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.


 While Lafcadio Hearn didn't much approach the history of incense and its introduction to Japan in his writings, I think it's a pretty interesting glimpse into something not generally discussed or thought about in history.  How and why something was introduced and how and why it managed to hold on instead of fade into obscurity tells us a lot about the culture(s) involved and is often overlooked in favour of attempting to memorise dates without any real understanding of what it all means.  Yes, I am that annoying kid in history class who keeps asking questions that have nothing to do with the lecture or the test, because I want to know why.  Yes, I am aware that I'm going to be discussing something I researched that even an anthropological author from the 1800's didn't care to include.  Why in the world would anyone care?  Well, why the hell not?

First of all, what do you know about incense?  Growing up in America, my experience has been that (most) people think of it as something that you light to make your room smell, but not as well as a scented candle would.  Or it's used in the Catholic religion for purposes unknown to me which makes the temple smell.  This smell, according to roughly 75% of the people I ask, is not a good smell.  Some people, however, think it is a wonderful smell, but these people are almost exclusively interested in Asia, Buddhism, and/or pot.  So there's that.

I think incense smells wonderful.  Unless it's really bad, cheap, pseudo-incense, and then yes, the stench is quite awful.  You can get 500 sticks for like a dollar at the Oriental Vogue store at the mall, please don't get the "sensual dream incense" in the home goods section of Wal-Mart.  Of course, there are much more expensive types and brands which are worth it if you know what you're looking for, so let me give you a little context so that you too will know about how Japanese incense originated.

While Japan had for the most part used a fragrant wood called aloeswood or agarwood (沈香, jinkō) for whatever purpose it was required, incense was introduced along with the importation of Buddhism (more on that later).  Buddhism, clothing, culture, writing, and all sorts of vogues were brought in from China and eagerly copied by the Japanese nobility.  While the concept of incense was known to the Japanese, an early record from 551 which notes a king from the Kudara kingdom in Korea sent an envoy bearing Buddhist sutras, icons, paraphernalia, and actual incense.  During this time, incense was used exclusively for Buddhist rituals.

Much of the incense was then imported from China, as knowledge pertaining to the usage of incense in Buddhist ritual increased, and for some time, from India, where Buddhism originated, and the distinct smell of Indian incense enjoyed a brief popularity.  Shortly after, a Chinese monk by the name of Ganjin traveled to Japan and brought with him the technique of blending woods to create incense.  Incense appreciation became more widespread as more than a solely Buddhist tool, and what we now consider Japanese incense was born.

Eventually, the spread of Buddhism was so profound that those in power felt that the influence of China, Buddhism, and Buddhist monks were threatening to Japanese culture, and shifted the capital from Nara to Heian-kyo, a period of insanity that would use incense for its own insane purposes and so deserves its own section.

Predictably, the fervent beauty-worship of the Heian Period had reached the point of dangerous over-saturation, and plunged the country into a state of civil war.  That's honestly true.  But you may recall that, during this Sengoku Period, high refinement and arts were practiced by samurai and their daimyō lords.  The chaos and uncertainty of the times, where you could be promoted to the lord's assistant one day and have your eye gouged out and your arm torn off and get stuck in a cell to rot until you go insane the next (第三の影武者 Daisan no Kagemusha is a great movie), left many warriors in search of some kind of respite from it all, or a temporary time to feel peaceful.  I think I've mentioned before how Zen and studying the Way of Tea became a near obsession with men of this time.

You may recall the way that the "frightening" and "awful" Demon Lord Oda Nobunaga became a great enthusiast of the Way of Tea, collected many fine sets of implements, and hosted tea gatherings for his high-ranking soldiers to come and enjoy.  Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, also became a Tea fanatic, and also inherited his tea master Sen no Rikyu, the man who would make chanoyu what it is today, and their relationship became absolutely crucial in Hideyoshi's life, up until Hideyoshi decided for some unknown reason that Sen no Rikyu must die and had him kill himself.  But anyway, doing Tea, studying calligraphy and art, and being around anything that gave off the Zen feeling of peace and tranquility became a must for everyone dealing with the stresses and horrors of war.

Incense was just such a hobby, and Oda Nobunaga was a notable fan of that as well, and is recorded to have received specially-cut pieces of wood to blend with different types of ingredients to make Japanese incense for his own amusement.

Shortly after this, in about 1600, and unlucky for Nobunaga, as he'd just died, a new type of incense was brought over from China: stick incense (線香, senkō).  This is the type of incense most people are familiar with, and for good reason.  Stick incense was affordable (unless you got a type made of extremely rare ingredients), and many common people were now able to purchase and enjoy the smell and endorphin-releasing benefits of lit incense in their own homes.

A curious trend also showed up in Japan's red-light districts.  Many of the courtesans in the nicer houses of ill repute would require a payment of whatever their fee was in addition to a stick of incense.  This incense served as a timer: when the stick burned out, your time was up.  So, naturally, men would save up their money to get the nicer, non-cored incense that burned as long as possible.  Classy.

