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Nippon Kōdō: Bringing Japan’s Incense Traditions to the World

Kikuchi Masanori [Profile]

[2016.06.29] Read in: 日本語 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

Incense arrived in Japan together with Buddhism in the sixth century. The first professional incense masters were working in the sixteenth century, and incense in Japan has followed a distinctive path from religious ceremonies to connoisseurship and simple enjoyment. Today the country’s biggest incense maker is using an array of new services to increase its international appeal and ensure a brighter, more global future for Japanese incense.

Rugged Wood and Elegant Aromas

Inside a glass display case in the luxurious setting of a Ginza showroom stands what looks like part of a severed tree trunk, roughly 80 centimeters in height. To the untutored eye it looks like nothing more than a stump of dry wood, lent a note of dignity by its obvious age and the imposing setting. But this gallery belongs to Nippon Kōdō, Japan’s biggest incense company, and this unprepossessing object provides the raw materials for some of the world’s finest and most sought-after scents.

“The wood comes from a tree belonging to the Aquilaria genus,” explains Yoshino Kimiyoshi, who heads the Nippon Kōdō marketing team. “It’s not indigenous to Japan; it’s mostly grown in Southeast Asia.” On the shelves around the glass case is a wide selection of agarwood made from the same precious type of tree. These rare commodities are essential to the ancient art of incense making.

Aromatic woods on display inside the Ginza Kōrō gallery. A special space inside the same building hosts regular incense ceremonies.

This is Ginza Kōrō, a gallery inside the company headquarters in Ginza, Tokyo’s premier luxury shopping district. On display inside the gallery, which is not normally open to the public, are all kinds of incense burners and other incense-related accouterments, as well as an astonishing array of incense in different shapes and sizes and the various exotic woods and spices from which they are made. The precious agarwoods (known as kōboku, or “aromatic wood” in Japanese) occur naturally when a certain type of mold infects small incisions in the bark of the tree and, through a little-understood process, forms a dense dark deposit of resin in the wood. Remarkably, it is from the gnarled and knobbly surface of the infected wood that the deep, elegant, and alluring aromas of Japanese incense are produced.

Many types of wood produce distinctive aromas, including camphor, cedar, and pine. But in the world of Japanese incense the most widely used and admired are sandalwood, obtained from trees of the Santalum genus cultivated in South Asia and other parts of the world, and agarwood. The various types of agarwood in particular are especially prized for their superb quality.

Incense is made by grinding the aromatic wood into a powder. This powder is then kneaded together with traditional Chinese medicinal herbs and other ingredients and molded into the desired shape—normally a stick, cone, or coil. As well as incense for Buddhist offerings to the dead and other religious ceremonies, Nippon Kōdō sells incense designed to be enjoyed for the relaxing and soothing qualities of its delicate aromas. Its products come in a wide range of varieties, from everyday incense sticks that sell for around ¥1,000 a box to deluxe examples made with kyara, a special high-quality agarwood containing a higher proportion of the essential oily resin than any other. This top-quality incense retails at more than ¥200,000 for a small bundle.

Kyara can only be obtained in a very limited range of places in Vietnam and the surrounding area. Even there, it’s getting harder and harder to source on the local market. It’s an extremely scarce and precious commodity,” Yoshino explains.

Top-quality incense made using the precious kyara wood. Many customers today cherish this incense for the escape it offers from their hectic, stressful lives.

People in Japan have been using incense made from agarwood for more 1,400 years. The practice of incense-burning is believed to have arrived from the continent together with Buddhism in the sixth century. From the earliest days, incense was believed to have a purifying power that made it an essential part of religious ceremonies. Incense became popular at court and soon spread among the ruling class. The Shōsōin treasure house that belongs to the temple Tōdaiji in Nara still holds a piece of kyara wood known as Ranjatai that is believed to date from this period and is now designated as a national treasure.

Japan’s Biggest Incense-Maker

The appreciation of incense was an essential part of the refined life of aesthetic connoisseurship that prevailed at the emperor’s court during the Heian period (794­–1185). Incense was made by mixing agarwood powder with honey and other substances to make a kind of clay that was then baked. Courtiers used to compete to identify the type of incense and where it came from by smell alone. Incense is a frequent motif in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, written in the early eleventh century and widely regarded as the world’s oldest novel.

During the medieval period, the spiritual associations of incense made it an essential part of the Zen Buddhism that was popular among the ruling samurai class. A new cultural practice was born in which incense was offered according to a formalized set of ritualized procedures in a formalized “incense ceremony,” similar to the better-known tea ceremony that was established around the same time by Murata Jukō and Sen no Rikyū. Most people in Japan know that the three dominant figures of the age, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, were all major devotees of the tea cult—but perhaps fewer people realize that all three were serious connoisseurs of incense as well.

In the late sixteenth century, when Oda Nobunaga was amassing his military strength and beginning the long task of bringing Japan’s warring feudal domains under centralized control, a new position was created at court for a professional master of incense known as the kōjū whose job it was to prepare special kinds of incense for the use of the emperor and his circle. The name came from the phrase kō no jittoku (the ten virtues of incense), a list of attributes that included the ability to calm the spirit and purify the body and mind. The first person to hold the office was Yasuda Mataemon, who traced his lineage back to the historically powerful Minamoto clan. Later, the Takai family inherited the position and for many generations worked to bring the art of incense to even higher levels of attainment. The eighth-generation master in the Takai line, Jūemon, is particularly revered as an important and influential figure in the history of incense.

