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Listening to the Aroma of Incense

Mr. Okumura guides me in the difficult process of choosing compatible incense beads.

In today’s time, most people are quite familiar with Japanese incense. We know it comes in different shapes, and sizes in a variety of aromas, serves a myriad of purposes and often provides the aromatic background for yoga and meditation classes that abound in NYC as well as people’s apartments. But how much do we know of the story behind this scented ornament?  I recently visited the Japanese gift store Kiteya SoHo for a workshop where customers could make their own incense sachet.  There, the lecturers from Shoyeido Incense Co., the 300-year old, time-honored incense producer from Kyoto, welcomed me into the wonderful world of Japanese incense.

The story of incense in Japan begins with its arrival from China in the 6th century along with other imports such as Buddhism and kampo (herbal) medicine.  Early on, incense was only an aristocratic luxury.  During this time it was popular to perfume letters as well as to infuse kimono fabric with the scent of incense.

The beads are then put into a paper pouch to combine the scents.

The familiar incense style of today first came into existence in the 1600s.  The senko, or the stick, form provided already-blended incense in an easy-to-use form at a price that people could afford and ushered in the widespread popularity of incense in Japan.  To the present, the senko is common in many Japanese Buddhist practices, whether it’s praying at temples or paying homage to ones ancestors at home.

At the workshop, I learned that, first and foremost, we need to be able to experience Japanese incense through all of our senses.  For instance, in English, we “smell incense” but in Japanese, people “listen to incense,” a concept called monkoh.  Then, the participants made their own incense sachet by choosing fifteen incense beads from a variety of options such as clove, lavender, cinnamon, patchouli and one simply called, Japanese fragrance.


With my sachet complete, I am ready to enjoy my scented handicraft at home!

Previously, when I would buy packages of ready-made incense, I always took a long time to pick just the right scent but now, having experienced the role of the incense-maker, I realized that choosing which ingredients to put into the incense is a much more difficult and challenging assignment, as a slight change in combination, proportions or quality of ingredients can result in a completely different final fragrance.

Thankfully, Mr. Okumura of Shoyeido Incense explained which incense beads give off an overwhelmingly strong scent and advised us not to combine more than one of this type.  Otherwise, we were free to choose the beads as we wished, depending on the scent we desired.

Incense comes in many forms, such as cone and coil, shown here.

Today, incense is available in different forms depending on the desired length of time, purpose and strength of scent.  For a small room, the common incense stick will suffice but a large, open space requires the coil-shaped incense, which burns longer – almost 8 times as much.  The scent of the cone shaped incense gets stronger as it burns and is ideal to scent in a little time.  Traditionally, people would enjoy the leftover scent of the burnt incense but nowadays, especially with the coil shape, you can enjoy the visual burning process as well as the aromatic after-effects.

The next time you want to gain mental clarity, revive your home with natural air fresheners or just set a certain kind of mood, light your favorite incense, close your eyes, inhale and listen with all of your senses.

——– Reported by Lisa Birzen

Shoyeido Corporation
1700 38th St., Boulder, CO 80301
TEL: 303-786-8000 / www.shoyeido.com
Incense products from Shoyeido are available at gift shops, natural and organic stores such as Whole Foods Market and at home product stores like Kiteya SoHo (464 Broome St., NYC).  They can also be purchased online through Shoyeido’s website shown above.