Incense Chapter

"In Ghostly Japan"




By Lafcadio Hearn


Edited and revised with notations by David Oller

Part One

I see rising out of darkness, a lotos in a vase. Most of the vase is invisible; but I know that it is bronze, and that its glimpsing handles are bodies of dragons. Only the lotos is fully illuminated: three pure white flowers, and five great leaves of gold and green,-- gold above, green on the up curling under-surface, an artificial lotos. It is bathed by a slanting stream of sunshine; -- the darkness the darkness beneath and beyond is the dusk of a temple-chamber. I do not see the opening through which the radiance pours; but I am aware that it is a small window shaped in the outline-form of a temple bell. The reason that I see the lotos -- one memory of my first visit to a Buddhist sanctuary--is that there has come to me an odor of incense. Often when I smell incense, this vision defines; and usually thereafter other sensations of my first day in Japan revive in swift succession with almost pain acuteness.

It is almost ubiquitous, -- this perfume of incense. It makes one element of the faint but complex and never-to-be-forgotten odor of the Far East. It haunts the dwelling-house not less than the temple,-- the home of the peasant not less than the yashiki of the prince. Shinto shrines, indeed, are free from it;--incense being an abomination to the elder gods. But wherever Buddhism lives there is incense. In every house containing a Buddhist shrine or Buddhist tablets, incense is burned at certain times; and in even the rudest country solitudes you will find incense smouldering before wayside images, -- little stone figures of Fudo, Jizo, or Kwannon. Many experiences of travel, -- strange impressions of sound as well as of sight, -- remain associated in my own memory with that fragrance: -- vast silent shadowed avenues leading to weird old shrines; -- mossed flights of worn steps ascending to temples that moulder above the clouds; -- joyous tumult of festival nights; -- sheeted funeral-trains gliding by in glimmer of lanterns; -- murmur of household prayer in fisherman's huts on far wild coasts; -- and visions of desolate little graves marked only by threads of blue smoke ascending, -- graves of pet animals or birds remembered by simplehearts in the hour of prayer to Amida, the Lord of Immeasurable Light.

But the odor of which I speak is that of cheap incense only, -- the incense in general use. there are many other kinds of incense; and the range of quality is amazing. A bundle of common incense rods -- (they are almost a thick as an ordinary pencil lead, and somewhat longer) -- can be bought for a few sen; while a bundle of better quality, presenting to inexperienced eyes only some difference in color, may cost several yen, and be cheap at the price. Still costlier sorts of incense, -- veritable luxuries, -- take the form of lozenges, wafers, pastilles1 ; and a small envelope of such material may be worth four or five pounds sterling. But the commercial and industrial questions relating to Japanese incense represent the least interesting part of a remarkably curious subject

Part Two

Curious indeed, but enormous by reason of its infinity of tradition and detail. I'm afraid even to think of the size of the volume that would be needed to cover it. . . .Such a work would properly begin with some brief account of the earliest knowledge and use of aromatics in Japan. It would next treat of the records and legends of the first introduction of Buddhist incense from Korea,--when King Shomyo of Kudara, in 551 A.D., sent to the island-empire a collection of sutras, and image of the Buddha, and one complete set of furniture for a temple. Then something would have to be said about those classifications of incense which were made during the tenth century, in the periods of Engi and of Tenryaku,--and about the report of the ancient state-councillor, Kimitaka-Sangi, who visited China in the latter part of the thirteenth century, and transmitted to the Emperor Yomei the wisdom of the Chinese concerning incense. Then mention should be made of the ancient incenses still preserved in various Japanese temples, and of the famous fragments of Ranjatai2 (publicly exhibited at Nara in the tenth year of Meiji) which furnished supplies to the three great captains, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Iyeyasu. after this should follow an outline of the history of mixed incenses in Japan,--with notes on the classifications devised by the luxurious Takauji, and on the nomenclature established later by Ashikaga Yoshimasa3 who collected one-hundred and thirty varieties of incense and invented for the more precious of them names recognized even to this day, such as "Blossom Flowering," "Smoke-of-Fuji," and "Flower of the pure Law." Examples ought to be given likewise of traditions attaching to historical incenses preserved in several princely families; together with specimens of those hereditary recipes for incense making which have been transmitted from generation to generation through hundreds of years, and are still called after the august inventors,--as "the Method of Sento-In," etc. Recipes also should be given of those strange incenses made "to imitate the perfume of the lotus, the smell of the summer breeze, and the odor of the autumn wind." some luxury should be cited,--such as the story of Sue Owari-no-Kami, who built himself a palace of incense woods, and set fire to it on the night of his revolt, when the smoke of its burning perfumed the land to a distance of twelve miles. . .Of course the mere compilation of materials for a history of mixed-incenses would entail the study of a host of documents, treatises, and books,--particularly of such strange works as the Kun-Shu-Rui-Sho, or "Incense-Collectors-Classifying-Manual" ; --containing the teachings of the Ten Schools of the Art of Mixing Incense; directions as to the best seasons for incense-making; and instructions about the "different kinds of fire" to be used for burning incense--(one kind is called the "literary fire" and another "military fire"); together with rules for pressing the ashes of a censer into various artistic designs corresponding to season and occasion. . .a special chapter should certainly be given to the incense-bags (kusadama) hung up in houses to drive away goblins,--and to the smaller incense-bags formerly carried about the person as a protection against evil spirits. then a very large part of the work would have to be devoted to the religious uses and legends of incense, a huge subject in itself. There would also have to be considered the curious history of the old "incense-assemblies," whose elaborate ceremonial could be explained only by the help of numerous diagrams. One chapter at least would be required for the subject of ancient importation of incense-materials from India, China, Annam4, Siam, Cambodia, Ceylon, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and various islands of the Malay archipelago,--places all named in rare books about incense. a final chapter should treat the romantic literature of incense, and the poems, stories, and dramas in which incense-rites are mentioned; especially those love-songs comparing the body to incense, and passion to the eating flame:-- "Even as burns the perfume lending my robe its fragrance, smoulders my life away, consumed by the pain of longing!"