Regardless, by the late 1800s, having and lighting some incense whenever you wanted was simply a way of life.

In modern times, incense is enjoying a revived popularity in Japan, and worldwide as well.  However, the history of incense in Japan is distinct, and its use as a hobby is not what it's best known for to Japanese people.  There is an entire significant area of life with its own set of rules and philosophies that shapes the way and reasons incense has been incorporated into Japanese life and culture.  And I'll cover that shortly.  But next I'll explain a bit more about the different types of incense used in Japan, many of which hopefully you've never even seen or heard of.


 Once again, this area of interest was completely ignored by Lafcadio Hearn, and probably for very good reasons, but I still think the diversity in types of incense sold in Japan is pretty unique, especially because I've never seen many of them outside of the country, and in fact, most traditional shops that pride themselves on their incense selection or sell incense exclusively usually put out a little pamphlet detailing the assortments, history, and usage of the different types, so apparently this information is particularly riveting to somebody.  Enjoy the knowledge!

Of course, senkō is the most widely known and used.  Senkō is pretty straightforward: put the end of the stick without incense on it in a small holder (usually a dish with an indentation), light it on the tip with incense, and it will gradually burn.  Some types of stick incense have a solid wooden core in the middle, which uses less incense and is cheaper in price and quality.

Before incense was formally introduced, a piece of very wonderful-smelling agarwood washed ashore and was then presented to the Imperial court.  Since then, agarwood has become a very rare and desired ingredient for use in incense (pieces of agarwood incense can cost thousands of dollars or more).  Agarwood is usually blended with other types of materials to make incense, or produced as chips or, to a lesser extent, granules or shavings to set over heated ash.  Specific white ash is placed in a censer and shaped with a tool, as seen below.  The chips are then set on top.

Different types of wood, or agarwood from notable regions, are often sold this way.

Another type, kneaded incense (練香, nerikō) is used by placing the incense balls over heated ash, or near a fire.  Traditional Japanese houses usually contain a sunken hearth in the middle of the room used to cook meals and heat the home.  Zen retreats, small traditional houses stocked only with the essentials, and sometimes less, also had a small sunken hearth.  This sort of house may seem familiar to people familiar with chanoyu, as the tea-houses were usually hosted in these retreats, and later built to resemble the spaces and feelings of Zen.

Kneaded incense is often used during a Tea, with the incense settled among the charcoals that are used to heat the water for tea.  This gives the entire area a very pleasant, but not overpowering scent.  Generally, this is the most common way nerikō is used, but I've visited places giving demonstrations in any number of the Japanese arts which also employ this method to set the mood and invite a sense of calm and relaxation.

Some people even like to use incense that has been coloured and pressed into a festive shape.

Cone incense was actually invented in Japan.  The cone is lit directly, and, because of the shape, the smell becomes much more intense as it works its way down to the thicker part of the cone.  Another benefit of the shape is that, once it's done burning, the ashes of the incense will remain formed in the cone, so as not to fall apart and make a mess.

Coil-shaped incense came from China.  The shape enables it to burn for a very long time, and it was often used to perfume an entire area of a house, or a very large room.  Some coils are quite small, maybe one or two inches in diameter, but others are spiraled into a long conical shape that can be several feet long.  Most often, you will see small ones that are hung sideways in a censer, or ones like in the photo, about the size of your palm.  You may recognise it as looking rather like those smelly mosquito-coils, and that's no coincidence.  When coil-shaped incense was introduced in Japan, many people used it outside since the smoke kept mosquitoes, flies, and other irritating pests away.  People still use them for this reason today.  Any incense will do, of course, but because the coils last longer, they remain a favourite for outside.

So those are some of the most common forms of incense in Japan.  Of course, there are many other types I haven't gone into, notably those used for religious purposes.  These contributions were the form and reason why incense was brought to Japan in the first place.  So next I will focus on one of the most prevalent uses for incense in Japanese culture: Buddhism.


  I mentioned before that much of incense's introduction within Japanese culture owed to it being sent over by Buddhist monks, and likewise, it is used in many aspects of Buddhism.  Japan does have a unique relationship with it, however, which I will briefly go into.  While my own research and translation is in no way as skillful and effective as Hearn's, I do have pictures.

The origins of incense in Buddhism can be traced to many various, nebulous sources, but the general consensus is that incense is good and purifying.  Many Buddhist texts and prayers relate that Buddha or Buddha-nature will come to those who light incense, seeing it as a kind of marker which purifies the area and lights the way.  Incense itself is also used as a metaphor for purity and the body; the body should be kept as clean as one's incense censer, and incense smoke which rises to the sky and leaves behind ash is seen as the journey of the soul in tangent with the body of the censer.  This idea is sometimes used to meditate on, while the differing forms of meditative worship are embodied by the incense itself.  For this reason, many people prefer to light incense during meditation, though it is often used to relax the mind and body and purify the air of a space in a nonreligious manner as well.

