February 07, 2022

Part IV: The Rise of Higashiyama Culture

Ashikaga Yoshimasa was barely a teenager of 13-years old when he was proclaimed Shogun in 1449 CE. The eighth Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimasa’s ascension would take place at a time when famine was rampant and control of Japan’s countryside by the bakufu government of the Ashikaga shogunate was becoming increasingly untenable. As civil war over his ill-chosen heir raged, tens of thousands died from famine engulfing the countryside, and Kyoto burned to the ground around him, Yoshimasa's singular fixation upon the cultural arts would come to define the quintessential Japanese esthetic and shape Japanese incense culture to this day.

The Fall of the Hojo
Over 150 years had passed since Hojo Tokumune had repelled the Yuan invasions of Japan. Yet the significant cost of war with the Mongol invaders had severely strained the resources of the ruling Hojo. More than a century prior to Yoshimasa’s ascension, the Hojo shogunate in Kamakura was in steep decline. Japan’s political climate was increasingly fractured between a divided Imperial Court in Kyoto and the weakened bakufu government of the Hojo shogunate in Kamakura. Ascending in 1316 CE, the 13-year old Hojo Takatoki would be the final Hojo regent of the Kamakura shogunate. A leader of questionable intelligence and prone to moral vices, Takatoki delegated important affairs of state to political appointees made based on favoritism and nepotism rather than any actual qualification or skill.

It was under Takatoki’s leadership that the continued feud over succession between rival branches of the Imperial family would boil over. The Hojo shogunate had for decades muted hostilities by imposing ryoto tetsuritsu 両統迭立 – an alternating succession between the senior and junior branches of the Imperial family. This alternation limited the reign of Emperors by eliminating direct blood line heredity and kept an uneasy peace by frustrating both branches of the Imperial family equally.

In 1318 CE, two years into Takatoki’s reign, Go-Daigo of the junior Imperial family branch ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne as a caretaker emperor until the young Crown Prince Kuniyoshi came of age. With little more than ten years until he would be forced to abdicate, Go-Daigo began immediately to foment plans to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate and restore birthright heredity to his heirs. After more than a decade of intrigue his plot was fully exposed. Go-Daigo fled the Imperial Palace in Kyoto to a monastery on Mount Kasagi with the three Sacred Treasures of Japan, Imperial Regalia symbolizing the Emperor’s authority, and an awaiting army raised in his support. However, after a brief standoff with Kamakura forces who overwhelmed and laid siege to Kasagi, Go-Daigo was arrested and exiled to the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan.

Triggering three years of civil war known as the Genko War, Takatoki appointed Kogon as Emperor despite Go-Daigo’s refusal to abdicate and his possession of the Imperial Regalia. In response, Go-Daigo quickly escaped exile and waged bloody civil war upon the Kamakura shogunate and Emperor Kogon whom he branded as an illegitimate usurper. Fighting would culminate two years later in 1333 CE with two stunning defeats for the Hojo. Ashikaga Takauji, the general in charge of Kamakura forces sent to take Kyoto defected and seized the capitol instead for Go-Daigo. In Kamakura, daimyo sympathetic to Go-Daigo rose in revolt, sacking Kamakura. The swiftness of this betrayal so surprised Hojo Takatoki and his family that they chose ritual suicide rather than being captured. After 150 years of rule, the Kamakura bakufu and the Hojo shogunate had come to a bloody end.

The Ashikaga Shogunate
Returning to Kyoto, Go-Diago began to restore the ruling practices of Imperial aristocracy. However, despite his efforts, what would later be known as the Kenmu Restoration would last only three short years. The governmental practices reinstated by Go-Daigo proved to be outdated and failed to secure the backing of land-owning Daimyo who had grown increasingly powerful and independent of the capitol. Go-Daigo also alienated Ashikaga Takauji who expected to be named Shogun for his great victory in seizing Kyoto. Instead Go-Daigo named his own son as Shogun, insulting Takauji, and losing the support of much of the samurai in the process.

