Incense is the most democratic of all scent enjoyments, writes Kiyoko Morita in her short but comprehensive work titled The Book of Incense: Enjoying the Traditional Art of Japanese Scents. While distilling roses or gathering ambergris was as expensive in antiquity as it is now, blending spices and aromatic woods was much more accessible even to those with small budgets. Certainly, incense made with the finest grades of agarwood can cost its weight in gold, but even the inexpensive varieties are excellent and comparable to the best perfumes in terms of complexity, elegance and balance.
Although incense for most European and American scent lovers is associated with the heavy sweetness of Indian nag champa, the world of combustible aromatics and their artisans is vast and diverse. My personal favorites come from Japan, and instead of sweetness, they place their accents on licorice and moss like notes. Sandalwood or various types of cedar provide the woody backdrop, and the rest is up to the blender’s imagination and your tastes. You can find Japanese incense with floral motifs, intertwining violets with woods, or edging towards mellow spices and ambers. Shoyeido is one of the most readily accessible Japanese brands in the US, and their website offers lots of choice (Autumn Leaves is especially recommended).
You can burn incense at any time of day. Japanese incense comes in sticks, cones or pellets, and the latter are especially convenient for perfuming the linen closet–just place a few unburned pieces of incense in a sachet and stick it among your clothes. Alternatively, hold your scarf or sweater over the incense smoke to create a lingering but soft sillage.
These are all quite practical uses, of course. According to a 16th century Zen Buddhist monks, incense has also other more profound virtues:
1. It brings communication with the transcendent.
2. It purifies mind and body.
3. It removes uncleanliness.
4. It keeps one alert.
5. It can be a companion in the midst of solitude.
6. In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.
7. When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
8. When there is little, one is satisfied.
9. Age does not change its efficacy.
10. Used everyday, it does no harm (Morita, p 104.)
Does this sound like an excellent reason to keep some incense on hand?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin
Which incense do you like? How do you use it?