Saturday, July 13, 2013

Japanese Incense Culture

Happy New Year!!

...I'm a little late, aren't I?  In all honesty, I began this last December and was just that lazy getting around to it.  At first I thought I might be done in time for Koshōgatsu, then a desperate attempt to finish in time for Chinese New Year, but now it seems the only New Year I'm even with is some sort of ancient Babylonian fertility festival in honour of the goddess Ishtar.  And here we are at Tanabata.

Happy Tanabata!!

Regardless, it is my first entry of the new year, so it still sort of counts.  First procrastination?  First stalling for time?

This year is the Year of the Snake (巳年), isn't it?  It must be good luck for anyone born in another snake year.  For my first entry of this year, I wanted to discuss something pertaining to that, and I don't have to tell you that there are quite possibly as many snake yōkai as there are types of snakes themselves.  But that doesn't seem like a very auspicious start to the year, does it?  Besides, with the amount of horrible things I plan to do entries on in this Year of the Snake, I need all the auspiciousness I can get.

So what's something that is extremely auspicious, has something to do with traditional Japanese culture, and coils and slithers like a snake?

Well, you already know from looking at the title, but it's incense, of course.

Incense in Japan is something that is only vaguely understood, or even cared about, but it's actually a pretty fascinating and esoteric subject.  Incense is fairly common in daily life, or at special occasions, that most people don't even think about, but understanding its use and appreciation in Japanese culture has fascinated anthropologists and enthusiasts of the Orient for quite a long time.

Certainly one of the most famous, if not the most famous, author on Japanese culture is one Mr. Lafcadio Hearn.  I believe I've mentioned him before, but let me bring you up to speed:  A Westerner by birth, he traveled to Japan and recorded his very profound and astute observations on all things Japanese just as the Japan-craze was sweeping over Europe.  Not only is he still one of the sole sources on Japanese culture written in English, but his books were also translated into Japanese, where he is still considered an authority on the subject.  The thing about Lafcadio Hearn is that, as a foreigner, many Japanese people would tell him stories and information and folklore that they assumed everybody in Japan knew, when in fact most of their knowledge had never been recorded or even heard of outside of the village or region of its origin.  Therefore, Hearn also sparked in Japan a renewed interest in Japanese culture.

He also sparked a renewed interest for amazing moustaches.

Perhaps best known for Kwaidan, the study of all Japanese things creepy and strange (effectively sharing with the world and the rest of the country itself a record of ghost stories and the like), this would go on to inspire most of Japan's folklorists and yōkai-ologists, so the majority of information we have on ghosts and yōkai are from around the time of Lafcadio Hearn.  But there are a few modern enthusiasts who stubbornly refuse to let go and continue to obsess and attempt to spread knowledge of creepy Japanese things in order to freak out others or just alienate potential friends.  Hello!

However, Lafcadio Hearn wrote about so much more than Japanese ghosts.  Dutifully recording anything he found interesting, beautiful, or exciting, his writing was as culturally sensitive and appropriate to Japanese sensibilities as it was informative and appealing prose in the West.  Anyone who has an interest in Japan can't go wrong reading Hearn in English or Japanese, though the translations are perhaps not as indicative of the unique voice Hearn has as an author.

Anyway, in an attempt to be a bit more high-brow, I'll begin the year by discussing Hearn's research on incense, which, I'll admit, seems rather boring and trivial, but actually reveals quite a bit about Japanese culture, history, and people.  Also, I will add photos, my own thoughts and experiences, and some updates, since quite a bit has changed in Japan since the time of Lafcadio Hearn.