In 1335 CE Ashikaga Takauji once again switched alliances, proclaimed himself Shogun, and in a repeat of his victory three years earlier took Kyoto in 1336 for Emperor Komyo in return for his support of Takauji’s claim as Shogun. Go-Diago fled to the mountains of Yoshino south of Kyoto establishing the Southern Imperial Court, and Komyo established the Northern Imperial Court in Kyoto under Takauji’s protection, with both courts continuing to fight for legitimacy over the next fifty years. With the Ashikaga shogunate established, Takauji moved the bakufu government from Kamakura to Kyoto. 

Named for the location of the Hana no Gosho 花の御所, the Flower Palace, where the Ashikaga bakufu established their headquarters in Kyoto, the Muromachi period would produce a sea-change in Japanese culture. With both the Northern Court of the Emperor and the bakufu government of the Ashikaga shogunate located in Kyoto, the Chinese inspired aristocratic culture of the Heian era would fuse with the Zen practices of the Muromachi samurai. Takauji was found of cultural refinement and his fondness of composing Waka poems and Renga linked verse was well known. Even his armor had multi-colored lacing poetically representing a rainbow's good fortune as well as fleeting beauty. From the start of the Ashikaga shogunate, the samurai displayed great interest in the collection of karamono, works of Chinese art and culture, as symbols of wealth and power as much as their cultural significance.

The Golden Pavillion
By the time Takauji’s grandson Ashikaga Yoshimitsu would rise to shogun in 1368 CE, the private villas of Ashikaga shoguns in the eastern hills of Kyoto had become elegant centers for the collection of art and culture as well as the display of the wealth and power associated with them. The third shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate, Yoshimitsu would prove the most successful, tempering the spirit of a warrior with cultural refinement. As an astute politician, he would eliminate the majority of his rivals, making many of the daimyo supporting the Southern Court his vassals, and eventually brokering a resolution that unified Northern and Southern courts in 1392 CE.

Drawing on a desire to increase his collection of karamono and the riches such collection would bring, Yoshimitsu reestablished trade with China. To do so however, Yoshimitsu would submit to Ming China, accepting a vassal state role for Japan and the subservient title “King of Japan” thus ensuring the continued flow of rich gifts and fine artwork to the collection of the Ashikaga. Although it would later tarnish his legacy, his submission would open the importation of sophisticated sumi ink paintings, fine porcelain, elegant calligraphic works, tea and associated ornate utensils, and fragrant woods and aromatic materials, often brought back to the Shogun’s collection by Zen monks returning from study in China.

To display the wealth and power he amassed, Yoshimitsu commissioned the building of the Kitayama mountain villa of Kinkaku-ji and its famed Golden Pavilion in the eastern hills of Kyoto. Here Kitayama culture would flourish among Yoshimitsu's close circle of samurai elite, his collection of karamono ostentatiously showcased from within Kinkaku-ji’s pure gold leaf gilded exterior. At Kinkaku-ji Yoshimitsu would awe his often semi-literate daimyos with a level of cultural refinement and opulence of riches so enthralling that their desire to emulate Kitayama culture would grow considerably.

The Onin War
By 1449 CE when Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Yoshimasa, became the eight shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate the countryside was increasingly divorced from the Ashikaga shogunate’s control. Unlike his grandfather, Yoshimasa had neither the inclination to rule nor the disposition of a warrior. As the political power of land-owning daimyo continued to increase, Yoshimasa progressively lost their respect, and his frequent requests for financial support to remodel, move, and build his palaces were increasingly ignored. Without their financial assistance, taxes were raised and quickly passed on to the peasantry, who in turn would rise up with more and more frequency in revolt. As famine and unrest spread across the countryside, Yoshimasa became increasingly frustrated with his inability to effect change or to rally the powerful land-owning daimyo to his causes. Embittered, at twenty-nine he decided to retire from public life and immerse himself in his true interest, the cultural arts.

This presented a problem. His marriage to Hino Tomiko had not produced an heir, and her drive for power and wealth were well known. Yoshimasa requested his brother Ashikaga Yoshimi, who had taken vows as a Buddhist monk, return to public life as his successor. Yoshimi agreed to do so only after Yoshimasa swore a solemn vow to support him should Tomiko ever produce an heir. Shortly thereafter Yoshimi’s fears were realized when in December of 1465 CE Tomiko gave birth to a son, Ashikaga Yoshihisa, whom she demanded be named heir. Caught between his vow to his brother and his own son, Yoshimasa would increasingly retreat into the cultural arts. His paralysis in naming a successor gave rival samurai clans the excuse they needed to fight for control of the capitol. Starting 1467 CE, the Onin War would last ten years and devastate Kyoto in fire and bloodshed that spread throughout western Japan.

