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.


Filed under Flowers


  1. I’ve never tried Japanese incense. I didn’t even think about them being any different from Indian or Chinese. As much as I like incense I wouldn’t pay $200 – I’d rather have it in a form of a bottle of perfume.

  2. Katy

    I love Japanese incense. The only incense that comes close to how wonderful it smells and the quality of ingredients is Tibetan incense, which is denser and more smokey. I always have hinoki incense and aloes wood and yuzu, to name a few of the ones I enjoy. I like Nippon Kodo but I realize there are probably more expensive and finer brands available. I burn sticks, cones and coils. I also like really good candles, but that is probably an entirely different post! One of my finds of the year, a Lalique Encre Noire candle.

    • A vetiver house! Like the idea of that.
      I like Nippon Kodo as well; I often use their ‘Daily Incense’ which is soft but still quite interesting. Recently, I have been finding it all a bit too expensive though on top of a dangerous perfume habit. As for candles…I really would had I the cash. They just seem REALLY extravagant to me.

  3. efemmeral

    I am very fortunate to have received several beautiful packages of Horin incense from a friend who lives in Kyoto. Japanese Incense should really have a different English name to distinguish it from those other kinds: it is in another realm.

    My favourite of the boxes is one that has four incense fragrances for each of the four seasons. The florals are sublime for spring, whilst the spices and woods are just so for the cooler months. Each stick is a minor miracle.

  4. efemmeral

    Of course, being Japanese, the packaging is sublime as well…

  5. Katherine

    These sound amazing, I would love to experience. I am a fritterer of money, and at £40 a candle I have bought quite a lot, very extravagantly on impulse considering I could do with new shoes and a coat and things like that for the past year. The scented candle market has gone crazy though, there are so many and at much higher prices. I think I find them an easier buy as they’re at a lower price point than a bottle of perfume and not on my skin (which is quite sensitive), though I’ve regretted a couple and they don’t last that long at all. The diptyque ones have a great feel, miller Harris too ‘perfumy’, some other brands I’ve bought more ‘homeopathic’ or essential oil based. But these sound like something quite different. It’s so nice to create a good atmosphere at home (not that I’m in any way a housewife or ‘house-proud’ most of the time I don’t give it any thought) but I’ve always struggled with interior decoration until I relaxed and realised it’s something that can happen over time. I love the idea of burning something more interesting and head clearing in the morning whilst going about daily things.

  6. Katherine

    I wonder if anyone knows if you can get good ones in London?

  7. Sandra

    Oh Neil, your post brought about this longing for more Japanese incense. We spent an obscene amount of money on incense when we were in Kyoto. This particular store used to have a sister store in Finland, but they have since shut that down. It is one of the most serene activities at the end of a stressful day. I am envious of your daily ritual.

  8. Ana

    I’m not familiar with Japanese incense,it’s not really available here in Dublin, and I go through enough internet shopping trouble with my perfumes to start trawling websites on the lookout for incense as well.But I bought a packet of Miller Harris Fleur Oriental Incense sticks,which,apparently are made in Japan by a Master incense maker,and they are beautiful,not at all smoky or suffocating,overwhelming as cheap incense.Bought them at a reduced price,I think about 9-10 euro.They were a great buy,and I wish I could find more of same quality.

    • I would be interested to smell the Miller Harris take, actually. I doubt they would be like the smells I am talking about, which, ultimately, are meant for temples, for funerals, and so on. In fact, it is probably quite weird of me to be burning incense the way I do, as most Japanese would have other associations with it and think, those morbid foreigners.

      • Ana

        Yes, I’m sure they are not like the traditional Japanese incense.The Miller Harris ones are meant to be quite similar to the perfume they are named after,and I think Fleur Oriental ones do have the feeling of the perfume. They are good for setting a sensual,languorous mood,so I’m burning them mostly in the late evenings.

      • I love Fleur Oriental, actually, and I reckon I would love the feeling of a room that smelled of it.

  9. Sarah K

    I love, and have a large collection of, Japanese incense. When I lived in Japan I spent a lot of time and money exploring it. I can only console myself with the thought that I bought almost no perfume during those years. It took me a while to appreciate some of the subtlety though. After reading some reviews I bought a box of Kyukyodo’s Sho Ran Koh and was then disappointed when it smelled to me of nothing more than slightly sweet leaf smoke. 3 times I tried and got nothing more. After a month of two of exploring other incenses I went back to the Sho Ran Koh and could not believe I had missed its beautiful, and by then very obvious, floral and musky notes. Unfortunately that opened the door to buying their even more expensive stuff. Oops.

    • I have also been down this very beautiful road but am now much more essential oil and perfume inclined. I still must have incense, but on the whole can just about cope with the more inexpensive varieties.

      • Yes, I’ve got lots of stuff that I think is great but wasn’t quite such a wage-drainer. Well, apart from the fact that I bought so much that it’ll take me the rest of my life to use it all, so it probably did add up to quite a wage drain. I love Baiedo’s Kobunboku series, Reiryo koh, some (though not all) of the lower-end Shoyeidos, Kokando’s Shochikubai, Kunjudo’s Karin series, Tennendo’s frankincense and Yamada Matsu’s Karaku for instance. I’d be interested to hear some of your favourites that don’t break the bank.

      • I am not as knowledgeable as you by any means: I am not even sure I could actually name many to be honest.

        I do like Karin, by somebody or other, but I can’t read Japanese to my great shame, so am not always sure what I am burning.

  10. Nothing compares to the mastery of Japanese incense, it is simply stunning and glorious! I have delved into Pandora’s box, there is no escape, but oh what a wonderful world it is.

  11. I love Japanese incense so much I started my little business selling it.x

      • Well we were started buying Japanese incense mainly Baieido and Shoyeido for use at home and we loved it so much we started our little business off divine incense & aromatics. So now we sell Baieido and Shoyeido online and also sell at the Tobacco factory market in Bristol. I dont think we will ever be millionaires by selling the incense but what we do get to do is sample all the different varieties, which is a complete delight and for me exciting.x

      • It sounds fantastic. And brilliant that you just acted on that initial inspiration.

  12. Jan Barber-Doyle

    Yes, I have used Japanese incense – Kokando Sennenko joss sticks – and I have found nothing that comes close to the soothing effect. Unfortunately this incense is no longer sold in the US market and I cannot find it anywhere.

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