Incense making is both an art, and an ancient tradition in Japan. The people who make incense are called "Incense Blenders" and they serve long apprenticeships in the incense making craft before becoming "Master Blenders" It is not just a matter of "secret" recipes, techniques or creativity; although these all play a part. It also includes developing a refined sense of smell, and becoming knowledgeable about ingredients. These are intimate skills, not simply becoming familiar with the correct botanical nomenclature, those are the skills of botanists and biologists. Incense makers are intimate with the incense material on a whole other level. One that takes years of working with the materials themselves. Before we can really discuss making incense, we need to look at the types of incense that are still being produced in Japan today.
Shoko's (Chipped Incense)
The basis for shokos are the five basic ingredients from the Buddhist sutras: Aloeswood (Vairochana-Buddha Family) Clove (Akshobya -- Vajra or Wisdom Family) Sandalwood (Amitabha--Padma or Lotus Family) Turmeric (Amogasiddhi -- Karma Family) Borneol (Ratnasambhava--Ratna Family).
Shokos can be burned on charcoal or on incense base powder (makko). This was the first kind of incense in Japan. For some ceremonial practices any of the above might be used alone, or in combination. Other ingredients were sometimes substituted in religious practices, and today they usually contain more ingredients than the original five.
Zuko (Incense Powder)
Zuko is an incense powder used to purify the hands or body before incense offerings and other ceremonies. Like shokos it is often a singular powder like sandalwood, or a combintion of three or five ingredients, and like shokos today usually contain more than the original five ingredients.
Neriko's (Kneaded Incense Balls)
Neriko's are incense balls made from woods, spices, and herbs mixed with honey or plum meat and allowed to mature in jars. Neriko is used in the winter in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and is the incense mentioned in "The Tale of the Genji," and widely used in early times for perfuming the sleeves of Japanese nobles.
Koh Boku's (Incense Woods)
Incense woods like aloes wood became popular during the Kamakura period, (1185-1333) and were used alone. The variety and differences between various aloes woods furnished a wonderful selection for collectors to appreciate. Similar to collecting fine wines, the various types were collected and categorized, and eventually became the basis for the Kodo and Kumiko games that continue to this day. Koh Boku's are normally heated on a mica plate over a piece of bamboo charcoal.
Incense Making (Comprehensive Presentation on Making Incense)
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