From Collectors to Connousuers
Although Higashiyama culture takes its name from the retirement villa Yoshimasa would commission years later in the hills east of Kyoto, it actually began as Kyoto burned around him during the Onin War. Yoshimasa’s patronage of a wide range of cultural arts placed his vision in a leading role in their development. Unlike Kitayama culture that was focused on the shogun and his immediate daimyo and courtiers, Yoshimasa employed groups of doboshu, professional connoisseurs, as well as talented experts from a wide range of social classes - samurai, monks, artists, nobles, even commoners - whose skill and talent were paramount in realizing his aesthetic vision. Surrounding himself with like minded experts in the arts, these talented individuals would not only help Yoshimasa realize his esthetic tastes, but also catalog his many collections of rare objects, and most importantly provide insights into their appreciation, display, use, and the qualities that made them exceptional. Many of these catalogs would go on to be used as manuals for centuries after Yoshimasa’s death

Zen had always brought tea and incense together for the samurai, and Zen and tea would again be at the forefront of the development of Japanese incense culture. A devotee of chanoyu 茶の湯 - the tea ceremony - Yoshimasa studied the ritualized service of tea, promoting chado 茶道 – the way of tea – of masters such as Noami, Ikkyu, and Shuko among his daimyo, laying the foundation for Sen Rikyu’s Zen inspired wabi-cha nearly a century later. By codifying standards and etiquette for the simple act of gathering to drink tea, which at the time often devolved into a rowdy game involving gambling on tea tasting contests, Yoshimasa brought together all of the cultural arts within an expression of Zen ideals.

The tea ceremony became a cultural cornucopia in which the sophistication and refinement of the host was displayed across the natural beauty of the garden, the free standing kaisho reception hall, the choice of Zen calligraphy scroll and flower arrangement in the tokonoma, and the incense used to purify the atmosphere in the space prior to the drinking of tea. Through Higashiyama Culture, as the saying goes, Zen and tea would have the same flavor. As shogun, Yoshimasa’s patronage of chanoyu would move the Japanese social elite, daimyo, and courtier alike from mere collectors of fine art to connoisseurs of fine art culture. The ritualized drinking of tea would become the model for incense appreciation, elevating incense to its own artform as an outgrowth of its role in tea culture.

Higashyama Culture and Incense
The burning of incense is an important aspect of the tea ceremony, purifying the space and setting the atmosphere prior to the serving of tea. The display of Chinese red carved lacquer-ware incense containers and celadon incense burners in the tokonoma was a sign of culture and wealth. Of the karamono often displayed, an arrangement of a celadon, bronze, or silver incense burner featured prominently between a flower vase and candle holder was common. The unique Higashiyama three tier shelving often displayed collections of exquisite incense burners alongside ornate tea ware.

Yoshimasa was considered highly accomplished in the use incense, having such an appetite for fragrant woods that he amassed a large collection of named Aloeswoods, even gaining from the emperor the rare gift of a piece of the famous Ranjatai for his collection. Just as he elevated the tea ceremony from a rowdy gambling affair to a refined cultural art, Yoshimasa would lay the foundations for the ritualized appreciation of incense using much the same pattern as the tea ceremony.

It is believed that Yoshimasa was initiated into the appreciation and comparison of incense by Sanetaka Sanjonishi. 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. Yoshimasa had Sanjonishi catalog incense games of the time, listing the proper etiquette, rules, and woods that should be utilized. To bring order to his collection, he would enlist Soushin Shino, a trusted vassal and Yoshimasa’s chief military strategist. As a samurai, Shino would blend his military expertise with the samurai’s Zen influence, organizing the classification of koboku and elevating the appreciation of incense to include Zen's spiritual aspects.

