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Fragrance in Japanese Life

For centuries people in Japan have cultivated an appreciation for incense, using it to focus and elevate their thoughts and senses. Most incense is made from special fragrant varieties of wood brought from other parts of Asia. From ancient times, the elevating properties of incense have exerted a deep influence on the soul of the people of Japan.

First introduced to Japan along with Buddhism, incense was considered by many to be sacred, thought to drive away evil, purify the altars in Buddhist temples and was employed in anointing the dead. Incense is prepared from trees with aromatic timber, called Koh Boku in Japanese. The most common aromatic is agarwood, which releases its distinctive fragrance when heated. Agarwood has at least a 3000-year history in the Middle East, China and Japan. There are also references to agarwood in the literature of India and France, and in the Old Testament of the Bible. Agarwood is the resinous heartwood of a member of the Thymelacae family in the Aquileria genus, and is one of the world’s rarest and most valuable natural products. In Ayuravedic medicine it is used to treat a wide range of mental illness. In Buddhism, it serves as a major ingredient in many incense mixtures, and it is considered to be one of the three integral incenses, together with sandalwood and cloves. The resin is commonly called gaharu, jinko, aloeswood, agarwood, or oud, and is valued in many cultures for its distinctive fragrance. However, not all agarwood trees can be used for incense. Only mature trees that have had branches snapped off or suffered some sort of damage develop sufficient resin to give off this prized fragrance.

Most Koh Boku wood grows in southeast Asia or India (Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmmar, some parts of Thailand, Laos, and Kampuchea); the old forests of Kalimantan, Papua and Sumatra are prime sources. These are all very humid countries. Since not all trees have the resin, different trees that do will have different degrees of resin. Every tree will have a different fragrance. If you finish a piece of wood, you cannot get that identical fragrance from any other piece of wood. They are all natural, as individual as one human being is from another. The Japanese began to enjoy a tiny piece of the wood to heat and enjoy the fragrance. Once they found a piece of wood that was very admirable, they decided to pass it on to the next generation.

In ancient Japan it was a rare and valuable commodity found only as driftwood or carried by traders from China. Koh Boku wood and other ingredients used to make incense were extremely valuable and were reserved for the use of the aristocracy.

It was during the Heien period about 1,000 years ago that people started using incense outside of Buddhist rituals. At that time, the most common form of incense, called Neri-koh (kneaded incense), was made by mixing fine grains of Koh Boku wood with charcoal and binding it with honey or other ingredients. The court aristocrats began creating their own mixtures of this Neri-koh incense, experimenting with various combinations of aromatics. These fragrances became a sort of status symbol and were used as a way of denoting a person’s education and personality. A tool called a Fusego was developed to imbue kimono with these subtle fragrances. In the old days people, especially the aristocrats, enjoyed the fragrance of incense by perfuming their clothes with this instrument. They decorated themselves with the very elegant fragrance to make an atmosphere around themselves. The courtiers in the Heien period also used to perfume their letters and use incense in many aspects of their daily lives. They chose the incense recipes according to the atmosphere they wanted to create and according to the seasons and the sense of beauty.

This changed after the dawn of the age of Samurai warriors. As the practice of Zen spread during the Kamakura and Muromoto periods in the 13th and 14th centuries, people began using incense to give them greater mental clarity and as a aid for concentration. Instead of the elegant mixtures of the Neri-koh incense, they preferred the more austere aromatics of Koh Boku wood used on its own, especially agarwood. In the 15th century, notable men of culture, such as Sanjonishi Sanetaka and Shino Soshin, worked to catagorize the Koh Boku wood into groups and systematize the way of using their aromatic properties. This eventually led to the development of Koh-do, the ritualized appreciation of incense. Together with Sa-do, the tea ceremony, and Ka-do, flower arranging, Koh-do spread throughout Japan as a practice of contemplation and spiritual elevation.

About 500 years ago, when Japan studied Zen Buddhism, tea and flowers and incense, they all originated in the same period of history. Incense never came up as a popular lifestyle because the ingredients had to be imported. Only a few people had the interest and means to indulge in the incense appreciation of Koh-do.