In addition to the types of incense I mentioned above, I did not include some of the earliest forms of incense and their uses.  They are rarely seen outside of specific Buddhist rituals, but I think that they are pretty interesting.

Zukō is a type of incense which is rubbed on the body by Buddhist monks.  It is said to purify the body and defend from the unclean.  As such, it is often used before rituals relating to death, or in specific situations where its abrasive quality is felt to focus the mind and body towards the offering and works to the Buddha, as well as to quell humanistic errors and earthly desire.

Small amounts of zukō are rubbed between the hands of the practitioner, as well as placed in the mouth.  It may seem familiar to those who have visited religious or formal events in Japan, where the hands and mouth are ritualistically cleansed with small amounts of water.  The concept of symbolically purifying one's body and mind before entering a special place is consistent in Japanese cultural thinking, whether for religious purposes or not.  One could safely say that ingesting incense must be firmly in the idea of religious iconography, as I certainly would not recommend trying it at home.

The simplest and earliest type of incense imported into Japan was makkō.  Makkō is differentiated from regular incense as powder for incense, as it is most often used as a binding agent and has no real smell of its own.  However, makkō was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks for its convenient ritual use in purifying large areas, specifically temples.  The makkō is usually sprinkled all around the breadth of the space, but it can also be lit or used privately at home for prayer before one's Buddhist altar for mourning by pinching a bit of the powder and sprinkling it back into the container.

Like so.

These two types of incense and uses are very prevalent in Buddhist ritual worship, and their relative simplicity and makeup of (now rare) Indian ingredients and iconography reflect the popularity of Indian-influenced Buddhism in China and Korea at the time it was introduced to Japan.

Today, however, the most obvious and well-known use of incense is associated with Buddhism in the form of stick incense.  Stick incense is lit and offered to the dead, and it is most often seen in graveyards (especially near holidays) and lit before one's home shrine honoring a deceased relative.  It has also become kind of an obvious visual joke (or poor writing) in Japanese movies, dramas, and comedies, to suddenly cut to the sight of someone's picture with incense lit beside it.

Yep, he's dead.

Incense is usually offered at funerals and at the home shrine by family and friends following a death.  Family graves almost always have a small place to put incense and other offerings to the deceased, and the sight of many curls of smoke rising from incense before the graves is a common feature in Japanese horror, or even art, which gives the area an ethereal feel, as if the smoke were spirits.  But more on that later.

Buddhist temples often will have large bronze pots filled with white ash (occasionally sand) to hold sticks of incense offered by visitors and pilgrims.  You may have noticed that most incense censers have your incense lit at an angle.  This is not necessarily for any sort of aesthetic or fire safety purposes, but because the sight of incense sticking straight up is specifically associated with the dead, and is extremely unlucky.  As such, it is very bad luck to stick your chopsticks into your rice bowl in this manner, since people usually offer rice for the dead with the chopsticks jutting out of it like incense.

Also, never stick your chopsticks in your food, or on your plate, or play with them, or drum with them, or separate them, or cross them, or do anything other than sit there quietly with them resting benignly in front of of you facing to the left.  Some of it is considered bad luck, but most of it is because old people you've never seen before in your life will shout at you for improper table manners.  Maybe ask for a fork.

That concludes some of the most well-known uses of incense relating to Buddhism.  However, not everyone in Japan is Buddhist.  Now let's look at how incense is used by practitioners of Shinto, in addition to those who follow other religions, or those who follow none at all.


 Not everyone in Japan is Buddhist. The vast majority of Japanese people would say that they aren't religious at all. So how do they use incense?

There's a saying in Japan; "Live Shinto, die Buddhist." It's true, the predominant religion in Japan is Buddhism, and so unless you are specifically devoted to another religion, most Japanese have a Buddhist funeral. But what's all this about living Shinto? Shinto is not widely practiced in Japan as a religion. I may have mentioned before how I identify myself as a follower of the Shinto religion, but I'm in the extreme minority.

Shinto is interpreted in one of two ways: first, it is a set of values indigenous to Japan, which can be traced back to prehistoric times as a series of beliefs and rituals in farming villages and tribes. Basically, it is the Japanese code of ethics. The second interpretation of Shinto as a formal religion is an extremely new concept, and it only became known as a religion in the first place in order to differentiate it from Buddhism and Buddhist practice as it was being imported. There are now several different sects of Shinto with their own belief systems and prescribed rituals, mostly organized once again to differentiate and explain in relation to the importation of Western ideas. Putting labels on Shinto beyond this becomes extremely difficult.

Everyone in Japan, be they an extremely old mountain-dwelling priest who has devoted his life to the kami, to a tourist from the American Midwest who arrived in Tokyo yesterday, "practices" Shinto. Everyone.

