Japanese Incense : My Financial Times Magazine Column

In my new article for the Financial Times Magazine’s fragrance column, Perfumes with a Twist of Japanese Incense, I discover the pleasures of incense in Japan.

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I’m sitting in front of smouldering joss sticks trying to determine whether they smell of the milky sweetness of sandalwood or the raspy sharpness of cedar. A young woman with a glossy black bob lights one stick after another, blowing out each flame with a gentle wave of her hand. I’m unused to kneeling for so long, and I feel the crunch of tatami mats through my thin wool trousers. Please read the rest by clicking here.

As Kiyoko Morita explains in The Book of Incense, “unlike perfume, the fragrance of incense can be quite faint and subtle; so much so, in fact, that we can understand why the Chinese used the expression ‘listening to incense’ (wenxiang) rather ‘smelling incense’.” Even so, the delicate suggestion of Japanese incense can be found in some fragrances, whether it was deliberate or not. I mention a few such perfumes in my article.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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55 Comments

  • sara: it must have been a great experience! do you have any recommendations for incense sticks? i see many different brands at stores but i want something like japanese incense. October 20, 2014 at 8:22am Reply

    • Victoria: The brand I mentioned in the article, Shoyeido, sells incense outside of Japan, and it has many different varieties. It’s website has lots of advice for choosing scents. I recently tried their lotus leaf granulated incense (it contains sandalwood, cinnamon, cloves) and it smells just heavenly. October 20, 2014 at 9:56am Reply

      • Matt: I have Shoyeido’s Plum Blossoms. It smells like sandalwood despite the name. Too bad I have only 4 sticks left in the package and it’s out of stock. October 20, 2014 at 11:23am Reply

        • Victoria: It sounds very nice. I love sandalwood in incense (and in perfume, of course). October 20, 2014 at 2:18pm Reply

  • Matt: Attending a kodoh ceremony is my dream! October 20, 2014 at 8:47am Reply

    • Victoria: I would love to do that too. I didn’t quite attend the incense ceremony, more like spending a long evening with a friend smelling different incenses. It was still wonderful, though. My friend took me to several different boutiques in Tokyo, but that store was particularly charming. October 20, 2014 at 9:57am Reply

  • Annikky: I think this is one of your best articles ever – and I don’t even like incense that much (I generally prefer it in a supporting role). I’m excited to try the new Aedes de Venustas, though. I think they are doing a really good job with their scents. October 20, 2014 at 9:06am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Annikky!
      I can relate to this. I adore the smell of incense, but in perfumes, I also prefer it to be a minor player rather than the star. On the other hand, many of my favorites have a touch of incense to make things a bit more intriguing. October 20, 2014 at 10:00am Reply

  • Solanace: Congratulations, Victoria! Beautifully written.
    With our presidential election approaching, I’m getting super anxious and will be looking for some peace of mind in my CdG incense sampler set… October 20, 2014 at 9:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! It was such a beautiful evening.

      My best wishes to you! Ukrainian elections are set for this week, so some anxiety in those quarters too… October 20, 2014 at 10:04am Reply

      • solanace: So we are together in this! God bless us all. October 20, 2014 at 10:51am Reply

        • Victoria: Fingers crossed! October 20, 2014 at 11:11am Reply

          • solanace: Wearing Jalsamer because of your article. Lovely stuff, I can’t stop smelling my wrist. October 20, 2014 at 6:54pm Reply

            • Victoria: That’s an excellent incense perfume! It was one of the first incenses I’ve tried, I think. October 21, 2014 at 8:56am Reply

  • Cath: I love incense, it’s one my greatest pleasure to pick some up whenever I visit a temple. I’ve been a fan of Shoyeido for years, was led into their store near Kiyomizudera by the scent of their Horikawa incense. I followed my nose, found the store, asked the shop attendant what they were burning and got myself the large box with 80 sticks. I am never without Horikawa, even if I have a multitude of other incense sticks, this is the one that brings me most comfort and serenity. The aroma also lasts for hours, sometimes I can still smell it a day or two later, it’s there, faintly in the air, maybe in the curtains or furniture.
    Last year I worked in Kyoto (the job was hell) and on my lunch break I would often take the 10 minute walk to the Shoyeido main store near Nijo to get a moment of peace. Of course I never left the store without buying anything. I’m glad I quit the job, but I do miss being in walking distance of the Shoyeido main store. October 20, 2014 at 10:01am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t think I’ve tried Horikawa (I’m adding it to my list), but I love their Kunro incense. They have several types, but invariably, whenever I smell it–and it lingers so well, I feel so content.