The merest outline of the subject is terrifying! I shall attempt nothing more than a few notes about the religious, the luxurious, and the ghostly uses of incense.

Part Three

The common incense everywhere burned by the people before Buddhist icons is called an-soku-ko. This is very cheap. Great quantities of it are burned by pilgrims in the bronze censers set before the entrances of famous temples; and in front of roadside images you may often see bundles of it. These are for the use of pious wayfarers, who pause before every Buddhist image on their path to repeat a brief prayer and, when possible, to set a few rods smouldering at the feet of the statue. But in rich temples, and during great religious ceremonies, much more expensive incense is used. Altogether three classes of perfumes are employed in Buddhist rites: ko, or incense proper, in many varieties--(the word means only "fragrant substance");--dzuko5, an odorous ointment; and makko6, a fragrant powder. Ko is burned; dzuko is rubbed upon the hands of the priest as an ointment of purification; and makko is sprinkled about the sanctuary. This makko is said to be identical with the sandalwood powder so frequently mentioned in the Buddhist texts.

But it is the only true incense which can be said to bear an important relation to the religious service. "Incense," declares the Soshi-Ryaku, "is the Messenger of Earnest Desire. When the rich Sudatta wished to invite Buddha to a repast, he made use of incense. He was wont to ascend to the roof of his house on the eve of the day of the entertainment, and to remain standing there all night, holding a censer of precious incense. And as often as he did thus, the Buddha never failed to come on the following day at the exact time desired.

This text plainly implies that incense, as a burnt offering, symbolizes the pious desires of the faithful. But it symbolizes other things also; and it has furnished many remarkable similes to Buddhist literature. some of these, and not the least interesting, occur in prayers, of which the following, from a book called Hoji-san ("The Praise of Pious Observances.") is a striking example:

"Let my body remain pure like a censer! Let my thought be ever as a fire of wisdom, purely consuming the incense of sila7 and of dhyana, that so may I do homage to all the Buddhas in the Ten Directions of the Past, the Present, and the Future."

Sometimes in Buddhist sermons the destruction of Karma by virtuous effort is likened to the burning of incense by a pure flame, sometimes, again, the life of a man is compared to the smoke of incense. In his "Hundred Writings" (Hyaku-tsu-kiri-kami), the Shinshu priest Myoden says, quoting form the Buddhist work Kujikkajo8, or "ninety articles": "In the burning of incense we see that so long as any incense remains, so long does the burning continue, and the smoke mount skyward. Now the breath of this body of ours, this impermanent combination of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, is like that smoke. and the changing of the incense into cold ashes when the flame expires is an emblem of the changing of our bodies into ashes when our funeral pyres have burnt themselves out."

He also tells us about that Incense-Paradise of which every believer ought to be reminded by the perfume of earthly incense: "In the Thirty-Second Vow for attainment of the Paradise of Wonderful Incense," he says, "it is written: 'That Paradise is formed of hundreds of thousands of different kinds of incense, and of substances incalculably precious; the beauty of it incomparably exceeds anything in the heavens or in the sphere of man; the fragrance of it perfumes all the worlds of the Ten directions of Space; and all who perceive that odor practice Buddha-deeds.' In ancient times there were men of wisdom and virtue who, by reason of their vow, obtained perception of the odor; but we who are born with inferior wisdom and virtue in these later days, cannot obtain such perception. Nevertheless it will be well for us, when we smell the incense kindled before the image of Amida, to imagine that its odor is the wonderful fragrance of Paradise, and to repeat the Nembutsu in gratitude for the mercy of the Buddha."

