The longer I live in Japan, the more I realize how culturally unnatural it is for Japanese people to wear scent. I have known this factually for a long time, but now I can feel it intuitively.

I have of course written about this before. Living here, as a perfume addict, it is unavoidable. But right now,  rather than bemoan the lack of perfume appreciation among the majority of the populace (it is important to remember that despite what I write here there are in fact a small number of people who do wear scent on a daily basis, but these are a small, unobtrusive niche), I have come to accept this facet of Japanese culture and even admire it.

Perhaps this is partly because much of the rest of the world at present is so noisy, and vulgar and in your face ( I know that it is not necessary at all for me to elaborate). Perhaps it is also because despite my irritations at the held back and the repressed, the intricate, the social hypersensitivities, it cannot be denied that the flip side of this is a calm, tranquil order and flow to daily life in Japan that when you are feeling quite happy in yourself is very beautiful.

Strong, decadent perfumes feel antithetical to this. And yet Japanese people, for centuries, have used perfume. In the form of incense.

It is important to differentiate between the inexpensive, rough sandalwood joss sticks used in temples across Asia and what I am describing here. Japanese temples also use the cheap stuff in big bundles for ritualistic use: a generic, pleasant, wood smoke smell with a touch of camphor, perhaps; not significantly different from what you might encounter at Chinese temples in Malaysia, or those in Vietnam.

The incense I am talking about though, and which I use myself, really is a form of perfume. It’s just that rather than something applied to human skin, it is something experienced from without, that surrounds; that inhabits the air around you, and then subtly scents your clothes and hair and aura.

There are many kinds of incense available in Buddhist shops that specialize in more ritualistic types of incense (more austere, dark, even disturbing in their camphoraceous blackness) but one type that I have particularly enjoyed over the years (and which is available even in bookstores, demonstrating its popularity), is the Horin series by Shoyeido, a Kyoto incense company founded in 1703 that makes exquisitely soft, warm, but mesmerizing blends that transform your living space.

Horikawa (River Path), the most expensive of the three types of incense I am featuring here, is a very rich, spiced, ambered sandalwood blend that is almost vanillic in its sweetness but counteracted by a strong, powdered heft like the finest oriental perfumes but drifting in the air in the form of coiled, almost ravishing, smoke. It is quite glorious stuff, actually, the sandalwood not obviously sandalwood to me – never one of my favorite notes – but rather compressed, and pressed, and truly blended seamlessly with soothing unguents and balsams that are a sensuous, warming balm to the soul. This is the luxury incense that I have used the most over the years, either in stick form or coil  (that drifts slowly through your living space for hours), but recently I have found myself being drawn to the other two incenses in this series, Shirakawa (White River), and Nijo (Avenue To The Villa). Really, all are variations on one theme, with Shirakawa being a more gentle version of River Path, less spiced and less balsamic, but still retaining that incense’s essential thematic concerns. Less expensive, I bought some coils recently and really enjoyed them: sometimes Horikawa can be almost too much (Japanese people’s secret decadent side coming somewhat to the fore?); too gorgeous. 

The big revelation for me recently, however, has been Nijo. In the past I had always dismissed this one, the most inexpensive of the three, as being rather bland and quiet in comparison to its courtesan partners; more subdued, musked, and twilight. But buying a box of the coiled incense the other week I am now really hooked. With none of the overt sandalwoodness or spice (but there, intermittently, under the powdered, gentle surfaces), a more smooth, uniform scent emerges when lit, with a subtle floral element, possibly violet, and iris,  that is incredibly assuaging and benevolent to the spirit. We have been having some fantastically creative weekends recently with really interesting people staying over (I have cut myself off completely from the news), and the woozing, mysterious perfume that has filled every corner of our house but not seduced it, is dense with powdered intrigue. This elevates.

Looking up the Shoyeido website, written in both Japanese and English, I see that the company takes international orders and also that there are far more varieties of high quality incense available that I haven’t yet tried. Seeing that there are several stores operating in Tokyo that I wasn’t even aware of, I am going to to go and find out more next week (I will, naturally, report back). I also see, to my delight, that in Kyoto you can go on tours of the incense factory there and watch the artisans assemble their wares with the natural ingredients firsthand. This is something that I will absolutely have to do the next time I find myself in that beautiful city. But failing this, if you aren’t going to be coming to Japan any time soon, I would wholeheartedly recommend trying one of the three types of incense that I write about here. In turbulent times, what is needed is perfume that is placating; beautiful, transcendent.


Filed under Incense, Japan


  1. Sofia

    Deliciously descriptive, a firmly captivating yet gently alluring description of Japanese incense. Are all of these scents available at Buddhist shops (for instance, the places that sell butsudan)? Or can I obtain them in some other manner as well? I would rather shop by foot than computer if possible, being in the country, as well as being an adventurous soul and enjoying new things.

    • I have actually been buying these from Yurindo book store, would you believe? You know the stationery sections and gift cards. They have quite nice selections in there. Otherwise check out the Shoyeido stores. I can’t believe I have been here all this time without going to one.

  2. Shoyeido has an American web site which is how I’ve been getting it. http://www.shoyeido.com
    Lucky Scent in L.A. also carries the Horin line ~ they have a nice sample pack, four 3″ sticks of five varieties, for the reasonable price of $30.

