To fully appreciate a trip to Japan, you have to take a deep breath. Or a few deep breaths. The Japan’s history is in the air, all you have to do is listen.
Yes, listen. In Japan, to appreciate the complex tapestry of scents perfuming the air, incense masters advise “listening” with the whole body, meaning that each sense takes part in deeply experiencing a scent. With your olfactory nerves on high alert, you’ll notice remarkable scents flowing from the sticks burning at a local temple or a ceramic vessel in a shop.
Whether it’s an aromatic woodchip or a cone of blended classic ingredients like sandalwood or patchouli, incense perfumes every corner. And though it can’t leave its mark in a photograph, a fragrance can transport you long after the trip is over, making the lightweight sticks a great souvenir.
But incense wasn’t always part of the fabric of Japanese life.
A whiff of history
Incense arrived in Japan in the late 6th century on the coattails of Buddhism. The first use of incense in the country was in 595 CE, when a chunk of agarwood, an aromatic wood favored even today, washed ashore on Awaji Island, which is an hour from Osaka in the Hyogo prefecture. Locals began burning it and brought the new scent to court.
In the beginning of the 8th century, incense was mainly used in Buddhist rituals to purify the space before meditation or prayer, but by the end of the century, the fragrances evolved into sophisticated combinations that perfumed daily life for the aristocracy. By the twelfth century, a culture of intense appreciation began to emerge amongst warriors. By the end of the Muromachi period, in the mid-sixteenth century, an etiquette of kōdō, which translates to “the way of incense,” permeated Japan. A passion for perfume had taken root.
Like the country’s famous tea ceremony or flower arrangement, ceremonial incense gatherings and games soon became an art.
Stop, collaborate and listen
The ancient ceremonial listening games of kōdō are called kumikō, and they’re still played today. Each experience is led by a master with decades of training. First, blocks of incense are precisely heated in dedicated cups. Then participants carefully position themselves over the smoke, waft the samples and listen with their full bodies to each aroma.
Each game is meant to challenge and engage the senses, purify the mind and create peace. Kyoto’s Yamadamatsu Incense-Wood Co., a two hundred year old family-run incense business, offers reservations for visitors ready for a listening game workshop with three to five rounds.
Traditionally, participants can smell anywhere from three to 25 blocks of incense during a game, and then have the tough challenge of naming each. Advanced players might try their hand at connecting the pattern of the scents to chapters of “The Tale of Genji,” a Japanese text from the 11th century. The ceremony carries Japan’s long scented history into the modern day.
Follow your nose
For those in Kyoto looking for a chance to learn more about fragrance (or buy it), don’t miss the chance to visit the 300-year-old incense company Shoyeido Incense Co. Run by the Hata family for twelve generations, it sells premium hand-blended fragrances using methods learned at the Kyoto Imperial Palace. There, low-smoke incense sticks, incense burners, sachets and more are all available for purchase. But that’s not all. The business’s main location in Kyoto not only gives visitors an opportunity to book a factory tour, it also opened the Kunjyukan scent gallery.
Kunjyukan is a sleek space around the corner from the Shoyeido store meant to celebrate incense. One of the most interesting features of the building are the Koh-Boxes. Each hanging box contains a smell. Simply step in to refresh the senses and immerse yourself in scent. The gallery has a dedicated space for events and incense ceremonies, too.
Regardless of what piques your interest, when in Japan, don’t forget to stop and smell the rose incense.