Shinto, in its earliest forms, has a relatively simple concept: if you think it's something good to do, and it doesn't disturb others, do it! Accordingly, there are countless varieties of Shinto beliefs, ritual, art, and action as new religions and ideas are imported, because when it comes to Shinto, if you personally like that idea, it's now a part of your belief system. One could study Shinto as a religion for years and take many notes on my upcoming books about the history, ideology, and beliefs of Shintoism, but for the most part, Shinto of the first variety in day-to-day life is not considered a religion. The official Shinto religion has its own rules, but its core beliefs have permeated Japanese culture, and this is why I say that everyone practices it. Some of these concepts are well-known outside of Japan, though the meaning and reasoning behind the rituals may not be explicitly stated. When you enter someone's home, you take off your shoes. Before you go into an onsen, you wash yourself off. You have to sign a contract not to disturb neighbors with excessive noise before renting an apartment. Origami and wearing traditional Japanese clothing challenge you to adapt yourself to the material without cutting it. These things may seem obvious, or just a part of Japanese culture in general, and that's because they are. It's not Shintoism anymore, though the principles can be traced back to some form of it if you really wanted to. Shinto is known as an action religion: unless you specifically intend your ritual as a form or worship, it falls into the Japanese ethical code.

Shintoism is so dubious to pin down exactly because it embraces everything. When Buddhism became popular, the elements of Buddhism that appealed to those of the Shinto faith were adopted, and when Taoism and Confucianism came, certain ideas were also taken and added to Shinto. You can be Shinto and still follow a different religion, as long as it makes you happy and you show respect to Japan and to others. Shinto as an actual religion is not as prevalent or all-encompassing in any form. Which is when a friend of mine gifted me with some incense, then learned about its associations with death, she suddenly worried that I would be offended. So, from a strictly religious standpoint, how does Shinto view incense?

It's bad. Very bad. Sorry!

As I mentioned before, Shinto as a religion with a set belief system is a rather new concept which arises when something big, like Buddhism or Western influence, is imported into Japan. It's only a defense mechanism for differentiation. When Buddhism first came to Japan, and its strict rules forbade certain practices people happened to do every day, those practices fell under the "indigenous religion" umbrella. As for the "Live Shinto, die Buddhist" mantra, this reinforces the fact that everyone still follows the cultural beliefs that originated in Shinto, but when it comes to death, that's left to Buddhism. Whether or not you choose to follow Buddhism in order to achieve certain things in life and after death is your own decision, but regardless, you will most likely have a Buddhist funeral. This is because Shinto doesn't really have any belief in the afterlife, or funerary procedure. So when Buddhism first came to Japan, the village leaders who had been acting as Shinto priests said "That's great, up until now we've just been sprinkling salt on everything and burying people in huge mounds because it seemed the right thing to do!" Even people who were devoutly Shinto or totally unaware of Buddhism got a Buddhist funeral, because there was really no other way to dispose of a dead body in accordance with any sort of religious doctrine. The fact that Buddhism had several was one of the many other aspects of Buddhism adapted into Japanese daily life. Death, according to Shinto, is the ultimate source of uncleanliness, which is one of the biggest (and only) taboos in the religious practice. Also, once one was dead, that person's soul was no longer present living in Japan or serving the kami (gods/deities of Japan and nature), so it didn't apply to the religious aspects, either. With Buddhism, people who were Shinto now had someone (namely, a Buddhist priest) who would take the polluted dead body away and purify it in accordance with his own beliefs. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, Buddhism became so popular, and many of its ideas seemed to coincide with the beliefs of those who practiced Shinto religiously, that it was often nearly impossible to tell the two religions apart. Someone who casually practiced Shinto, or wasn't necessarily religious at all, could go about his day as he saw fit, taking something from here, doing something from there, and all was well. Those who devoutly believed the teachings of Shinto, worshiped the kami, and depended on the community to support the Shinto shrine, suddenly saw the whole thing done up like a Buddhist temple, complete with the worship of Buddhas who had now become synonymous with certain kami. So once again, a formal set of rules and regulations were drawn up to separate Shintoism from Buddhism.

Somewhere, the idea of incense representing the dead resulted in incense being viewed as unclean, and it was banned from use in Shinto homes. After all, death is unclean, and disturbing others is disrespectful, and what is incense but a tool of the dead in Buddhism which emanates smells that other people may not like to smell? It had been firmly stated by chieftains millennia ago that smoking meat and disposing of bodies with a Shinto village downwind was a surefire way to completely desecrate everything. So incense was outlawed and even accredited with being pleasing and attractive in scent to demons, and an affront and exorciser of kami from your home, which is the exact opposite of everything you're supposed to be doing as a practitioner of Shinto. So says Lafcadio Hearn.

It is worth noting that, even during the time of State Shinto, there was still no set belief system. State Shinto was originally integrated as one of many different ways to provide solidarity and order for Japanese people after the country's period of isolation ended. After WWII, many beliefs and actions were misconstrued and used to cast Shinto in a bad light. However, Shinto only returned to its roots as less of a religion and more as a gentle reminder of how to live and respect yourself, your community, and your home country. The idea of doing whatever you want as long as you didn't disturb anybody was once more the driving force behind religious action, and some people went on to say that they quite enjoyed the calming scent and effects of incense, and therefore, the kami in their home and village must also enjoy it, and it could be used to drive demons away because they dislike good things enjoyed by kami, which you may recognize as the exact opposite of what was once believed.

