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Explore the Art of Japanese Incense with Mai Iguchi

‘The way of incense’ in Japanese culture goes far beyond the sense of smell.

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“The traditional Japanese rituals all say to ‘listen’ to the incense,” notes Mai Iguchi, founder of the Japanese incense company Juttoku. “It isn’t just for smelling or looking at. You have to listen with your heart.” Iguchi stresses that the smoky fragrance is only part of what incense has to offer. At its roots, it’s a vehicle for personal transformation with spiritual, mental, and physiological benefits.

Ancient Japan had three arts of refinement that were connected to the improvement of a practitioner’s character: tea (cha-do), flower arrangement (ka-do), and incense (ko-do). The “Do” word in ko-do is the same as “Dao” in Chinese, which translates to “The Way.” When people talk about “the way of tea” or “the way of incense,” it goes beyond appreciating an art and becomes a path to improving oneself through the art.

Light a stick of incense in a quiet place. Watch the smoke stream upwards and expand. Smell the different woods and ingredients releasing their fragrance. Let your mind calm down as you breathe slowly through the nose. Then listen to what the incense has to say. It’s not important what you hear. It’s only important that you listen. The way of incense is a path to stillness, and stillness is the path to heaven.

awaji island
Awaji Island in Japan is home to some of the world’s best incense makers, with traditions stretching back over a thousand years.

Awaji Island

Japanese incense factories on Awaji Island date back to 1850, making them arguably the oldest manufacturers of incense on an industrial scale. However, that’s only their modern legacy; the island has been at the heart of Japanese incense culture for over 1,000 years.

Legend has it that that first piece of agarwood washed ashore on Awaji island in the year 595. As the wood burned on a beachside campfire, the smoke smelled so good that the people who found it saved the log and shared it with others. 

The island is separated from the mainland by only a mile on its western side, near the city of Kobe. To the east is the Akashi Strait, famous for its Naruto whirlpools, which have been immortalized in paintings and lore for hundreds of years. Perhaps the nature of these swirls in the water, made from the extreme tidal changes that ebb and flow twice a day, are present in the swirls of smoke that arise from the island’s incense.

Iguchi had been living an ordinary Japanese life, earning a salary at an IT company, when she realized she needed a change. She saw how the hectic lifestyle made people lose themselves, and she didn’t want to get any more lost than she already was. In 2009, she set off to Awaji Island to find a koh-shi, a master craftsman of incense. 

Once she felt confident in the “way of incense,” Iguchi drew upon the nearly forgotten heritage of her homeland and began to manufacture Awaji Island incense herself. It was as if the factory ancestors of the island gave her their blessing.

The way of Japanese incense

The masters of Awaji Island create their incense with sacred rituals in mind, knowing their sticks will be lit as a gift to the gods. “Incense purifies the space and mind. It’s about showing respect for the gods and having a sense of offering something to heaven,” Iguchi says in an interview with Magnifissance.

Gift-giving is an important part of Japanese culture, so gifts to the gods responsible for fate, fortune, and health must naturally be of the highest quality. The light smoke from a stick of incense should purify the environment and create an atmosphere for clear thinking and harmony between heaven and earth. The koh-shi have spent hundreds of years finding the best ingredients and production techniques to make these lofty goals possible, which is why their incense remains treasured by connoisseurs around the world.

japanese incense
Traditional Japanese incense is made only with natural ingredients as it has been done for centuries.

“Whenever I burn incense, it is its own ritual,” Iguchi says. “I immediately feel peaceful. In a small room, alone with the incense, I can understand myself. When people light incense, they can find their own space, their own self. We are all so influenced by technology and the distractions of the modern world, but with the help of incense, we go back to the state of a real human being.”

Even for the nonbeliever who isn’t interested in making an offering to gods or who thinks “purifying” the environment sounds superstitious, incense still has many benefits. There’s a growing body of research on the neurological impact of different smells, and many of the classic scents such as sandalwood and myrrh actually do stimulate the brain in very positive ways.

Similarly, creating rituals around positive emotions such as gratitude and having a calm mind does not require higher beliefs. When we incorporate incense into a ritual of calming down and experiencing positive thoughts, over time it becomes a powerful trigger to shift our state of mind from busy to tranquil.

Although we live in a time of unprecedented material abundance, we seem to be less grateful than previous generations, who gave thanks before every meal or as they lit their candles and incense in prayer.

The spiritual traditions of Japan and many other cultures teach us to find joy even in hardships and to be grateful for opportunities to strengthen our character. This sense of gratitude connects us to a higher power that witnesses our endurance through tough times and smiles upon us when times are good.

When we burn incense in a ritual offering, whether for spiritual or personal reasons, it becomes a conduit between realms, allowing us to share our human gratitude with the world beyond sensory perception. Incense is swung in hot censers in Western churches and burned as sticks in iron bowls in Japan. It’s an ethereal gift that blesses our senses with its fragrance on its journey to the heavens above.

The 10 virtues of incense

During Japan’s Muromachi Period (1336–1573), the benefits of incense were codified into 10 virtues.

感格鬼神  Sharpens the senses

清淨心身‭ ‬ Purifies body and spirit

能払汚穢  Eliminates pollutants (kegare)

能覚睡眠  Promotes alertness

靜中成友  Heals feelings of loneliness

塵裏愉閒Calms in turbulent times

多而不厭  Even in abundance, it’s not overwhelming

募而知足  When there is little, one is still satisfied

久蔵不朽 Will not decay even over centuries

常用無障  Does no harm, even if it’s used every day

How long did people spend meditating and discussing incense to arrive at such a clear articulation of what makes incense so special?

In our overstimulated age, we’ve become more detached from our senses. But if we think about our ancestors, who had limited access to materials and little knowledge of what was possible, it becomes easier to understand how deeply they would have connected to something as pleasing and potent as incense.

When we light a stick and sit quietly for a moment of gratitude, we’re not just connecting with ourselves, we’re connecting to the lineage of our ancestors who experienced those same feelings. The art of Japanese incense isn’t just the craft of blending fragrant woods or properly performing a ceremony. The art is in appreciating the entire journey of generations to arrive at a single moment of transformation

painting of ancient japanese incense
This Song Dynasty painting, Listening to the Qin, by Zhao Ji, shows a musician with incense burning next to him, setting the mood for a transcendent performance.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 106

Issue 106
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