There is no doubt in my mind that Japanese incense, an ancient tradition that continues unabated to this day, is of a quality and beauty that surpasses all others. We are not talking ‘joss sticks’, of the inexpensive sandalwood incense used in Chinese temples, or the ‘Lotus Love’, thickly pasted cheap Indian incense on sale at music festivals. No. We are talking here about mysterious, beautiful, almost eerily emotive incense that rises up, beguilingly, in austere, religious smoke: in temples, from houses; a curious, ghostly vapour that is both spiritually calming and sensual: kyara/jinko (agarwood), sandalwood, cloves, benzoin, cinnamon, rose, camphor, patchouli, osmanthus, hinoki…..all in various combinations, proportions and recipes, boxes of incense arranged in Buddhist shops for the peruser’s inspection. Usually, one is forced to lift up the box, and mess with the carefully wrapped boxes (which can cost up to 20, 000 yen (200 dollars), in order to smell the contents, but I was pleased to see, in a shop in Tokyo yesterday, that the many kinds of incense available, many of which I am familiar with and use myself on a daily basis, were available to be tested in small containers that held a few broken sticks; enough to get a good idea of what the smell of each variety will be like.
In truth, many incenses smell quite different when lit; some are even more beautiful, others too harsh and ‘smokey’. Neverthless, I did think that this sampling method was useful, and I wish that more incense shops did the same.
You can read more about Japanese incense below in my post on Zen. I will also be going to Kyoto over Christmas, which has some truly stunning incense shops, some, such as the beautiful Kungyokudo, which have been blending and making hand-made incense for centuries. I will write a more detailed report then.
In the meantime I ‘m interested to know though: have any of you ever used Japanese incense? If you haven’t, you don’t know what you are missing.