I think that Shinto at its base is a simple religion that asks very little of its practitioners. While there have been instances when it has been misconstrued, I believe that this happens in all religions, political factions, and cultures simply due to the imperfection of man. After all, if man was perfect, he would have no need for religion. The core values of Shinto teach us to accept these imperfections, but also trust that man can be inherently good. You should know what makes you happy, and any fighting or extremism or need to convert others is at odds with the beliefs of Shinto. If you choose to follow the rituals and devote your lives to the kami, you can, as long as it's making you happy. You can even choose to be a Catholic, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, atheist, or anything else you can think of, or nothing at all, but still respect the beliefs or practices of Shintoism, as there is no need to identify your actions or feelings on a religious level. It's extremely low-maintenance.

So unless you are a member of a religious Shinto sect wherein incense is banned, you're free to enjoy incense around your home if you want to.

Personally, I enjoy any incense that smells like moss.

The Way of Incense and the Incense Game

 While I have stressed the Buddhist influence and religious usage of incense in Japan, this is misleading.  These factors have greatly led to the spread of incense, but the reason it is so predominant in Japan is because of Japanese culture, and Japanese culture being what it is, incense truly became what it is today due to our fascination with interesting things which could be made into a hobby.  The reason why incense in Japan is different from incense anywhere else is because of it's hobby-like collection and lighting, but also by its use in folklore, and in recreational games.  After its initial introduction with Buddhism, incense quickly became a fun and relaxing thing, rising to a point of obsession in both the Heian and Sengoku period, where beauty and refined practices flourished.

It's true, I glossed over the Heian period's point in incense history.  In all honesty, I was hoping to put off this part, because... the Heian Period.

Yes, the Heian period, world leader in all things needlessly over-the-top and pretentious.  If you thought my devoting an entire dissertation to discussing how a glorified air freshener changed Japan, the ideology of the Heian period would completely astound and infuriate you in its ostentatious obsessions to the point of making you weep.  And then you would feel even worse, because weeping at the overwhelming grandeur of something was a popular sport in the Heian period, and akin to having a really good sexual experience.  Dudes everywhere in the Heian period hoped to be moved to tears by how beautiful and sad something was.  I cannot express to you how much I'm dreading getting to the point of this.

So, in Japan, we have a few cultural activities that are seen as traditional and classy to the point of elevating the status of its practitioners.  Most familiar in the West would be the Way of Tea (incorrectly translated as Tea Ceremony).  Perhaps lesser known, but just as significant to those discerning enough to master it, is Ikebana, the art of artful flower arrangement in an artful manner.  Most people tolerate them as the beautiful but deceptively difficult to the point of extremism practices to master.  The amount of training and subtleties and things you have to remember and do in Tea and Flowers would blow your mind.

The third classical art is something I don't think many people outside of Japan are familiar with.  Granted, many people inside of Japan are also unfamiliar with it, but this is the art of Incense.  No, not making incense.  I appreciate you going along with me when I said how difficult it is to make tea and arrange flowers, because even someone with a rudimentary understanding of the terms could see that, if it costs that much and takes that much time, there is clearly something difficult you're trying to learn to master.  The art of Incense, otherwise known as Kōdō, (香道), is the art of sniffing incense.

And no, it's not a drug thing.  It's a fancy thing.

Like most high cultural Japanese arts, while it was mastered by men who would show off their skills, most practitioners in more modern times are women.  Perhaps the reasons for this are obvious.  But if you thought the beauty rituals I described in the entry on Heian ladies and their hair obsessions were extreme, you should take a deep breath and sit down for what I'm going to tell you about the men.

Obviously, this high skill formed and gained immense popularity with the court nobles of the Heian period, whose levels of fanciness were so honed that its grandiose resplendence has never been duplicated by any society at any point in history, and requires those writing on the subject to use words like "grandiose" and "resplendence."

What else would you call this?  This is their football.

It's true that I'm most likely selling the subtle and refined art of the Kōdō short, but anyone who has been forced to read or partially read part of Murasaki Shikibu's 5000-page Heian epic The Tale of Genji most often comes away with a profound aversion to the sheer madness that can spawn from that degree of ornamentation.  It's the primary reason most Japanese stop reading the classics or showing an interest in history and literature, which is oft-lamented by the old, and people like me, who enjoyed it and got their teeth knocked in on a daily basis because damn, something's wrong there.

Yes friends, the Heian period is too much for even me to get particularly enthusiastic about.  But I, your loyal cultural informant, shall slog on and do my best.