  3. Sister Mary

    In Kyoto recently I had the most exquisite time at the Lisn store: http://www.lisn.co.jp/sp/ – never fear, there’s a Tokyo store too in Aoyama. I believe the stores are a recent venture of the Shoyeido business.

    The design of the Kyoto store is wonderful, and you are able to buy superb single note and deliciously blended incenses *by the individual stick* if you so choose. Heavenly for those of us who want to try *everything*!

  4. Renee Stout

    WOW! You must have been reading my mind. I need to quiet my mind from all of that’s going on. I will definitely be ordering some of this for my home. As always, I appreciate your willingness to share your olfactory experiences as you also give us a sense of place in the process and it is GREATLY appreciated. Thank you.

  5. Renee Stout

    I might also add that, for some strange reason, the note od sandalwood has never been a favorite of mine either, especially if it’s the featured note. I have Killian’s Cruel Intentions that was gifted to me and I have a kind of love/hate response to it. I appreciated it but the sandalwood overwhelms it.

    • I am a non sandalwood person and very sensitive to it, but in the Shoyeido context it doesn’t ‘read’ as sandalwood but rather a block of richness interspersed with both the familiar and the unfamiliar. In Nijo I experience more just a gorgeous, spectral glowing powderiness.

  6. Oh, I am WAY too excited!!! I just ordered from LuckyScent. Got a pack of Horikawa and a mixed pack with Nijo, Shirakawa, Genroku, Muromachi and Tenpyo. I trust your nose! This is SO cool. Have to thank you, Neil, because this made me get over my fear of ordering from outside Canada and paying customs duties. I re-read your article, bit the bullet, and now I’m counting the days until the package crosses my doorstep.

    I have never experienced high-end Japanese incense. My only fear now is that I will be HOOKED.

    • I fear that may be the case. I am ultra curious about what the latter three are like. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to Tokyo so you’ll probably smell them before me!

      I think this is why I’ve never gone for scented candles. Because Japanese incense is made with pulverized natural ingredients it has a spirit to it that touches the senses but doesn’t jar. It’s a very beautiful art. Also genuinely STRANGE: some blends have ground sea shells, camphor, and agar wood and are so austere as to be quite gloomy ( I love that though). Horikawa, though, is definitely made for sensual pleasure though like I say, recently Nijo feels more tranquil and cool. The floral note in it is really alluring but also distancing.

      • I am in a cloud of Horikawa heaven. Thank you!

      • Tell me more!How were the others? I wasn’t overestimating their glorious powdered charms?

      • Haven’t tried them yet but I’ll let you know when I do, for sure!

      • How would you describe the Horikawa? It is quite strong stuff, isn’t it?

      • I’ve just tried to “sample” them all, burning each edition just a moment or two before carefully snuffing out the end, but they’re so marvellously concentrated that my little cabin that I can’t parse out their characters yet. They’ve all just drifted together in the air, and up close they’re just too intense to sniff. I will need some time to get to know them individually over a few days. I am a little disappointed in my nose right now, dear N; very likely it has something to do with my lack of familiarity with proper Japanese incense, of having no context, of having difficulty sensing the notes underneath the smoke. And perhaps it exposes me for having blunt and crude olfactory sensibilities.

        I have to say that the Horikawa I tried first, on its own, blew me away and I’m pretty sure it will be my fave. It is like a vintage perfume, everything: floral, fruity, spicy, earthy, smoky, resinous . . . It is almost, dare I say, French in style. Perfume: “through smoke.” Oh yes.

      • Isn’t it? and NOTHING like the ‘joss sticks’ or cheap Asian temple incense that we have previously been exposed to. This really is an art form all of its own.

      • The packaging, by the way, of the stick assortment is gorgeeeeusss!

      • Japanese Incense.jpg
        Japanese Incense 2.jpg

      • /Users/robin/Pictures/iPhoto Library.photolibrary/Previews/2017/02/06/20170206-205314/%J0EY8E2RRWDbu44G4vFrA/IMG_3768.JPG
        /Users/robin/Pictures/iPhoto Library.photolibrary/Previews/2017/02/06/20170206-205404/JaH0Am6UR4G16GTR+RAaZg/IMG_3769.JPG

      • Sorry, Neil, can’t seem to post the photos.

  7. I have looked at their webpage and am going to order some delicious incense. You have piqued my curiousity with your description of these scents. We always have incense in the house, but it is from Hong Kong, so I am sure the Japanese one will be utterly amazing. Will have to report back after I try it.

    • I can’t wait. I don’t know much about Hong Kong incense but I have been to temples there and it is usually just some form of sandalwood unless I am mistaken. These are like Guerlain in comparison. In fact I was burning some Nijo last night and I thought it was a little bit like Apres L’Ondee. Powdered, beguiling, much more psychologically complex than more standard, woody incense: I am sure you will be in heaven.

  8. Love to read more reviews. I think I can like this sort of incense. Most I do not care for. I’m going to the web page!

    Recently I was in Mexico and bought some very authentic copal incense I smelled in a store. When my cold is better I am curious if it will affect me the same as when I smelled it there.

  9. Aubrey Morey

    Have you ever smelled IUNX Eau Sento? I love this frag, but it’s hard to find. Years ago, Patty from PerfumePosse happened to mention that one of the Shoyeido incense smelled like it (which would be amazing) but she couldn’t remember which one. Any ideas?

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