Book Reviews
Book 21

  The Book of Incense – Enjoying the Traditional Art of Japanese Scents

By Kiyoko Morita

Pub. Kodansha International Tokyo 1992
ISBN 4-7700-1557-7

This small 134 page book describes and explores the Way of Incense – the Ko-doh, or the Japanese and their cult of “listening to incense” – a concept imported from China when dealing with faint & subtle odour aspects- rather than smelling it. As Japan possessed few aromatic spices and incense wood these ingredient materials had to be imported from SE Asia or further afield. Not mentioned in the book is that demand for incense materials such as sandalwood in the 19th Century resulted in its plundering from many Pacific Islands and the spilling of much Melanesian blood.  Somehow the loss of human life involved in the procurement of materials destined to be used merely for ritual and ceremonial purposes did not seem to prevent its continued use in the name of Buddhism.

Seventeen main ingredients of Japanese incense (Koh) are illustrated in a double page spread near the beginning of the book, and include more familiar materials such as sandalwood, aloeswood, Borneo camphor, frankincense, benzoin, myrrh, cloves, patchouli, cassia, cinnamon etc. Some less familiar materials are also illustrated – such as haiso-koh. As the author cites the Shoyeido Corporation for advice & support during the writing of the book, if we turn to the Corporate  website page for Shoyeido we see haiso-koh is identified there as deriving from Agastache rugoa. Other ingredients are revealed as re-ryokoh (tonka bean), kansho (spikenard), karra-mokkoh (Saussurea – presumably the endangered Costus plant - Saussurea lappa?). We are told by the author that musk from the abdominal sacs of musk deer, and ambergris from certain whale species, at least, are no longer used in modern Japanese incense, although the other scarce ingredients (aloeswood, sandalwood, costus) presumably still continue to be employed.  

These objections apart, Kiyoto Morita goes on to describe the Way of Incense and its relationship to Japanese literature and poetry. The early interrelationship of incense and Buddhism and the birth of Koh-do with shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa are explained together with the merits/demerits of burning of jinkoh-wood qualities vs. blended incense. Incense appreciation with its rules and customs and associated paraphernalia became more widespread, and the status & legitimacy of incense schools and associated expertise became pretty much part of a hierarchical system, which eventually waned, but has undergone a small revival of late.

The author goes on to describe the varieties of Japanese incense including the six categories of jinkoh-wood and the various incense products (incense balls, joss-sticks, cones and sachets). Much of the rest of the book covers the art of appreciation of Japanese incense and a detailed account of the art of appreciation/games played during these ceremonies. As a contemporary piece of research into the subject the account is probably second to none – however I found it less than fascinating.

I can recommend this book to those who are intrigued by Koh-doh and can easily find themselves immersed in another culture. For me it is a glimpse into the Japanese incense tradition, which itself is a small shard in the much bigger crystal of aromatic plant use.

Copyright Tony Burfield  2004