Nippon Kōdō is Japan’s largest incense maker today. In the late 1950s the company inherited a number of priceless documents from the seventeenth master in the Takai line, including the book of esoteric knowledge once wielded by the kōjū and the official passbook he used to gain entry to court. These precious items are still kept safe at the company headquarters today. The company traces its roots back to the Tenshō era (1573–92) when the very first kōjū was active at court. To this day the company continues to sell its own expertly crafted range of incense, still made using the same techniques and skills handed down through the generations.

Nippon Kōdō began as the Tokyo branch of Kōkandō, a long-established incense maker based in Osaka. In 1942 it branched off to become an independent company with Konaka Masanori as its first president. In 1947 Nippon Kōdō inherited the trademark and licensing rights for the famous Mainichi Kō (Everyday Incense) brand when Kitō Tenkundō, a long-established incense company based in Sakai near Osaka, was struggling to find an heir to take over the family business. Television commercials helped make the company nationally known, and with Mainichi Kō and the company’s own Seiun brand as its flagship products, the company became a household name. In the 1990s the company began to get serious about expanding its business overseas, acquiring a string of foreign companies including the French perfume-maker Esteban and Genieco, an American maker of incense sticks.

In 2000 Masanori’s grandson Konaka Masayoshi became the company’s fourth president. Under his stewardship the company has continued to develop new products and acquire licensing and distribution rights for overseas brands, and has also established its own factory in Vietnam.

“In recent years,” he says, “more and more people around the world are coming to appreciate Japanese incense for its delicate and subtle aromas. With the Japanese market beginning to contract as the population shrinks, we are looking to expand our sales in other markets, and foreign visitors to Japan are an important part of our sales strategy.”

Company president Konaka Masayoshi

Konaka stresses that the company’s products will remain faithful to the subtle and understated elegance of traditional Japanese aesthetics. One example of a new recent new product is an incense created by a master blender craftsman in Tokyo that went on sale in February this year. With a name that alludes to the city’s past as the shogun’s capital from 1603 to 1868, Ō-Edo-kō (Great Edo Incense) is an attempt to capture the playful wit and sophistication of traditional Edo culture. All the company’s products still come in traditional packaging, tastefully decorated with Japanese designs—but today, an increasing proportion of its products are being sold with their labeling in English.

New Outlet in Kyoto Brings the Company Full Circle

Total sales of incense in Japan have declined somewhat over the past decade. Although Nippon Kōdō has enjoyed a slight increase in sales, from around ¥13 billion in 2000 to ¥14 billion in 2015, there is no denying that the demographic outlook makes continued growth unlikely in the domestic market over the long term. Konaka believes that attracting international customers represents the surest way for the company, and the industry as a whole, to ensure a prosperous future.

In fact, the biggest demand for the company’s most expensive kyara incense these days comes not from Japan but from foreign visitors, especially those from China. Chinese tourists on enthusiastic bakugai shopping sprees have become a ubiquitous presence in Ginza and other shopping areas in recent years. Incense may not yet prompt quite the same frenzy as some of Japan’s other consumer goods, but growing numbers of foreign visitors are happy to pay a premium for the high-quality products sold by Japanese incense-makers.

In an effort to build on this growing interest among foreign visitors, in April 2016 the company opened a retail outlet in Kyoto called Kōjū Ninenzaka. The shop specializes in all kinds of incense and related paraphernalia. The company even made two versions of the store’s logo, one in English and one in Japanese, to heighten its appeal to an international clientele. Konaka says that as well as marking a new start, this renewed presence in Kyoto represents a return to the company’s roots.

“It’s really significant for us to open a store like this in Kyoto, the number-one destination in Japan for foreign tourists. We are optimistic that the new outlet will help us to attract new customers and spread the news about our products and the traditions behind them.”

A colorful array of incense sticks on display inside the new Kyoto outlet, Kōjū Ninenzaka. (Photo courtesy of Nippon Kōdō)

As well as selling incense, the company also offers a wide range of related services to customers to stimulate demand. In November and December each year, for example, people who have suffered a bereavement in the family during the year send out “in mourning” postcards in lieu of New Year’s greeting cards. In 2007 the company started a popular service that allows users to respond to these cards by sending a gift of incense and a message of consolation. Another service that has attracted considerable attention started in autumn 2015, when the company launched a grave-tending service for people in the big city too busy to return home regularly to visit the family grave.

“Our business is not solely about selling incense as a product,” Konaka says. “We are interested in everything that comes with it, from offering incense in traditional religious ceremonies to more modern uses in a contemporary setting. Our ambition, you might say, is not just to keep the old traditions alive but to create a new kind of incense culture at the same time by bringing those traditions to new audiences around the world.”

Photos by Kikuchi Masanori

(Originally published in Japanese on May 26, 2016. Banner photo: Some of the utensils used in an incense ceremony. Courtesy of Nippon Kōdō.)

  • [2016.06.29]

Born in Hokkaidō in 1965. Worked as a reporter at the daily Hokkaidō Shimbun before going freelance. Writes interview-based reportage and social features for such magazines as Aera, Chūō Kōron, Shinchō 45, and President.

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