October is the time for Halloween when children dress up and go trick or treating, and kids of all ages watch scary movies and tell tales of ghosts that stir fear and trembling in the faint of heart. To the Japanese, such scary tales have a long history and often involve the supernatural world of the Yokai.
In the west, the Yokai are usually thought of as monsters or demons typically seen in scary stories and movies. But "Yokai" 妖怪 has no direct translation into the English language. The kanji separately speak of mysterious apparitions, but Yokai come in all shapes and forms, from giant spiders to tormented spirits to disembodied heads that bound about. But Yokai are more than just terrifying supernatural beings; they are the personification of the feeling of fear inspired by shadows in the dark that makes the hair on the back of the neck stand up. And all Yokai are said to create this feeling of terror in the spirits of the living… and even the dead.
During the Edo period (1603-1867) tales of the supernatural Yokai rose in popularity through the arts such as Noh dramas, Kabuki theater, and Rakugo storytelling. Once such a tale tells of a supernatural incense that was so powerful it could summon the spirit of a loved one back from the dead. But as with all things Yokai, this power came with a heavy price.
Hangonkoh 反魂香 - Spirit Summoning Incense - was said to be gifted with mystical powers endowed from the magical sap of the Hangonju tree. A rare and awe-inspiring incense, Hangankoh was said to be exquisite “100 paces” nerikoh, easily moving men’s hearts from great distances with its alluring fragrance. Once heated, Hangonkoh would conjure the spirit of the dearly departed in its smoke for those who longed to see them again. But the spirit of the deceased would only appear for as long as the Hangonkoh burned, no longer.
As with many aspects of Japanese culture, the tale of Hangonkoh has its origins in China. As the oldest known telling goes, the first recorded use of Hangankoh was by Emperor Wu of Han dynasty China. As with many Emperors of the time, Wu had taken a wife, an empress who had given him heirs to the throne, yet the recipient of Wu’s true affections was another. His heart instead was given to his beloved concubine Lady Li, who was said to be such a gem of beauty that songs were written about her. When Lady Li became gravely ill, the Emperor fell into a great depression as the Lady Li would not allow him to see her face as she lay dying, fearing the loss of her beauty due to her sickness. Upon her death, Emperor Wu was distraught with grief and unable to eat or sleep, and soon unable to conduct even the most rudimentary tasks of rulership. His heart broken, his mind was tormented by his grief and longing for his departed love.
Here is where the story takes a supernatural turn toward the world of the Yokai. It is said at this point an advisor to Emperor Wu, in an attempt to help his Emperor through his grief, told him of Hangonkoh and its ability to summon the spirit of the dead from beyond the grave. Other versions call this advisor a sorcerer to insinuate an evil motive into the story, while still other versions say his advisors counseled the Emperor against using Hongonkoh, afraid of its fearful costs. Regardless of the bearer’s title or intent, upon learning of an opportunity to see his beloved Lady Li once more, Emperor Wu spared no expense and sent for Hangonkoh post haste. Once in his possession, he locked himself away in his chambers under the full moon to revisit his lost love.
Lighting the incense, his thoughts firmly upon the Lady Li, Emperor Wu watched anxiously as the smoke rose from the Hangonkoh in the censer before him. Slowly as the fragrance filled the air, the apparition of his love Lady Li took shape in the smoke of the incense. Overjoyed, the Emperor spoke through tears of his undying love, his grief at her loss, and his longing to be with her again. Yet the apparition of Lady Li did not respond to his overtures. Unnerved by this, the Emperor burned more and more of the precious Hangankoh, crying out his devotion like a man possessed, only for the apparition of Lady Li to continue to remain unmoved, ambivalent, and sorrowful. As the last of the Hangankoh was added, in a state of desperation the Emperor reached out to Li’s apparition to hold her once more, only to be left grasping at smoke, unable to hold his love again. It is said that as the remaining Hangankoh burned to a close, so too did the life of Emperor Wu who fell dead of a broken heart.
The Japanese Edo versions of this story often substitute well known characters of the time such as Taira lords and ladies, local daimyo, or Geisha, adding a twist of wabi-sabi bitter-sweetness to these dramas of love lost. In one such Kabuki drama, Miura no Takao was an extremely sought after courtesan of the highest level, possessing renown beauty, grace, personality, and skill in the refined arts - attributes that made her quite valuable to the Great Miura to whom she was contracted. Pursued by her most ardent admirer Prince Tsunamune, the lord of Sendai, Takao continued to rebuff his advances and refuse his proposals as she had secretly taken a lover, the masterless Samurai Shimada Jusaburo.
