Japanese Incense: Culture, History and Buying Guide

According to legend, incense first made its way to Japan by sea, though not in the way you might think. The Nihon Shoki, a book of classical Japanese history, details the story of incense’s arrival through the discovery of a piece of agarwood driftwood along the shores of Awaji Island in the Asuka Period (around 595 AD). This piece of pleasant smelling wood was then brought to the royalty of the time-- Prince Shotoku and Empress Suiko. The prince recognized it immediately as the incense used the Buddhist rituals he’d observed during a stay on the mainland, and after, a trade route was established to bring a steady stream of incense to Japan from China and Korea.


A less sensational history traces the beginning of incense in Japan alongside the beginnings of Buddhism, which first established itself on Japanese shores during the 6th century. Originally agarwood, sandalwood, and other fragrant woods were burned with blends of herbs to create a desired sense of atmosphere in Buddhist temples for the purpose of ritual. Initially chunks of raw material were simply burned in braziers, but as the custom of incense migrated to the Imperial Court, the construction of incense became more refined leading to the stick shape that is familiar to us today. In the hands of the Imperial Court, burning incense became a much more lighthearted affair. Incense was used to cleanse and refresh the elaborate clothing by courtiers, and guessing fragrances became a popular parlor game.


By the 14th century during the Muromachi Period, the use of incense had spread from the court to commoners of upper and middle class. This new group of people used incense to mark their status, as it was still something the poor could not afford, and to generally improve the smells of their homes and clothing. Around this time, ritual burning of incense was also adopted by the Samurai class. Before battle, samurai would take the time to perfume their helmets and armor as a meditation on both their lives, and the fate that awaited them.


From the mindful tradition of samurai, a codified “way of incense” eventually emerged. Called kodo, the way of incense is similar in several respects to the tea ceremony. Along with a ritual pertaining its use and appropriate conduct, incense was also assigned ten virtues to describe the benefits derived from proper use. The Ten virtues of Ko are as follows: it sharpens the senses, purifies the body and spirit, eliminates pollutants, awakens the spirit, heals loneliness, calms in turbulent times, is not unpleasant, even in abundance, even in small amounts is sufficient, does not break down after a very long time, and common use is not harmful. The ritual of kodo incorporates all aspects of the burning process, with the intention of creating an experience of mindful enjoyment for the participants. In line with older traditions, kodo rituals typically use koboku incense, rather than the more commonly used sticks or cones. Koboku is the name used for particularly fragrant pieces of resinous agarwood, the oldest and most traditional form of incense.


Within a kodo ceremony, a small piece of koboku is typically placed on a small mica plate set overtop of a fire. The wood does not burn directly, as this would create unwanted smoke, and is instead gently heated so the resin contained within vaporizes. From there, participants may take turns smelling the incense and commenting on it, much like is done during a tea ceremony. This aspect of the ceremony is known as mon-ko, or listening to incense. The implements for handling the incense and required fire are kept in a decorative chest and utilized with utmost care and respect. Unfortunately, due to the effect of environmental depletion on the availability of raw resinous agarwood, true kodo ceremonies are not widely practiced today.


Outside of kodo, incense is enjoyed by Japanese people of all walks of life, and is viewed as both a simple method of enjoyment and bringing awareness to a moment, and as a more serious practice of meditation. Most of today’s Japanese incense companies have been in existence since the Edo period-- or for roughly three hundred years-- and have completely mastered the art and technique of creating fine fragrances. Our incense here at Maido is made by two of these companies, both with hundreds of years behind the refinement of their craft.


Several of our incense lines are made by famed fragrance manufacturer, Nippon Kodo. Nippon Kodo’s history can be traced back nearly four hundred years to a man named Jyuemon Takai, who worked under a title known as Koju. The Koju was an artisan employed by the Imperial Court of Japan to provide opulent fragrances for the Emperor and his associates. His techniques were innovative and his fragrances popular, which garnered him a fair amount of prestige during his lifetime. Later, during the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century, Koju’s formulas were built upon and expanded by fragrance artist Yujiro Kito. Together, their work in pioneering and creating luxury, top-quality fragrances served as the basis for the formulas used by Nippon Kodo today.


Shoyeido, another company responsible for the incense we carry, also has its origins in the imperial court of Japan. The company’s founder, Rokubei Moritsune Hata, honed his craft and skill working for the court during the Edo Period in the 18th century. His intention with the creation of his company was to make the enjoyment of incense accessible to everyone, rather than something that only the elite and wealthy could afford. Hata’s vision and craft have now been passed down in the family for twelve generations, and their skilled artisans continue to dedicate themselves to the art of creating perfectly balanced, beautiful fragrances for all occasions.


