Japanese Incense an introduction
Japan is one of the oldest and most valued incense producing countries in the world. The art of making incense has been one of the best kept secrets in Japan for centuries. Wood type Incense was recorded in Japan as early as (595); the current reign was that of the Empress Suiko. Just before that time Buddhism was introduced, around the mid-sixth century, as well a collection of sutras and Buddhist images, incense was also imported.
The Nara period (710–784) near its end, many courtiers were inspired by Buddhist rituals in the use of incense in temples and began burning incense at home. During a visit by the Chinese monk Ganjin (Jianzhen) to Japan he helped propagate the Buddhism precepts, as well as the formula used in Koh (Incense). The method of making “Takimono” (Kneaded Incense) was also introduced during this time. In the period of Nara, the incense ingredients were burned directly. So, it was believed strongly that incense was used in a religious context because of its use as “Ku-koh,” in the purification Buddha and avoiding possible maliciousness. The incense that was used by them was kneaded and made into balls, which not only served "perfume" the air but also to perfume the clothes and hair.
During Heian-period (794-1183) a clay like kneaded Incense, was the typical type of incense of this period, and it was made by blending of select ingredients many of which were imported from overseas to Japan. This type of incense fragrance was widely embraced by the Japanese people. It became a daily custom of aristocracy to enjoy this elegant and unique fragrance.
Sets of lacquer utensils were used in preparation of the incense. The typical set for the preparation would include an outer box that contain smaller boxes for storing raw incense ingredients, such as clove, aloe, amber, deer musk, sandalwood and herbs, as well as tiny spatulas for preparing the mixture.
Near the twelfth century the Establishment of Kamakura shogunate was introduced. Following this, a new approach to the appreciation of incense developed among the aristocratic warriors. Until this time period, the kneaded incense had been the accepted form of incense but then the pure fragrance of Agarwood (Aloeswood) started becoming much more popular.
The etiquette of "the way of incense" was developed in tandem with tea ceremony during the Muromachi period (1392–1573). Along with a flourishing fad of incense games, the practice of collecting very rare pieces and expensive incense wood gained popularity. The burning of rare and very expensive incense woods during special occasions increased their value, becoming a much desired experience.
At the beginning of Edo period (1615–1868), the aristocracy in Kyoto realized the need to revive the traditional "way of the arts" to preserve to preserve this part of their culture, to counterbalance various rules enforced by Tokugawa shogunate to restrict the representative power and aristocracy's influence. And later the, ‘the way of incense’ became a popular pastime for the Tokugawa clan in the wedding trousseau of the provincial warrior families. During the mid–Edo period, the incense games became widespread across the nation.
Incense sticks became popular along with many other new forms of incense. Various complex games that are associated with poetry were created, and the utensils used for games were perfected. Various schools relayed the knowledge on incense and its usage. Besides various game sets, there were different types of products, such as the koro, the incense burner, for perfuming hair, dwellings and cloths as well as different kinds of decorative containers for storing incense wood.
Also during the Edo period, the Chinese method of stick-shaped incense preparation incorporated. This Koh style stick shaped incense used by the middle class Japanese family. The Incense Ceremony known as Koh-do, developed earlier in the Muromachi period, was now being practiced more by the commoner.
Following the Meiji reforms (1867–68) and the "westernization-modernization" of the Japanese culture in the second half of the 19th century, the practice of burning incense decreased becoming a thing of the past. Thus, during the second half of the century, various incense utensils entered to the art market in very large numbers, and a considerable portion of them ended up in Western collections. However, after 1890s, due to partial efforts made by foreigners the Japanese culture is renewed, and the appreciation of "the way of incense “was gradually reborn.
Many of the incense companies that are prevalent in Japan have been crafting incense for more than 300 years. Most of the ingredients that is used in Japanese incense comes from India and South-East Asia and are best chosen for their medicinal nature according to the Traditional Chinese Medicine. As times changes, Japanese incense manufacturers are continually striving to develop new fragrances that fits today’s new lifestyle changes in Japan; in the process, they are really creating a new chapter in incense history.
Written by: Roger Marlow 4-12-2015