[From November Issue 2012]
About 70% of Japanese incense is made on Awaji-shima, an island in Hyougo Prefecture. In 1850 Awaji City Port opened up to traders from overseas, so that materials used for the production of incense could be imported. The steady westerly wind blowing over the island also proved to be useful for drying incense. Over time, incense from Awaji-shima became renowned throughout Japan and many famous brands still produce their incense on Awaji-shima.
High quality incense is made entirely from natural ingredients, such as the very best herbs, spices, resins and aromatic woods. Sandalwoods and agar with their high density of resin are most commonly used. Highly skilled incense masters carefully blend these ingredients, creating a broad range of fragrances of different styles.
Incense comes in various shapes. Incense sticks are best known in Western countries but incense cones and spirals are also widely used. Temples and shrines use a lot of incense, as do many traditional Japanese inns, where it’s used to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
The best way to appreciate incense is to “listen” to the fragrance using a technique described in “Ko-do” (the way of incense). Similar to the tea ceremony, there are two schools of incense: the Oie and the Shino schools, who have practiced the art of enjoying incense for five centuries.
Many famous incense brands started out in Kyoto. TANAKA Hajime, the founder of Shofuan, was inspired by the changing scents he perceived when walking through the streets of Kyoto at different times of the year. He then decided to create an incense series that would recreate the atmosphere of Kyoto month-by-month, season-by-season. The result is a wonderful series of 12 different fragrances. January’s incense is called Hatsukama, its name referring to a tea ceremony performed to welcome in the New Year. June’s incense is called Hotaru Kari (firefly hunting) and refers to events that can be seen during the summer.
Before devoting himself to the world of incense Tanaka was a producer of kimono and obi (kimono belts). With his deep knowledge of kimono cloth and patterns Tanaka has also developed unique packaging for his incense. The sticks are stored inside a paulownia wood box, which is wrapped in Japanese paper. The patterns on the boxes reflect the month the fragrance represents and feature motifs such as sakura or temari thread balls.
With his creations of timeless beauty Tanaka not only wants to preserve the culture of Japanese incense, but also intends to pass it on to the next generation of young Japanese, as well as to people all over the world.
Text: Nicolas SOERGEL