Journey to Serenity : Unveiling the Origins of Japanese Incense

For centuries, the delicate wisps of Japanese incense have filled the air, calming minds and elevating spirits. But this fragrant practice goes far beyond mere aroma; it's a journey to the very origins of Japanese culture.

The history of Japanese incense is intricately woven into the fabric of the nation. As we introduced in this article, incense has been integral to spiritual ceremonies, artistic endeavors, and daily routines. Spanning from ancient temples to noble residences. The calming aromas were believed to purify the air, inspire meditation, and enhance artistic appreciation during the traditional kodo ceremonies. We will tell you about Kodo soon !

It is in the first Japanese chronicle Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) that the oldest record of incense appreciation in Japan appeared. In A.D 595, during the Asuka period, it was described :

Ligh-aloes wood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji. It was six feet in circumference. The people of the island, being unacquainted with aloeswood, used it with other firewood to burn for cooking; the smoky vapor spreads its perfume far and wide. In wonderment, they presented it to the Empress

This is how incense was first presented in Japan to Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku. The Prince was familiar with incense burning, introduced to Japan around 538 CE as part of Buddhist rituals, and recognized it as 'jin'. Jin has been translated to Aloeswood or Agarwood.  Discovering agarwood

This aromatic aloeswood is called jinkoh in Japanese, or jin, meaning “sinking-in-water” incense. The word itself comes from a Sanskrit world meaning “heavy”. Not all incense wood referred to as jinkoh sinks in the water. However, sinking wood indicates a particularly oily or resinous wood, making it more aromatic and valuable.

The more resinous the wood, the darker, heavier, and more aromatic it becomes. Yet, this is extremely rare and takes a highly experienced person to find such aromatic scent wood. Either buried underground, or in a living tree in the jungle.

But when did incense became common in Japanese usage ?

Incense started to take a more prominent place in the Nara period (A.D 710-794), where political power fell into the hand of the leaders who supported Buddhism. Buddhist rituals then came to be incorporated into states ceremonies and imperial court functions. This increased the need for incense and its reach. Incense was burnt both as an offering to the Buddha and in order to purify the ritual site.

The incense used in ancient Japanese Buddhist rituals was at first a mixture of five to seven chipped aromatic materials, such as jinkoh (remember ? aloeswood!), sandalwood, cloves, cinnamon and camphor. The amount and combination of those materials could vary, depending on the Buddhist sects and their making process. This incense was then sprinkled directly on hot ash containing burning charcoal. The technique of joss-stick incense was introduced later in the sixteenth century by Koreans or Chinese.

Today, two large pieces of jinkoh are preserved in an eighth-century imperial storehouse at Todaiji Temple in Nara. The larger piece was gifted by Empress Komyo to the temple in A.D. 756. Burning a piece of this wood today would reveal the unchanged, exquisite aroma of jinkoh, reminiscent of the scent experienced by the shogun centuries ago.

From temples to higher-class : incense and nobility 

It is during Heian period (around the 11th century), known for its elegance and artistic pursuits, that the Japanese culture of incense took another turn. Here, incense transcended its religious roots and blossomed into a cultural phenomenon. From perfumed robes and fans, to poems extolling the virtues of a particular fragrance, incense was in everyday life. It even found a place in the epic novel "The Tale of Genji," a literary cornerstone of the era.

A scene from Tales of the Genji with game of incense.

 Even samurai warriors weren't immune to the allure of incense. Before battles, they would use koboku incense to cleanse their minds and bodies. Perhaps seeking an extra dose of focus and courage...

This appreciation for fragrant smoke culminated in the 16th century (during Muromachi period), with the development of kodo. Kodo is the art of appreciating the subtle fragrances of smoldering koboku -various types of high-quality aromatic woods-.

Interestingly, the core principles of kodo practiced today remain remarkably similar to those established during the Muromachi period. This period also saw the rise of the tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging, showcasing a cultural fascination with aesthetics.

There is a lot to learn about Japanese incense, and we will be happy to share more of its history with you!

Don't hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments !

Asayu Japan Team


Our previous articles :

Sandalwood Incense & Japanese Culture: A Starter Guide
Discovering Agarwood: An Introductory Guide