      Speaking of Kyoto, I would love any recommendations of your favorite places there, for incense, tea or anything else interesting. October 20, 2014 at 10:08am Reply

  • irem: May I ask what brand that beautifully presented incense in the photo is? The one with the green sticks and yin incense holder.
    I am familiar with Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo and buy both brands as gifts for my husband who loves incense. I also splurged a few times on Mariage Freres incense, but I did not come across something that excited me as much as your green incense.

    Wonderful article – as always. October 20, 2014 at 10:17am Reply

    • Victoria: You know, I don’t remember, because I threw away the elaborate outer wrapper. I will ask a friend who gave it to me.

      How did you like Mariage Freres incense? I’ve been curious about it myself. October 20, 2014 at 11:04am Reply

      • irem: Mariage Freres has simply that French touch of Luxury. To me it is like a Chanel makeup item, the name, the packaging, the presentation add to the experience and the price tag, in part beyond justification. The incense itself is very well made, has a good throw and smells surprisingly natural, almost traditional. I was expecting “fragranced incense” (if my description makes sense) but not so. Yet there is something special about it. Even my husband presented with a single stick of the MF commented positively and asked me if there is more. So its not only smokes and mirrors I guess. October 20, 2014 at 11:55am Reply

        • Victoria: I just browsed their website, and they have so many tempting options. Encre de The, combining the scents of ink and tea, sounds especially enticing. I don’t know what I love more, the idea of a scent like that or the image of practicing calligraphy while drinking tea. 🙂 October 20, 2014 at 2:26pm Reply

  • Aurora: What a brilliant article thank you so much for posting it: I was magically transported from the office to a street in Tokyo. I love the way the scented sleeves quoted early on appear again at the end.

    Now I must get my paws on Japanese incense, at the moment I only have Indian. Off to check out Shoyeido online. And I like very much an incense note in perfume, you list several I didn’t know about and it is very timely as I associate incense with autumn and winter. October 20, 2014 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Aurora! I love that poem, and here is the full version:
      Fragrance of the orange.
      Flowering at last in June
      Wafts through the summer night
      The memory of scented sleeves
      Of someone long ago.

      I know that Japanese incense is sometimes contrasted with Indian, with a note that Indian incense is coarse, unrefined, etc., but I’ve realized that the most common Indian incense types are cheap, artificial products. Good quality Indian incense has all of the nuance and complexity of the Japanese variety. What’s really different is how much anise-like spices and camphor the Japanese incense uses, and these ingredients give it a very specific scent. October 20, 2014 at 11:09am Reply

  • Aurora: Oh and I could burn papier d’Armenie all day long the ones I know come in measly little sheets. October 20, 2014 at 10:32am Reply

    • Victoria: I love papier d’Armenie! After I returned from Japan, I realized that it smells very much like many types of Japanese incense. Benzoin used in both paper d’Armenie and many Japanese incense types has such a warm, sweet, vanilla-like scent. I can’t get enough of it. October 20, 2014 at 11:11am Reply

  • chamekke: What a treat this was to read! I love Japanese incense, and have been searching for years for a Western perfume that will come close to capturing the sheer gorgeousness of a good-quality Japanese aloeswood incense. (No luck yet though.)

    I’m a big fan of Baieido, but also love incenses from Shoyeido, Kyukyodo, Tennendo, and Gyokushodo. (These last 3 are harder to find outside Japan but fortunately they’re beginning to be distributed by a handful of Western vendors, especially in sample packs.)

