|BIG IN JAPAN
A whiff of Japanese incense
(o-ko) evokes the scented world of the Heian court where men and women mixed their
own neriko (sticky incense balls in a base of honey and plum jam) and burned it in
exquisite braziers to perfume their kimonos and hair. The result was often so provocative
that spontaneous poems were composed in homage to the aroma.
Ko was introduced to Japan by way of China and Korea in the middle of the sixth century.
Originally burned in powdered form as part of Buddhist ritual, ko quickly became popular
for private use. Enthusiasts blended mixtures into sticky balls, dried cones and joss
sticks, carefully guarding their secret recipes.
The atmosphere in Paradise smells so sweet that mortals can only feign to reproduce it on
earth. Buddha’s breath is purported to smell like the cinnamon of Assam, Indonesian
cloves, the star anise grown in China and Vietnam, camphor from Borneo, an Indian
sandalwood grove, and the precious aroma of ancient agar wood found buried in the jungles
of Northern India, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. None of these ingredients is indigenous to
Japan, but the recipes that combine them to form ko are what makes it uniquely Japanese.
Time in eighth-century Japan smelled like the aromatic breath of Buddha. Incense clocks (koban-dokei)—powdered
incense contained in a special vessel—measured the passage of time at temples. The
koban-dokei evolved into the joko-ban, a uniquely Japanese invention that consisted of a
lacquer box containing clean ash combed into grooves of equal lengths. These were filled
with powdered incense that burned at an even rate. More than just a device for measuring
time, the perfumed fragrance of the smoke stimulated the intellect, kept evil spirits at
bay, and served as a link between man and the transcendent.
The wood of the agar tree is the key ingredient that distinguishes Japanese incense from
other kinds. An evergreen tree, it grows as tall as 30m. Not found in Japan, it’s
indigenous to Northern India, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. After the tree is felled, two
kinds of fungus form a thick, dark resin on its trunk and roots. The longer the tree
carcass lies rotting in the jungle, the more aromatic it will be when harvested for
incense. The most valuable wood is so dark and permeated by resin that it sinks rather
than floats. That is why the Japanese call it jinko, meaning sinking incense.
No two agar trees have an identical aroma, and the scent of the same tree will vary from
its branches to its roots. Some pieces of agar cost as much as gold, and like the metal it
lasts for generations. Agar wood never loses its scent and can be passed down as an
heirloom, enabling the next generation to enjoy the exact aroma as those who bequeathed it
Burned before the graves of loved ones to soothe and please their spirits, incense also
repels devils, who naturally detest the breath of gods. To keep evil spirits away from
their homes, some people display a large silk bag (kusadama) that contains incense
and one nut for each month of the year.
Joss sticks burnt as offerings in giant censers (burners) in front of Buddhist temples
create great billowing plumes of aromatic smoke that attract the gods. Supplicants fan the
smoke towards themselves or rub it onto areas of their bodies that need healing. Students
facing examination hell will burn incense before the gods of scholarship and fan the smoke
toward their brains.
The art of concentration through incense is brought to a zenith in the Japanese incense
ceremony (ko-do), which along with the tea ceremony and ikebana is one of the three
refined arts of Japan.
Actual wood chips rather than blended varieties are used for ko-do. The incense chip is
placed on a square of thin, transparent mica warmed by hot charcoal buried under a small
mountain of clean rice-straw ash contained in a ceramic container. The aroma it emits is
subtle, and the “listener” must hold the cup it close to the nose in order to appreciate
Janet Leigh Foster