When those in America think of incense, there is often very little awareness of the superb incenses of Japan. This is a shame, as Japanese incense is some of the finest incense ever created. Below are four reasons that set Japanese incense apart from incenses typically found in many western stores. These reasons form the core of why Japanese incense should be experienced by anyone interested employing incense in their daily rituals, be they be the practice of yoga, meditation, or simply for relaxation and enjoyment.
Incense to the Japanese is not just an object of utility or commodity, but instead something with centuries of rich importance and cultural heritage. In Japan, there are three classical Japanese "Arts of Refinement" that have their origins centuries ago. Ikebana, or flower arrangement, known as Kado - the way of flowers - is well know throughout the world. The tea ceremony, known as Chado - the way of tea - is quite famous both within and outside Japan. Yet the third, the art of listening to incense known as Kodo - the way of incense - is barely known in America (even in Japan it is the least known of the three). All three date back to Japan's Muromachi Period and formalized in the late 1500s.
Incense manufacturers in Japan often trace their origins all the way back to this time period, a lineage they both honor and seek to continue in today's modern world. For example, the three manufactures originally featured by Kikoh have a combined 900 years of incense manufacturing experience! Nippon Kodo traces its origins to 1575, Baieido has its roots in its founder Jinkoya Sakubei in 1657, and Shoeido's origins are rooted in Rokubei Moritsune Hata's incense-making techniques learned as an employee of Kyoto's Imperial Palace in 1705. The manufacture of Japanese incense is not just a means of commerce for these companies. It is an important cultural activity, and a tradition they both honor and excel at like no other in the world.
Traditional Japanese incense is a natural product, the ingredients of which having changed little since the 1500's. The woods, spices, and natural fragrances uses in its manufacture are often highly sought after, processed in their natural or oil form, and provide the foundation of the incense stick. Most often, rare and fragrant woods are the primary ingredient for incense, prized for the fragrant qualities they naturally posses. Some of these woods, like Kyara - the highest grade of aloeswood - are both rare and more valuable ounce for ounce than gold! It is through heating these ingredients (smoke is a byproduct, not the fragrance) that their essence is released.
Many incenses typically found in the west are made by using a generic binder (non-fragrant material) mixed to form a paste that is then applied to a bamboo core - the red stick typically associated with incense in the west. Often, very little of this base and none of the core are fragrant materials. This base is then dipped into synthetic oils that are often petrol-chemical based and filled with chemical preservatives. The fragrance produced is often harsh, artificial, and short lived.
Traditional Japanese incense, on the other hand, is first and foremost based upon its natural ingredients, and the fragrant and rare woods that serve as its base fragrance. The "core" of Japanese incense is the same as the rest of the stick - all natural ingredients and prized fragrant woods that have been used in formulas dating back hundreds of years. If an incense is a traditional cinnamon-aloeswood blend, then it's fragrance comes predominately from cinnamon and aloeswood - all natural fragrant ingredients. Even where Japanese incenses are blended with modern uses of perfumes (for example Daihatu's incorporation of French perfumery techniques), the emphasis is on blending the natural ingredients with essential oils and high quality perfumes to produce a "modern" incense.
Better With Age
Passed down from the 15th century, the "Ten Virtues of Koh" states that one of the qualities of fine incense is that age does not change its efficacy. Just as fine wines are best when savored and appreciated, their vintages deepening with age, Japanese incense possessed the same qualities that deepen and enhance its fragrance over time. Unlike lower quality incenses dipped in oils or synthetic fragrances that fade rapidly, the rare and aromatic woods in Japanese incense deepen and maintain their fragrances with age. Just as with fine wines, the more one listens to incense - the art of moving beyond just the fragrance to experiencing incense with one's whole being - the more depth and subtitles Japanese incense reveals to the listener. And just as where the grapes are grown that go into fine wines changes their palette, where the fine and rare fragrant woods are sourced from changes the experience of Japanese incense.
One of the oldest pieces of Jinkoh (the Japanese term for Aloeswood) named Ranjatai is still preserved today at the Tojadai temple near Nara. Originally a gift to the the Empress Komyo in 756 CE, it has several notches where Japanese Shogun such as Oda Nobunaga, the first Shogun of the Muromachi period, cut a small piece for his personal use over 800 years after Ranjatai was presented as a gift to the Empress. If one was fortunate enough to be gifted a priceless piece of Ranjatai to listen to today, the same exquisite fragrance experienced over a millennia ago by Empress Komyo would be shared with those extremely fortunate to enjoy it.
The aesthetic sense of the Japanese is legendary, and firmly ingrained in their culture. This aesthetic sensitivity can be seen in the way incense is manufactured from the beautiful packaging to the uniformity and consistency of the incense stick. But the beauty of Japanese incense goes beyond the outward appearance as it is intended to beautifully transcend the sense of smell, and to be experienced by the whole of one's being.
In the Kodo ceremony, one does not merely "burn" Japanese incense. To truly experience it, one "listens" to Japanese incense with one's whole being, much the way sommelier experiences fine wine with more than just one's palette. This method of experiencing incense has its roots in Buddhism, as it was said that in the Buddha's world everything is fragrant like incense, including the words of the Buddha. Therefore, devotees listen to Buddha's words, in the form of incense, instead of smelling them. Whether during a formal Kodo ceremony, or just in casual listening experiences in one's home, the beauty of Japanese incense is at its core intended to transcend the beautiful fragrance produced.
Many of the highest quality Japanese incenses are often beautifully complex in their fragrances, so much so that they are often described in ways that transcend fragrance all together. It is not unusual to find fragrances that are uplifting, soothing, warming, or transparent - terms not usually employed for the sense of smell. It is this transcendent beauty that truly sets Japanese incense apart.
So, why Japanese Incense?
With millennia of culture significance leading to centuries of practice and refinement, Japanese incense is a rare combination of artistry and natural ingredients that deepen with age. The result is an experience of beauty that transcends the senses.