With several lines from each of these companies, our selection of Japanese incense is of the highest quality with a scent for every occasion. For those who are unfamiliar, Japanese incense is traditionally made without the bamboo stick. Instead, ingredients are blended together and bound with natural ingredients and water. The resulting paste is then extruded and allowed to dry, resulting in a stick of pure incense. As such, Japanese incense sticks may appear shorter or thinner than you may be accustomed to, but burn just as strongly and for similar amounts of time to their stick-based counterparts. With several varieties to choose from, Maido is the perfect place to pick up some incense to liven up your home, or send to a friend to liven up theirs. Check the following list for staff picks from each of our incense lines!


Scentual Fresh Green Tea


First on our list is Fresh Green Tea from Nippon Kodo’s Scentual line. All of Scentual’s incense are made with completely plant based ingredients, naturally sourced scents and recycled paper for a minimally impactful product. Each box comes with thirty dye-free sticks and a small square ceramic incense holder. One stick burns for about twenty-five minutes, though the scent sticks around for a good deal longer. The Fresh Green Tea fragrance is lively and bright, and evocative of a sense of energy. The natural, plant based odor is fairly light, and not at all overpowering, making it ideal for those with a more sensitive nose.


Morningstar Lotus


Next, we have Lotus Flower from Nippon Kodo’s Morningstar line. Morningstar incense brings together a quality product with a delightfully affordable price. Established in Japan in the 1960s, it has become a beloved line around the world. Each box of Morningstar incense contains fifty sticks which burn for approximately twenty-five minutes each, and a small ceramic holder for ultimate convenience. The Lotus Flower variety seeks to embody the fragrance of Asia’s favorite flower with notes that work to bolster it to a place boldness. Just one stick is all you need to absolutely fill the room with the tranquil odor of lotus blossoms.


Shoyeido Moss Garden


Third, we have Moss Garden by Shoyeido. Shoyeido is the preferred brand of many Japanese temples and as such their fragrances are centered around evoking a sense of reverent focus. Their careful balancing of components results in remarkable and somewhat subtle scents that beacon smellers to tune into their senses and the world around them. Each box of Shoyeido incense contains thirty-five sticks that burn for approximately thirty minutes each. Moss Garden is a fragrance made from combining sandalwood, benzoin, patchouli, and a secret blend of spices. Immediately upon lighting, the reason Shoyeido is preferred among temples becomes clearly evident. Moss Garden seems to embody the feeling of being in one, next to a temple, after the rain.


Fragrance Memories Sahara Moon


Next is Sahara Moon, from Nippon Kodo’s Fragrance Memories line. Fragrance Memories is a new series of scents that seeks to bring about a sense of nostalgia for places around the world. From fields filled with flowers, to tranquil forests, and calm, lush beaches to mysterious nights in the desert, Fragrance Memories blends places, times, and feelings through our sense of smell. Each box contains twenty sticks, each with a twenty-five minute run time, and a cute ceramic incense burner. The Sahara Moon fragrance uses a combination of vetiver grass, white pepper, and musk to create a strong and heady odor that is thick, dark, and evocative of dreams. The fragrance is fairly strong, so one stick is all you need to fill a room with its smell for hours.


Oedo-Koh Tokyo Incense Cherry Blossom


Last but not least is Cherry Blossom From Nippon Kodo’s luxury Oedo-Koh Tokyo line. This sumptous incense is made to embody fragrances and experiences of Edo period Japan-- a time of style and playfulness juxtaposed with coarseness, and the beginning of urban life for Japanese people. Each fragrance by Oedo-Koh is made by skilled artisans using traditional ingredients and colors. Each box contains sixty sticks with a burn time of approximately twelve minutes, and a cute incense holder made from tin which resembles the stone pavements used in Edo period Tokyo. The Cherry Blossom fragrance is styled after the delicate scent of the somei-yoshino cherry trees that grace Japan with their beautiful flowers every spring. The fragrance feels fanciful and light, and each stick makes up for its relatively short burn time with an odor that lingers beautifully.


Paper Crane Incense Holder


In case the holders that come with our incense sticks are not to your taste, we also have a lively assortment of independently sold incense holders. These ones, shaped like cute paper cranes, comes in five different colors, and are sized to fit a variety of different incense sticks. They are made of a flame-proof ceramic and are certain to keep whatever surface they rest on safe while simultaneously looking stylish.