Category Archives: Incense





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.


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In ‘Japanese Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behaviour of the Japanese’, author Boye Lafayette de Mente talks of the ‘grave beauty’ of Japan and its …


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L’Eau Du Navigateur, unfortunately now discontinued but quite findable if you search hard enough, is one of those distinctive and beautiful scents that make my stomach flip. There is nothing else anything else quite like it: a seamless, delicate, composition that is somehow unfathomable, even mystical: the desert, or early evening sunlight, dappling on warm Moroccan terracotta. There is an honesty here:  something pure and noble that elevates this smooth, enveloping perfume to a higher plane.


So many of the incense perfumes now on the market seem to seek to recreate the arid religiosity of actual church or temple incense, and they can be one-dimensional, aggressive, even depressing. This, though,  which predates that trend by twenty years, is  more complex and soulful: a soft, gentle, twilight in an imaginary Damascus.


A light, fresh, and very mellifluous blend of resins, tobacco, spices, citrus and incense; ambery balsamics, and a most inspired base note of coffee absolute (truly wonderful, actually, and the first perfume ever to use this unusual ingredient:  lending the composition the sandy, enveloping, and trustful warmth of a kaftan), L’Eau Du Navigateur is a unique, and beautifully androgynous composition with a sillage – God-like, almost – that trails the air around it as if kissed by desert winds.


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It has been raining in the city, and you are standing on the grey wet steps of a cathedral, where the chilling, ghostly incense from the years hangs in the rafters. A cold whiff of death, both religious and nihilistic; fungal in the dark reaches of its damp earthiness, Catholic in its liturgical implications.

You shiver…




L’Humeur A Rien, an obscure, long-gone, once formed part of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s ‘Sautes d’Humeur’, a limited edition set of five fragrances in a red satin-lined box; and it was my first ever introduction to an incense perfume. I remember standing in the King’s Road boutique in West London when it came out; transfixed and bewildered. So along with the satanically green-eyed snake of D’humour Jalouse (one of the most interesting green creations ever made), I decided on the spot that I had to own this original selection of scents that, though highly stimulating to my imagination as curios, were clearly, to me at least, unwearable.



But as it turned out, the ‘Mood Swings’ collection, according to the lady who sold me the perfumes, was in fact intended, just as I had intuited, as a collection of scents to ‘share with yourself’. To place a drop or two on the top of your hand, and then drift, the ‘nothing’ or ‘spiritual’ void of D’Humeur A Rien a watery evocation of the sinister and sacramental: a portal – brief – to another realm that would either comfort you in the material world or compound your yearnings for the hereafter. Never did it occur to me to put this on to go out anywhere as it is far too disheartening, even for a party at Halloween. Also, the visions of rainwater on stone floors of the beginning notes – the most fascinating part of the perfume – soon shifted to a smudgy, unpleasant, bad feeling that you felt you had to wash off. But that was the idea: a momentary glimpse of another life, or death…









At the time, I thought that this oddity was a true original as I had never come across anything else quite like it. Several years later, however, the idea of wearing incense started to catch on, and perfumes such as the seminal Incense Series by Comme Des Garcons (2002) brought about a distinctive change of sensibilities in which these arid, evocative, often sanctified substances smelled fashionable (especially when combined with more conventional woody notes, spices, new synthetics, and ambers); an impactful, wry new kind of antidote to the sweet and the floral. At first, to some extent, there was almost a novelty value – a ‘look at me I smell like a church’ aspect that had an aspect of the humorously blasphemous (smelling exactly like the high mass at Avignon might strike the religious as somewhat disrespectful); but in time, the scents have simply come to smell of the times – a bit edgy and knowing; often contemplative, and peculiarly erotic.




Black Amber is an elaborate frankincense composition by Swedish house Agonist, and comes with the requisite features we expect from an exclusive niche brand. Concept – the brooding melancholia of Bergman, Garbo and other despairing Scandinavian artistes;  the sculpture as perfume bottle, and the scent, crafted to place the wearer far beyond the plebeian reaches of the hoipolloi.









And Black Amber, in the scheme of the mainstream, is certainly no usual scent.  In niche terms, though, it strikes me as just another grey dirge of miseria. While it intrigues, somewhat, at first, with its strange, seaweed like-saltiness (from an unusual addition of red algae); its essence of nargarmotha, an Indian herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, and notes of tobacco blossom, artemisia and labdanum  to bolster the note of churchy olibanum, the plum-murk dinge of its centre has a bilgey corporality to it that feels like the mortar holding up the temple – an argillaceous wetness that takes some time, in the crypt, to solidify. This verging-on-unpleasant clay-feel comes from an uneasy underlayering sediment of ambergris, vanilla and sandalwood that takes away from the purity and sanctity of the frankincense (an essential oil I adore), while never sweetening or become soft enough, indeed ambered, to ever satisfy. It smells, to be honest, of ghoulish plasticine. Strangely, the perfume is billed as a walk in the forest, but to me, the frankincense, combined with other incense notes in the heart, can only be signifiers of church rites.



I know that Black Amber does have its disciples, so if you are aching for a sophisticated ‘anti-perfume’ , or an incense scent that contains no oudh (agarwood), you might want to seek this out. It is enigmatic, and of obviously high quality source materials. To me, though, these trendy black cloaks of ‘gloom’ can feel a little forced.




















I’m clicking your fingers

for a gothic twilight

That actually existed

just in your head





Your fingernails painted black

or blood red I forget





And your fake leather volumes jabbering on hell

Manifest decadence was what you hoped to exhale






Your eyes tried so hard to glitter

A star-snuffing black





And you opened your legs

And so opened your heart





And let in the badness you claimed as your friend






And nonetheless I still write this Gothic love song






A sign to myself and the memory of my past












And a way to shut out your face










October 24, 2012 · 1:15 am