Not a man to be turned away, Prince Tsunamune used his wealth and power to undermine Miura's contract by paying her weight in gold to buy out her contract. Now obligated to follow the prince to his castle, Takao met one last time with her lover, giving the Ronin sticks of Hongonkoh as she left him with an ominous statement: “We shall now be parted, and perhaps may never meet again. Even though it may be that I shall soon die, when you wish to see my face again, watch the smoke of this incense.”
Taken from her home to the castle in Sendai, Takao remained so steadfast in her feelings toward Prince Tsunamune that she was given an ultimatum: become his mistress or be killed. She chose death rather than be separated from her true love. It is said that when the Ronin burned the incense she had given him and saw her face within the smoke, his heart sank as he knew his love was dead. Their reunion was bitter sweet, as her image in the smoke was, as with all things wabi-sabi, imperfect, incomplete, and fleeting. Now aware that they would forever be separated, the masterless samurai wandered the countryside heartbroken for the rest of his days.
A unique spin on this story is applied through a comedic Rakugo version of the tale. In this telling, a grieving lord gives his bumbling servant 100 coin to obtain the mystical Hangonkoh for him. As is prone to happen with bumbling servants, the man immediately forgets the name of the incense sought by his master and instead purchases large amounts of a similar sounding smokey medicinal incense instead, returning with it for his master being none the wiser of his own error.
The lord then went to the grave of his dead wife and lit what he thought was Hangaokoh, as he focused earnestly on the image of his beloved. Yet as the smoke rose, nothing happened. Thinking he was doing something incorrectly, the lord lit more and more of the quite smokey incense as he intensified his focus upon his love’s image, chanting like a crazed lunatic all the while. Still nothing happened. Fearing he was not burning enough of what he believed to be Hangonkoh, he set alight the entire remaining 100 coin worth of the imposter incense at once - a huge amount - creating such a smoke that he could barely see his beloved’s grave marker right in front of him.
Just then as he sat weeping and dejected, barely visible through the smoke her grave marker began to sway back and forth, moving with his heaving sobs! Convinced he was ever so close to his lover’s return in the smoke and overcome with joy, he sprang up and rushed home to send his servant to buy him another 100 coin worth of the precious Hangonkoh so he may be successful in his second try! However, upon arriving at his villa, he returned to find the household in a state of alarm, his bumbling servant running up to him to deliver the Rakugo punchline: “Master, we were worried about you! Where were you during that earthquake just now?”
The underlying theme of all these versions of the story is the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of all things in this world and the suffering caused by trying to hold on to that which is transitory. The smoke of Hongonkoh represents the ungraspable; trying to hold on to anything in the transitory material world is as futile as grasping at smoke, leading ultimately to suffering.
The underpinnings of Buddhism in Japanese incense is well documented and leaves us with the final incense Yokai for this tale. Incense has long been associated with Japanese Buddhist funeral rights, being used to calm the spirit of the departed as well as purify those attending the funeral and its surroundings. As such, the role incense plays in the transition from this life to the next is considered highly important. In the world of the Yokai, this transition carries with it a price for those who would try to cheat the living and the dead.
Jikikohoni 食香鬼 - incense eating spirits - were said to be cursed individuals who were so greedy in life that they would sell incense for funeral rites that was of such poor quality and low value as to almost be unsalable, yet deceptively pass it off to the grieving as rare and expensive high quality incense, profiting off the fog of grief. Cursed for their wickedness and deception, these individuals were reborn as Jikikohoni and doomed for eternity to seek out the smoke of incense to eat, yet never to be satisfied by it. A form of “hungry” ghost said to afflict those whose hearts are stingy and greedy, these pitiful reincarnated souls must accept their evil rewards of hunger, thirst, and poverty until they might find a pious individual willing to say the sacred rights on their behalf, freeing them to rest at last.
So as you light your favorite incense this Halloween be warned! The incense may attract the tormented souls of the Jikikohoni to feed upon its fragrant smoke!
Illustration: Celia Cousineau. See more of her work @pineyblues on Instagram.