Used for centuries for religious, cultural and home purposes and still very popular today, the history of Japanese incense is fascinating, and Japan remains one of the oldest and most respected producers of incense.
The most common Japanese incense ingredients include Sandalwood, Agarwood, Boneo Camphor, benzoin, Frankincense, Clove, Star Anise, Rhubarb, Cinnamon, Liquorice and Patchouli. The most expensive and sought after ingredient is know as Kyara, a type of Agarwood that is worth more in weight than gold.
Incense was first used in Neolithic times, used more widely around 2000BC. Incense is also known to have been used by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians for cultural and religious purposes. The art and appreciation of fragrance has a history that dates back to ancient civilisations.
When Buddhist monks first arrived in Japan, they brought incense along with them from China. Incense was and still remains a core part of Buddhism and Buddhist ceremonies.
Initially, Japanese incense was imported from China as it was not as popular in Japan at that time. However, as its popularity increased (with the spread of Buddhism in Japan), specialist Japanese incense artisans started making their own incense which eventually became accessible to lay-people.
Some of the top Japanese incense companies have been producing specialist Japanese incense for over 300 years! Incense recipes have been passed down through generations and serve as the foundation of today’s incense manufacturers.
As Buddhism spread through the country (in the form of Zen) incense gained popularity and even lay-people began burning incense a means to create a calming ambience and fragrance a room. Towards the end of the 15th century, incense started to become more popular and vogue amongst the middle and upper classes.
As incense spread through the aristocracy around the beginning of the Edo period (1615-1868), ‘the way of incense’ (kōdō) became a popular pastime that involved appreciation of different incense scents and their ingredients. As kōdō became more widespread, incense sticks was popularized as a new accessible form to appreciate incense (as opposed to the traditional burning of wood chips and resins).
Today, Japanese incense is still used all over the world for religious, cultural and lay reasons. As well as the religious associations, the calming effects of incense also makes it a great means for relieving anxiety and stress and create a space for meditation and calm.
Source: The History of Japanese Incense: The Art of Fragrance