The introduction of Buddhism into Japan and incense wood drifting ashore

Fragrances used in the Asuka and Nara periods were those brought over from the Sui and Tang dynasties, and were largely associated with religion. However, the fact that the mixed incense “Ebikoh”, which is stored in Shosoin, was used for scenting garments and Buddhist scriptures and protecting them from insects indicates that incense was also used in daily life at that time. In addition, the introduction of kneaded incense formed the basis of Japanese incense and led to the florescence of the incense culture in the Heian period.

Asuka 538
The introduction of Buddhism into Japan

Before the introduction of Buddhism, the natural woody fragrances of cedar, Japanese cypress, sakaki tree and other woods were used for religious rituals in Japan. Then, “incense” was imported to Japan together with Buddhism. With the smell richer and stronger than that of the previously-used woods, imported incense came to be used in Buddhist rituals.

Asuka 595
Incense wood drifted ashore on the Awaji Island

There is a mention in Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) that a fragrance wood drifted ashore on the Awaji Island in April 595. The residents of the island who burned the wood were surprised by its fragrance and presented it to the Imperial Court, and Prince Shotoku recognized it as Jinkoh (Aloeswood). This anecdote indicates that while the upper class of this period had knowledge about, and were familiar with, Incense wood, it was not yet spread among ordinary people.

Nara 753
Ganjin arriving in Japan

Arrival of Ganjin in Japan was one of the important events in the country’s relations with the Tang Dynasty. Ganjin is a Chinese monk who helped propagate Buddhism in Japan, and as he brought incense and medicine with him, the recipe for making kneaded incense was also introduced.
Until that time, incense was normally burned directly, but with the introduction of kneaded incense, indirect heating became common as well.

Nobles of Heian period and their perfumes

In the Heian period, incense flourished out of the religious context and as a form of recreation.
While takimono was the most popular type of incense, this period also saw the emergence of prototypes of scented sachet, such as Kusudama (a ball containing blended incense) which was used as a gift on Tango no Sekku (May 5), and Kariroku (Kashi: a bag shaped like a myrobalan fruit and containing the fruit inside) which was used as a charm against evil.
The incense culture developed greatly during this period and into the next.

Heian 794 Relocation the capital to Heian-kyo – The beginning of the society of nobles

◎Incense as a culture

Kneaded incense, which was introduced in the Nara period, developed as takimono in the Heian period and became popular among the nobles. They blended ingredients by themselves to create their own original incense and scented their room and garments with it. It is said that they could identify people by their distinctive fragrance, even without seeing them.
They all kept the recipe of their takimono to themselves or within their family. It was also a social skill.

◎Mukusa-no-takimono (Six kneaded incenses)

With its popularity among the nobles, takimono were categorized into six major themes, under which the creators of each takimono set a sub theme of their choice.
The six themes, collectively called Mukusa-no-takimono, are called Kurobou, Baika (plum flower), Kayou (lotus leaf), Kikka (chrysanthemum flower), Rakuyou (fallen leaves), and Jiju (chamberlain), respectively. Incenses categorized in the same theme still smelled differently, as they were blended with different settings or flavors in the minds of the respective creators.

◎Popularity of takimono-awase

The nobles began to compare their original takimono with one another, which eventually developed into takimono-awase. It is a contest where not only the fragrance but the setting of incenses were compared and evaluated. It was a very popular game among the nobles and is described in the chapter “Umegae” in The Tale of Genji.

From Takimono to Kouboku

As samurai came into power at the end of the Heian period, Incense wood and aloeswood in particular took over the central part of the incense culture from takimono. It was because samurai preferred aloeswood’s fresh fragrance over takimono’s elegant one. It is believed that aloeswood was valued for its spirituality, for it has a calming effect and were useful for samurai to relax before a battle.

Kamakura 1192 Establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate – power shift from nobles to samurai

◎Development of trade and import of Incense wood

The active trade with other countries allowed various Incense woods to be imported into Japan from many sources.
With the improved availability of high quality Incense wood, burning of Incense wood, which were previously mainly for Buddhist rituals, began to spread as a recreational activity in place of takimono.
It was also around this time that the concept of “Kyara” was born, and as more social elites began collecting Incense wood, the attitude of appreciating incense on a deep level was developed. The character “聞” means “to smell” in Chinese, but in Japanese it can be interpreted as “to understand” and “to pay attention”.

◎Establishment of Kodo

Sasaki Doyo, a feudal lord in the Nanboku-cho period known for his flamboyant behavior, owned many Incense woods and put names to them. Meanwhile, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the 8th shogun of the Muromachi period, is said to have spent his days at his villa in the eastern hills of Kyoto appreciating the Incense woods that he collected by himself or inherited from Doyo.
Yoshimasa saw the necessity to organize his enormous collection of Incense wood, and appointed the experts of incense at that time, Sanjonishi Sanetaka (founder of Oie School) and Shino Soshin (founder of Shino School), to establish the system of classifying incense called “Rikkoku Gomi (six countries, five tastes)”. Tools and manners for listening to incense developed as well, and gradually formed Kodo.
(*Rikkoku refers to the characteristics of fragrance and consists of Kyara, Rakoku, Manaban, Manaka, Sumondara, and Sasora. Gomi is five tastes describing the fragrance, sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter.)

◎Warloads and Incense wood

The value of Incense woods, especially of Kyara and aloeswood, increased gradually, making them a symbol of power. Oda Nobunaga, in order to show his power, cut out a piece of the famous Ranjatai wood owned by Todaiji Temple with the permission of the Emperor. Apart from Nobunaga, Ranjatai has been cut Ashikaga Yoshimasa and the Meiji Emperor.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi and other lords are known as avid collectors of Incense wood as well, and the level of passion that Tokugawa Ieyasu had for Incense wood is said to have been particularly remarkable.

The rise of Kodo

Edo 1603 Establishment of Edo Shogunate

◎Popilarization of Incense

The political stabilization and economic growth in the Edo period enabled high quality incense materials to be used widely in general public by the time of the Genroku era. Accordingly, Kodo spread not only among samurai but also among wealthy merchants. It was one of the essential accomplishments for the upper class and many of the learners were men.
With the popularization of Kodo, kumiko in particular flourished during this period. Kumiko is a game where participants listen to incenses and compare and identify them, and various types of visually pleasing kumiko with timely themes were invented, including Tanabatako, Genjiko and Keibako.

◎Manufacture of incense sticks

Incense sticks began to be distributed in mid-16th century, but at that time they were imported from China. Domestic production of incense sticks started around the end of 17th century to early 18th century. Its recipe remains basically the same until now.
Incense sticks were widely spread among commoners and were used as a substitute of a clock at that time as well. They remain the most familiar incense product for us today, used widely in various occasions from religious ceremonies to household.

Incense today

In Meiji Period, the distribution of incense became more widespread with the internationalization of Japan. However, with large-scale wars, many of Japanese culture that had been build up through a long time were to decline. Kodo was also endangered by the modernization of Japan, but after certain period of time, has been reevaluated as recent day.