It is hard to imagine our everyday life without fragrances. We live in an age of fragrances and surround ourselves with them. In fact, the use of perfumes is considered one of the main forms of self-expression. Fragrance for us is both an opportunity to express ourselves, and a way of communicating with other people. Along with perfumes, incense today also captures people’s hearts, and plays an increasingly important role in relaxation, healing, filling our time and space with specific qualities, and providing us with a sense of satisfaction.

Today, incense is considered sacred, and sometimes is used as an offering to God, but in other cases it can be used as a tool to bring peace to our lives. However, incense was a part of everyday life long before our highly stressful, modern society. Since ancient times it has helped people to calm down, concentrate, and look inwards.

As humanity has its history and culture, so aroma naturally, has its own history and culture. So how and when was the culture of incense, as we know it now, created?

The Art of Incense
As humanity has its history and culture, so does aroma © Nippon Kodo

When looking in depth, it’s about «Koh» — a systematized Japanese art of fragrance, which has no analogues in today’s world. The word «perfume» comes from the old French «perfumar» (where «re» means through, and «fumar» means smoking), which suggests that the art of perfumery, most likely began with the burning of incense.

The roots of what would one day become, «Koh» presumably began in the time of the Buddhist monk, Ganjin, most likely when he came to Japan from China in 754 AD, at the time of the Chinese Tang dynasty. This venerable monk, well known for introducing Buddhist precepts to Japan, had a significant role in the history of incense as well. Ganjin introduced the thriving incense culture of the Tang Chinese dynasty in Japan, through providing medical incense and mixed aromatic balls (Neriko).

Neriko was made of a medical incense powder, mixed with binders such as nectar and molasses. That kind of fragrance had not been used in Japan previously. To create scents people used regular medical incense. Since neriko was a mixture of ingredients, different mixtures created different fragrances. As a result, people began to create their favorite fragrances from the original ingredients. Incense was no longer used only as a religious offering, but had become a matter of personal taste, for those who wanted to enjoy soothing aromas.

The Art of Incense
«Listening to the fragrance» in state of inner peace © Nippon Kodo

This gave rise to the aesthetic, elegant art of takimono incense in Japan. During the Heian period (VIII – XII centuries), courtiers invented the distinctive takimono style, in search of elegant, refined fragrances for personal use. Depending on the occasion, mood, time, or season, different mixtures were used. «Takimonoawase» — the game of incense, whose members competed in creating the best fragrances, also began during this period. Unsatisfied with the ordinary, natural aromas of flowers and fruits, the courtiers created new fragrances, thereby giving the basis to a new special culture of incense, which was firmly tied to the awareness of the seasons.

Ultimately, this led to the development of «Koh». In the art of fragrance «Koh», which was finally formed during the Muromachi era in Japan (1338 1573), the differences of fragrances were described as, «listening to the fragrance», which means listening to the whisper of incense, in state of inner peace.

A commitment to creating beautiful incense is a long and respected tradition that can be traced back to Juemon Takai, better known as Koju, a skilled art expert and the main supplier of precious, rare, and refined fragrances to the Emperor of Japan and his court.

The Art of Incense
The noble art of flavor, as part of a refined way of life and culture © Nippon Kodo

Another successor to the incense culture is Nippon Kodo, a company, which continues to develop the world of fragrances, combining the latest technologies and traditional skills. Many of the wonderful flavors produced, to this day, have at their base, the unique recipes created by Koju.

Till nowadays, «Koh» still symbolize the noble art of flavor, as part of a refined way of life and culture, deeply connected with the Japanese way of feeling, as well as with Japanese literature and poetry.

Nippon Kodo continues to manufacture incense mainly by hand, as has been done for centuries.

High-quality natural raw materials are used as ingredients in the process of making incense. In the manufacturing process, natural resins of fine wood and floral ingredients are loaded into vats, where they are mixed with other organic, raw materials.

After, it is loaded into machines that squeeze long strings of incense, or turn them into cones and spirals. Then the chopsticks, cones, and spirals of incense are evenly cut and carefully laid in wooden forms, where they are left to dry. These forms are placed in a room with a controlled humidity and temperature criteria, in order to provide the necessary amount of air and light. The incense is left for a few days until it hardens, and after that it is collected and packaged.

Nippon Kodo products have unique flavors. These flavors are created by using carefully stored recipes, coupled with the sensitivity of modern Japanese perfumers with the best noses and instincts, who interpret and develop the tradition for creating exquisite products. It takes a lot of time to become a qualified master of incense.

The Art of Incense
Carefully stored recipes, coupled with the sensitivity of modern Japanese perfumers © Nippon Kodo

Carefully stored recipes, coupled with the sensitivity of modern Japanese perfumers © Nippon Kodo

To be qualified, they need to detect even very slight differences in weather, air, and natural aromatic materials. Furthermore, they need to have sensitive hands that can make tiny adjustments to the amount of moisture used during kneading. It is said that a true master of incense must have both strong senses and tender hands.

As successors to the tradition of incense, cultivated since the 16th century, the Japanese people have kept the culture of flavor. They have focused not only on specific areas, such as Buddhist ritual services, and the incense ceremony. Their attention has also been focused on recreational and health areas, where the functional aspects of fragrances are applied. The main goal of the noble art of incense in our time is to give people a sense of true inner peace, through the use of  fragrance.

Photos: courtesy of © Nippon Kodo

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