The history of Japanese incense

In the year 538 AD Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China. Along with it came incense, which was used in Buddhist rituals.

According to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), a log of aloeswood drifted ashore on Awaji island in the year 595 AD. Using the wood for firewood, the islanders were surprised by the strong and delicious fragrance spreading. They presented the remaining wood to the Imperial Court, where prince Shotoku recognized it as Jinkoh (Aloeswood). Aloeswood is still one of the main ingredients in Japanese incense.

In the following centuries, incense was not solely used for religious purposes, but for enjoyment as well. It became widespread among the nobility and was also used for scenting rooms, clothes and hair, and to celebrate special occasions.

By the end of the 15th century, heating incense even developed into an art form, called Kodo, which translates as The Way of Fragrance. Along with Sado (tea ceremony) and Kado or Ikebana (flower arranging) it is one of the three major classical arts of refinement. In Kodo, the ceremonial heating and enjoying of incense is referred to as ”monko” or listening to incense. In other words, it is about the images, feelings, thoughts or other associations the incense evokes. Kodo became widespread among the samurai. They also scented their helmets and armour with incense to prepare for battle.

In the 16th century, the technique to produce incense sticks was introduced, which made incense popular among the general public as well. Several incense companies that were established in the 17th and 18th century are still in existence. Their incense formulas are sometimes based or inspired on formulas dating back more than 1000 years.