On the Japanese Incense Trail with a Paris Detour

I’m sitting in front of smoldering 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 each out 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. The back of my head throbs slightly from jet lag, and I am being overwhelmed by the size of Tokyo and the strain of trying to remember Japanese covered by layers of other languages I’ve learned since my university days. I also feel anxious that I may not be able to guess the scents correctly, but then I remember my perfumery teacher’s words “don’t think, just smell,” and I let myself go.

I’m inside a Shoyeido incense store hidden in the elegant Aoyama district of Tokyo. Nearby are the glittering avenues of Harajuku, lined with fashion boutiques and populated by some of the most stylish people on the planet, but inside the earth toned store, there is only serenity and incense.

“Wafts through the summer night/The memory of scented sleeves/Of someone long ago,” wrote an anonymous eighth century poet. Incense in Japan has a long tradition, and the art of blending it has been refined to perfection. Kyara and jinko, different grades of aloeswood, are found in the most prized varieties, but sandalwood, clove, patchouli, camphor and numerous other spices and roots are used by incense makers.

Japanese incense has the complexity of a perfume, and as I sit surrounded by the pale curlicues of smoke, I’m suddenly reminded of a smoldering twist in Chanel No 22. This classical perfume made for a French couturier has little to do with Japan, but the beauty of scents is that one can make any association. The languid note of incense that reveals itself after the champagne sparkle of aldehydes and jasmine in No 22 has a polished Japanese aesthetic.

Similarly transporting is Guerlain’s Bois d’Arménie, a composition inspired by papier d’Arménie, a type of benzoin rich incense popular in France. Redolent of vanilla and cinnamon, benzoin is an important ingredient in Japanese incense, and Bois d’Arménie wouldn’t be out of place in Shoyeido’s collection.

Japanese incense has also directly inspired French perfumers. So sophisticated and elegant are its combinations that they can be made into a woody blend like Comme des Garçons Kyoto or a mossy accord as in L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha. Both perfumes were created by Bertrand Duchaufour, who not only gives them his trademark radiant touch, but also a serene, introspective character. One moment Kyoto smells like cedarwood shavings, and the next, it transforms into smoky patchouli and amber. Dzongkha has a mellow, cool character, but the layering of sweet and spicy notes is so delicate and so similar to the classical technique that whenever I put it on, I’m reminded of Shoyeido’s aromas.

Duchaufour obviously has a way with incense, because he has also authored another of my favorites, Aedes de Venustas Copal Azur. This luminous composition evokes for me the incense of the Senso-ji temple in Tokyo so vividly that I wonder if the perfumer was indeed thinking about it as he put together the formula.

The mild discomfort of kneeling brings me back to reality. The joss sticks are slowly crumbling into a pile of grey ashes and the woman is asking if I want to smell more. I will return the next day, I explain, and for now, I select two packages of incense, earthy rose and spicy sandalwood, and watch as she intricately wraps them in transparent paper. When I step out into the Tokyo evening, my own sleeves are scented with incense.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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33 Comments

  • deborah: Beautiful evocative piece, Victoria! I am inspired to bring it out again. I am appreciating rose more now, your packages sound delightful. I enjoy incense, particularly chunks of oud and sandalwood I bought while in Dubai. I picked up Elie Saab Le Parfum there, too. I like its warmth and perhaps is a little incense in there too, I like to think. June 3, 2019 at 10:02am Reply

    • Victoria: I like the incense note in Le Parfum too. It provides such a nice contrast. June 9, 2019 at 10:24am Reply

  • Geraldine Ethen: You have beautifully expressed the poetic and sensual nature of incense. May my sleeves bring with them a wafting of beautiful aroma. June 3, 2019 at 10:55am Reply

  • Abhi Rao: Such a lovely description of incense! I could almost experience a kodo. I do not comment on your blog, but read it regularly. Thank you for your generosity. 🙏🏽 June 3, 2019 at 10:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your comment. 🙂 June 9, 2019 at 10:25am Reply

  • Gabriela: Lovely article. You made me want to explore incense more! Such varieties to discover.