But back to Genji.  If you have read Genji, you will unfortunately know all about the competitive weeping, delicate hair-styling, pretty silk clothing colour combinations, precise detailing of the makeup that pales the face and enhances the eyes and lips to a beautiful shape, speaking only in witty and profound poems when one wants to get ones point across, and how best to make an attractive and well-to-do man fall in love with you.  But enough about the daily life of the Heian gentleman (not joking).  Incense and the incense game were often mentioned in the story, and Genji himself was noted to have mixed his own incense, "scent," for use in giving a distinctive fragrance to his chambers and clothing.  The unique scent of Genji's personal incense would often announce his arrival, or give away his presence in the boudoir of a lady whose boudoir he should not have been in.  But that's basically the entire plot of the story right there.

While much is made of the skillful and fragrant way Genji in particular mixes his incense, it was considered a competitive art for all men, who each had his own incense-infused smell, a necessity when you lived in a stiflingly hot valley capital while wearing at least 8 layers of clothing in the summer during a period in which no one took baths.  Discerning readers may also recall the male protagonists Kaoru and Niou, noting that their very names mean "incense fragrance" and "incense scent", respectively.  Incense was a big deal.

There is even a type of incense combination called Genji incense which is designed specifically for use in certain versions of the game.  Each scent is named after a chapter/lady from Genji Monogatari.

The unique shapes of its incense arrangement is a popular motif on many traditional Japanese textiles, like fabric for carrying items, display, and men's and women's clothing.

Genjikō pattern on the obi of my friend.

At one point in the novel, Genji decides to throw an incense party, the ultimate way to show off how sophisticated one was in front of one's friends.  The practice of an incense party, like most things in the Heian period, was the pinnacle of subtlety and obsessive-compulsion associated with art that caught on with the nobles of that time, that would later go on to be reflected in the incense parties of the Sengoku era.  Like the Way of Tea, the Way of Incense also utilized the calming effects of the item, in addition to the sophisticated gathering (in which speech was restricted to beautiful things alluded to by the items alone, ie, not the war), made for a well-enjoyed distraction that one needed to completely focus one's mind on, which helped to soothe the fears and instability at the time.  And again, it was popular in the Heian period because it was pretty.

This isn't to say that the Heian period gets the brunt of my ire with its version of the incense game.  Like Tea, daimyo in the Sengoku period became so infatuated with the hobby, that their sets of implements for the game were so numerous and decorative (most often done in gold), that sets of tools for incense from this time sit auspiciously in museums the world over.

Your basic less-decorative set.

So how does one play the incense game?  Unfortunately, I've never witnessed the ordeal firsthand, away from programmes on NHK and in my readings, but the vast amount of detailing and rules I have come from Lafcadio Hearn and Murasaki Shikibu, and you can't ask for better primary sources than that.

Like all Japanese parties, the host or hostess prepares well in advance, painstakingly planning for every possible inconvenience, coordinating schedules, seating arrangements, and deciding on themes, utensils, combinations, and every minute thing that no one else notices.  Unless you're a rival of the host and plan to point out in front of everyone that they spaced people a centimetre too far apart, and what a beginner's mistake that is, and no such tomfoolery would ever be witnessed at your party.  Don't be that guy.

Genji prepared for his party weeks in advance, which included readying his entire mansion for the one room the party would be in, and burying his incense in a jar next to a river to keep it fresh and brought in by ladies at key moments, because he read that an Emperor did that before.

Sengoku-era daimyo were even more observant and competitive (indeed, reading Genji would give on the impression that he put the whole thing on to flirt with Prince Hotaru), and the Incense Game was polished into a clear science.  The vast amount of rules and regulations, as well as variance in the type of gameplay was noted and followed more strictly than war protocol.  Japanese hobbies are insanely stressful and exhausting.  Ever wondered why my entries are so complicated?

So while the Heian version of the game involved creative blends mixed more carefully than a doctor of chemistry would mix his toxic and explosive ingredients, the Sengoku era pulled out all the stops in their mixtures.  Nowadays, if people do Kōdō, they often use the kneaded incense, occasionally shaped and coloured.  But in the Sengoku era, they prided themselves on collecting precious bits of wood, namely jinkō, which, while rare and desired in the Heian period, was nearly impossible to find by the Sengoku.  Today, gram for gram, jinkō is more expensive than gold.  Much posturing was done by a host who pulled out the jinkō.

So the rules detailed by the daimyo which spawned Kōdō as an art-form will be briefly explained from Hearn's account of the most popular version, which is described so well that even I won't delve into it all.  Needless to say, if you are truly interested in the minutiae of every variation on the game, the rules in those variations, and proper translations of the names, scorecards, and ingredients of each and every piece of incense used, I am able to type that up for you, direct you to a particularly dry Japanese public-access documentary, and be your friend.  Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

A few days prior to the event, guests are expected to fast, carefully eating light foods, and take an especially hot bath for a prolonged amount of time.  They must also be careful not to use any perfume or wear a sachet, as the point of this is to arrive as scent-less as possible, so that you don't upset the delicate balance of the varieties of incense you will inhale.  Guests are also required to bring their own incense, usually in tandem, which is then presented to the host.

