There are many post-war phenomena that have made Japan famous around the world such as manga, karaoke, cosplay, pachinko and much more. However, these are not the things that constitute the very essence of Japanese Zen culture.
Japanese Zen culture has its roots deep in Japanese history and dates back more than a millennium. It has naturally evolved over the centuries and materialized in numerous forms of art or spiritual practices, but also in the form of traditional objects. So today we are going to talk about one of them since it is incense. Very often used during religious ceremonies, these little sticks are still very widespread in our society for their good smells and their spiritual benefits.
For the most fans of these fragrant sticks, do not hesitate to go to the Nature Encens website where you will find a huge choice of incense holders of all kinds at very affordable prices, but also incense and valuable advice on the subject. Here is a little preview :
Origin of incense in Japan
The very origin of incense is extremely ancient, dating back to more than 2000 BC. Today it is difficult to trace the very source of the first incense on the globe but on the other hand it is certain that they were used in at least three places. In Babylon, Egypt and China. They were used during prayers as well as for reading, it was not until much later that their use diversified.
However, it would be more than 2,500 years before we saw the first incense set foot on Japanese soil since it was imported from China in the 6th century, in 552, at the same time as the Buddhist religion. The first writing that discusses the use of incense in Japan is the Nihon shoki, one of the oldest historical documents in Japanese history; he mentions a use of incense in 595 during the reign of Empress Suiko.
The development of incense in Japan
Very quickly after its arrival in the land of the rising Sun, incense became popular and democratized throughout the territory. Although it is not of Japanese origin, this did not prevent a very strong local craftsmanship from emerging, even despite the absence of suitable wood in the territory. Japanese incense manufacturers were therefore forced to import wood from China by boat in order to be able to manufacture it. However, this did not prevent them from becoming the best incense craftsmen in the world. Companies dating back several hundred years still exist such as Baieido or Nippon Kodo .
The key role of Buddhism in the democratization of incense in Japan
It is obvious that incense has found its fans thanks to its diverse and varied smells which, we must admit, are very pleasant. However, incense would never have enjoyed such success if it had not been inseparable from the Buddhist religion.
After its establishment in the territory, Buddhism was in fact quickly adopted by the Japanese and many temples were erected at the same time to practice it. If you want to know more about Buddhism in Japan, do not hesitate to consult our article on the subject: Buddhism in Japan . Incense was therefore systematically used during ceremonies or during religious rites with the aim of purifying the atmosphere, which partly explains why a strong demand emerged within the Japanese territory itself.
The arrival of Kōdō in Japan
Kōdō is a traditional Japanese art, as are ikebana and the tea ceremony. It can be defined as the art of appreciating the scent of incense. Its name comes from “koh” which literally means “incense” in Japanese.
Although incense was imported to Japan in the 6th century, Kōdō only appeared in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). It manifests itself most of the time in the form of a ceremony where six to fifteen people gather in a square. A komoto is then responsible for making the members of the ceremony smell various wood shavings in turn. These same members will then try to remember the odors in order to identify them.
Kōdo, just as Buddhism did before, therefore allowed incense to develop in the territory and for local crafts to flourish. Incense then quickly found favor with the Japanese court and attracted the favor of the aristocracy. At the same time, they became more “noble” products which were then no longer consumed within the framework of religion, but also within a framework of pleasure, just to appreciate the good smells that they give off. In addition, Kōdō has become popular in particular for the 10 virtues attributed to it, these virtues are as follows:
- Sharpens the senses
- Purifies the body and mind
- Eliminates “pollutants”
- Awakens the mind
- Heals loneliness
- Calms hectic times
- Not unpleasant even in large quantities
- Even small amounts are enough
- Does not decompose after a long time
- Daily use does not harm health
Little by little, incense became part of the uses and customs of the Japanese and little by little crossed all social strata of the country until it found its way to the imperial court.
We had earlier mentioned quality craftsmanship, but we did not dwell on the manufacture of these Japanese incenses. So let's take the time to do it, you'll see it's quite interesting!
The manufacture of incense in Japan
Although there are incenses made solely from plants, the main material for making incense remains wood. However, not all woods are created equal. The best ones for making Japanese incense are sandalwood and agarwood. Essential and scented oils can also be added to incense, as can colorings.
It is no coincidence that agarwood and sandalwood are the most famous. They have the particularity of secreting an aromatic resin which over time transforms into fragrant wood, called koboku . One of the most famous kobokus is kyara because it has a high oil content and a very pleasant smell.
Over time, the strong demand for incense that emerged in Asia, through the practice of the Buddhist religion, led to significant deforestation of agarwood and sandalwood. Incenses made from these woods are therefore quite expensive and very popular with fans of Japanese incense.
Another wood that was widely used in Japan, if not the most used wood, for making incense is called tabu -no-ki . It was highly prized for its bark because it has the astonishing characteristic of forming clay paste when mixed with water. This paste is called makko and it can be directly rolled into a stick or even a cone to make incense. The sticks are then left to dry for several days in a place where humidity and temperature are carefully controlled. Once done, the incense is packaged and then distributed commercially for consumption.
Even though the process of making Japanese incense may seem quite simple and within everyone's reach. Incense makers typically take years to experiment with the most favorable blends and drying conditions to achieve a superior finished product.
The benefits of Japanese incense
It is obvious that incense is famous for its smells and the satisfying olfactory sensation it gives off when burned. However, the benefits of Japanese incense are not limited to its primary function. Beyond a simple good smell, like that of a flower or a good cooked meal, incense gives off a real Zen atmosphere around it which positively affects our moods and considerably reduces our stress. . Here is the scientific explanation.
When incense is consumed near us, certain odorous molecules will be diffused without being consumed due to the agitation produced by the heat at the point of incandescence of the stick. Therefore, when we breathe some of these same molecules, they will trigger a signal in us that our olfactory nerve will send to our limbic brain which is none other than the part of our brain that controls our emotions.
This is why incense, in addition to smelling good, has real positive effects on our moods as well as our state of mind. However, the positive effects of Japanese incense do not stop there. Certain molecules that we inhale have real antibacterial capacities which strengthen our immune system by entering our blood and our lungs. In ancient Egypt, incense was even used as a real medicine to treat certain lung and liver diseases.