The Significance of Japanese Incense and Kōdō

TThe first recorded use of incense was by the Egyptians during the Fifth Dynasty, 2345 – 2494 BCE. The use of incense in religious rituals was developed in China and eventually brought to other countries such as Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Incense plays an important role in East Asian Buddhism rites and ceremonies including those of Chinese Taoist and Japanese Shinto shrines for the deity Inari Okami, or the Seven Lucky Gods. Incense is known to purify the surroundings and to bring forth buddhas, gods, demons, bodhisattvas, and the like.

Incense sticks. | KCP Flickr

Incense burning has been observed in Japan since the Asuka period in the 6th century with the introduction of Buddhism to the country. Agarwood, a fragrant wood, imported into Japan from China via Korea, is used as incense during religious ceremonies, rituals and in spirituality and meditation. Japanese incense has since been an important facet of Japanese culture.

The Nihon Shoki, “The Chronicles of Japan,”  the second oldest book of Japanese history, tells us of the first recorded incense in Japan. A log of agarwood drifted ashore on Awaji Island, in Hyōgo Prefecture in 595 CE, and was presented to Prince Shōtoku and the Empress Suiko. Shōtoku was already familiar with incense burning from Buddhism. Agarwood had already been imported to the country during the building of a temple in 538 CE. The custom of burning incense was further developed and became popular among the Japanese nobility. Fragrant scents became vital in court life during the Heian period when robes and fans were perfumed and poems were even written about them. The Tale of Genji from the 11th century is a primary example.

Burning incense at Sensoji Temple, Asakusa. | Ajay Suresh

Kōdō (Way of Incense) is the Japanese art of incense appreciation, similar to the tea ceremony.  In kōdō, participants also follow established practices involving the preparation and enjoyment of incense and is counted as one of the three classical arts of refinement. Kōdō includes all the aspects of the incense process, from the kōdōgu, which are the tools used in the way of the incense, to the art of appreciating the various scents.

Two major types of incense are used in Japan, through either heating or smoldering small pieces of fragrant wood or directly burning incense in the form of sticks or cones formed from paste without a bamboo stick. Many of the current incense companies have been in existence for more than 300 years.