The host himself has prepared three different types of incense, which are dependent on the season, the theme, the fragrance combinations, or some other order of the host's discretion.  Each type is separated into four parts apiece, and the host will announce the poetic names of the varieties he has chosen, as well as to allow the guests to pass around a sample of each, both of which should provide an experienced player with context as to the makeup of ingredients in each type, as well as a seasonal or artistic theme.  After this, the host retires behind a screen to mysteriously shuffle the ten packets of remaining incense: three each of three types, and the one offered by the guests.  He will then select the first one, heat it over the burner, and place the warmed incense in a censer, to be passed around from guest to guest.  The guest cups his hand over the censer and takes in three to five breaths, no more or less.

Like so.

The way in which one is meant to hold the censer, cup one's hand, and tilt one's head in order to breathe in the fragrance can be learned through vigorous training at one of many incense game schools (of course they exist).  This is referred to as "listening to the incense," because "smelling the incense" is a crass and unartistic way to phrase it.  That's actually the reason.

So now, in front of each guest is a small box holding a set of ten tiles, often of lacquer and gold maki-e, labeled one, two, three, and guest.  The tiles themselves have a pattern and name, and therefore represent the player.  The first guest, let's say, has a set of tiles with a design of floating weeds.  So Floating Weeds will "listen" to the first type of incense, and perhaps he knows it's not the guest incense, since he smelled it during the initial preview, so perhaps he thinks it's the second type of incense he sampled.  He will then take one of his tiles labeled two, seal it in a sheet of paper labeled "Incense #1," and then covertly pass it up for collection by the host away from the cheating eyes of the other guests.  Once gathered, the host will make a note of which incense was used, and open each envelope, recording the patterns of the tiles and their respective guesses.  Let's say Floating Weeds was right.  The host will put a small mark beside Floating Weeds' choice, granting him one point.  The person who has the most points after all players have made guesses for all ten fragrances wins!  In the event of a tie, there will be issued a fight to the death.  OK, not really.

During the game, even the most critical of guests will be unable to differentiate between all the smells now wafting about the room.  Even Prince Hotaru, with his superhumanly acute olfactory senses, managed a gentle complaint.  To combat this problem, guests will drink straight vinegar to refresh the nasal passages.

In addition, during the game, the special book the host records in can be brought out and discussed, alluding to parties he has held before, which themes and types of incense were used then, who had the most correct guesses, which set of tiles is the most popular, the season and thematic elements noticed by guests, and any other sort of trivia and statistics one may find interesting.  Conversation of any other sort is strictly forbidden.  Japanese games are terrifyingly cutthroat.


Incense in Japan is unique, due to it's place within the country's culture.  Primarily, it is known for its religious and meditative purposes, but in Japan, incense is an everyday enjoyment, with its own distinctive lore.  Important eras in Japanese history are not known by their religious associations as much as they are remembered by their stories, folklore, and entertainment.  Incense as entertainment is quite Japanese.  We've already learned about the incense game, but the amount of stories, romances, and cultural connotations associated with incense are perhaps its best-known contribution to Japanese culture.

I realise that I explained my interest in starting this Year of the Snake in my journal with incense was due to an attempt on my part to not talk about yōkai all the time.  After all, there is so much more to Japanese culture that it's unfair to focus primarily on only one obscure facet of entertainment.  Lafcadio Hearn is known as "the ghost story guy" and I'm known as "the guy who writes absurdly long-winded dissertations on a gift he received once," but obviously I can't just ignore the sheer amount of stories and superstitions about incense from Japan.

If you want to get technical (which I do), these stories are not specifically yōkai stories (though one of them features artwork by Sekien, which is usually a good indicator that it is), nor are they just fairy tales, folklore, or superstitions.  They have become so commonplace that, in fact, many of the original stories have been forgotten, and only the names and actions associated with them remain.  So let's delve into the background of Japanese incense lore.

Perhaps the most characteristic Japanese tale associated with incense comes, like all firmly established traditional Japanese things, from China.  It seems to me that many classical Chinese stories which are less sweepingly historical and more... weird... end up being more well-known in Japan than in their country of origin.  More television dramas, historical epics, kabuki, and novels have been written about that one guy in that unknown Chinese village who saw something really creepy that time than any Chinese Emperor who did something amazing in battle.  Look at Dynasty Warriors, Japan's interpretation of China's ancient civil war romance.  Chinese movies using the same source material deliver things like Red Cliff, a touching emotional journey of the strength and character of the Chinese people.  Key storylines in Dynasty Warriors are more concerned with a magical shaman who can summon ghosts to fight for him (by using magical incense!).  While Chinese classics were considered the ultimate form of education amongst the elite scholars of Japan, the common folk just wanted to hear the most bizarre gossip available.  This remains true today.

The tale comes from something or other relating to the loves of Emperor Wu.

I worry that "pimpin'" is not strong enough a word to describe him.

