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The Way of Incense

Excerpts from a presentation on Japanese incense and the incense ceremony by perfume historian David Pybus.

Given in January 2004 to the Japan Society Oriental Club, London

The full story is given in the book "Kodo," written by David Pybus, and published by Tuttle, Chicago. The book, packed and lavishly illustrated by Ivy Press UK, comes with two sets of incense burners in the shape of the sun and moon, and two sets of incense, one formulated to relax, and one set to stimulate.

The fine incense discussed by Mr. Pybus is available from Baieido. 

The Way of Incense

"Smells are sure than sights or sounds
To make the heartstrings crack"
Rudyard Kipling

There are three "ways" of incense. Firstly the way up your nose of the aromatic smoke, and how it affects your brain. Secondly, the way of incense, or incense trail that was indeed the Silk Road from Egypt to China, and onwards to Japan, picking up and trading the raw materials of incense on the way, and thirdly, the incense ceremony itself. Everyone has heard of Sado, the tea ceremony, but few are aware of Kodo, even though it was developed on the command of the same Emperor and ostensibly for the same reasons of culture, and calming the samurai with aesthetic pursuits. In this short talk and demonstration I intend covering all three aspects.

Being a perfume historian I have always been fascinated by the story of incense. Perfume itself gets its appellation from the latin "per fumum," meaning "through" or "by" smoke, as it was in this way that we prayed to our Gods, whatever their names, in ancient times. Our ancestors believed that only the smoke of incense could cross the invisible barrier between heaven and earth, and so, if you wanted your prayers of victory in love or war to be answered favorably, then you sweetened those same words with delicate aromas, and sent them heaven-bound.

Around two thirds of our planet still burn incense to their Gods.

The religions of, Shinto, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism Animalist and parts of the High Church of England and Roman Catholic Christian religions burn incense. In Islam, Mohammed the Prophet said that three things were precious to him- women, prayer and perfume, and it is written that angels draw near to hear prayers, attracted by the sweet aromas of incense and perfume. Some mosques still bear the faint smell of musk, imbued in the mortar of their brickwork, and the House of God, whether his name be Aton, Jehovah or Allah, was meant to smell divine, as they did.

The new science of Aromachology recognizes that different aromas affect the brain differently. This fact was well known to the ancients, and in particular to the cultures of China and Japan, which mixed and matched around two dozen different natural raw materials, - gums, resins, woods, balsams and roots to both stimulate and relax the mind, depending on the formulation. Think about it. When you go to your place of prayer all the senses are brought to the fore and given a heightened state. In the Christian religion, for example, there is the visual stimulation of the vaulted arches and gigantic masonry, as well as the sparkling lights through stained glass windows. Incense provides olfactory stimulation, whilst the intonation of prayers and singing of hymns heighten the acoustic senses. Finally touch and taste are provided in the eating of the host. Have you ever wondered how Buddhist monks find a state of transcendental meditation. No doubt practice makes perfect, but the smoke of incense changes the brain waves in a beneficial way, and provides a smooth path to enlightenment. In modern times we see evidence of aromachology in air conditioning units in Japan, which apparently allow people to type faster with fewer mistakes, or in "smellak" pumped out in shops, the aroma of fresh bread and piping hot coffee literally leading people by the nose to purchase.

Where I live, around Folkestone in Kent, England, we were once home to a famous person. Sir John Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood in our bodies. John Harvey was able to do this as he was given a bursary by his family to attend medical school. His family were able to do this because they traded along the Silk Road, and if you look at the crest of Sir John Harvey (q,v.) you will see the mountainous seas and perilous mountains that his ships and traders had to traverse to literally bring the money in.

The Silk Road linked Europe with the Isles of Japan. It was along this road, which took up to four years to traverse, that traders trod their course at the pace of a camel or packhorse. The forked land route was infested by robbers, the sea route by pirates except in the time of the great Kublai Khan whose word was both law and protection throughout these lands.

In the stories of Marco Polo he expresses a keen interest in the materials of fine incense, speaking of the sandalwoods and ambergris of the Indian Ocean, and musk from Tibet, which he himself stuffed down his codpiece as protection against theft. To make a perilous and arduous journey along the Silk Road, you needed to have something light, which the pack animals could easily carry, and also something precious, with which you could make a fortune to match the risks. Silk of course, was a prime article, from which the Road itself got its name, but incense came a clear second.

The route from Europe traversed high mountain ranges at the back of the Himalayas, the road itself being higher than the highest peaks of Europe, and through countries which even today have more than their fair share of troubles - Turkey, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Iraq, Iran Hindustan, Tibet, China and Mongolia. Romance is evoked in names such as Samarkand, Takmalakan, Jade Gate, Gobi, Karakorum, and Xanadu, which straddled the routes. A modern traveler would perhaps find these beautiful but troubled lands just as much a challenge to walk through as did the indomitable Polos, whose original fortune stemmed from Saffron. Side routes joined up with the Silk Road, and at wayside oases born of the spring melt of snows from the high Himalayas, rich aromatics were traded in abundance.

The key materials of fine incense, with their sources, are briefly as follows:

Cistus labdanum Mediterranean (plant incense of similar aroma to ambergris)
Shellfish Opercula , Mediterranean
Cedar - Atlas Mountains , Lebanon
Frankincense - Arabia Felix
Myrhh - Arabia Felix
Opoponax - Arabia Felix
Bdellium - Arabia Felix
Clove - Zanzibar
Cinnamon - Madagascar
Ambergris - Indian Ocean (vomit of sperm whale)
Galbanum - Afghanistan, Persia (Iran)
Vetiver - India
Sandalwood - India
Patchouli - India
Costus - Himalayas
Spikenard - Himalayas
Musk - Tibet, Nepal
Aloeswood (also known as Agarwood, Eaglewood) - Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam
Camphor - Indonesia
Potassium Nitrate (guano- bird droppings – China or natural deposits (as burn enhancer) -
Star Anise - China
Cassia (Chinese Cinnamon) - China
Hinoki Wood - Japan
Natural colorants - Throughout the route

By mixing and matching these two dozen ingredients in secret formulations which have been guarded for centuries, the Japanese have excelled in an aromatic art that has no equal in any other country of the world

The Takmalakan and its bigger brother the Gobi were particular barriers, and not many traversed the whole route of the Silk Road, preferring to trade at stages, such as the Jade Gate beyond the Great Wall, and return on a regular basis. Takmalakan is a Uigur word which essentially means" he who goes in does not come out!"- a fitting name for an 800 mile stretch of sand dunes, some over a thousand feet high, beneath which lie buried whole cities.

Once there was a man burning incense
He noticed that the fragrance
Was neither coming nor going.
It neither appeared, nor disappeared.
This trifling incident
Led him to gain enlightenment

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Last updated: October 17, 2017
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