Forgot your password? Reset It

Japanese Incense

By Katlyn Breene

“Paradise is formed of hundreds of thousands of different kinds of incense, and of substances incalculably precious; -the fragrance of it perfumes all the worlds of the Ten Directions of Space; and all who perceive that odor practise the way”
 - From “The thirty second vow for the attainment of the paradise of wondrous incense”

When asked about the scent I first  fell
in love with, the answer was easy, it led me on a quest that became my livelihood. This was an article I wrote about it and my experiences working in Japan. I smelled it first in a theater in Tokyo. It was Aloeswood.

My Visit to Kyoto - 1989
Japan you can tell when nearing a temple, for a heavenly aroma surrounds it. There is a temple or shrine every mile or so; Japan is a very fragrant place. It is said that one can obtain paradise through the perception of the sacred smoke of incense, for in Japan incense is a way of life, an art. 
I have had the pleasure of living and working in this beautiful land, most recently as adivinor, or “u-ra-nai-sha”, near Kyoto. Many experiences of travel, strange impressions of sights and sound, remain associated in my memory with the fragrance of the incense- the ancient steps of the Buddhist temples , the elegant Kabuki theaters, the shadowed passages leading to moss covered shrines, the joyous revelry of festival nights, small graves marked only with threads of rising smoke, and even my own small wooden spirit altar.These
special places come back with sharp clarity upon smelling the incense. They are connected with scents in my mind, for remembrance is one of the powers sacred scents contain.
There was a fragrance I experienced on my first visit to Japan which took me five years to find again. Nothing in the west came close to this mysterious aroma and I searched in vain. Finally, in Kyoto, the scent came to me again- it was unmistakable- its source was an excellent old incense shop. Through this shop and the family that has owned it for generations, my knowledge and appreciation of incense would grow greatly. I found out it was Aloeswood, fine Cambodian Aloeswood, with a hint of Borneol raw Camphor in the blend.

Incense blending in Japan is an art that inspires delight mixed with reverence. Being an aspiring purveyor of scents myself I decided that during my stay I would try to learn as much as possible. This was not an easy task, even if one could find a teacher. I had some small success, but mainly came to realize the elegant complexity of eastern incense, its vast history and myriad techniques. Here I will attempt to share some of the fascinating tales and methods discovered there. A complete account of the world of Eastern incense would take volumes- for the perfumes of the east touch all parts of life. 


Great quantities of inexpensive incense are burned before entrances of the great temples. It is called “an-
soku-ko” and is burned in huge bronze censers in honor of the Buddhist icons and to carry fervent prayers to heaven. Incense is called “the messenger of earnest desire” and no true pilgrim would pass a temple censer without setting a few sticks smouldering.

“Let my body remain pure like a censer!-- let my thought be as a fire of wisdom, purely consuming the incense of sila an dhyana, --- that so I may do homage to all the Buddhas in the Ten Directions of the past, the present, and the future!” 

Ko is burned and literally means fragrant substance, dzuko is used for purification and is rubbed into the hands before rituals, and makko is a powder, usually sandalwood, that is sprinkled on the floor of the temple and sanctuary. 

Sometimes in Buddhist teachings the destruction of karma by good works is likened unto the burning of incense upon a pure flame- and the life of man, to the smoke of incense.

“In the burning of incense we see that so long as any incense remains, so long as the burning continue, the smoke mounts skyward.. Now the breathe of this body of ours,- this impermanent combination of Earth, Air, Fire, Water -- is like that smoke. And the changing of the incense into cold ashes when the flame expires is an emblem of the changing of our bodies into ashes when our funeral pyres have burnt themselves out.” 

Incense is used not only as a burnt offering but to call the spirits and the powers that be. When the rich Sudatta wished to invite the Buddha to a repast, he made use of incense. He would climb to the roof of his house on the eve of the day of the entertainment, and to remain standing there all night, holding a censer of preciousincense .
And as often as he did this, the Buddha never failed to come on the following day at the exact time desired.

Some of the most valuable incense in the world is stored within the temple walls- the famous fragments of “ranjatai” ( A rare aromatic with the fragrance of musk mixed with orchid flowers) and original ancient blends from China and Korea which date back to the arrival of Buddhism to Japan. It is said that a temple was once built entirely of incense woods, and on the night of a revolt was set aflame. The smoke perfumed the land for twelve miles....

The burning and blending of incense in Japan is thought of much like the ancient Tea Ceremony and carried out with much ritual and traditional ettiquette. Many famous texts can be found giving classifications of the most luxurious to the most common . There are strange works like the “Kun- Shu- Rui- Sho “, or the incense collectors manual, containing the “Ten Schools of the Art of Mixing Incense” ; and instructions as to the best seasons for incense making. These volumes contain the the classic names -such as“Blossom Showering”, “Smoke of Fuji”, and “Flower of the Pure Law”. One very sensual blend is called “Tasogare”, or ”Who is There?”, which in this relation hints of the perfume that reveals “some charming presense to the lover waiting in the dusk”.

Recipes for incense making have been transmitted from generation to generation through hundreds of years, and are still named after their august creators -- “the Method of Hina-Dainagon”, “Method of Sento-In”, and the method of copying nature. “They strive to imitate the perfume of the lotos, the smell of the summer breeze, and the odor of the autumn wind “. The sweet smoke and its ceremonies have become the stuff of legend and its makers classed with the alchemists of old.

- Katlyn 1989

 I wrote this article many years ago, and for me Japanese incense still holds a place of great reverence. I learned much since then for the world of Eastern incense has opened to the west through dedicated devotees and the weaving of the internet .
It is something everyone should experience, but also remember that many of the precious substances in these blends are endangered and we should be wise so that our children will be able to enjoy them as well. 

To learn more about Japanese Incense