incense common in the West. As Japanese incense has no bamboo core, it tends to dangle alarmingly loosely in common wooden "banana" incense holders made for bamboo cored incense.
Due to this, there are countless methods often improvised to hold Japanese incense, from placing incense in the dirt of potted plants, using sand in a shallow bowl, or even using a aluminum beverage can with holes pierces into it! We've even heard of a person who used gum - eww! Although utilitarian in nature, none of these methods will complement or enhance the experience of listening to Japanese incense. In fact, some might even detract from the beauty of the fragrance itself and/or create a fire hazard!
As such, there are typically two approaches to safely burning Japanese incense that are much more appropriate and faithful to the Japanese tradition: using a specifically designed weighted holder to hold the incense, or placing the incense in rice chaff ash held in a koro (burner). Both of these methods have advantages and disadvantages, and both can be found at various price points to fit virtually any budget.
Japanese Incense Holders
The simplest way to burn Japanese incense is using an incense holder. Usually made of ceramic or metal, holders range in shape from simple modern metal spheres, to ceramic squares, to miniature ginkgo leaves or sakura blossoms or even shapes like small animals such as rabbits or cats. Forms to fit virtually any personality or taste are common, and a ranges from modern to classical and formal to whimsical are readily available.
What Japanese incense holders have in common generally is their small size of less than an inch square, a hole or holes used to place incense in, and their budget-friendly cost. In fact, some manufacturers will include simple ceramic holders within a box of their daily incenses.
But holders do have several disadvantages. First, they are just a weighted holder, and do not provide a method to catch the burnt ash produced. As incense ash is hot, it poses a fire hazard and at the least is quite capable of discoloring any surface that is falls upon. Some incense holders are sold with companion trays or plates, but most require use with some sort of dish to safely catch the burnt ash. Using a simple dish or plate leads to a build up of ash that is messy and looks like an ashtray if not cleaned after every use.
Secondly, most holders do not hold incense vertically. Japanese incense is made to be burned in the upright position to achieve the optimal burning temperature. Holders tend to allow the incense to remain at an angle, some more than flat than others. Burning incense at an angle will slightly change the intensity and consistency of its fragrance. Incense will also burn more quickly the closer to horizontal it is held.
Finally, the portion of the incense stick inside the holder usually does not burn. This often leaves a small 3-4mm nub of incense where no oxygen could reach that is not consumed. As many fragrant woods used in Japanese incense are quiet rare and increasingly in short supply, regularly leaving a portion of incense to be discarded is a very unfortunate use of such a rare and limited resource.
Now optimal burning angle, quicker burning, and small amounts of incense not being consumed may not seem much of an issue with daily or mid-range incenses. But both are critical considerations for higher-end Aloeswood and Kyara fragrances.
Japanese Koro 香炉
Koro (burner or censer) have often been considered a high Japanese art form prized for their craftsmanship and eloquent detail, and are often a sought after collectable in their own right. One of the National Treasures of Japan is the 16th century iroe kiji-koro (色絵雉香炉) by Edo Period potter Ninsei (仁清). On display at the Ishikawa prefectural Museum of Art, this priceless Kyoto-ware koro takes the form of a life sized pheasant overglazed with brilliant jewel-like enamel feathers, with spaces between to allow the incense fragrance to rise
Koro are often made from ceramic, but are also available in cast iron, copper, or alloy forms. They are usually more traditional in nature, and can range from the very elegant and refined Kutani-ware to the more hand-made natural imperfect beauty of wabi-sabi-esque bowls to utilitarian glazed cups. Although more expensive than a simple holder, Koro range from the affordable to the heights of luxury.
In general, the advantages of koro is that they provide a total system for holding incense and catching the ash created while burning. The added advantage is that they can also be used to enhance the listening experience with their own unique beauty. Often directly related to the development of the tea ceremony, Japanese koro can be changed with the seasons or used to reinforce the feeling and mood the listener is trying to capture with incense.
Used in combination with rice chaff ash, koro are able to hold incense in a vertical orientation, allowing for optimal burning angle. The rice chaff ash also allows oxygen to reach the entire stick, ensuring a complete burn nearly every time. Preparing the ash initially takes little effort, and is often seen as a meditative part of the listening process. Finally, often more refined koro have lids that can be put in place after use to conceal the ash, leading to a more tidy and elegant appearance in the burning space.
The disadvantages of koro generally center around their price and the use of ash. Where a simple holder and plate can be purchased for under $10, Kutani-ware koro start near $100. More simple bowls and cups are available starting around $30. Both bowls and koro can reach into the thousands of dollars for collector driven fine art examples.
Ash use often scares many away from koro. Although initially it takes a short time to place in the koro and prepare for burning, with some associated mess from the lightweight rice chaff ash, once set up a koro can be used quite easily and repeatedly for an extended period of time. Some prefer to clean the ash after each use by removing the burnt remains of the stick, but this is not necessary outside of burning very high-end incense where fragrance contamination is a paramount consideration. The ash is also renewable by simply placing it on some tin foil on a baking sheet, and baking it at 450 degrees for 20 minutes or so. But with the inexpensive cost of ash, its usually easier to just replace it when it becomes dirty enough to consider renewal.
Ash vs. Alternatives
As mentioned previously, there are many utilitarian work-arounds to ash. Some prefer the simple and cost effective method of placing sand in a small bowl. Other will use small rocks, salt, rice, or even dirt in place of ash. While these alternatives do indeed work, they do have disadvantages. Salt and sand are more dense than lightweight rice chaff ash which may prevent all the incense stick from being completely consumed. Ash in rice looks very messy. Neither is easily cleaned or renewed as ash. Finally, and somewhat importantly, none is faithful to the centuries old tradition Japanese incense exists within. But if these alternatives work in your experience, the ultimate goal is the enjoyment of Japanese incense however it is held.
As a final note, remember no matter how Japanese incense is enjoyed, it is indeed burning, and as such a fire hazard. Before burning incense, familiarize yourself with incense safety precautions, and never leave incense unattended or burn where children or pets could come in contact with it.
This page is part of Kikoh's Japanese Incense 101 series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...