The history of incense since the Nara Period

Jinko (incense) Source: Wikipedia

KANSAI CULTURESCAPES / Incense carries aroma of history
Christal Whelan / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

The world of incense is full of evocative power that can conjure up striking primordial imagery. The golden resin known as frankincense comes from a tree that grows in some of the most forbidding landscapes, and ambergris from the remains of squid beaks excreted by sperm whales. Jinko or aloeswood is the immune response of a tropical Southeast Asian tree to a life-threatening fungal infection.

Jinko, together with sandalwood, forms the aromatic core of traditional Japanese incense in the form of sticks, pellets, coils or powder. Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) offers the country’s first report of the fragrant wood, said to have drifted ashore on Awajishima island in Hyogo Prefecture in 595. The residents of the island between Honshu and Shikoku are said to have begun burning their find as firewood, but astonished by the fragrance, put out the fire, and instead presented the wood to the Imperial Court in Nara. Prince Shotoku recognized the resinous wood as precious aloeswood whose resinous core is “kyara,” the creme de la creme of incense wood.

To this day on the northwestern shore of Awajishima, the Kareki Shrine facing the Seto Inland Sea enshrines jinko as its object of veneration.

The island is also home to incense maker Kunjudo, established in the Meiji era (1868-1912), which offers workshops on making cone and pressed incense. According to Shozo Akashi of Kunjudo, the island produces about 70 percent of Japan’s incense. The hub of this production is the town of Ei, where over half the population is involved in the industry. Its flourishing is partly attributable to the scant rainfall and seasonal west wind on the island that provide ideal conditions for drying incense.


Incense and Buddhism

The culture of incense in Japan developed in tandem with Buddhism and traditional Chinese medicine. Incense was required for religious rituals in which it purified the air and marked the passing of the hours with sticks or incense trails made to measure. It also did duty as an insect repellent for the preservation of sutra texts and Buddhist vestments. Clove, sandalwood and camphor are especially effective and constitute major ingredients in the sachets produced by all of Japan’s major incense companies even today.

As healing inevitably involves both body and spirit, blurry lines existed from the start within the triad of Buddhism, medicine and incense.

Kungyokudo Co., a Kyoto incense seller opposite Nishi Hongwanji temple, which it supplies, was first established as a pharmacy of Chinese medicine in 1594.

The company’s director, Hiroki Yamaguchi, said: “At first the incense ingredients were considered medicinal. Jinko was thought to be good for blood pressure and was consumed rather than enjoyed as fragrance.”

It is hardly by chance that Shoyeido Incense Co., a distinguished incense dynasty since 1705 and creator of such hits as Horikawa, is located on Nijodori street. This is an area of Kyoto where clove merchants who imported Chinese medicines through the ports of Nagasaki and Okinawa prefectures once thrived. As incense makers, the Hata family could more easily procure the ingredients for blends that a third-generation family member had learned while working in the nearby Imperial Palace.

The Chinese monk Ganjin (688-763), also known as Jianzhen, who is usually credited with the introduction of incense to Japan, arrived in the archipelago in 754 during the early wave of Nara Buddhism. He propagated the Ritsu school of Buddhism and introduced incense recipes and materials, influencing the spherical shape in which incense would be made, its rich blends and the traditional method of indirect burning by burying a tiny charcoal briquette in a cup of ash.

As in China, the use of incense in Japan spilled over from the religious sphere into the secular. Aromatic materials that release fragrant smoke when burned involve the skill of artisans coupled with spiritual and artistic imagination. Thus, kodo or “the way of fragrance” began in the Heian period (794-1192) but became a formal art in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) as a ceremonial way of “listening to incense.”

The ritual required minute preparations of the incense cup with special tools to form an ash mountain with a tiny mica slab on the peak, on which a miniscule wood chip or incense pellet would be placed for indirect burning. This developed into various incense pastimes in which participants competed to produce the best fragrance or played guess-the-scent games.