    Japan must be a fascinating country. June 3, 2019 at 11:51am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s so true. Incense can be as diverse as perfumes. June 9, 2019 at 10:25am Reply

  • Klaas: Another lovely post, Victoria. Thank you! June 3, 2019 at 12:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading, Klass. June 9, 2019 at 10:26am Reply

  • Tara C: I love incense and incense perfumes, Bertrand Duchaufour is naturally one of my favourite perfumers. Thank you for this lovely piece, I could see it and smell it in my imagination. June 3, 2019 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: He does incense so well, doesn’t he! June 9, 2019 at 10:26am Reply

  • Andy: The Shoyeido boutique sounds like a sanctuary. I have been meaning to try some incense from this brand for many years now, and to date have only tried the incense powder perfume (delightful!). Are there any particular Shoyeido blends you would recommend highly? June 3, 2019 at 2:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like Autumn Leaves very much. Have you tried it? June 9, 2019 at 10:26am Reply

      • Andy: I haven’t tried it, but I have heard this name before. This and River Path will be my first to try. June 11, 2019 at 11:28am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: I love incense perfumes, the CDG incenses being some of my favorites. June 3, 2019 at 2:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like Avignon very much. June 9, 2019 at 10:27am Reply

  • Muriel: Oh, Victoria, have you read the fiction by Didier Decoin “Le bureau des jardins et des étangs”, also translated in English “The Office of Gardens and Ponds”? It’s an olfactory/sensory novel set in Japan (XII century). I won’t spoil anything here, but your post reminded me of it 😉 Check it out if you have some free time! June 4, 2019 at 7:14am Reply

    • Victoria: You’ve read my mind! I downloaded it on Kindle from Amazon.fr a few days ago. Can’t wait to read it. June 4, 2019 at 7:19am Reply

      • Muriel: Oh great!! Tell me when you’ve read it! June 4, 2019 at 7:42am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s wonderful! I’m enjoying it. June 9, 2019 at 10:27am Reply

  • Fazal: You have become an amazing writer now. The way you describe your experiences and the surroundings, remind me very much of the prose styles usually encountered in short fiction. June 4, 2019 at 6:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, your comment means a lot to me. June 9, 2019 at 10:27am Reply

  • Pocketvenus: This sounds like a wonderful trip! A friend recently sent me some of Shoyeido’s Tale of Genji inspired incense sticks and they are delightfully rich. June 4, 2019 at 7:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: I have those too and I like to burn a couple of different ones at the same time–incense layering. June 9, 2019 at 10:28am Reply

  • JoDee: Wonderful post! The only incense I own is Thé de Lune from Marriage Frères, which I also learned about through this website. They are marvelous and so this post has inspired me to purchase a few Shoyeido incense sticks to expand my understanding of the subject. I ordered the Premium Incense Assortment, Joy, Moss Garden and Eternal Treasures. We’ll see how these are! Thanks for telling us about your adventures and travels! June 5, 2019 at 6:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear it. Please let me know how you like them. June 9, 2019 at 10:28am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Lovely article. Inspired me to order some Shoyeido incense. Like JoDee, I have ordered a sample collection. Can’t wait to smell them. I am not familiar with Japanese incense, so really curious to compare with Indian incense. June 6, 2019 at 3:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s more subtle, drier, but also with a vanilla-like note that rounds out the sharper notes. June 9, 2019 at 10:29am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

    Thanks for this lovely post. My 24-year-old niece, Mira, is currently in Japan with one of her friends. It is her first visit, and perhaps she will encounter some incense while she is there.

    Being such a Guerlain fan, I must try Bois d’Arménie sometime.

    Enjoy the remainder of your trip.

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline June 6, 2019 at 9:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: Bois d’Arménie is a beautiful perfume. Soft, enveloping, subtle, but with a good sillage. June 9, 2019 at 10:29am Reply

  • Satyen: Beautifully written post. Thank you! June 9, 2019 at 3:24am Reply

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