The scent is an alluring thing. It makes us want to get close to people who smell good or wander into places where we can smell a scent we like. It also has the power to energize and heal people.


Aromas and fragrances are familiar to us today, but in Japan, “incense” has been handed down from generation to generation as a unique fragrance culture. Incense was believed to have the power to dispel evil spirits, so it was used as a talisman, smoked as a hospitality offering, or even infused and worn on a garment.


Incense was first introduced to Japan around the year 538 when Buddhism was introduced. At that time, it was mainly used to purify Buddha altars and had strong religious connotations. The oldest mention of incense in Japan is found in the “Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan),” which states that in the year 595, fragrant wood drifted to Awaji Island and was presented to the Imperial Court.


Most incense ingredients are derived from plants, some of which are used as spices or herbal medicines. These are mainly produced in China, India, and Southeast Asia, and since most of these plants do not grow in Japan, they have been treated as precious commodities since incense was first introduced to Japan. In recent years, many of them have been designated as endangered species due to overharvesting and deterioration of the natural environment, making them difficult to obtain.


Jinko, a representative aromatic wood, is made from a tree of the Zingiberaceae family whose resin partially condenses and matures in the process of withering. Ranjatai, a Shosoin Imperial Treasure, is a type of agarwood and is widely known by that name. I have seen it at an exhibition, and there are traces of cuttings made by Nobunaga Oda, Yoshimasa Ashikaga, and Emperor Meiji, indicating that it was not only valuable but also a symbol of power. Byakudan (sandalwood) is a member of the sandalwood family, and its fragrance is found in the center of its trunk. It is also used as a material for fans, and there was nothing like the look on my mother's enraptured face when she used a sandalwood fan!


 The art of preparing incense was introduced in the Nara period (around the 8th century). In the Heian period (8-12th centuries), the custom of mixing incense by oneself, competing with each other on the quality of the fragrance, and enjoying it by smelling it over a charcoal fire and smothering it in one’s room or kimono became popular among the upper class society. Many scenes of such appear in the literature of the imperial court. The recipe of a person who was called a master at that time is said to still exist today.


In the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, the culture of “Monko” (listening to incense) was born, in which people could appreciate the delicate fragrance of the fragrant wood by facing the wood itself. In the Edo period (1603-1867), various manners and customs for appreciating incense, as well as incense implements, were prepared, and “Kodo” (the way of incense) was established. In Kodo, it is described as “listening to the fragrance,” where the mind is focused on the fragrance, the senses sharpened and quieted, and the fragrance is perceived. Kodo mainly involves holding Kumiko, a gathering in which participants listen to and distinguish fragrances. This is a very elegant art in which several kinds of fragrances are used to express waka poems and classical literature, and the participants play with the fragrances while imagining the scenes of the world of the story. As with tea ceremony and flower arrangement, it is a useful art form that serves as a gateway to self-improvement and culture.


There are three types of incense: incense that is scented at room temperature, incense that is lit directly, and incense that is heated indirectly. “Nioiko” is the room-temperature type and comes in a small, cute drawstring-shaped pouch (scent bag) that can be carried around. Insect-repellent incense contains ingredients that have a repellent effect against insects. Incense sticks are lit directly. The ingredients are powdered, kneaded, and dried into long, thin sticks. This is used in Buddhist ceremonies and also as a room fragrance. During the incense ceremony, the charcoal that started the fire is buried in the ashes of the furnace, agarwood is placed on the charcoal, and the aroma is slowly savored by applying heat indirectly.


In Kyoto, a city with many shrines and temples, there are still many stores specializing in the incense that have existed since ancient times. Shoeido, which has been in business for 300 years, is taking on the challenge of preserving its history and traditions and passing on the art of incense culture to the modern age while continuing the techniques of its masters, which have never been seen outside of the store. Shoeido is actively engaged in a variety of activities, such as offering tours with explanations of the incense production process, opening a base for disseminating information on incense culture where visitors can casually experience the fragrance of incense, and developing a mobile incense sales van.

神社仏閣が立ち並ぶ京都には、昔からのお香専門店が今も数多くあります。創業300年の歴史を持つ「香老舗 松栄堂」は、歴史と伝統を守り、門外不出の匠の技を継ぎながら、現代に香文化を継承しようとさまざまな挑戦をしています。お線香の製造工程を解説付きで見学させてくれたり、気軽にお香の香りを体験できる香り文化の情報発信拠点を開設したり、お香の移動販売車を展開したりと積極的です。

Preserve, transmit, and develop. We who live in the present are responsible for enjoying and spreading the incense culture that Japan has nurtured.


Text: IWASAKI Yumi | Hiragana Times / We Culture Session Lead Writer

画像提供 香老舗 松栄堂


メールアドレスが公開されることはありません。 が付いている欄は必須項目です