Part Four

But the use of incense in Japan is not confined to religious rites and ceremonies: indeed the costlier kinds of incense are manufactured chiefly for social entertainment's. Incense-burning has been an amusement of the aristocracy ever since the thirteenth century. Probably you have heard of the Japanese tea ceremonies, and their curious Buddhist history; and I suppose that every foreign collector of Japanese bric-a-brac knows something about the luxury to which these ceremonies at one period attained, a luxury well attested by the quality of the beautiful utensils formerly employed in them. But there were, and still are, incense ceremonies much more elaborate and costly than the tea ceremony, and also much more interesting. Besides music, embroidery, poetical composition and other branches of the old-fashioned female education, the young lady of the pre-Meiji days was expected to acquire three especially polite accomplishments, -- the art of arranging flowers, (ikebana), the art of ceremonial tea-making (cha-no-yu), and the etiquette of incense-parties (ko-kwai or ko-e). Incense-parties were invented before the time of the Ashikaga9 shoguns, and were mostly in vogue during the peaceful period of the Tokugawa10 rule. With the fall of the shogunate they went out of fashion; but recently they have to some extent revived. It is not likely, however, that they will again become really fashionable in the old sense,--partly they represented rare forms of social refinement that never can be revived, and partly because of their costliness.

In translating ko-kwai as "incense party," I use the word party in the meaning that it takes in such compounds as "card party," "whist-party," "chess-party"; for a ko-kwai11 is a meeting held only with the object of playing a game, a very curious game. there are several kinds of incense-games; but in all of them the contest depends upon the ability to remember and to name different kinds of incense by the perfume alone. That variety of ko-kwai called Jitchu-ko ("ten-burning-incense") is generally conceded to be the most amusing; and I shall try to tell you how it is played. The number "ten," in the Japanese, or rather Chinese name of this diversion, does not refer to ten kinds, but only ten packages of incense; for Jitchu-ko, besides being the most amusing, is the very simplest of incense-games, and is played with only four kinds of incense.One kind must be supplied by the guests invited to the party; and three are furnished by the person who gives the entertainment. Each of the latter three supplies of incense--usually prepared in packages containing one hundred wafers--is divided into four parts; and each part is put into a separate paper numbered or marked so as to indicate the quality. Thus four packages are prepared of the incense classed as #1 four of incense #2, and four of incense #3, or twelve in all. But the incense given by the quests, always called "guest-incense" -- is not divided: it is only put into a wrapper marked with an abbreviation of the Chinese character signifying "guest." Accordingly we have a total of thirteen packages to start with; but three are to be used in the preliminary sampling, or "experimenting" as the Japanese term it, after the following manner.

We shall suppose the game to be arranged for a party of six, though there is no rule limiting the number of players. the six take their places in line, or in a half circle--if the room is small; but they do not sit close together, for reasons which will presently appear. then the host, or the person appointed to act as incense-burner, prepares a package of the incense classed as #1 kindles it in the censer, and passes it to the guest occupying the first seat, with the announcement: "This is incense #1." the guest receives the censer according to the graceful etiquette required in the ko-kwai, inhales the perfume, and passes on the vessel to his neighbor, who receives it in like manner and passes it to the third guest, who presents it to the fourth, and so on. When the censer has gone the round of the party, it is returned to the incense-burner. One package of incense #2, and one of #3, are similarly prepared, and announced and tested. but with the "guest incense" no experiment is made. The player should be able to identify the guest-incense at the proper time by the unfamiliar quality of its fragrance. The original thirteen packages having thus been reduced to ten, each player is given one set of the ten tablets--usually of gold lacquer, every set being differently ornamented. the backs only of these tablets are decorated; and the decoration is nearly always a floral design of some sort: thus one set might be decorated with chrysanthemums in gold, another with a spray of plum blossoms, etc. but the faces of the tablets bear numbers or marks; and each set comprises three tablets numbered #1, three marked #2, and three marked #3. One is marked with "guest." After these tablets have been distributed, a box called the "tablet-box" is placed before the first player, and all is ready for the real game.