English and Chinese sources are filled with detail of his campaigns, history, and contributions to Chinese culture.  In Japanese, there are a few pesky facts to be had, but the vast amount of information focuses on his interests, personality, and the ladies he loved.  The folktale associated with Emperor Wu appears in ancient documents from both China and Japan, but only in Japan does the fiction seem to outshine the man himself.

Emperor Wu, as Emperor, had many wives and consorts, but his favourite was the beautiful Consort Li.


But, as all things seem to go, Consort Li inexplicably died in the prime of her life and beauty due to some sudden and undoubtedly elegant illness.  The Emperor Wu completely lost his mind to sorrow, taking no joy in his hobbies, ruling the country, his wife, or any of his other consorts.  He was completely overtaken by the loss of the beautiful Li.

One day, he woke up and began demanding that his servants locate for him a parcel of the legendary incense he had heard tell was able to bring the dead back to life, known as hangonkō (反魂香/返魂香, or however you say that in classical Chinese).  His counselors, knowing he was in the throes of madness, begged him to reconsider.  They knew that even a glimpse of Li would rekindle Emperor Wu's grief all over again, but the Emperor insisted.  A search was conducted, and a single portion of hangonkō was found remaining in the imperial stock.  Emperor Wu snatched up the hangonkō and retreated to his chambers, desperate to see his beloved just one more time.


Emperor Wu pored over the incense, heating it with the utmost of care, and thought only of Consort Li, talking to himself like a madman.  Certain versions claim that he managed to happen upon the magic incantation necessary to kindle the spirit from the hangonkō, but others insist that one must only focus one's mind entirely on the person they most wish to see.  Regardless, the smoke began to pour from the incense, a wispy and curious blue, which gradually formed the vague outline of a woman.  The Emperor watched, captivated, as the shape became clearer and clearer, until there was no doubt that it was that of Consort Li.

Emperor Wu called out to her, weeping with joy, repeating her name, and declarations of love.  However, the figure simply floated there, oblivious to the Emperor's presence, though she became more and more beautiful with each passing second.  Unable to take any more, the Emperor ran to Li and embraced her, but the instant his fingers touched her shimmering form, the image disappeared into the air.

Emperor Wu's sad spiral returned stronger than ever before, and he pined for Li as the incense died down, and then he passed away with it.

Sekien's hangonkō.

This type of story became hugely popular with the denizens of the Edo period, and many other stories were written which alluded to hangonkō, using the word as shorthand for yearning love.  A popular bunraku and kabuki play is named for the beauties said to appear within hangonkō, but it has no other element of the original story or any actual use of incense.

On one side, we have the romantic and ephemeral imagery so vital in Japanese drama, and on the other, hangonkō becomes a harbinger of evil.  But at this point, what isn't, really?  Even without the story, the main association with incense is death.  Hangonkō lore expanded, and some stories claimed it could actually summon the soul of someone who was still alive, literally bring back the dead like a zombie, or fissure reality to provide a glimpse into the demon world.

Incense in itself is actually pretty creepy.

The large furnace of incense before the halls of Buddhist temples are offerings left by those who came before, and the smoke is pulled across the body by people who pass it, in order to purify the body and soul, use the scent to drive away demons, or even to disappear within the smoke to evil beings you may encounter, much in the way that it was traditional to wear white at funerals.  If one appears to the dead as a ghost, those ghosts will not drag you screaming along with them.  They'll figure you have the whole dead thing covered and allow you on your way.

The way incense smoke writhes calls to mind the movement of a snake, to which much evil is ascribed.  The occasional puff of incense or long, spindly thread of smoke also resembles the Japanese idea of the shape of the soul.  This is akin to the image in the West of suddenly seeing a big white mass floating towards you and taking it for a ghost.  Undefined Japanese ghosts just have a different shape.

The association with Buddhist funerary rites are still quite frightening, even if one is not Buddhist.  Buddhist cemeteries are everywhere in Japan, and most have an area in front of the grave especially for offering incense.  The fact that it is meant to purify and drive evil away provides little comfort when you're walking home at night and see hundreds of spires of incense floating through the gravestones.

Going to a graveyard and spending time among the incense is a well-known plot point in many ghost stories and popular culture.  In addition, the challenge to see how long one can stay in a cemetery at night without getting creeped out, an attempt to see the forms of the spirits, or gaze into the world beyond, is considered a rite of passage for bold kids, teenagers, and fans of the occult.

Incense is also said to attract demons.  You're basically sunk either way.  In the Edo period, legend told that an incense-seller who cheated a customer and sold him poor quality incense, or claimed it had a high amount of rare ingredients when it did not, even if he didn't mean to, would be doomed to wander the world as a wraith for all eternity, able to appear only when someone lit incense.  These wraiths, or else actual demons and denizens of the underworld, could survive solely on the smoke produced by incense.  The second the incense was lit, these demons would appear and greedily gobble up the smoke for nourishment.  Unfortunately, their ravenous nature also absorb the essence of a human's soul, devouring it bit by bit until the person or people near the incense become cursed or waste away.

You didn't light any incense, did you?

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