Japanese Incense: Culture, History and Buying Guide!

According to legend, incense first made its way to Japan by sea, though not in the way you might think. The Nihon Shoki, a book of classical Japanese history, details the story of incense’s arrival through the discovery of a piece of agarwood driftwood along the shores of Awaji Island in the Asuka Period (around 595 AD). This piece of pleasant smelling wood was then brought to the royalty of the time-- Prince Shotoku and Empress Suiko. The prince recognized it immediately as the incense used the Buddhist rituals he’d observed during a stay on the mainland, and after, a trade route was established to bring a steady stream of incense to Japan from China and Korea.

A less sensational history traces the beginning of incense in Japan alongside the beginnings of Buddhism, which first established itself on Japanese shores during the 6th century. Originally agarwood, sandalwood, and other fragrant woods were burned with blends of herbs to create a desired sense of atmosphere in Buddhist temples for the purpose of ritual. Initially chunks of raw material were simply burned in braziers, but as the custom of incense migrated to the Imperial Court, the construction of incense became more refined leading to the stick shape that is familiar to us today. In the hands of the Imperial Court, burning incense became a much more lighthearted affair. Incense was used to cleanse and refresh the elaborate clothing by courtiers, and guessing fragrances became a popular parlor game.

By the 14th century during the Muromachi Period, the use of incense had spread from the court to commoners of upper and middle class. This new group of people used incense to mark their status, as it was still something the poor could not afford, and to generally improve the smells of their homes and clothing. Around this time, ritual burning of incense was also adopted by the Samurai class. Before battle, samurai would take the time to perfume their helmets and armor as a meditation on both their lives, and the fate that awaited them.

From the mindful tradition of samurai, a codified “way of incense” eventually emerged. Called kodo, the way of incense is similar in several respects to the tea ceremony. Along with a ritual pertaining its use and appropriate conduct, incense was also assigned ten virtues to describe the benefits derived from proper use. The Ten virtues of Ko are as follows: it sharpens the senses, purifies the body and spirit, eliminates pollutants, awakens the spirit, heals loneliness, calms in turbulent times, is not unpleasant, even in abundance, even in small amounts is sufficient, does not break down after a very long time, and common use is not harmful. The ritual of kodo incorporates all aspects of the burning process, with the intention of creating an experience of mindful enjoyment for the participants. In line with older traditions, kodo rituals typically use koboku incense, rather than the more commonly used sticks or cones. Koboku is the name used for particularly fragrant pieces of resinous agarwood, the oldest and most traditional form of incense.

Within a kodo ceremony, a small piece of koboku is typically placed on a small mica plate set overtop of a fire. The wood does not burn directly, as this would create unwanted smoke, and is instead gently heated so the resin contained within vaporizes. From there, participants may take turns smelling the incense and commenting on it, much like is done during a tea ceremony. This aspect of the ceremony is known as mon-ko, or listening to incense. The implements for handling the incense and required fire are kept in a decorative chest and utilized with utmost care and respect. Unfortunately, due to the effect of environmental depletion on the availability of raw resinous agarwood, true kodo ceremonies are not widely practiced today.

Outside of kodo, incense is enjoyed by Japanese people of all walks of life, and is viewed as both a simple method of enjoym