Incense is an important aspect of Japanese culture going back hundreds of years. Japan was introduced to incense through the use of it in Buddhist religious ceremonies. It is said that a log of Arawood washed upon the shores of Awaji Island during the Asukura Period in 595 CE. This log was then presented to Prince Shōtoku and Empress Suiko who found the smell incredibly pleasing. Both the prince and the princess were already familiar with incense due to its introduction in 538 CE through Buddhism. At this time, Incense was being imported from China through Korea, Shortly after a ritual known as sonaekō became established. In this ritual a collection of aromatic wood and herbs called Koboku began to be used during religious ceremonies.
By the end of the Nara Period (710-794) incense had become popular amongst courtiers. They were inspired by the use of incense during Buddhist rituals and began using it to perfume and cleanse their homes. Furthermore they began to also use the incense to perfume their hair and clothes, as this was a sign of refinement and good taste. The incense used was not one that most people would recognize today. Instead of the sticks and cones today’s users are accustomed to, this incense was made by kneading the materials into balls.
During the Heian Period (794-1185) the use of incense grew in popularity. In the Japanese epic: The Tale of Genji, we learn more about how incense was used and packaged. Large lacquer boxes were used to carry the incense and its supplies. There would be one outer box that contained several smaller boxes. In these smaller boxes there would be the raw incense materials (Aloe, clove, sandalwood, deer musk, amber, and herbs), in addition to small spatulas in order to properly mix the materials.
After the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 12th century, a new approach to Buddhism from Buddhism was introduced. The new Zen Buddhism heavily favored the use of incense in its practice. This led to less formal incense gatherings in which guests took turns enjoying 10 different incenses. These “incense games” were particularly popular amongst aristocratic warriors. The type of incense used was wood, not the kneaded incense that had been used prior.
During the Edo Period (1615-1868) the Kōdō 香道 “Way of Incense” was introduced. Much like the Japanese Tea Ceremony it described the conduct in which to appreciate incense in Japanese society. The Kōdō is considered to be one of three classical Japanese books on refinement. Approximately halfway through the Edo Period wealthy merchants began to be able to buy incense allowing for the popular “incense games” to become even more widespread. Incense became a staple of society and was included in art, poetry, and fashion. Incense games were depicted in wood block prints, and the use of incense imagery became increasingly popular on decorative crests and kimonos. More incense utensils were introduced. Incense burners (kōro) for perfuming hair, rooms, clothes along with several different types of boxes to store the incense wood.
Unfortunately during the Meiji Reforms (1867-1868) there was a massive westernization of Japan and the use of incense became passé. However, in the 1890’s it slowly became more popular in Japan as traditional Japanese culture became more “in style” again.