The incense-burner retires behind a little screen, shuffles the flat packages like so many cards, takes the uppermost, prepares its contents in the censer, and then, returning to the party, sends the censer upon its round. This time, of course, the incense-burner does not announce what kind of incense they have used. As the censer passes form hand to hand, each player, after inhaling the fume, puts into the tablet box one tablet bearing that mark or number which they suppose to be the mark or number of the incense they have smelled. If, for example, they think the incense to be the "guest incense," they drop into the box that one of their tablets marked with the ideograph meaning "guest;" or if they believe they have inhaled the perfume of #2 they put into the box a tablet marked #2. When the round is over, tablet-box and censer are returned to the incense-burner. The incense-burner takes the six tablets out of the box, and wraps them in the paper which contained the incense guessed about. The tablets themselves keep the personal as well as the general record, since each player remembers the particular design upon their own set. The remaining nine packages of incense are consumed and judged in the same way, according to the chance order in which the shuffling has placed them. When all the incense has been used, the tablets are taken out of their wrappings, the record is officially put into writing, and the victor of the day is announced. I here offer the translation of such a record: it will serve to explain, almost at a glance, all the complications of the game.

Record of Ko-Kwai11 (abbreviated):

Order Incense:

1 -- #3; 2 -- #1; 3 -- Guest; 4 -- #2; 5 -- #1; 6 -- #3; 7 -- #2; 8 -- #1; 9 -- #3; 10 -- #2


Gold Chrysanthemum (*) correct

1 -- #1; 2 -- #3; 3 -- #1; 4 -- #2 *; 5 -- Guest; 6 -- #1; 7 -- #2 *; 8 -- #2; 9 -- #3 *; 10--#3

Three correct. The winner guessed eight.

Names of incense used:

#1 Tasogare (Who is there?)

#2 Baikwa (Plum flower)

#3 Wakakusa (Young Grass)

Guest -- Yamaji-no-Tsuyu (Dew on the Mountain Path)

According to the record the player who used the tablets decorated with the design called "Young Pine," made but two mistakes; while the holder of the "White Lily" set made only one correct guess. But it is quite a feat to make ten correct judgements in succession. the olfactory nerves are apt to become somewhat numbed before the game is concluded; and therefore it is customary during the Ko-kwai to rinse the mouth at intervals with pure vinegar, by which operation the sensitivity is partially restored.

To the Japanese original of the foregoing record were appended the names of the players, the date of the entertainment, and the name of the place where the party was held. it is the custom in some families to enter all such records in a book especially made for the purpose, and furnished with an index which enables the Ko-kwai player to refer immediately to any past game.

The reader will have noticed that the four kinds of incense used were designated very pretty names. The incense first mentioned, for example, is called by the poets name for the gloaming, -- Tasogare (lit. "who is there?" or "Who is it?")

(David's note: This is Quien es? in spanish -- the last words of Billy the Kid) -- a word which in this relationship hints of the toilet perfume that reveals some charming presence to the lover waiting in the dusk (Well Pat wasn't Billy's lover, but he was waiting for him in a dark bedroom where Billy hoped to find his lover waiting). Perhaps some curiosity will be felt regarding the composition of these incenses. I can give the Japanese recipes for two sorts; but I have not been able to identify all of the materials named:

Recipes for:


Jinko (aloes wood) 1/2 oz.

Choji (cloves) 1/2 oz.

Kunroku (olibanum) 1/2 oz.

Hakko (Mugwort -Artemisia schmidtiana) 1/2 oz.

Jako (musk) 1/8 oz.

Koko (?) 1/2 oz.

* Koko was probably the seashell Kaiko which was used in most incense of this type.


Jinko‘ 2.5 oz

Choji 1.5 oz.

Koko 1.1 oz.

Byakudan (Sandalwood) 0.5 0z

Kansho (spikenard) 0.25 oz.

Kwakko (bishops wart) 0.1875 oz.

Kunroku 0.65 oz

Shomokko (?) 0.25 oz.

Jako 0.4 oz

Ryuno (borneol) 0.375 oz.

