Japanese incense has a long history. It came to Japan from China, along with Buddhism, in the year 538 CE. From that point on, incense would become an important facet of Japanese culture. Initially, it was only imported from China, until eventually Japan began to make its own. Many of the current incense companies have been in existence for more than 300 years.
The following are the main ingredients in Japanese incense:
- Agarwood (沈香 jinkō ) (also called Aloeswood)
- Sandalwood (白檀 byakudan )
- Borneo Camphor (竜脳 ryūnō )
- Benzoin (安息香 ansokukō )
- Frankincense (乳香 nyūkō )
- Clove (丁字 chōji )
- Star Anise (唐樒 tōshikimi )
- Rhubarb (大黄 daiō )
- Cinnamon (桂皮 keihi )
- Licorice (甘草 kanzō )
- Patchouli (パチョリ pachori )
Many other ingredients are also used in Japanese incense. They are chosen either for their scent or properties in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Most ingredients for Japanese incense come from India and South-East Asia.
Agarwood and sandalwood are the two most important ingredients. Agarwood is known as jinkō in Japan, which translates as "incense that sinks in water," due to the weight of the resin in the wood. It is currently on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Sandalwood is one of the most calming incense ingredients and lends itself well to meditation. The most valued sandalwood comes from Mysore in the state of Karnataka in India, where it is endangered.
Another important ingredient in Japanese incense is kyara (伽羅). Kyara is one kind of agarwood (Japanese incense companies divide agarwood into six categories depending on the region obtained and properties of the agarwood). Kyara is currently worth more than its weight in gold.
Makkō (抹香 or 末香) is another ingredient used in Japanese incense. Makkō actually just translates as "incense powder". The incense powder that is normally being referred to is called tabu no ki (椨の木). Makko is used to bind the ingredients together. It is remarkable for being able to bind ingredients while having little scent of its own.
The following are the major incense companies in Japan (alphabetical order):
- Nippon Kōdō（日本香堂）
- Yamada-Matsu Kōboku-ten（山田松香木店）
Baieidō was established in 1657 in Sakai City and is the oldest company in Japan. Shōeidō was established in 1705 in Kyoto Japan. Both Baieido and Shoyeido are used extensively by Zen Buddhist temples, both in Japan and worldwide. Nippon Kōdō was established by incorporation in New York City in August 1965 and is the largest seller of Japanese incense worldwide. Most of their incense is "Everyday" quality (毎日 mainichi). They do make some "Traditional" incense as well. These three are the major exporters of Japanese incense.
Currently, 70% of all of Japan's incense is manufactured on a small island south of Osaka called Awaji Island. The history extends back to 1850 in Ei of the city of Awaji in 1850 when Senshuu Sakai manufacturing technology was introduced. At the time, Ei was a military run trade port for the Tokushima Clan, which opened the door to the import and sale of raw materials used in making incense. Over time, the incense made in Awaji Island became renowned throughout Japan. The main reason incense manufacturing took root in Awaji Island is because of its nishi-kaze (west wind). This strong seasonal wind hampers the fishing industry, giving rise to the necessity for cottage industries such as incense making. This wind is also great for drying incense.
Kyūkyodō, Kunmeidō, and Kōkandō also sell some incense overseas. It may be difficult to find the other brands outside of Japan. There are numerous other incense makers in Japan, of course. These are the either the major sellers or the oldest companies in Japan.
Kōdō (香道 - Way of Fragrance) is the Japanese art of appreciating incense, and involves using incense within a structure of codified conduct. Though it is counted as one of the three classical arts of refinement, it is relatively unknown amongst modern Japanese people. Kōdō includes all aspects of the incense process - from the tools (香道具), which, much like tools of the tea ceremony, are valued as high art, to activities such the incense-comparing games kumikō (組香) and genjikō (源氏香).
- "The Rikkoku - Traditional Japanese Classifications of Aloeswood used for Kodo". Making-Incense.com. Retrieved 2008-01-31.