Aquilaria trees are now protected in most countries and the collection of agarwood is illegal from these natural forests. International agreements, such as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), accepted by 169 countries, is designed to ensure trade in agarwood products from wild trees does not threaten the survival of Aquilaria. Despite these efforts, agarwood products from illegally cut trees continue to be sold and unknowing consumers create a demand that helps to destroy the last old growth Aquilaria trees in existence. As of February 2005, a patent was granted for a method to produce agarwood in young plantation-grown trees. This technology eliminates the need to cut old growth trees, provides a new economy to poor farmers in developing countries and provides superb quality agarwood for people around the world to enjoy.

At the Shino Incense School of Kyoto, a score of students gather regularly to practice the ritual appreciation of incense. First, glowing red charcoal is prepared. This charcoal is buried in incense burners, known as Koh-ro in Japan, filled with a fine grey ash. The surface of the ash is then formed into a conical shape over the charcoal to ensure the heat spreads evenly and gently. A small hole is formed in the center of the ash and on top of that is placed a tiny mica plate known as Gin-yo, literally “silver leaf.” A tiny piece of Koh Boku wood about 3mm square is put on this Gin-yo plate. As it heats up, the wood starts to release fragrance. Using one hand to cover the incense burner, each student lifts it to their nose and inhales gently to appreciate the fragrance. The student then exhales somewhere outside of the immediate area around the incense burner (to prevent scattering the ash). The burner will be quite hot to the touch. This is called Mon-koh, literally “listening to the incense.” In Japanese you don’t just smell the fragrance, you “listen” to it. The aim is to captivate your inspiration and let it float in the feelings that arise in this world of beauty that is so simple, yet profound.

Often competitions, known as Kumi-koh or incense guessing games, are held to identify the different kinds of Koh Boku. The participants can play at a competition known as Genji-koh, named after the classic literary masterpiece, The Tale of Genji. Five packages each of five kinds of Koh Boku wood are prepared. These 25 packages are shuffled and five of them are chosen at random. The participants take it in turn to try to identify the scents, how many different kinds and in what order. It’s an extremely complex and difficult competition that requires them to tell subtly different scents apart after smelling them only once. Special charts composed of five lines are used to indicate which of the five scents are the same. Each of the lines represent a single fragrance. If, for example, the third and fourth are the same, a horizontal line is drawn to connect the third and fourth lines from the right. There are 52 different patterns in the chart, each named for one of the chapters in The Tale of Genji. The participants check which of the chapter names corresponds to the charts they have drawn and they write their answers accordingly. It’s an elegant game that uses the heady aromas of the burning incense to draw participants into the bygone world of imperial courtiers. The answers are announced immediately. On this day the third and fifth incenses were the same, and the title of the corresponding chapter was Otome, or the Maiden. Many of the participants aren’t involved to see if they can guess it correctly or not; they come to appreciate the fragrance of the incense. Besides the Genji-koh game there are hundreds of other competitions, each held in a specific season or to mark key events during the year. Although we would call it a game, it actually is a ritual ceremony.

In the last 15 or 20 years, burning incense has been enjoying a revival among young people in Japan. Since the 1990s a natural healing boom has swept Japan. Aromatherapy spread from the United States and Europe, and this also led to a growing interest in incense. More and more people have been incorporating these kinds of fragrances into their daily lives. Essential oils and aromatic herbs also have become very popular. At the same time there have been changes in the world of traditional Japanese incense. There are so-called “incense bars” in upscale areas of Tokoyo that sell nothing but incense, stocking 160 different varieties. The stiff, traditional image of Japanese incense has been given a contemporary feel by incorporating popular aromatics from the West. For example, a blue-colored incense might have a jasmine base that offers an elegant floral bouquet. Some red incense sticks might give an aroma of fruit and flowers, intended to create an uplifting mood. People are now choosing different varieties of incense to suit their lifestyles or how they feel at any particular time of day. And it’s not just young people; these days a growing number of middle-aged and older people are also acquiring a taste for incense. Some of the fragrances are traditional and very old-fashioned, and some others are more contemporary and very new. Through appreciation of incense we study the balancing of the five senses of human beings, and now are reaching the turning point of balancing the five senses.