    Kyoto is definitely a wonderful place to explore incense – you can learn how to ‘listen’ to incense in a kodo cup in traditional Incense Ceremony style at the main Shoyeido shop, or wander the aisles of beautifully crafted goods at the Kyukyodo store at Teramachi-dori.

    The best resource I’ve found on Japanese incense in English is the Olfactory Rescue Service blog (olfactoryrescueservice.wordpress.com). There are literally dozens of incense reviews, which can be overwhelming, so I always start with the Hall of Fame: Japanese Incense page as it’s handily sorted by price range. October 20, 2014 at 11:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for the link. What a terrific resource, and you’re right, the variety is overwhelming. I’m now reminded how a perfume newbie feels–all of these brands, terms, descriptions, options. 🙂

      I’ve heard very good things about Kyukyodo, but I haven’t tried anything from them. Adding it to my list as well! October 20, 2014 at 2:21pm Reply

      • Kami: Shoyeido is more well-known outside of Japan, but I like Kyukyodo’s incense more. If you want very good kyara incense, theirs offers the best value for your money. October 20, 2014 at 4:34pm Reply

        • Victoria: I will definitely try it when I have a chance! October 21, 2014 at 8:53am Reply

  • iodine: Scented sleeves…
    Thank you for the beautiful article.
    I’m not a fan of incense myself, I sometimes find it a bit irritating for my airways and generally prefer candles, but I like to light a stick after having cleaned up the house. I currently have some Japanese cedar- hinoki- sticks that smell beautifully clean and warm- I found that very note in Perfume d’Empire Yuzu Fou, which is indeed inspired by Japanese Empire! October 20, 2014 at 11:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Hinoki is such a wonderful scent, and whenever a perfume description mentions it, I instantly want to try it. I just realized that I’ve never smelled Yuzu Fou. Is it a citrus cologne? October 20, 2014 at 2:23pm Reply

      • iodine: Well, not really a “cologne”- quite long lasting and complex, as most of Corticchiato’s fragrances (biiiiig fan, here!). Someone made references to Eau Sauvage or similar. It’s not a fragrance I would wear, anyway but I like its grapefruit- yuzu- soft woods accord. October 20, 2014 at 2:56pm Reply

        • Victoria: I definitely need to sample it. I can’t believe I’ve missed it so far. October 20, 2014 at 4:04pm Reply

  • Jenny: I loved this article. It made me imagine the whole experience. My husband has asthma and I try not to burn incense or scented candles at home but I love their smell. Incense is soothing and calming. October 20, 2014 at 11:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Jenny. Yes, some people can be very sensitive to strong scents. My mom doesn’t like any incense or candles burning, for instance, although she loves perfume. October 20, 2014 at 2:24pm Reply

  • Annette Reynolds: What a beautifully written article, Victoria. I’m always overwhelmed by the subject of your pieces: a perfume review, a flower, something baked, an unexpected seasoning in a fragrance, and now incense.
    The only incense I’ve come in contact with was the old-fashioned conical Indian type that I used to burn back in the late 60’s/early 70’s. There were some gorgeous fragrances back then. I seem to have a hard time recreating that exact moment in time when I buy the newer styles of incense.
    But I don’t think I’ve ever tried Japanese incense, and so now want to desperately!
    I learn so much from your pieces that I can barely keep up! Thank you… October 20, 2014 at 12:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it, Annette! Anything scented catches my attention, I suppose. 🙂 Incense is such an art, just like perfume, and Japanese artisans refined it it even further. Some of the brands mentioned in the thread can be found easily outside of Japan, and they have many different varieties, in all price ranges. October 20, 2014 at 2:29pm Reply