Known as the “Ashikaga Shogun’s Collection of 120,” this catalog of Yoshimasa’s most exquisite fragrant woods would result in more than just a detailed list of koboku. Shino and Sanjonishi would be credited with leading roles in creating the Rikkoku-gomi 六国五味 - the Six Nations and Five Tastes - used to classify Aloeswood. Sanjonishi and Shino classified Aloeswood based upon the characteristics typically associated with their countries of import, much the same way wine is categorized by the region of origin today. The five classic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy were used to describe the character of Aloeswood, as taste and smell are closely associated and are highly accessible. As origin and taste alone fail to adequately describe the character of complex fragrant woods, the two were further combined into archetypal personalities of the time such as “peasant,” “monk,” “warrior” etc. to describe the indescribable essence of various Aloeswoods.

The Rikkoku-gomi of Sanjonishi and Shino standardized the taxonomy employed in the classification of Aloeswood, and has now been in use for over 500 years. Each would go on to found 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.

Just as with chanoyu, the appreciation of incense was elevated from simple kumi-koh, incense guessing game, to a cultural event where literary references and displays of cultural sophistication were incorporated within the appreciation of fragrant woods. Linked to poetry or traditional literary works popular at the time, the appreciation of incense displayed one’s refinement and cultural sophistication through knowledge of works alluded to in the description of fragrance. For example, kumi-koh such as Genji-koh centered around Lady Murasaki’s classic Heian period novel The Tales of Genji. Play involved listening to five unknown incenses that once scored would form a pattern of lines that corresponded to one of the fifty-two chapters in Murasaki’s novel. The result was a meditative experience in which the appreciation of fragrant woods was a transcendent allegory for literary interpretation and display of cultural refinement.

It was during this time that the influential and eccentric Japanese Zen Buddhist monk Sojun Ikkyu transcribed and distributed a poem extolling the virtues of incense further elevating its status. Originally written in the 11th century by Chinese Song Dynasty master poet and calligrapher Huang Tingjian, The Ten Virtues of Koh 香の十徳  lists the qualities and benefits of exceptional incense, lauding the virtue of its use. Passed down for over five-hundred years, Ikkyu's interpretation of The Ten Virtues of Koh quantifies what high quality incense embodies and is still cited today.

The Silver Pavilion
In 1482 CE, delayed by war and perpetually short of finances, Yoshimasa would finally begin construction of the palace complex where he could synthesize all of the cultural arts into his ultimate expression of his aesthetic vision. Located in the Hagashiyama hills east of Kyoto, Ginkaku-ji would serve as Yoshimasa’s retirement villa, and the location from which he would expose influential courtiers and daimyo alike to the appreciation of art, poetry, drama, chanoyu, and incense. Although Ginkaku-ji is a complex of multiple buildings, it is most known for the “Silver Pavilion” where Yoshimasa would host gatherings to enjoy the appreciation of tea and incense. Despite its name, the Silver Pavilion is not guilded in silver as the Golden Pavillion was guilded in gold. Instead, the nickname is likely due to the hue the once black lacquered exterior presented in the moonlight, and was first recorded more than a century after its completion. Gazing at the moon was a symbol of Buddhist enlightenment, and events centering on moon viewing were filled with cultural significance. Ginkaku-ji was oriented to the moon's rise and the later addition of the unique Kogetsudai, or Moon-Viewing Mound, in the Ginkaku-ji's dry garden reflects Yoshimasa's life long devotion to Budhism.

Yoshimasa would not see the completion of the Ginkaku-ji complex he had spent so much time, effort, and resources planning. Following the death of his son Yoshihisa In 1489 CE, the onset of palsy could no longer be ignored after an attack paralyzed his left side. The disease would worsen rapidly, and he would fall into a coma and succumb in January of 1490 CE. Yoshimasa’s elevation of the cultural arts would outlive him, his legacy forming the cultural aesthetic of Japan is known for, and the foundation for Japanese incense culture to this day.

However, his ineffectual leadership and the resulting destruction of Kyoto in the Onin War would severely weaken the Ashikaga shogunate, fanning daimyo rivalries outside the smoking ruins of the capital with desires of power and conquest. It was these warlords who would continue and expand upon Yoshimasa's cultural legacy, elevating both tea and incense to Zen inspired high artforms as they paradoxically waged civil war that would ravage Japan for the next century.

In Part V of The Origins of Japanese Incense Culture, as the Sengoku Jidai spreads from Kyoto to the whole of Japan, the ritual appreciation of incense will rise to be one of Japan's three major Arts of Refinement.


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...