The incense used at a Ko-kwai ranges in value, according to the style of the entertainment, from $2.50 to $30.00 (1897) per envelop of 100 wafers--wafers usually not more than one-fourth of an inch in diameter. sometimes an incense is used worth even more than $30.00 per envelope: this contains Ranjatai, an aromatic of which the perfume is compared to that of "musk mingled with orchid flowers." But there is some incense, never sold, which is even more precious than Ranjatai, incense valued less for it's composition than for its history; I mean the incense brought centuries ago from china or from India by the Buddhist missionaries, and presented to princes or to other persons of high rank. Several ancient Japanese temples also include such foreign incense among their treasures. and very rarely a little of this priceless material is contributed to an incense-party, much as in Europe, on very extraordinary occasions, some banquet is glorified by the production of a wine several hundred years old. Like the tea-ceremonies, the Ko-kwai exact observance of a very complex and ancient etiquette. but this subject could interest few readers; and I shall only mention some of the rules regarding preparations and precautions. First of all, it is required that the person invited to an incense party shall attend the same in as odorless a condition as possible: a lady, for instance, must not use hair oil, or put on any dress that has been kept in a perfumed chest-of-drawers. Furthermore, the guest should prepare for the contest by taking a prolonged hot bath, and should not eat only the slightest and least odorous kind of food before going to the rendezvous. It is forbidden to leave the room during the game, or to open any door or window, or to indulge in needless conversation. finally I may observe that, while judging the incense, a player is expected to take not less than three inhalations, or more than five.

In this economical era, the Ko-kwai takes of necessity a much humbler form than it assumed in the time of the great daimyo, of the princely abbots, and of military aristocracy. A full set of utensils for the game can now be had for about $50.00; but the materials are of the poorest kind. the old fashioned sets were fantastically expensive. some were worth thousands of dollars. The incense-burners desk, the writing-box, paper-box, tablet-box, etc., the various stands or dai, were of the costliest gold-laquer; the pincers and other instruments were of gold, curiously worked; and the censer -- whether of precious metal, bronze, or porcelain, was always a chef-d'oeuvre, designed by some artist of renown.

Part Five

Although the original signification of incense in Buddhist ceremonies was chiefly symbolical, there is good reason to suppose that various beliefs older than Buddhism, some, perhaps, peculiar to the race; others probably of Chinese or Korean derivation, began at an early period to influence the popular use of incense in Japan. Incense is still being burned in the presence of a corpse with the idea that its fragrance shields both corpse and newly-parted soul from malevolent demons; and by some, it is often to drive away goblins and the evil powers presiding over diseases. But formerly it was used to summon spirits as well as to banish them. Allusions to its employment in various esoteric rites may be found in some of the old dramas and romances. One particular sort of incense, imported from China, was said to have the power of calling up human spirits. This was the wizard-incense referred to in such ancient love songs as the following: "I have heard of the magical incense that summons the souls of the absent: Would I had some to burn, in the nights when I wait alone!" There is an interesting mention of this incense in the Chinese book, Shang-hai-king. It was called Fwan-hwan-hiang (in Japanese: Hangon-ko), or "Spirit-Recalling-Incense;" and it was made in Tso-Chan, or the District of the Ancestors, situated by the Eastern Sea. To summon the ghost of any dead person--or even that of a living person, according to some authorities, it was only necessary to kindle some of the incense, and to pronounce certain words, while keeping the mind fixed upon the memory of that person. Then, in the smoke of the incense, the remembered face and form would appear. In many old Japanese and Chinese books mention is made of a famous story about this incense, a story of the Chinese Emperor Wu, of the Han dynasty. When the Emperor had lost his beautiful favorite, the Lady Li, he sorrowed so much that fears were entertained for his reason. But all efforts made to divert his mind from the thought of her proved unavailing. One day he ordered some Spirit-Recalling-Incense to be procured, that he might summon her from the dead. His counsellors prayed him to forego hi purpose, declaring that the vision could only intensify his grief. But he gave no heed to their advice, and himself performed the rite, kindling the incense, and keeping his mind fixed upon the memory of the Lady Li. Presently, within the blue smoke arising from the incense, the outline of a feminine form became visible. It defined, took tints of life, slowly became luminous; and the Emperor recognized the form of his beloved. At first the apparition was faint; but it soon became distinct as a living person, and seemed with each moment to grow more beautiful. The Emperor whispered to the vision, but received no answer. He called aloud, and the presence made no sign. Then unable to control himself, he approached the censer. But the instant that he touched the smoke, the phantom trembled and vanished. Japanese artists are still occasionally inspired by the legends of the Hangon-ko. Only last year in Tokyo, at an exhibition of new kake-mono, I saw a picture of a young wife kneeling before an alcove wherein the smoke of the magical incense was shaping the shadow of the absent husband. Although the power of making visible the forms of the dead has been claimed for one sort of incense only, the burning of any kind of incense is supposed to summon viewless spirits in multitude. These come to devour the smoke. They are called Jiki-ko-ki, or "incense-eating-goblins;" and they belong to the fourteenth of the thirty-six classes of Gaki (pretas) recognized by Japanese Buddhism. They are the ghosts of those who anciently, for the sake of gain, made or sold bad incense; and by the evil karma of that action they now find themselves in the state of hunger-suffering spirits, and compelled to seek their only food in the smoke of incense.


Japanese website