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.