  • Joy: This is such an interesting article. the only experience that I have had with incense has been the wafts I catch as I walk through San Francisco China Town, or in cheap gift shops. When I have purchased any of these, it has made me cough and been quite noxious. I will be interested to discover some of these subtle, interesting scents. The paper packages that they come in are beautiful.
    Your articles are such an education every day. I just savor reading them. October 20, 2014 at 12:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: I have a story about incense and San Francisco Chinatown. Once I visited there and saw such a beautiful carved wood treasure chest that I had to buy it. It was thoroughly perfumed with incense, and whatever I’d store there would catch the scent too. When I started grad school, I had to sell all of my furniture in order to move to another state, but I was reluctant to sell the treasure chest. I just gave it to a family friend. Apparently, they also noticed the smell of incense (thankfully, they liked it).
      Thank you so much, Joy! October 20, 2014 at 2:34pm Reply

      • Joy: So interesting that you should mention the scented chest, Victoria. When my uncle was in the Navy in the 50’s and would come home on leave, he would always bring the most lovely gifts to my mother, sister and me. I recall beautiful hand painted fans and jewelry boxes that had inlaid mother-of-pearl tops. The interesting thing about all of these gifts is that they all had a special fragrance that was the same. My sister and I thought it was the smell of Japan. When he would bring us something, we would ask each other, ” does it smell like Japan”? After your story, I am guessing that these items came from shops that burned incense which scented the items. I have not been to Japan, but still think of the whole country as having the fragrance of our jewelry boxes and fans.
        I will be in San Francisco in a couple of weeks. I am going to make a trip to Japan Town to check out some of the little shops. October 21, 2014 at 4:34pm Reply

        • Victoria: Your story is so poignant, and it reminded me of gifts my father’s friend would bring from India. I realized it only later that they smelled of patchouli.

          I bought Shoyeido incense from Japan Town in SF, but I don’t remember which store it was. Happy hunting! October 22, 2014 at 10:56am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Although I love incense only in perfume, i enjoyed the poetry of your article. October 20, 2014 at 2:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Cornelia! October 20, 2014 at 2:37pm Reply

  • Lindsay: This was so lovely and evocative. Scented sleeves – beautiful! October 20, 2014 at 3:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: I just love the imagery that poem creates, so wistful and poignant. Glad that you liked the article! October 20, 2014 at 4:05pm Reply

      • Lindsay: You know I’ve never been lucky enough to smell Japanese incense (now on my list!), but this has also reminded me of how I enjoyed the Guerlain home fragrance incense sticks (long since discontinued I think), my favourite was the Hiver en Russie as the scent lent itself perfectly to lighting incense, I still have surviving one I am keeping, just to smell for now! October 21, 2014 at 4:03pm Reply

  • Kami: Beautiful! You made me miss my Tokyo. October 20, 2014 at 4:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: Tokyo is such an incredible city. I hope to return soon. October 21, 2014 at 8:52am Reply

  • Andy: How I love the subtlety of Japanese incense. Have you tried any of the powdered incense perfumes before? I think I had seen that Shoyeido sells such a product, and the sheer idea of rubbing little bits of subtly perfumed powder here and there as one’s scent sounds so sensual. October 20, 2014 at 7:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried the powdered incense perfumes, but I saw them on Shoyeido’s website and they seems interesting. There were many times when I was tempted to crush my incense sticks and just rub them onto my wrists. 🙂 October 21, 2014 at 8:57am Reply

  • kaori: Beautifully written, as always! I will try Aedes de Venustas’ Copal Azur soon, and also I like their Iris Nazarena very much.

    In my opinion, fall is the best season for burning an incense 🙂 October 20, 2014 at 9:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Kaori! I also like the touch of incense in Iris Nazarena, which is so unusual and unexpected next to the cool iris.

      Yes, I rarely burn much incense in the summer, but these days it feels just perfect. October 21, 2014 at 8:58am Reply

  • Elizabeth: I love how you closed the piece… October 21, 2014 at 7:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Elizabeth! It felt appropriate. 🙂 October 21, 2014 at 9:08am Reply

  • Gloria Lopez: An articles, that is like a poem. Thanks for taking us to that great experience! October 21, 2014 at 5:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very happy to share it. All of these scents were so beautiful and inspiring. October 22, 2014 at 10:53am Reply

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