The eighth shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), was a devotee of the incense ceremony and collected fragrant woods. In his villa in the Higashiyama hills in Kyoto, now known as Ginkakuji temple, or the Silver Pavilion, the retired shogun had an incense ceremony room–the Roseitei–the only one that still exists from antiquity today.

Yet the refined art of incense, like most of Japanese culture, remained hidden from the world and was long exoticized. It took the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to open the floodgates. Along with Zen, Japanese incense also made its debut on the world stage at this time.


Hands-on incense blending

The continuing passion for incense in Japan is intimately connected to the spiritual sustenance that the mixing of several ingredients from nature’s treasure chest–or the showcasing of a single one–has provided for centuries. This became crystal clear to me during an incense-making workshop given by Yamada-Matsu Co. in Kyoto, a seller of natural extracts, medicine and fragrant woods located west of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The store has hundreds of drawers along one wall, an enormous helical narwhal tusk on another and boxes of Buddhist rosaries made of various fragrant woods.

Nine of us were led to a back room to make traditional black, pellet-shaped incense soft as clay according to a recipe that included nine ingredients plus three of our own choosing, with musk being an option. With a base of jinko and sandalwood, we added clove, Borneo camphor, spikenard, pistachio, sumi to impart a uniform blackness, plum water to blend, and ground cuddy shell to bind them all together. The mood was intense, the excitement palpable, and no two people came up with the same incense.

Japan’s major incense producers are highly innovative. Along with their own traditional blends for Buddhist altars and ceremonies, they experiment with modern lines that include producing scents as novel as coffee, green tea, grapefruit and even double mint. Do not, however, jump to easy conclusions. Coffee incense is not made from any part of the coffee plant but rather is conceptual and creates the mood rather than the aroma of coffee.

Incense makers are designers no less than those in the fashion world, though they deal in the most ethereal and ephemeral of fabrics. Marilyn Monroe said it all when she famously remarked that all she wore to bed was Chanel No. 5. No comment makes a bolder suggestion that fragrance is not an accessory but something as fundamental and primary as a garment.

Today is my last column. Over the 14 months in which I wrote this column I relished my role as cultural interpreter and the privilege of introducing some of the most engaging phenomena, captivating people, and unforgettable places in the Kansai region. I am grateful to The Daily Yomiuri for inviting me on board and to all of my readers.

Whelan is a cultural anthropologist and author who resides in Kyoto.


Travel Information

— Kunjudo

1255-1 Taga, Awaji, Hyogo Prefecture.

Open: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Cone and pressed incense-making workshop:

Offered by reservation.

(0799) 85-1301.

To go from JR Sannomiya Station in Kobe, take Shinki bus to Awajishima and get off at Gunke bus stop.

— Kungyokudo Co.

Nishi Hongwanji-mae, Horikawadori,

Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto.

Open: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

(Closed first and third Sundays of the month.)

Incense Ceremony Experience (for 90 minutes):

On April 28 and May 26 at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. Reservations are necessary.

(075) 371-0162.

Take city bus No. 9 or No. 28 from Kyoto Station to Nishihongwanji-mae stop

— Shoyeido Incense Co.

Nijo-agaru, Karasumadori, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto.

Open: 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

(Until 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday)

Incense Ceremony Experience: On May 9. To make reservations, call (075) 212-5591 or send an e-mail to

(075) 212-5590.

Near Exit 7 of Marutamachi Station on the Karasuma subway line.

— Ginkakuji temple (Silver Pavilion)

Roseitei Incense Room: Open until May 16

(Closed April 17 and 18) from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

To go, take bus No. 5, No. 17 or No.100 from Kyoto Station to Ginkakuji

— Yamada-Matsu Co.

(Shimodachiuri-agaru, Muromachidori),

164 Kageyukojicho, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto

Open: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Traditional incense-making workshop: At 2:30 p.m. on weekdays. Reservations are necessary 24 hours in advance, and at least two people are needed to hold the workshop.

(075) 441-4694.

Near Exit 2 of Marutamachi Station on the Karasuma subway line.

(Apr. 15, 2012)

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